Archive for the ‘MLB’ Category

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners

It has been an interesting half-season of Baseball thus far. It is one that emerges from the break today with only one divisional lead that is greater than four games. The entire National League is wide open, while the American League East and West are shaping up to fight it out for the long run on the other half. Six teams are within four or fewer games in both Leagues’ Wild Card race. Simply put, it has been a vice grip of a struggle for position this summer.

As the second half takes off this afternoon and evening, who is in the driver’s seat for the awards that will outcome as the seasons turn, the fat is trimmed and the postseason takes charge.

Most Valuable Player

American League—Mike Trout, Angels: Every year of his career thus far he has posted an MVP-caliber campaign, while each has seen him reach a higher peak day-to-day. 2014 has been no exception that either, as Trout continues to do everything possible on the diamond with exceptional skill. This year’s Trout Version 3.0 has seen him launch impossibly long home runs with stunning ease, while leading the AL in on-base + slugging% at 1.005 and total bases (209). However, what’s best is that he’s getting to do it while leading a finally successful Angels club, and the numbers always mean more when they are stacking into W’s as well.

National League—Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: After leading the NL in hits two years ago and then winning its MVP a year ago, somehow The Cutch continues to get even better. He is keeping Pirates relevant in the game’s best division via a stunning campaign that seems him in the top 10 in eleven different categories and playing his usual swarming defense as well. It’s a tight race between himself, Troy Tulowitzki and Giancarlo Stanton, but his all-around masterpiece he’s half-finished with is stunning thus far.

Cy Young

American League—Felix Hernandez, Mariners: It looks almost too easy, but the King (who is just touching his prime) has made dominance the norm. He is the owner of the AL’s top ERA, an 11-2 record and comes in second in K’s and first in WHIP as well. Along the way he has allowed more than 2 earned runs only three starts and has nine games of at least 9 strikeouts and 2 or fewer walks.

National League—Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: What is from Kershaw this year is simply awe-inspiring, as he sits in the top five in wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and average against. But what’s most impressive is that he missed a full month and is still there. Imagine if he’d had that time to work? We would be looking potentially at one of the greatest seasons of all-time—not that we still couldn’t be, however.

Rookie of the Year

American League—Jose Abreu, White Sox: He has already exceeded most full-season expectations here as the second half is yet to begin. Abreu comes out the break the Major’s top home run mark, with 29 and is pushing on the door of 80 RBI already. If he keeps at this pace, he has a pretty good shot at meeting Mark McGwire’s record of 49 rookie home runs.

National League—Billy Hamilton, Reds: The Cincy speedster has delivered where expected on the base paths, with 38 first half steals and six triples to boot. But most impressively, he is putting to bed the rhetoric that he is all sizzle, but no steak at the plate, hitting .317 since the break of June.

Manager of the Year

American League—Bob Melvin, Athletics: In the midst of rapidly toughening division, Melvin has held the A’s head above all in the AL for the duration of the season. Armed with a completely all-in for ’14 Billy Beane in the front office and a full cupboard of perfect pieces in his dugout, the Oakland skipper has his club looking like they are ready to break out of the first round (at least) for the first time since 2006.

National League—Nick Price, Reds: The Reds entered the year, and spent a decent part of the beginning of it, in flux towards the bottom of the NL Central. Plagued by injuries both to the lineup and pitching staff, it was an unpredictable day-to-day situation. But their first year manager Price has done a masterful job of pulling the most of what has been available to him. This has included pulling into within ear shot of the Central lead, as well as sending five of his guys to the All-Star Game, with none of them being Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Mat Latos or Jay Bruce.

Comeback Player of the (Half) Year

American League—Albert Pujols, Angels: The reports of his death have proven to be greatly exaggerated. While he is not pumping out the .300+ batting average that used to be standard for him, Pujols has already reached 20 home runs, 19 doubles and driven in 64 runs. It is far from a one-man reason why Anaheim is looking newly minted this year.

National League—Tim Hudson, Giants: After that gruesome ankle injury ended his 2013 in Atlanta, Hudson declared himself ready to go this winter much earlier than anticipated. In turn, the Giants took a flier on him and in return he has given them an All-Star in return. That’s more than fair return on investment, I’d say.

Reliever of the Year

American League—Greg Holland, Royals: The emerging dominance he showed in his first year in the ninth in KC has carried over, and it is fair to say that he has a more than fair claim to be the AL’s premier closer. His strikeouts-per-nine rate is still absurd at 13.7 and has converted 25-of-26 save ops thus far.

National League—Craig Kimbrel, Braves: Let’s see—MLB-best 29 saves, sub 2.00 ERA, batters surviving to a .131 average against and over 20 more strikeouts than innings pitched. In other words: just another run of the mill year at the office for Kimbrel.

Injury Setback of the Year

American League—Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees: After putting to bed any and all doubts about his effectiveness translating to the America and the $120M+ the Yankees inked him to as well, Tanaka took the tumble of many a pitcher this season, by tearing his UCL. He was authoring one of the best seasons in the Majors this year, and now will join CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda as injured impact starters for a Yankee team that is suddenly out of answers off the hill again.

National League—Jose Fernandez, Marlins: The most deflating injury of the year is easily Fernandez’s, who joined the Tommy John list in May after getting off to another sensational start. While the game lost one of its most exciting young properties, the surprisingly competitive Marlins lost the biggest difference maker in what could potentially be a stunning breakthrough season for the franchise.

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As the Major League Baseball trade deadline approaches, player movement fever hits a temperature that it will not see again until December’s free agent season hits full speed. And as next week’s All-Star Game moves past and the second half of the season launches, player movement rumors will be the talk of the game nearly as much as the boxscore itself.

And while some teams have already begun the position rearrangement battle, as Saturday’s Cubs-Athletics blockbuster swap launched, the ability to make acquisitions on the trade market is not as readily simple of a move as it used to be. With the addition of the second Wild Card team, the line between ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ is blurred simply for the fact there is an additional opportunity to stay competitive for those formerly fringe clubs. So, with less available to buy, understanding what waits ahead is most important than ever.

As always, some moves are made with the future in mind. There will be players that are sent along their way over the next few weeks simply so that the team can salvage something in return for the fact that they may not be able to retain that player. More than uncertain draft pick compensation, the lure of getting a big gain back from a team that is looking to find the final addition to make it into October is a certain way to plan for the future in the present.

In addition to that element, there are simply the players that will test their might on the market, to flex their earning ability muscle. This year’s free agent class is flush with both types of talents: those that have to be shipped and those that have already served their notice of being “ready to mingle”.

With that said, here is a very early look at the high points of the upcoming free agent class as it appears this summer. Take into mind that there are a host of other players that COULD reach the market, via either club, player or mutual options not being elected. And considering this year’s free agent crop looks to have even more long-term punch than either 2013 or 2014’s group of FA’s, even more additions to the mix could make it a chance to really change the face of more than a few franchises.

1.) Max Scherzer—Starting Pitcher, Tigers (30)

It was a calculated gamble that many understood at the time when Scherzer turned down the Tigers reported six year, $144 million deal entering the season, a decision that was roundly panned by the baseball community. But despite doing so, he still sits in a good position to demand at least the same level of compensation, or better. His former deal matches what Cole Hamels inked with Philadelphia before the 2013 season, and Scherzer (who has won over 60 games the last four years and is on pace to push for another 20 win effort this summer) clearly has the credentials to just START negotiations at that level. The entire large-to-high medium market should beckon for him—and he’s in position to name his price still.

2.) Hanley Ramirez, Shortstop, Dodgers (31)

The talent is above reproach for Ramirez, and is high enough to ward off the growing red flags around him both now and down the line. A move off of shortstop is inevitable, whether he likes it or not, and has even been rumored as being non-negotiable if he stays in LA. He is battling injuries for the second straight year and his durability may be best suited by a third base move. But he is easily the most valuable everyday commodity that will see the market and is at the right age to call for a well-paying four-to-five year pact.

3.) Jon Lester—Starting Pitcher, Red Sox (31)

Stakes are getting high between Lester and the Sox. On the heels of their World Series win, he offered to take a discount to get the deal done, but nothing materialized. So now he is a half-season away from the open market and the waters seem to have changed directions. It is rumored that he is looking for up to $140 million over the lifetime of his deal and considering he is having an All-Star follow up to his dominant October 2013 effort and is a mid-prime hard throwing lefty, he should see it.

4.) Pablo Sandoval—Third Baseman, Giants (28)

The ever enigmatic Panda has resurrected both his season and his stock this year. He is on pace hit more home runs and drive in more runs than he has since 2009. This timely rebuild could come with some questions about if he keeps the effort on after getting paid, but he is a part of the San Francisco cornerstone and they would be hard pressed to let him go. But there will be plenty of suitors coming if he sees the market.

5.) James Shields—Starting Pitcher, Royals (33)

Shields is in a precarious position: if the Royals stay in the mix, he will stay in KC until the end. But if they falter over the next few weeks, he could instantly become the biggest trade chip on market for contenders looking to make the push. Either way, he should see a substantial four year deal awaiting him this winter in the range of the $19 million per year range.

6.) Nelson Cruz—Outfield/DH, Orioles (34)

This winter’s greatest value pickup by far, he has taken a PED suspension damaged stock image and turned it into $17 million worth of value for $10 million less in Baltimore. It is a huge demo season for Cruz, who will find a welcoming AL heavy market awaiting him to give another run at a long-term deal this winter. A three year, $50 million type of deal would make perfect sense.

7.) Chase Headley—Third Baseman, Padres (31)

He has been riding the stock that he built with his monster second half of 2012 for a while (he has hit .236 over the past two, injury riddled years), but there are worst ways to invest for a team in need of solving some gaping issues at third (see the AL East specifically). In addition to the premium of being a switch hitting, power potential third baseman, he is also a former Gold Glove winner as well.

8.) Melky Cabrera—Left Fielder, Blue Jays (30)

He is another former PED suspended player that has proven his value upon return. After a sluggish first year in Toronto, he has consistently stayed among the AL leaders in hits and runs scored this summer and is proving to be an instant boost to the top of any order.

9.) Ervin Santana—Starting Pitcher, Braves (30)

His audition season with the Braves has not been as regularly dominant as his 2013 in Kansas City was, but he has been effective none the less. With a year on the open market with no draft pick compensation tied to him, he should see one of the longer deals issued to a pitcher this year land his way.

10.) Victor Martinez—Designated Hitter, Tigers (35)

He is having perhaps his best year of his career at the plate, and is seeing the market at the right time to be a veteran presence that is limited to DH duty at this point. While it cuts out half of the teams that could have interest in him, as David Ortiz has proved regularly, there will be healthy offers for him regardless. Expect Detroit to make the biggest push however, as he is essential to their structure, post dealing Prince Fielder away.

11.) JJ Hardy—Shortstop, Orioles (32)

He has been one of the biggest power presences at shortstop the last few years, but has had a sudden outage this summer of a major kind (two home runs in 309 plate appearances), which is alarming, considering he has not hit for a high average at any point in his career. However, he continues to be a sterling defender and top shortstops always get paid well, so he should be no exception.

12.) David Robertson—Relief Pitcher, Yankees (30): After establishing himself as perhaps the premier setup man in the game over the past few years, Robertson transitioned as well as could be requested to the ninth inning as well. It would reason to think that the Yankees would do anything they could to keep him from seeing free agency or at the very least blow him out of the water with their first offer. On a pitching staff in flux, he is as crucial as any arm they possess.

13.) Jason Hammel—Starting Pitcher, Athletics (32)

He is having a career year so far in and is now headed to back to the American League to see if he can hold it together as a part of a pennant chase. If he should, then he should garner solid interest for a team on the rebuild, similar to the three-year, $30 million deal Scott Feldman landed in Houston, if not slightly better.

14.) Jed Lowrie—Shortstop, A’s (31)

The versatile Lowrie can contribute regularly at any position on the infield and he should emerge as the top utility option available. He is having a bad downspin this year, with an average under .230 and OPS lingering around .650, but his 31 home runs from 2012-13 and .290 average just a year ago bode well in his favor. However, with Oakland’s move of prospect Addison Russell to Chicago, he could stay put as well.

15.) Colby Rasmus—Center Fielder, Blue Jays (28)

Since being cast off to Toronto three years ago, Rasmus has begun to find some consistency in his output, but he is in the midst of a horrible 2014 with average hovering close to .220 and an on-base % not much higher. His power along will not be enough to raise his stock to commanding a great everyday pay rate, but he could see something like Chris Young’s $7.25 million deal with the Mets off potential return alone.

16.) Koji Uehara—Relief Pitcher, Red Sox (40)

Age does not seem to be a problem for the crafty, yet dominant Boston closer. However, due to it he will not require a long-term, nor ridiculous high dollar commitment. With two stellar seasons in his pocket, he will net a solid return, but likely not a back breaking deal either. A return to Boston is most likely, but the ever changing scene for closers could open tempting doors as well.

17.) Josh Beckett—Starting Pitcher, Dodgers (35)

He has reinvented himself in an impressive fashion this year and has been one of the National League’s best. Looking at it outside of the vacuum, he does have a checkered health history and is hitting his mid-30’s, but with what he has shown this year he could be a hot, quick fix commodity this winter in the same fashion that Hiroki Kuroda carved out for himself the last few

18.) Justin Masterson—Starting Pitcher, Indians (30)

His 2014 has been the polar opposite of his breakthrough 2013, which lowered his stock some, but the promise of what Masterson brings is enough to keep him among the top options available this winter. His career has been a study in talented inconsistencies, but he certainly will be one of the more interesting cases available this winter.

19.) Mike Morse—1B/OF, Giants (33)

With a healthy wrist again, Morse has been a solid power presence in the middle of the Giants’ lineup that has seen its core be unsteady due to injury thus far. He is on pace to near 25 home runs and drive in 80 runs, which could net him a seven to eight million type of deal.

20.) Russell Martin—Catcher, Pirates (32)

Martin has been the glue for the Pirates resurgence and is having an even better offensive season that he did in his first in Pittsburgh (from .229 up to .279 thus far). He should be a hot property for teams looking to upgrade with a catcher that has not reached his decline yet and can call as good of a game as can be asked for.

21.) Luke Gregorson—Relief Pitcher, A’s (31)

22. Jake Peavy—Starting Pitcher, Red Sox (34)

23. Stephen Drew—Shortstop, Red Sox (31)

24. Asdrubal Cabrera—Shortstop, Indians (29)

25. Corey Hart—First Baseman, Mariners (33)

26. Sergio Romo—Relief Pitcher, Giants (32)

27. Francisco Liriano—Starting Pitcher, Pirates (31)

28. Kendrys Morales—Designated Hitter/First Base, Twins (31)

29. Torii Hunter—Right Fielder, Tigers (39)

30. Michael Cuddyer—OF/1B, Rockies (36)

31. Hiroki Kuroda—Starting Pitcher, Yankees (40)

32. Francisco Rodriguez—Relief Pitcher, Brewers (33)

33. Kyle Kendrick—Starting Pitcher, Phillies (30)

34. Jason Motte—Relief Pitcher, Cardinals (33)

35. Adam Dunn—Designated Hitter, White Sox (35)

36. Kurt Suzuki—Catcher, Twins (31)

37. Casey McGehee—Third Baseman, Marlins (32)

38. Nate Schierholtz—Right Fielder, Cubs (31)

39. Emilio Bonifacio—2B/OF, Cubs (30)

40. Joba Chamberlain—Relief Pitcher, Tigers (29)

 

For potential free agents to come, they are separated by contract condition:

Player Option: Dan Haren, Dodgers (if 180 innings are reached – On pace for 187.1

Club Option only: Jonny Cueto, Reds ($10M). Alex Rios, Rangers ($13.5M). Huston Street, Padres ($7M). Yovani Gallardo, Brewers ($13M). Joakim Soria, Rangers ($7M). Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays ($10M). Billy Butler, Royals ($12.5M) . Denard Span, Nationals ($9M). Adam Lind, Blue Jays ($7.5M) . Ben Zobrist, Rays ($7.5M). Mike Aviles, Indians ($3.5M). Brett Anderson, Rockies ($12M). Darren O’Day, Orioles ($4.25M).

Mutual/Vesting: Nick Markakis, Orioles ($17.5M). Adam LaRoche, Nationals ($15M), Rafael Soriano, Nationals ($14M). Ryan Ludwick, Reds ($4.5M). Rickie Weeks, Brewers ($11.5M). Jimmy Rollins, Phillies. A.J. Burnett, Phillies.

jimmy-rollins-dive

Last summer, I started an ongoing project to look at the Hall of Fame prospects of many of the contemporary stars of the game. This year we are picking that series back up again with a few more current MLBers that have some impressive long-term prospects—potentially.

To get this summer’s edition going the spotlight first will land on longtime Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. It has been a seesaw season for Rollins so far, who has run the gamut with the Phillies over his career in general, but perhaps no year has been as severe as this one. From a brief controversy over his playing time future with the team with manager Ryne Sandberg in Spring Training, all the way to surpassing the franchise’s crown jewel in Mike Schmidt atop the Phillies’ all-time hits list last month, Rollins has had quite the summer even just at the halfway point.

But now as the summer moves on (and potentially the end of his run in Philly as well) it is as good of a time as any to take a look at the surprisingly complete career of Rollins and if it has been enough to build a bridge into Cooperstown potentially for him not too far down the road.

 

The Numbers (as of July 1, 2014)

15 Seasons (age 35): .268 average, 207 home runs, 863 RBI, 2250 hits, 1284 runs scored, 470 doubles, 439 stolen bases, .327 on-base percentage, .434 slugging percentage

1. The Case For: In taking a stand for Rollins career, it is important to look at how well he has displayed every skill that is asked of a shortstop, as well as some that are borderline exceptional for the position. What jumps off the page first is his outstanding athleticism at his peak. He was one of the most dangerous speed elements in the game from his debut into well into his mid-career prime. From 2001-09, he stole at least 20 bases a season, with four seasons of 40 or better, including leading the National League with 46 as rookie and a career-best 47 in 2008. His 438 career stolen bases are the 11th best total ever for a shortstop.

This was also a tool he put to constant use as an offensive presence as well, as he led the NL in triples four times including an absurd 20 in 2007. Of shortstops whose careers began after 1950, his 109 triples is the third best total overall after Robin Yount and Jose Reyes. His athletic skills also were put to great use in the field as well. Able to cover much ground and possessing a strong throwing arm, he was a winner of three (legit) Gold Glove Awards from 2007-09 as well.

Yet what truly began to set him apart from the pack was a deceptive amount of power that he began to develop about halfway through his career. As his swing and knowledge of the game matured, he began to become a threat to go deep as well and four times in his career he has topped 20 home runs in season. Overall, he has 10 seasons of double digit home run totals, including 30 in 2007. His 207 career homers are the 9th best total for a shortstop all-time. Although he has never had a season hitting .300, he did amass a 36 game hitting streak at the end of 2005 year.

2007 is a reoccurring theme in referencing Rollins, and for good reason. It was the year that he put on one of the finest all-around displays of talent in the history of the game in route to winning the 2007 NL Most Valuable Player award. It was a year that he became the first player in MLB history to turn in a 200 hit season, with 20 triples, 30 home runs and 30 steals in one year. In addition, he became the seventh player to ever have 20 doubles, 20 triples and 20 home runs in one season, joining among others Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley (1928), George Brett (1979) and Willie Mays (1957).

2. The Case Against: While he has been steadily good, injuries began to take away from some of the range that he had early in his career in the field around 2009 and also decreased the steadiness of his offensive output as well. After 2007, he only hit over .260 once, while hitting .250 or lower three times. Despite hitting around the top of the lineup for most of his career (leadoff in 1,457 games, second in 303 and third 123 times) he has never been much of an on-base threat, owning a single-season best of .348 in 2004. In his decline years since 2009, he has only once reached base more than 33% of the time despite having over 600 plate appearances in four of his five full seasons over that run.

While All-Star Games appearances can be considered trivial, in many cases it is a fair barometer of a player’s impact in their era. And Rollins has made only three All-Star appearances in his 15 year career, which is a curiously low number for a player at position that is usually easy for elite talents to lock down a spot in (conversely, Ozzie Smith made 12 consecutive ASG appearances and Barry Larkin had two stretches of at least three appearances, only separated by one absent season). Rollins has not reached the All-Star Game since 2005, a stretch of nine seasons that is continuing.

Rollins has ranged from a great, to exceptional, to excellent, to questionable contributor over the course of his career. Can a balancing act in his final years seal his legacy as a Hall of Famer.

Rollins has ranged from a great, to exceptional, to excellent, to questionable contributor over the course of his career. Can a balancing act in his final years seal his legacy as a Hall of Famer.

3. Similar Players (through age 35)

- Edgar Renteria (.286 average, 140 home runs, 923 RBI, 2327 hits, 294 stolen bases)

- Alan Trammell (.288 average, 174 home runs, 936 RBI, 2182 hits, 224 stolen bases)

- Craig Biggio (.291 average, 180 home runs, 811 RBI, 2149 hits, 365 stolen bases)

4. Cooperstown Likelihood (what it is going to take): The case for Rollins is perplexing, because in many regards he is the class of NL shortstops for his era. While Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki all have had great runs, Rollins has had the longest sustained presence since Larkin retired. Yet the perplexing situation is just how between the lines where he currently stands is at.

Look at the players that he is most like just above. Renteria was a multiple time All-Star and champion, but not a Hall of Fame caliber player, although he did have a ‘Rich Man’s Retirement’, with plenty of more baseball he could have played. Moving along to Trammell, who he perhaps best mirrors from an impact standpoint (one-time World Series winner, same amount of Gold Gloves, 15+ year everyday presence with lower than expected All-Star total) and the brink of immortality for Rollins really is made clear. Trammell has lived on the fringe of the Hall of Fame ballot for 14 years now and is not gaining any traction to get before he is removed from it.

The final comparison is a man that is destined for the Hall of Fame in Biggio, who offers similar skill set as Rollins, but differs in the fact that he stayed more consistent for longer and therefore hit a unique spread of accomplishments that will gain him membership to Cooperstown potentially as soon as this year.

Despite all of this, there the element of “it just doesn’t feel like” he has done it all. Perhaps it is because his very best was done in a short span of years and otherwise he has just been very steady at being steady. Meaning he has done certain thing very well, but few of them have been the type of happenings that are highlight worthy. You have to look back to see that he has a Silver Slugger and as many Gold Gloves as he does. Seeing the brilliance of that 2007 season takes some prompting as well, just like the hitting streak of ’05 and the brash confidence that he guided the Phillies back to prominence in the mid-2000’s with as well.

The complex of where Rollins is at is that he has made a definite impact, but is in a purgatory of relevancy. He has to keep pushing and producing regularly to reach out of the “great in his era” range of the Renteria’s and to find the gap between Trammell and Biggio that would reach him to Cooperstown. He has all of the intangible accomplishments that can be asked for: a World Series Champion, MVP, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger and All-Star all under wraps. But to really make a more than compelling case for himself, he will need to hit a few milestone stat hurdles as well.

Mainly, he has to keep running up the hit total. With another 300 hits he would top 2,500; an impressive total for a shortstop of any era. That would give him more than Ozzie, Larkin and Trammell, which are important to pass as two are established Hall of Famers and standard bearers for the decades that preceded him and puts him over the proverbial eligibility hump that Trammell has become. One thing that he can still do is run well and run smart, and when Rollins tops 500 stolen bases he’ll have a really plus, round number to lean on as well.

A career of 200 home runs, 500 steals, 2500 hits and 1300 runs scored is awfully impressive. And what’s more, if Rollins is to meet this package of feats, he would be the only shortstop to ever do so. Only the greats Honus Wagner and Derek Jeter come close to that type of display, and when a player is close to that class, they are doing something right. And Rollins has done all lot right for a long time.

However, he will need to finish out his career strong to meet these marks and there is work to be done still. If he can do so, I think Rollins has a more than suitable case to make it in. But if he does not, he could be lost in the haze of the Hall of Very Good, and perhaps rightfully so.

So when it’s all said and done, when the question is asked: is Jimmy Rollins In, Out or In-Between the Hall of Fame, as it stands today, he is IN-BETWEEN, but closer to the rights to the keys to the Hall than it may be believed.

 

For more on the season as it unfolds, follow my columns at The Sports Fan Journal, I-70 Baseball and tune into ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’ as well. For up to the moment words, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Arizona Diamondbacks

The full glory that is Opening Day is here again, and with such beginnings, an expectation towards the end is already in play. Over the past two weeks, I have produced division-by-division previews from the ceiling to the floor of each team and how I feel about their chances for this summer. All manners of things can happen in-between now and the 161 games that follow from today onwards, from injury to simply over-achievement made good on (see the reigning World Series champs), and getting a grasp on exact where it all will play out is more often than not an exercise in calculated futility.

However, it’s the fun type of futility that everybody is invested in this time of the year, because for the most part, hopes spring rightfully eternal as the season opens up. With advent of the extra Wild Card spot and play-in game, more teams than ever have finished in range of the postseason—and not at the expense of quality of competition. The average win total of the two teams that have emerged from the Wild Card game in its first two years of existence as been 91 wins; a clear indicator of worth level of championship level competition. And while one as yet to reach the World Series, that day is coming—and it could be nigh.

Here is my best take on how the MLB season to come could play out, including a few bonus Award favorites in each league as well—and a few other random tidbits to come.

 

The Postseason

NL Wild Card Game—Pittsburgh Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants

Landing a Wild Card spot will tough in the NL this year, but I like what the Giants have done to address their lineup deficiencies and their starting staff is deep and experienced as well. The Pirates on the other hand could have the type of the team that puts up a win total that could win some divisions, but falls short within their own. Winner: Pirates

AL Wild Card Game—Tampa Bay Rays vs. Kansas City Royals

In what could be an intriguing matchup of two teams playing at the peak of their competitive window, both clubs are poised to take the long way to capitalizing on it. The Rays should reach their second straight Wild Card contest, while the Royals are within a stones toss of their first postseason in nearly 30 years. Winner: Rays

 

Division Series

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

A rematch of what is sure to be a year-long power struggle, as well as a repeat of the best divisional series match up of a year ago, the Caridinals will face another tight challenge to start the postseason. In the end, the Cardinals growing experience with their young arms (as well as an active Shelby Miller this time around) pulls them ahead again in the matchup. Winner: Cardinals

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals

This is a tight showcase of two teams that are fairly evenly matched. Both have great staffs and lineups that are as stacked as NL 8-man order can be. But the presence of Kershaw twice in a series is tough to bet against, I won’t today either. Winner: Dodgers

Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Look familiar? This dance was had last fall when the Rays headed to Boston as the freshly rewarded Wild Card winners. They stand to be an improved club this year with more experience for their young staff. The Sox have the experience, but I see the edge for the Rays this time around. Winner: Rays

Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s

Can the third time be the charm for Oakland? Each of their previous two seasons have ended at the hands of the Tigers, and more specifically, at the hands of fantastic efforts from Justin Verlander. The third time does not seem to be much more of a charm either, and the Tigers are in line to reach a third consecutive ALCS. Winner: Tigers

 

League Championship Series

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

A repeat in the NLCS is ahead of us, only this time the home field advantage swings to the Dodgers way. The Cardinals have made a routine of making it to this point, while the Dodgers are beginning to hit their peak. If they are both at full strength, this could have the intensity of a World Series contest, but in the end, the Cardinals seem to have an edge in the pitching depth department that can swing in their favor. Winner: Cardinals

Detroit Tigers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

A couple of Verlander/Price matchups in the ALCS could be worth the price of admission, but it’s the depth of a rotation that can tell the story here. The Rays are the better team in regards to lineup depth and impact, but the Tigers front end pitching is more impressive. In a series that will be defined by depth and bullpen potency, the Rays make the leap over the Tigers and reach their second World Series in franchise history. Winner: Rays

 

WORLD SERIES

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Two very similar teams would face off here: balanced lineups that deploy a variety of approaches and a complete pitching staff, headlined by one of the game’s best pitchers. Matchups of this type usually come down to the moment and experience in it making the difference, and in that department, the Cardinals are unmatched in recent years and it will be the deciding factor in 12th World Series title. Winner: Cardinals

 

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Detroit Tigers

As a capper to this preview exercise, a few award picks as well:

NL Most Valuable Player

1. Freddie Freeman—Braves

2. Yadier Molina—Cardinals

3. Ryan Braun—Brewers

4. Andrew McCutchen—Pirates

5. Paul Goldschmidt—Diamondbacks

AL Most Valuable Player

1. Mike Trout—Angels

2. Miguel Cabrera—Tigers

3. Evan Longoria—Rays

4. Adrian Beltre—Rangers

5. Robinson Cano—Mariners

NL Cy Young Award

1. Clayton Kershaw—Dodgers

2. Stephen Strasburg—Nationals

3. Adam Wainwright—Cardinals

4. Madison Bumgarner—Giants

5. Cliff Lee—Phillies

AL Cy Young Award

1. Justin Verlander—Tigers

2. David Price—Rays

3. Felix Hernandez—Mariners

4. Jered Weaver—Angels

5. Chris Sale—White Sox

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Billy Hamilton—Reds

2. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

3. Gregory Polanco—Pirates

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Xander Bogearts—Red Sox

2. Nick Castellanos—Tigers

3. Taijuan Walker—Mariners

NL Comeback Player of the Year

1. Starlin Castro—Cubs

2. Johnny Cuerto—Reds

3. Matt Kemp—Dodgers

AL Comeback Player of the Year

1. Albert Pujols—Angels

2. Grady Sizemore—Red Sox

3. Michael Pineda—Yankees

 

Well, that’s about it and that’s about as much ground as I can ground as I can fly without my crystal ball. For the on the run Opening Day info, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

090499-matt-carpenter

It is debatable if the NL Central was baseball’s best division a year ago, but what is not is that it had the toughest road to its title a year ago. Between the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, the division had three legitimate title holders throughout the year, and in the end sent all three clubs to the postseason, with St. Louis finishing with the league’s best record and Pittsburgh and the Reds facing off in the National League Wild Card Game. It was only fitting that the Cardinals and Pirates had one final showdown, and it was a Division Series showdown that went the full five games and took a two game rally from the Cardinals to pull it off.

2013 Finish

  1.        St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)
  2.        Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)
  3.        Cincinnati Reds (90-72)
  4.        Milwaukee Brewers (74-88)
  5.        Chicago Cubs (66-96)

Fast forward a year later and the Central looks to be even stronger headed into the spring. The league’s most improved team a year ago, Pittsburgh looks to continue to develop and push their fortunes further. With the league’s MVP in Andrew McCutchen leading the way and a team synched around him, it is more than likely to continue trending up. The Reds are looking to be at full strength more often than they were a year ago, and return to the form that made them division champions just two years ago. St. Louis has reached the last three National League Championship Series and two out of the last three World Series, and yet somehow still managed to improve this winter. After a year marred by injuries and the loss of their top star Ryan Braun to a performance enhancing drug suspension, the Brewers look back to full strength, if not slightly improved. The Cubs are a distance away from their division mates, but are continuing a slow burn along their most recent rebuilding effort, and feature a roster slated to show plenty of increasing levels of young talent throughout the year.

In a division that has regularly been a gauntlet to survive, but has still produced multiple postseason clubs in each of the past three seasons. Will the Cardinals continue to ride their run atop the National League, or will they be clipped before they even make it out of their home division?

All-Division Lineup

1. Matt Carpenter—Cardinals, Third Base

2. Joey Votto—Reds, First Base

3. Andrew McCutchen—Pirates, Center Field

4. Ryan Braun—Brewers, Right Field

5. Matt Holliday—Cardinals, Left Field

6. Yadier Molina—Cardinals, Catcher

7. Brandon Phillips—Reds, Second Base

8. Jean Segura—Brewers, Shortstop

 

Starting Pitcher: Adam Wainwright—Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Francisco Liriano—Pirates

Starting Pitcher: Shelby Miller—Cardinals

Starting Pitcher: Homer Bailey—Reds

Right Handed Reliever: Marc Melancon—Pirates

Lefty Handed Reliever: Justin Wilson—Pirates

Closer: Aroldis Chapman—Reds

 

If Gomez, who led the NL in Wins Above Replacement a year ago (9.3), produces a similar 2014, it will assure the Brewers of an elite offense.

If Gomez, who led the NL in Wins Above Replacement a year ago (9.3), produces a similar 2014, it will assure the Brewers of an elite offense.

Lineup

1. Cardinals

2. Brewers

3. Pirates

4. Reds

5. Cubs

With the addition of Jhonny Peralta, STL has five reigning or former All-Stars in their everyday lineup, and the Cardinals can score runs at any point in their attack. Not far behind them are the diverse and timely Pirates, who have an attack similar to the Cardinal clubs of a generation ago: speed in bunches, based around a hammer in Pedro Alvarez. However, the Brewers could be back at their 2011-12 levels of elite run production if their rising stars from last year continue to trend up, and Braun and Aramis Ramirez can stay on the field.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Cardinals

2. Brewers

3. Reds

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

While they have no high level power hitter, the middle of the Cardinal lineup in Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina are all relentless, and timely, line drive hitters. The trio combined to hit .405 with runners in scoring position, with Craig leading the way at .454. The Reds have a potent duo in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, which could reach even higher levels with returns to form of Ryan Ludwick or Todd Frazier.

Table Setters

1. Reds

2. Cardinals

3. Brewers

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

The Reds could have a duo that approach 100 runs scored each in Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips, who will return back to the second slot in the order. Matt Carpenter led the NL in hits with 199 last year, while Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura both topped 30 steals a year ago in Milwaukee. Starling Marte is bordering on All-Star level in Pittsburgh, stealing 41 bases and working in 10 triples as well.

Depth

1. Cardinals

2. Pirates

3. Cubs

4. Reds

5. Brewers

With Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, Matt Adams, Mark Ellis and Matt Adams all rotating in-between roles in the Cardinal lineup, the team’s biggest improvement is its depth. Each could play a regular role at will, and the team will employ all of its working parts regularly. Clint Barmes and Travis Snider are all solid former regulars in Pittsburgh, while the Cubs actually have a really versatile roster, brought on by having a lot of players at the same level, but some solid versatility in Ryan Roberts, Emilio Bonafacio, Justin Ruggiano, Luis Valbuena and former Gold Glover Darwin Barney.

The Reds gave Bailey $100 million headed into the spring as a reward for his steadily improving performance, which included career-bests in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched a year ago.

The Reds gave Bailey $100 million headed into the spring as a reward for his steadily improving performance, which included career-bests in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched a year ago.

Rotation

1. Cardinals

2. Pirates

3. Brewers

4. Reds

5. Cubs

Adam Wainwright is an automatic matchup advantage in nearly every instance, but he is backed by a high talent, and regularly maturing rotation that performs far beyond its 24-year-old average age. The Pirates have a strong mixture of veteran experience and emerging youth, while the Brewers bolstered their rotation in an impressively patient fashion yet again, by adding Matt Garza to Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and the emergent Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta. Cincinnati has a chance to have a very, very good rotation as well IF Mat Latos and Johnny Cuerto can both stay healthy.

1-2 Punch

1. Cardinals

2. Reds

3. Brewers

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

Wainwright and Wacha stand to be the new Carpenter and Wainwright, with Wacha having the talent to push Waino’s hold as the Cardinals top arm the same way a young Wainwright did to the incumbent regular Cy Young competitor in town when he joined the Cardinal staff full time a half decade ago. Homer Bailey is one of the game’s regularly bettering arms, while Yovani Gallardo has four 200 strikeout years under his belt as well.

Bullpen

1. Cardinals

2. Pirates

3. Reds

4. Cubs

5. Brewers

Trevor Rosenthal became a force of nature last October, proving move than ready to move into the ninth inning for a full season this year. When coupled with a nearly equally impressive Carlos Martinez and the looming return of Jason Motte as well, and the Cardinals could have final call in the 6th inning. Not far behind however is a Pirates pen featuring two All-Stars in Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, and that is setup by Tony Watson and Justin Walker. The uncertainty around the availability of Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall clouds the potential of the Reds pen, while the Cubs have put together a grouping Jose Veras, Wesley Wright and James Russell, albeit if none is a clear cut closer option.

 

McCutchen's all-around effort is what led him to the the NL MVP a year ago. The one-time Gold Glove winner is as much the glue in the field as he is at the plate,

McCutchen’s all-around effort is what led him to the the NL MVP a year ago. The one-time Gold Glove winner is as much the glue in the field as he is at the plate,

Defense

1. Reds

2. Pirates

3. Cardinals

4. Brewers

5. Cubs

The Reds can get to anything that’s hit even remotely close to their way, with plus defenders in Phillips, Bruce and Votto, as well as underrated performers in Frazier and Zack Cozart. All of that team speed does well in Pittsburgh, with Andrew McCutchen, Barmes and Marte all being fantastic defenders, and Russell Martin being one of the best field generals in the game. Speaking of which, Molina makes the biggest singular defensive difference in the game—as his six straight Gold Gloves attest to.

Manager

1. Pirates

2. Cardinals

3. Brewers

4. Reds

5. Cubs

Clint Hurdle went from nearly taking the fall for the Pirates 2012 slide to being rightfully honored as the NL Manager of the Year for the outstanding work he did in keeping the Pirates on track to end their 20+ year losing season curse. Nick Price and Rick Renteria will take over a clubhouse for the first time in Cincinnati and Chicago, while Mike Matheny looks to reach the NLCS for the third time in his third season.

Finances

1. Cubs

2. Cardinals

3. Reds

4. Brewers

5. Pirates

The Cubs are sleeping giants in the Central as they have unparalleled buying power in the division, and whenever they are ready, could pull themselves back into the race quicker than any other team. Outside of them, every other club is either at or close to their spending potential already.

Impact Additions

1. Jhonny Peralta (Cardinals via free agency)

2. Matt Garza (Brewers via free agency)

3. Peter Bourjos (Cardinals via trade)

4. Jose Veras (Cubs via free agency)

5. Mark Ellis (Cardinals via free agency)

Plenty of waves were made by the contract the Cardinals handed to Peralta coming off of his PED suspension, but his offensive capabilities could make him the quintessential “final piece” move. The Brewers made another patient free agent add to strengthen their empty rotation in their surprising grab of Garza late in the winter as well.

Leap Forward

1. Michael Wacha—Cardinals

2. Garrit Cole—Pirates

3. Trevor Rosenthal—Cardinals

4. Khris Davis—Brewers

5. Junior Lake—Cubs

There is an abundance of young potential that is driving each club in the division, and on the mound is where it is most prevalent. Wacha’s star took off like a rocket with his regular flirtation with no-hitters (resulting in a 1.76 September/October ERA) late in the year. He was MVP of the NLCS after yielding only seven hits and no runs over his two starts. No far behind him is Cole, who pitched much better than his 10-7 record would lead to believe in his 19 starts last year. He should become the Pirates unquestioned ace by the end of the summer.

Cubs top prospect Baez took camp by storm this year, hitting five home runs and impressing to the point that star shortstop Starlin Castro said he would move positions to make room for him if needed.

Cubs top prospect Baez took camp by storm this year, hitting five home runs and impressing to the point that star shortstop Starlin Castro said he would move positions to make room for him if needed.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Billy Hamilton—Reds

2. Oscar Taveras—Cardinals

3. Kolten Wong—Cardinals

4. Javier Baez—Cubs

5. Kris Bryant—Cubs

Hamilton has a chance to be the sensation of the summer and make a real push for seeing 70 stolen bases and 100 runs, with relative ease. The questions about his ability to hit every day seems more hopeful than realistic, as he hit .368 in his brief stint up last year and followed with a .294 clip in over 50 spring at-bats. The Rookie of the Year should be here in the central. Bryant and Baez could both push for that honor as well, as the Chicago youth movement takes some serious steps throughout the summer.

PREDICTIONS

1. St. Louis Cardinals

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

3. Miwaukee Brewers

4. Cincinnati Reds

5. Chicago Cubs

Consistency is tough to imagine here, because it is a tough division. In all reality, any of the top four clubs could compete in any division and have a legit chance at still pushing for the playoffs. However, there are only six playoff spots and at the most, only three can come from these four clubs. And while postseason talent is here, there will be a lot of beating up on each other that will work in the favor of clubs in the East and West wild card hopes. Because like last summer, this one will come down to the end of September in the Central as well, but unlike last time, it will be a fatal four-way, not just a triple threat.

The Cubs will be holding up the wall once again; forced to be content to continue their process of rebuilding well outside of the hope of any surprise progress in the wins column. Of the competitors, the Reds are the most volatile. While they have a strong lineup, their pitching staff is in disarray, and it could take well into the season to see their entire club together, which is a tough shake for their rookie manager. Milwaukee has a potent offense that should be among the league’s most productive and an impressive starting rotation, but they have a thin bullpen and will need the most to work in their favor to max out their potential. The Pirates stand to continue to mature and grow from their experience last year, a run for a division win would not be in the least bit surprising.

However, there is something special about this Cardinal team it seems. It has the perfect marriage of mid-prime veterans, high-talent and maturity youth and depth in both pitching and offense. Most importantly, it has experience and the hunger for more based off two straight near misses in October. They have something to prove, and the talent to prove it with. That’s why the Cardinals will win another Central, but be joined by (at least) the Pirates in the postseason again—a rematch that may not be in their best interest to find.

 

Come back soon for the complete predictions, including a World Series look-ahead that is sure to be wrong (because its March) next week. And for real-time commentary, follow me now on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Trout_Pujols

The Oakland A’s have made a good life for themselves living in the shadows. For the second consecutive year, they were beat in the highlights all winter by their division mates, and for the second straight summer, they answered back by winning the AL West. The consummate team effort was once again put on by Bob Melvin’s club, who got an out of the blue MVP-calibur performance from Josh Donaldson, coupled by a few career peaks and a consistent effort from its pitching to pull away from its big dollar division rivals.

2013 Finish

1. Oakland Athletics (96-66)

2. Texas Rangers (91-72)

3. Los Angeles Angels (78-84)

4. Seattle Mariners (71-91)

5. Houston Astros (51-111)

But for how long can that stand? The Rangers were once again relentless in the acquisition game, spinning the biggest trade of the offseason by swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder, then handing a top shelf deal to Shin-Soo Choo to attempt to fix an offense that ran flat a year ago. For a change, the Angels didn’t issue a huge contract out, but the Mariners took their place, overhauling their everyday lineup around the shocking headline deal of the winter with Robinson Cano heading to the Pacific northwest. Even the Astros put the brakes to their two-year bottom out effort some, making a few moves to fill in a few of their many holes in a permanent manner.

But in Oakland, Billy Beane was far from stagnant, and produced the most progressive Oakland winter in some time, overhauling his bullpen to add yet another conglomerate weapon to his all-in club. In the end, what does it all mean? Will Oakland continue to be underrated, despite being the one of only two active teams to pull off their division title in consecutive years, or will one of the high rollers finally see some return on what has been some questionable investments thus far?

All-Division Team

1. Shin-Soo Choo—Rangers, Left Field

2. Mike Trout—Angels, Center Field

3. Robinson Cano—Mariners, Second Base

4. Prince Fielder—Rangers, First Base

5. Adrian Beltre—Rangers, Third Base

6. Raul Ibanez—Angels, Designated Hitter

7. Josh Reddick—Athletics, Right Field

8. Jason Castro—Astros, Catcher

9. Elvis Andrus—Rangers, Shortstop

 

Castro came of age in 2013, making his first All-Star appearance and finishing up the year with 18 home runs and a .276 average

Castro came of age in 2013, making his first All-Star appearance and finishing up the year with 18 home runs and a .276 average

Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez—Mariners

Starting Pitcher: Yu Darvish—Rangers

Starting Pitcher: Hisashi Imakuma—Mariners

Starting Pitcher: Jered Weaver—Angels

Right Handed Reliever: Ryan Cook—Athletics

Lefty Handed Reliever: Sean Doolittle—Athletics

Closer: Fernando Rodney—Mariners

 

Lineup

1. Rangers

2. Angels

3. Athletics

4. Mariners

5. Astros

The addition of Fielder gives much needed power to a Texas lineup that was starved of it post-Josh Hamilton last season, while Choo joining Elvis Andrus atop the lineup will put plenty of ducks on the pond for Prince and Adrian Beltre to take advantage of. The Angels potential will always look great, with the names of Albert Pujols and Hamilton in tow, but whether they can approach their former MVP forms continues to be the ultimate question for the Halos. The Mariners mix is obviously much better, but even Robinson Cano himself has said he feels they need to add more to get it over the hump completely.

Fielder brings an elite level run producing presence to Arlington that was badly needed last year (100 RBI in six of the last seven years).

Fielder brings an elite level run producing presence to Arlington that was badly needed last year (100 RBI in six of the last seven years).

Heart of the Lineup

1. Rangers

2. Athletics

3. Mariners

4. Angels

5. Astros

The thing about the A’s middle of the order is that it is coming off a year where Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss all had down years by their standards. If they can find their 2012 levels, along with Josh Donaldson and Jed Lowrie continuing where they were a year ago, this could be the most frustrating mix in either league for opposing pitchers. Alex Rios stands to hit in one of the most enviable positions in the game—if Fielder and Beltre leave anybody on base for him that is.

Table Setters

1. Rangers

2. Angels

3. Athletics

4. Astros

5. Mariners

The Choo/Andrus duo would have combined for 62 stolen bases and 330 hits a year ago, and such production this year atop the Texas lineup would be huge considering the RBI machines behind them. Anaheim has the game’s best player in Mike Trout doing everything imaginable under the baseball sun out of either the leadoff or second spot in their lineup, and he instantly makes the Angels a threat at every game’s outset. The Astros combo of Dexter Fowler and Jose Altuve is a very interesting duo as well, capable of injecting some life early on for their starved attack as well.

Depth

1. Athletics

2. Angels

3. Mariners

4. Rangers

5. Astros

Everybody on the A’s plays a part in their success, with their bench being critical to the outcome with regularity. Derek Norris, Alberto Callapso and Michael Taylor will all get their share of starting opportunities, while the addition of Nick Punto makes them even more dangerous defensively late in games. Seattle has an exciting young player in Abraham Almonte on their bench, and while he will start in leftfield, the versatile Dustin Ackley is a one-man depth chart, able to contribute in center field, second and first base if needed.

Rotation

1. Athletics

2. Mariners

3. Angels

4. Rangers

5. Astros

There are a lot, and I mean a ton, of “ifs” for each rotation in this division. The A’s lost their top arm in Jarrod Parker for the year to Tommy John surgery, and A.J. Griffin is ailing entering the year as well. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir will have to stay healthy for Oakland to keep its edge as a starting unit. Injuries to Hisashi Imakuma, Derek Holland and Matt Holland have shifted the potential of Seattle and Texas respectively as well, and how well Jered Weaver holds together is vital to the Angels’ success as well.

 

Hernandez is the top half of one of the AL's most successful due from a year ago, finishing in the top 10 in strikeouts (216) and ERA (3.06).

Hernandez is the top half of one of the AL’s most successful due from a year ago, finishing in the top 10 in strikeouts (216) and ERA (3.06).

1-2 Punch

1. Mariners

2. Angels

3. Rangers

4. Athletics

5. Astros

Regardless of what happens, the Mariners have Felix Hernandez, so they have an edge. Felix and Iwakuma were the only set of teammates to finish in the top 10 of the AL Cy Young last year. Yu Darvish affirmed the fact that he is one of the dominant arms in the game a year ago, running up the biggest strikeout season in a decade. He will be tasked with a major responsibility in keeping the Rangers afloat, amid the injuries that have ravaged their staff already. In LA, if both Weaver and C.J. Wilson are both healthy, they give the Angels a pair of potential 17-20 game winners as well.

Bullpen

1. Athletics

2. Mariners

3. Angels

4. Rangers

5. Astros

It may be okay that the Oakland starting staff is dinged up, because they have a SWAT team worth of support in their pen. The additions of two-time AL save champ Jim Johnson (101 saves from since 2012), Luke Gregorson and Eric O’Flathery to a group with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook means that by mid-summer Oakland could be slamming doors by the 6th-7th inning. The addition of Fernando Rodney gives the Mariners a viable closer and absolute for the first time in two years, which is something that the Rangers are hoping Joakim Soria can become once again as well. If no, Alexi Ugando and Neftali Feliz offer solid fallback options.

Defense

1. Athletics

2. Rangers

3. Astros

4. Angels

5. Mariners

The A’s make a habit of doing the small things well, and defense is chief among those. Reddick is on the short list for best defensive outfielder in the game, and Cespedes and Coco Crisp join him in an outfield with miles worth of range. Donaldson, Moss and John Jaso join as plus defenders also. The Astros can man the field well, especially Matt Dominguez, who should enter the Gold Glove picture this year at third base.

Melvin has won 190 games and has received an AL Manager of the Year nod over the past two years, leading Oakland to two division titles in the process.

Melvin has won 190 games and has received an AL Manager of the Year nod over the past two years, leading Oakland to two division titles in the process.

Manager

1. Athletics

2. Angels

3. Rangers

4. Mariners

5. Astros

Bob Melvin deserves a ton of the due for pulling together a group that simply plays better together than any other team in the American League. He empowers his young guys to play on the same level as the veterans that he makes play beyond their full potential (i.e. Jed Lowrie and Donaldson). In Anaheim, Mike Scioscia is the longest tenured manager in the game, and for good reason. Like Ron Washington in Texas, he will deservingly get a chance to pull his club back into the race they are expected to be in.

Finances

1. Angels

2. Rangers

3. Mariners

4. Astros

5. Athletics

The Angels and Rangers have proven they will spend to get the job done, although the results have not returned with the same impact as the names that have signed the deals with them. The Mariners are hoping to not go down the same path with their spending spree that netted Cano, Rodney and Corey Hart. The Astros have funds to spend, but are being cautious in how they go about doing so in their current rebuild process.

Impact Additions

1. Robinson Cano (Mariners via free agency)

2. Prince Fielder (Rangers via trade)

3. Shin Soo-Choo (Rangers via free agency)

4. Jim Johnson (Athletics via trade)

5. David Freese (Angels via trade)

The West was the home of the most aggressive roster overhauls of the year. The Mariners added a new franchise cornerstone in the five-time All-Star Cano, and brought in Hart and Logan Morrison to add some protection as well. The A’s made pitching their priority, while the Rangers went the other route, adding offensive punch. The Angels made perhaps the most intriguing moves, adding high potential young arms in Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, as well as picking up a cast-off David Freese to add depth to their top heavy offense.

Leap Forward

1. Sonny Gray—Athletics

2. Jarred Cosart—Astros

3. Tyler Skaggs—Angels

4. Robby Grossman—Astros

5. Mike Zunino—Mariners

Gray did not make his first start until August, but was impressive enough to get the nod for two matchups against Justin Verlander in the ALDS games where he surrendered only three runs in two starts. He’ll be asked to once again carry a heavy load for the suddenly uncertain Oakland rotation. Jarred Cosart was one of the best pitchers in baseball for Houston once he was promoted late last year, with a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts, and stands to continue to affirm his spot atop their rotation.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Taijuan Walker—Mariners

2. George Springer—Astros

3. Johnathan Singleton—Astros

4. James Paxton—Mariners

5. Addison Russell—Athletics

The Astros have a bundle of ready to peak talent in their system, and more to come behind this first wave. Springer and Singleton should both be not just everyday contributors, but have established their foothold as the cornerstones of the future of the Houston franchise (until Carlos Correa shows up). Walker has the best arm of any rookie in the AL, and stands to be a major part of the immediate Seattle push for relevancy this year.

PREDICTIONS

1. Oakland Athletics

2. Los Angeles Angels

3. Texas Rangers

4. Seattle Mariners

5. Houston Astros

The underdogs have been over for so long, it is hard to believe they could still be seen as anything less than one of baseball’s best, yet somehow they still are. But let’s straighten this all out: the A’s have the experience, chemistry and are in an understated win now mode as well. With Johnson, Gregerson and Lowrie all pending free agency and a host of other A’s on the verge of arbitration raises, regardless of if this year ends either short of the postseason or with a World Series victory, this is the only year for this assortment of A’s. They will continue to be a young and mostly low cost/high reward group past this year, but this is their best chance to seal the deal. And all things considered, they should be in the mix. They have a very deep pitching staff and a similar lineup, full of two-way players that are fueled on proving their worth amid the game’s most hostile home environment.

But the rest of the division should have something to say as well, but the issue is can they overcome their own fairly pronounced shortcomings to do so. The Rangers have seen the potency of their pitching staff drop off regularly each year, and it may finally be too much to overcome this year. The Angels are the paper champs of baseball annually around this time of year, but have regularly yielded too little in both the health and raw, non-Trout related results category. Injuries are a major factor for both, although Texas enters the year especially crippled in regards to its supporting cast.

The Mariners made a lot of noise, but still are a few pieces short. With a well-stocked system with plenty of ready to contribute players, they are the team most likely to continue to find ways to add to their mix throughout the year—if they can stay competitive long enough. The Astros are burgeoning with some actual tangible potential finally, but they are still a clear cut below the rest of the West still.

With all things considered, the only thing that likely sidetracks the A’s is if they cannot either stay healthy long enough together or their depleted rotation cannot step up and fill the losses they have already sustained. They are the most complete team in the division, and a third championship should be theirs for the taking.

 

For more in real-time on the soon to arrive MLB season, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. For more content, head to The Sports Fan Journal and I70 Baseball.

 

Dodgers-Clayton-Kershaw-Tigers-Max-Scherzer-claim-Cy-Youngs

Last summer, the National League West was the scene of the most drastic 180 in all baseball. Coming into the year, it was fully expected that the Dodgers would grab it early on for themselves and not let up, however that was far from the case. As a matter of fact, due to a mix of injuries and uncertain day-to-day lineup production, LA found itself in the cellar of the division in early May, and no other club really stepped and away either. The defending World Series champs in San Francisco were dealing with a host of injuries and down seasons, and the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Padres didn’t make the opportunistic push that they could have. Soon enough, they would grow to regret this.

2013 Finish

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

2. Arizona Diamondbacks (81-81)

3. San Diego Padres (76-86)

4. San Francisco Giants (76-86)

5. Colorado Rockies (74-88)

In mid-May, the Dodgers came around and ran away with the West. Sparked by the promotion of Yasiel Puig and returns of Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and (briefly) Matt Kemp, they ran away with the division, finishing with the biggest divisional margin of victory in the Majors. Pulling ahead to this summer, they will enter with the same expectations. However, the division enters in a much better place overall that won’t allow for any temporary slips that the last time around allowed.

The Diamondbacks showed the most growth of any team that did not make the postseason last year, sparked by the coming of age of MVP runner up Paul Goldschmidt, and they made some smart additions to continue the process. The Giants never stay down for long, and with a strong core and a few additions to mend their fall of last year, they project well again too. And the Padres and Rockies both are the type of teams that can rock a boat while keeping their hand on it as well.

What does this all mean? And can it continue to be the aggressive mix of a division that has not had a repeat champ since 2009?

All-Division Team

1. Yasiel Puig -RF—Dodgers

2. Carlos Gonzalez-LF—Rockies

3. Troy Tulowitzki-SS—Rockies

4. Buster Posey-C—Giants

5. Paul Goldschmidt-1B—Diamondbacks

6. Matt Kemp-CF—Dodgers

7. Chase Headley-3B—Padres

8. Marco Scutaro-2B—Giants

Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw—Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke—Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Madison Bumgarner—Giants

Starting Pitcher: Matt Cain—Giants

Right Handed Reliever: Joaquin Benoit—Padres

Lefty Handed Reliever: Rex Brothers—Rockies

Closer: Kenley Jansen—Dodgers

Lineup

1. Dodgers

2. Rockies

3. Diamondbacks

4. Giants

5. Padres

With five current or former All-Stars comprising their everyday lineup, without accounting for Puig, the Dodgers have a undeniably balanced offering that still could do even more than it has to date if they can get a better shake regarding health. Following their addition of Mark Trumbo, the D’Backs are the only NL team running out two 30-home run hitters from a year ago, with Goldschmidt as well. The Rockies always produce, but if Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki can join NL-batting champ Michael Cuddyer and new addition Justin Morneau with some regularity, they should lead the NL in runs scored again.

The Rockies potential is greatly improved when it has its former batting champ in Gonzalez available. He has cleared .300 three of each of the last four years and 20 homers in each campaign.

The Rockies potential is greatly improved when it has its former batting champ in Gonzalez available. He has cleared .300 three of each of the last four years.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Dodgers

2. Rockies

3. Diamondbacks

4. Giants

5. Padres

The Hanley Ramirez/Adrian Gonzalez/Matt Kemp trio that the Dodgers could yield is a pure terror, as is the Gonzalez/Tulowitzki/Cuddyer mix in Colorado. However, the Giants could see a big upswing around Buster Posey if Pablo Sandoval’s re-conditioned approach pays out, Brandon Belt continues to develop and Michael Morse can rediscover his 2011-12 form, where he hit .297 with 49 homers over the run.

Table Setters

1. Dodgers

2. Padres

3. Giants

4. Rockies

5. Diamondbacks

The decision to put Puig at the top of the lineup by Don Mattingly is partially due to a lack of a true leadoff hitter, but it is also a case of getting his most diverse talent as many at-bats as possible. If he develops more patience, he could be among the best leadoff options in the NL (.391 on-base % in 2013). The Padres are a throwback of an attack, that has plenty of dash and run options. Before he lost the end of his season due to a Biogenesis-related suspension, Everth Cabrera was on pace to lead the NL in stolen bases again, and still managed to swipe 37. He is backed up by the chronically underrated Will Venable.

Depth

1. Diamondbacks

2. Giants

3. Dodgers

4. Rockies

5. Padres

Kirk Gibson has a very deep offering, with the enviable option of alternating between Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius at shortstop, and will eventually have the versatile Cody Ross available as well. San Francisco’s Gregor Blanco is one of the better 4th outfielders in the game, and Andre Ethier is currently the best 4th outfielder in baseball—for as long as he lasts in LA.

Bumgarner has steadily risen up both the Giants rotation and the ranks of NL pitchers, reaching his first All-Star Game last summer.

Bumgarner has steadily risen up both the Giants rotation and the ranks of NL pitchers, reaching his first All-Star Game last summer in route to a 13-win, 199 strikeout campaign.

Rotation

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Padres

5. Rockies

For all of the depth of their everyday lineup, it is rotational depth that is the real strength of the Dodgers. Behind their big two, they have a rotation and a half, with a mix of Hyun Jin-Ryu, Dan Haren and options of Paul Maholm, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley as well. However, the Giants are not far behind them, with Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogel song providing a solid supporting group.

1-2 Punch

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Padres

5. Rockies

The West is home to two of the elite starting duos in the game, in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke and Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. Kershaw and Greinke combined for a  31-13 record with a 2.23 ERA and 380 strikeouts  last year, with Kershaw winning his second Cy Young in three years. In SF, Cain had a down year, before rebounding with a superb second half, while Bumgarner posted a 2.77 ERA in route to earning this year’s Opening Day nod. Arizona suffered a huge loss in their top guy Patrick Corbin being lost to Tommy John surgery this spring, while the Padres have a blooming star in Andrew Cashner atop their order.

Bullpen

1. Dodgers

2. Diamondbacks

3. Padres

4. Giants

5. Rockies

LA boasts a dominant Kenley Jansen at the end of their pen, with two former closers on one-year deals auditioning for a return to the role in Chris Perez and Brian Wilson setting up for him. That’s a mix that leads to some very short games behind their already potent starting staff. The D’Backs have a similar mix, with J.J. Putz, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler all capable of shutting the door in front of Addison Reed. The Padres annually have a superb pen, and saw to it that it continues to be so by making a big commitment to former Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit to setup for Huston Street.

While his winning two-thirds of the NL Triple Crown got the headlines, Goldschmidt also turned in an excellent defensive campaign in route to winning the National League first base Gold Glove.

While his winning two-thirds of the NL Triple Crown got the headlines, Goldschmidt also turned in an excellent defensive campaign in route to winning the National League first base Gold Glove.

Defense

1. Diamondbacks

2. Padres

3. Rockies

4. Giants

5. Dodgers

Led by all-universe defender Gerardo Parra and the Gold Glover Goldschmidt, the D’Backs can pick it, especially with a healthy Miguel Montero captaining it all behind the plate. The athletic Padres are built to make cover the spacious grounds in Petco Park, with Chase Headley a former Gold Glover and Venable, Chris Denorfia, Yonder Alonso and Cabrera all very good defenders as well. In Colorado, Carlos Gonzalez is the best defensive outfielder in the NL, as is Hunter Pence in right for the Giants.

Manager

1. Giants

2. Padres

3. Diamondbacks

4. Dodgers

5. Rockies

Bruce Bochy has played a major role in the regular success of the Giants, and with two World Series titles under his belt in the last four years, he’ll have them ready for a rebound. Bud Black doesn’t get enough credit for the job he does in getting the cash strapped, young Padres to a respectable finish each year either. Don Mattingly also proved his chops last year, by corralling the spiraling Dodgers back into the race—and saving his job in real-time as well.

Finances

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Rockies

5. Padres

The Dodgers can have whatever they want, it is just a reality of the game that everybody in the market has to adjust to. They are squarely in ‘win now’ mode and will acquire whatever they can to make that a reality. The other teams in the division are more modest with their resources, so what is in tow now is likely to be close to what they compete with, although the D’Backs do have some attractive young prospects they could bargain with.

Impact Additions

1. Mark Trumbo (Diamondbacks via trade)

2. Tim Hudson (Giants via free agency)

3. Addison Reed (Diamondbacks via trade)

4. Dan Haren (Dodgers via free agency)

5. Justin Morneau (Rockies via free agency)

The D’Backs mortgaged away some of their young potential to add slightly more proven young Major Leaguers in Trumbo and Addison this winter, to add much needed power in Trumbo, and late inning depth in Reed.  The Dodgers and Giants both made smart, ready-to –win contributions in Haren and Hudson to offset each other’s addition of the other.

Once he found a place in the starting rotation, Cashner became one of the NL's most dominant starters, especially at home where he sported a 1.95 ERA.

Once he found a place in the starting rotation, Cashner became one of the NL’s most dominant starters, especially at home where he sported a 1.95 ERA.

Leap Forward

1. Nolan Arenado—Rockies

2. Andrew Cashner—Padres

3. Brandon Belt—Giants

4. Jedd Gyorko—Padres

5. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

Arenado’s rookie year got swept away by the some of the more famous ones around the NL, but he made his own instant impact as well, winning the NL Gold Glove at third base. Look for him to make a more regular impact at the plate this year, as his .311 career minor league average indicates. Cashner could be the breakout starter in the NL this year, as the eccentric, flame throwing righty posted a 2.14 second half ERA, with a .194 average against.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Archie Bradley—Diamondbacks

2. Eddie Butler—Rockies

3. Jonathan Gray—Rockies

4. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

5. Austin Hedges—Padres

The West is home to a group of the premier pitching prospects in the game, with two oddly enough being headed towards Colorado in Butler and Gray. Gray was the 3rd pick in last spring’s Draft, posting a 1.93 ERA in two stops after signing. Butler started 28 games in the minors last year, and dominated to the tune of a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts. If they can carry over their success to Coors, it could signal a change of tides for the long-suffering Rockies pitching. Bradley is the top pitching prospect in the minors (12-5, 1.97 ERA at Double A in 2013), and should see action in the desert fairly early in the year due to Corbin’s injury.

PREDICTIONS

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

2. San Francisco Giants

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

4. San Diego Padres

5. Colorado Rockies

The prognosis for the West seems to be for it to be much more competitive than it was a year ago, even while it stands to be host to one of baseball’s most dominating clubs, it is also compromised of a few teams that are either growing into postseason form or returning to it. The Diamondbacks look to continue their growth into a postseason contender, and despite the loss of their top arm in Corbin, they still have what it takes to continue their push into the wild card picture. They will need to get help from their on-the-verge prospects throughout the year, and may need to add an arm later in the year, but they are close. The same can be said for the Giants, who are only two years removed from being the best team in baseball, and are at a crossroads with their established core. If it has one more run in it, and a consistent offering from its rotation, they will push for the post season.

The Padres are a wild card in the fact that they have the understated cohesiveness to make a difference in the division, even if they are a few years (and a legit offensive star away) from being a factor in the wild card race. The Rockies are still a one-sided affair; potent offensively, but offer very little in the way vital pitching to compete with their division mates.

But in the end, it is the Dodgers division to negotiate their way through from the very beginning. It is about not winning the West, but getting over the NLCS hump that is their task for the year. After a season where they pushed to the brink of the World Series despite never being healthy, it is definitely within reason to expect them to do better entering the year in markedly better shape than they were at any point last year. Making reality meet what paper shows is a completely different thing however, but their prime competition is not from within the West, but from the top of the other divisions.

It has been four years since a team repeated in the West, but it is time for it to happen again. The Dodgers will once again pull away with the division, although by not the same amount of games, in route to posting the National League’s best record. However, expect the Giants and Diamondbacks to compete for one of the Wild Card spots throughout the year, with the Padres being a surprisingly competitive club as well.

For more on the season to come in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. For more content, head to The Sports Fan Journal and I70 Baseball.