The winter’s run is officially over today, as business opens up around the country for Major League Baseball. And while business officially got underway with last night’s renewal of the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry on the north side of the Windy City, it is today when the ribbon is officially cut and the marathon to another October coronation officially begins.
As always, MLB Opening Day brings both questions anew and ones under review as well. A look around the game shows plenty of change, ranging from who sits behind the commissioner’s desk, to the rules that guide the game and all the way to hats that match some of the faces who are poised to lead the summer around the diamond. With all of these things and more in the wind today, we brought together a group of our baseball minds (The Cheap Seat Fan – Matt Whitener, The Rev – Joe Boland, Jason Clinkscales and Dillon Friday) together to analyze the offseason and preview what could be in store for 2015.
1. Which playoff team from 2014 is in the best shape to make another run this summer? Also, which playoff team did not change enough to either stay at the top or break through to reach it?
Dillon Friday: To me, the first question has two obvious answers. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals, at least on paper, are the two closest teams to postseason locks in baseball regardless of what they did (or didn’t do) last year. I’d put the Nationals ahead for a couple of reasons. One, they added Max Scherzer to what was already a dominant staff. Second, they play in the National League East, which may just be the worst division in baseball when all is said and done.
As far as a playoff team that didn’t change enough … both World Series teams? The Giants’ offseason woes were well-documented. With the Padres improving out West, and the Marlins and Cubs making moves elsewhere, maybe San Francisco continues to adhere to the even-year pattern. And I don’t know what to make of Kansas City. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer are two of the brightest young stars in the game, but who knows how much the loss of James Shields will affect a team that was lucky to reach the playoffs last year, let alone the World Series.
Would it surprise anyone if the Royals ended up closer to 60 wins than 90?
Jason Clinkscales: From the crop of playoff teams last fall, the team that is best primed to make a run in 2015 may be the Baltimore Orioles. The hopeful health of Manny Machado and Matt Wieters can go a long way in making up for some of the production lost from the departure of Nelson Cruz. The return of 2/5 of the starting infield is almost like adding players through free agency, as they lost a combined 216 games last year. If Chris Davis gets some semblance of his 2013 numbers after a huge tail-off and Adderall suspension in 2014, he can provide some lift in power that left with Cruz when he signed to Seattle.
It is likely that Oakland takes a seat from the postseason in 2015. It’s not only due to their own moves — although blowing up last year’s team as Billy Beane has done is still a head-scratcher — as it is seeing how Seattle, Anaheim and even Houston improved their rosters. Without having star pitchers in front of Sonny Gray or the on-base production from its former third baseman Josh Donaldson, some of those close wins may be slightly harder to come by.
Matt Whitener: I don’t think the Royals get close to either 60 or 90 really, but it may be tough to make it out of that division. But I still have a hard time passing by them easily because having seen their potential to play above their predictable talent level, it is entirely possible that they push the Wild Card to the limit again, while in the process turn the AL Central predictions on their ear.
2. Which headline free agent starter makes a bigger impact on his team’s 2014 (and beyond) fortunes: the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, the Cubs’ Jon Lester or the Padres’ James Shields?
The Rev: I’m going to say Scherzer, simply for the fact that the Cubs are in a real tough division, and even with Lester will have a hard time overcoming Pittsburgh and the standard bearer that is St. Louis. And while the Padres are vastly improved on paper, the Dodgers still have the leg up as do the Giants simply because they are the Giants.
Whitener: Lester makes the biggest impact immediately. The Cubs have a better-than-advertised rotation as is and are in the position to make some aggressive additions throughout the year if they stay in the race (and likely will after the season anyway). Having Lester there to match up with the number ones in the division such as Adam Wainwright and Johhny Cueto is huge; he can beat both of those guys. But it also gives the club a decisive one-game advantage over both the Brewers and the Pirates, and in a National League Central that is likely to be decided by the slimmest of margins, that is a major advantage to have.
Clinkscales: I’m inclined to go with Shields here and not necessarily because he’s the best of the triumvirate. Scherzer and Lester have better “stuff” than Shields, if you take a glance at their statistics. However, this is a pitch-to-contact starter who wisely took advantage of having an outstanding Kansas City Royals defense last year. If anything in San Diego, Shields now has an expansive field at Petco Park that already frustrates opposing hitters.
As he had proven for Tampa Bay and Kansas City, he’s an absolute workhorse of a pitcher; as Joe Maddon and Ned Yost before him, Bud Black can largely pencil in Shields for at least 30 starts and 200 innings, which has been the case since 2006. In a competitive NL West, someone with Shields’ profile can give a drastic boost in critical divisional games.
3.) All things considered, should Kris Bryant have been in the Cubs lineup last night?
The Rev: There is no logical reason for the Cubs to put Bryant on the Opening Day roster from a long-term standpoint, mainly because of MLB’s archaic rules. There is also no logical reason for Kris Bryant to be spending opening day in the minors and Cody Asche to be starting for a major league club either. It’s completely ridiculous that players who clearly deserve to be in the Majors get held down for money purposes … but I guess that’s a reality of life, right? It stinks. As a fan, I want to see Bryant in the bigs from day one. Bryant, as a player, has clearly earned it. But what the Cubs are doing is in the best interest for them in terms of compensation and control of the player.
So should he be in the majors? Abso-fucking-lutely. But the Cubs also should send him down if they’re smart. And that’s the problem.
Whitener: I agree there. Should he be up? Absolutely. In all reality, he should have been up late last year after he had hit 40+ home runs in Triple A Iowa. That’s a game over for the minors number there.
But the MLB’s rule was constructed in a way to help protect teams in maintaining their assets, especially teams that have lingered around the top of the draft for so many years like the Cubs. Most of those teams are more financially restricted than the Cubs are, who have spent way underneath their potential in the name of building their infrastructure for years. If this was the Rays or Royals, I get the feeling the tone of this entire situation would be much different.
But all things considered, it is unfair to the player and an overly team-friendly arrangement right now. Put the best 25, ready to contribute now, guys in the Majors and let it play out.
Friday: One interesting aspect of the Bryant deal that’s going understated is how the Cubs might have treated this differently in the old postseason rules. Bryant will be worth anywhere from 3-5 wins above replacement this season, which could make the difference in Chicago’s playoff push. If you’re playing for one Wild Card spot instead of two, those wins are vital. Now? Less so. We should also consider what the added hype of an impending call-up could do to the young man’s psyche, especially if the Cubbies struggle out of the gate.
4.) We recently listed our Top 100 Baseball Players For 2015, which Mike Trout was deemed #1 on. Is there a player who is primed to have a 2015 strong enough to make a push to replace him atop next year’s list?
The Rev: No. Next question.
Clinkscales: Short answer: Probably not, but that doesn’t mean the gap is very wide.
The thing about Trout is that with his massive frame (6’2″, 230 lbs.), he has great speed and quickness both on the base paths and in the field. Because he was placed in the heart of the lineup last season, he doesn’t steal bases as he did in his phenomenal rookie campaign. Guys of his build are not supposed to be able to do that. It’s one thing to be able to mash the ball, but when you can add his speed and his strong arm in the outfield, you’ll see someone who passes both the sabermetric and eye tests.
To supplant him from this list, a player has to be equally exceptional in all aspects of his game or insanely Barry Bonds-ian as a hitter. As a five-tool player, the closest to Trout is Andrew McCutcheon, and even he would have to up the ante as a HR hitter, which may not be what the Pirates need, believe it or not. Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton has slugging prowess, a strong arm and the occasional steal in the arsenal, but not the exact plate discipline as Trout (a difference in hitting 4th vs. 3rd with protection).
So, maybe those two players could, but it’s a huge ask of them to adjust their games in order to leap ahead of Trout. Yet, that’s not the worst thing in the world.
The Rev: I believe Jason meant to say, “No. Next question.” Trout does everything on an elite level — run, field, throw, hit, power — as far as overall game, there is no one even remotely close today.
Friday: To Jason’s last point: Awesome. To the Rev’s point: I agree. I will say that McCutchen is probably the second best overall player in the game, but he’s also firmly in his prime. It’s hard to see him greatly improving his production. At the risk of sucking up to Matt, I will say that Yadier Molina might be the most important player in the league. Again, he’s up there in age.
Bryce Harper will continue to grow as an all-around player. Jose Abreu absolutely mashed last year. I can’t wait to see year two. And I think we all want to see Alex Rodriguez return to his throne atop the game.
5.) Like it or not, Alex Rodriguez is back. For a Yankees club that managed to finish in second place in the AL East last year, can he be a part of the answer in getting that team over the hump?
The Rev: If he can still hit, sure. All I know is nothing would make me happier than to see A-Rod hit 80 home runs, win MVP and blow everyone’s mind. I’m not even joking. The only thing I wished would happen more this sports season was for Hampton to miraculously become the first 16 seed to defeat a 1 and have that 1 be the undefeated and seemingly invincible Kentucky squad. A-Rod for MVP.
Whitener: A diminished A-Rod is still better than having no A-Rod for a Yankee team that was short on available offense last year. While he definitely will not be the type of addition that will be able to be plugged in to the heart of the order that he used to be, the Yankees are a lot closer to the postseason than it feels, and he could definitely help to bridge that gap if he plays 100+ healthy games.
Friday: A-Rod has a chance at something exceedingly rare in baseball: redemption. Think about Pete Rose returning for one more at-bat. Think about Barry Bonds pinch-hitting in the ninth inning. Think about Roger Clemens toeing the rubber for an August start. Think about Joe Jackson entering a World Series game as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Rodriguez gets to live that out over an entire year. Will the Yankees benefit? I don’t know. He certainly will.
6.) We saw two teams that missed the postseason 2013 make it to the World Series last year. Give me a team in each league that could pull that same feat this season.
The Rev: Hmmm, this one is tough. My first instinct says the Cubs and Red Sox. Then again, San Diego and Miami in the NL are looking vastly improved, and teams like Seattle, Chicago and Toronto in the AL could make some noise.
Gun to my head … I’ll say San Diego and Seattle. Yes, Seattle.
Whitener: If anybody can pull off this incredibly difficult feat (going from zero to hero in the MLB is arguably tougher than in any other game), it would likely be the Indians and the Marlins. The Tribe has a very balanced all-around squad, with some top-notch pitching potential, while the Fish have one of the game’s great talents, one of its best young lineups and a pitching staff that could add a healed Jose Fernandez by the second half. I think they are the best bet to break through to the postseason at the very least.
Friday: I see Detroit regressing in the AL Central to the point where the White Sox can sneak into the playoffs. I really liked what they did this offseason.
In the National League, I think San Diego will make some noise. The spirit of Tony Gwynn lives on.
Clinkscales: Incredibly tough to say because there are several teams that could make that run. That’s what September runs and the Wild Card games are all about, right?
In the American League, if there’s a team that could, it would be Seattle. Of the 2014 non-playoff teams that made major moves this offseason, the Mariners were the only one that you can say wasn’t that far away from contention as they just missed the playoffs, and the Nelson Cruz addition can do wonders for Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
The danger in the National League is that the teams that could play this role in 2015 are in competitive divisions. I’d lean towards San Diego because the Cubs have a slightly harder mountain to climb in the Central division than the Padres do out west. And as of last night, they have themselves a pretty good closer now.
7.) If you could make one request of Rob Manfred to address in his first year on the job as commissioner, what would it be?
The Rev: Reinstate Pete Rose.
Whitener: Personally, I would like to see the diversity initiatives in the game be focused on heavily. Selig established a nearly impenetrable financial basis for the league to interact with the Player’s Association, but now it has to be about the game growing as well. Put the players into the cities to work with the inner-city kids (of any race) and help the game to expand in interest as well as participation past the little league levels.
More minorities playing equals more minorities reaching college and/or the pros via the game.
Friday: I have a few rule changes in mind I would like to see. One, limit the amount of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make. Two, reduce the number of mound visits and pitching changes a manager can make. I’m just sick of watching a pitcher face one batter and then get removed regardless of the outcome. It takes up way too much time.
And finally, I’d change the World Series home field advantage rule. Give it to the team with the best record entering the Fall Classic.
The Rev: Limit pickoff attempts? Um … wouldn’t that make stealing exponentially easier? Basically once a pitcher uses his pickoff limit, runners can go on first movement. That’d be insanity. That’s a HORRIBLE rule change.
In addition, stealing would become easier simply due to the fact pitchers will have to watch when to actually throw over, making the odds that they’ll throw over vastly reduced, making steals much more prevalent. Steals shouldn’t be that easy. It’s way too much of an advantage to the runner and the offensive team in a sport that already has smaller ballparks, tighter strike zones and larger players. No thanks.
Friday: The steal is also one of the more exciting parts of the game. The pickoff is somewhere near the bottom of that list.
Rev: The steal is exciting because it’s not as common as, say, a pickoff attempt, and I’d argue that an executed pickoff is way more exciting than any steal, with the exception of stealing home. Making things easier does not equate to better and certainly makes things less exciting. You’re actually talking about limiting a strategic part of defense completely. That’d be like the NFL outlawing being able to shove a guy out of bounds or something. It’s not exciting, but it’s a necessary part of playing defense. I don’t understand how a very sane, very reasonable sports fan can actually think limiting pickoff attempts is a good idea.
8.) With no Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera to monopolize the award haul, who will be the MVP of the wide-open National League and why?
Whitener: It’s hard sometimes to figure out exactly who should be MVP, based on team performance, impact, etc., etc., etc. Surely McCutchen and Stanton, as well as Buster Posey and Yasiel Puig, should easily fit in there. But one guy who I fully expect to have a monster season, albeit one that could mean absolutely nothing from a pennant chase perspective, is Paul Goldschmidt.
He was the runner-up in the MVP race two years ago and well on his way to at least a similar finish last year. He was going to fly past 50 doubles and hit 30 home runs and around 100+ RBI. Combine that with a slicker than your average glove and some surprising stolen base numbers as well, and you’re looking at the total package … but one who plays for a team that should be way far outside of the postseason race. Tough call on who the award is going to, but Goldschmidt is a bad man.
The Rev: The obvious choice is Andrew McCutchen, but I think with more people taking pressure off Cutch in the Pittsburgh lineup, his numbers may not be as eye-popping as far as the historically important stats are concerned. I think he’ll still be the MVP candidate he always is and still absurdly productive, but I’m going to go with Giancarlo Stanton. I feel like this is the year we see a healthy, developed Stanton, and I anticipate him leading the league in homers and RBI for an improved Marlins squad. If Miami makes the playoffs, we might as well gift-wrap Stanton the award.
Clinkscales: This is tough because Stanton is a beast, McCutcheon is a boss and Kershaw is just a bad, bad man. Yet, this year I’d place a bet on … Bryce Harper?
It seems insane when you think about it. He came in with hype unseen from a baseball prospect since #ARodforSS2015, yet for varied reasons, he hasn’t had the production expected of him. It’s likely a stretch to think that there is a carry-over from a monster playoff series where he was the lone player on the Nationals who produced. Yet for those fleeting moments, Harper was everything we were told and a bit more. Countless players have catapulted their careers after a playoff series over the years, but with his talent and further experience in the game, #34 will get the voters’ attention, provided he stays on the field.
Friday: It’s hard to believe Troy Tulowitzki has yet to finish higher than fifth in MVP voting. In short, the Rockies haven’t been very good, while he’s been terrific. Last year Tulo hit .340 and slugged .603 in 91 games. If he stays healthy this season — and that’s a fairly big if — he’s easily the best shortstop in the game. Voters will still need to fight through the Coors Field bias to write in Tulo’s name, and Colorado should struggle in 2015.
9.) Finally, if you had to pick one now to be the final survivor in seven months, who SHOULD win the World Series?
The Rev: Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Should. That’s a tough one. To me, it comes down to four teams that look the best: the Nationals, the Tigers, the Dodgers, the Royals. I’d say, on paper, the Dodgers look most formidable. Kershaw, Puig, Greinke = talent all over the place. I think this may be LA’s year. In all honesty though, anyone but the Giants or Cardinals, please. I’m sick of them.
Friday: Who should win the World Series? The Nationals. No other team can match Washington for pitching and hitting depth. Who will win the World Series? Well, that’s proven to be a bit trickier in the modern playoffs. I’m standing with the Chicago White Sox though. Chris Sale still doesn’t get the national attention he deserves, and with Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana behind him, the pitching staff features a formidable top three. And that lineup is sneaky good. I expect Jose Abreu to lead the American League in home runs and the Chi-Sox to win the World Series 10 years after they ended an 88-year drought.
The Rev: I like the sneaky White Sox pick. Chris Sale is the truth.
Clinkscales: Should? The Dodgers, Nationals or even the Red Sox.
Will? Today, I will say the Cardinals because ownership has a deal with the baseball gods or something. Tomorrow? A reason to love baseball right now is because I have absolutely no clue.
Whitener: As a guy that is ardently against “star power = championship” I can’t get behind the Nationals, Dodgers or Tigers. I’m also equally skeptical of teams that come together quickly in their first year of playing together, which also keeps me out on the White Sox or Red Sox too.
With all of those things put together, it’s time to get the tomatoes out because I’m going with the Cardinals to be the team that should win the World Series this year. They boast as complete of a pitching staff as the National League wields and have a deep lineup and added a Gold Glove guy in Jason Heyward to a team that could already get after it in the field. But most importantly, they have chemistry and track record together, which has played a bigger role in deciding more World Series than anything else in recent years.
But then again, the Yanks could just strap up and ride A-Rod over the rainbow again too, right?
The Rev: I SAID ANYONE BUT THE GIANTS AND CARDINALS!
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.