Ominous portents on a sunny day

The Nats won again last night, their ninth in the past ten games. That’s good! Winning is always good. They’re 20-17, they’ve escaped fourth place for the first time since April 11th, and they’re just a game and a half back of Atlanta. All good things. What’s been powering this stretch? Well, for one thing, Matt Adams. Adams in his last 12 games has hit .415/.510/1.049 with 8 homers and 20 RBIs. He had a stretch with 7 homers in 7 games. On the season, he’s been far and away the team’s best offensive player — all this stuff you know. For the record, I was wondering how Adams’ two weeks compared to Bryce Harper’s two week stretch in May 2015, and, well, it… doesn’t. From May 6-22 that year, Bryce hit .522/.621/1.348 (!!!!!) with 11 homers. Makes Adams’ two weeks look like child play. That’s the kind of stretch that can carry a team all on its own, and did.

Speaking of Bryce, what the team has done recently they’ve basically done without him. He’s hitting .188/.328/.458 over the past two weeks, and while he hit 4 homers in that stretch (including the longest homer hit by a Nat at Nats Park), he’s basically done nothing else, and he’s 0 for his last 19. Part of that’s bad luck (he hit 4 screamers on Monday with nothing to show for it), but he’s also not walking anymore — he’s had only 2 walks in the 8 games he’s been in the leadoff spot, which was by design, but the design only works if he’s hitting the pitches he’s getting to see. He looks gassed, and tonight is a good time for his first day off. The guys who’ve been supporting Adams have been Trea Turner (.362/.464/.553 over the past two weeks), Howie Kendrick (.319/.360/.532) and… Wilmer Difo? Difo’s at .378/.478/.595, including two dingers. He’s been worth almost a win over that stretch. The .400 BABIP says it’s not real, and the fact that he’s Wilmer Difo would suggest that too, but he’s a useful guy to have around even when his offense is 80% league average.

The other thing that’s been propelling the hot streak (and buoying the team when they weren’t hitting) is the starting pitching. In the last two weeks they’ve been phenomenal: 2.52 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 10.4 K/9, averaging 6 1/3 innings a start. And their full season numbers are great too: first in the NL in starter ERA, FIP, K/9, and innings pitched (by a pretty wide margin too). Individually, there’s not a ton to worry about — Scherzer’s been even better than ever, Strasburg’s strikeouts are down and homers are weirdly up but his velocity’s stable and he looks fine, Gio’s striking out more batters than ever even when his velocity’s never been lower, and Roark’s been decent even though it doesn’t seem like he’s fully recaptured the runback fastball he had in 2016. The one outlier in the bunch is Hellickson, who was phenomenal again last night. The man throws slop, and he’s obviously not gonna be this good even with Davey limiting his times through the order exposure, but Hellickson’s always thrown slop, and he’s had varying degrees of success with it before, so there’s no reason he can’t keep fooling hitters over a full season.

So why’d I title this post “Ominous Portents on a Sunny Day”? Well, contrary to my Twitter presence, I’m not really a worrier by nature. But I’m still not feeling confident in this team. For one thing, the bullpen (which has already been bad, with the 4th-worst ERA in the NL) is constructed in such a way that makes its collapse feel likely. The team has three relievers it can trust, Madson, Kintzler, and Doolittle. All three of those relievers are over 30, and two of them have terrifying histories of arm trouble which make them the types of guys that should be protected early in the season. But they’ve been worked really hard in a way that isn’t entirely reflected in the stats — only Kintzler is in the top 30 in the NL in innings pitched — but there have been a lot of games where they have been forced to throw in the bullpen without getting into the game. This is a direct result of the fact that Davey feels (justifiably) that he can’t trust his non Big Three relievers with any lead: take Monday for instance, where after Trevor Gott put two runners on with no outs in the eighth inning of a 5 run game, Davey felt he needed to get Ryan Madson warm, and then did the same with Doolittle when Carlos Torres put multiple runners on in the ninth. All that work in the bullpen can lead to injury — Aaron Barrett, for instance, has blamed Matt Williams’ warming him up near-constantly for the arm troubles that derailed his career. And even if it doesn’t lead to injury, it can certainly lead to ineffectiveness down the line, and without even one of the Big Three at their best, the Nats bullpen is cooked.

But obviously the bullpen isn’t the number one red flag surrounding this team; the most terrifying thing is the injuries. I don’t know when or even if Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton are coming back, and what kind of players they’ll be if they do. Microfracture surgery on your knees isn’t a surgery you just come back from, especially when like Murphy your swing relies so much on leg drive. The fact that he can’t run without discomfort, 7 months after the surgery, is terrifying, and makes the date of his return an open question. Eaton seems to be going backward, unable to do any baseball activities a full month after his “minor” bone bruise, and after you blow up your leg that severely, recovery from any leg injury should not be taken as a given. The Nats can cover for those injuries as well as can be expected: if everyone is hitting as expected, a Harper/Turner/Rendon/Adams/Zimmerman/Kendrick/Wieters/Pitcher/Taylor lineup certainly looks like a major league lineup. The problem is that a) not everyone is hitting: Zimmerman’s got an 80 OPS+ on the year, Taylor only 57, and b) having to plug your depth into the lineup on an everyday basis weakens your team and makes it impossible to cover for any further injuries. With Goodwin and Robles also on the DL, the Nats only have Wilmer Difo left as major league-quality depth (plus Mark Reynolds whenever he gets here). As we saw when Rendon got hurt, making Moises Sierra the 5th hitter, this team simply cannot withstand any more injuries and be competitive offensively. All it takes is one more injury to make the whole thing collapse.

The Nats are playing well, and it’s more likely than not that they’ll keep doing so — they’re a very talented team, and I’d put their odds of winning the division at around 60%. But they’re in a fragile position where even one more injury for a prolonged stretch could send them reeling for a while. And with the Braves looking pretty legit, with a run differential even better than the Nats and Acuna playing like everyone expected them to, and the Phillies looking solid too, it’s not a given that they could withstand an elongated stretch of poor play. Anyway, there’s your wet blanket.

Advertisements

Celebrate whatever you want

I’m not a Caps fan or a hockey fan, and for about half of their playoff runs I’ve been actively ambivalent about their success, mostly because I can’t stand the thought of other people in the same fanbase as me being happy while I’m stuck here being miserable. But even as a barely-involved person, I don’t understand the policing of DC Sports fans who want to celebrate getting out of the second round with all the fervor of a championship.

First, it should be mentioned that the DC Sports conference finals curse story doesn’t exist merely because they’ve had no teams make the finals, but because they’ve had a lot of teams that were good enough to do it and haven’t. Those teams are exclusively concentrated in the Caps and Nats; the anguish of being a Redskins fan comes from the fact that the team is both a three ring circus and one of the most cringe-inducing teams in an already morally-dubious sport, and the suffering of Wizards fans comes from the fact that their team is locked into a Sartreian hell of perpetual mediocrity from which their is no escape. The conference finals drought story comes from the fact that the Nats and Caps have had so many teams with bona fide championship aspirations get tripped up before they could even get as far as the conference finals. So the reason people are celebrating, obviously, is that there’s this sense that once they get past this stumbling block, anything’s possible.

And honestly, why try and take away that feeling from people? It’ll be a nice alternative from the dumb fatalism that every DC sports fan seems to adopt. The problem with fatalism is that it’s really a form of narcissism: thinking that the universe has cursed your teams to fail suggests that the universe gives a shit about you and your teams, which it doesn’t; the universe is cold and unfeeling, and your sports teams fail because sports are like that. Or maybe it’s because you didn’t love them enough.

But more importantly, why begrudge people for celebrating anything in sports? If it makes you happy, you should celebrate it. Acting like you’ve been there before is for people who’ve actually been there before. You never know if that next series victory is ever gonna come. Besides, what’s the harm in celebrating? If the Caps win this series, they’ll be playing Tampa in the conference finals whether or not the fans celebrate the second round victory. And if the Caps win that series, the fact that fans celebrated the previous serious win isn’t gonna bridle their enthusiasm for the next one. There isn’t a limit to the amount of sports joy that you can have.

Listen, believing in sports curses is dumb, and at worst, can lead to a fanbase with a sense of perpetual cosmic aggrievement even when the wins eventually come (fuck you, Boston). But if the conference finals mean something to you, go nuts celebrating it. Sports are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

Taking stock

The Nats’ homestand went about as well as could reasonably be expected given the teams they faced. They lost two of three to the Diamondbacks, who have played like the best team in baseball and whose odds at winning their division I’d put at over 50% (although I, a frail human, am prone to recency bias and also would prefer to see the Dodgers dethroned). They swept the Pirates, who are somehow 4 games over with a positive run differential, and I guess if you squint really hard you can see mediocrity there instead of abject terribleness (although I would love to see the team suffer for their refusal to commit to building a pennant contender during their window, then auctioning off their franchise cornerstone and a guy who’s looking pretty ace-y right now for parts — picking up Corey Dickerson when another team went blatant salary dump looks pretty smart though). Winning the series against the Phillies probably felt more important to me than it actually was —  it coincided exactly with the 6th anniversary of the Nats’ “Take Back The Park” series, and there were a lot of similarities between the Phillies now and the Nats then (upstart team playing well even though people assumed they were a year away from really contending) and between the Nats now and the Phillies then (older team at the end of a window whom everyone expected would dominate their division but instead were plagued with early injuries). Even if I’m the only one who saw any symbolic significance in a early-May series, I think we can all agree that winning is better than losing in general.  Winning: good. Losing: less good.

The Nats should send the Phillies a nice thank you note in exchange for that win they gift-wrapped and handed over. The eighth and ninth inning “rallies” consisted of: a walk to Moises Sierra (!), another walk, a squibbed infield single, a two-run single (actually well hit!); and a Matt Wieters infield single (I don’t know how it happened either), a two-base pickoff error, a hit by pitch, a walk to Michael Taylor (!), a bases-loaded walk (!) to Pedro Severino (!), and a pop up to center, which happened to be vacated (good work Gabe!). Credit to the Nats for not rejecting this generous gift, but this was an instance of bad pitching beating itself more than anything else.

Anyway, the Nats won, and they’re over .500 again, and they’ve got a pythagorean winning percentage two games better than their actual record. They’re still in fourth place, but thanks to the Mets metsing all over the place and the division self-immolating a bit in general, they’re only a game back of second and two back of first. Reports of their early-season demise may have been a bit exaggerated.

The bats woke up for a brief stretch in the Pirates series (although that may say more about the Pirates pitching than anything else), and you may not believe it, but the Nats are actually second in the league in OBP, slugging percentage and OPS. The problem is that up until this week, the offense had largely been concentrated in one player (the one with the good hair), making it difficult to score runs when he wasn’t up, and making it difficult for him to drive in runs due to the constant pitch-arounds and “unintentional” walks. Moving Harper to the leadoff spot has led to fewer pitch-arounds, and Matt Adams suddenly deciding to share something other than a body type with Babe Ruth, along with Anthony Rendon’s return should help with that problem. Rendon, by the way, seems to be moving just fine, and that brace on his foot absorbed the impact of a foul ball enough that Rendon didn’t so much as wince. Obviously, you never want a player playing on a broken toe, and the possibility still exists that he either a) re-injures it or b) compensates for the injury by changing his swing mechanics, and sucks for a while, but with the offense in the dire straits it was in, you didn’t really have a choice but to risk it and bring him back.

The strength of this team is in its starting pitching, as always. “Max Scherzer is taking it to new levels” is a phrase I feel like I say every year, but that’s what he’s doing. He leads the NL in most significant categories, including strikeouts; Scherzer already has 20 more strikeouts than any other NL pitcher (he’s got 80 in 51.2 innings, Patrick Corbin is second with 60). He struck out 15 in 6 1/3 innings today, as you know, and was disappointed in himself — correctly! He didn’t have his good command, and kept falling behind batters to create long counts. And he still struck out 15! He’s amazing.

Elsewhere around the starting rotation, Strasburg’s been just OK, for him, and he’s got a weird home run problem that he hasn’t had at any other point in his career. 7 starts in, it’s probably nothing, especially since everything else (velocity, K rate, walk rate) is where it should be. Gio has been even better than last year, somehow, and he’s even striking out guys at what would be a career-best rate. I can’t believe he’s made the “guy with crafty lefty stuff and buckshot command” thing work, but he has, somehow. It almost seems like he doesn’t throw a strike unless he absolutely has to, which can make his starts excruciating to watch, but hey, if it’s working don’t change a thing. Roark’s been perfectly good, although he still seems to be struggling to find the runback two-seamer that made him so good in 2016 on a consistent basis. And Jeremy “The 60 Pitch Wonder” Hellickson’s been great so far in his limited deployment; I happen to agree with the short leash for him, because while I don’t think the twice through the order penalty should be applied as broadly as it is in the modern game, Hellickson is the exact type of slop-thrower whom you’d expect hitters to hit better the more times they see him.

The bullpen’s got issues. Brandon Kintzler looks like Brandon Kintzler again, so he’s not one of them. Doolittle’s been as lockdown as they come. Madson’s looked shaky since Davey pushed him within an inch of his life (probably shouldn’t have done that), but the velocity’s fine and I wouldn’t classify him as a person to worry about just yet. The real problem is in the dregs. The Nats have one lefty reliever other than Doolittle, and it’s Sammy Solis, a guy with an injury list almost as long as Ryan Zimmerman’s. Because Davey likes to play matchup ball, he’s been using Solis as you would a typical LOOGY — a ton of very short stints. Solis leads the entire league in appearances (19), but stands fourth on his own team in innings pitched (13.1). Solis has been reasonably effective in this role (he’s holding lefties to a .470 OPS), but it’s the worst possible way to use a guy with his history as a starter, his stuff (which can play against righties), and most importantly his injury history. A LOOGY gets dry-humped (warmed up in games he doesn’t pitch) more than any other relief role; that’s no place for a guy like Solis. Matt Grace’s incipient return should help Solis’ workload, but it won’t help the team, because Matt Grace sucks. Elsewhere amongst the dregs, Shawn Kelley is coming back, so if you’re going to any Nats games in the future and planning on sitting in the outfield seats, probably bring your glove. And Wander Suero’s got a magic cutter, but it’s way too soon to tell with him. I’d keep him up and DFA Torres/send down Gott when Grace Kelley gets back, but who knows what they’ll do.

Which brings us to the manager: how’s Davey doing? Well, moving Harper to leadoff was inspired and it’s had its desired effect: Harper is seeing pitches again. It’s also the kind of thing Dusty probably wouldn’t have done — Dusty prioritized letting players get comfortable with their roles within a lineup. But, Davey seems to have a problem with bullpen management; there’s no reliable measure for how many times he’s dry-humped a reliever, but anecdotally it seems like that’s been happening way more than last year, and it’s something rookie managers in general seem to struggle with (which is why it might be a good thing to have a veteran team with veteran bullpen arms managed by a veteran). But on the “intangible factors” front, Davey seems to be doing fine; the players seem to like him (especially Bryce, who may not have the best taste in this category) and seem ok with the particular brand of Maddon-esque “look how much fun we’re having” antics that I find grating. So I’ll reserve judgment on Davey until a later date.

The bottom line is, despite playing well below their best baseball for the first 35 games of the season, the road to the division still runs through DC, at this point I’d take the Nats over the field for the division (Fangraphs has their division odds at 77%, which seems a touch high to me, but not ludicrously so). The division is improved from last year, but it’s still too early to say how much; I like the Braves and the Phillies, but projecting young talent is hard to do, and the Mets, as we’ve seen, can up and mets all over the place at any moment. The Nats have a six game road trip coming up, 3 with the Padres and 3 with the DBacks. The Padres are awful; the DBacks are really good. I’d say a 3-3 trip is fine, and a 4-2 trip would be a success. This is the team they’re gonna have for a while — who knows when Murphy and Eaton will be back — so they’ve gotta stay afloat with it.

Here’s Some Content

What’s up? You might know me from Twitter. I’m Jacob Rasch, I’m a law student, and I tweet a lot about the Nats. Law school is stressful as hell, so now I’m gonna blog. You may ask yourself: what can this random internet guy add to The Discourse, which is already oversaturated and not in particular need of the voice of another stressed out young professional white guy? Well, here’s my deal.

I don’t know crap about stats: I took one stats class in college; it was a “statistics for political science majors” course, and it did not go well. I understand the basics, obviously: I can tell you how the linear weights in wOBA work, and I get the basic tenets of FIP even if I can’t calculate it myself. Basically, I know enough about the #fancystats to criticize them. But if you’re looking for some in depth stuff, you won’t find it here. I appreciate the work that Robs Arthur and Mains do, even if I don’t understand it for shit, but I’m not capable of it.

I don’t give a shit about your goddamn prospects: I will never understand the joy some people find in prospect-gazing. Why idealize players that might be around someday when you could be appreciating the ones that are already in front of you? Anyway, this is mostly me making an excuse for the fact that a couple months ago, when I said I was a huge baseball fan, someone asked me about Heliot Ramos, and I’d never heard of him, so I said “oh, he’s a hard thrower, but he’s gotta find his command before he can advance.” This generic line applies to just about every pitching prospect that has ever existed, so I figured I’d be fine. Unfortunately, Heliot Ramos is an outfielder.

So, if I can’t do the two types of baseball writing that exist in the world, what do I bring you? My favorite type of baseball writing, the type that guys like Patrick Dubuque and David Roth and Rachael McDaniel and a lot of the Short Relief staff do really well, is the type of writing that connects baseball to the outside world and tells a personal story about one’s relationship with the sport. But that kind of stuff is way out of my league; basically the only cool thing I can do is describe any Nats game over the past 7 years if you give me the date and the team they were playing (oh, and I can also tell you every World Series matchup from 1939 on off the top of my head). However, what I can provide is a bunch of half-baked and poorly-researched hot takes about the Nats, that I’ve littered with anecdotes about some player you vaguely recall in some game you have no reason to remember. I started my Twitter account to release my inchoate baseball rage onto the world; now I’m gonna be doing it here too, but with more words (again, you don’t have to read). Anyway, I hope you enjoy whatever this turns into, even if I don’t know what that’s gonna be.

P.S.: I tried this once before, 4 years ago. For a whole offseason. I was trying to imitate somebody else’s style (Rob Neyer’s — I have since learned my lesson), writing in a mode I wasn’t particularly well-equipped for. I’m using this address because I already had it registered; please do not read any of my old posts, they’re awful.

Warm Furnace: Top 50 Free Agent Predictions 2014-2015

IMG_4664.JPG

Another year, another list of free agent predictions, which will most likely be completely wrong. Only time will tell how accurate this list is. DISCLOSURE: If you bet money based off these prediction, I am not liable for your losses.

(List from MLBTradeRumors)

1. Max Scherzer – Rangers

After a disappointing 2014 campaign, the Texas Rangers will be looking to rebound in 2015, as they get players like Prince Fielder, Elvis Andrus, and Yu Darvish back from season ending injuries. Even with those players back, the Rangers will still need to bolster their rotation if they want to be contenders. In comes Max Scherzer, who, coming off a Cy Young Campaign in 2013, had another great year in 2014, going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA. While he will be expensive, adding Scherzer will definitely improve what is otherwise a lackluster rotation behind Yu Darvish and Derrick Holland.

Other Possibilities: Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees

2. Jon Lester – Red Sox

After spending 8 1/2 years in Boston, winning 2 World Series during his time there, Lester was traded to the Oakland A’s at this year July Trading Deadline for Yoneis Cespedes, in one of the biggest and most surprising deadline deals in recent history. After posting a 10-7 record and a 2.52 ERA in Boston, Lester continued to succeed in Oakland, going 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts. While he did struggle in his one postseason start this year (7.1 IP, 6 ER), Lester provided solid pitching for the A’s down the stretch. Even though they weren’t contenders in 2014, the Red Sox set themselves up nicely to make a run in 2015 with the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig, and Joe Kelly at the Trade Deadline. With the addition of Lester back in Bean Town, the Red Sox could put up a fight with the Orioles for AL East supremacy. However, look for the Cubs to also be a strong contender to the southpaw, as current Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and Lester have a strong connection going back to their days in Boston.

Other Possibilities: Cubs, A’s, Yankees

3. James Shields – Cubs

Since coming over from Tampa Bay back in 2013, Shields has put up great numbers in his two seasons in Kansas City, going 27-17 with a 3.18 ERA during his time there. While “Big Game James” didn’t live up to his nickname in the Royals postseason run (7.20 ERA in 5 starts), Shields will still have no problem making top-starter money this offseason. The Cubs will be looking to make a splash in Free Agency this offseason, with numerous prospects on the cusp of the MLB. With former Rays manager and baseball mastermind Joe Madden at the reign in 2015, the Cubs will have a legitimate shot at signing Shields, as Shields may feel quite comfortable in the South Side, with his former manager now running the show.

Other Possibilities: Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers 

4. Hanley Ramirez – Yankees

During his tenure in LA, Ramirez managed to put together 2 1/2 sensational years offensively at the shortstop position, ranking top 3 in a majority of offensive statistics. While his offense is a positive for Ramirez, his defense at short and his health are two major red flags for perspective teams. Ramirez, who will turn 31 in December, has only been able to play 211 games in 2013-14. He has also been one of the worst defensive shortstops over that span. Possibly the best move for Ramirez would be a shift back to third, where he played in his final season in LA. However, Ramirez is one of few potential shortstops on the market, and a team like the Yankees, who just lost their shortstop, are in desperate need for someone to man that position. Ramirez will likely get a contract of about 7 years, $160 million, and the Yankees always have the funds to buy free agents.

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox

5. Pablo Sandoval – Giants

Sandoval, who turned 28 in August, will be the top third baseman on the market this offseason, which will entitle him to a large payday. However, over the past 4 seasons, Sandoval’s numbers have been regressing, and his weight will be a concern for any team that wants to sign him long-term. The Giants, who offered Sandoval a qualifying offer, will have a gaping hole at third of Sandoval decides to leave them.

Other Possibilities: Red Sox, Nationals, Angels

6. Victor Martinez – Mariners

In 2014, Martinez managed to have a career in his age 35 season, hitting .335/.409/.565 and 32 home runs. Martinez will be looking to cash in on his big year, but teams might be weary of signing Martinez to more than a 1 year deal, as he is already 35. V-Mart will also most likely have to sign with an AL team, as he can’t play the field anymore. This past year, the Mariners were on the cusp of making the postseason, finishing 1 GB of the A’s for the second wild card spot. If the Mariners want to make their first postseason since 2001, they will need to improve offensively, including at their DH, which was the worst in the AL in almost all offensive categories. Adding Martinez will provide some much needed protection for Robinson Cano, and add depth to their lineup.

Other Possibilities: White Sox, Tigers, Orioles

7. Melky Cabrera – White Sox

After receiving a 50-game suspension in 2012, Melky Cabrera signed a 2 year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays in the 2012-13 offseason. After an injury plagued 2013, Cabrera put together a quality 2014 season, hitting .301 with 16 home runs in 139 games. Cabrera, who turned 30 in August, will most likely be seeking a multi-year deal with a team needing a corner outfielder. However, since the Blue Jays offered Cabrera a qualifying offer, any team that would want to sign Cabrera would forfeit their first round draft pick. However, initial reports has the two sides being far apart on negotiations. A team like the White Sox, who are in need for a corner outfielder, could make the Melk Man a sizable, multi-year offer.

Other Possibilities: Tigers, Blue Jays, Mets

8. Russell Martin – Blue Jays

As the best catcher in the free agent pool, Russell Martin will be seeing a lot of offers from teams that are in need of catchers. Martin had a great year in the Pittsburg not only offensively, but defensively as well, throwing 39% of runners behind the dish. While the Blue Jays did just sign catcher Dioner Navarro to a two year deal last offseason, they could always move him to DH and play Martin at catcher, since they just traded away DH Adam Lind.

Other Possibilities: Cubs, Pirates, Astros

9. Nelson Cruz – Orioles

After signing a 1 year, $8 million contract with the O’s last off season, Cruz put together a monster 2014 campaign, hitting .271/.333/.525, leading all of baseball in home runs with 40. Cruz, who was coming off a PED suspension in 2013, is going to get a pay raise, as he was already offered a qualifying offer by the Orioles earlier this week. While he may turn that offer down, there is still mutual interest between the O’s and Cruz to bring Cruz back to Baltimore for at least the next several seasons.

Other Possibilities: Mariners, Tigers, Blue Jays

10. Yasmany Thomas – Rangers

The 24 year old Cuban defector Thomas has a chance to receive the biggest contract for a Cuban player. A bar for contracts has already been set for Cuban outfielders by other defectors like Yasiel Puig and Rusney Castillio. Thomas is a high risk, high reward player, as there isn’t much certainty than other past Cuban outfielders. But Thomas’s raw power could potential score him a 7 year, $100+ million contract. The Rangers, who are losing Alex Rios this offseason, will have to find someone who can play right field for them in 2015 and beyond, and the power hitting righty will be able to fill that void.

Other Possibilities: Phillies, Tigers, Padres

11. Ervin Santana – Pirates

Ervin Santana is in another tricky situation this off season. While there are plenty of teams that would want the almost 32 year old righty, the Braves offered him a $15.3 million qualifying offer. While that is a lot of money, Santana might not want to take the one year offer, and look elsewhere for a multi-year deal. However, other clubs may be hesitant to sign Santana, because they would have to forfeit their first round draft to the Braves in exchange for him. If Santana declines his qualifying offer, look for him to be one of the last pitchers to sign this off season. Meanwhile, the Pirates may lose 40% of their rotation this off season, as both Francisco Liriano and Edison Volquez are free agents. If they lose them both, they will definitely be in the market for a starting pitcher.

Other Possibilities: Braves, Royals, Red Sox

12. Kenta Maeda – Rockies

As this offseason’s major Japanese pitcher, Maeda, 27, will get a lot of looks from teams that missed out on Tanaka last year. While his stuff is not as good as Tanaka’s is, he still may cost as much as him, as any team that wants to sign him will still have to pay $20 million posting fee to the Hiroshima Carp. A team with a weak rotation, like the Rockies, will be able to use Maeda as a top of the rotation guy.

Other Possibilities: Twins, Astros, Dodgers

13. David Robertson – Tigers

As the top reliever on the market this offseason, Robertson will be seeing a lot of offers from a bevy of teams that have a weak bullpen. One of those teams are the Detroit Tigers, who’s bullpen was 27th in the league in ERA. What may deter the Tigers from signing him is the fact that he was offered a qualifying offer by the Yankees. Robertson is one of the players who may accept his qualifying offer, but if he doesn’t, Detroit could be a major suitor for the reliever.

Other teams: Cubs, White Sox, Blue Jays

14. Brandon McCarthy – Braves

During his time in New York after the trade deadline, Brandon McCarthy had one of the bests stretches in his career, going 7-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts. This season was also McCarthy’s first season pitching 200 innings (he actually had exactly 200 between his time with the Yankees and the Diamondbacks). The Braves, who might be losing starters Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, might also be without starters Kris Medlen (who may not even be back with the Braves in ’15) and Brandon Beachy for the start of the season. Signing the veteran McCarthy will help out the young Braves rotation headed by Julio Tehran and Alex Wood.

Other Possibilities: Royals, Pirates, Yankees

15. Francisco Liriano – Royals

After nine up and down seasons in Minnesota/Chicago, Liriano signed a two year deal with the Pirates, and really turned his career around, with a 3.20 ERA over his two years in Pittsburgh. However, Liriano is another player who is hurt by the qualifying offer, as a team would have to forfeit their first round pick to sign him. Fresh off of their first AL Pennant in 29 years, the Royals will have their work cut out for them this off-season, having to replace pitcher James Shields and DH Billy Butler. While Liriano isn’t as nearly as dominant as Shields is, he could slip into the rotation behind youngsters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.

Other Possibilities: Cubs, Pirates, Braves

16. Chase Headley – Red Sox

Chase Headley quietly put together a very solid 2014 season, finishing the year with a 4.4 WAR, 7th best of all third basemen. While his offensive numbers won’t blow you away, Headley is one of the better third basemen in the league defensively. Unfortunately for Red Sox fans, protect Wil Middlebrooks isn’t progressing the way the team hoped, and it looks like it may be time for the team to move on from him. Headley could provide solid defense for the Red Sox at the hot corner, and fill a hole for the Red Sox the Middlebrooks couldn’t.

Other Possibilities: Giants, Yankees, Blue Jays

17. Andrew Miller – Cardinals

After a very good 2014 campaign with the Red Sox and the Orioles, Miller could help numerous teams in need for lefty set up man. Already this offseason, the Cardinals have been heavily connected with Miller, with a few uncertainties in their bullpen.

Other Possibilities: Brewers, Cubs, Tigers

18. Justin Masterson – Diamondbacks

To steal a line from the Tom Hanks classic Forrest Gump, “I got shot in the buttocks.” Wait, that wasn’t the line I wanted. What I meant to say was, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” Well, in this scenario, Justin Masterson is like a box of chocolates, as you don’t know what you’re going get with him. After posting good numbers in 2011 and 2013 (3.21 ERA in 216 IP in ’11 and 3.45 ERA in 193 IP in ’13), Masterson struggled in 2012 and 2014 (4.93 ERA in 12, 5.88 ERA in ’14). It’s going to be hard to say what to expect from Masterson in 2015, which is why I expect a team like the Diamondbacks, whose rotation was 27th in the MLB in ERA in 2014, to take a waiver on Masterson as a low risk-high reward candidate.

Other Possibilities – Twins, Cubs, White Sox

19. Aramis Ramirez – Brewers

Ramirez and the Brewers both accepted their ends of his mutual option. He will be a Brewer for at least one more year.

Other Possibilities: NONE

20. Colby Rasmus – Tigers

After a down year, in which Rasmus lost the starting job, the 28 year old outfielder will be looking for a starting job outside of Toronto. In order to do that, Rasmus may have to shift from Centerfield, where he’s played the majority of his career, to a corner outfield position. The Tigers, who may be losing Torii Hunter, will need to sign someone who can take the vacant right field job.

Other Possibilities: White Sox, Mets, Giants

21. Jed Lowrie – Nationals

Other Possibilities: Mets, Blue Jays, Athletics

22. Jason Hammel – White Sox

Other Possibilities: Twins, Dodgers, Cubs

23. Asdrubal Cabrera – Blue Jays

Other Possibilities: Mets, Nationals, Yankees

24. Nick Markakis – Orioles

Other Possibilities: Giants, Mets, Royals

25. Adam LaRoche – Marlins

Other Possibilities: Mariners, Orioles, White Sox

26. Jake Peavy – Padres

Other Possibilities: Giants, Cubs, Royals

27. Hiroki Kuroda – Retirement

Other Possibilities: Yankees, Dodgers

28. Michael Morse – Mets

Other Possibilities: Giants, Royals, Rangers

29. Michael Cuddyer – Rockies

Other Possibilities: Giants, Mets, Tigers

30. Alex Rios – Royals

Other Possibilities: Giants, Mariners, Twins

31. Edison Volquez – Royals

Other Possibilities: Braves, Diamondbacks, Marlins

32. Luke Gregerson – Blue Jays

Other Possibilities: White Sox, Cubs, Tigers

33. Torii Hunter – Tigers

Other Possibilities: Twins, Orioles, Retirement

34. A.J. Burnett – Brewers

Other Possibilities: Royals, Pirates, Red Sox

35. Sergio Romo – Red Sox

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, White Sox, Astros

36. Francisco Rodriguez – Brewers

Other Possibilities: Blue Jays, Red Sox, Cubs

37. Rafael Soriano – Astros

Other Possibilities: Cubs, Rockies, Diamondbacks

38. Ryan Vogelsong – Giants

Other Possibilities: Royals, Dodgers, Cubs

39. Aaron Harang – Twins

Other Possibilities: Rockies, Marlins, White Sox

40. Nori Aoki – Reds

Other Possibilities: Royals, Giants, Mets

41. Billy Butler – Indians

Other Possibilities: Royals, Orioles, White Sox

42. Stephen Drew – Athletics

Other Possibilities: Mets, Astros, Reds

43. Emilio Bonifacio – Athletics

Other Possibilities: Nationals, Blue Jays, Braves

44. Casey Janssen – Yankees

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, Indians, Brewers

45. Pat Neshek – Indians

Other Possibilities: Astros, Twins, Diamondbacks

46. Brandon Morrow – Rockies

Other Possibilities: Dodgers, White Sox, Diamondbacks

47. Jason Grilli – White Sox

Other Possibilities: Orioles, Brewers, Mets

48. Brett Anderson – Mets

Other Possibilities: Twins, Cubs, Diamondbacks

49. Josh Johnson – Padres

Other Possibilities: Twins, Rays, Astros

50. Jung-Ho Kang – Dodgers

Other Possibilities: Orioles, Nationals, Astros

2014 AL Preview

EAST

Can the Red Sox repeat their success from last year?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)

2. Boston Red Sox (90-72)

3. Toronto Blue Jays (85-77)

4. New York Yankees (82-80)

5. Baltimore Orioles (79-83)

SLEEPER TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays

All five teams in the AL East have at least a reasonable chance at contention in what shapes up to be the most competitive division in baseball.  But of the five teams, the Blue Jays seem to be getting the least amount of buzz.  Projected to challenge for the division title last year after a very active offseason, the Jays instead slumped into last place with a 74-88 record, the only sub-.500 team in the division.  And this offseason, they added only catcher Dioner Navarro to the fold, returning essentially the same roster as the one that was so disappointing a year ago.  So why will they succeed in 2014?  Because they can’t possibly be as unlucky as they were in 2013.  As this handy chart (warning: language is NSFW) compiled by Reddit user atomicbolt displays, the Jays had more freak injuries than a bus crash at a carnival last year.  Assuming the team is healthy, the talent is there.  If Jose Bautista can play more than the 105 games he has averaged over the past two seasons, he will anchor a lineup that has as much firepower as any in the American League.  The rotation is a little shakier — behind R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the team will throw two injury risks — Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow — and a 23 year old prospect, Drew Hutchinson.  But if the Jays can miraculously stay at something resembling full strength throughout the season, they could finally live up to the expectations heaped on them before the 2013 season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: New York Yankees

Last year, despite scoring 21 fewer runs than they allowed, and despite frequently starting the likes of Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart, and Lyle Overbay, the New York Yankees managed to contend until the last week of the season, finishing with a record of 85-77.  And this offseason, they bought nearly every player available on the open market, spending a total of $491 million to acquire the likes of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Masahiro Tanaka.  But despite the spending spree, the Yankees still have gaping holes in their infield — one talent evaluator called it “the worst in baseball.”  They’ve lost superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, their first baseman is coming off a major wrist injury, their best third baseman is suspended for the year, and their shortstop is 40 years old and on the doorstep of retirement.  The pitching staff has question marks as well — formerly reliable ace C.C. Sabathia is coming off his worst career season and has seen his velocity drop precipitously over the past three seasons.  The team is old everywhere (nobody in the starting lineup is under 30) , and simply doesn’t have the depth to weather the inevitable attrition that comes with the injuries of an aging team.  For the first time since the 1980s, a spending spree won’t be enough to fix what ails the New York Yankees.

WHY WILL THE RAYS WIN THE EAST?

It seems amazing that the Tampa Bay Rays could possibly be the favorites in a division that contains both the defending world champion Red Sox and the free-spending Yankees.  And yet, the Rays have compiled such an impressive amount of talent that it seems a fifth playoff appearance in seven years is not only possible, but likely.  The team’s stable of pitching depth is so impressive that the Rays could have traded away former Cy Young winner David Price in the offseason and still had one of the best rotations in the sport.  And unfortunately for the rest of the American League, they hung onto Price, who will headline a rotation that includes three other pitchers whose ERAs sat under 3.30 in 2013.  The lineup, led by Evan Longoria and James Loney at the corners, as well as Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings up the middle, is no slouch either.  They have a payroll that projects to be among the bottom five in the league, but the Rays have their best opportunity yet to prove that money isn’t everything.

CENTRAL

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73)

2. Kansas City Royals (85-77)

3. Cleveland Indians (79-83)

4. Chicago White Sox (69-93)

5. Minnesota Twins (65-97)

SLEEPER TEAM: Kansas City Royals

This may be the best shot the Royals have towards breaking the playoff drought that has lasted since their only World Series title in 1985.  They have a bona fide ace in James Shields, a superstar talent in flamethrower Yordano Ventura, and a bullpen that last year was easily the best in the American League.  Offensively, the 2013 season saw Eric Hosmer break out at age 23, posting a .302/.353/.448 slash and 3.6 bWAR, and the Royals have another breakout candidate this year in 25 year old Mike Moustakas.  Elsewhere on the diamond, the Royals finally solved their long-standing second base problem by signing the reliable Omar Infante, and made a savvy pickup in outfielder Norichika Aoki.  Of course, the Dayton Moore-led front office also made a couple missteps this offseason, handing Jason Vargas a 4 year, $32 million contract and allowing Ervin Santana to escape while simultaneously re-signing Bruce Chen.  Thus, the back of the rotation is shaky, with Vargas and Chen joining the adequate but unspectacular Jeremy Guthrie.  Their pitching will likely regress, but the Royals have a real shot to usurp the Tigers and bring the AL Central crown back to Missouri for the first time.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

After 94 losses in 2012, the Indians shocked the baseball world in 2013 with a scalding second half that enabled them to win 92 games and a wild card berth.  They did so on the backs of an emerging superstar in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, as well unlikely resurgences from  key members of their pitching staff, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.  Unfortunately for the Indians. Jimenez and Kazmir are gone, Jimenez heading to Baltimore and Kazmir to Oakland.  Gomes’ 2013, in which he hit .294/.345/.481 with 11 home runs in 88 games, might be sustainable (he hit a freakishly similar .287/.345/.484 in his 5-year minor league career), but it also might not.  And in order to accommodate Gomes, the Indians have moved the defense-challenged Santana to third base (a position he hasn’t played regularly in eight years), where he could either be a revelation or a tire fire.  The Indians have too many question marks, too many things that have to break that way. It’s impossible to feel confident predicting success for them, but don’t rule out another surprise season.BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

WHY WILL THE TIGERS WIN THE EAST?

The Tigers, even without Doug Fister, have one of the most formidable rotations in the major leagues.  Their rotation is so good that reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is the team’s number 2 starter, behind 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.  And Scherzer might not even be better than the team’s 3 starter, Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA leader.  The lineup has more holes than it has in the past (especially at shortstop), but with reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera alongside Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, the Tigers should hit enough to back up that outstanding pitching staff.

WEST

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers' fall.

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers’ fall.

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Angels (92-70)

2. Oakland Athletics (89-73)

3. Texas Rangers (84-78)

4. Seattle Mariners (74-88)

5. Houston Astors (59-103)

SLEEPER TEAM: Los Angeles Angels

It’s a little hard to call that plays in Los Angeles and has some of the most notable stars in the sport a sleeper.  But after four years without a playoff berth, and two years of disappointment in the shadow of the Albert Pujols contract, it’s difficult to find a prognosticator who’s bullish on LA’s other team.  And for good reason — the Angels struggled mightily in the first half of 2013, finishing with a 79-83 overall record.  Albert Pujols, their highest-paid player played in only 99 games, and hit a career-low .259 with just 17 home runs.  Josh Hamilton, the superstar who hit 43 home runs the year before signing a 5 year, $125 million deal with LA, hit fewer than half that in his first year of the contract, with an on-base percentage that barely cracked .300.  So why be optimistic?  Because despite the struggles of Pujols and Hamilton last year, the two are still superstar talents primed for ascension back to their career norms.  And of course, the Angels have recent $144.5 millionare Mike Trout, unquestionably the greatest talent in the game right now.  Despite having a thin pitching staff that features C.J. Wilson, Jared Weaver, and not much else, the Angels still seem likely to be buoyed by their superstars to a strong finish in 2014.

 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Texas Rangers

After the greatest five-year run in the history of the franchise, it seems the door is finally shutting on the Texas Rangers dynasty.  Last year, the team’s formerly prolific offense slid back to the middle of the pack, posting a .737 OPS, which ranked 8th in the league, and a 99 OPS+.  So the Rangers spent heavily this offseason to rectify this problem, signing free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and taking on Prince Fielder’s contract in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Choo is a solid addition, but the Fielder trade, which opened a spot on the infield for top prospect Jurrickson Profar, seems more a lateral move than a positive one — after all, Kinsler was second among Rangers’ position players with 4.5 bWAR last year.  Additionally, the pitching staff looks very thin behind Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish, who is injured and will not start Opening Day.  In his stead, the Rangers will give the Opening Day nod to Tanner Scheppers, the first player since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to make his first major league start in his team’s first game.  Behind Darvish, Scheppers and Martin Perez, the Rangers will go with Joe Saunders and Robbie Ross, neither of whom inspires confidence.  And frankly, neither do this year’s edition of the Rangers.

WHY WILL THE ANGELS WIN THE EAST?

The Angels are a team of superstars, and as previously mentioned, this might be the year that those superstars finally perform up to expectations.  Their division is weakened from previous years by injury and attrition, leaving the Angels a prime opportunity to finally reach the lofty heights owner Arte Moreno has spent heavily to reach.  Also, Mike Trout.

AL MVP: MIKE TROUT, LOS ANGELES ANGELS

AL CY YOUNG: JUSTIN VERLANDER, DETROIT TIGERS

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: YORDANO VENTURA, KANSAS CITY ROYALS

FIRST AL MANAGER FIRED: RON GARDENHIRE, MINNESOTA TWINS

AL WILD CARD GAME: RED SOX OVER ATHLETICS

AL DIVISION SERIES: RAYS OVER RED SOX, TIGERS OVER ANGELS

AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: RAYS OVER TIGERS

WORLD SERIES: RAYS OVER CARDINALS

2014 NL Preview

The long wait is over, and baseball has finally arrived. And rather than enjoy the festivities of Opening Day, every baseball fan and his or her mother will mark the occasion by attempting to predict the outcome of the 2014 season. As baseball fans, we at Serious Jammage feel obligated to do our own predictions, even though they are almost guaranteed to be wrong. Today is the NL Preview, with the AL Preview coming out tomorrow.

EAST

 

How will Doug Fister impact the Nationals?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Washington Nationals (93-69)

2. Atlanta Braves (87-75)

3. New York Mets (75-87)

4. Miami Marlins (70-92)

5. Philadelphia Phillies (69-93)

SLEEPER TEAM – Miami Marlins: 

Last year, the Marlins not only finished last in the division, but also finished last in the NL, ending the year with a 62-100 record. The 2013 Marlins suffered from an historic lack of offense, as they finished dead last in batting average, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs. In fact, the Marlins hit just 95 home runs in 2013 — two fewer than the combined totals of Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis.  However, their young rotation brimmed with talent, headlined of course by Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, whose 2.19 ERA was the lowest by a rookie since Dave Righetti in 1981.  But the rest of the rotation managed success in Fernandez’ shadow, with Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez all posting ERAs under 4. Over the offseason, the Marlins made some to improve their offense, bringing in former Boston Red Sox’ catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .273/.338/.466 with 14 home runs in 121 games last season. They took fliers on former Pirate Garrett Jones, who is coming off of a down year, as well as Rafael Furcal, who missed 2013 with injury, and Casey McGehee, who spent the year in Japan. On top of those additions, the Marlins will get full seasons from top outfield prospects Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Look for the pitching to improve as well in 2014, as probable regression from Fernandez will be mitigated by improvements from Turner, Eovaldi, and Alvarez, each of whom are no older than 24.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Philadelphia Phillies

The 2013 Phillies finished with the franchise’s worst record since 1997, and none of their moves this offseason suggest that they will be able to turn it around. Already this season, the Phillies have already lost pitcher Cole Hamels to bicep tendonitis, which will likely keep him out for at least the first month of the season.  Age is the biggest problem the Phillies face; their projected Opening Day lineup will have an average age of about 31, and their starting rotation (including Cole Hamels) will have an average age of about 33. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. (given the derisive moniker “Ruin Tomorrow Jr.” by his detractors) did nothing to make his team younger — his biggest offseason signings were Marlon Byrd (36), Carlos Ruiz (35), and A.J. Burnett (37).  With a lack of major league talent in their farm system, the Phillies may be trapped if one of those aging stars go down with an injury. The Phillies may be looking for a redux of their famous Wheeze Kids team of 1983 — that club won the pennant despite an average age over 32.  But with the talent level on this year’s team, it seems the Phillies’ dynasty has finally run out of breath.

WHY WILL THE NATIONALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

Last season, the Nationals were one of the biggest disappointment in baseball. After winning 98 games and the division in 2o12 , the Nationals slipped in 2013, winning only 86 games and finishing 4 games out of the playoffs. A lack of offense for most of the season, injuries to star players like Bryce Harper, and a lack of pitching depth restricted the Nationals from becoming they team prognosticators thought they would be. However, the Nationals greatly improved their chances this year with possibly the biggest steal of the offseason, acquiring Doug Fister from the Tigers for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. Fister will slide into the fourth spot in the Nationals rotation, behind all-stars Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, giving the Nationals arguably the best rotation in baseball. As for their offense, full seasons from Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos will help give the Nationals plenty of depth in their lineup. If the Nationals are able to stay healthy in 2014, they have the potential to be as good as any other team in baseball.

CENTRAL

 

The Pirates lack of starting pitching will keep them from repeating their 2013 playoff run.

 

PROJECTED FINISH

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

2. Cincinnati Reds (88-74)

3. Pittsburg Pirates (82-80)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (81-81)

5. Chicago Cubs (68-94)

SLEEPER TEAM – Milwaukee Brewers: 

Heading into 2014, there are a lot of questions revolving around the Brewers. How will Ryan Braun play after his PED suspension? Can Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura repeat their success from last year? Is Matt Garza finally healthy? Will Yovani Gallardo return to his 2012 form? Who would name their child Scooter? Last season, the Brewers were a middle of the pack offensive team. However, they only got half of  a season from Braun, inarguably the most talented hitter on the roster; Braun has picked up where he left off this Spring, hitting .379/.468/.690 with 2 home runs. But the Brewers success this season comes down to their starting pitching, and more specifically, Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo. Garza, who signed a 4 year, $52 million deal this offseason, is coming off back to back seasons that have been shortened by injuries. If Garza can stay healthy in 2014, then the Brewers will have a strong 1-2 punch of him and the always-consistent Kyle Lohse. But Gallardo is the true lynchpin of the team’s success.  In 2013, Gallardo posted career worsts in almost all statistical categories. He pitched the fewest innings in his career, striking out the fewest he has in a season, while still giving up the most earned runs he has ever given up in a season. The Brewers need Gallardo to return to the form he displayed from 2009-2012 — when he had a 3.64 ERA and struck out more than a batter an inning — in order for them to succeed this year. With a full season from Ryan Braun and Khris Davis, and a hopefully healthy Matt Garza, the Brewers have a chance to turn many heads this year. Plus, how can a team do poorly with this guy as their mascot?

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Pittsburgh Pirates: 

One year removed from finally making it back to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, the Pirates seem destined to find themselves sitting outside of the playoffs once again in 2014. After losing pitcher AJ Burnett to free agency, the Pirates didn’t do anything to replace them besides adding reclamation project Edison Volquez, who hasn’t had a season with an ERA under 4 since his rookie season in 2008. While a low risk/high reward signing worked out very well for the Pirates last year with Fransisco Liriano, Volquez hasn’t had the same career success as Liriano had heading into last season. And it’s impossible to be sure which Liriano the Pirates are going to get in 2014; the 2013 version who had a 3.02 ERA and a 117 ERA+, or the 2012 version, who finished the season with a 5.34 ERA, which was 4th worst among all qualified pitchers. By not re-signing AJ Burnett, the Pirates have lost the man who functioned as their staff ace over the past two seasons. If the Pirates rotation, now anchored by the mercurial Liriano and the young flamethrower Gerrit Cole, cannot hold together in 2014, it will be a long season in the Steel City.

WHY WILL THE CARDINALS WIN THE DIVISION? 

There is no team in baseball that has fewer holes on their roster than the St. Louis Cardinals. After losing to the Red Sox in the World Series, the Cardinals made two moves that help stack their lineup from top to bottom – signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta and trading David Freese to the Angels for outfielder Peter Bourjous. By making these moves, the Cardinals can now move Matt Carpenter, who had a career year in 2013, back to his natural position of third base, start top prospect Kolten Wong at second, platoon Jon Jay, who had a down year last season, with Bourjous, and replace the offense-challenged Pete Kozma with the offense-heavy Peralta. Even when the Cardinals lost Carlos Beltran in free agency, they had a viable plan to replace him, moving Allen Craig to the outfield and handing Matt Adams the starting job at first base. Not only do the Cardinals have a fantastic lineup, they also have a rotation filled with young starters — like Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and postseason hero Michael Wacha — who have been successful at the major league level, alongside one of the best pitchers in the game in Adam Wainwright. On top of that, the Cardinals have one of the best young relievers in baseball in Trevor Rosenthal, whose fastball hits triple digits with regularity. With one of the most complete teams in baseball, look for the Cardinals to win their division again.

WEST

Can the Padres return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)

2. San Diego Padres (89-63)

3. San Francisco Giants (79-83)

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (77-85)

5. Colorado Rockies (67-95)

SLEEPER TEAM: San Diego Padres

The Padres are the team with the most potential to surprise heading into 2014. Their rotation is headed by one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball in Andrew Cashner, who has had health issues in the past, but also has one of the best fastballs in baseball — Fangraphs had it as the fifith most valuable fastball in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Cliff Lee, and Max Scherzer. The Padres also have Eric Stults, who pitched more than 200 innings last year with an ERA under 4, and Tyson Ross, a 27-year old journeyman who finally found success at the big league level last year.  They have added reclamation projects Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy, both of whom have at one point been among the best pitchers in baseball, though both have struggled recently (Johnson has already been placed on the DL with a flexor strain in his right arm). Their lineup is full of players who had strong years last year, though their numbers were suppressed by their cavernous home park.  Outfielder Wil Venable and rookie second baseman Jedd Gyrko both showed that they could hit for power, hitting 22 and 23 home runs respectively. The Padres will be getting all-star shortstop Everth Cabrera back after a PED suspension cost him 50 games in 2013. And if Chase Headley can return to his 2012 form (when he finished 5th in the league in MVP balloting), the Padres will have a strong lineup in addition to an extremely deep bench, with players like Chase Hundley and Kyle Blanks being used as backups. If their pitching can hold up, and one of their reclamation projects can recover some of his former glory, the Padres will be able to compete with anybody in the NL, and will have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since ’06.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks have finished 81-81 for the past two seasons, and this year, they might not even reach that mark.  In one of the most confusing moves this offseason, the Diamondbacks gave up starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs and outfielder prospect Adam Eaton for Mark Trumbo, who will be playing left field for them. While Trumbo is known for his power at the plate, his on-base percentage dropped below .300 last year, and his defense in left is Adam Dunn/Lucas Duda bad:

Like many other team this spring training, the Diamondbacks have been bit by the injury bug, losing ace Patrick Corbin and reliver David Hernandez for the season to a torn UCL. Losing Corbin for the season will cause the Diamondbacks to use either Josh Collmenter or Randall Delgado in their rotation. While neither of those player are bad, they will not be able to fill the void that Patrick Corbin left. Even with the signing of Bronson Arroyo, the Diamondbacks will finish the season on the bad side of 81 wins.

WHY WILL THE DODGERS WIN THE DIVISION?

When you beat out the Yankees for the biggest payroll in baseball ($235 million, almost $30 million more than New York), you’re likely to be pretty good. The Dodgers have superstars at almost every position: Hanley Ramirez at short, Adrian Gonzalez at first, Yasiel Puig in right, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke in their rotation. Like the Cardinals, this team has very few holes. This offseason, the Dodgers did a good job fortifying their bullpen by re-signing Brian Wilson to a one year deal and signing former Indians closer Chris Perez. Their closer, Kenley Jansen, was a good as any other closer last season, compiling a 1.88 ERA and 28 saves. Outside of second base (where the team neglected to sign Mark Ellis, instead opting to replace him with untested Cuban import Alexander Guerrero, the Dodgers lineup projects to be a nightmare for opposing teams. And their rotation, with reigning Cy Young winner Kershaw alongside Greinke and Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, seems likely to be one of the best in baseball. The Dodgers are not only the best team in the West; they might be the best team in baseball.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

NL CY YOUNG: Jose Fernandez. Miami Marlins

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

FIRST NL MANAGER FIRED: Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

NL WILD CARD GAME: Reds over Padres

NL DIVISION SERIES: Cardinals over Reds, Nationals over Dodgers

NL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: Cardinals over Nationals

STAY TUNED FOR THE AL PREVIEW, COMING OUT TOMORROW.