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.

You Don’t Know Chone: The Sleeper Pick to Win the Dodgers’ 2nd Base Battle

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There may be a familiar face in Southern California baseball this spring. Chone Figgins received a minor league deal with a spring training invitation with the Dodgers. He played for the Angels from 2002-2009. Figgins had a disastrous three year stint in Seattle and was cut by the Marlins (!) prior to the start of the 2013 season. He took 2013 off and is itching to get back into baseball in sunny SoCal, the site of his last successful MLB season. In his last year with the Angles, he stole 42 bases and earned a trip to the All-Star game. Five years later, after being nearly out of baseball, he is competing for the Dodgers open 2nd base job. Chone Figgins’ last chance at a comeback seems to be feasible with the cast of characters he is competing with this March. Don Mattingly has said that 2nd base is “up in the air”.

Over the offseason, GM Ned Colletti expanded his spending to Cuba to fill his 2nd base hole, signing 27 year old Alex Guerrero to a four year, 28 million dollar deal. Yet, Guerrero had looked shaky so far this spring and there has been talk he may spend the beginning of the season in Albuquerque. A former shortstop, the transition to second base has not been an easy one. With Dodgers being the favorite in the NL West as well as a serious contender for the World Series crown, the Dodgers brass may not be willing to deal with Guerrero’s rough transition at the major league level. Guerrero could very well start the year in Triple-A and could look to contribute as the season goes on.

Two more veteran options include former Mets 2nd baseman Justin Turner and journeyman Brendan Harris. The Dodgers are Harris’ eleventh organization and chances are, he will be looking for a twelfth by the end of March. Justin Turner was a fan favorite in Queens who is a .260 career hitter. Neither Harris nor Turner offer the speed that Figgins or our next candidate bring.

Dee Gordon was once a top prospect in the Dodgers organization. A potential candidate to win the stolen base crown multiple times. Yet, Tom Gordon’s son never put it together at the plate, struggling to clear .240. The Dodgers have essentially given up on him as their future shortstop and the presence of Hanley Ramirez makes that decision easier. Yet, Gordon speed still makes him an attractive option at 2nd.

Now back to Figgins. Figgins possesses all the things Mattingly may be looking for in his short term 2nd baseman. He is a seasoned veteran who has speed and a bat that can be serviceable this season. Of course the days of him stealing 40-plus bases (let alone his career high of 62) and hitting over .290 may be over. Yet it is not out of question he could hit .270 and steal 20 bases. That would be considered a successful season at this point in his career and could be wishful thinking. If Figgins can prove he can still play this spring, he will offer an intriguing veteran safety blanket for Don Mattingly come opening day.

Chone Figgins is hoping the Southern California weather can help him recapture his All-Star production from five years ago. If he receives a chance, Figgins hopes to help the other LA team reach the Fall Classic.

Masa-where-o? Handicapping the Tanaka Sweepstakes

tanaka 2Over the last several weeks, the hustle and bustle of baseball’s offseason has come to a screeching halt. We’ve reached January 21st, more than two-thirds through the offseason, and yet still, the top free agent starting pitchers remain without a team. The market waits with baited breath for the decision of one 25-year old right handed starter, Masahiro Tanaka. Despite having never pitched in the big leagues, Tanaka is considered far and away the best pitching option available.  In Japan, he was beyond dominant.  Over the past three years spanning more than 600 innings, his ERA was 1.44, averaging 7.6 strikeouts for every walk.  His 25 consecutive wins between 2012 and 2013 eclipsed a professional baseball record set by Carl Hubbell in 1937.  Tanaka seems to be the complete package, beloved by both stats and scouts.  His fastball can hit 95 miles per hour, and he has multiple sharp breaking pitches, including a wipeout slider and a diving splitter.  And with the weak crop of domestic free agent starters, Tanaka has become easily the biggest chip available.

Every part of the Tanaka pursuit has been shrouded in intrigue.  First, there was the question over whether he would be posted and allowed to transfer to the United States at all.  The posting system between the NPB and MLB underwent a massive overhaul this year, one beneficial for Japanese players but not Japanese teams.  Previously, teams would bid in a silent auction for the right to negotiate exclusively with the posted player, with the posting fee going to the NPB team; the highest ever bid, for the right to negotiate with Yu Darvish, exceeded $50 million.  But under the new system, the posting fee is limited to $20 million.  And every team willing to pay that fee is allowed to negotiate with the posted player, with the player allowed to decide which team he wishes to play for.  For a player in high demand, like Tanaka, this essentially amounts to free agency.

After giving it much thought, the Rakuten Golden Eagles decided to post Tanaka on December 26th, giving him thirty days to make a final decision.  Well, that thirty days is almost up — Masahiro Tanaka must make a decision by January 24th, this Friday.  And with Tanakamania in the stretch run, we’ve decided to handicap the race for the star’s services.

Odds provided by the online sports betting service Bovada

New York Yankees — 3/2 odds

The Yankees desperately need a starting pitcher.  Their ace right now is a 33-year old with diminishing velocity and declining statistics.  Their most effective pitcher last year turns 39 in three weeks, and posted a 5.40 ERA the last two months of the season.  And the back end of their rotation currently relies on David Phelps (4.98 ERA last year) and Michael Pineda, who has missed the last two years with a shoulder injury.  Of course, these are the newly frugal Yankees, who have a very strict $189 million budget to maintain.  But luckily, they’ve been handed a rebate by Commissioner Bud, good for one Alex Rodriguez or anything of equal or lesser value (the merits of this decision, and the concerns about it, have been detailed by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron here).  At any rate, the Yankees once again have money to spend, and there is no better player for them to spend it on than Tanaka.

Los Angeles Dodgers — 11/4 odds

The Dodgers have plenty of pitching.  They recently locked up the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, for the forseeable future, and he didn’t come cheap.  Between Kershaw, Korean southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, they’ve already got one of the best front threes in the sport.  And they have already added another starter, Dan Haren, to a 1 year, $10 million deal.  So why would the Dodgers pursue Tanaka?  Simply, because they can.  The Dodgers seemingly lack a payroll limit; they have a record television contract leading to record revenues, and an ownership group willing to spend those extra revenues on payroll.  Tanaka is the best pitcher on the market, and the Dodgers would be made better by signing him.  For a team with little to no payroll concerns, that’s reason enough.

Seattle Mariners — 5/1 odds

Ever since the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to that 10 year, $240 million contract, the baseball world has been waiting for the other shoe to drop in the Pacific Northwest.  Even with Cano in the fold, the Mariners remain far short of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels in terms of talent.  Without several other big moves, the Mariners cannot and will not contend for the postseason, making the Cano signing seem nonsensical.  While the Mariners’ rotation has two stalwarts in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, plus some very talented young arms in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, the team could use another high-caliber arm.  And unlike trading for David Price (which the Mariners have discussed), signing Tanaka would cost only money.  Of course, with the Mariners front office in disarray, we can’t be sure if they would be willing to spend the money to make Tanaka a Mariner.

Chicago Cubs — 7/1 odds

According to the most recent reports, the Cubs have made a heavy push to bring Tanaka to the North Side.  On the surface, the Cubs’ infatuation with Tanaka makes little sense.  The team lost 96 games last year, and in the highly competitive NL Central, they are likely years away from contending.  General Manager Theo Epstein admitted as much last Friday:

We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes: We’re a last-place team.

So why does a last-place team want the best starting pitcher on the market?  Because he’s young.  Tanaka, at age 25, is likely to not only be good, but still be in the prime of his career when the Cubs finally reach the stage where they can contend.  Tanaka, if he lives up to the hype surrounding him, is the type of player a franchise can build around; a cornerstone upon which talent can be place to create a championship ballclub.  The problem for the Cubs is that it will be awfully hard to convince Tanaka to sign with a club that admits it is going nowhere in 2014, especially when he is pursued by so many other, contending teams.

Boston Red Sox — 10/1 odds

Unlike the Cubs, the World Series-winning Red Sox are likely to be a highly desirable destination for Tanaka, although we can’t be sure exactly where his priorities lie.  And the Red Sox do have a need in their rotation, which was above-average but hardly excellent last year.  But the Red Sox had success last year by eschewing mammoth free agent contracts in favor of adding several players on mid-level contracts.  They seem unlikely to pursue Tanaka; instead, look for them to add more reasonably-priced starters, such as Bronson Arroyo or A.J. Burnett, after Tanaka signs.

Serious Jammage’s 100% Guaranteed Correct* Prediction

*not actually guaranteed correct

There are still other teams that are involved in the Tanaka bidding process — the White Sox, Diamondbacks, and even Astros have all shown interest, with the Diamondbacks even supposedly making a serious offer.  But I’m playing it safe and saying come Friday, Masahiro Tanaka will be donning the pinstripes.  I say Yankees, on a 7 year, $135 million deal.  Unless the Dodgers decide to give him a 10 year deal and his own private island, just for the hell of it.

The Comparatively Quiet Offseason of the Los Angeles Dodgers

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We’re only halfway through, but thus far, the 2013-14 MLB offseason has hardly been bereft of excitement. Free agents have landed in unexpected places for dollar figures that would’ve seen obscene even five years ago. The Prince Fielder trade has made the baseball world question the meaning of the word, “untradeable.” Teams have entirely reshaped themselves, with some teams making marked improvement, and others seemingly regressing.

But in this outrageous year, one team has proven surprisingly restrained — the Los Angeles Dodgers. After the team was acquired by the Guggenheim Partners in 2012, it seemed there was no move they wouldn’t be able to make. Money was no object, with a wealthy ownership group and a television contract due to pay out nearly $300 million a year. They seemed willing to take on any cost to improve the team. In the famous Nick Punto deal, the Dodgers took on the GDP of a small island nation, trading for $150 million in sunk cost just to take on the $154 million contract of the player they really wanted. They gave extensions to players they didn’t really need. They added the best starting pitcher on the market and signed international players to record-setting contracts. Through their mere presence, they charted the course of the offseason.

This year, their role one the market has been greatly diminished. This isn’t to say they haven’t improved; in fact, they’ve added several useful pieces. But they have seemed uninterested in the major free agents — the Robinson Canos and Jacoby Ellsburys of the world. So why is it that a team that was so active a year ago is willing to take a backseat this offseason?

The answer is simple — they’ve already put the best (or at least most expensive) team on the field that money can buy. At first base, they have Adrian Gonzalez, and his previously-mentioned $154 million contract. At second, they have replace Mark Ellis with 27-year old Cuban expat Alexander Guerrero, signing him to a 4 year, $28 million deal. At short, they’ve got Hanley Ramirez, in the last year of a 6 year, $70 million deal. Ramirez is now 30 years old and has a history of injury, but when healthy, is as good offensively as any shortstop in the league — none of the available free agents would have been an improvement.

At third, the Dodgers had a hole, as the incumbent, Juan Uribe, was due to become a free agent. But after Uribe, the best options on the free agent market were the likes of Kelly Johnson and Kevin Youkilis; their best move was to re-sign the mercurial Uribe to a 2 year, $15.5 million deal.

And in the outfield, the Dodgers already have four players — Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Yasiel Puig. Even with all the money in the world, the Dodgers cannot change the rules of baseball. They cannot play all the outfielders they currently have, much less sign another high-priced outfield target.

Where the team has holes, they’ve spent. They have added pieces to their bullpen, bringing in Chris Perez and Jamey Wright while re-signing Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell. They had room at the back end of their rotation, so they brought in Dan Haren on a low-risk, one-year deal. And who knows, they might still make a splash — they are rumored to be the leading candidate in the Masahiro Tanaka bidding, even if they claim to be disinterested. But keep in mind that this team won 92 last year and made the NLCS. There’s no need for the Dodgers to set the baseball world on fire — even if they can.