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Warm Furnace: Top 50 Free Agent Predictions 2014-2015

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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

Best Case/Worst Case: 2014 Washington Nationals Season Preview

The 2014 baseball season is finally upon us, and while everyone likes to take their best stab at making predictions, thankfully, no one has any idea how it’s going to turn out — if we did, there’d be no point in watching.  With that in mind, we’ve decided that rather than make predictions, we’d rather just talk about the two extremes in a way a season can turn out — the best case and worst case scenarios.  Below is a reasonable best case scenario for each Nationals’ player, alongside a reasonable worst case scenario.  And we couldn’t help but make a few predictions, wrong though we know they’ll be — you’ll find those at the bottom of the page.

PITCHERS

Aaron Barrett

Best Case: Barrett builds off his remarkable spring, in which he pitched 10.2 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts, by putting together a very strong rookie campaign.  After striking out more than 12 batters per nine at AA Harrisburg last year, Barrett fans more than a batter an inning at the big league level.  He throws more than 60 innings with an ERA under 3.00, solidifying the sixth inning, and gives the club confidence that he can be used as a set-up man or even a closer in the future.

Worst Case: Barrett’s diving slider, the reason for his success in the minors, doesn’t fool big league hitters, causing his strikeout rate to drop and his walk rate to rise.  After giving up runs in his first couple outings, Barrett sits collecting dust at the back of the bullpen, and gets sent down to Syracuse by the middle of May.

Jerry Blevins

Best Case: Blevins does exactly what he was sent to Washington to do — get lefties out.  He holds left-handed batters to a .220/.270/.350 batting line (just better than his career averages).  But he also has success against right-handers, becoming a reliable southpaw set-up man in the mold of Sean Burnett in 2012.

Worst Case: In 2013, Blevins had a surprising reverse platoon split, allowing a .741 OPS to lefties against a .581 OPS to righties.  The trend continues, as while Blevins still manages to be an effective reliever, he cannot seem to put away left-handed hitting.  The Nationals still struggle to match up against the tough lefties in their division, like Chase Utley and Freddie Freeman.

Tyler Clippard

Best Case: Clippard continues his six-year run as one of the most successful relief pitchers in the major leagues, throwing 75 innings, striking out 10 batters per nine, and ending up with an ERA around 2.00.

Worst Case: Over the past five years, Clippard has thrown more relief innings than any pitcher in baseball, and the heavy workload finally catches up to him.  His strikeout rate, which dropped from 10.4 batters per nine in 2012 to 9.3 in 2013, continues to fall.  Clippard had a career low and league low .170 batting average on balls in play last year — that rises, drastically curtailing Clippard’s success.  And for the first time in his career, Tyler Clippard spends time on the Disabled List.

A.J. Cole

Best Case: Cole dominated in a 45 inning stint at AA Harrisburg, posting a 2.19 ERA, a WHIP under one and a 9.7 K/9 ratio.  His second stint at the level is so successful that after another 45 innings, he forces his way to AAA Syracuse.  He dominates there as well, and by September, the 22-year old has earned a call-up to the majors.

Worst Case: Cole spends the entire year at Harrisburg, posting an ERA in the mid-fours and only a league-average strikeout rate.  He never seems to master the level in his season in the Eastern League, and is forced to begin 2015 right back at Harrisburg.

Ross Detwiler

Best Case: Detwiler adjusts well to his new role in the bullpen, and gives the Nationals a unique weapon — a left-hander who not only can throw in the mid-nineties, but who can be used as both a long reliever and a situational reliever.  His strikeout rate, which stands at 5.4 K/9 for his big league career, nearly doubles out of the bullpen this year.

Worst Case: Detwiler struggles to make the adjustment from pitching every fifth day to pitching out of the bullpen.  He is not the dominant reliever the Nationals envisioned, as his strikeout rate fails to improve, and his lack of an effective off-speed pitch still haunts him, even when pitching an inning at a time.

Doug Fister

Best Case: Fister returns from the disabled list in mid-April, and he becomes everything the Nationals envisioned when they made the blockbuster trade to acquire him.  The 6’8″ righty still manages to throw 200+ innings, and buoyed by a defense much more agile than the one he pitched in front of in Detroit, nearly equals a career low 2.83 ERA.  He proves to be the best fourth starter in baseball, manages to win 18 games, and even receives a couple votes in the Cy Young balloting.

Worst Case: The lat issue proves more serious than Fister and the Nationals had hoped, and while Fister rushes back from the injury, he never fully recovers.  He never seems healthy, and is ineffective when on the mound.  The lat issue forces Fister to change his mechanics, leading to arm soreness, which causes the Nationals to shut him down in the middle of August.  Meanwhile, Robbie Ray ascends rapidly through the Tigers’ minor league system, earning a September call-up, and Steve Lombardozzi hits .298/.369/.411 (his minor-league averages) in 400 plate appearances with the Orioles.

Lucas Giolito

Best Case: Giolito is simply spectacular.  He starts the season at low-A Hagerstown, but manages to finish the season at AA Harrisburg after dominating both the South Atlantic League and the Carolina League.  His 2014 performance earns him both a place in Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects list and an invite to major league Spring Training in 2015.  A major league debut before his 21st birthday (which will be on July 14th, 2015) becomes a distinct possibility.

Worst Case: The only true worst-case scenario for Giolito would be a recurrence of the elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2012. If Giolito stays healthy for a full season, the Nationals will surely count the season as a success.

Gio Gonzalez

Best Case: Gonzalez’s 2012 season was easily the best by a starting pitcher in the short history of the Washington Nationals — 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA in 199 innings, leading to a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young balloting.  While his performance regressed in his second year with the club, the peripheral numbers stayed largely constant — his walk rate stabilized, while his strikeout rate dropped only slightly (the biggest change was a spike in his home run rate, which nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013).  The best case scenario for Gonzalez would be a reprise of that 2012 season.

Worst Case: Gonzalez’s walk rate, which has sat around 3.5 BB/9 for the past two years, ticks up to around 4 per nine in 2014.  He regresses somewhat, posting an ERA somewhere in the mid-threes — still valuable, but not dominant by any stretch of the imagination.

Taylor Jordan

Best Case: Jordan firmly entrenches himself in the Nationals’ rotation with a powerhouse sophomore season.  His pinpoint control keeps the free passes to a minimum, while the slider that has so impressed scouts enable him to put away big league hitters.  His ERA hovers around 3.00, and alongside Fister, he gives the Nationals one of the most impressive 4-5 pitching duos in the league.

Worst Case: Before his stellar 2013 campaign, Jordan simply hadn’t been very good in his professional career — in 2012, he had posted a 5.13 ERA as a 23 year old splitting time between short-season A Auburn and low-A Hagerstown.  Jordan cannot seem to repeat his 2013 success, as he is hit hard in four big league starts, then gets sent back to AAA Syracuse, where he continues to struggle.

Tanner Roark

Best Case: Roark seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the major leagues in 2013, posting a minuscule 1.51 ERA in 53.2 innings.  While that performance is clearly unsustainable (he gave up only one home run in that time, with a home run/fly ball rate that would have been the lowest in the major leagues had he qualified), he continues to succeed thanks to his low walk rate and high ground ball rate.  At age 27, Roark becomes a reliable major league starter, and a part of the Nationals’ future.

Worst Case: Roark’s 2013 turns out to be a fluke — once his home run rate and BABIP normalize, his ERA skyrockets, and Roark quickly finds himself falling out of favor with the Nationals’ brass.  When Doug Fister returns, it is Jordan, not Roark, who gets to keep his starting spot, with Roark heading back to Syracuse for a third straight season.

Rafael Soriano

Best Case: Soriano, who spent the offseason working on his slider, finds renewed effectiveness with his breaking pitch.  While the fastball is no longer what it was three years ago, Soriano can still use the pitch effectively thanks to the improvement in his off-speed.  He posts another 40 save season, and makes the Nationals give serious thought to exercising his club option for 2015.

Worst Case: Last year, Soriano posted the lowest strikeout rate since his rookie season, and with his fastball velocity declining steadily (down almost a mile and a half from two years ago), that does not figure to improve.  No longer armed with that blazing fastball, Soriano struggles to put away both hitters and games — each of his save opportunities are nail-biting marathon innings.  He loses the closer’s job in June, leaving the Nationals $28 million investment in him looking foolish.

Craig Stammen

Best Case: After a poor (at least by his standards) first half of the 2013 season, Stammen returned to dominance in the second half, holding the opposition to a .228 batting average and posting a 1.41 ERA from the All Star Break on.  Stammen picks up right where he left off the year before, striking out more than a batter an inning and using his heavy sinker to get weak contact when batters do connect (his ground ball rate was around 60% last year, the highest of his career).

Worst Case: Stammen, like Clippard, has been used heavily over the past two years, and the cumulative toll of back-to-back 80 relief inning seasons takes its toll.

Drew Storen

Best Case: Storen is the pitcher who returned from minor league assignment and allowed only 3 runs in 19.1 innings; he finally manages to erase the doubts about him that have lingered since Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

Worst Case: Storen is closer to the pitcher he was before that minor league assignment, when his ERA sat at 5.95 and he allowed opposing hitters to hit .295/.346/.486.  He is once again demoted to the minor leagues, and leaves tremendous doubt that he will be ever become the closer of the future he had been touted as.

Stephen Strasburg

Best Case: Strasburg finally has the breakout year that has been predicted of him since he was at San Diego State.  He strikes out 11 batters per nine, has an ERA under 2.5, and most importantly, cracks the 200 inning mark for the first time in his career.  He wins the first Cy Young Award of his career.

Worst Case: It seems the worst case scenario for Strasburg in 2014 (aside from a major injury) is a repeat of his 2013.  He misses time thanks to some minor injuries, and his numbers, while strong, are be no means transcendent.  The league is left wondering whether Strasburg will ever become the player he was expected to be.

Jordan Zimmermann

Best Case: Over the past three years, Zimmermann has posted a 2.58 ERA in the first half of the season; if extended over a full season, that would rank second in baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw.  Zimmermann finally manages to find the same success in the second half as he has in the first, and he ends up as one of the top five pitchers in the National League.

Worst Case: Zimmermann is effective but hardly dominant in the first half of the season, and once again fades in the second half (his second-half ERA over the past three years is 4.33).  He goes another 200 innings this year, but with his ERA in the mid-threes, is more of an innings-eater than an ace.

HITTERS

Wilson Ramos

Best Case: Ramos manages to stay healthy, playing in over 120 games for the first time in his career. He also keeps on playing like he did from his return from the Disabled List on July 4th last season, when he hit .276 with 14 home runs and 53 RBIs in 62 games.

Worst Case: While running down the first base line, Wilson Ramos re-tears his hamstring, causing him to miss 60 games. He never really gets healthy, and his power numbers suffer because of it.

Jose Lobaton

Best Case: After Wilson Ramos goes down with an injury, Lobaton steps in and starts 80 games for the Nationals. Lobaton improves on his last season, hitting around .260-.265 with 10 home runs.

Worst Case: Wilson Ramos stays healthy throughout the year, giving Lobaton only 20-30 starts. The lack of playing time hurts Lobaton’s rhythm, causing him to hit below .200 as the back up.

Kevin Frandsen

Best Case: Frandsen returns to his 2012 form, hitting over .270 off the bench, with power. His success causes the Nationals to platoon him with Adam LaRoche at first base, starting Frandsen in games against tough lefties.

Worst Case: Frandsen hits under .220, and fails to replicate the pinch-hitting success he had last year. He is cut by the Nationals mid-June in favor of Tyler Moore.

Adam LaRoche

Best Case: Adam LaRoche shows that 2013 was a fluke, and while he can’t to replicate his incredible 2012 season, his batting average and slugging percentage return to their career norms. He also manages a .244/.300/.439 against left-handed pitching (his career averages), meaning he plays his way out of a platoon.

Worst Case: Age continues to take its toll on the 34 year old first baseman, and LaRoche’s numbers continue to decline. The Nationals have to remove him from the lineup against tough lefties. LaRoche’s struggles cause the Nationals to decline his option, leaving them without a solution at first base heading into 2015.

Danny Espinosa

Best Case: Anthony Rendon struggles out of the gate, causing the Nationals to start Espinosa more often. In the starting role,  Espinosa finally is able to hit consistantly from both sides of the plate and by midseason, Espinosa regains the role of starting second baseman. Espinosa cuts down on his strikeouts, while his power swing returns, and he hits 20 home runs for the second time in his career.

Worst Case: Espinosa’s 2013 was the worst possible scenario for him — he hit below the Mendoza Line, dealt with wrist injuries, and lost his starting job to Anthony Rendon, perhaps for good.  In 2014, the offensive struggles continue, and though his defense still draws rave reviews, the Nationals cannot continue to put his bat in the lineup.  They once again demote him to AAA, then end up trading him to the Astros.

Anthony Rendon

Best Case: Rendon improves on his strong rookie year; he raises his average over the .280 mark, and is finally able to find his power swing at the major league level, hitting 20+ home runs. He also gets more comfortable at second base in his second year, cutting his errors in half.

Worse Case: Rendon’s injury problems that let him slip to the 6th pick in the 2011 draft return, as Rendon has troubles staying on the field throughout the season. While Rendon is off the field, Espinosa takes over at second, and shows the Nationals why he should have been the starting second baseman all along. When Rendon finally gets healthy, he finds himself sitting on the bench behind Espinosa.

Ryan Zimmerman

Best Case: Zimmerman manages to stay fully healthy, avoiding the DL for the entire season for the first time since 2010. He comes out of the gate showing the power that he flashed last September, hitting 18 home runs by the All Star break. His throwing woes gone, he also improves defensively, allowing the Nationals to keep him at his natural position of third base for the forseeable future.

Worst Case: Zimmerman still cannot seem to shake the throwing problems that have dogged him for the past three years, committing a league-leading 18 throwing errors.  Worse yet, Zimmerman, a very streaky hitter, never seems to get truly hot, and finishes with an OPS under .800.  He ends up playing the majority of September at first base.

Ian Desmond

Best Case: Desmond builds on his recent success; he hits 28 home runs and steals 25 bases, becoming a member of the 20-20 club for the third straight season. He is able to stay on the field for the entire season, playing in more than 150 games. His success leads to his second all-star performance and his third silver slugger.

Worst Case: Desmond’s performance dipped in most major offensive categories from 2012 to 2013, and it continues to dip in 2014.  He plays in 145 games and hits .270/.310/.420 — good numbers for a shortstop, but hardly all-star caliber.  He begins to regret not signing the 7 year, $90 million deal the Nationals placed in front of him in the offseason.

Zach Walters

Best Case: Walters works on his defense in the minors, and thanks to Danny Espinosa’s struggles, finds himself in the majors by June.  Shifted into the utility infielder role, Walters shines, hitting 10 home runs in 250 at-bats.  He establishes himself as a talent worthy of a starting job in the major leagues.

Worst Case: Both Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon put together solid seasons, leaving no room for Walters in Washington until September.

Scott Hariston

Best Case: Hariston does what he was brought to D.C. to do; kill lefty pitchers off the bench. He slugs .500 against left-handed pitching (in line with his career average), getting some key hits off the bench, and even earns himself a couple of spot starts a week.

Worst Case: Hariston hits .177 in the first two months of the season, and it seems like the end of the road for the 11-year MLB veteran. Because of his struggles, the Nationals decide to cut ties with Hariston, releasing him mid-June.

Bryce Harper

Best Case: Bryce Harper proves that when he is healthy, he is the best player on the planet. He hits over .300 for the majority of the season, and finishes the season with over 40 home runs. His great season doesn’t just earn him an all-star game start and a silver slugger award, but it also wins him the NL MVP.

Worst Case: Held back by injuries and his struggles against lefties, Harper fails to make the jump from stardom to superstardom.  He plays in 120 games and hits .280 with 25 home runs — fantastic numbers for any other 21 year old, but they fail to live up to the lofty expectations the media has for Harper, and Harper has for himself.

Nate McLouth

Base Case: McLouth sees significant playing time, and makes the most of that playing time, hitting .260 with 10 home runs and ranking among the team leaders in stolen bases.

Worse Case: McLouth only sees the field as a pinch hitter, and doesn’t get much time in the field.  He regresses to something resembling the form he displayed in 2011 (when he hit .228/.344/.333), and the Nationals regret being stuck with him for the 2015 season.

Tyler Moore

Best Case: In the minors, Moore is able to find his groove, hitting over .300 with 15 home runs in the first two months of the season. After Hariston is released, Moore is called up to replace him on the bench.

Worse Case: Moore struggles in the minors, causing him to stay there until September.  The organization accepts that Moore is not a part of their long term plans, and looks outside the organization for Adam LaRoche’s replacement.

Denard Span

Best Case: Span is able to recreate his September performance (when he hit .316/.352/.412 in the teams last 29 games) over a full season. Under new manager Matt Williams’ tutelage, Span finally learns to be aggressive on the basepaths, swiping 40 bags for the first time in his career. He continues his impeccable play in center field, earning him his first career Gold Glove.

Worse Case: Span plays like he did for the majority of last season, forcing Matt Williams to move him to the eighth hole in the lineup. Because he can’t get on base, he can’t steal bases, ending up with only 15 on the season. Span’s platoon problems (he had a .539 OPS against lefties last year) continue, and by August, he no longer starts against left-handed pitching.

Jayson Werth

Best Case: Werth proves that 2013 was no fluke, hitting .310 with 26 home runs. Werth manages to stay healthy, playing in over 140 games for the first time since 2011.  On top of that, Werth makes the all-star team for only the second time in his career, and finishes top-20 in MVP vote for the fourth time.

Worse Case: Werth’s injuries continue, as a now 35 year old Werth plays in fewer than 130 games for the third straight year. He also returns from the spectacular heights of 2013 to his career averages, and hits a respectable-but-unspectacular .265/.355/.440 in the 2014 season. His 2014 play reignites the debate over the $126 million contract the Nationals gave him in 2011.

14 QUESTIONS for 2014

Who leads the team in wins? With how many?

Jacob Rasch: Stephen Strasburg, 19

Jonny Rasch: Gio Gonzalez, 18

Who are the Nationals’ All Star Representatives?

Jacob Rasch: Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper

Jonny Rasch: Gio Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg

Who leads the team in saves?  With how many?

Jacob Rasch: Rafael Soriano, 22 (replaced mid-season)

Jonny Rasch: Tyler Clippard, 15

When does Doug Fister return?

Jacob Rasch: April 26th vs. Padres

Jonny Rasch: April 30th @ Astros

Who will lead the team in Batting Average?

Jacob Rasch: Anthony Rendon, .308

Jonny Rasch: Jayson Werth, .314

How many games does Ryan Zimmerman play at first?

Jacob Rasch: 5 games

Jonny Rasch: 0 games

How many games does Wilson Ramos play at catcher?

Jacob Rasch: 110 games

Jonny Rasch: 125 games

Who will start more games at the end of the season: Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark, or Ross Detwiler?

Jacob Rasch: Tanner Roark

Jonny Rasch: Taylor Jordan

How many innings does Stephen Strasburg throw?

Jacob Rasch: 210 innings

Jonny Rasch: 214.2 innings exactly

Where does Stephen Strasburg place in the Cy Young race?

Jacob Rasch: 3rd

Jonny Rasch: 5th

How many home runs does Bryce Harper hit? Does he lead the team?

Jacob Rasch: 36 home runs, yes

Jonny Rasch: 42 home runs, yes

Where does Bryce Harper place in the MVP?

Jacob Rasch: 5th

Jonny Rasch: 1st

How many games do the Nationals win?

Jacob Rasch: 93 games

Jonny Rasch: 95 games

When does the Nationals’ season end?

Jacob Rasch: NLCS in St. Louis

Jonny Rasch: World Series loss to Rays

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.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Final Spring Training Game (Nats vs. Mets)

If this doesn’t get you excited, then I don’t know what will — the Nationals wrapped up their Spring Training schedule today against the Mets, and will soon be boarding a plane and heading back to Nationals Park.  It’s been a long offseason, but baseball is finally upon us once again.  As far as Spring Training contests go, today’s game was about as compelling as the rest; the Nationals were backed by quality pitching, took an early lead, and added on once the regulars were out of the game.  Here now, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from the final contest in Florida, a 4-0 Nationals victory.

THE GOOD

Jordan Zimmermann was dominant all spring long, and today’s start was no exception.  In five innings, Zimmermann made 71 pitches, struck out 3, allowed 4 hits, walked none, and did not allow a run.  In the first inning, he got into a jam, putting runners on second and third with one out. However, he escaped the jam by striking out Curtis Granderson with the help of a slider that Stephen Strasburg would do well to take notes on:

zimmermann slider granderson

Coming to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the second, Zimmermann even helped his cause by legging out an RBI infield single.  His final line for the spring: 18 innings pitched, 11 hit, 1 earned run, 1 walk, and 15 strikeouts.  He’ll make his first start of the regular season against these Mets a week from today.

– Plenty of Nats bats finished Spring Training in fine fashion.  Denard Span went 3-5 with a run scored, raising his average for the spring to a remarkable .370.  Bryce Harper went 2-4 with two singles, including this lined shot for an RBI, which flew over pitcher Jeurys Familia’s head at 107 MPH (according to the notoriously unreliable stadium gun):

harper linerDanny Espinosa went 2-3 with a double and a walk, while Kevin Frandsen lined a double to left in his Nationals’ debut.

– Three players who figure to be key members of the Nationals’ bullpen — Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storen — all closed their springs on a positive note.  Each allowed a hit in a scoreless inning, but combined for five strikeouts on the day, including two apiece by Clippard and Soriano.  Soriano was put in a jam thanks to an error by Anthony Rendon, but escaped by striking out Granderson looking on a slider.

Jerry Blevins was even more dominant, allowing just an infield single while striking out the side to close out the Grapefruit League season.  For the spring, Blevins gave up only three hits and a run in 9.1 innings, with 11 strikeouts to 3 walks.

THE BAD

– Harper may have been good with the bat today, but he struggled on the basepaths in the sixth inning. Against Mets’ lefthander Scott Rice, Harper rocketed a line drive to the wall in left, but jogged out of the box and was held to a single.  Then, Harper went first move on Rice, but Rice threw over, and Harper was thrown out.

THE UGLY

– Anthony Rendon left five on base in the game, going 0-5 and dropping his spring batting average from an impressive .325 to a still-healthy .289.

The Nationals finish up Grapefruit League play with a 15-13 record (not that it really matters).  They head back to Nationals Park on Saturday for one exhibition game against the Tigers; Tanner Roark will get the start, while Taylor Jordan will enter in relief.  Then, it’s off to Citi Field for Opeining Day against Dillon Gee and the Mets; the game starts at 1:10 PM.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Nats vs. Cardinals, 3/26/14 (Spring Training)

Seeing as there are no real stakes and the games are essentially meaningless, spring-training contests are generally pretty uneventful. Most veteran players go about their business, doing so without the passion that comes when the games that matter begin. But in today’s Spring Training game between the Nationals and Cardinals, the second-to-last on the Grapefruit League docket for the Nats, we got a little action, courtesy of the always passionate Bryce Harper. Here now is the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Nationals’ 3-2 loss.

THE GOOD

Gio Gonzalez’s final spring outing of 2014 was solid if unspectacular; he struck out four in five innings of work, allowing seven hits and three runs (just one of them earned). Gonzalez was victimized by some poor defense behind him, including a passed ball and a botched double play, but also struggled to put innings away, allowing two two-out RBI singles to Yadier Molina. Gonzalez finishes with a 2.94 ERA in 18.1 spring innings; he made 81 pitches in today’s game, setting himself up nicely for his first start of the regular season.

Ross Detwiler threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning, throwing 12 pitches and striking out the left-handed hitting John Jay on a good curveball. In four relief innings this spring, Detwiler allowed three runs (all in one outing) on three hits, walking three and striking out two.

– A day after finding out he had made the Opening Day roster, Aaron Barrett demonstrated exactly why the Nationals had so much faith in him.  The 26 year old righty put together another 1-2-3 frame, inducing two groundouts and a strikeout, while showcasing the slider considered to be the best in the organization by Baseball America:

barrett sliderIn 10.2 scoreless innings this spring, Barrett has given up just five hits, walked none, and struck out eight.

THE BAD

The Nationals’ offense once again seemed unable to figure out Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright. Wainwright went five innings today, allowing just one hit (a third inning single by Anthony Rendon), walking none, and striking out six. Wainwright has now thrown 14 scoreless innings against the Nats this spring, and went 2-0 with a 1.76 ERA in 15.1 innings against the team last year.

THE UGLY

– Leading off the top of the fourth inning, Bryce Harper hit a slow roller past Wainwright and towards the right side of the infield.  In one motion, second baseman Mark Ellis barehanded the ball, and flipped it to first, just in time to get Harper in the estimation of first base umpire Jeff Gosney.

harper ejected 2Harper was frustrated, either with the call or the fact that he had made an out.

harper ejected 4We won’t be sure exactly what Harper said until he tells us, but whatever it was, it caused Gosney to toss Harper from the game.  Because the games are meaningless, Spring Training ejections are fairly rare; I can only find only one other example of a player being ejected this spring.  At any rate, Harper not only had to leave the game, he had to leave the stadium as well:

harper ejectedThroughout his career, Harper has been given far less leeway to make mistakes than the average player due to the hype and reputation surrounding him — this ejection seems like another example of that fact.

The Nationals have just one more game in Florida; tomorrow, they head to Port St. Lucie to face the New York Mets.  Jordan Zimmermann will get the start for the Nats in the 12:10 contest, which will be televised on ESPN and MLB.tv.

Nationals Sign Kevin Frandsen

frandsen philsYesterday afternoon, the Washington Nationals made a series of cuts that seemingly left their bench a man short — the two most obvious candidates for the last bench job, Tyler Moore and Jamey Carroll, had been optioned to AAA and given release papers respectively.  Manager Matt Williams stated yesterday that he was considering using extra catcher Sandy Leon or utility speedster Jeff Kobernus to fill the spot, but the moves caused speculation that the Nationals could look outside the organization.

Late last night, the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore mentioned that the Nationals were “one of two or three teams who reached out” to utility infielder Kevin Frandsen, who had been cut by the Phillies just hours before.  While not yet officially confirmed by the team, it seems the Nationals and Frandsen have reached an agreement:

Frandsen, 31, is a right handed bat with experience at all four infield spots in his major league career. Used primarily as a first baseman last year with Philadelphia, Frandsen posted a triple-slash of .234/.296/.341 in 119 games, with 5 home runs and 26 runs batted in.  According to both DRS and UZR, Frandsen is around league average in the field at first, second, and third base (he hasn’t played shortstop at the big league level since 2009).

For his career, Frandsen has marked platoon splits that make him a valuable bat against left-handed pitching — he has a .778 career OPS against lefties, versus just a .626 career OPS against righties (in 2013, the split was even more pronounced; .869 to .536).  If you recall, the Nationals were said this offseason to be interested in Jeff Baker, another right-handed corner infielder with career success against lefties — Frandsen’s skill set is that of a poor man’s Baker.

Frandsen also led baseball with 14 pinch-hits last year; for his career, he has hit .265/.318/.343 in a pinch-hitting role.  For perspective, the Nationals last year pinch-hit at a .208/.250/.358 clip, making Frandsen a clear improvement.

The Nationals decided Frandsen’s positional flexibility made him an improvement over Tyler Moore, and his relative youth and prowess against left-handed pitching made him preferable to Jamey Carroll.  His arrival leaves the Nationals with a bench that will break down like this:

IF Danny Espinosa (bats switch)

IF Kevin Frandsen (bats right)

OF Scott Hairston (bats right)

OF Nate McLouth (bats left)

C Jose Lobaton (bats switch)

There seems to be limited redundancy on that bench, as the balance in handedness and position ensures every player on it is likely to have a different role.

UPDATE: One other ramification of this deal, as mentioned by CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman:

As Zuckerman mentions, Perez is a candidate, as is catcher Jhonatan Solano.

UPDATE 2: The deal is now official:

In order to clear space for Frandsen on the 40-man roster, the Nationals removed Ross Ohlendorf from the 40-man by placing him on the 60-day disabled list with a “right lumbar strain.”