Boys of Summer
15 predictions for MLB 2015

hotcorner

J.T. Grugen

JT Grugen

The conclusion of NFL season was marked with Super Bowl XLIX. While many fans saw their team’s chances of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy dashed several weeks prior to the big game in the desert, everyone has a reason to be excited for Spring Training. In this addition of the Hot Corner, I give 15 bold predictions for the 2015 MLB season.

15. Mariners edge Angels for AL West Division Title, best record in the majors

Being honest, baseball headlines rarely originate from the Pacific Northwest. With all the attention on the Seattle Seahawks, the Mariners are no longer the golden child in Seattle sports. These fans know defense wins championships in the NFL, just ask the Legion of Boom. In baseball though, pitching wins division titles, which exactly what gives the M’s an advantage over the powerhouse Angels in 2015. 

LA’s playoff run last October was limited to three games after 98 wins in the regular season, largely in part to horrendous pitching outside of Garrett Richards in both their rotation and bullpen. Seattle, meanwhile, has a flurry of prospects finally ready for a full season in a big league rotation. If Taijuan Walker and company are even just average, behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle is a nightmare matchup in a playoff series.

To ensure the greatest opportunity for these prospects to succeed, a lineup that has offensively deprived for the last decade has added key pieces to surround franchise cornerstone Robinson Cano. Nelson Cruz’s home run numbers are bound to drop in a spacious Safeco Field, but his powerful presence in the lineup should increase the number of good pitches Robinson Cano sees, ultimately allowing his numbers to return to 2013 form.

14. At least 30 players with five years or less experience make the All-Star rosters

Derek Jeter’s retirement marked the death of early 2000’s baseball. Playoff rosters are no longer stacked with home run hitters that tally 40-50 long balls every season. Prospects are traded rapidly these days, almost like a unique commodity on the baseball market. Through all the trades completed throughout this offseason, baseball’s youth has not been lost in the shuffle. In fact, 2015 will be the year where new household names are created.

This year’s rookie class could be the deepest in baseball history. The Cubs alone will witness the debuts of several future MVP caliber players such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler, which is only the tip of the iceberg. Don’t forget about international signings either. Improved US relations with Cuba over the winter will open the door for more Latin American stars bringing their talents to baseball’s biggest stage.

There’s also the byproduct of 2014’s alarming increase in players requiring Tommy John surgery. Several Cy Young quality starters will return from the Disabled List in April, including Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez. Also consider that Bryce Harper, Jose Abreu, and Masahiro Tanaka will have an opportunity to play injury free for the first time since last year’s Spring Training.

13. Yankees finish with losing record for the first time since 1992

A busy offseason without the Yankees being heavily involved is unheard of. Brian Cashman’s team is one of the few with a positive postseason track record to go with their heavy spending reputation. It’s unnatural though for New York’s biggest acquisition to be Didi Gregorius. The blue chip shortstop will be hard pressed to fill the shoes of the guy who wore number two, but the core of the Yanks’ lineup has a laundry list of injury histories.

Can Alex Rodriguez be productive after a year on the sidelines? Is this the year Mark Teixeira and Chase Headley stay healthy? There are too many question marks to place any trust in this team. Considering home run power bats that take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s small dimensions is how the Yankees have made their living over the past decade, there’s not nearly enough pop in the lineup. In fact, 2014 was the first time this millenium that no Yankees player hit 30 home runs.

Without the security blanket on offense to account for their subpar rotation, New York will find themselves on the wrong end of many lopsided affairs this season. If CC Sabathia returns, he’s at best a fourth or fifth starter in their rotation. If Masahiro Tanaka’s shoulder injury reveals itself to be a chronic issue that requires another surgery, this team is left without an ace. It’s hard to remember the last time the Yankees were in this tight of a situation.

12. Giancarlo Stanton and Max Scherzer were worthy of their respective mega contracts…for now

Remember when 100 million dollar contracts were shocking investments made by teams with too much money? Those deals look like pocket change now. Giancarlo Stanton is the first 300 million dollar man, and after Miami’s great spending spree of 2012 resulted in one of baseball’s most famous firesales, this was a gutsy move. Stanton was hit by a pitch in the face towards the end of the 2014 season. Sure, he’s recovered and that moment was only a scare, but a similar accident could make his contract a nightmare.

Without that injury, Stanton would have reached the 40 home run plateau. In the past, this was the standard for accomplished sluggers. The recent influx in premiere pitchers though has brought scarcity to the hitters with .300 30 100 stat-lines. I expect a more balanced world of elite hitting and pitching to be introduced in 2015 with Stanton leading the charge. Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich are finally far enough in their development to provide Stanton with adequate protection and force the opposition to throw him decent pitches.

Meanwhile in the nation’s capital, the rival Nationals have a new ace in Scherzer. As a skeptic of this deal, Washington was one the few destinations that made sense. A spacious ballpark should reduce Scherzer’s home runs allowed numbers that have burned his ERA in the past. The Nationals offense can also assist with the run support Detroit comforted Scherzer with. These mega-deals may break down over their lifespan, but the NL East’s heavy spending will pay off in year one.

11. Dodgers’ spending spree continues with trade deadline acquisition of Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto

On paper, the National League has a handful of wildcard teams that will ultimately challenge the two resident heavyweights: Washington and Los Angeles. The Nationals already arguably boasted the best rotation in baseball before adding Max Scherzer, placing the ball in the court of a trigger happy team when it comes to spending payroll. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are two reliable aces, but past that LA’s rotation becomes suspect and lacks the depth available in the nation’s capital. Luckily for Dodgers fans, elite starting pitching will be in surplus at the trade deadline in July.

Philly immediately comes to mind as an ideal trade partner for the Dodgers. A stocked outfield (even with Matt Kemp gone) with plenty of prospects in the minors could be LA’s selling point. Marlon Byrd’s departure from the Phillies leaves a void in right field that could be filled by Joc Pederson or Andre Ethier. Philadelphia’s notoriously high asking prices for veteran players could be the deal breaker here, but the Dodgers certainly have the right package of players to strike a deal for Cole Hamels.

If landing one of the best left handers in baseball is too ambitious, Johnny Cueto would likely be a less expensive and potentially more effective option. Cincinnati would be financially pressed to extend Cueto long term, and should they find themselves at the bottom of a highly improved NL Central division, moving their ace would be ideal. Raw left-handed prospect Julio Urias would probably need to be involved for this deal to work. Regardless, the Dodgers playing into August without another starter would be shocking.

10. Miguel Cabrera returns to 2012 form, wins AL MVP Award

Imagine the Detroit Tigers without Miguel Cabrera. It’s difficult to believe the AL Central Champions four years running would crack .500 if the former Triple Crown winner was out of the lineup. While his ascension to baseball’s best was a fun ride, the backlash has been harsh. Miggy has sustained ankle damage, a hamstring strain, and a torn groin since the summer of 2013, but somehow, the big man has played through the pain.

This winter was the Detroit superstar’s first opportunity to fully heal himself, undergoing several medical procedures to capture that lightning in a bottle that was his 2012 season once more. Whether or not the Tigers open their season with number 24 starting at first base remains to be seen. In a big picture perspective though, an early April DL stint might be an acceptable sacrifice in order to return Miggy to his former self.

Now backed by Yoenis Cespedes and the runner-up AL MVP Victor Martinez, Cabrera has his best protection in the lineup since Prince Fielder arrived in Detroit three years ago. A highly regarded offense that drops goose eggs on the scoreboard far too often needs their Hall of Fame caliber first basemen back in the fold at full strength. If Cabrera is healthy, Detroit could make a deep run in the postseason.

9. San Francisco’s “odd years struggles” continue as defending champions miss the postseason

In even numbered years, never rule out the San Francisco Giants. Bruce Bochy’s club has rediscovered their October magic on a biannual basis for the past five years now, adding a heart crushing victory over the Cinderella story Kansas City Royals in 2014 to their collection back in October. The unfortunate whiplash from these World Series titles is the resulting World Series hangover. In both 2011 and 2013 when the Giants entered the season as the defending champions, a losing record and disappointment were the only takeaways at the end of September.

Ranking in the bottom third of the league in runs scored for the past five years, pitching has undoubtedly been the Giants’ ace. This offensively challenged lineup is about to take a turn for the worse as Pablo Sandoval’s storied run in the Bay Area ended when “Kung Fu Panda” took his talents to Boston this winter. Though inconsistent, Sandoval was the perfect mix of power and average hitter, leaving a gaping hole in the cleanup spot of the San Francisco lineup that has yet to be filled.

San Francisco’s offseason was relatively quiet while Arizona, San Diego, and Los Angeles all completed major transactions at the Winter Meetings. Add in an expected wildcard picture come September and the Giants’ history of post-World Series victory letdowns is a trend likely to continue.

8. No San Diego outfielder will make the All-Star team, hit 30 home runs, or play 150+ games this season

How do you convince fans your team, which finished dead last in runs scored in 2014, to buy tickets to watch a reinvigorated heart of the order that will turn heads? New Padres GM A.J. Preller has dealt for three All-Star caliber outfielders: Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton. Each member of this trio has an impressive resume: the deserving 2011 NL MVP in Kemp, the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year in Myers, and the former number one draft pick in Upton.

Upton’s 2014 numbers alone edge out the combined totals of San Diego’s outfield in most categories. The baggage that draws similarities among these three players though is their injury histories; each man had at least one DL stint last season. This chronic inconsistency will leave Padres’ fans questioning the front office’s decision to not pursue Nick Markakis or Torii Hunter, two cheaper options that provided a lower risk scenario.

Inevitably, the spacious dimensions of Petco Park is bound to reduce the homerun totals for these power hitters. Sure, Matt Kemp could return to his status of a five tool player and return to the MVP conversation. Sure, Justin Upton could finally take off as the 40-40 man Arizona envisioned him as ten years ago. The words “could” and “if” come up in too many situations to believe San Diego is a contender. Until these injury prone stars can improve their reputations, the Padres’ lineup remains pedestrian.

7. Astros, Rangers youth renaissance sparks September wildcard run

Baseball’s second wild card spot has enhanced the complexity and competitiveness around the league in terms of the hunt of October. An increase in the number of contending teams has resulted in a smaller market at the trade deadline, forcing organizations in need of a mid-summer spark to look within their minor league system for help. Look no further than the Lonestar State to find teams that could get crafty in August.

Houston bottomed out the league from 2011 to 2013, giving the team three number one overall draft picks. Continuing to reap the benefits of trading nearly all of their players with five or more years of experience, the Astros farm system is one baseball’s deepest. Carlos Correa, 2012 number one draft pick, will lead the charge of young talent to be called up this summer and potentially propel Houston into the mix for the postseason.

Down the road in Arlington, the Rangers are a prime candidate for a bounceback season and a dark horse to win the AL West. The returns of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo make Texas’ offense potentially one of the top five in baseball. This team’s chronic injury history shouldn’t be a concern this season though should their stars go down. Joey Gallo and Jorge Alfaro are at the level of an MLB starter at first base and catcher positions, respectively. If the Rangers go against the grain and rely on prospects rather than high profile free agents, this team has a realistic shot of returning to October baseball.

6. Ichiro eclipses 3,000 career hits

One downfall for players that defect to the United States to play in the majors is the fresh start associated with an MLB career. If Ichiro’s offensive totals from his near decade of dominance in Japan would have rolled over, we’d have a new all time hits leader. Entering 2015 though, the Japanese sensation is roughly 140 base knocks short of joining the 3,000 hits club, almost an automatic guarantee of being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Back when Seattle dealt their all-star outfielder to the Bronx in 2012, this milestone was only headlights in the distance as Ichiro was to be utilized as a late inning replacement on most nights. Through injuries and underproduction though, Joe Girardi gave him the nod which eventually led to a daily spot on the lineup card.

Signing with Miami in January, Ichiro is once more being casted into the role of a replacement player. However, with the inexperience in Miami’s outfield and a broader use of pinch hitters in the National League, there will be plenty of opportunities for Ichiro to see the field. Plus, there’s always an injury x-factor that could propel him into a starting job. The league won’t let the 2001 AL MVP retire without at least one MLB milestone to his name.

5. There will be a three way tie for the last wildcard spot in the National League

My first ten predictions tie together with three factors: the National League is well balanced in terms of power outside of two powerhouse teams, two wildcard spots has created more contenders, and prospects are bound to be impactful come late August. Imagine how the Cubs would benefit from Kris Bryant hitting his stride in the majors in time for a playoff push or if Noah Syndergaard can join Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom as a force in the Mets’ rotation.

Rookie success has become contagious and has allowed more teams trust their AAA affiliate for help in a time of offensive depression or injury. These prospects become media darlings with one hot streak to put their name on the map. In this streaky game, parity is playing a bigger role in the individual outcomes of games. While one game in baseball has less importance compared to one game in the NFL, there’s still value in having a league where any given team can win on any given day.

We’ve seen nearly every scenario unfold in the first three years of the expanded playoff format, from miracle September runs to epic meltdowns in the final games. A three way tie would open the door for plenty of controversy and would allow baseball executives to experiment with additional teams in the playoff picture. Plus, there’s no way the MLB can go wrong with rewarding fans with more playoff baseball for free.

4. Bryce Harper notches NL MVP award with first healthy full season

Washington’s rise to the elite tier of the National League placed a heavy reliance on their young stars. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the top draft picks from 2009 and 2010 respectively, are the only franchise cornerstones that have yet to live up to their hype. Throwing in the towel on Harper’s career though would be premature at this point. With three seasons under his belt already, keep in mind the Nats’ phenom is still 22 years old. Most prospects don’t crack the majors until they hit 23 or 24.

Critics cringe at Harper’s aggressive defensive play, running into walls and risking his body to make spectacular catches has put him on the shelf several times. More experience should solve this problem over time as Harper develops a baseball instinct. Plus, the 22 year old body still hasn’t fully developed yet. Over the next few seasons Harper should fill out into the figure of a power hitter, forcing him to become more conservative in his decision making in the outfield.

I’d expect a sharp incline in Harper’s baseline stats. A .300 batting average might be a little ambitious, young players often take several years to develop a good eye for taking pitches. There’s no doubt though that 30 home runs and 100 RBIs is a realistic goal. The departure of Adam LaRoche should cue Harper into the cleanup spot in the Washington lineup where he’ll have more opportunities for run production and a shot at the MVP award.

3. Cardinals rock Scherzer, Zimmermann, Nationals to win the NL Pennant

A playoff rotation consisting of Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Doug Fister is a foursome you’d expect to see on someone’s fantasy baseball team. The surplus of starting pitching in the nation’s capital will be a great problem for the Nationals to have come October. Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, should they avoid being dealt midseason, would serve as a pair of long inning relievers, bolstering an otherwise shaky Washington bullpen.

If there’s a crack in the armor when it comes to this elite Nationals’ rotation though, it’s a lack of postseason experience. Scherzer and Fister struggled past the LDS during their respective tenures in Detroit. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t pitched in the postseason since 2012. Stephen Strasburg’s only start came last season in which he lost to a pitchers duel to seasoned veteran Jake Peavy.

St. Louis might be the most resilient postseason team we’ve seen in the past 50 years. In 2011, the Cardinals were down to their last strike on two occasions, but managed to grasp a World Series title from the heavily favored Rangers in seven games. Jason Heyward is only starting position player on the St. Louis roster without LCS experience. In the battle of experience and youth, I’m going with the Cardinals to yet again find a way to overcome the odds.

2. Mike Trout adds to legacy, launches Angels past Tigers in the ALCS

Is Mike Trout a modern day Mickey Mantle? With three complete seasons in the big leagues, Trout already has a set of hardware in his trophy case and has earned the comparisons made between him and the Yankees Hall of Fame centerfielder. The 2014 AL MVP had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time in 2012 and stole the show at the All-Star Game last year, earning MVP honors in an American League victory. Angels fans continue to cringe at the huge contracts handed out to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, but there is comfort in having Trout locked up for the next six years.

The next step in building Trout’s legacy shifts his focus from individual accomplishments to achieving success as a team. I see the Angels matching up with Detroit’s top notch rotation that still ranks at the top of the majors despite losing Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. While Trout’s .233 average against current Tigers pitchers is pedestrian, LA seems to have Detroit’s number, especially at Angel Stadium. In fact, Detroit has allowed an average of over seven runs a game in Anaheim since 2012 and has lost nine of their last ten games when visiting the Angels.

Pujols and Hamilton might have historically good track records against Detroit’s starters (specifically Justin Verlander and David Price), but this is a great opportunity for Trout to break out. Comerica Park’s spacious outfield is perfect for putting on a defensive clinic and plays into the hand of Trout’s speed. As long as the Angels can continue their success at home, they’ll survive a challenging seven game series and return to the World Series for the first time since 2002.

1. Cardinals spoil Pujols’ return to St. Louis with a sweep of the Angels to win the World Series

Though various heroes turned into overnight success stories have propelled the Cardinals’ three World Series appearances between 2004 and 2011, the driving force in the heart middle of the St. Louis lineup was resident MVP contender Albert Pujols. His two World Series rings sit atop of a list of accomplishments that will likely land “The Machine” in Cooperstown in the distant future. When Pujols decided to cash-in after the Cardinals’ World Series victory in 2011, many believed his new team, the Angels, would become baseball’s latest dynasty.

Since Pujols’ arrival in Hollywood, LA’s only postseason journey ended abruptly following a 98 win regular season when the Cinderella story of the year Kansas City swept the Angels in a series void of high scoring affairs. A large part of the summer success for the Angels though was Pujols’ resurgence in the lineup, managing 28 home runs and 105 RBIs in a season where home run totals were at their lowest in the past decade.

However, even with a modern day Mickey Mantle and a future Hall of Fame first baseman, the Angels would be overpowered in a nightmare matchup with St. Louis. The Cardinals’ bullpen depth far surpasses an inferior LA staff in all areas of the game, including skill and experience. Sweeps in the World Series don’t occur often, but expect the Cardinals to receive a boost from the chip on their shoulder, showing Albert Pujols should have stayed in cardinal red.

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