Hippity Hoppity, Baseball’s on it’s way!

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It’s been well documented that I love sports. I often make the joke about how each season is my favorite one. While it is a fun joke for me, there’s also quite a bit of truth in it. Each individual season brings some components that I enjoy. Football season signals the beginning of fall and floods my brain with fond memories of high school and college; old friends, family time and even the crunching of leaves and smell of apple and pumpkin. Winter brings about the basketball season and during the summer, all my focus is on White Sox baseball and occasionally the Olympics or World Cup. With all that being said, the beginning of spring is my favorite of them all. In both the real world and sports world, Spring contains the largest number of enjoyable things. The freshness of the flowers and trees, the excitement of March Madness, melting of snow and the eternal optimism of the MLB season. Ernie Harwell captured it perfectly every spring.
Most of the people in my life are fans of one of the two Chicago teams. There are some obnoxious exceptions who root for other-much more successful teams, but most of my conversations through my early adulthood were centered on the South Side or the North Side of Chicago.
It’s been a tough run for Chicago fans as of late; neither team has been competitive in the recent past and both have been downright embarrassing as of late. For the Cubs, it was a case of realizing that the foundation of their franchise was rotten and need of replacement. This triggered the hiring of former wunderkind Theo Epstein and the gradual unloading of overpriced veterans and re-stocking of the farm system. While this was painful for the most lovable of all losers, there was at least a goal in sight. Never before had “Wait ’til next year” carried more meaning than it has lately. While the future may not have arrived, it’s definitely dusting it’s feet and getting ready to knock on the front door. Unfortunately for a Cubs-hater like myself, they are set up for the near and distant future.
Meanwhile, things on the South Side were equally bleak, if not equally explainable or quickly recognizable. After a scintillating title run in 2005, the franchise doubled down and retained all the key cogs from the World Series team. A great strategy in the short-term, but eventually all the prospects are gone, and you need someone under 35 to step into the lineup. With the occasional Chris Sale as an exception, the cupboard was made bare by years of deadline deals and free agent contracts for such washed up stars as Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn. It took quite a bit longer for the realization to set in at U.S. Cellular, but the foundation was no less rotten and the future much more bleak. The White Sox moves this offseason have been well documented, so they don’t merit an in-depth dive, but generally speaking, adding players who are good at baseball to replace those who are bad at baseball is a very good thing. And while the players replaced on both rosters were undoubtedly good golfers, ping-pong players or guitarists, they were absolute garbage on the baseball field and as such, were not much use.
With that being said, both the Cubs and Sox come in on the top of my list for most improved teams in Major League Baseball, but they were not the only teams that seem poised to make exponential jumps:
Also making dramatic moves this offseason, we had the San Diego Padres. After years of penny-pinching and a blatant disregard for fielding a competitive team, the ownership group gave new GM A.J. Preller the go ahead to dive into the club bank account; and dive he did. The initial joy from the Matt Kemp trade was dampened by concerns over his health and enormous contract, but thanks to the generous big brother in Los Angeles, they were able to squeeze him into the budget. Moves from there to bring in young players with multiple years of team control are what have the smart fans in San Diego truly excited. Wil Myers will have some struggles early on in Petco, but eventually, the advantage of getting to play against the N.L. West will be a boon to his production. Add in All-Stars and former All-Stars like Derek Norris, Justin Upton and Kinda-Big Game- James Shields and the locals are buzzing about the Friars more than they have since the beloved and steroid riddled team of 1998.
In the American League, the Boston Red Sox decided to scrape some pennies out and pass out lucrative deals to future Weight Watchers spokesmen Hanley Ramirez and Pablo “Don’t worry, he plays skinny” Sandoval. While neither will look very good rocking a bikini on Patriot’s Day, they can both rake when they’re appropriately motivated. While the pitching staff doesn’t inspire as much confidence as one could hope, a collection of number 3 starters can’t help but be better than the replacement level talents they threw out in the 2nd half of 2014.
It’s no coincidence that my “Most Improved” teams were a combined 60 games under .500- it’s much easier to improve when your team is garbage. On the other side of the coin, it’s much harder to maintain high standards and expectations that come with sustained success.
The Kansas City Royals were everyone’s lovable darlings in 2014. Plucky, determined, ballsy and old-fashioned; they sacrificed, ran and hustled their way to within a game of the World Series title. Unfortunately for the 73 Royals fans in the world, last year was a large lump of fools’ gold. This site has a pretty solid breakdown of it, but to give you a summary: They were a below average offensive team with a league average pitching staff that won a fluky amount of close games. Whether it’s the NFL, NBA or MLB, the hardest thing to predict, as well as the least consistent characteristic from year to year, is the ability to win close games. So while 2014 was a fun ride for the Yankees former farm club, the fall back into mediocrity will be just as sudden as the rise to near glory was.
In the National League, most of the teams finished with records very similar to those that they “earned”, but the caveman side of my brain says that the San Francisco Giants always switch between World Series titles and 3rd place finishes. The combination of a Madison Bumgarner regression, surging Padres team and the fulfillment of the Witch Doctor’s odd year curse (Agreed upon by Giant’s ownership after Barry Bonds’ retirment) leads me to predict they finish with around 80 wins and a belly full of fair trade San Franciscan sushi.
So far we’ve covered the teams most likely to fluctuate or regress in their win totals from 2014 to 2015, but in all reality, the teams that really matter are those which we expect to contend for a title. With the amount of cash thrown around in our nation’s capital, we shouldn’t be surprised that Max Scherzer wound up there. It also shouldn’t surprise anyone when they don’t live up to the expectations that come with being a “super team”. While I don’t think they have the 100 win potential that many people do, (most of whom are much smarter than I am) the N.L. East is a hot mess and the pitching will be good enough to withstand the inevitable D.L. trips for Strasburgh, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. It’s completely reasonable to expect 92 wins and a loss in the NLCS to my National League and World Series champion: Los Angeles Dodgers.
As much as I hate to say it, the Dodgers are the real deal. While Yasiel Puig annoys me to no end, he also annoys old and stuffy baseball people; and that makes me very happy. As annoying as he is, he also has potential for a 30/30 season with a Gold Glove. Matt Kemp’s negativity affected the Dodgers more than anyone would like to admit, and the thought of an angry and motivated Clayton Kershaw is absolutely terrifying. My most reasonable comparison is a mid-90’s Michael Jordan after his brief flirtation with relative failure. High level athletes have the ability to draw motivation from the smallest of things, and being ripped apart repeatedly on national TV as “Not clutch” or “Afraid of the moment” would make anyone mad. There should be no surprise that I’m also picking Kershaw to run away with the Cy Young award.
In the American League, the AL East is a complete mess with no dominant team, the AL West is filled with a collection of 80 win teams and the Houston Astros. My pick for the American League champion comes from the city that God forgot: Cleveland. Last year, Corey Kluber took the spot that many expected Danny Salazar to step into as breakout pitcher of the year. Even with the inevitable step back, the rest of the rotation is full of steady, if unspectacular, starters. The middle of the lineup is anchored  by dark horse MVP candidate Michael Brantley, smooth swinging Carlos Santana and one of my favorite players in Jason Kipnis. Combine those 3 with the criminally underrated Yan Gomes and Brandon Moss, and I’m not too excited for the White Sox/Indians series’ throughout the season.

I’ll save you a few minutes of your life and skip the breakdown and go straight to the award winners:
American League M.V.P.- This is a no-brainer: we’ve entered into the LeBron James territory with Mike Trout- he should open every year as the default MVP front-runner, and we can’t be too surprised when he runs away with the award again this year.
American League Cy Young- I mentioned earlier how much failure can be a motivation to successful people. Another motivator is being slighted. Whether that is a legitimate or perceived slight, the motivation is no less effective. Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher in the American League and deserves much more respect as a generational talent. This will be the season that his team’s success finally catches up to his own. While wins are the most overrated stat this side of RBI, the shallowness of award voters cannot be overstated. King Felix will add a 2nd Cy Young to his surprisingly empty trophy case.
National League MVP- I was one of the leaders of the “Pitchers shouldn’t win MVP” gang, and luckily, the aforementioned shallow thinking of voters will prevent Kershaw from having any shot at all. History teaches us that voters factor in previous postseason performances into current season thinking on a regular basis. With that being said, Andrew McCutchen is one of my favorite players in the NL, along with being a certifiable superstar. Great glove, great wheels and this year, an NL Central title will add up to his 2nd MVP award in 3 years.
National League Cy Young- While I opposed Kershaw winning the MVP, I have no such reservations about the Cy Young. He was already the best pitcher in baseball, and now he’s the best pitcher in baseball with extra motivation. Any bet against him winning this award and adding to his Hall of Fame resume is a sucker bet.
Now, we all know that every prediction I’m making is going to end up being wrong, but I’m full of myself enough that I feel that you really need to know how I feel about these things. However, that’s one of the best parts of being a fan and an aspiring writer- you never know what’s going to happen, but it sure is fun to guess.
Happy Easter, everyone.

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