Play Ball.

by

“For lo’ the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. Happy New Year, everybody. It’s baseball 2016.” Famed Tigers’ broadcaster, Ernie Harwell opened every spring with this quote from Song of Solomon, and  there are few better ways to open the season than with words from one of the greatest baseball people of all time. Despite the decline in ratings and a general feeling that the sport is outdated and boring, the arrival of baseball season still serves as an organic transition from winter to spring.

One of the things fans love so much about the sport is the belief that anything can happen with the coming of a new season. So you came in last place last year? No worries, the 2013 Red Sox won the World Series the year after losing 95 games. You haven’t made the playoffs in 30 years? Whatever; the Royals made the World Series in back to back years and won last years’ series. The Astros, Rangers, Mets and Cubs all made the playoffs last year after losing a combined  359 games in 2014 and are all being picked to make playoff runs again this year. Those are just a few examples from recent history showing the crazy things that can happen in a given season. We all love to have fresh starts and reboots in life, and that desire along with the limitless optimism is part of what makes baseball so beloved and refreshing.

While every season has its’ share of surprise contenders, the flip side is also true. The undisputed “winners” of last years’ offseason were the White Sox, Padres, Red Sox and Cubs. Of those 4, only the Cubs made the postseason, and the other 3 finished a combined 52 games out of first place. After signing Max Scherzer, the Nationals were proclaimed as a potential super-team that could make a run at 100 wins and walk through to a World Series win. After an awful start, they fired their manager, had players choking each other in the dugout and finished with 83 wins and never had a realistic shot at the playoffs. It’s pretty impressive when a team can have a free agent acquisition live up to the hype (Scherzer), have the undisputed MVP of the league (Harper) and somehow still completely suck.

I’ve stated before that it’s a fools’ errand to make predictions as they’re never completely right, and often make you look like an idiot. Despite that caveat, I continue to make my predictions, since I’m apparently a glutton for punishment. In my defense, baseball picks have been a tradition in my family. My dad and I have been making picks for as long as I can remember and I plan on doing the same with my kids someday. So without further ado, my 2016 predictions, which are sure to be obsolete and proven wrong before the end of the first week of the season.

American League

East Champions:

Toronto Blue Jays– With the bombers in their lineup (Bautista, Donaldson, Encarncion, Martin and Tulowitzki) the Jays bludgeoned opponents into submission last season while scoring 127 more runs than the 2nd most proficient offense in the league. The offensive proficiency was nothing new as the Jays have finished in the top-10 in runs each of the last 3 seasons. The key to their jump up in the standings was the improved pitching staff. Thanks to largely unexpected contributions from the trio of Buehrle, Hutchison and Price, they jumped up to 12th in the league in ERA last season. That’s slightly better than league average, but after years spent in the bottom third of the league, even that improvement made a drastic difference. Unfortunately for Toronto, those three pitchers are gone, along with their 425 innings pitched and 30 quality starts. Wins aren’t the end all-be all of pitching evaluation, but 37 wins is nothing to take lightly.  The front office is hoping that a full healthy season of Marcus Stroman and continued development from youngsters like Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna can help offset those losses, but after last years’ blockbuster moves, the cupboard isn’t as well stocked as it was previously. They’ve gone from having a top-10 farm system over the last 5 years to having one in the bottom 10. Management has made it clear that they plan on going all in this year, and with several key players ready to hit free agency, this is the best shot they’ll have at a championship for quite some time. There’s no question that the offense will hold up, but there are question marks all over the pitching staff. If the young staff can’t take a step forward, we could see a regression to the 2000’s Blue Jays teams that lost a lot of 9-8 ball games and finished in the middle of the pack.

Central Champions:

Chicago White Sox:  It was incredibly en vogue to pick against the Kansas City Royals last season as everything about their 2014 season pointed toward a massive regression. They were (and are) led by a shaky manager in Ned Yost and were the beneficiaries of a massive amount of luck throughout the season. I, and a lot of writers, could not have been more wrong. While the rest of the division fell apart, the Royals blitzed the entire league on their way to their first World Series title since 1985. With that being said, I’m making the same mistake this year and picking against them in the A.L. Central.

Last years’ White Sox team underperformed from the opening day of the season, getting career worst seasons from the Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton and the now departed Adam LaRoche. If you remove Jose Abreu’s production from the team, they operated as a sub-replacement level offense for the majority of the season. Sometimes players just aren’t very good, but the second half production of guys like Cabrera and Eaton give reason for some optimism in 2016. Their mediocrity would have been enough to submarine the offense, but they got historically bad production from their 2nd and 3rd basemen last year, so even league average production would have a dramatic impact. Considering the offensive pedigree of Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier, it’s reasonable to expect more from those positions than league average; the offense can’t help but be better.

His comments about the Adam LaRoche situation showed Chris Sale to be a bit of an idiot, but he’s still one of the 5 best pitchers in baseball and my Cy Young pick for the American League. With Sale, Rodon and Quintana, the Sox only need to get mediocre production from the combination of Danks, Latos and eventually, Carson Fulmer. They made waves with their expensive bullpen acquisitions last season and were rewarded with further mediocrity. Bullpen production has proven to be the hardest thing to predict in baseball, but guys like David Robertson, Nate Jones and Zach Duke have proven that they can get the job done. Everyone is lining up to replicate the Royals and Yankees bullpen setup- dominant set-up men and closers shorten the game to essentially a 6 inning affair- and while these guys aren’t up to that level, they should be good enough to at least help Robin Ventura’s ever-growing ulcer. The Sox are the opposite of Toronto- if they can get league average production from their lineup, the elite starting pitching should be enough to carry them to the top of this messy division.

West Champions

Houston Astros: When 76ers fans dream, they dream that they’re Houston Astros fans. After a decade of success through the late 90’s and mid 2000’s, the bubble showed signs of bursting beginning in 2007 as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio limped to the end of their careers, and as often happens with successful franchises, Houston clung to relevancy with veterans like Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt buoying the roster, but the rest of the team was downright ugly, with no help in sight from the barren farm system. After consecutive mediocre seasons in 2008 and 2009, the front office shifted gears into a full teardown and rebuild of the franchise. Starting in 2010, they sold off everything that wasn’t bolted down, trading away Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Wandy Rodriguez and Billy, the clubhouse attendant responsible for refilling the Gatorade cooler. This made them less than popular, both around the league and with their fans, and they lost a combined 502 games between 2010 and 2014. The pain was worth it, as they rebuilt the farm system from the bottom up, going from the 26th ranked system in 2011 to being the 2nd ranked system coming into this season. Having a loaded system enabled them to call up young players and let them learn at the big league level, and they’ve been rewarded with stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correia. As a team, they overachieved to some extent last season, but the continued development of Springer and Correia, along with a full season of Carlos Gomez and the inevitable midseason call-up of another top prospect or two, this season should build upon last year’s success.

The pitching staff is headed by Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, and backed by solid, if unspectacular hurlers like Mike Fiers, Colin McHugh and Luke Gregorson. They splurged by trading for closer Ken Giles, but ideally, having a lockdown option at the back of the bullpen should allow the rest of the relievers to settle into a rotation, a la the Kansas City Royals. There’s always some risk with younger players, as the league has a tendency to catch on to their weaknesses, but the ‘Stros young guys can really play and will be able to battle through those growing pains. It’s important to remember that these guys were a fluky Royals rally away from probably going to the World Series, so the sky is the limit for 2016 and beyond.

Wild Card Winners:

Kansas City Royals: Come on, I’m not that stupid. Everything about this team says that they’re primed for a regression, but when you win the World Series and bring everyone back, you deserve the benefit of the doubt. Eventually the “swing at everything and give up outs with small ball” technique will backfire on them, but former wunderkinds  Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas  and Lorenzo Cain finally turned into real players last year and showed signs of potential growth moving forward. They drastically overpaid for Salvador Perez, the bullpen will eventually come back to earth and Kendrys Morales is not going to be a 3 win hitter again this season, but there’s still enough talent  in the franchise piggy bank to buy another postseason trip.

Boston Red Sox: So after warning against picking the offseason champions, I’m going to ignore everything I said and pick the Red Sox to snag the second wild card spot. I’m not crazy about the David Price contract, but he is an elite pitcher in today’s game, so I understand it on some level. The Pablo Sandoval contract looks to be one of the worst in league history, but at least the Sox have the guts to play the better guy at 3rd base. I love the bullpen with  Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, and the pipeline has finally delivered on years worth of promise with players like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts to lead them into the post-David Ortiz era in Boston. I’m more than a little skeptical about the team’s defensive prowess and lack of depth in the starting pitching,  but they’ll be able to slug their way through enough of those issues to make it to the second week of October.

National League

East Champions:

Washington Nationals:  Between Matt Williams ineffective leadership, Max Scherzer’s creepy eyes and Ian Desmond’s aversion to catching baseballs, last years’ preseason champion could not have been a bigger disappointment unless they had actually had a ‘Lord of the Flies’ style rebellion in the dugout. Things were bad enough, and then they decided to add world-famous A-Hole Jonathan Papelbon the mix.  Papelbon posted a negative WAR, blew multiple leads and choked out the best player in the National League in front of a worldwide audience. Aside from that, everything went great. The response to all this was to bring Papelbon back and add Daniel Murphy and his mighty October bat into this roiling pot of strangeness.

With all that, why am I picking them? Pitching, a first year boost from Dusty Baker and the insanity of Bryce Harper. Scherzer may be a mutant, but he’s downright dominant on a consistent basis and he allows guys like Stephen Strasburgh and Gio Gonzalez to avoid the pressure of being “the guy” in the rotation. When you can throw Gonzalez and Strasburgh out as your 2nd and 3rd starters, you’ve got a pretty good shot at success. Looking at the bullpen,  Papelbon wasn’t very good at the end of last season, but he was at least competent for the rest of the year, and there’s enough depth in the rest of the pen to cover for him if he blows up at any point this season. Dusty Baker has shown a propensity for wearing out pitching staffs and lineups over a long stretch of time, but he wasn’t brought in to be the long-term manager; they just need to squeeze a year or 2 out of him before he drives everyone crazy.

Even bigger than the pitching and improved coaching, they have a cyborg playing right field in Bryce Harper. After a solid start to his career with 10 wins above replacement over his first 3 seasons, Harper exploded with a 9.9 win season in 2015. To put that in perspective, his season tied him with the age 26 seasons of Tris Speaker and Rickey Henderson, as well as the age 28 seasons for Barry Bonds and Ted Williams. That’s ridiculous company, and at the age of 23, there’s reason to believe he’ll get better as he develops mentally and emotionally to match the obscene physical skills he brings to the diamond. So, to recap the Nats: elite pitching, plus elite superstar, plus shaky fielding and combustible bullpen equals a fascinating, high variance season that I can’t wait to see.

Central Champions:

Chicago Cubs: Early on last season, I wrote about how exciting and far ahead of schedule the Cubs were. At that point they were a couple of games under .500 and just showing signs of becoming the elite team they morphed into. As a lifelong Cubs’ hater, it was the most painful writing experience of my life, but I genuinely loved watching the young stars evolve and grow in real-time. With that being said, nobody expected them to win 97 games and blitz the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs; we just don’t see young teams go from awful to elite that quickly. Last years’ ahead of schedule success has made it easy to look at the glut of talent on the roster, the additions made in the off-season and the weakening of the division around them and anoint them champions of the world, but there are a few minor issues that could cause some problems.

We’ve never seen a stretch like Jake Arrieta’s second half last year- he went 12-1 with a .75 ERA and entered into 1999 Pedro Martinez territory, where we expected greatness every time he took the ball. The only “downside” to that level of greatness, is that it is impossible to replicate over the long haul. Even if Arrieta performs at an All-Star level, which is no guarantee, he’s not going to meet the raised expectations last year caused. The hope would be that the combination of Jon Lester and John Lackey can pick up anywhere that Arrieta may tail off from last years’ ridiculousness. The 4th and 5th starters are question marks at this point, but there’s so much young talent in the farm system, the Baby Bears can afford to part with a prospect or two to add a second tier starter or two.

Aside from the usual year-to-year unpredictability of bullpen performance, the only other potential hangup is the faulty defense at a couple of spots in the field. No team should be pushing harder for integration of the Designated Hitter in the National League than the Cubs. With Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward, the Cubs have more bats than they have positions, and while that’s a good problem to have, I’m sure they’d prefer the ability to throw Soler in the field and just have Schwarber hit things with a stick. They’ve committed to having him behind the plate at least once every time through the pitching rotation, but with his sub-replacement level defense and Jon Lester’s inability to hold runners, they do run the risk of having teams run wild on 40% of their pitching staff. I know I’m nitpicking, but when it comes to winning a title or coming in 2nd, it’s the little things that matter. One poorly timed throw into center field or a 5 steal game by an opponent could be what it takes to send them home disappointed.

Despite those tiny warts, this is a team built to win; not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. The only question remaining is whether they can make the final push through the glass ceiling and send the North Side into complete hysterics this November.

West Champion:

Los Angeles Dodgers: I’m well aware that I’m tempting fate by picking against the San Fransisco Giants, and I do think they’ll win the Wild Card, but daggone, this Dodgers team is terrifying. Lost in all the well deserved publicity received by Greinke and Arrieta last season, was the fact that Clayton Kershaw is The Man. After a “slow” start to 2015, he went 10-1 with 141 strikeouts and only 15 walks in the second half of the season. I know he’s had his postseason struggles, but there’s still no one I want more for the top of my staff than Kershaw. They round out the rotation with solid starters like Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood and finish by handing the ball to a downright scary closer in Kenley Jansen. A top-heavy rotation and bullpen always leaves the risk for injury as a huge concern, but the Dodgers have both the human and financial capital to acquire more talent if needed.

When the new ownership group took over the team and spent nearly a billion dollars in payroll (give or take), the common refrain heard was that L.A. was going to buy their way to a title. What’s actually transpired has been something much scarier. Rather than just throwing money at every major free agent, the Dodgers have poured those seemingly endless resources into the scouting and development of their young players. This has allowed them to build the strongest farm system in the league, while simultaneously competing on the Major League level with the higher priced top end talent. I’m sure they’d rather not have to rely on players like Carl Crawford and Chase Utley as those two limp toward the finish line, but if they can buy just a few months, there’s plenty of help on the way with the further development of young studs like Cory Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. If they can get anything resembling the best out of Yasiel Puig (no guarantee at this point), then they’ll be downright terrifying for years to come.

This has been a team over the last few years that was consistently picked to contend for a title, only to come up short each time when it mattered most. Much of the blame was cast on skipper Don Mattingly, and whether it was fair or not, those failures cost Donnie Baseball his Los Angeles residence. New Manager Dave Roberts is known as a savvy baseball guy who balances old-school thoughts with an analytic mindset. He better hope that they come through big time this year, because few other markets draw attention (both negative and positive) quite like Los Angeles. All the excuses are gone for this group, and much like last year, they enter the season as my favorites to win it all. Whether they can fulfill that promise or not remains to be seen.

 

Wild Card Winners:

Pittsburgh Pirates: Much like the Royals in the American League, the Pirates had been a laughingstock for so long, that it was hard to ever picture them as a successful franchise. Also like the Royals, they promised a revolution based on prospects coming through the system for what felt like forever. Well, those prospects have arrived, and this team is loaded. Andrew McCutchen is a legitimate superstar, and combined with Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, there’s not a better outfield in all of baseball. There’s lots of talk about 5 tool players in baseball, and all 3 of these guys have all the tools. It’s beautiful to see them cover ground in the outfield and make plays on a daily basis that they have no business making. The bullpen has been downright dominant the last few years, and Gerrit Cole is a real Cy Young contender for the coming future. It’s been amazing to see the Bucs go from a downtrodden team to one that is not just good, but also cool. We’ll see them ‘Raise the Jolly Roger’ early and often this season.

 

San Fransisco Giants: Often overlooked with the odd year, even year phenomenon in San Fransisco is the superb job of player development being done. In the last decade, the Giants’ farm system has produced All-Stars in Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, along with B level guys like Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Matt Duffy. Most of their guys aren’t household names, but they can flat-out play. While there’s no discernible superstar in this lineup beyond Posey, there are also no discernible weak spots. Every spot on the roster has a guy who can field his position and hit to at least an average level. Throw in the pitching depth with Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardjiza, Jake Peavy and former ace Matt Cain, and this staff has scary potential. Even if Cain and Peavy are shadows of themselves, there’s enough there with the rest of the staff to make the Dodgers sweat throughout the entire season. I don’t trust the bullpen or bench depth enough to call them a World Series favorite, but there will be no shortage of competition in the N.L. Wild Card race this season.

Like all the other sports, getting to the playoffs doesn’t guarantee anything in baseball. All making the postseason gets you is an entry into the lottery. With scoring down and scouting constantly improving, more than ever it comes down to timing and quite a bit of luck. With that in mind, I tend to pick teams that have either a stronger pitching staff or a surplus of superstar bats. Last year, I picked the Dodgers over the Indians (ouch), and while my pick was bad, my logic was solid.  I am following the same principles this year-  World Series- Blue Jays over Cubs.

With so much to consider for each team, it’s difficult to be concise in breaking down this crazy league. So I’d like to thank you for your dedication, and congratulate you on your fortitude in getting to this point. I’ve pointed it out before, but it bears repeating: nobody know anything about what’s actually going to happen throughout the course of a season. Whether your team is good, bad or mediocre, it’s important to remember that the worst day watching baseball is better than the best day doing anything else. Play ball.

 

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