They Get It (part 2)

Some franchises seem to understand how to put together a team that can win a division consistently, or who can win enough games to make the playoffs on a regular basis.  But, just making it into the playoffs isn’t really what we’re looking for here.  The Braves of the ’90’s and early 2000’s won 14 “consecutive” division titles (so long as you aren’t counting the ’94 season that ended because of the strike, when they were 6 games behind the Expos), but were only able to convert that into a championship once.  The Dodgers have 6 playoff appearances in the last 11 seasons – but, half of those led to first-round exits, and they have a total of 4 wins in three NLCS appearances.  Regular season success is only moderately admirable.

The three teams that made my cut are teams that have consistently made it into the playoffs – and have been a consistent threat to win it all.  Teams that, even in the years they didn’t win it all, made it really difficult for the teams that beat them.  In order to do this on a regular basis, you have to really understand how to put a quality team together.  And, the second of three teams that really seem to get it is…

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St. Louis Cardinals

Over the last 15 seasons, the Cardinals have missed the playoffs just 4 times.  In other words, in a decade and a half, the Cardinals have as many playoff appearances as the Nationals, Rockies, Marlins and Rays have in their franchises’ history . . . combined.  And, of those 4 seasons without a playoff appearance, only one ended with a losing record (2007 – 6 games below .500), and none ended with the Cardinals in last place.  And, they aren’t just getting into the playoffs – they’re winning.  Only 2 of their 11 appearances ended with a loss in the first round.  Four NL pennants, and two World Series championships aren’t coincidental.  So, how do they do it?

The primary answer to that question is this – they know who they are.  St. Louis is the #21 television market in the U.S.  There are only 6 teams in all of baseball in smaller markets (Pirates, Orioles, Padres, Royals, Reds & Brewers).  But, that doesn’t mean they underspend.  They generally are in the top 10 payrolls in the league, but their total payroll still pails in comparison to the richest teams.  And, that’s because they keep the players that are particularly valuable, and let go of the ones who are asking for more money than they are worth (Pujols).  It all starts with the farm system.

In the last decade, here are some of the Cardinals’ first-round picks (keeping in mind that they were never drafting very high):  2005 (#28) – Colby Rasmus; 2007 (#18) – Pete Kozma; 2008 (#39 – supplemental) – Lance Lynn; 2009 (#19) – Shelby Miller; 2011 (#22) – Kolten Wong; 2012 (#19) – Michael Wacha (2013 NLCS MVP).  But, what impresses me most about the Cardinals scouting and farm system is not just that they were able to make first round picks that succeeded, but that much of their overall success has been the product of their own player development.  Just look at this list of names:

All of these are players that have made significant contributions to the winning ways of the Cardinals over the last 15 years.  And, they all went through the Cardinals’ farm system.

Timely trades, for the right kinds of players, has also been an important part of the Cardinals’ success.  David Freese was the 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP – and he was the lone minor league player they received in return from the Padres in 2007 for Jim Edmonds.  Matt Holliday has been one of the most consistently productive players in St. Louis over the last 5+ seasons.  He was traded to the Cardinals by the A’s in exchange for 3 minor leaguers – none of whom have made any significant contribution at the major league level.  Adam Wainwright is a 3-time All-Star, and has finished in the top 3 in Cy Young voting four times.  But, he didn’t begin his career in St. Louis.  He was a part of the trade that sent J.D. Drew to the Braves after the 2003 season.  Along with Drew, the Cardinals sent utility man Eli Marrero to Atlanta for Wainwright, reliever Ray King (who would put together a 2.91 ERA over 163 appearances in the next 2 years in St. Louis), and starter Jason Marquis (who won 15 games with a 3.71 ERA the next year for the Cardinals).  Scott Rolen won 3 Gold Gloves, went to 4 All-Star games, and helped the Cardinals to two World Series.  He was also the primary piece of the trade between St. Louis and Philadelphia, in which the only other player of note was Placido Polanco going to Philly.

The Cardinals also don’t go out and buy up the top-name free agents.  They make the moves that make the most sense for them.  Jeff Suppan was not the most sought after starting pitcher after the ’03 season (especially with Clemens, Colon and Pettitte available).  But, the Cardinals filled a need, and Suppan went 44-26 with a 3.95 ERA over the next three seasons, and was the 2006 NLCS MVP.  Two days into the free agent market of 2004 (an offseason that included the signing of Beltran, Beltre, Glaus, and others), the Cardinals jumped at the chance to sign . . . David Eckstein for 3 years, $10 million.  The Angels were willing to let him go, because they went on to sign the much more well-known commodity that was Orlando Cabrera for more than twice as much money – and, over the next three seasons, Eckstein & Cabrera had nearly identical stats (though, Eckstein was slightly better). And the Angels had two playoff appearances that fell short of the Fall Classic, while Eckstein was the World Series MVP in ’06.  We don’t even have time to get into the timely signings of Chris Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and other key role players in St. Louis’ success.

For well over a decade now, the Cardinals franchise has proven that they get what it takes to build a championship caliber team.

They Just Don’t Get It (part 2)

Why is it so painfully obvious to the rest of the baseball world when some franchises just can’t seem to get it right?  How is it possible for a guy to hold a general manager position year after year after year, only to watch the team flounder under his watch?  Although, it isn’t always the GM that’s at fault.  Maybe he’s hamstrung by ownership that isn’t willing to properly invest in a winning team.  Maybe it’s a team that can’t generate enough revenue because the fans in a market that’s plenty big enough just don’t support their team (Tampa).  Perhaps it’s a franchise in one of the largest TV markets in the country that acts like it’s a small-market team that can’t spend money on high-end free agents (ahem, Houston).  There may be a number of contributing factors to why a team seems to struggle to ever succeed.

But, while there are often a number of reasons why a team struggles to succeed, there are some teams that seem to be the Barney Fife’s of MLB.  They consistently shoot themselves in the foot.  We saw last week how the Mets (in spite of what seems like a number of rising stars in their farm system), just can’t ever seem to get things rolling in the right direction.  Today’s team that just doesn’t seem to get it…

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Seattle Mariners

Granted, this is a team that has only been in existence for 38 seasons.  But, only one other franchise in baseball has never been to the World Series (Expos/Nationals – and, I think we’d all agree they’re a lot closer to ending that drought than Seattle is).  And, no other franchise as old as Seattle has fewer playoff appearances.  The Mariners clustered together four playoff appearances from ’95-’01 – and that’s it.  Nearly 40 years of history, and just 4 playoff appearances without a single appearance in the Fall Classic (and going a combined 5-12 in the three ALCS’s they’ve made it to).

It would be one thing if they were competitive every now and then, and had just missed the playoffs.  But, in 38 seasons, the Mariners have had a losing record 26 times!  Which means that in every decade of baseball in Seattle, you’ll get 3 winning seasons, and maybe one of them will be a playoff team – but the other 7 seasons, you might as well throw in the towel.  In fact, before their miraculous ALDS win over the Yankees in ’95, things were so bad that there was serious talk of moving the franchise out of Seattle.  That playoff victory saved baseball in Seattle.  Though, I’m not sure that baseball is better for it.

So, why have they been so bad for so long?  Let’s start with their drafting skills.  Yes, the draft in baseball is considerably different from the NFL or NBA.  There are far fewer “sure things.”  First round busts are about one out of every three or four.  But, with Seattle going through several lackluster seasons, they were privileged enough to be drafting much higher in the draft, which offers them several opportunities to put together quality picks.  Yet, they found a way to swing and miss almost every time.  If we go back to the 2012 draft (generally, the players we’d expect to be seeing soon), we see the Mariners chose Mike Zunino as the #3 overall pick.  He cracked the top-100 prospect list just once while in the minors, and in a year and a half in the majors (183 games), he has posted a whopping .203/.265/.383 stat line – not good, even for a catcher.  In the 2011 draft, the Mariners had the #2 pick, and chose Danny Hultzen – who has missed most of the last two seasons in the minors due to shoulder surgeries.  In 2010, they drafted Taijuan Walker at #43, as a part of the supplemental first round (their regular pick was gone to the Angels) – Walker has potential, but the jury’s still out.

Then things start getting really ugly.  2009 #2 pick – Dustin Ackley (.239/.300/.355 stat line in three full seasons in Seattle); 2008 #20 pick – Josh Fields (traded in ’11 for Trayvon Robinson, who has a .215/.272/.330 stat line in 90 games in the majors); 2007 #11 pick – Phillippe Aumont (part of the Cliff Lee trade in ’09, which got them half a season of Lee, to finish in 3rd place); 2006 #5 pick – Brandon Morrow (traded in ’09 for Brandon League, who was traded in ’12 for inconsequential minor leaguers).  So, even the best first-round pick they made in several years ended up being traded away for basically nothing.  Then, there’s 2005.  The Mariners had the #3 pick in what turned out to be an extremely talented draft.  And, they chose . . . Jeff Clement.  In four major league seasons, Clement played in 152 games, and bat .218.  Meanwhile, the other top 7 picks in that draft – Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, and Troy Tulowitzki (all of whom have been All-Stars at least once).  The list of bad draft picks goes on, but I’ll stop there.

With this kind of drafting, it should be no surprise that the Mariners don’t have a strong farm system.  At the end of last season, they only had 2 of the top 100 prospects in baseball.  But, this is just the beginning of the troubles for Seattle.  Because even if your farm system isn’t great, you can make the right moves to improve your major league team here and there.  But, Seattle has consistently made the wrong moves.

Jeff Cirillo was supposed to be worth trading three prospects (including Brian Fuentes – who went on to 4 All-Star selections), after four consecutive .300 seasons.  But, in two years in Seattle, he compiled a .234/.295/.308 stat line.  After the 2006 season, they traded Rafael Soriano (who has saved 191 games over the last 6 seasons) for Horacio Ramirez – who lasted one season in Seattle, and put together a staggering 7.16 ERA.  Prior to the 2008 season, they traded Adam Jones (a first round draft pick), Chris Tillman (a second round draft pick) and George Sherrill along with two other minor leaguers to the Orioles for . . . Erik Bedard.  Granted Bedard had a good season in 2007 (13-5, 3.16 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) – but, oh what a price to pay for a #2 starter.  Especially when he ends up starting just 46 games over 2.5 years, goes 15-14 with a 3.31 ERA, and 1.23 WHIP.  But, trades aren’t the only bad moves the Mariners make.

Safeco Field, the home of the Mariners for the last 15 years, is not a hitters’ ballpark.  It consistently ranks in the bottom 1/4 of baseball in run production.  So, what do the Mariners do?  Continue to sign big power-hitters to inflated contracts, only to see their numbers trail off significantly when playing half their games in Seattle.  Adrian Beltre hit 48 home runs the year before signing a huge contract with the Mariners in 2004.  He averaged 21 HR per year while in Seattle, despite those being his prime years.  Yet, when he left Seattle at the age of 31, over the next 4 seasons, he averaged 32 HR.  Robinson Cano was given a lucrative 10-year contract worth $240 million – at the age of 31.  Nevermind how little sense that makes on the surface, but from the ages of 26-30 in New York, he averaged 28 HR per season.  In his first year in Seattle – 14 HR.  After never having made more than $10.5 million in a single season, Nelson Cruz signed a 4-year deal with the Mariners this past offseason . . . for $57 million!  At the age of 34!  He has averaged 29 HR per year over the last six seasons, in much more hitter-friendly ballparks, during the prime of his career.  If he cracks 20 HR in 2015, I’ll be shocked.

The Mariners have some nice pitching.  But, when your stadium is already a great pitcher’s ballpark, perhaps you should spend more time seeking out quality contact hitters who will get on base, and keep the offense flowing.  I guess the fact that the Mariners don’t seem to realize this shouldn’t surprise us.  38 years of less-than-mediocre success isn’t a fluke.  They just don’t get it.

They Get It (part 1)

In conjunction with the series on the franchises that just don’t seem to get it, I’m going to write three posts on teams that really do seem to understand how to develop a winning team.  I don’t mean that they have been able to just win a World Series.  I don’t even necessarily mean that they’ve been able to win more than one lately (though, that does help).  Because the Florida/Miami Marlins have won two World Series titles, but I would hardly qualify what they do as “getting it.”  Especially considering that outside their two championship runs, they have never even made it into the playoffs, and have only finished as high as 2nd in their division one other time in the team’s 22-year history.  So, winning a championship here or there only gets you so far in my book (that goes for you, too, Phillies, White Sox, and Angels).

I’m looking at the teams that have built a consistently winning team.  Organizations that have been able to build something impressive, with timely trades, shrewd free agent acquisitions, and quality player development in their minor league system.  I don’t believe that any of my three choices will surprise you, because they are teams that we constantly see in October.  But, at minimum, I hope we will all gain a greater appreciation for what the front office has been doing with these teams.

So, the first team that really gets it is . . .

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San Francisco Giants

Like I said – this should be a shock to no one.  Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand the last 5 years, it’s been impossible to miss the almost clockwork success of the Giants.  Three World Series titles in five years.  That’s a feat that only four other franchises in the history of baseball have been able to accomplish – Athletics (1910, ’11 & ’13; ’72-’74), Red Sox (1915, ’16, & ’18), Cardinals (1942, ’44, & ’46), and, of course, the Yankees (4 times – ’36-’39; ’49-’53; ’58, ’61 & ’62; and ’96 & ’98-2000).  Even in the years between championships, you can see specific reasons why they weren’t especially competitive (2013 – practically their entire starting rotation tanked in the same year!; 2011 – Buster Posey‘s gone for the whole season, and they finished just 4 games out of the playoff picture).

But, the success of the Giants goes further back than just their recent run of championships.  In the last 18 years, this is a team with 7 postseason appearances, 4 National League pennants, and 3 titles.  And, they were 6 outs away from winning all 4 World Series appearances, if the bullpen had been able to hold up in game 6 in 2002.  But, in this same period of time, the Giants have just one last-place finish (2007), and have finished in either first or second place in their division 12 times.  And, my favorite part about the success the Giants have had, is the way they have built it – which is the primary reason they’re featured in this series.

Madison Bumgarner isn’t an “out of nowhere” phenomenon.  He was the Giants’ #1 draft pick in 2007, and was a highly-touted prospect leading up to his debut in 2010.  But, that’s just the beginning.  Buster Posey was their #1 pick in 2008, Tim Lincecum was their #1 pick in 2006, Matt Cain was their #1 pick in 2002 – all of whom have made major contributions to the Giants’ success of late.  Then there’s 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval (signed as an amateur free agent in 2003), Brian Wilson (drafted in 2003), Sergio Romo (drafted in 2005), Nate Schierholtz (2nd round pick in ’03), Russ Ortiz (4th round pick in ’95), and even Joe Nathan (6th round pick in ’95) – all of whom have contributed to winning seasons in San Francisco.

Why does all of this matter?  While the Giants do reside within the 6th largest U.S. television market, they also share it with another MLB team (Oakland).  Which means they aren’t going to generate the revenue of a Boston, Atlanta or Dallas.  And, that’s been born out most years by the amount of money they have been spending on their payroll.  The 2014 championship team was, by far, their most expensive – $140 million (6th in MLB) – while they were much more average spenders in other years – $117 million in 2012 & $98 million in 2010.  Other than making Barry Bonds the highest paid player in baseball in ’92, when was the last time you remember the Giants going out and spending huge money on a single player?  Barry Zito, I guess? (And, they almost immediately regretted that decision)  No, the Giants spend their money in the right places – developing their own talent, and adding key pieces to help them win.

Speaking of key additions, how could we ignore the important players the Giants front office has signed (or traded for) that have been invaluable pieces of their winning seasons?  Edgar Renteria was the 2010 World Series MVP in one of just two seasons he played in San Fran.  Cody Ross was the NLCS MVP that same year, and he was a late-season pick up from the Marlins.  Other mid-season trades brought in Marco Scutaro (2012 NLCS MVP) and Travis Ishikawa (hit the HR to win the NLCS in game 5 in 2014).  And, we can’t ignore Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence – the only two players on the team that will make 8-figure salaries over the next couple years that aren’t home-grown talent.  And, considering their contributions to the Giants over the last few years, they are well worth what the Giants are paying them.

While they may have gone through a lull in their success from 2005-2008 (4 of their 5 losing seasons out of the last 18), they certainly seem to have figured out how to win consistently, and how to build a champion by the Bay.

They Just Don’t Get It (part 1)

During this offseason, there was a flood of action.  Big name free agents were available.  Big names were traded.  The face of some franchises was completely changed.  Several teams made moves that could push them into playoff contention (both Chicago teams, Boston, San Diego, Miami, etc.).  Some teams made less appealing moves (I’m looking at you, Billy Beane), but we’ll have to wait and see how they work out.  But, today’s article is the first of six in which I hope to highlight some of the recent history with a handful of teams.  We’re going to begin with the teams that simply don’t seem to understand how to build a championship caliber team.

As soon as you read that sentence, I imagine a team or two popped into your head.  Most teams in the league go through ups and downs – good years and bad.  But, these teams fail repeatedly.  They’re the teams that can’t seem to get out of their own way.  They’re the Oakland Raiders of MLB.  They’re the teams that you almost feel bad for a guy when he’s traded there (unless, of course, you happen to be a fan of that team).  And, for a litany of reasons, they will continue to fail unless they stumble by sheer luck into a great player, or some drastic changes are made in the front office.

“Honorable” Mention:

Chicago Cubs:  Until they prove that they can actually win – and win consistently – all the impressive talent in their minor league system is just that: the minor leagues.  Prior to the signing of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, et al., by new ownership, I would have absolutely included the Cubs in one of these posts (the previous front office spent money in all the wrong places).  But, while they have finished in last place each of the last 5 seasons, the new regime has used their advantageous draft position (as well as timely trades) to turn one of the leagues most dilapidated farm systems into one of (if not the) best in the game.  Additionally, with the acquisitions of Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero, they have added key pieces to a team that is likely to see that young talent start producing.  It all remains to be seen whether or not it will work – but, for now, we will avoid accusing them of simply “not getting it.”

Now, for today’s team that just doesn’t get it…

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New York Mets

Over the last 26 years, the Mets have made 3 playoff appearances.  And, they haven’t even sniffed the playoffs since 2008.  But, what will drive Mets fans crazy is the fact that they have only finished in last place three times, in that same stretch of time.  They consistently field a . . . mediocre team.  They aren’t the laughing stock of the league, like the franchise was when it first got its start in 1962.  But, they aren’t ever able to really put it all together.  Why?  There are a plethora of reasons.  Let’s start with the farm system.  The Mets currently have a respectable farm system (generally considered to be one of the top 10 in the game at the moment).  But, they can’t seem to translate minor league potential into major league talent.  Even when guys make it into the major leagues and do well (Jason Isringhausen), they immediately plummet back to earth, and are soon traded away – in Isringhausen’s case, he went on to great success as a closer, after the Mets gave up on him as a starter, and traded him away.  But, think about some of the big-time talent over the last several years that didn’t pan out from the Mets’ farm system:  Lastings Milledge (their #1 draft pick in ’03), Jason Tyner (#1 draft pick in ’98), Paul Wilson (#1 overall pick in ’94), Bill Pulsipher (2nd round pick in ’91 – one of the supposed “Generation K” group of pitching prospects in the Mets farm system, which included Wilson and Isringhausen).  Then there’s prospects they’ve picked up in trades.  Alex Ochoa was the prospect that the Mets were waiting for, in order to pull the trigger on a trade that sent Bobby Bonilla to Baltimore.  And, while the jury’s still out on him, wasn’t Travis d’Arnaud supposed to be the key piece of the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto?  Yet, despite destroying AAA pitching for two years, in his 139 games at the major league level, he has a whopping .233/.299/.384 stat line.  All of these, at various times, were considered top-quality prospects.

Some might suggest that it’s unfair to judge a team or front office by their drafting abilities, because it’s so difficult to get from the minors to the majors.  And, while I do think that better scouting and better minor league coaching is going to have a significant impact on your major league team, I can see why some would defend these moves by the Mets as something they couldn’t have necessarily seen coming.  But, that doesn’t excuse the moves they should have seen coming.

One thing the Mets seem to be interested in doing is waiting to see a player blossom into a great talent, spend his prime years with another team, and then overpay him when he’s past his prime (but still a recognizable name in the league, so their fans will think they’re getting someone great).  The list is long.  And sad.  And, it begins with Bobby Bonilla.  Five years and $29 million is a quality second baseman’s contract these days (see Howie Kendrick).  But, in 1991, it made Bonilla the richest player in the game.  But, the richest player in the game was far from the best player in the game.  Before being traded in the midst of his 4th year of the contract (see above discussion of Ochoa), he made 2 All-Star game appearances (never as a starter), and never received a single MVP vote.  Bonilla wasn’t a bad player – but, richest contract in baseball?  Not even close.

But, the saddest part about all this is – that’s not even the worst decision the Mets made regarding a Bonilla contract.  When they re-signed him before the ’99 season (at the age of 36), it was for two years at nearly the same salary, after having played just 100 games the previous season due to injury.  The ’99 season was a disaster – only 60 games, batting .160, and creating all kinds of havoc in the clubhouse.  It made perfect sense that the Mets wanted to buy out Bonilla’s contract for 2000.  What didn’t make sense, was the way they bought him out.  Instead of doing the logical thing, and paying him his $5.9 million, they decided to defer the payment until 2011.  Why would Bonilla agree to this?  Because that $5.9 million would turn into $30 million.  From 2011 through 2035, the Mets will owe Bobby Bonilla about $1.2 million per year.  Only the Mets…

Want more bad contracts from the Mets?  How about a 4-year, $66 million contract for a 31-year-old Jason Bay in 2010?  That one was so bad that after his pitiful 2012 season, they were willing to pay him $21 million to go play somewhere else.  What about the “power-hitting” and “can’t miss defender” that was Kaz Matsui?  Three years and $20 million later, the Mets realized he was actually a singles hitter at best (.256/.308/.363 stat line in NY), and an average defender.  Six years, $137-million for a 29-year-old Johan Santana doesn’t sound ridiculous.  That is, until you realize he was coming off the worst season of his career.  And, when he wasn’t injured, and could actually play for the Mets, he only won 46 games.  That’s about $3 million per win.  Pedro Martinez is a Hall of Fame pitcher.  But, signing him at the age of 33, for 4 years and $54 million in 2004??  He only reached double-digit wins once in NY.  For more bad ideas, see the Mets’ signings of Oliver Perez in 2009, Luis Castillo in 2008, Vince Coleman in ’91, Roger Cedeno in 2002, and so on.

There’s a reason the Mets have just 7 playoff appearances in their 53-year history.  And, unless they get some legitimate batting talent, all this talk of their vaunted pitching prospects isn’t going to matter, and they will continue to view the postseason from their couch at home.

2015 Predictions: Playoffs

Yes, we’re barely on the cusp of Spring Training, and I’m already talking about October baseball.  But, what’s the point of making division-by-division predictions, if we aren’t going to try and guess who will finish the season on top??  So, here’s how I see the playoff picture coming into focus at the end of the year:

American League

Division Winners:  Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Oakland A’s

Wild Card Teams:  Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers

I don’t believe the Red Sox have improved enough with their pitching staff to overtake Baltimore.  And, I honestly don’t think they’ve done enough to end up even as a Wild Card team.  It will be a tight race between Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and the White Sox – I only have 4 games separating them all.  But, in the end, the AL Central will have 3 playoff teams.

 

National League

Division Winners:  Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers

Wild Card Teams:  Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres

Until the Padres signed Shields, I had them two games behind the Cardinals for that second Wild Card spot.  But, I think Shields will make just enough of a difference to push them over St. Louis.  To me, the Cubs are the bigger surprise here.  Everyone has heard about their stellar young offensive players that are on the cusp of breaking through for big years.  But, if their bullpen and rotation perform as well as last year, they could have the best overall pitching staff in the league.

 

Now that we have the general playoff picture set, let’s talk winners…

AL Wild Card:  Cleveland def. DetroitSan_Diego_Padres_041e44_fcfefcCleveland_Indians

NL Wild Card:  San Diego def. Chicago

 

ALDS:

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Oakland def. Kansas City (3-2)

 

NLDS:

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Pittsburgh def. Los Angeles (3-2)

 

 

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Baltimore def. Oakland (4-2)

 

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Washington def. Pittsburgh (4-1)

 

WORLD SERIES:

Washington def. Baltimore (4-2)

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2015 Predictions: NL West

Base_580I’m at least grateful that James Shields had enough courtesy to sign with a team of which I had yet to write.  That certainly made life easier for me as I worked on all of these posts.  The Padres certainly have been the busiest team in the west.  But, the question always is – did they make the right moves?  Every year, there is a team or two that makes several huge moves in an attempt to become suddenly relevant.  But, there are as many times (if not more times) in which it fails to make any difference.  Most recently, I recall everyone thinking the Blue Jays were going to run away with the AL East after several acquisitions in the offseason leading up to the 2013 season.  And, a season before that, it was the Marlins who signed several big-name free agents, and were expected to jump to the front of the division.  Both of those teams actually finished in last place, rather than first.  So, beware.  There’s no guarantee that making a big splash in the offseason will bring about any amount of success when the games are actually played.  With that in mind, here is how I see the NL West playing out:

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)
  2. San Diego Padres (87-75)
  3. San Francisco Giants (82-80)
  4. Colorado Rockies (74-88)
  5. Arizona Diamondbacks (72-90)

You might say I’m drinking the Padres Kool-Aid . . . sort of.  The signing of Shields actually did make a significant difference – but, you’ll see why when it comes time for my playoff predictions next week.  For now, let’s see how we got to this point…

Los Angeles

While it is a little bit tighter of a race, the Dodgers still have the best rotation in the division, top to bottom.  Kershaw is obviously not just the best pitcher in the division, but he’s the best in the National League, and possibly in the entire game right now.  Greinke would be the ace on every other team’s staff in this division – and he’s #2 in LA.  Ryu and McCarthy are average pitchers, which is fine if they’re in the #4 & #5 spots.  The wild card might be Brett Anderson.  If he can remain healthy, he has the stuff to be a legit top-of-the-rotation guy.  And, he might only be LA’s 3rd best pitcher.  The offense is still the best in the division, even after losing Kemp, Ramirez and Gordon.  Kendrick may not have Gordon’s speed, but he’s a much better defensive and all-around offensive player at 2B.  Joc Pederson is a stud, and can be a 30/30 guy at the top of the lineup.  Mix those in with Puig, Gonzalez, Uribe and Crawford and this lineup has very few holes.  The team defense and speed will be at or near the top of the division, as well – for basically the same reasons I just mentioned the offense will be excellent (Kendrick, Pederson, et al.).  The one area of concern for the Dodgers is one that didn’t rear its ugly head until the playoffs – the bullpen.  A below-average bullpen is an easy weakness to mask in the regular season if you have 3 or 4 quality starting pitchers.  But, come playoff time, you need a strong bullpen (just ask Kershaw). But, when League & Frias are two of your best relievers (1.46 & 1.24 WHIPs last year, respectively), you aren’t exactly elite. It isn’t the worst in the division.  But, don’t be surprised if it’s an issue yet again come playoff time.

San Diego

With the signing of Shields, the Padres starting rotation went from middle-of-the-pack in this division, to just a notch behind the Dodgers.  Assuming Shields would now be the ace of the staff, you have Shields, Cashner and Ross at the top.  That’s an impressive combination.  Despaigne isn’t exactly anything to write home about, but as a #4 or #5 starter, he’s more than adequate.  The real question might be whether or not Ian Kennedy can get back to his Arizona days.  Back when he was winning 20+ games with an ERA below 3.00.  It’s not like he was terrible last year (3.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) – but, if he improves just a little, the Padres could have the best overall rotation in the division.  The bullpen is also one of the best in the division – four players posting a WHIP at or below 1.10 last season.  And, their team defense and speed will be even better this year than last – when they were actually quite good already.  But, the reason they will fall short of the Dodgers is the offense.  Kemp and Upton are nice middle-of-the-order guys.  But, beyond those two, the Padres only have one other batter that is even somewhat significantly above average (Derek Norris – who has never played more than 127 games in a season).  This will create some problems in pitcher-friendly Petco Park.

San Francisco

Their bullpen is probably the best in the division – Casilla, Machi & Romo all posted WHIPs below 1.00 last year.  But, they’re gonna have to lean heavily on that bullpen in order to be successful at all this year.  Bumgarner was the only above-average starter on the team in 2014 (117 ERA+).  Hudson, Peavy, Vogelsong and Cain combined for an average FIP over 4.00.  It may not be the worst rotation in this division – but, it’s still in the bottom 1/3 of the league.  And, while everyone around them was working toward improving their offense, the Giants lost a valuable leader, quality fielder, and above-average bat in Sandoval.  Posey and Pence are comparable to Upton & Kemp, and they do have a few more above-average bats (Belt, Pagan, Panik).  So, they’re a notch above the Padres offensively, but that’s as far as it goes.  And, while they aren’t bad defensively or on the base-paths, they are definitely the worst in this division.  Once again, it looks like the odd year is not going to be kind to the Giants.

Colorado

Anyone know who won the NL batting title last year?  Anyone?  How many guesses do you think you’d need before you guessed Justin Morneau?  And, he’s not even considered the biggest threat in their lineup.  If Tulo & Cargo can remain healthy (and, that’s a big “if”), this offense could be stellar.  And, it’s a good thing, because otherwise this would likely be the worst team in the division.  Only two starters in the rotation posted even slightly above-average seasons last year (an aging DeLaRosa & a young Tyler Matzek – though, both finished with ERA’s above 4.00).  Four of the five best relievers on the team finished 2014 with a WHIP of 1.19 or worse – including Rex Brothers at 1.85!  And, while the team defense and speed isn’t bad – it still manages to be near the bottom in this division.  The Rockies will really need their offense to be spectacular, to keep this team from ending up in the cellar of this division.

Arizona

The only reason I have Arizona below Colorado is because of the Rockies offense.  While the Rockies can at least expect some excitement in that part of their game – the Diamondbacks have nothing above middle-of-the-pack in their entire team makeup.  The rotation is easily the worst in the division.  Collmenter is the only starter on the team who finished last season even a little above average (11-9, 3.46 ERA, 1.13 WHIP).  Their #3-5 starters had three of the five worst seasons as starters last year . . . in the entire division.  Their bullpen is only slightly better than Colorado’s.  Four of their five best relievers finished 2014 with a WHIP above 1.20 (though, none worse than 1.36).  Their offense is mediocre.  Goldschmidt – who has also had health issues of late – is a stud.  Tomas has 30-HR potential, but he likely will take a year or more to adjust and mature (just 24 years old).  A.J. Pollock has the potential to be very good – but, he has yet to play a full season either.  And, beyond these three, the Diamondbacks offense is nothing to get excited about.  Which is pretty much what I would say for their upcoming season.

2015 Predictions: AL West

AL-WestHere we are.  Just a few days away from pitchers and catchers reporting.  Are you excited yet??  I’m fairly excited to see what happens in the AL West.  Because I’m not sure you could say there is a bad team in this division.  The other two divisions have at least one team that you just know aren’t going to be able to compete in 2015.  But, even the bottom of this division has reason to be excited about the 2015 season.  Even if they aren’t competing for the division, they will still be relevant.  So, here’s how I see the division finishing the season…

  1. Oakland A’s (88-74)
  2. Los Angeles Angels (84-78)
  3. Seattle Mariners (81-81)
  4. Houston Astros (76-86)
  5. Texas Rangers (74-88)

As surprised as you may be reading this – I was even more surprised by this result when I looked at the numbers.  Looking at it right now, I want to make changes.  But, I am going to stick with the numbers that got me to this point.  So, here’s how each of the teams got to where they are in my rankings:

Oakland

I have spent most of this offseason questioning every move made by the A’s.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Billy Beane has tossed away his offense the way he has.  They weren’t a bunch of troublesome clubhouse guys.  They weren’t guys that were at the end of their contract, and were suddenly going to be too expensive for Oakland to keep.  And, it’s not like the A’s received top tier prospects in return for them.  So, I still have a lot of unanswered questions about their offense.  They rank as the worst offense in the division, not because they’re going to be terrible.  But, because they have several above-average bats (Zobrist, Reddick, Vogt, Lawrie), without any single batter that’s going to be a big threat to opposing pitchers.  However, in a division that seems lacking in the pitching department, the A’s will have the best rotation top to bottom.  All 5 of their starters had above-average seasons last year, and Gray and Pomeranz have the potential to be aces when they mature a little (24 & 26 years old, respectively).  And, the addition of Tyler Clippard to an already stout bullpen gives them five relievers who finished 2014 with a WHIP below 1.10 – three of whom were below 1.00!  So, the A’s pitching staff – rotation and bullpen – ranks as the best in the division.  Add that to the fact that, even with the losses of Donaldson, Moss and Norris, they will be at or near the top of the division in team defense, and you have a team that will win a lot of 3-2 games.

Los Angeles (or, is it Anaheim?)

And, down the Pacific coast we go to the team that is the anti-Oakland team.  The Angels have easily the best offense in the division, with the likes of Trout, Pujols, Calhoun, and Iannetta leading the way.  And, if Josh Hamilton can contribute after recovering from his surgery, they’ll just be that much more daunting.  But, once you get past the offense, the rest of this team is fairly mediocre.  Richards and Shoemaker had great seasons last year in the rotation.  But, Weaver is aging, and is now an average starter (4.19 FIP last year).  And, the back end of their rotation is highly suspect – Wilson and Santiago both posted FIPs well over 4.00 in 2014.  The bullpen is good – not great.  Street’s strikeout rate has been in decline since 2012.  And, the rest of the bullpen doesn’t really have anyone that just jumps out at you as a premier reliever.  The team defense and speed are near the bottom of the division.  If there hadn’t been two teams at the bottom of this division for the Angels to beat up on last year, they never would have won as much as they did.  With everyone else in the division finding ways to improve themselves, I see the Angels taking a significant step backward this year.

Seattle

Names.  I’ve decided that’s what Seattle continues to go after.  Year after year they are signing big names, rather than the kinds of players they need.  Nelson Cruz had the best year of his career in a favorable hitter’s park – so, the Mariners sign him for his age 34-38 seasons.  Seth Smith had the best year of his career at age 31, so the Mariners sign him.  I won’t even go into how big of a mistake the Cano contract was.  Their lineup has the look of being a great offense.  But, with Cano at 33, they simply have too many guys that are going to be declining in their production.  Felix Hernandez will carry their rotation (170 ERA+ last year!), but beyond him are a lot of question marks.  Iwakuma turns 34 in April, and had an average season last year.  Paxton pitched well in his 13 starts, and has top-of-the-rotation potential – but, he’s unproven.  Then you have an aging Happ, and a mediocre Elias at the back end.  And, unfortunately, the bullpen in Seattle is not built to pick up the slack – it’s easily the worst in the division.  Two of their best relievers going into this season had a WHIP over 1.30 last year.  And, a middle-of-the-pack team defense and speed isn’t really going to help them win.

Houston

I believe the Astros will likely be a force to be reckoned with in 2016.  But, they aren’t quite there yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they approached a .500 season, but they have some fairly major holes to fill before they’re competing for the playoffs.  The biggest of which is their starting rotation.  It’s definitely the worst in the division.  I was surprised at how excited some Astros fans were at the signing of Scott Feldman – a mediocre #3 starter, at best.  McHugh and Keuchel had career years last year.  So, does that mean they will continue to be strong pitchers (and, by strong, I mean quality #2 starters), or will they digress?  And, then, there’s the #4 & #5 spots.  Dan Straily‘s coming off of a season in which his ERA was 6.75, and Brett Oberholtzer‘s was 4.39 – yuck.  Perhaps management was anticipating the struggles of the starting rotation when they went out and signed 3 quality free-agent relievers (Qualls, Gregorson, and Neshek).  But, even those three only raise the Astro’s bullpen to above-average status – and, Qualls & Neshek are 36 & 34, respectively.  The biggest bright spot for Houston has to be their offense.  But, unfortunately, they reside in an offense-heavy division, so they aren’t really going to stand out.  But, Altuve and Springer are just going to get better as they mature.  Carter and Gattis will provide plenty of pop.  They’ll be young and exciting.  But, not a complete enough team just yet.

Texas

Before looking at the numbers, I was expecting the Rangers to take a significant step forward this season.  But, in this division, they could win several more games, and still finish in last.  And, that’s honestly what I expect to happen.  Even with a healthy Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, this offense is going to rank in the middle of the division at best (what does that tell you about these offenses?!).  And, they are easily the worst defensive team in the division.  They do have a young, blossoming, bullpen.  Feliz, Mendez, and Cline are all quality relievers, and all under the age of 28.  But, the reason I don’t see Texas making a move in the division is their rotation.  Darvish is very good at the top.  But, then you have nothing but mediocrity the rest of the way down.  And, that’s being kind, considering how poorly Lewis, Martinez and Tepesch pitched last year.  The addition of Yovani Gallardo might push their overall rotation ahead of Houston’s depending on what kind of bounce-back year he could have.  But, that’s as good as it’s going to get.  There will be a lot of high-scoring, exciting games in this division.  Unfortunately for Rangers fans, they’re going to see their team lose too many 8-6 and 7-5.