Can you smell the grass? Can you hear the crack of the bat? Can you feel the excitement as each team has a fresh start? We are less than a week from Opening Day. And, that means it’s time for some bold predictions (see what I did there?). Or, at least, some predictions. I’m not sure how “bold” they are – you can be the judge of that for yourself.
Justin Upton (DET) and Anthony Rizzo (CHC). Upton was an All-Star a year ago, and hit 26 HR . . . at Petco Park . . . in the midst of a terrible offense (ranked 28th in baseball in team OPS). Now, Upton isn’t the centerpiece of the offense. He’s an important cog, to be sure. But, he isn’t the only one pitchers have to worry about. He’ll be batting 2nd or 3rd, most likely. And, behind him in the lineup will be the likes of Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, and Victor Martinez. Translation: I see 2016 being Upton’s best offensive year of his career. He might only bat around .280, but he’ll hit 35-40 HR, drive in 100+, and be the spark for a team that returns to the playoffs.
Rizzo hit 31 HR, drove in 101, and had an .899 OPS last season . . . his age 25 season. The Bryce Harpers and Mike Trouts of the world make us forget that 25 is still very young. And, when you look at Rizzo’s season in 2015, you see a guy who went through some significant droughts in his production (.785 OPS and just 4 HR in the month of July, for example). As he matures as a hitter, those dry-spells are likely to get smaller and smaller. He has 40+ HR potential, and could win a Gold Glove at 1B, as well. Don’t be surprised if he leads this Cubs team to a World Series appearance, if not the unthinkable…
Marcus Stroman (TOR) and Johnny Cueto (SF). Many times, a pitcher can build on the way he finished the previous season, and turn it into a great year the following season. Jake Arrieta is a great example of that, after he finished the 2014 season by going 4-1 with a 2.29 ERA and 0.89 WHIP over his last six starts. Stroman is poised for this in 2016. After coming back from a knee injury that cost him nearly all of 2015, Stroman made four starts at the end of the regular season. His first start was mediocre – 5 IP, 3 ER, 2 BB, 2 K. But, the next three were impressive: 22 IP, just 2 ER (for a 0.82 ERA), 0.91 WHIP, and 16 K’s. Obviously, he wouldn’t be able to keep that up for an entire season. But, I think he’s well on his way to becoming an elite pitcher.
If you look back at my top 10 starting pitchers for 2016, you’ll see that Cueto ranked 8th. And, that’s based on the numbers he has put up over the last couple years, while pitching primarily in a hitter’s park. Now, he’s moving out to San Fran – one of the parks where home runs go to die. Add to that the fact that he will have a much better defense behind him than he has ever had in Cincinnati. And, the fact that he isn’t expected to be the ace of that pitching staff. Now you have a situation that could allow Cueto to have a season as good or better than his 2014 season, when he won 20 games, led the league in K’s, and had an ERA under 2.50.
Everyone’s talking about the improvements the Tigers made, and the fact that it’s an even year and the Giants made significant improvements to their starting rotation. Lots of people are picking the Cubs to win their division, and possibly more. The Diamondbacks made all that noise in the offseason, and people will be watching them now. But, let me give you two teams that aren’t getting nearly as much publicity: the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Just a few years ago, no one would have ever expected these two teams to be flying below the radar. But, think for a moment about what we have heard regarding these two teams. Sure, the Red Sox made a pretty huge splash by signing David Price. But, that was back in early December. So much has happened since then that has overshadowed that bold move. By signing Price, they now have a legit ace – something they were obviously missing last year. And, now they can slide Buchholz into the #2 spot, followed at #3 by Porcello, and then they have lots of options for the back end of their rotation – including one of the best pitching prospects in the game, Henry Owens. They also added significant depth to their bullpen with the addition of Craig Kimbrel. They’ll get a full season of Rusney Castillo, and you can’t possibly expect Sandoval & Hanley to underperform again as badly as they did last year.
And, did you notice all the moves the Yankees made?? Oh, you didn’t? Well, there’s a good reason for that. The Yankees are the only team in baseball that didn’t sign a single free agent to a major-league contract. How’s that for flipping the tables? That’s not to say they sat on their hands. They made two very shrewd trades that should pay significant dividends. First, they traded for Starlin Castro. The Yankees got a .683 OPS out of their second basemen last season. Even at the young age of 26, Castro’s career OPS is more than 40 points higher than that – despite his sub-par season in 2015. And, when the Dodgers backed out of the Aroldis Chapman trade, the Yankees swooped in. Even with the 30-game suspension, Chapman figures to be a significant part of what may very well be the best bullpen in the AL. So, even if guys like Pineda, Sabathia or Nova can’t get past the 5th or 6th inning – this is a bullpen that can keep them in the game (and KC won a World Series that way). The offense may be old – but, they have highly-ranked prospects at RF, 2B and C that could contribute as early as this year. Part of the reason Cashman probably didn’t think he needed to go sign a big-name free agent.
High expectations can often be difficult to deal with. And, there are a number of teams that have either made moves in the offseason, or performed so well last season, that nearly everyone expects them to be at or near the top of their division in 2016. But, as we have all witnessed over the years, there always seems to be at least one team that falls flat (remember my World Series picks from last year?? – Nationals vs. Orioles!). So, here are my picks to underachieve in 2016: Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Astros started off last season on an incredible tear. They won 62% of their games through May 30th, and were 31-19. But, the rest of the year? They went 55-58 (11-16 in September!), and ended up losing what had been a hefty lead in their division, and finished as the 2nd Wild Card team, just one game ahead of the Angels. Add to that the fact that they were an astonishingly good team at home (.654 win pct.), but were abysmal on the road (.407 win pct.), and you have the makings of a team that could fall on hard times in 2016. They’re also starting the season with their #3 starter on the DL. Don’t be surprised if the Astros are closer to a .500 team than a playoff contender.
The D-backs made a lot of noise this offseason. They landed the most sought after starting pitcher. They traded for another with top-tier potential. They already had one of the best offenses in the National League. Many are already penciling them in as the AL West favorites. But, I say we can’t hand them the crown yet. First of all, I’m not convinced Zack Greinke has what it takes to lead a rotation. By far, his best years have been behind Kershaw in LA, and his mental makeup has been shaky in the past. Secondly, they seriously overpaid for Shelby Miller. Yes, he’s young, but I’m not sure he has done enough to warrant the package they sent to Atlanta. In 3 full seasons at the big league level, Miller has a nice 3.27 ERA. But, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that he has a 1.24 WHIP and a 3.87 FIP. These aren’t horrendous numbers, but they are more the type of numbers you want from a #3 starter – not a guy you decimate the top of your farm system for (sent their two best prospects), and give up a top-of-the-order outfielder with excellent defensive skills. But, Miller will be expected to be the #2 starter in Arizona, primarily because beyond Miller and Greinke, their rotation is suspect. Add to this the fact that Arizona’s bullpen is mediocre at best, and they will have the Dodgers and Giants to deal with on a regular basis – and, I’m not sold on Arizona as anything more than a .500 team.