The Glass Eye: MLB Preview, Part One

We are less than a month from Opening Day, so it’s time for the Eye to take a close look around MLB This week I’ll take a quick look back at last season’s predictions, which you can find here, here, and here – and look at what I got right, and what I got wrong. Then we’ll look at the six teams that I expect to be the worst in all of baseball in 2015.

Last season, I was ahead of the curve on a few teams – but I missed BADLY on others, including the eventual World Champions. I believe in reviewing predictions, because I believe a writer should be accountable – anyone can throw predictions out there, and anyone can boast of their good predictions, but I want to learn from what I did wrong as well.

Here are the teams I think I made the best predictions for:

Philly (picked 29th, finished 73-89) Some were calling for one ‘last hurrah’ from the aging Phils, but I saw a team in steep decline desperately trying to ‘plug the dike’. It didn’t work and the Phillies are set to be a terrible team for the foreseeable future.

Colorado (picked 24th, finished 66-96) Again, there were other websites predicting contention for the Rockies, but despite a good (not great) offense their pitching imploded – as has become all too typical in Denver. Another team that needs to commit to a rebuild.

Cincinnati (predicted 79-83 wins, finished 76-86) Their offense looked too thin, and I predicted that any injury to Votto would doom them.

Washington (predicted 95-99 wins, finished 96-66) I predicted that the Nats would not only bounce back from the 2013 debacle, but that they would dominate the division and be the NL’s best. By almost any measure, both were true last season.

Kansas City (predicted 88-93 wins and the wildcard, finished 89-73 and made the World Series) Probably my best prediction – I saw the Royals’ youth and strong defense vaulting the team into true contention. I didn’t think they’d come so close to a World Series title, but I certainly saw them making some postseason noise.

Now…my worst predictions. For some of these, you may have to hold your nose, because they really stunk:

LA Angels (predicted 25th, finished 98-64 with the best record in baseball): The offense was good, but I saw that as possible. What I didn’t see was the amazing pitching they got – particularly from rookie Garrett Richards and close Joe Smith. Weaver and Wilson, the pitchers I cited as their only reliable starters, ended up as their #3 and #4 starters by midseason – and when Jered Weaver is your #3, you’ve got some good pitching. I undersold them, but I don’t think ANYONE saw all that coming.

Seattle (predicted 76-80 wins, finished 87-75 and one game short of the wildcard) – the offense was below-average, as I expected, but the pitching was absolutely superb – more than enough to allow the Mariners to compete. Felix Hernandez continued on his Hall of Fame track, but most of this was a bullpen that went 7-deep…and bullpens are notoriously inconsistent from year to year.

Texas (predicted 81-86 wins, finished 67-95) Sensing a pattern here? I completely messed up the AL West, and frankly it begins here, with the Rangers. I predicted that they’d regress, but no one saw their epic collapse coming. And now with star pitcher Yu Darvish about to go under the knife, it may be almost as bad in Arlington this summer.

Boston (Predicted 84-88 wins, finished 71-91) I was correct that Boston would decline after their World Series run, and I was down on their offseason moves – but I vastly underestimated how far the mighty would fall. Outside of Big Papi, Jon Lester, and a decent bullpen absolutely everything went wrong in Beantown last season.

San Diego (predicted 86-88 wins, finished 77-85) I completely overestimated San Diego’s young offensive talent. So did their GM, and it cost him his job. The Padres ended up with the worst offense in the majors by a whopping 60 runs.

San Francisco (predicted 71-75 wins, finished 88-74 and won the World Series) I did better in the NL, but my biggest mistake was a real whopper. It’s time for me to accept the fact that I’ve consistently underestimated the Giants, especially their GM Brian Sabean. Part of winning three World Series in five years is luck – but a bigger part is good team-building and he deserves high marks. His management is a bit unorthodox, but it proves again that there’s more than one way to win in MLB.

LESSONS: Look, part of the fun of baseball – and all sports, really – is the unknown. No one can consistently nail all the predictions, if they could it would take much, if not all, of the suspense out of the game. Having said that, the biggest factors I see for my failures are 1.) Over-valuing rotations and under-valuing bullpens – in the modern game, a great, deep bullpen can carry a mediocre rotation a LONG way. 2.) My bias against the Giants – I’ve been consistently down on them, and I think it’s because I haven’t been able to understand their plan. Bottom line: by the end of 2014 the Giants had average-or-above hitters at all eight positions, a legitimate ace, and a deep bullpen. That’s a recipe for success in any league.

Enough about 2014, let’s take a look at 2015 – specifically, the teams I expect to struggle this season. you’ll note that the three worst teams all reside in the NL – I think overall the NL has improved vs. the AL, to the point that overall the leagues are about even; however, the AL has a TON of parity (you can make a case for all 15 teams to contend) while the NL has a stark division between the haves and the have-nots.

30.) Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, 5th in NL East, T-22nd in MLB in ’14)

Key Losses: OF Marlon Byrd, SS Jimmy Rollins, SP AJ Burnett, SP Antonio Bastardo

Key Additions: SP Chad Billingsley, SP Aaron Harang

Outlook: Better hang on Phillie fans, because this roller coaster hasn’t bottomed out yet. This is an old team, a declining team, with a poor farm system and no young stars on the roster whatsoever. The ONLY good news is that (2-3 years too late) management has finally conceded that it’s time to rebuild, so look for any tradeable assets to be moved as the year goes along. If Cole Hamels is still a Phillie by October, something went desperately wrong. In any case, the mismanagement of this roster should have gotten GM Ruben Amaro fired long ago…and I certainly don’t trust him to preside over a successful rebuild. As the roster gets younger, the wins will steadily decrease…I think 2016 or 2017 should be the darkest times, but 2015 will be plenty dark. Only the relative mediocrity of the division, and the talents of Hamels and the bullpen (at least through July), will keep this team above 100 losses. Call it 58-64 wins for the Phils.

Reasons they could be worse: They can’t RANK any lower, but if Hamels gets injured this team is a sure bet for 100 losses.

Reasons they could be better: I define ‘better’ here as winning more than 75 games and having SOME aspiration of contention. Folks, I just don’t see that under any circumstances with this roster. If they stay healthy and Amaro foolishly holds on to Hamels, yes this team could win 70-75…but that’s unquestionably WORSE for the team long-term.

Chances to contend: Absolutely none. Seriously, if Philly makes the playoffs I’ll never write a preview column again. If they even approach .500, something is wrong – both with the teams in their division and with their rebuilding plan.

29.) Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98, 5th in NL West, 30th overall in ’14)

Key Losses: SP Wade Miley, C Miguel Montero, SS Didi Gregorius

Key Additions: SP Jeremy Hellickson, 3B Yasmany Tomas (Cuba),  SP Rubby De La Rosa

Outlook: The Diamondbacks are another team, like Philadelphia, that has publicly derided ‘advanced stats’ and prefers to build their team their way. Notice a trend here? Advanced analytics are no longer the competitive advantage they were 10 years ago – they are now a virtual prerequisite to any kind of success. The Dbacks tried to eschew the stats and build around ‘moxie, toughness and grit’…and it got them 98 losses, a new GM, and a very uncertain future. There’s a mess in the desert that will take some time to rebuild. I’m picking them to finish above Philly because they have a legitimate star in Paul Goldschmidt, and some interesting young players who could develop – especially Cuban import Tomas. However, the holes at short, left, catcher and through the back half of the rotation make a losing season a foregone conclusion in Phoenix. I’m predicting 64-67 wins for Arizona.

Reasons they could be worse: If Goldschmidt goes down this team will be scary-bad. The rotation is mostly unproven and/or coming off injury, and none of the youngsters are can’t-miss stars. In addition, the Padres improved, the Dodgers are spending smarter, and the 3-time champ Giants are also in the division.

Reasons they could be better: Hellickson is healthy, Goldschmidt has another great year, one of the Giants, Dodgers, or Padres has a terrible year, and the youngsters end up better than expected. That won’t get them into contention, but their upside is maybe 80 wins in that scenario.

Chances to contend: VERY slim. I could maybe/kinda see a scenario that keeps them in the second wild-card hunt into early September, but that would involve a lot of good luck for them and a lot of bad luck for the other contenders…and frankly, I think it would be a setback overall for a team that needs to continue a long-term rebuild.

28.) Atlanta Braves (79-83, T-2nd in NL East, 16th in MLB)

Key Losses: RF Jason Heyward, LF Justin Upton, C Evan Gattis, 2B Tommy LaStella, SP Aaron Harang, SP Ervin Santana, RP David Carpenter

Key Additions: RF Nick Markakis, SP Shelby Miller, 2B Alberto Callaspo, LF Eric Young Jr, C AJ Pierzynski

Outlook: After a disastrous season in 2014, the Braves basically blew it up and are rebuilding. The hitters  listed above that they lost represented most of the 2014 offense – of the holdovers, only 1B Freddie Freeman was above average – and most were well below average. The players brought in to fill the gaps range from average (Markakis) to declining (Pierzynski) to not very good (Callaspo and Young). This team may struggle to score 600 runs next year – they have a real shot at being the worst offense in MLB.

The pitching story is a little better – Teheran and Wood had great seasons, and Mike Minor still has great potential (although he’s already dealing with shoulder soreness, a BIG red flag). Shelby Miller disappointed the Cards, but perhaps the Braves can get some consistent results from him. Closer Craig Kimbrel is in the conversation as the best in the business, but after that the pitching gets pretty dicey – and Kimbrel is prime trade bait as the summer goes along.

The Braves may talk contention and ‘reloading’, but the reality is that they are looking long-term now and basically punting 2015. It’s a fairly weak division after Washington, but Atlanta is in no position to take advantage of that now…and if they start slowly, more assets could be traded away. I look for 67-70 wins from the Braves this season.

Reasons they could be better: Teheran and Wood form a Maddux/Glavine-like duo, Freeman has an MVP campaign and Markakis finds the fountain of youth. All that MIGHT get the Braves to .500.

Reasons they could be worse: Teheran or Wood get hurt, they trade Kimbrel, and all the mediocre acquisitions show their age.

Chances to contend: this team has a MUCH better chance of finishing 30th than they do of winning a wildcard. I think they have no more than a 1-in-20 chance of staying relevant into September, and no chance at a division title.

27.) Texas Rangers (67-95, 5th in AL West, 28th in MLB in ’14)

Key Losses:  SP Yu Darvish (torn UCL, likely done for the season), LF Alex Rios

Key Additions: 1B Prince Fielder (back from injury), SP Yovani Gallardo

Outlook: The window closed in a hurry on the Rangers, who followed up four straight 90+ win seasons with a 95-loss disaster. They were a trendy ‘bounce-back’ candidate over the winter, but I was skeptical at best – and with this week’s news that Darvish is almost certainly undergoing Tommy John surgery, I think Texas is in for another VERY long season.

For all their injury woes – and they had their share – the fact remains that even with Darvish, Texas was terrible both at bat AND on the mound last season. Their only above-average hitter was Adrian Beltre, who is now 36. Their young prospects such as SS Elvis Andrus have not developed, and they are counting on a comeback from Prince Fielder at age 30 – an age where large-bodied sluggers typically begin a rapid decline. The news is worse on the mound- they are counting on the return of Derek Holland to compensate for Darvish, and hoping that Gallardo can be a #2-level starter. Here’s the problem – Gallardo never became an ace, and in fact was no better than league-average the last two seasons in Milwaukee. Moving him to high-offense Arlington Ballpark is not likely to improve his fortunes.

The AL West is still a bit of a jumbled mess – the A’s in particular made SO many moves that predicting their season is something of a fool’s errand, and makes the rest of the division pretty hard to sort out – but it sure looks to me like the Rangers are still the worst of the bunch, They may be forced to concede that a rebuild is coming and trade Beltre while he still has some value. I think they will be slightly better in 2015, but not much – 67-70 wins for the Rangers.

Reasons they could be worse: Fielder proves to be done, Gallardo struggles, and the team starts trading off their assets to prepare for the future.

Reasons they could be better: This team has a rather high variance because of Fielder, Holland, and the bullpen. If Fielder and Holland are back at their pre-injury levels, and the bullpen combo of Feliz/Scheppers can manage an injury-free season, this team could still be a threat to win 80+ games.

Chances to contend: They need all of the above to break their way, and I think that’s a 1-in-10 shot at best, so let’s say 10% for a wildcard slot. No chance at the division in my opinion.

25.) Colorado Rockies (66-96, 4th in NL west, 29th in MLB)

Key Losses: NONE

Key Additions: C Nick Hundley, SP Kyle Kendrick

Outlook: Here’s something you don’t see everyday: a 96-loss team, with a ton of veteran players and a new GM, making almost no offseason moves. I’m stunned by the lack of moves here – this isn’t a 1-year losing trend, the Rockies have lost 88 or more games each of the past four seasons. Perhaps the new front office is evaluating before making deals; more likely (and more worrisome), they are counting on health from Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to get the team back to respectability.

Here’s the problem: Tulo is unlikely to be healthy (he has missed significant time three of the past four seasons, and hasn’t played in 150 games since 2009), and Gonzalez has NEVER played 150 games. In addition, I believe the front office is fooled by the offense’s superficially good stats – yes, they hit .276 as a team and led the NL in runs, homers, virtually everything…but check out these two stat lines:

.322/.372/.529, 119 HR, 500 runs, 209 walks, 546 Ks

.228/.279/.357, 67 HR, 255 runs, 188 walks, 735 Ks

As you probably guessed, these are the team’s home/road splits in 2014. They hit like a TEAM of Andrew McCutchens at home, and like a TEAM of Clint Barmes’ on the road. How do you evaluate the talent? Are these below-average hitters propped up by the ballpark? Or does the drastic change from home to away games confuse hitters badly when they are on the road? No one is immune – Tulowitzki hit .417 at home, .257 on the road. One thing I know – with a home park like that, they MUST lead the league every year in hitting just to remain even slightly relevant. My take is that these hitters aren’t nearly as good as most fans think they are, and the team is also over-estimating their own talent.

On the mound the problem is even worse – Coors Field has destroyed many a pitcher’s confidence over the years, evaluating talent there is problematic, and no free-agent pitcher in his right mind would choose Denver if other options are available.  They have one established, good starter in Jorge De La Rosa, and a whole lot of question marks after that.

It seems clear that Colorado’s Jekyll-and-Hyde nature will continue in 2015…they will play well at home and terribly on the road. There’s no reason to expect massive improvement, and I fully expect management to begin a major shakeup by midsummer. With that in mind, even allowing for more ABs from CarGo and Tulo, I see minimal improvement here…call it 69-73 wins for the Rockies.

Reasons they could be worse: Tulo gets hurt, the pitching stinks, and half the team gets traded by July.

Reasons they could be better: Tulo plays 150 games and hits .350, the team scores 800 runs and only allows 820, and they manage to flirt with .500.

Chances to contend: Can’t see it, not in this division or in this league. They get a head-start on other poor teams with the 40-50 wins they seem to get at home every year, but their road issues seem equally entrenched. I estimate 5% for a wild card and virtually no chance at the division.

25.) Minnesota Twins (70-92, 5th in AL Central, T-25th in MLB)

Key Losses: SP Kevin Correia

Key Additions: RF Torii Hunter, SP Ervin Santana

Outlook: I’ll be honest – I had originally pegged the Twins to be much lower than this, but then I realized that their offense is much better than I expected. Every single regular was above-average in 2014, and the majority of them are young. The oldest holdover, Joe Mauer, is an excellent bet for a big rebound year. In fact, the signing of Hunter probably made this offense worse, not better – Hunter turns 40 this summer and is a good bet to decline sharply this season. With the projected improvement from the youngsters and a rebound from Mauer, this offense could be top-5 in the AL.

Unfortunately, they have to pitch as well – and the Twins have simply screwed up their chances with a confounding ‘pitch to contact’ organizational strategy. The modern game emphasizes strikeouts – the game has never seen more of them – and the Twins went completely the other way, with disastrous results. The resurrection of Yankee phenom Phil Hughes gives them a solid starter to build around, but the rest of the staff is full of holes and question marks. In today’s game, you need solid pitching to have a chance – the days of slugging your way into the playoffs seem to be over.

The AL Central is now the weakest division in the game, but the Twins aren’t in position to capitalize on the opportunity. They should be slightly better in 2015, but not enough to be a threat – call it 72-75 wins for Minnesota.

Reasons they could be better: The offense takes a major leap forward, Hughes shows he’s for-real, and they hang around until the front office swings a trade for a good starter.

Reasons they could be worse: Last year proves to be the exception for Hughes, Mauer shows he’s really in decline, the pitching is as bad as last season and the Twins stumble to 95 losses.

Chances to contend: Detroit is VERY vulnerable now, and the AL Central is perhaps the most wide-open division in baseball – I think 85 wins might be enough this season. The Twins have enough young talent to make contention possible, but they need a lot to break their way. I actually think their best route to the playoffs is the division, the wildcards are likely to come from the West and East this year. Call it 20% chance of contention, but if they can find a couple of arms 2016 might be the Twins’ time.

Next week we’ll look at the next eight – teams that should finish in the bottom half, but in most cases have a path to contention.

David Glass can be reached at dsglass74@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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