Last week, we looked at the six teams that I think will be the bottom of the barrel in MLB this season, each with little or no chance to contend. This week we will look at the next ‘rung’ up the ladder – eight teams that have some talent and a path to contention, but that I believe are ultimately too flawed to finish above .500.
Some of the teams listed here will surprise you…two of them made the postseason a year ago, and two others are widely expected to have bounce-back seasons (I obviously disagree).
At this point things get VERY tricky, especially with the massive turnover on some of these rosters, and if history is a guide it’s a good bet that at least one of these teams will make a playoff push.
24.) Cincinnati Reds (76-86, 4th in NL Central, 21st in MLB in 2014)
Key Losses: SP Mat Latos, SP Alfredo Simon, LF Ryan Ludwick
Key Additions: LF Marlon Byrd, SP Paul Maholm, SP Jason Marquis
Outlook: The additions above tell you all you really need to know – this is a team counting on the likes of Paul Maholm and Jason Marquis to ‘stabilize’ the rotation. Neither has ever been anything more than a #4 starter, and at this stage I’m surprised either is getting a chance to start – but that’s how desperate the Reds are for starters.
Let’s look at this another way – the Reds had a good rotation in 2014, fronted by ace Johnny Cueta and backed up by Latos, Simon, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake. Even with that good pitching, the Reds finished well below .500 – and now Latos and Simon are gone, Bailey had forearm surgery and likely won’t be ready for opening day, and Cueto is a free agent after this season and may well be traded by July. Simply put, the Reds look like a good bet to allow 50-100 more runs this year.
Many think that the offense can rebound and pick up the slack, but I don’t see it. Yes, Joey Votto should contribute a lot more than he did last year – but keep in mind that he’s now 31, and has missed significant time two of the past three seasons. Devin Mesoraco broke out and was the best offensive catcher in MLB in 2014 – I think he will be productive, but there’s a good chance that last season was his career year. Jay Bruce can hardly be any worse, but can he return to All-Star form? Even if those three players work out, there are holes at 2B, SS, and CF – and probably LF, where Byrd will start showing his age VERY soon. They will probably score a few more runs, but I can’t see this as anything beyond an average offense.
The bullpen is still strong, and there IS some rebound potential here – but this division is so strong, and the bar has been set so high, that I don’t think the Reds have the talent to compete any longer. In another division they might flirt with .500, but in the toughest division in baseball I predict 70-73 wins for the Reds.
Reasons they could be worse: If they struggle early Cueto is even more likely to be traded – and without him, the pitching could collapse. The same is true for the offense if Votto cannot play 150 games.
Reasons they could be better: I see a path to .500 for the Reds IF they: get off to a hot start; decide to keep Cueto; Votto plays 155 games at an MVP level; and they make a move in July for a bat and/or a good starter. If all that happens; and one of the three division favorites falter, the Reds could contend for a wild card.
Chances to contend: That’s a LOT of ifs. This is a team with some talent, but they are looking at a rebuild very soon. Call it a 25% chance to contend for a wildcard, 10% for the division.
23.) Oakland A’s (88-74, 2nd in AL West, T-8th in MLB in 2014)
Key Losses: OF Brandon Moss, SP Jeff Samardjiza, SS Jed Lowrie, 3B Josh Donaldson, 1B Brandon Moss, C Derek Norris, DH/C John Jaso, SP Jason Hammel, RP Luke Gregerson
Key Additions: 3B Brett Lawrie, 2B Ben Zobrist, SS Marcus Semien, 1B Ike Davis, DH Billy Butler, SP Jesse Hahn
Outlook: Oakland is an extreme example of just how quickly fortunes can change. At the midway point last season, the A’s were 51-30, the best team in baseball, and with a +135 run differential, seemingly unstoppable. In July they seemingly went ‘all-in’, trading their best prospect to the Cubs for Samardjiza and Hammel, and slugger Yoenes Cespedes to Boston for ace Jon Lester. They finished July at 66-41, still on top of the baseball world.
With all those reinforcements, they proceeded to go 22-33 the last two months, barely hanging on to the last wildcard slot and then dropping the wild-card game to the Royals in excruciating fashion.
Their all-in bet went bust – Lester and Hammel left as free agents, and GM Billy Beane decided to start from scratch, trading away almost every established hitter they had as well as Samardzija. Most surprising was the trade of budding star Josh Donaldson to the Jays, he seemed like the kind of young player the A’s would want to build around.
The 2015 A’s bear almost no resemblance to the 2014 version – Sonny Gray is still the ace, Josh Reddick is in left, and for unknown reasons Sam Fuld is still around in center…but this roster has been SEVERELY downgraded and 2015 looks like a lost season to me.
The bullpen is still solid (although closer Sean Doolittle is still recovering from offseason surgery) and these moves replenished a depleted farm system – but those moves likely won’t bear fruit for at least a year or two.
I had originally given Beane extra credit due to his track record, and put the A’s above the Astros for this season – but the simple truth is, they have downgraded at every position and I don’t see how this roster wins 80 games, much less the 85+ needed to contend. I think they fall all the way to 73-77 wins in 2015.
Reasons they could be worse: If Gray gets hurt, the rotation is awfully ‘iffy’ behind him, full of retreads and unproven youngsters. They’ve also made a big bet on Lawrie, despite years of disappointment in Toronto – if he does not improve the offense could be the worst in the AL.
Reasons they could be better: They have traded certainty for potential in many of these moves – IF at least ¾ of these young players show significant improvement this season, and the pitchers avoid the injury bug, Oakland could flirt with .500.
Chances to contend: No more than 10%. They are fairly high-floor, but low-ceiling as currently constructed.
22.) Tampa Bay Rays (77-85, 4th in AL East, T-18th in MLB in 2014)
Key Losses: Joe Maddon (Manager), Andrew Friedman (GM), 2B Ben Zobrist, RF Wil Myers, LF Matt Joyce, C Jose Molina, SS Yunel Escobar
Key Additions: C/DH John Jaso, C Rene Rivera, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, RF Steve Souza
Outlook: The Rays are another team that fell hard in 2014, going from 92 wins to last place. Many, many projection systems and pundits foresee a big-time bounceback season in Tampa…but I’m not buying it at all.
Let’s start with the strength of the team – the rotation. They have a trio of young, quality starters in Archer, Smyly, and Cobb with Jake Odorizzi a good bet to improve as well. The problem is, there’s little depth after those four…and the best of the bunch, Cobb, is already missing time with elbow pain. I pay NO attention to spring stats, but I pay close attention to spring injuries – especially with pitchers – because they are often harbingers of long-term problems. Maybe Cobb will make 30 good starts this year, but my bet is on a lot less than that – and with David Price long gone, that leaves the depth of this rotation sorely lacking. There are some hard throwers in the bullpen, but again there are injury issues – closer Jake McGee had elbow surgery and is out until at least late April, for example. The Rays were a great pitching-and-defense team for the past six seasons, but look for the pitching side of that equation to take a big hit in 2015.
The offense was a disaster in 2014 – they set a franchise record for fewest runs, no small feat when you consider how bad this franchise was from 1998-2007. I get that they had to make some moves, but two seasons removed from making a splashy deal for top prospect Wil Myers, they gave up on him and dumped him in a deal with the Padres. Maybe Myers IS a bust, but at age 24 I think I’d have given him at least another year. Losing Zobrist hurts, and Joyce was underrated as well – but they may have taken the biggest hit at shortstop. Escobar was not a great hitter, but he was a good defender – and Cabrera is decidedly below-average now in that respect. This team desperately needs Evan Longoria to regain his all-star form to have a chance.
Worse yet, the farm system is running dry and the top management duo of Friedman and Maddon have both moved on to bigger, more lucrative opportunities. I think the pitching is going to suffer a real setback and the offense, while somewhat better, won’t come close to compensating. 74-78 wins for the Rays and the basement is my prediction, even in the thoroughly mediocre AL East.
Reasons they could be worse: Cabrera is washed up at bat as well as afield, another young pitcher gets hurt (it happens ALL the time), and the Rays are again sellers at the deadline.
Reasons they could be better: There are a lot of young players here with breakout potential – I’m a huge Drew Smyly believer, for example – and if enough of those pitchers hit their stride, this could be a .500 team or even a little better.
Chances to contend: Like the AL West, the East is VERY hard to read – every team made major changes over the winter, and every team has at least one major flaw. Someone is going to get hot and win 90+ games in this division – but I can’t see that team being Tampa. Let’s call it a 25% chance to contend for a wildcard, 10% for the division.
21.) Houston Astros (70-92, 4th in AL West, T-26th in MLB)
Key losses: CF Dexter Fowler
Key Additions: 3B Luis Valbuena, SS Jed Lowrie, SP Dan Straily, CF Colby Rasmus, RP Pat Neshek, RP Luke Gregerson
Outlook: After three straight 100-loss campaigns, the Astros finally started putting the pieces back together in 2014. Every regular was under 30, and the rotation also featured extensive youth. The team has brought in a bit more experience this year to fill some glaring holes, and 2015-especially on offense – should represent another step forward for the Astros.
2B Jose Altuve has developed into perhaps the best 2B in the league – it’s either him or Cano, and it’s a lot closer than you might think. Altuve is an ideal leadoff man for a contender, and at 25 he still has a chance to improve. 2014 may have been his career year, but he’s pretty clearly a star. After him there are potential stars in Carter and Springer, but production at the corners and at SS was simply not up to par. The additions of Valbuena and Lowrie are excellent short-term measures for the next couple of seasons. The big concern is the lack of plate discipline. They have a lot of low-walk, high-strikeout hitters…but some of that will improve with experience. Overall, this team should improve by 50-70 runs in 2015 and become an average to slightly-above average offense.
The pitching concerns me a bit more – they brought back the top-4 of their rotation, but only Collin McHugh gets a lot of strikeouts – and low-strikeout pitchers tend not to fare as well year-to-year in today’s game. The bullpen got a shot in the arm with the acquisition of Gregerson and Neshek, but I’m concerned that the rotation may take a step back this season.
Overall this is a team on the rise, albeit one still missing a few key pieces. Some of those pieces will arrive via the farm, but the trades made over the next 24 months will tell whether or not the Astros are truly ready to contend in 2016 or 2017. This season, I anticipate slight improvement, but a roster this young has a wider range of possibilities than most – call it 75-82 wins for the Astros.
Reasons they could be worse: Altuve regresses badly, the young hitters cannot control the strike zone, the rotation crashes back to earth and the older players are once again moved for prospects.
Reasons they could be better: The more I look at Houston’s roster, the more I see a potential dark-horse contender if the youth develops normally. They need a top starter – Cole Hamels, anyone? – but the offense can compete in this division today if they learn to take a few more walks.
Chances to contend: Overall I think this roster and Oakland’s are similar – the edge to Houston at the plate, to the A’s on the mound – but I think the upside is MUCH higher for the Astros. I think the potential variance is large enough to give Houston as much as a 50% chance of wild-card contention and 25% for the division.
20.) Milwaukee Brewers (82-80, 3rd NL Central, 15th in MLB)
Key losses: SP Yovani Gallardo, RP Zach Duke,
Key additions: 1B Adam Lind
Outlook: the Brewers let it slip away in 2014 – they had the division comfortably in hand through midseason, but a disastrous (9-16) September left them a .500 team. They made few changes this offseason, perhaps thinking their core remains good enough. I’m here to say it is not – they have some good pieces, especially on offense, but the defense is questionable and the pitching is no better than average – and their depleted farm system offers little help and no trade chips.
CF Carlos Gomez has become a star, and C Jonathan Lucroy broke out as well a year ago. The Brew Crew also have average or better hitters at every position except short – this is a make-or-break season for Segura – but I don’t see much hope of any other hitters making a ‘leap’ forward, and I see several that I expect to regress. Lucroy isn’t going to hit 53 doubles again, Aramis Ramirez is 36 and declining, Ryan Braun may miss the start of the year after thumb surgery (and even then, will he be effective?), and Lind is now 32 and has been thoroughly inconsistent his entire career. This is an above-average offense, especially in homer-happy Miller Park, but not a great one.
The pitching SEEMS ok at first glance – the rotation has no aces, but three durable pitchers in Peralta, Garza, and Lohse – but the bullpen was a disaster a year ago, and their most effective reliever (Duke) is gone. Lohse is now 36, Garza has a lot of mileage, and the back-end options are mostly unproven.
I think this is a roster whose time has passed. In another division this might be a fringe-contender, but the NL Central is too deep, too strong for the Brewers to compete. Call it 77-80 wins for Milwaukee
Reasons they could be worse: Braun never regains effectiveness, a starting pitcher gets injured, and they go into a tailspin early, selling off veterans at the deadline.
Reasons they could be better: If Braun can somehow regain even a shadow of his all-star form and the rest of the offense holds, this could be a top-3 hitting attack, able to bludgeon their way to a lot of 6-5 wins. Bullpens are the easiest team parts to fix, so if Milwaukee gets off to another hot start I expect the GM to go all-in to try to make a last-ditch run.
Chances to contend: this is not a BAD roster, and again in other divisions I think they would have a fine chance. I see about a 10% chance of them contending for the division – but about 30% of staying relevant in the wildcard race into September.
19.) Boston Red Sox (71-91, 5th in AL East, 24th in MLB)
Key Losses: LF Yoenes Cespedes, RP Burke Badenhop
Key Additions: LF Hanley Ramirez, 3B Pablo Sandoval, SP Rick Porcello, SP Wade Miley, SP Justin Masterson
Outlook: Don’t let the low number of ‘key losses’ above fool you – the Red Sox lost plenty of talent, they just lost much of it via trade late last season. Out the door went the likes of Jake Peavy, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, AJ Pierzynski, and Jonny Gomes. This season’s squad is definitely stronger, especially at-bat…but I think it’s still too flawed to make a legitimate run at the postseason.
On offense, despite his limitations Sandoval is a massive upgrade, and with the burden of shortstop removed I expect a big year from Hanley Ramirez as well. Young Mookie Betts has a good chance to become above-average in CF as well. There are issues with other positions, however – one of these years David Ortiz is going to stop hitting and at age 38 that will be sooner rather than later. Dustin Pedroia has been declining for four seasons, and both catcher and right field look like major lineup holes. Overall I expect some improvement in runs scored – this should be an average offense, maybe slightly better.
The pitching/defense have me EXTREMELY concerned. First off, they have a good defensive SS in Bogaerts – and Betts profiles well in CF – but they appear average or worse at every other position. The rotation has depth but no ace material – Buchholz can no longer be considered a prospect, Porcello and Miley eat innings but give up too many hits, and Masterson appeared lost much of 2014. Closer Uehara is aging and the bullpen appears anything but dominant. Run prevention was a big problem for the Sox a year ago, and it doesn’t look much better in 2015 as far as I can tell.
Boston was 20 games under .500 last season – they’ve made some incremental improvements, but they needed to find a big-time pitcher and they struck out. That leaves them as an under .500 team in my book – call it 76-81 wins for the Red Sox.
Reasons they could be worse – The new pitchers are betrayed by the Sox defense; Ortiz finally shows his age; Ramirez gets hurt again and the team repeats its last-place showing.
Reasons they could be better – if they hang around, the front office has the money and the pieces to swing a BIG deal. Cole Hamels could fix a lot of what ails this team.
Chances to contend: This division is wide-open, all five teams have legitimate reasons to think they can steal it. As constructed, Boston isn’t there yet but I think they will be aggressive if they start strong, so the first 2-3 months matter more to them than to almost any other team. Call it 40% to contend for the division, less than that for the wildcard (I expect this division winner to finish behind at least one wildcard team in the standings).
18.) NY Yankees (84-78, 2nd in AL East, 13th in MLB in 2014)
Key Losses: SS Derek Jeter, IF Martin Prado, SP Brandon McCarthy, SP Hiroki Kuroda, RP David Robertson, C Francisco Cervelli
Key Additions: SP Nathan Eovaldi, SS Didi Gregorius, 1B Garrett Jones, RP Andrew Miller, RP Justin Wilson, Alex Rodriguez (from suspension)
Outlook: It’s not lost on me that I’ve placed the two former heavyweights of baseball, the Red Sox and Yankees, side-by-side in the lower half of my predictions. Both are rebuilding to various degrees, and both (especially the Yankees) seem to have recently enacted an actual budget, preventing them from making many ‘big splash’ signings until some of their older contracts finally end.
In the 2009 preview I predicted that the signings of Teixiera and Sabathia would help the team greatly in the short term, but become onerous obligations down the line. That time has come – those contracts, plus the foolish contract given to Alex Rodriguez, are keeping the Yankees from reloading.
The farm system is also an issue, especially on the hitting side – the projected lineup only includes ONE player under age 30, and he was acquired via trade (Gregorius). Last season, their best hitter was Brett Gardner! That’s a far cry from the fearsome offenses of the 90’s and early 2000’s. This is AT BEST an average offense, with a lot more downside than upside.
There’s more potential on the mound – the return of Michael Pineda was a boost in 2014, and if he can stay healthy he has ace-level stuff. Tanaka also is an ace – but his elbow is damaged and could knock him out for a year at any moment. After that it gets dicey – the team is counting on Sabathia to be effective for the first time in three years, and for newcomer Nathan Eovaldi to transition from thrower to pitcher. They have Chris Capuano penciled in as the fifth starter, and at this point I think it’s safe to say that if you’re counting on Capuano, you’re pretty desperate.
The bullpen will miss Robertson, but Miller/Wilson should take up some of the slack. It could be a VERY good bullpen, but I doubt it will be enough to allow the Yankees to contend.
New York has been outscored the past two seasons, yet still managed to finish above .500. That sort of thing is simply not sustainable, and I think the run differential is a better indicator of their true talent than their record over that time. I think this is the year the Yanks REALLY show their age – I’m saying 77-80 wins for New York.
Reasons they could be worse: The hitters continue the decline and suffer injuries, Sabathia never regains his form, and Tanaka goes down. The Yankees could EASILY lose 90 games if they don’t catch a few breaks.
Reasons they could be better: In a mediocre division, the Yanks still have the financial muscle to make a big deal if they are a factor in June/July. They need health and rebound seasons from a couple of their aging stars.
Chances to contend: I see 88 wins being the ‘magic number’ in this division, and that leaves every team with dreams of contention. I think the Yankees are a step behind the Jays and O’s but with their ability to make a big move I give them a 50% chance of competing for the division and 30% of competing for a wild card.
17.) San Francisco Giants (88-74, 2nd NL West, T-8th in MLB in 2014)
Key Losses: 3B Pablo Sandoval, LF Michael Morse
Key Additions: LF Nori Aoki, 3B Casey McGehee
Outlook: After admitting last week that I’ve consistently underestimated the Giants, here I am again…picking them to finish out of the playoffs. Here’s the thing – they almost missed the playoffs a year ago, squeezing in as the final wild-card…and the moves they’ve made in the offseason have clearly made them worse, not better. For all Sandoval’s flaws, he’s pretty clearly better than McGehee…and Morse’s raw power will be missed, something Aoki cannot hope to replace. Add in Pence’s injury (he is expected to be out until May) and this is an offense that looks primed to take a step (albeit a small one) back in 2015.
The rotation and bullpen return intact, and that formula certainly worked a season ago…but let’s not lose sight of the fact that even with a pitcher-friendly home park, this team finished sixth in runs allowed. They got a very good season from 38-year-old Tim Hudson, and Jake Peavy was amazing after coming over at midseason…but both can be expected to regress this season. In my mind Matt Cain is the key to this team. He was terrible last season, but great in prior seasons. If he gives them 200 above-average innings, this team will be a factor. If he is ineffective, the rotation may not be able to protect the bullpen enough.
I’m not predicting a collapse here, and if they win 85 games I certainly would not be shocked – but while the Padres and Dodgers were getting better, from where I sit the Giants were getting worse and that’s enough for me to peg them as a .500 team. 79-82 wins for San Francisco.
Reasons they could be worse: They are heavily reliant on Bumgarner and Posey – if either get hurt, they will be in serious trouble. The bullpen has a lot of miles on the odometer, and if Romo, Casilla, or Affeldt lose effectiveness they will have a hard time replacing them.
Reasons they could be better: they’re the Giants. I always underestimate them. They seem to turn straw into gold on a regular basis (Vogelsong? Ishikawa??). Management is never afraid to make bold moves. Plus, the Padres still have to prove their moves will work out – if they disappoint again, the Giants are the logical choice to benefit from that.
Chances to contend: I don’t think this team can realistically hang with the mighty Dodgers, but wild-card contention should not surprise anyone. I’m saying 25% of contention for the division, 70% chance of contention for the wildcard – and a 25% chance of actually winning it.
Next week, teams I rank 16 through eight – all teams with legitimate chances at the postseason.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.