Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Smart Centipede: Sports Edition Major League Baseball 2015 Prediction Show Thing Deal!

Greetings, sports fan (I assume I am down to one follower with my inactivity. Thanks, Tom Anderson!). Those who know me know that when it comes to sports, my greatest passion is reserved for America's Pastime. No, not extreme couponing. And, until the movement I started gains enough momentum, it's not rooting for two Kardashians to tumble down a flight of stairs like Bruce Willis and Andreas Wisniewski in Die Hard. It's baseball.

Now that spring training is underway, I am going to breakdown the leagues and make my bold predictions for the 2015 season. Full disclosure: I am, as many know, a Chicago White Sox fan, and they have made bold moves this off-season, so my view where they are concerned should be taken with a grain of pepper (at my doctor's suggestion, I am trying to cut back on salt). But I tried here to make predictions based on logic.

The National League West

The biggest news of the off-season was the complete rebuild of the San Diego Padres that unfolded over the course of a few December days during the winter meetings. It seemed like every few minutes the Padres had dealt yet another player. In total, they've replaced 75% of their starting lineup (maybe more, if Yonder Alonso ends up not being their best choice at 1B) and they capped off an already strong rotation with the best free agent pitcher (who's name doesn't rhyme with "molester" or... um... "Schmerzer") in James Shields. Will their new lineup produce runs at spacious Petco Park? That seems to be the question I just asked.

The Los Angeles Dodgers weren't content to rest on their laurels, however, and they went ahead and shook their up their defense up the middle and adapting more of a speed over power approach. Eternal Phillie Jimmy Rollins is now in Dodger Blue at shortstop and atop their lineup, and prospect Joc Pederson emerging from a formerly crammed outfield to see if his minor league numbers (33 HR, 30 SB) can play at the top level. Problem? They still have Juan Uribe at 3B, a .257 hitter on the back 9 of his career, and they need consistent production from Carl Crawford, who hasn't played 130 games since his first year out of Tampa Bay.

The San Francisco Giants seem to be in a perpetual cycle of failing in odd years, and winning championships in even years. They lost Pablo Sandoval and replaced him with Casey McGehee. They lost Mike Morse and replaced him with Nori Aoki. They lost Hunter Pence for six weeks and replaced him with whatever dude will be back on the bench in six weeks and a day. They owe their 2014 championship to the improbable heroics of Madison Bumgarner, which can't really be continued for any kind of extended period of time. The 3-5 spots in their projected rotation are Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Tim Lincecum, which is great if they are trying to go back and retroactively win the 2008 World Series.

5.09. This is the ERA of the scheduled number two in the Colorado Rockies rotation, Jordan Lyles. The biggest question about the Rockies seems to be when, not if, they will trade Troy Tulowitzki to the Mets. Their lineup will not produce anywhere near enough runs to balance out the terrible pitching. Keep in mind, the team leader in home runs last year was Charlie Blackmon, who lead the team with 19. NINETEEN, in a ballpark lauded as one of the best hitters parks in the majors. That's what we call a Rocky Mountain Low.

People are calling the Arizona Diamondbacks the worst team in baseball. I'm not here to argue that.
Paul Goldschmidt will be the best player never to win an MVP if he continues to play for Arizona. If Hellickson can become what scouts originally thought he could become, this team can contend... for fourth place in the NL West. This team couldn't find a wild card in an UNO deck.

Los Angeles Dodgers - 91-71
San Diego Padres - 86-76
San Francisco Giants - 83-80
Colorado Rockies - 71-91
Arizona Diamondbacks - 63-99

The National League Central

The St. Louis Cardinals are perennial contenders, but they also have perennial question marks every spring training. This year it's Wacha, who needs to have a solid 2015 for the Cards to contend. Their only significant offensive addition is Jason Hayward, who has yet to live up to the potential that the Atlanta Braves saw in him. With John Lackey as their number three, they are going to miss Shelby Miller, who went to Atlanta to get Hayward.

The Brewers had one of the worst collapses in recent memory, going 9-22 down the stretch to choke away a late August division lead and miss the playoffs. The offense is solid, and the bitter memories of last season should spur them to win a few more games down the stretch. Lucroy has become a viable every day player, and the young Jimmy Nelson has people talking. If Lyin' Ryan Braun can return to MVP form, so long as Davis and Gomez don't take a step backwards, they'll have one of the best outfields in... well, in the Wisconsin area, anyway.

Meanwhile, in Steel-town, the Pirates are here to stay. After twenty years of sub-.500 baseball, Andrew McCutchen has delivered the Pirates to two consecutive post-season appearances, and they're ready to take the next step. Gregory Polanco joins McCutchen and Starling Marte in the outfield while Pedro Alvarez shift across the diamond to 1B where hopefully the lack of defensive pressure will allow him to unleash his full power at the plate. Gerrit Cole looks poised to become what the organization envisioned when they drafted him first overall four seasons ago.

Todd Frazier won the Triple Crown for the Cincinnati Reds last year. Todd Frazier. On a team with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips. I think Phillips still has the potential for the 18 HR he has put up in three of the last four years, and Billy Hamilton gives them a huge threat at the top of the lineup. It's the pitching, man. Something's gotta be done about the pitching. You can't win a division with one amazing starter (Cueto), one dynamite closer (Chapman) and a wad of crap in-between.

There's always next year. Isn't that the Cubs mantra? They are on the cusp of being a true threat to this division. It just won't happen this year. The addition of Jon Lester, the diamond of this year's free agent crop, is the best thing to happen to North Chicago in a long time. The rotation is being heralded by some as the best in the division, and the offense is full of monsters waiting to strike with Soler, Rizzo, Castro, and Bryant all being credible threats. But it won't turn on a dime, and they ARE still the Cubs. This is the last year they'll have to wait 'til next year.

Pittsburgh Pirates  - 89-73
St. Louis Cardinals - 86-76
Milwaukee Brewers - 86-76
Cincinnati Reds - 74-88
Chicago Cubs - 73-89

The National League East

Max Scherzer was given $210 million over 7 years by the Washington Nationals. And he is considered, by some, to be a third starter in the Nats rotation. When you're 18-5 with 252 K's and a 3.15 ERA and you're slotted BEHIND two others, you're in a pretty good situation. Not only to the Nats have a juggernaut rotation, but they have a monster core to their lineup with Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon. It's rumored that Desmond will be gone after this season, but he'll still be there this season, and the Nats should beat all comers.

The Miami Marlins have made some bold moves as well, snagging lead-off dynamo Dee Gordon, who I predict will put on a show to remember competing with the Reds Billy Hamilton to win the 2015 stolen base crown. They also added some pop with Michael Morse, infield versatility with Martin Prado, and a rifle in the rotation with Mat Latos. And best of all, they will hopefully get a full season of Giancarlo Stanton, which could mean 40 HR, and even 50 is not out of the question.

The Atlanta Braves are a very confusing team. It seems like they are making a run at the playoffs signing Nick Markakis, A.J. Pierzynski, Jonny Gomes and Jason Grilli, but they are also signaling surrender by trading away Prado, Hayward, Upton and Evan Gattis, all of whom one would think would enhance their chances of winning. They're circling the drain. Expect them to trade Craig Kimbrel by July and begin the rebuild in earnest.

The New York Mets have Matt Harvey back from Tommy John surgery, but they're going to be terrified of over-using him. Their line-up has David Wright, Lucas Duda, and a whole lot of questions. Can Curtis Granderson still produce? Can Wilmer Flores play short? Can Juan Lagares earn the starts in CF? Can Jacob deGrom follow up his Rookie of the Year performance? Can Bartolo Colon still fit into a major league uniform?

I am going to dedicate the entirety of the space I would normally speak about the Phillies strengths and weaknesses to call out Chase Utley. The team is going nowhere fast, yet Utley will not waive his no-trade clause to allow them to move one of the few high-value chips they have left (a veteran 2B who can still rake). If he is under any illusions that he can still bring any glory to Philly, he is sadly mistaken and putting way too much faith in Ryan Howard (a hard-luck case with a contract that can't be moved) Jonathan Papelbon (a clubhouse cancer with a contract that can't be moved) and Cole Hamels (a legitimate ace that, for lack of another team surrendering it's entire farm system, cannot be moved).

Washington Nationals - 94-68
Miami Marlins - 83-79
New York Mets - 83-79
Atlanta Braves - 72-90
Philadelphia Phillies - 66-96

The American League West

The Oakland Athletics could have been in the big show last season. They had a 7-3 lead in the eighth inning of the Wildcard Game, and one of the hottest pitchers in the game on the mound in Jon Lester. We know how that ended. Now, they no longer have Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris or Brandon Moss. In their place are Ben Zobrist, Billy Butler, Tyler Clippard, Brett Lawrie, Marcus Semien and Ike Davis. There's a drop-off. Scott Kazmir is the number 2 here, folks. Things are shaky in Northern California, and I don't mean the fault lines.

Meanwhile, 373 miles South (if you stay on I-5), there are some Angels who have fallen, and none so far as Josh Hamilton. Sadly, his relapse with cocaine means he'll return from the disabled list and dovetail right into a suspension of anywhere from 15 games (player's union hopes) to an entire year (considering his past history, I believe he is being considered a four-time offender). He is only one of many who have not lived up to the hopes that Los Angelinos had when the organization opened up it's pockets. Hamilton ($17 million), Albert Pujols ($23 million) C.J. Wilson ($16.5 million) all failed up to produce the numbers they were being paid for in 2014. In a few years, it will be Trout surrounded by a bunch of guppies.

The injury bug crushed a good deal of hope in Arlington last season, and already this season it has bit deep and hard, with Yu Darvish facing season-and-a-half-ending Tommy John surgery. Prince Fielder missed most of 2014 with neck problems, after having missed no more than five (5!) games in any one season since becoming an everyday player. Darvish, Shin-Soo Choo, Derek Holland, and Jurickson Profar all missed significant time. If Fielder can return to form, he should push Adrian Beltre (last year's team homerun leader with only 19, and that's in a hitter's ballpark) to produce some more scoring opportunities for Elvis Andrus (providing he can get on base more than, like, 30% of the time).

Things are looking up in Houston, too. The bullpen is much improved, but the rotation is still a big fat question mark. They have a deluge of young players coming into their own, like George Springer, Jake Marisnick, Jon Singleton, and Luis Valbuena providing decent power. Jose Altuve is the speed, with 56 SB's to go with a robust .341 batting average (best in the Majors in 2014). But Houston, we have a difficult situation that needs a resolution (you thought I was going to say "problem", didn't you?). Jose Altuve had 104 more hits than the next highest contributor, Matt Dominguez. They had only three players with more than 300 plate appearances that hit higher than .240, and Dexter Fowler is gone now, replaced by Colby Rasmus (.225 in 376 PA).

Seattle will reap the rewards of everyone else's ruin. Robinson Cano (.314 BA, 20+ HR potential). Nelson Cruz (40 HR). Kyle Seager (25 HR). Mike Zunino (22 HR). Felix Hernandez (2.14 ERA, 15 W, 248 K). Taijuan Walker (who is one of the top prospects in Seattle, if not the majors). Arguably the best bullpen in the majors. They will, by virtue of the rest of the division taking two steps back, be left standing in the front of the pack.

Seattle Mariners - 90-72
Texas Rangers - 84-78
Oakland Athletics - 82-80
Los Angeles Angels - 81-81
Houston Astros - 73-89

The American League Central

"Cinderella story... out of nowhere..." The immortal words of Bill Murray's Carl Spackler in Caddyshack certainly apply to the 2014 Kansas City Royals. After 29 years of irrelevance, they made a run at the AL Central and fell a game short. But it was good enough for a Wildcard berth, and they and they made the most improbable run in recent post-season history, sweeping two rounds and taking the Every-Even-Year World Champion San Francisco Giants to seven nail-biting games. Problem is, they seem to have been playing over their heads. They have little power (dead last in HR (95) in 2014) little patience (dead last in walks (380) in 2014) and their pitching doesn't have much punch (25th in the majors with 1168 K's in 2014). It was more of a miracle than anything, and I don't see it happening again.

Meanwhile, offense has overtaken automobiles as Detroit's primary export. In 2014, the Tigers lead the majors in Batting Average (.277), Hits (1,557), Doubles (325), and RBI's (731) and were second in On Base Percentage (.331), and Slugging Percentage (.426) and Total Bases (2,399). Seven of their nine regular position players had double digits in HR. On the other side, however, David Price looked shaky after being traded from Tampa Bay, Justin Verlander has had two sub-par years in a row, they lost Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez (their number 3 starter) has only had one dominant year (2013, 14-8, 2.57 ERA) and closer Joe Nathan put up the second highest ERA of his career last season (4.81). Can the offensive juggernaut (which is not guaranteed to have their two biggest contributors (Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera) in the Opening Day Line-up) make up for that?

I'm kinda stat-heavy in this portion of the preview, so I'll take a moment to reflect on the Minnesota Twins. Hey, did you know Joe Mauer is still playing? Neither did anyone else outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Who are these guys? I think the transition to an outdoor stadium has left them homesick for the garbage-bag dome. 2B Brian Dozier and LF Oswaldo Arcia (two positions traditionally not known for power production) combined for one third (43) of the team's HR total (128). I weep for Torii Hunter. This isn't how he should end his career. Phil Hughes believes, though. They're paying him so much he'll believe anything they say.

The Cleveland Indians went out and got Brandon Moss from the A's as part of Oakland's "Power Purge." And Gavin Floyd. And that's it. They had fewer transactions than a Ferguson Police Benevolence Association Fundraiser. They got noticeably better when Jason Giambi retired. So, they're working on a "if it ain't broke" philosophy. Problem being that they finished 3rd in 2014 in a tough division that only got tougher. I am, in all honesty, disappointed; if the Tribe had a chance at the World Series this season, I'd have a chance at being the greatest prophet since Nostradamus.

"Well the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town," sang Jim Croce. He was talking about Leroy Brown, but he may well have been singing about the 2015 White Sox. Jose Abreu demolished the league last season in his Rookie of the Year campaign, belting 36 HR despite missing 14 games with an ankle injury. Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Abreu, Adam LaRoche, and Avisail Garcia could be the best 1-5 in baseball. Alexei Ramirez, when he's on (i.e. not 2012-2013) he is an excellent hitter for the 6 hole. But now you have to look at 7-9. Gordon Beckham was so bad they traded him away in 2014. Then they went and replaced him with... Gordon Beckham? Seriously, was there no one better available? And can the White Sox really be all in with Conor Gillaspe at 3B? Or will Matt Davidson hit his weight and pop 25 HR? And who will be better, Tyler Flowers or Geovany Soto? If they have a decisive winner at each of those position battles, the Sox can take the division in '15.

Chicago White Sox - 87-75
Detroit Tigers - 86-76
Kansas City Royals - 85-77
Cleveland Indians - 83-79
Minnesota Twins - 71-91

The American League East

Everyone says the Boston Red Sox are one ace away from running away from the AL East. I'm not sure I'd drink that Kool Aid just yet. Sure, they've added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez... and not much else of consequence. Dustin Pedroia had injury issues last season, and a bounce-back season is all but essential to the Red Sox succeeding this year. If they land Cole Hamels in a trade, they will indeed have a legitimate ace. But for me, it's more a question of the Rusney Castillo / Mookie Betts competition in CF. If one of them dominates the spring and takes it into the regular season, the lineup could be one of the strongest in the diminished AL East.

The Toronto Blue Jays have a pretty big injury problem, too. They signed Michael Saunders to be a solid piece of their lineup... and then lost him for half the season to a leg injury. Wait, recent updates state he will only miss perhaps a few games, having made amazing progress! Great! Not so great for Marcus Strohman, last year's phenom who was poised to do big things in the Jays rotation this year, but will now miss the season with a torn ACL. That's bad news with a silver lining, however, as knee problems are not so worrisome for a pitcher as arm or shoulder problems would be. This means, however, that one of their bullpen now gets pushed into the rotation, and given that the outfield is razor thin, that bullpen will be hard pressed to keep up with all the work they'll be getting, and look to be one of the weakest in the league.

The Baltimore Orioles have lost two vital pieces. They lost Nelson Cruz' 40 HRs, and they lost Nick Markakis. But they should get back Manny Machado, who only played roughly half of their games last season. And Chris Davis' 2014: an aberration, or return to reality? This guy hit 53 HR in one season two years ago. His career high before that: 33. What will he provide this season? They are relying on a closer who had never put up a sub-4.00 ERA until last season, and not much else. And they've got the ultimate flash in the pan, Ubaldo Jimenez, in their rotation. The AL East used to be the toughest division in the league, but it has fallen on hard times, and these birds will be indicative of that.

Tampa Bay went on a fire sale this off-season, sending away many of the biggest names they had; Jeremy Hellickson, Joel Peralta, Sean Rodriguez, Ryan Hanigan, Matt Joyce, former phenom Will Myers, Ben Zobrist, and Yunel Escobar, all gone. Yet the pieces they got back somehow seemed to make sense, the more you look at it. Steven Souza, Rene Rivera, Kevin Jepsen, John Jaso, as well as free agent addition Asdrubal Cabrera... somehow the Rays don't look much worse than they did a year ago. If Drew Smyly steps up, Kevin Kiermaier proves ready to start and Nick Franklin finally arrives, Evan Longoria and Demsond Jennings could find themselves surrounded by a capable lineup.  

Alex Rodriguez. Jacoby Ellsbury. Carlos Beltran. Chase Headley. Mark Teixiera. Brian McCann. C.C. Sabathia. The Ghosts of Baseball Past. If they can all get back to the forms they once displayed, this lineup would be one of the most feared in the world. McCann actually could be the most likely of these to have a breakout season, as he has been working to use the whole field in his approach at the plate, rather than the pull-and-pray method he'd taken up in his first season in the Bronx. The rotation is full of questions, the most pressing being the health of Masahiro Tanaka's arm. And shortstop for the Post-Jeter era of the Yankees? Didi Gregorious, who's bat will make fans remember (fondly) Andy Stankowicz.

Boston Red Sox - 91-71
Toronto Blue Jays - 86-76
New New York Yankees - 83-79
Tampa Bay Rays - 79-83
Baltimore Orioles - 75-87

Playoffs

NL Wildcard Play-In 1: Cardinals @ Padres
NL Wildcard Play-In 2: Cardinals @ Brewers
NL Wildcard: Brewers @ Padres
AL Wildcard: Tigers @ Blue Jays

NLDS: Padres @ Nationals
NLDS: Pirates @ Dodgers

ALDS: Tigers @ Red Sox
ALDS: White Sox @ Mariners

NLCS: Dodgers @ Nationals

ALCS: Mariners @ Red Sox

World Series: Mariners @ Nationals

Champion: Nationals

The interesting thing here is that back in 2010, a big deal was made about the match up being a first time World Series team (Texas Rangers) against a team that had one of the longest droughts in sports (San Francisco Giants), and I countered that it had already happened five years before, when the match up was a first time World Series team (Houston Astros) against a team that had one of the longest droughts in sports (Chicago White Sox). I then predicted that, based on the perceived pattern, the 2015 matchup would be a first time World Series team (either Washington Nationals or Seattle Mariners) against a team that had one of the longest droughts in sports (either Cleveland Indians or Chicago Cubs). Granted, the Cubs and Indians are extreme long shots this year, but the Mariners have made great strides and the Nationals now are the odds on favorite to win the Series this year.
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