Friday, March 27, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Season—National League

Last October, I organized a playoff pool at the office. After examining everything from starting rotations to weather conditions, I picked the Nats to beat the Tigers in the World Series. A woman I work with doesn't know anything about baseball, so she made her picks based on which teams had the coolest-sounding names. I warned her how unlikely it was but eventually recorded her pick: Giants over Royals.

The lesson here is that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. We can study all the stats we want; we can make the most finely calibrated projections for the season; we can memorize every player and every split and every transaction. It won't help us make a prediction about baseball that's any better than a shot in the dark by someone totally out of the loop.

So I said, what the heck. I'll make my team-by-team win-loss projections as usual. I'll declare some "fearless predictions" for each team, and for many individual players, like I've always done. But I'll make my World Series pick based on a comedic prophecy dreamed up in a studio lot almost 30 years ago. Read on to see who I mean.

NL East

1. Washington Nationals (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
  • Expect the 2014 Nationals to keep on showing up in Southeast DC for 2015, with pretty much the same results. Jayson Werth (age) and Anthony Rendon (regression to the mean) may each be worth one fewer win, but Bryce Harper will fill in the gap with at least a two-win improvement over 2014. That one monster season may never come, but something close to his 2013 will do perfectly well.
  • The team will again lead the majors in ERA, with Max Scherzer playing the role of Tanner Roark and finishing second in Cy Young voting. (Roark himself will unhappily post a 4.00 ERA and enter career purgatory as he is jerked around from assignment to assignment.)
  • Also in line for regression: Denard Span, whose injury-hampered .250/.300/.320 season will make the Nats regret losing AL Rookie of the Year contender Steven Souza.
  • Yunel Escobar will not be the solution at second base. His rapidly deteriorating defense will make him unplayable at times.

2. New York Mets (85–77, 1st Wild Card)
  • Zack Wheeler's Tommy John surgery is bad news for Wheeler, but not necessarily for the Metropolitans. Wheeler's 3.54 ERA last year was actually below average. In contrast, his de facto replacement in the rotation will be the very definition of an ace: Matt Harvey.
  • For a team whose strength is starting pitching, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Bartolo Colón and Dillon Gee will be supplanted around midseason by Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, who will rank first and second (in some order) among NL rookie pitchers.
  • Lucas Duda's power and on-base ability is for real. Travis d'Arnaud will also realize his potential, hitting 20 dingers and stretching his .272/.319/.486 line from his last 69 games over a full season.
  • David Wright will double his 2014 home run total, but more importantly he will remember how to take a walk. It'll restore his OPS+ to a more Wrightian 125. With actual production now from left field (Michael Cuddyer), the Mets will be an above-average offensive team for the first time since 2011.

3. Miami Marlins (81–81)
  • The Dee Gordon trade actually made the Marlins worse. He'll post an OBP below .300, which will halve his stolen-base total.
  • Michael Morse will prove the team's shrewdest acquisition. He'll be healthy for the entire season, and the move to first base will mean that his defense will finally not negate his entire offensive value.
  • The Miami outfield—Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and, yes, Ichiro Suzuki—will post the highest WAR of any in baseball.
  • Dan Haren will ride a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an abnormally low HR/FB ratio to his best season since 2011—and will retire on top.
  • Following a two-year pattern, Jarred Cosart will scuffle in the first half, prompting a trade at the deadline. He'll then finish the season with an ace-like 10-start stretch for his new team.

4. Atlanta Braves (70–92)
  • Shelby Miller will evolve into the ace of the Atlanta staff, and this is the year Alex Wood becomes a household name. But after them and Julio Teheran, the rotation will fall off a cliff. No one else will make more than 14 starts.
  • Craig Kimbrel will be traded at midseason for a package that nets the Braves their next number-one prospect.
  • A feckless offense will lead the majors in shutouts and strikeouts. Only Freddie Freeman will register a offensive WAR above 1.0, and the team will finish with the fewest runs scored of any team in a non-strike-shortened season since 1971.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (63–99)
  • This is the year the Fearsome Four become the Noisome None. Cliff Lee won't pitch all year, and Cole Hamels will be traded by July 31. By September, 2014 draftee Aaron Nola will be leading Philly's rotiation. So, um, progress?
  • There will be significant hurdles to the Phillies' so-called youth movement, as Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, and other newbies play like minor leaguers.
  • The league's most porous team defense will cause the Philadelphia pitching staff to lead the league in unearned runs.

NL Central

1. Saint Louis Cardinals (88–74, 3rd playoff seed)
  • After a 2013 with an abnormally high RISP batting average (.330) and a 2014 with an abnormally low one (.254), the Cardinals will finally settle in the middle of the pack—which means an automatic offensive boost from 2014.
  • Despite claims of a changed approach, Jason Heyward will have a near-carbon-copy of his 2014 season, but that won't be all bad—he'll help St. Louis amass the most Defensive Runs Saved in the NL.
  • Expect middle infielders Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong to switch identities: in 2015, Wong will be the one hitting .260/.340/.440 with 20 home runs, and Peralta will scuffle with a batting average below .250 and an OBP below .300.
  • Beware of a bullpen implosion at Busch. Trevor Rosenthal's and Jordan Walden's 5.0 BB/9 rates will lead to chaos as the Cards try to close out games, leading to the majors' worst record in one-run games.
  • Yes, he's still an MVP for his work with the pitching staff, and yes, his output is still good for a catcher, but this is the year Yadier Molina ceases to be useful as a hitter.

2. Chicago Cubs (84–78, 2nd Wild Card)
  • By July 1, all pretenses about service time will be dropped, and this entire generation of Cubs prospects will be in the bigs. Chris Coghlan, Ryan Sweeney, Tommy La Stella, and Mike Olt will lose their jobs, with the only holdout being Dexter Fowler in center field.
  • Javier Báez will again struggle with contact but, as he's done at every level before this, find a comfortable stroke a few hundred plate appearances in. Matt Szczur will be so valuable off the bench—with 15 stolen bases as a pinch runner alone—that he'll earn a spot on the postseason roster. Jorge Soler will sport a .900 OPS but not even be the best rookie on the team.
  • That honor, of course, will go to Kris Bryant, your NL Rookie of the Year. He'll hit a more-impressive-than-it-sounds 23 home runs—not including his decisive blow in the NL Wild Card game off Matt Harvey.
  • As was preordained by Grays Sports Almanac (there are still sports almanacs?) in 1989's classic Back to the Future II, the Cubs will go from 100-to-one shots when the offseason began to World Series champions. Joe Maddon will be the unanimous NL Manager of the Year.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (82–80)
  • A team largely unchanged since 2014 will finish with the exact same record, albeit more evenly distributed throughout the year. The team won't miss its main subtraction, Yovani Gallardo, as Jimmy Nelson will replicate his numbers closely.
  • The rotation will be the definition of average—with Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, and Nelson posting identical 3.70 ERAs—except Mike Fiers, whose ability to strike out four times the number of batters he walks will make him the new staff ace.
  • Even after two years of elite production, I still don't believe in Carlos Gómez. A spate of bad BABIP luck this year will cut his value in half.
  • Ryan Braun still has one good season left in him—and that season is 2015.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81)
  • Don't expect Vance Worley to keep up the magic that made him Pittsburgh's best starter in 2014. Without master framer Russell Martin, a lot of Worley's advantage will disappear.
  • That's bad news for a team that also lost its second-best starter from last year (Edinson Vólquez) to free agency. Francisco Liriano was third-best and will be again, behind a rejuvenated AJ Burnett and a Cy Young–showing Gerrit Cole.
  • The infield is going to be a mess. Josh Harrison's terrible 4.0% BB% in 2014 was actually a career high, as was his .353 BABIP; he'll slump his way onto the bench by the All-Star Game. Jung-Ho Kang will flop so miserably that no Korean Baseball Organization position player will dare attempt moving to MLB again until the 2020s. Good thing the outfield will be the second-best in baseball, after Miami's.
  • As the best closer on a non-losing team, Mark Melancon will lead the majors in saves for 2015.

5. Cincinnati Reds (72–90)
  • Expect lots of games where Cincinnati scores exactly two runs: a home run by Todd Frazier with Joey Votto on base. Votto is the only player in the lineup who can get on base, and Frazier is the only one with above-average power. Otherwise, this is the division's worst offense.
  • What does this mean for Devin Mesoraco? A bone-headed plan to catch him 145 times a year despite already having concussion symptoms here in spring training will grind him down to a shell of his 2014 self. Like Salvador Pérez in 2014, he'll get worse and worse as the season wears on.
  • Aroldis Chapman's immense talent will be further wasted as he pitches a full-season career-low number of innings—even though he'll remain healthy. He will languish as a closer who barely ever sees a save situation. An otherwise anonymous relief corps will blow a league-high number of leads before they get to the ninth.
  • Johnny Cueto will be his usual brilliant self, but he'll be the only above-average member of the rotation. He'll wind up as some other team's crown jewel acquisition at the trading deadline.
  • Raisel Iglesias will show a lot of promise but run out of gas after five innings on a regular basis—betraying his better fit as a reliever. Jason Marquis will post terrible numbers for far longer than a team with more depth would allow.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • If you thought Yasiel Puig was good before, just wait until 2015, when he will combine his improved 2014 walk rate with the realization of his 20-homer potential and smoother right-field defense. He'll give the Dodgers the NL MVP to go along with their obvious Cy Young champ.
  • Joc Pederson will be the best non-Cubs rookie in the National League.
  • The fact that Juan Uribe can't walk anymore will prove untenable as an unlucky year brings his average down to .260 and his OBP to .280. The team will finally decide to accept Alex Guerrero's shaky defense to get his electric bat (.330/.380/.480) in the lineup. Hector Olivera will be a non-factor as his health conditions—not properly treated in his native Cuba—keep him off the field.
  • Chinks in the armor could crop up in the rotation due to injury. Expect Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu to miss occasional time—and be surprised if Brett Anderson manages more than 10 starts.
  • The bullpen will start off as a weakness, especially with Kenley Jansen out for April, but no one knows how to build a strong but cheap bullpen better than Andrew Friedman. By August, it'll be a team strength, probably thanks to guys you've never heard of.

2. San Francisco Giants (83–79)
  • Most World Series–winning teams feature a lot of guys having career years, and that tends not to repeat itself. Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Ángel Pagán lead the charge of guys who will slip from useful to harmful cogs in the lineup.
  • When Casey McGehee regresses to his career .264, suddenly everyone will realize he's a third baseman with zero power. His teammate Brandon Belt will pick him up, though, finally pushing the 30 home runs everyone once expected of him.
  • After throwing 270 innings (including the postseason) last year, Madison Bumgarner will show signs of fatigue with a step back in the regular season—like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain before him. (And no, they won't be any better either.)
  • Don't listen to anything anyone says right now—Yusmeiro Petit will force his way into a rotation job and, from that date forward, be San Francisco's best starter.
  • At some point, Sergio Romo will win back the closer's role.

3. San Diego Padres (80–82)
  • The Padres' biggest enemy this year will be their own outfield fence. Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers will combine for just 40 home runs but –40 Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Robbed of his only asset—power—Will Middlebrooks will be the least valuable player in baseball in 2015.
  • Excellent years from Tyson Ross and James Shields will keep this team in the hunt at first—but it won't be able to survive Andrew Cashner hitting the DL for good in July.
  • It's sad, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now: Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson are finished as viable major leaguers.

4. Colorado Rockies (75–87)
  • The highest-scoring offense in the NL will be at it again in 2015, thanks to a once-in-a-blue-moon event: totally healthy seasons from both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González.
  • Nolan Arenado will start getting mentioned in the same sentence as those two as the Rockies' invaluable core players. His big offensive step forward comes this year, and combined with his stellar defense, his WAR will crack 6.0.
  • Of course, the pitching will be even worse than the hitting is good. However, the Rockies won't regret any starts they cede to exciting young prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler.
  • Charlie Blackmon won't regress (his 2014 ended up being about average anyway once he cooled down in the second half), but Corey Dickerson will.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (68–94)
  • Yasmany Tomás will be a mess—although it won't all be his fault. He'll be an incapable defender at third base, and management will delay moving him to the outfield for far too long. However, he'll have one of the game's lowest contact rates no matter where he plays, and his contract will quickly look like a bust.
  • Trevor Cahill will have a surprisingly effective season, making for a nice trade chip for Arizona. A league switch will rob him of Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Ender Inciarte will show he deserves to start in the outfield over David Peralta—and Peralta will do nothing that disagrees.

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