As opening day looms, there are an abundance of teams to watch for numerous reasons. Many organizations are looking to continue their ascendance, halt their descend, or just re-establish themselves as competitive ball clubs. It was a wild offseason, with the likes of Max Scherzer, Justin Upton, Josh Donaldson, Jon Lester and Nelson Cruz (just to name a few) finding new teams. That being said, this article will cover the four most intriguing teams, in my opinion, for this upcoming season.
San Diego Padres:
New GM AJ Preller had arguably the busiest offseason of any general manager, acquiring virtually a whole new lineup, as well as a few bright looking prospects. The biggest of which was signing ace James Shields to a 4 year 75 million dollar contract. “Big Game James” comes over from the Kansas City Royals where he posted a 14-8 record, 3.21 ERA and a 3.59 FIP. Not to be outdone was the acquisitions of Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Craig Kimbrel, B.J. Upton and Derek Norris. San Diego now has a loaded out field (Upton x2, Kemp, Myers, Venable) but have several question marks in their infield: Alexi Amarista possesses a decent glove, but in his two seasons in the big leagues has been dismal at the plate (.101 and .076 ISO; .274 and .265 wOBA; 75 and 71 wRC+). Will Middlebrooks has shown signs of power potential, but had issues in Boston with strikeouts (26.2 and 29.9 K% last two years). As for the services of Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso on the right side of the infield, things look bleak for the Padres in this facet.
A key add to the bullpen was lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel in a trade with the Atlanta Braves. Kimbrel is undoubtedly the most dominate closer over the last 4 years, averaging over 40 saves per year.An interesting add to their bullpen was Brandon Maurer (acquired from Seattle for Seth Smith). After being lit as a starter in Seattle, Maurer relished his time in the bullpen and proved himself a viable power arm and potential closer one day.
The strength of this ball club, undoubtedly, will be their rotation. The signing of James Shields takes loads of pressure off of guys like Josh Johnson, Brandon Morrow and Odrisamer Despaigne, thank goodness. Emerging as stars are Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, who will both be 27 years old during this upcoming season. Cashner is gifted with an absolutely electrifying arm, and despite a shoulder injury, pitched to the tune of a 3.09 FIP with a 5-7 record and 2.55 ERA. Ross, also gifted with said qualities, had a 13-14 record last year, a 2.81 ERA and a 3.24 FIP, and looks nowhere similar to the pitcher we saw back in the Athletics organization (a good thing). Ian Kennedy will be the fourth starter in a rotation which now appears to have the makings of being deadly.
All that being said, one has to wonder if there will still be enough offense in this lineup to win games on a daily basis. This is a team that hit .226 collectively in 2014, and will be known as one of the worst offenses ever. However, with the rotation in the position it is now, and their addition of Kimbrel to the bullpen, one can’t argue the fact that San Diego should be in every game they play. With Arizona and Colorado in a somewhat “rebuild”, look for the Padres to take a huge step out of the darkness and into contention with the Giants and Dodgers for a NL West title.
Boston Red Sox:
As per usual, the Boston Red Sox enter the season with glorious expectation. A year removed from a dismal 71-91 season, their second worst season in 20 years (2012 record was 69-93) the Sox made massive changes to their team “makeup”, signing all-stars Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to significant contracts. John Farrell slots into his 3rd season as manager looking to right the ship as having taken a notable step back last season, going from 97 wins to 71.
The 2015 Red Sox should have no problems scoring runs. The signings of Sandoval and Ramirez will help with that as the Sox dropped from 1st in runs in 2013, to 18th in 2014. Sandoval brings an average bat (.327 wOBA average last 2 years; 113 wRC+ average last 2 years) and a slightly above average glove on defense. One may ask: okay, how does he help then? To answer that I say: he’s replacing Will Middlebrooks! Ramirez on the other hand has oozed with talent since his debut in the MLB, sometimes gracing us with a display of how good he can be, and sometimes leaving us puzzled (in a bad way). His numbers have been trending positively the last few years (especially in 2013) and appear to heading towards his numbers from his first years with Miami (then Florida; hit consistently 20+ homers and 100+ RBI).He’s a huge upgrade offensively for the Sox, but look for him to possibly struggle playing in left field. As for the rest of the lineup, it is loaded with established big league hitters who have had their fair share of successes (Ortiz, Napoli, Craig, Pedroia, Hanigan, Victorino). Also a player to watch is centerfielder Mookie Betts: he possesses good speed and an above average bat. Look for him to be very productive at the top of a stacked Red Sox lineup.
The starting rotation is where the questions arise. The loss of Jon Lester last season has left the Sox with no true “ace”. Clay Buchholz has been on a roller coaster ride the past two season, converting from a man who appeared to be one of the best pitchers in all of baseball in 2013 (12-1 record; 1.74 ERA; 2.78 FIP) to a pitcher with seemingly no confidence or control of his pitches in 2014 (8-11 record; 5.34 ERA; 4.01 FIP). Bare in mind he suffered a shoulder injury near the end of 2013 that could have resulted in the lackluster 2014 season. Dealing for Rick Porcello gives them a good looking young pitcher who creates the impression that the Sox have a potential star. I’ve always felt Wade Miley has more to offer than he has brought to the table and continue to think so. Getting away from Arizona probably is a good thing, look for him to have a stronger year. As for Justin Masterson, he may be on his last gasp as a starter. It turned out to be a nightmarish trade for the Cardinals last season when they acquired him for their post season push. A part from a solid 2011 season (12-10 record; 3.21 ERA; 3.28 FIP) he hasn’t offered up much as a big league starter. Knuckle-baller Steven Wright should slot in as the 5th starter.
2015 will be a very interesting year for the Red Sox organization. Runs will not be an issue but preventing runs will be. Heavy favourites to come out of a winnable AL East, these Sox have a lot riding on their performance. Don’t expect “Red Sox Nation” to be accepting of another sombre season. Watch for Boston to be in the hunt for the AL pennant come October.
The Cubbies 2015 season will be an interesting one to say the least. The third year into Theo Epstein’s tenure as GM sees them have the first real chance of emerging from the “rebuild” shell. The foundation has been laid and built upon, bringing time in now for their youth movement to flourish. In town is new manager Joe Madden after spending 2006-14 in Tampa Bay.
First of all, the lineup finally has a true leadoff hitter in Dexter Fowler after acquiring him from Houston for Dan Straily and Luis Valbeuna. He has good speed and has gotten on base at a good clip in his career (.366 OBP in career). Also in the outfield is potential Rookie of the Year candidate Jorge Soler who had a very nice showing to close out the 2014 campaign, but, has been riddled with injuries in his minor league career. In the infield, all-star first baseman Anthony Rizzo will shoulder most of the offensive production. Having blossomed last year (32 HR; .397 wOBA; 153 wRC+) Rizzo is showing signs of an MVP-type player for the North Siders. Some questions do lie though: Arismendy Alcantara, Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt all lack big league experience (and success for that matter) and Javier Baez will start the year honing is craft in AAA trying to improve his horrific 41.5 K%. Veterans Starlin Castro and Miguel Montero will need to be the main supporting cast for Rizzo and a young lineup.
Pitcher Jon Lester was the Cubs big signing in the offseason, bringing an ace to the Windy City. He’s pitching the best in his career (16-11 record; 2.46 ERA; 2.80 FIP in 2014) and is a complete workhorse on the mound. Lester creates a formidable one-two in the rotation with Jake Arrieta, who was in the Cy Young talks for most of last season (10-5 record; 2.53 ERA; 2.26 FIP) and under pitching coach Chris Bosio, has grown into the pitcher Baltimore thought he had the potential to be. Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood round out the rotation and are all solid starters. In the ‘pen, there is power. Hector Rondon has an dynamic arm and will lead the staff as closer. Add in the likes of Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Jason Motte and Pedro Strop and the Cubs have arguably one of the hardest throwing bullpens in the NL.
There’s a certain buzz about this Cubs team. The pieces are seemingly all falling into place. By no means are they in the clear though; St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati will all be duking it out for the ever-so-often competitive NL Central. However, unlike in years prior, the Cubbies will be a part of that mix. Perhaps come October there will be meaningful baseball being played in the confides of Wrigley Field, and a title lifted for the first time since 1908.
The Mariners took a large step in the right direction in 2014, winning 87 games, their most since 2007. They have been in the midst of a messy rebranding the past 5 years and are finally poised to contend with the big dogs of the AL West and entire American League.
The lineup took a significant jolt for the second straight offseason, reeling in slugger Nelson Cruz to go along with pre-2014 season signee Robinson Cano. Cruz led baseball with 40 homeruns last season (a career high) to go along with 108 RBI (also a career high). Likely to bat cleanup in between Cano and standout third baseman Kyle Seager, Cruz provides the M’s with a proven 4 spot bat that they have been desperate for for years. The outfield will be mainly shared between free agent signees Justin Ruggiano, Rickie Weeks, Seth Smith and converted infielder Dustin Ackley, with Austin Jackson roaming centerfield. The infield defense is arguably the strongest in the AL, but their bats are no slouch either: Seager hit a career high 25 homeruns and drove in a career high 96 runs, all while winning a Gold Glove. Cano is Cano, hitting .314 in his first year in Seattle and providing great leadership for a young Mariner team. Due to the injury to Chris Taylor, Brad Miller will start at shortstop with Logan Morrison at first and power hitting youngster Mike Zunino behind the plate.
Seattle has been known to have built their teams around their pitching staff, and more specifically, their ace Felix Hernandez. King Felix had his best statistical season of his career in 2014 (15-6 record; 2.14 ERA; 2.56 FIP) and is without a doubt one of the best pitchers in the game to date. His sidekick Hisashi Iwakuma is a solid second starter (14 and 15 wins last two years) and youngsters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are ready for breakout years. Paxton pitched very well around a lat strain injury (6-4 record; 3.04 ERA; 3.28 FIP) while Walker has a lively arm that excites Mariners brass and fans. J.A. Happ will slot in as the other starter, with Fernando Rodney leading the bullpen, which was one of the best in baseball last season.
There are high expectations on the Pacific coast this season; Seattle are favourites to win the AL West and are projected to be battling with the Angels and A’s. With the lineup in the best position since the 2001 year, 116 win team, Seattle might be may as well be making their first trip to the postseason since that very same year.