May 29, 2020

MLB Preview 2016

So, here we are again, on the cusp of another baseball Opening Day.

Seems like only yesterday we watched the Kansas City Royals line drive the New York Mets into submission in the 2015 Fall Classic. The Mets are planning to get back there in 2016. The Royals? Well, they might have trouble getting to the .500 mark this season, according to some experts

First things first; I don’t think the Red Sox’s second half last year was a mirage, and I expect John Farrell’s club to be a far tougher team in 2016. However, several outlets, including the Sporting News, have declared the Red Sox as the best team in baseball.

“The Red Sox have the most complete roster of anyone in the American League, with depth to fill in suitably for anyone who underperforms and the kind of farm system that can be used to make a big splash in July to put them over the top,” wrote TSN’s Jesse Spector on March 10.

Now, I’ve known Jesse a long time — we spent the summer of 2001 covering the Brooklyn Cyclones inaugural season — and I have a great deal of respect for him. However, they certainly have as many issues as any other AL East club, including $95 million bust Pablo Sandoval.

My contention is this; the Yankees have as good a shot as any to win the division, and if I had to pick an AL East winner right now? I’d pick the Yankees. The health and consistency of two highly-paid assets are two important keys to making that prediction coming true.

Jacoby Ellsbury will be starting the third season of a seven-year, $151 million deal he signed before the 2014 season. To date, because of injuries, he hasn’t resembled the player the Yankees thought they were getting.

I have a feeling we’re going to see the real Ellsbury this year.

Unlike the aforementioned Mr. Spector, I don’t use sabermetrics to predict how a player will perform. I respect analytics the way I respect a nail gun. It’s a useful tool better off in the hands of someone who knows how to use one. I’ll just use a plain old hammer.

As for Ellsbury, he’s the catalyst for an aging outfield that includes Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner. Beltran was a key performer in last year’s unlikely playoff berth (predicted by little ol’ me), while Gardner wilted after a strong first half.

Ellsbury has proven he can hit for average, power and has great speed. He has yet to prove he can be consistently healthy.

Manager Joe Girardi believes newcomer Aaron Hicks can assist Ellsbury and whoever needs a breather during the season. Hicks, acquired in an offseason deal for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy, is coming off his best season in the majors, hitting 11 home runs in limited duty last year with the Twins.

The other key player is staff ace Masahiro Tanaka. Much like Price, what he can provide atop a rotation with varying amounts of talent — Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Luis Severino and veteran CC Sabathia – could very well dictate the difference between a division title or an also ran.

Last season, Tanaka went 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA over a MLB career high of 154 innings. More impressive was his 0.99 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and his 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings average.

The Yankees need 200-plus innings from their ace this year. If they get it, they’ll likely win their first AL East crown since 2012.

It’ll be a three-team race with the Blue Jays, who boast a great lineup, but their pitching is hard to predict, and the rebuilding Rays could scutch their way into things. The Orioles won’t contend, but they will be around the .500 mark all season.

The Indians are a popular pick to win the AL Central, and I think they’ll make the playoffs, but something tells me the Tigers are going to make one last run. The addition of Jordan Zimmerman didn’t make nearly as many headlines as Price to the Bosox did, but could be more effective. The Royals are a solid group, but while losing Ben Zobrist isn’t an end of days event, their starters will struggle.

However, I reject the Washington Post’s prediction that the Royals will finish last.

…the Royals won 11 more games [in 2015] that we would expect based on their performance. Specifically, they benefited from “cluster luck:”

When a team’s batters cluster hits together to score more runs and a team’s pitchers spread hits apart to allow fewer runs, that’s cluster luck. Say a team tallies nine singles in one game. If all of those singles occur in the same inning, the team would likely score seven runs; if each single occurs in a different inning, however, it’d likely mean a shutout.

To be fair, FanGraphs projected the Royals would win 79 games in 2015 and the betting markets had their over/under set at 83 wins, yet Kansas City had the last laugh after winning the World Series.

I call sheninigans.

KC’s bullpen is great, and will be enough to support a team that could contend for a playoff spot. The Twins have some young talent, the White Sox will be better, but c’mon WaPo.

Sports Illustrated predicted the Houston Astros would win the 2017 World Series a few years ago, I think they’ll get close in 2016. But their bullpen needs to get better for me to project their ultimate success over 162 games. It’s enough to win the so-so AL West. Seattle has fooled a lot of people over the years in picking them to make the playoffs, I will believe it when I see it. Rest of division is a mishmosh of mediocre teams.

The Mets have an awesome rotation, but the bullpen scares me a little. I advocated for a big push at Darren O’ Day, or a return of Tyler Clippard. I don’t trust Antonio Bastardo, and Addison Reed is half a season removed from imploding with the D’backs. Still, the bench upgrades, the return of Yoenis Cespedes and an otherwise solid lineup will be enough to win the NL East. They’ll need additions to the bullpen to get back to the World Series in my opinion.

Dusty Baker is going to save the Nats from themselves I’m told. Ha. It is to laugh. He’s an awful manager. Perhaps not quite as awful as Matt Williams, but Baker couldn’t manage a bullpen when he was a perennial Manager of the Year candidate and he’s going to fix Jonathan Papelbon? Again. Ha. The Nats would have been far better off hiring Bud Black.

Giancarlo Stanton will be a clean-shaven slugger, Phillies will struggle but but will be better sooner than you think, and the Braves will spend 2016 losing many games, but they’ll also be waiting in the weeds for their eventual resurgence.

The Chicago Cubs are the consensus pick among several experts to not only win the NL Central, but to win their first World Series since 1908.

While it’s very true the Cubs are a talented group, and should probably win their division, picking them as champions? That has been the folly of many for 108 years.

Full disclosure, I loathe the Cubs. I feel for their long suffering fanbase, for sure. I particularly like their manager Joe Maddon, who I’ve interviewed a few times. But the best team in baseball? The starting pitching is lauded as strength, which I disagree with. The rotation is led by NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. He had a very solid 2014, and followed it up with a ridiculous career year in 2015. But he threw over 200 innings for the first time in his career (229), and I find it hard to believe he will replicate a 22-6 record with a 1.77 ERA and 2.35 FIP. If I’m wrong, he’s awesome. But it’s a long season.

Veteran southpaw Jon Lester is the more consistent pitcher, and his numbers are certainly more predictable. He’ll be his usual dependable self. But after Lester, I’m not particularly excited about John Lackey, Jason Hammel or Kyle Hendricks. The bullpen is solid, but the trio of Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm aren’t quite a Top 10 grouping. That matters, as bullpens are becoming more of a major weapon than ever before.

If the pitching doesn’t keep up with the Cubs offense, suddenly they will have to outslug everyone to win 90 games. While that’s possible – especially with hitters like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant – that’s kind of been the formula at Wrigley since, well, 1908.

The Pirates are going to make the playoffs, and that prediction hinges on the progress of Gregory Polanco and the health of Jung-Ho Kang.  Gerrit Cole will lead the rotation, and expect a very solid season from Jon Niese.

The Cardinals lost Jason Heward to the Cubs this offseason, but have enough pitching to contend.  But with health questions for key players like Adam Wainwright, Matt Holiday and Yadier Molina will result in the Cards mising the playoffs for the first time in six years.

The Reds and the Brewers will be terrible.

The NL West should be fun for old school fans of the Dodgers / Giants rivalry, it’ll be a good one this year. I just like the Dodgers a little better; the addition of Scott Kazmir to that rotation may not make up for the loss of  Zack Greinke, but a staff with headed by Clayton Kershaw is a great place to start.  I’m of the opinion Kenta Maeda will pitch very well in Chavez Ravine as well.

The experts love the Giants addition of  Johnny Cueto, but mark me down as one who says they will regret signing him.  Jeff Samardzija is a etyter wide receiver than a pitcher, and his ineffectiveness in Chicago will follow him here. SF has the better bullpen, and Bruce Bochy is a as good as it gets, but the Dodgers have better balance of talent across the board.  I also have a feeling that new skipper Dave Roberts is going to be brilliant. The DBacks have a very solid rotation going into the season, Greinke, Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin.  The wonderful Paul Goldschmidt, and the progress of David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas will bear watching, but what looks like a season-ending injury for A.J. Pollock is a tough blow.  The Padres are a mess.

Well, that’s the commentary, here are the picks for 2016.

NL East – Mets
NL Central – Cubs
NL West – Dodgers

NLWC1 – Pirates
NLWC2 – Giants

NL ROY – Steven Matz (Mets)
NL MVP – Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins)
NL CY – Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers)

***

AL East – Yankees
AL Central – Tigers
AL West – Astros

ALWC1 – Red Sox
ALWC2 – Indians

AL ROY – Tyler Naquin (Indians)
AL MVP – Josh Donaldson (Blue Jays)
AL CY – Corey Kluber (Indians)

I asked a pair of baseball authors whose opinions I greatly respect to share their thoughts:

51c5Hp2KUzL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Joe Pisapia, author of the best-selling Fantasy Baseball Black Book (click here for the 2016 Edition), and a host on SiriusXM

“Like Mark, I too believe the Cubs are drinking their own Kool-Aid a bit. The 2016 Cubs are reminiscent of the 2007 Mets. Coming off an NLCS defeat with bright young talent in abundance, the sky seemed like the limit, but there are some chinks in the armor. Regression of Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant (who’s high rate and drastic home/road splits make him suspect this year) is very possible. The back end of the rotation and bullpen is also questionable. I believe the Pirates are on a mission to win that division this year after two crushing Wild Card Game losses. The Dodgers don’t have the rotation depth in my opinion to win a division. However, the Diamondbacks now have three top arms to support a strong offensive and defensive team. If the D’Backs can acquire a legitimate closer or discover one from within (Daniel Hudson or Silvino Bracho), this division could be theirs for the taking. I also think Dusty Baker is the exact tonic the Nationals need and they’ll be one of the two Wild Card teams in 2016. I’ll also take Bryce Harper over Giancarlo Stanton in the NL MVP race. Orlando Arcia will give Matz competition in the NL ROY race as well.

In the American League East you can make a case for any team finishing first just as easily as last. It will all come down to who stays healthiest. I too love the Tigers in the AL Central with bounce back years from Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmerman in the rotation. Not to mention the addition of Justin Upton to a lineup that includes Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez. I worry about the Indians scoring runs this year and although Tyler Naquin is having a nice spring, ROY is about how you finish the year. Young hurler Jose Berrios of the Twins and slugging first baseman A.J. Reed from the Astros are more likely winners of this hardware. Speaking of the Astros, they may indeed be the best team in the AL. They’re young, hungry and are coming off a strong first post season run. They also have farm system depth to add players at the deadline, as do the Red Sox. With Josh Donadson unlikely to repeat as MVP, my dark horse for AL MVP is Manny Machado who is on the precipice of being a superstar in this league. Machado has power, speed and the best glove at the hot corner. He’s also just 24 years old!”

22750212Susan Petrone is the author of “Throw Like A Woman” and her work has appeared on CoolCleveland.com and ESPN.com, and she co-owns the Cleveland Indians blog, ItsPronouncedLajaway.com, for ESPN.com’s SweetSpot network.

“As an Indians fan, I can’t help but like your picks, but I feat that you are only half right. I love that you recognize Tyler Naquin’s talent. Although there wasn’t as much anticipation over Naquin’s arrival in the majors as there was over Francisco Lindor’s last season, we’ve been keeping an eye out for him. With both Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall on the DL, Naquin’s been given a golden opportunity to show us what he’s got. I think he’ll end up in the final three in ROY voting, but I’d rather have you be right.

And you are correct that the AL Cy Young award will go to a member of the Indians’ rotation, I’m just not sure it will be Kluber again. I think this will be Carlos Carrasco’s year.”