It’s Opening Day! Baseball is back! You might have heard! Grantland’s MLB writers and editors are here to offer their predictions for the upcoming season, so grab a hot dog and a cold one, shake off your worries about the Cubs’ seemingly insurmountable 0-1 start, and join the fun. We’ve never been wrong before …
|The 2014 Fall Classic between the Giants and Royals reminded us of Billy Beane’s famous lament: The playoffs are unpredictable, there’s no set formula for winning in October, and we shouldn’t be surprised when two deeply flawed teams like San Francisco and Kansas City meet in the World Series. That’s why I have no qualms about backing the Marlins to win it all this year. Sure, the Nationals are a better team on paper and a better bet to win the NL East, while the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Cubs could be tough October opponents. But armed with the best outfield in baseball, upgrades at multiple positions, and the pending return of Jose Fernandez in June, Miami will have enough to secure a wild-card spot in the postseason dance … where anything can happen.|
|The playoffs are unpredictable, so the safest pick to win the World Series is the team that’s most likely to win its division, thereby bypassing the wild-card game that cuts a team’s chances of advancing by (roughly) 50 percent. Not only are the Nationals the most likely division winner, they’re also probably the best team in baseball. I can’t come up with a reason why any other club would be a better choice.|
|Even with a third of their starting lineup on the DL on Opening Day, the Nationals are frightfully good; they could wind up with one of the best fifth starters in major league history.1 The White Sox are highly annoying to this Royals fan, because they lost 99 games just two seasons ago and had one of the worst farm systems in the game, and dammit, you’re not supposed to be able to rebuild this quickly and effortlessly. But when you find one superstar in the draft (Chris Sale) and one in Cuba (Jose Abreu) and acquire a burgeoning star leadoff hitter in a lopsided trade (Adam Eaton), you can then trade spare parts for one year of a front-of-the-rotation starter (Jeff Samardzija), sign a bunch of useful free agents (Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Zach Duke), and skip the whole process. On the South Side, they think rebuilding is for losers. They might be right.|
|The Orioles fan in me really wants to be wrong about the AL half of this championship matchup, because I think we can all agree that an I-95 showdown is the World Series that this great nation truly deserves. Alas, I’ll settle for being half right: The Nats have more starting pitching than the entire AL East, All-Star infielders in Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond, and some has-been named Bryce Harper, who could emerge as a perennial MVP candidate at any moment. Not even Matt Williams can mess this up! (Right?)|
|Two weeks ago, Michael Baumann urged us all to be “bold, not boring” when picking a World Series winner. Well, here is my bold and boring pick: The White Sox are the best team in Chicago. Led by Abreu, Sale, a crop of new signings, and loads of exciting prospects, the Pale Hose will be 2015’s feel-good story, making an improbable run all the way to the Fall Classic — only to get snuffed out by the ominous inevitability of the Washington Nationals.|
Since 1969, only one team — the 1991 Toronto Blue Jays — has had five starting pitchers who each amassed at least 3 bWAR.
Keri: Mike Trout (AL) and Giancarlo Stanton (NL). Trout is the best player in baseball, and while it can be tempting to back a player with a cute led-his-team-to-an-overdue-playoff-berth story line (Robinson Cano? Jose Bautista?), the voters who like to pick players from winning teams should feel comfortable backing the best player on the talented Angels. Stanton should also check both boxes, as he’s both the best power hitter in the NL and the best player on a team that’s a sleeper postseason contender.
Lindbergh: Trout (AL) and Andrew McCutchen (NL). I’m going with my gut here. Trout lets me down year after year, yet I can’t help but hope that someday he’s finally going to stop wasting his talent and put together that elusive 11-win season. Meanwhile, McCutchen won the MVP two years ago, and he’s coming off his best offensive season. He’s 28, he’s durable, he plays for a contending team, and MVP voters are willing to overlook sketchy defensive stats.
Jazayerli: Trout (AL) and McCutchen (NL). Sorry to be boring, but at this point picking anyone other than Trout is being contrarian for contrarianism’s sake, like the guy who says he just doesn’t find Kate Upton to be all that attractive. Trout won the MVP last year, and it was the worst full season of his career. He’s had more success before turning 23 than any player in major league history. A corollary to the previous sentence: He’s 23. McCutchen is a slightly boring pick, too, but it’s as much a reflection of the Pirates’ likely success this year as of McCutchen himself. This feels like the year when the Pirates finally leapfrog the Cardinals and claim an NLDS spot without needing to go through the wild-card game. If McCutchen doesn’t win, the award is probably going to go to a right fielder: Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, or Stanton. Pick one.
Baumann: Trout (AL) and Bryce Harper (NL). Every time Trout has played a full season in the majors, he’s been the best player in the game. I see no reason for this to change in 2015. I picked Harper to have that MVP-quality breakout year last year, which didn’t happen because he got hurt and his manager hates him. So I’m once again rolling the dice on the most talented player on the best team in the league.
Rubin: Trout (AL) and Stanton (NL). Gentle readers, I respect you too much to waste your time explaining the Trout pick. Dude’s good at baseball. Stanton, meanwhile, will likely face steep competition from fellow outfielders McCutchen, Heyward, and Harper, but if the Masked Man belts 40 homers while leading this year’s sexy sleeper pick to the postseason, it’s going to be hard to deny him the prize.
O’Hanlon: Trout (AL) and Jonathan Lucroy (NL). Yes, some of my picks are very dumb, but get the hell out of here with these Josh Donaldson and Jose Abreu predictions. Trout is Messi. As for Lucroy: This is the year when mainstream media comes to appreciate pitch fra— no. Whether he wins it or not, Yasiel Puig — like his spirit animal in the NBA, Russell Westbrook — will be the real MVP. For as much fun as it looks like he’s having, I still don’t totally believe that Puig actually wants to be playing baseball, what with all its stops and starts barely able to provide an outlet for his constant, crackling energy. But every wild cut at the plate and each whirling cannon launch from right field seems like an attempt to destroy the pastoral ideal of baseball from the inside. I hope he plays this sport until the Earth gets devoured by the sun.
Keri: Felix Hernandez (AL) and Clayton Kershaw (NL). The consensus two best pitchers in baseball are both coming off huge years, completely healthy, and (for those who care about such things) playing for good teams. Things could get interesting if Sale shakes off his foot injury quickly or 2014 breakout stars like Corey Kluber and Johnny Cueto turn in huge years, but sometimes you just have to back the favorites.
Lindbergh: Hernandez (AL) and Kershaw (NL). Hernandez has already won one for a 61-win team, and he’s been a runner-up twice. He’s topped 200 innings for seven straight seasons, and he’s coming off his best season since the Cy Young year. As Joe Sheehan noted last September, Hernandez ranks eighth on the career WAR leaderboard among players from the past 50 seasons who’ve never played in the postseason, and he’s first by far among active players. A feel-good Seattle playoff appearance (plus Mike Zunino’s receiving skills) should give him a good shot at another award. As for Kershaw: I can look at leaderboards.
Jazayerli: David Price (AL) and Kershaw (NL). Price had a disjointed 2014 due to being traded in July as well as some rotten luck on the mound: He led the AL in hits allowed as well as strikeouts, which is a neat if less-than-desirable trick. Performance-wise, though, he’s the best he’s ever been, he’s pitching for his next contract, and the Tigers will try to squeeze every inning out of him they can in a desperate effort to milk one last division title out of this roster. And Kershaw? Call me crazy, but I have a good feeling about this kid. Maybe it’s his four straight seasons of leading the majors in ERA, the first pitcher ever to do that. Or maybe it’s his 39.7 bWAR through his age-26 season, the second-most of any pitcher since World War II behind only Bert Blyleven. Picking anyone other than Kershaw is like being the guy who turned down Kate’s dinner invitation.
Baumann: Hernandez (AL) and Kershaw (NL). There are only four AL pitchers (Felix, Price, Kluber, and Sale) who could win without undergoing at least a moderately surprising advance in either health or performance. On the NL side, there are about 10 pitchers who could win and deserve this award if Kershaw retired tomorrow. But the Flying Neckbeard of Chavez Ravine is so obviously a step ahead of those guys in terms of talent and track record that picking anyone else would be a desperate act of trollish clickbaitism in which I made a prediction I didn’t really believe in to make a point. And I already did that with my World Series pick.
Rubin: Hernandez (AL) and Jordan Zimmermann (NL). I’m tempted to pick Sale, both because he defies the laws of physics every time he moves and because it feels like it’s about to be his time, laughably weird foot injury aside. But King Felix has become baseball’s finest vintage, getting better with age, and not even needing to decant. He’s still got the heat and the gumption, but he’s also becoming more of an artist, relying increasingly on baseball’s best changeup instead of pounding heater after heater and hoping it’s enough. And now, to defend the trollish clickbait pick! It’s not that I think Kershaw isn’t getting better with age; I just wonder if the myth might be on the verge of dwarfing the man. Zimmermann is going to be the best pitcher on baseball’s best team, and while his teammates might earn enough votes to cancel each other out, he has one big advantage over Kershaw: He’s going to be measured against other people, not against the absurd prior standard he himself has set. I’m sorry, Rany. I guess Kate just isn’t my style.
O’Hanlon: Sale (AL) and Max Scherzer (NL). If the White Sox are going to make the World Series, it follows that this octopus-armed wizard will be the one to lead them there. He’s quenched his thirst for pulpy prestige television, and his foot’s healed enough that he’s already torturing a bunch of poor Cincinnati prospects out in Arizona. Someone just make sure not to let him anywhere near a Dodge Ram until November. In the NL, I assume that if Kershaw stays healthy, he’ll be the deserved winner of this award for the next five years. I also assume that awards voters struggle with the concept of “consistent greatness” and will therefore do whatever it takes not to pick the same player three years in a row.
Rookie of the Year
Keri: Aaron Sanchez (AL) and Kris Bryant (NL). The AL race looks wide open, with starting pitcher Sanchez not even the only Blue Jay who could warrant consideration; Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey should get lots of opportunities to shine too. Boston’s Rusney Castillo is another strong candidate in what could be a deep and exciting rookie class, but Sanchez looked polished (27 strikeouts, 14 hits, and one home run allowed in 33 innings) in his 2014 MLB debut, and he should get plenty of chances to thrive after Toronto lost Marcus Stroman to a knee injury. In the NL, the race may well come down to two Cubs. Jorge Soler blasted five homers in 89 at-bats in his first taste of the bigs last year, and his manager, Joe Maddon, recently compared him to Vladimir Guerrero with a better batting eye. Still, the bet here is on Bryant, who annihilated pitches all spring, got sent down for nine games because of baseball’s convoluted service-time rules, and is a threat to launch 30 bombs after the Cubs call him up in mid-April.
Lindbergh: Steven Souza (AL) and Bryant (NL). This award doesn’t always go to great players. Sometimes it goes to Chris Coghlan or Eric Hinske. I can see Souza, who’s projected for a 20-20 season with many walks, having one of those solid rookie seasons that doesn’t prefigure a storied career. So in the absence of an obvious candidate, I’ll take the low-ceiling player in his age-26 season who seems like a safe bet to contribute right now. Meanwhile, if Bryant hits as well as the stats, the scouts, and those opposite-field homers he hit this spring say he will, his service-time-imposed stay in Triple-A at the start of the season won’t be nearly enough to take his award away.
Jazayerli: Carlos Rodon (AL) and Bryant (NL). Rodon was expected to be the no. 1 pick in last year’s draft, and frankly should have been. He’s your basic Price starter kit, he was dominant in spring training, and the White Sox promote guys (c.f. Chris Sale) as aggressively as any team in the majors. Rodon will probably be up by May and will be a key part of their division title run. As for Bryant: Even starting the season at Iowa, he’ll still likely end up with more playing time than almost any other rookie, and he’ll know what to do with it. If not Bryant, it might be teammate Soler. It should be a fun year in Chicago, particularly if the White Sox and Cubs both make the playoffs for just the second time since 1906.
Baumann: Rodon (AL) and Bryant (NL). Bryant isn’t a particularly controversial pick — he’s the top prospect in the minors right now, and he stands to put up big counting numbers for a big-market team with buzz. Think 2005 Ryan Howard. The biggest strike against Rodon is that it’s less clear when he’ll make his debut. Once he does, however, you’ll start to hear hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans making the same high-pitched, ecstatic squealing noises about his slider that I’ve been making since his sophomore year at NC State. This is what a no. 1 starter looks like.
Rubin: Rusney Castillo (AL) and Bryant (NL). Boston’s decision to start Castillo in the minors isn’t a death sentence; he’ll be up before long no matter how crowded the outfield is, both because he’s too talented to keep in Pawtucket, and because the Sox have invested a pretty penny in his services. I’m sure Shane Victorino is a fine human being and all, but he’s not going to stop a $72 million man with 20-30 potential from cracking the lineup for more than a few weeks. Admittedly, though, Castillo’s rookie of the year credentials pale in comparison to Bryant’s. The love of Michael Baumann’s life might as well start crafting his acceptance speech now; he’ll have time while toiling away in Triple-A, and he’s going to need to start working on his gracious MVP words before too long.
O’Hanlon: Souza (AL) and Bryant (NL). Can I say Bryant for the AL, too? Couldn’t his interleague-play road numbers be good enough to make him the best first-year player to take the field in Junior Circuit ballparks? No? Fine — let’s go with Souza. Even former Nationals will benefit from being in the orbit of that championship asteroid. OK, back to Bryant: Offense is down, pitching is better than ever, young players are frustratingly unpredictable, and he’s going to hit a million home runs.
Keri: Christian Yelich. Defining the parameters of a breakout can be tricky when you have a young player who’s already very good. The Marlins outfielder batted .284/.362/.402 last year, numbers that were 16 percent better than league average on a park-adjusted basis. He also swiped 21 bases, played very good defense, and produced about four wins more than a replacement-level player. Still, there’s the potential for more, with Yelich’s power and strikeout rate both making incremental improvements in his second major league season and greater consistency likely on the way in his age-23 campaign as he passes the 1,000-plate-appearance plateau.
Lindbergh: Brett Lawrie. Oakland’s offseason acquisition just turned 25, his power spiked last season, his BABIP will rebound, and a home park that’s mercifully free of artificial turf could help keep him healthy. Or, you know, not. But no one sees the true, J.D. Martinez/Jose Bautista–type breakouts coming, so Lawrie is the type of player we pick: a former top prospect who’s been good over some stretches but never for a full season.
Jazayerli: Xander Bogaerts. Ignoring the obvious (Harper, Eric Hosmer), I’ll go with Bogaerts, who gave off a superficial whiff of disappointment last year by hitting .240/.297/.362 as a rookie. He was just 21 years old, though, and he was forced to move from shortstop to third base midseason when the Red Sox ill-advisedly signed Stephen Drew, at which point Bogaerts’s offense tanked. (He hit .266/.333/.391 as a shortstop last year, but .182/.217/.300 as a third baseman.) He could be the best-hitting shortstop in the AL this season.
Baumann: Garrett Richards. I’m a sucker for big starting pitchers who can throw hard without breaking down or walking the yard, because if you’ve got durability, velocity, and command, you’re, like, 80 percent of the way to being a front-half-of-the-rotation starter. Richards was most of the way to getting some down-ballot Cy Young consideration before he blew out his knee last year, and I think he’ll come back healthy, post 200 strong innings, and get the rest of the way to stardom as the no. 1 starter on the AL’s best team. If I had to pick one slightly off-the-board pitcher to win the AL Cy Young, Richards would be the guy.
Rubin: Kevin Gausman. FEEL THE MAGIC, PEOPLE! The Gas Man might spend the first month of the season splitting time between the bullpen and the back end of a rotation filled with no. 3 or 4 starters who can’t hold his powdered-sugar-covered jock, but he’ll assume his rightful spot as the Orioles’ lone ace before long. He’s got high-90s heat and whiff-tastic stuff, and if he can incorporate his secondary pitches more effectively this season, he could be just the ticket to proving yours truly wrong and leading the O’s to another AL East crown.
O’Hanlon: Alex Rodriguez. Honestly, I don’t really know what it would take for A-Rod to “break out,” but he will lead the league in “number of times booed by the entire stadium, including his own front office, while rounding the bases after hitting a home run.” So ask yourself this: Who is the best hitter on the Yankees? If you answered with even the slightest bit of certainty, you’re either delusional or in Chase Headley’s immediate family. Come September, the answer might just be “Alex Rodriguez.”
(Padres fan GIF via Complex.)
Keri: Kansas City Royals. I discussed my reservations about the Kansas City Royals in my AL Central preview, but here’s the recap in a nutshell: A team that finished last in the league in both homers and walks last year and relied heavily on speed and timely pitching has a thin margin for error, and the loss of James Shields could not only weaken the rotation but also threaten a bullpen that was nearly historically good and — given what we know about the fickle nature of relief pitchers — primed for regression anyway this year.
Lindbergh: Chicago Cubs. A couple of the teams I picked to win wild cards (the Angels, the Padres) have definite flop potential, but I’m a bigger believer in them than I am in the Cubs. The Cubbies could contend, but I think they’re a year away from a breakthrough, which gives them the potential for the game’s highest hype-to-regular-season-success ratio in 2015.
Jazayerli: San Diego Padres. With a nod toward Seattle — I don’t trust that Jack Z. won’t screw things up somehow — I’m going with San Diego, where new GM A.J. Preller tore everything down but forgot to finish building everything back up. The Padres have an impressive collection of new talent — Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, James Shields, and as of yesterday, Craig Kimbrel — but what they don’t have is a functioning team. They have three rather glaring weaknesses:
1. Their defense is atrocious. These are their up-the-middle defenders: Myers, Jedd Gyorko, Alexi Amarista, and Norris. This is a problem. They play in a park with a large outfield, making this a bigger problem.
2. They have loaded up on right-handed power, but their ballpark is where fly balls hit to left field go to die. While Petco Park isn’t a tough place for left-handed hitters to hit for power, it has reduced homers by right-handed hitters by 24 percent since its redesign two years ago; only two parks (PNC and AT&T) have been tougher on right-handed power. It’s as if Preller built a team that was uniquely ill-suited for the ballpark in which it will play.
3. They are absurdly right-handed, period. Only two men in their starting lineup — Yonder Alonso and Amarista — bat left-handed, and they have just one left-hander (rookie specialist Frank Garces) on their entire pitching staff. In an era of eight-man bullpens, opposing teams can just throw wave after wave of right-handed relievers against the Padres, while San Diego can’t counter if its opponents are overloaded with left-handed bats.
And now they just took on Melvin Upton Jr.’s enormous contract while giving up top-40 prospect Matt Wisler (and a supplemental first-round pick) to acquire Kimbrel. While it’s hard not to giggle at the thought of hitters having to face Kimbrel in Petco Park, the Padres’ signature strength over the last few years has been their ability to conjure up terrific relievers out of nowhere. They gave up a significant amount of future talent and payroll space to upgrade a spot that didn’t need upgrading.
There’s a lot of talent here. What’s not here is a contending team.
Baumann: Boston Red Sox. I picked the Sox to make the playoffs as a wild-card team, which, given their offseason moves and expectations, would probably be disappointing. But it’s also something of a hedge, because everyone seems to love them and I can’t figure out why. Clay Buchholz will need to be both healthy and high off his ass on BABIP and strand rate luck, which hasn’t happened at the same time since 2010, and if that doesn’t happen this season, the Sox won’t have even a single league-average starting pitcher, much less an ace. I don’t know which Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly everyone else has been watching, but I don’t see a scenario in which the Sox avoid giving up monumental amounts of runs.
Rubin: Detroit Tigers. I think we’ve hit our Kate Upton reference quota for this article, so I’ll resist the urge to make any sort of Game of War joke and instead note, quite reasonably I think, that Justin Verlander is old and hurt, Victor Martinez is old and hurt, and Miguel Cabrera is old and was recently hurt. Meanwhile, Max Scherzer is no longer on this team, Drew Smyly is no longer on this team, and Rick Porcello is no longer on this team. If J.D. Martinez pulls this thing off, whom does he get to date?
O’Hanlon: Los Angeles Angels. Some may say this pick “defies logic.” Others may say the Angels are just an uninteresting, sterilized version of the Dodgers with a once-in-a-generation talent surrounded by a bunch of dudes who used to be a lot better, a stable of good-not-great arms, and a president who deserves no more than to see his team get passed up by the A’s for the second wild-card spot in the waning days of September.
Keri: Miami Marlins. After a season in which the Marlins carried the fifth-youngest collection of position players and youngest group of pitchers in baseball, it’s easy to get excited about a team with this much major upside and multiple players primed for breakouts. The pitching staff should round into form once Fernandez returns (likely in June), tons of games against the Phillies and Braves will boost the team’s record, and that outfield of Yelich, Stanton, and Marcell Ozuna is going to be must-see MLB.TV all year long.
Lindbergh: Tampa Bay Rays. A true surprise team would be so unsung that no one would pick it to surprise, so in that sense, I’ve disqualified the Rays merely by mentioning them. But after losing their ace last summer and their manager, their GM, and the best player from their recent run of success over the winter, the Rays aren’t really on anyone’s radar. They should probably be a blip, if not a big one: If they get Alex Cobb and Smyly back in April and add an effective Matt Moore in June, they’ll have the AL East’s best starting rotation, and probably baseball’s best defensive catcher in Rene Rivera. Is it likely they’ll have all five of their best starters at full strength for most of the season? No. But that’s why it would be a surprise! I think the talent on the team’s 40-man roster (if not on the 25-man roster on Opening Day) gives the Rays a higher upside than the Mets, my runner-up surprise pick.
Jazayerli: Baltimore Orioles. I don’t think picking the Orioles to repeat as AL East champions should be a surprise — they won the division by 12 games last year — but judging by the majority of projections out there, it will be. Yes, they’ll miss Nelson Cruz, and they’ll sort of miss Nick Markakis, but a full season of a rapidly improving Manny Machado will make up most of the deficit by himself, without even accounting for a bounce-back from Chris Davis and a bigger contribution from Matt Wieters. Gausman might be the ace of the team by September, and we might see Dylan Bundy by then as well. And last I checked, the Orioles still had their most important asset: Buck Showalter, who’s worth four or five wins by himself.
Baumann: Cleveland Indians. Apart from the Marlins, of course. The Indians were in it until the last week of the season last year, and that was despite getting nothing from Jason Kipnis or Nick Swisher. Since then they’ve added Brandon Moss, and will get a full season out of starter Carlos Carrasco and likely call up future superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor. The lineup doesn’t have any holes, the bullpen is better than most people realize, the rotation has got nothing but upside, and the division is 100 percent there to be won.
Rubin: New York Mets. It’s funny how quickly the Mets chatter went from “Wow, this team has too much starting pitching, trade some of it for a shortstop already, you fools!” to “OH MY GOD WHAT WILL THEY DO WITHOUT ZACK WHEELER IT’S OVER THE DREAM IS DEAD!” The Mets looked poised to compete for the NL’s second wild-card spot when Wheeler was healthy, and they look primed to do just that while he’s rehabbing from Tommy John. That’s sort of the point of having depth: You use it when you need to. Matt Harvey is back, seemingly in peak form, and eager for you to stop asking about his sex life, thank you very much. Bartolo Colon is again jiggling his way into our hearts. And Thor is now one step closer to finally making The Show. Don’t make me pull a Tywin Lannister and explain to all you Littlefingers that chaos is an opportunity and everyone knows it.
O’Hanlon: Colorado Rockies. The Mile High air won’t ravage too many muscles and joints this season. Troy “Johnny Football” Tulowitzki will stay healthy and challenge Puig for MVP. The offense will be dope. The pitching will be — well, let’s just say that pitching is a physiologically inadvisable pursuit that’s very much at the whims of other people, so maybe the Rockies are on to something here by creating a staff that will attempt to “pitch” in only the most generous sense of the word.
The Thing I’m Most Excited About
Ted S. Warren/AP
Keri: Watching the meek inherit the Earth. The longest playoff drought in baseball belongs to the Blue Jays, who haven’t danced since Joe Carter made history. The second-longest drought lives in Seattle, where people still occasionally wonder how a 116-win team could come up short in the postseason. The second-longest World Series drought belongs to the Indians, who sit at 66 years and counting. And of course the biggest dry spell of all rests in Chicago, where the Cubs are well past the century mark, pining for the Back to the Future Part II prophecy to come true. It’s probably the Expos fan in me talking, but I always root for the underdog. Baseball is loaded with them this year.
Lindbergh: There are several teams, players, and trends that fascinate me heading into this season — you can listen to me list some of them here — but the ongoing game-theory battle between the defenders who shift and the batters who bunt to beat them might be the most interesting of all. Both shifts and bunts against the shift have become much more common lately, according to data from Baseball Info Solutions and Inside Edge, respectively, displayed on this dual-axis graph:
Despite the increased importance of combating the shift, though, bunts against the shift remain extremely rare. But they work, and because it’s so difficult for pull hitters to go the other way, bunting is the best solution to an infield that’s stacked against the batter. Teams are shifting only about a third of the time that BIS’s software recommends that they should, and the only team that’s close to shifting the recommended amount is the Astros, who saved almost twice as many runs from the shift (27) as the second-place team last season. That means we’re almost certain to see more shifts in 2015, and maybe we’ll also see some hitters stop being so stubborn. If Prince Fielder can beat out a bunt, any slugger can.
[mlbvideo id=”53253183″ width=”400″ height=”224″ /]
Jazayerli: On a personal level: I want to see whether the Royals can make an adequate defense of their pennant or whether they’re as bad as they look on paper, because it will go a long way toward answering the question of whether Dayton Moore just got lucky in 2014 or whether we’ve all been underrating him for some time. On a more general level: Is this the year the AL’s dominance over the NL finally ends? The AL has beaten the NL in interleague play for 11 straight seasons, sometimes by gaudy margins — last year the AL went 140-117. But all the ingredients are ripe for an NL comeback. The Red Sox–Yankees rivalry, which fueled the AL arms race, is moribund. The sabermetric revolution that started in the AL has finally reached maturity in the NL, with the Epstein-Hoyer Cubs ready to take off and the new Friedman-Zaidi pairing in Los Angeles. The three best pitchers on the free-agent market — Scherzer, Jon Lester, and Shields — all left the AL to sign with NL teams. The balance of power is shifting quickly. Then again, the NL hasn’t found a way to divest itself of the Phillies and Diamondbacks.
Baumann: The end of Cole Hamels trade speculation. Now that there are actually games to talk about, we’ll have something to do other than play armchair GM. Add to that the fact that the unstoppable forward motion of time brings us closer to either the consummation of a Cole Hamels trade or the civilization-ending cataclysm that will liberate us from the hell of Cole Hamels trade speculation in which we currently live.
Rubin: Seeing whether the A’s can somehow do it again. As recently as last week, I was sure the Mariners and Angels were the two best teams in the West … so sure that I made those picks in the ESPN-wide survey. And because I’m a woman of my word, dammit, I’m sticking with those selections here. But I watched some A’s-Giants action over the weekend, and I got sucked right back in to Billy Beane’s wide world of wonders. Marcus Semien and Brett Lawrie are going to be pretty darn fun to watch. Ben Zobrist will be Ben Zobrist. And there is someone named “Graveman” in the starting rotation. Maybe the year we finally stop asking if Beane’s shit can work in the playoffs is the year that it will.
O’Hanlon: This is my favorite moment from spring training:
My heart wants nothing more than for Chris Young to be great. However, it knows that will not happen, so it is prepared to settle for a hit. Yep, just one. A single, purposeful instance of bat-to-ball contact that leads to Young being on base. When will it happen? Will it ever happen? Would Young be that much better than replacement-level were he allowed to take all of his at-bats off a tee? Could baseball’s offensive crisis immediately be solved simply by his retirement? On Opening Day 2015, these are the questions we all need to be asking.