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The 30 Finale: Highlights, Lowlights, and 2015 Forecasts

Before we turn our attention to poking and prodding the playoff field, let’s take one last, long look back at the highlights and lowlights for each squad in 2014 — and at what might await in 2015. It’s the season finale of The 30!

The 2014 regular season is complete and the playoffs beckon. But before we move on to postseason play, let’s take stock of what happened this year: of predictions nailed and botched, of the players who made a lasting impact, and of the teams that topped or fell short of expectations.

It’s time to get aggressive:

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Enjoy some tasty beverages:

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And then maybe a few more:

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And try (but fail) not to get emotional:

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It’s the season finale of The 30.

Click here for all of Grantland’s 2014 MLB playoff coverage.

Bat Flip of the Week

It’s been an incredible year for batflippery. We’ve seen bat flips of joy, bat flips of anger, bat flips that feel vintage, and even some bat flips that challenge for the throne. But in the end, there can be only one bat flip king.

Yasiel Puig’s home run off Tim Hudson on Wednesday helped propel the Dodgers to their second straight NL West crown — and to an equally coveted title: Bat Flip King of 2014.

yasiel-puig-bat-flip

30. Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98, -127 run differential, no. 30 last week)

Entering the season, the top prospect in Arizona’s system was Archie Bradley, a then 21-year-old hoss with high-90s heat who made Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com top 10 lists. But an injury-plagued season for Bradley coupled with attrition in the Arizona outfield opened the door for another rookie, which is how Ender Inciarte became Arizona’s best first-year player this season. The 23-year-old Inciarte hit north of .360 over his final 16 games of the season, lifting his final 2014 line to .278/.318/.359. Combined with excellent speed (19 steals in 22 tries) and elite defense, Inciarte’s skill set will earn him a spot in the 2015 Opening Day lineup.

Where in the lineup will be the trickier part. The D-backs have to figure out if a 5-foot-10, 165-pound lightning bug with no power can hit enough to justify a starting corner outfield spot, or if a shift to center field might be a better fit for Inciarte’s talents. If they settle on the latter, they’ll have to figure out what to do with fellow 2014 breakout player A.J. Pollock. Coming off one of the most miserable seasons in franchise history, that’s a rare good problem to have.

29. Colorado Rockies (66-96, -63, LW: 29)

“I mean, this is the major leagues, not the minors. It’s supposed to be about winning. We change a few players, but we never have enough talent. Things never change upstairs. Other teams make changes, but we never will.” —An anonymous Rockies player to Denver Post writer Patrick Saunders a few days before the end of Colorado’s fourth straight losing season and second season in the last three with 95 or more losses.

28. Texas Rangers (67-95, -136, LW: 28)

Rest assured, the only reason I didn’t write an Adrian Beltre tribute this year is because we ran a gigantic one last September. Beltre has delivered a fascinating career that, despite being underappreciated in many circles, is obviously Hall of Fame–worthy. And at age 35, he’s still one of the 10 best players in the American League.

He also motivates his teammates like no other player can. Watch this clip of last week’s Beltre walkoff against the A’s and note the absolute glee that consumes Elvis Andrus & Co., even near the end of an otherwise dreadful season. The Rangers want to touch Beltre’s head after this homer more than any other ballplayer has ever wanted to do anything.

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27. Minnesota Twins (70-92, -62, LW: 27)

• Joe Mauer, pre-DL (76 games): .271/.342/.353

Joe Mauer, post-DL (44 games): .289/.397/.408

I’ve long defended and lauded Mauer. Even if he never again delivers anything close to his 28-homer 2009 season, anyone who can bang out .400-plus OBP seasons in six out of eight years is an elite offensive player who deserves megabucks. But for Mauer to earn the $92 million he has left over the final four years of his contract, he’ll need to — at minimum — replicate his post-DL 2014 performance and avoid suffering the injuries that have cost him major time in three of the last four seasons.

The Twins could be on the verge of turning things around, with Phil Hughes looking like an absolute steal, Kennys Vargas already in the majors, and mega-prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton close behind. But if Minnesota lacks the on-base machine it has come to know and love in the three-spot, climbing back into contention could be one hell of a challenge.

Meanwhile, the Twins dismissed Ron Gardenhire on Monday, ending his 13-year run as manager. The move was based mostly on the trajectory of the Twins’ records over those 13 years: Gardenhire inherited a talented, young, Terry Ryan–built team in 2002, and won three straight division titles (and eventually six in nine years) to start his managerial career. Since then, the Twins have finished last three years out of four, fielding some dull teams in the process.

Despite that dip, there’s a larger point to consider about what kind of manager Gardenhire is. If he’s a strong leader for a young club, then letting him go just as Sano, Buxton, Vargas & Co. are about to spearhead a new generation in Minnesota is a curious move. If I’m Jeff Luhnow, I’m putting Gardy on my interview list for the Astros’ managerial vacancy tout de suite.

26. Boston Red Sox (71-91, -81, LW: 26)

Some of the lineups that eliminated teams trotted out over the season’s final days were absolutely awful, mishmash groupings of journeymen and Quadruple-A players halfheartedly written in by exhausted managers looking forward to October tee times. The Red Sox were a bit of an outlier, however. Though many of Boston’s biggest names took a seat for the team’s penultimate game on Saturday, the Sox managed to field as intriguing a collection of (mostly) backup talent as you’ll see for a team playing out the string:

Mookie Betts, 2B
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Daniel Nava, RF
Yoenis Cespedes, DH
Allen Craig, 1B1
Garin Cecchini, 3B
Rusney Castillo, CF
Bryce Brentz, LF
Christian Vazquez, C


1.

The recently acquired Craig may be a vet, but he’s been horrendous this year.

The Sox will need to rebuild a rotation that’s more or less barren at season’s end — and they’re rumored to be going after James Shields, one of the best starting pitchers in this year’s free-agent crop — but with a farm system that can produce that much young, dynamic talent, a worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first run isn’t out of the question.

25. Houston Astros (70-92, -94, LW: 24)

Jose Altuve is one of only two players since the turn of the 20th century to pile up 220-plus hits, 55-plus extra-base hits, and 55-plus stolen bases in a season; the other is Ty Cobb, who did it three times. (Hat-tip @AceballStats.) Altuve had more hits than any second baseman since Charlie Gehringer, 78 years ago. There’s nobody else in baseball like Altuve, a 5-foot-6 bundle of athleticism with the kind of hand-eye coordination that allows him to pull off impossible feats like this:

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Yes, the Astros tried to bench him for the final game of the season to protect his lead in the batting race, another tone-deaf move in a season full of them.2 But don’t let that detract from what Altuve did this year, especially since he insisted on playing against his bosses’ misguided wishes, clinching the first batting title in franchise history along the way.

24. Chicago Cubs (73-89, -93, LW: 25)


2.

The Rockies did the same with Justin Morneau, by the way, only they actually benched him, and for the last two games of the season, at that; they deserve plenty of scorn.

Yes, we can get excited about Jorge Soler’s power, and marvel at Javier Baez’s possibly unprecedented swing, but the best of the Cubs’ armada of top prospects might prove to be Kris Bryant. All he did this year was lead the minors with 43 homers, 78 extra-base hits, a .661 slugging average, and a 1.098 OPS, in the process winning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award.

At a time when offense is down leaguewide and people are pining for the power numbers of the pumped-up ’90s and aughts, Bryant could be the guy to trigger a homer renaissance.

23. Chicago White Sox (73-89, -98, LW: 23)

The White Sox will look to build around a young core that includes Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, and Adam Eaton, but whatever fortunes await in 2015 will come without Paul Konerko, who on Sunday wrapped a career that saw him amass 2,340 hits, 439 home runs, 1,412 runs batted in, and 1,162 runs scored in 2,349 games. Farewell, Paulie.

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22. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, -68, LW: 21)

For the first time, I’ll be voting on a BBWAA award: NL Rookie of the Year. While I’m forbidden from revealing my pick until the results are announced in November, rest assured I’m taking a long look at Ken Giles on my three-player ballot.

It’s true that relief pitchers don’t have as many opportunities to affect games over the course of the season as do starting pitchers or position players. It’s also true that Giles saw even fewer reps than the typical reliever, throwing only 45.2 innings. Still, he was a stone-cold killer nearly every time out, punching out 64 batters, issuing only 10 unintentional walks, ceding just 25 hits and a single home run, and posting a microscopic 1.18 ERA. He rocks a 97 mph fastball and a more or less unhittable slider, he turned 24 years old this month, and he’s Phillies property through 2019. Amid all the problems facing this team as it works to regain relevance, Giles is a sorely needed bright spot.

21. Cincinnati Reds (76-86, -17, LW: 22)

Sticking with relievers, let’s pay tribute to Aroldis Chapman. In a bitterly disappointing season for the Reds, Chapman recovered from a terrifying injury to deliver the kind of illegal numbers we’ve come to expect from this triple-digit-firing machine. In 54 innings this season, the Cuban southpaw fanned 106 batters while allowing just 21 hits and one homer. In other words, of the 202 batters Chapman faced this season, he struck out 52.5 percent of them.

I’d call those video-game numbers, but no video game that makes even a cursory attempt at realism would allow anything like that.

20. Miami Marlins (77-85, -29, LW: 17)

The Marlins lost this guy:

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And this guy:

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And still managed to remain relevant for most of the season. Well done. And hey, Jose: See you next year, buddy.

19. San Diego Padres (77-85, -42, LW: 20)

• The Padres, pre–All-Star break: 41-54, 2.9 runs scored per game

The Padres, post–All-Star break: 36-31, 3.8 runs scored per game

Even though there’s no proof that a team’s second-half performance predicts how it’ll fare the following season, the post-ASG numbers of many young Padres hitters — especially Jedd Gyorko and Yasmani Grandal — offer a hint of optimism for the future. It’s the kind of positive vibe the Padres brass anticipated coming into this season, before some historically bad offense scuttled any hopes of contending in 2014.

18. Tampa Bay Rays (77-85, -13, LW: 18)

Tampa Bay fell out of it early, but amid the franchise’s worst season since the Devil Rays days comes a … um … ray of light: The pitchers, especially the starters, dominated in the second half. Even without David Price, the Rays will enter next season with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi, all of whom are on the rise and under club control. And even if they trade arbitration-eligible righty Jeremy Hellickson, they could get Matt Moore back by May.

Of course, the Rays’ bigger problem this season was a lack of offense — they scored fewer runs than any other AL team — but even that could be temporary. Though Evan Longoria had an awful year by his standards, there’s no reason to believe he’ll fail to bounce back in his age-29 season. A healthy Wil Myers should also give the offense a lift. And even more important, the Rays were terribly unlucky in their hit sequencing, finishing 29th in cluster luck this season, ahead of only the Cubs. According to Grantland contributor and The Power Rank proprietor Ed Feng, who tabulates cluster luck, the Rays finished the season at minus-48.93, with their offense scoring 30 fewer runs than expected based on a normal distribution. With a bit of positive regression, the Rays could easily field a respectable offense again next year. And if they can find a way to add a bat while navigating a payroll that management has vowed to cut, the offense could be even better than that. Pair a decent offense with a loaded pitching staff and sprinkle in some better health, and the Rays could quickly become contenders again.

17. Atlanta Braves (79-83, -24, LW: 16)

While the Braves work through the challenges of a weak offense and a new front office, they’ll have another quandary to ponder this winter: what to do about Ervin Santana. Atlanta had tons of problems this season, but Santana wasn’t one of them, tossing 196 innings with a 3.39 FIP, all for the bargain price of one year and $14.1 million.

With Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen hopefully due back from Tommy John surgeries early next season, the offense needing help at multiple positions, $80 million already tied up in nine players (including Dan Uggla — ouch), and several key contributors due for significant raises via arbitration, Santana might be a luxury the Braves can no longer afford.

16. New York Mets (79-83, +11, LW: 19)

Understandably, the overwhelming sense among Mets fans is that the team’s young rotation offers hope for better things next year, while the lineup figures to deliver heartache. Jacob deGrom might win Rookie of the Year, and he’ll have formidable company in the rotation with Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, Bartolo Colon, Rafael Montero, and Noah Syndergaard all in the mix. Still, the offense wasn’t as bad as the subpar performances turned in by the club’s two highest-paid players, David Wright and Curtis Granderson, seemed to indicate. The Mets actually finished a respectable eighth in the NL in runs scored, and they got better-than-expected results from a handful of hitters.

The best of those pleasant surprises was Lucas Duda. The 28-year-old first baseman batted .253/.349/.481 and smashed 30 homers, double his previous career high. Duda hit just .223 last year, but thanks to his elite walk rate and above-average power, his offense was 20 percent above league average based on wRC+, and it was 36 percent better than the league norm this year. Beyond that, his mild drop in strikeout rate (22.7 percent this year, down from 26.6 percent last year), better health, and permanent home at first base have combined to produce a reliable, middle-of-the-order slugger the team badly needs.

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15. Milwaukee Brewers (82-80, -7, LW: 13)

• The Brewers, pre–All-Star break: 53-43, 4.4 runs scored per game

The Brewers, post–All-Star break: 29-37, 3.4 runs scored per game

Milwaukee got off to a hot start thanks to Jonathan Lucroy and others, but there are lots of simple truths in baseball, and one of them is that a team can only succeed for so long while playing Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay at first base.

14. New York Yankees (84-78, -31, LW: 14)

We’ve already said good-bye to Derek Jeter. The Yankees have already talked publicly about Alex Rodriguez’s return. That leaves one future Hall of Famer3 with an uncertain future: Ichiro.


3.

Yes, A-Rod will make it someday. As attitudes relax over PED use, you’ll see a future Veterans Committee vote him in. It might not happen immediately, but it will happen eventually.

In March, the 40-year-old outfielder said he hoped to play “many” more seasons. Here’s hoping. In 2,204 games, he’s managed 2,844 hits, 1,303 runs scored, 487 stolen bases, a .317 lifetime batting average, 10 All-Star Games, 10 Gold Gloves, and 2001 Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. He’s a treasure, a fire-and-brimstone speech giver, slang connoisseur, and classic joke appreciator:

He might be no more than a serviceable fifth outfielder at this stage of his career, but damn it, some team should give him that fifth spot. The world isn’t ready to say good-bye to Ichiro.

13. Toronto Blue Jays (83-79, +37, LW: 15)

No matter who’s in charge in Toronto next season, the Jays can count on one considerable advantage heading into 2015: starting pitching depth. They’ve got two old warhorses, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey, signed for a combined $31 million next year. They’ve got J.A. Happ, who’s no more than a fifth starter on a team with playoff aspirations, but who’s still effective enough to warrant picking up his $6.7 million option for 2015. And they’ve got the young quartet of Drew Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Daniel Norris, a group so talented it’s already inspiring amazing T-shirts in Tdot.

Granted, Buehrle is untradable unless the Jays pick up a big chunk of the $19 million he’s owed next year, Dickey looks more like a very durable no. 3 or 4 starter than the Cy Young winner the Jays hoped they were getting after the 2012 season, and Toronto might deem Norris a little too green to crack the rotation in 2015. Still, for a team trying to end the longest playoff drought for any franchise in the four major North American sports, having this many pitching options is a great sign.

12. Cleveland Indians (85-77, +16, LW: 12)

My favorite offseason project is the two weeks I spend every winter building Grantland’s MLB Trade Value rankings. One guy guaranteed to make the cut this winter: Michael Brantley. That’s what happens when you’re 27 years old, you post a .327/.385/.506 season that’s fifth-best among all AL hitters, you join the 20-20 club, you post the third-lowest strikeout rate in the league, and you’re owed just $30 million over the next four years, including an $11 million club option that the Indians will surely pick up.

Corey Kluber got a bit more attention for his breakout season, which is fair considering he might win the AL Cy Young. But the Indians wouldn’t have remained in contention until the final week of the season without Brantley, and he’s a big part of why they’ll likely contend again next year.

11. Seattle Mariners (87-75, +80, LW: 11)

Yes, they fell just short of snapping the second-longest playoff drought in baseball, but there’s plenty of reason for the Mariners to smile heading into 2015. The M’s can look forward to full seasons in Seattle for Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Austin Jackson; more greatness from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma; and more elite production from Robinson Cano. Plus, given the team’s lucrative revenue streams and lack of major financial commitments beyond King Felix and Cano, the Mariners should be able to snag reinforcements for their offense this offseason.

Despite Sunday’s heartache, that should be enough to make even the most cynical Seattle fans do a little dance:

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10. Oakland A’s (88-74, +157, LW: 10)

Josh Donaldson’s walk-off homer on September 21 was his third of the year, tying him with Reggie Jackson, Dave Kingman, and Matt Stairs for the most in a single season in franchise history. It might have also saved the A’s season.

As I wrote last week for FiveThirtyEight, there’s no evidence that backing into the playoffs makes a team less likely to succeed once it gets there. Moreover, the A’s owned the best record in baseball just a couple of months ago. They upgraded their rotation by acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, the latter of whom will give Oakland an elite option in this week’s wild-card game. The offense might be weaker with Yoenis Cespedes gone and John Jaso out, but not weak enough to explain the team’s flukishly horrendous second half. In a playoff field without an overwhelming favorite, the A’s could be a worthy sleeper pick, assuming they can get through Tuesday’s do-or-die matchup with the Royals.

9. Kansas City Royals (89-73, +27, LW: 9)

When it comes to the blockbuster trade that sent James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for Myers and a phalanx of prospects, the verdict is in: Even if the deal eventually works out great for the Rays, K.C. got everything it could have hoped for and more. I knocked the deal for the Royals at the time, but I was wrong. K.C.? It’s in the playoffs for the first time in nearly three decades.

8. San Francisco Giants (88-74, +51, LW: 8)

His numbers, strong as they were, might not be quite good enough to earn him serious MVP consideration. But even if he fails to land that particular piece of hardware, one fundamental truth remains as his club sneaks its way back into the playoffs: Hunter Pence is the best.

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7. Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74, +51, LW: 7)

We’ll have much more on our top 10 teams (the 10 playoff teams) in our postseason previews later this week. But for now, here’s a quick X factor to watch for the Buccos: John Holdzkom. Read J.J. Cooper’s story of Holdzkom’s unbelievable journey to the big leagues, and Jeff Sullivan on Holdzkom being the only pitcher in the game to feature a palmball. Then consider how well Holdzkom, his baffling palmball, and his 51 punchouts in 36.2 innings (across three levels) might translate in the playoffs.

And if you’re not yet convinced, here’s the clincher:

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6. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72, +16, LW: 6)

• Jon Jay in the first half: .286/.343/.366, 100 wRC+

Jon Jay in the second half: .323/.406/.392, 133 wRC+

Not bad for a guy who didn’t fully reclaim his old starting center-field job until late May. He was a big part of how the Cardinals somehow found themselves atop the NL Central once again despite their early-season struggles.

5. Detroit Tigers (90-72, +52, LW: 5)

Brad Ausmus has chosen to stick with Joba Chamberlain as his eighth-inning guy and Joe Nathan as his ninth-inning guy, because he apparently believes that loyalty will be rewarded. Meanwhile, his best relief pitcher, Joakim Soria, has been relegated to a secondary role out of the pen. It’s possible the Tigers will roll through the playoffs anyway behind Miguel Cabrera, the Martinez (non-)brothers, and the killer combination of Max Scherzer and Price.

It’s also possible they’ll fall short for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their choice of late-inning relievers. But every time Ausmus goes with someone other than Soria in a high-leverage situation, he’s hurting his team’s chances to win. That’s a damning statement for any manager, but particularly for one trying to guide his team to its first World Series title in 30 years.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68, +101, LW: 4)

The Dodgers don’t get nearly as much grief for their bullpen, because they have an excellent closer in Kenley Jansen, and because setup men like J.P. Howell and Brandon League have posted some decent superficial stats. But this is a team that might go into the postseason without a single relief pitcher, other than its closer, who owns both an above-average strikeout rate and a strikeout-to-walk rate better than 2-to-1. And that’s another potential drawback to Hyun-Jin Ryu’s still-uncertain health: If the pitchers who follow Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in the rotation have to turn games over to the pen in, say, the sixth inning or earlier, the superior rivals the Dodgers will face in October could feast on L.A.’s biggest weakness.

3. Baltimore Orioles (96-66, +112, LW: 3)

• Steve Pearce, pre-2014: 847 plate appearances, 17 homers, .238/.318/.377

Steve Pearce, 2014: 383 plate appearances, 21 homers, .293/.373/.556

Few GMs in baseball can spin cheap scrap-heap finds into gold better than Dan Duquette (see: Sean Berry, Troy O’Leary, Steve Pearce). Coaxing 96 wins out of a team that suffered the season-ending losses of Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis4 might be the highlight of both Duquette’s and manager Buck Showalter’s career. And considering we’re talking about one of the best managers in the game plus a GM who combined those great cheapie pickups with twice trading for Pedro Martinez, that’s saying something.

2. Los Angeles Angels (98-64, +143, LW: 1)


4.

Davis will be eligible to return from his suspension eight games into the playoffs, should the Orioles advance that far.

The most important nugget for any playoff team might be Matt Shoemaker’s status. With Garrett Richards out for the season and C.J. Wilson struggling this year, Jered Weaver projects as the only reliable starter who’s also completely healthy heading into October — which is one of the biggest reasons the Angels aren’t no. 1 on this list despite owning the best record in baseball.

If Shoemaker — a great success story who gets lost in a stacked AL Rookie of the Year field — can continue his recovery from an oblique injury and make it back to the rotation in time for the ALDS, Halos fans will be able to feel better about their team’s chances of riding the game’s best offense and just enough pitching deep into the playoffs.

1. Washington Nationals (96-66, +131, LW: 2)

On Sunday, Jordan Zimmermann wrapped the Nationals’ regular season by throwing his first career no-hitter, which a rookie who’d been inserted into left field for defense saved on the final play.

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It’s been that kind of year in D.C. And if the Nats keep it up, they might have quite a bit more to celebrate come October.