Before the season began, there were question marks surrounding two specific American League Central teams – the Tigers and the Royals. The Royals were coming off of a World Series appearance, but they had lost both James Shields and Billy Butler. The Tigers are the defending division champions, but Justin Verlander was forced to start the season on the DL and there have been health concerns for both Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. When spring training wrapped up, the door seemed to be wide open for a team like the Indians or the White Sox to make an impression in the division. That hasn’t happened.
Scorching Start for Both
All the Tigers and Royals have done to start the season is go a combined 21-5 while outscoring their opponents by a total of 68 runs combined. Each team has thoroughly dominated their competition, and none of the other teams in the division are above .500 in the early going. Where it appeared that the division would be wide open heading into the summer, it now looks like it might be a two-horse race all season long.
Incredible Pitching by the Tigers
Even with Justin Verlander on the DL, the Tigers lead the American League having allowed just 36 total runs in 13 games. As would be expected, their offense has done the rest, already scoring 70 times in those 13 games while going 11-2. Cabrera has looked like the star that he is, and Victor Martinez has mostly picked up where he left off last season. Should Verlander be able to make a healthy and effective return to the rotation, the Tigers just may be the best team in the American League after all.
Surprising Royals Offense
Even during their run to the American League Pennant last season, the Royals were never a team that was intimidating at the plate. They used mostly speed and small ball to score a few runs, and then would turn a lead over to their dominant bullpen for the win. That recipe was a success last October, but so far this April, they have turned the offense up to a new level. Leading the league with 75 runs scored, the Royals have managed to combine excellent hitting with their reliable pitching. Just when everyone was ready to assume that the Royals playoff run was a one-year experience, they appear to be right back in contention for the 2015 campaign.
One of the top off-season story lines wasn’t actually a story at all – it was the non-trade of Cole Hamels. Despite constant speculation and rumors throughout the winter, Hamels was not traded and remains a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Considering the low expectations for the 2015 Phillies, most expected that they would move Hamels to a contending team in order to acquire some young talent. That has not yet happened, but there is a long way to go in 2015.
Phillies Off to a Predictable Start
There have been plenty of surprised in the early 2015 season, but the Phillies have not been one of them. They are 4-9 after 13 games of the 2015 season, and have been outscored by 24 runs already. The expectation that they would be one of the worst teams in the National League appears well on its way to becoming reality. That means that by the trading deadline at the end of July, the Phillies should be safely in the ‘sellers’ camp.
Hamels Not Helping
The big gamble that the Phillies are taking is that Hamels will maintain his value throughout the season until the trade deadline rolls around. So far, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. After three starts, Hamels is carrying an ERA of 5.00 and has already walked nine batters. His total of 18 strikeouts is impressive, but the seven home runs that he has surrendered could be a potential warning sign to any possible trade partners. Certainly three starts won’t undo all of the good that Hamels has done in his career, but the Phillies are hoping for the maximum return trade value from their top asset – and his start to the season has not helped toward that end.
Boston Playing Well
One of the likely trade targets for Cole Hamels is Boston, as they have assembled a team that appears to have a strong lineup with a questionable starting rotation. However, the Red Sox have started 8-5 on the young season, and the rotation hasn’t been quite as bad as some were predicting. If the Red Sox don’t need to send young talent to Philly for Hamels, the market for their ace will suddenly get smaller. While there is always a need for quality pitchers, the package that Philadelphia is able to receive in return will be directly related to the size and competitiveness of the market as July draws to a close.
During the offseason, the Seattle Mariners signed Nelson Cruz to a lucrative four-year contract after his excellent season in Baltimore in 2014. Cruz is among the leading right handed power hitters in baseball – something that Seattle has been sorely missing for a long time. The Mariners fell just a game short of the playoffs in 2014, and they were counting on Cruz to be the added punch in the middle of the lineup that they needed to put between All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. So far, Cruz has delivered on those expectations, and then some.
Early Home Run Surge
In just 13 games, Cruz has already logged eight home runs for the Mariners. There was some concern that the expansive Safeco Field would put a damper on the home run totals that Cruz could post, but that simply hasn’t been the case so far. He has been homering both at home and on the road, and already has 16 RBI to his credit. It has only been two weeks, but the Mariners have to be thrilled with the early returns on their investment.
Not Just Power
While Cruz will always be known mainly for his power, the early season hot start has included more than just homers. He is hitting .358 currently, and getting on base at better than 40%. Perhaps even better news for the Mariners is the reasonable strikeout numbers found on his stat line – just 10 k’s in 57 plate appearances. Cruz is never going to be a contact hitter, but keeping that strikeout rate at a reasonable level will be key to maintaining his productivity.
An Intimidating Trio
Just as it was imagined in the offseason, the 3-4-5 combination of Cano, Cruz, and Seager is already causing problems for opponents. In a game against the Rangers, Cano came to the plate with first base open and the winning run standing on third. Rather than giving Cano a chance to win the game, the Rangers chose to walk him and pitch to Cruz with the bases loaded. Cruz singled to left, and the Mariners won in walk-off fashion. There was no great option available to Texas in that scenario, because of the middle of the order quality that the Mariners now have to offer.
As a team, the Mariners aren’t off to a great start – due mostly to sub-par starting pitching. However, Nelson Cruz has certainly been doing his part to boost the offense of a team that has long struggled to score runs. If the starting pitching in Seattle can return to its form from previous years, the Mariners may be the team to beat in the West.
Coming into the 2015 season, the Miami Marlins were a trendy pick to contend in the National League. While most would agree that the Nationals are the best team in the N.L. East on paper, there is a lot to like about the team that Miami has assembled around superstar Giancarlo Stanton. However, through the first couple of weeks, the Marlins are struggling badly and have quickly fallen behind the division leading Mets. So what is going wrong in Miami?
It’s Not Stanton
As would be expected, the 3-10 start for the Marlins can’t be blamed on Stanton. He has hit three homeruns in the early going, and has an OPS above .900. The Marlins made a record-setting investment in their right fielder in the offseason, and his start to the year has done nothing to make them believe that they made a mistake. Given good health, Stanton figures to be one of the best players in the game for many years to come.
The starting pitching is a good place to look when trying to pinpoint the Marlins struggles in the first two weeks of the season. Only two starters have recorded a win, and only one has an ERA under 4.50. Walks have been a problem specifically for Tom Koehler and Mat Latos, and Dan Haren has been the lone bright spot among the starters. If the season is going to turn around and head in the direction that many expected, it is going to have to include better performances from the starting staff. Looking down to the bullpen, it is much the same story. With a combined ERA of almost 5.00, the Marlins relief pitching hasn’t been offering much help once the starters are removed from the game.
The Marlins offense is not without blame in their poor start either. While Stanton and Dee Gordon have been terrific, a long list of other hitters are struggling to get going in April. Martin Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria, Marcell Ozuna, Ichiro Suzuki, and Christian Yelich are all players with significant playing time and an OPS under .700. Even the power hitting Michael Morse is only checking in with a .710 OPS currently, having already struck out 12 times against just three walks. The two-man game of Gordon and Stanton is going to need some assistance from the rest of the roster if the Marlins are going to dig out of the early hole in the standings that they have created.
The biggest single story of the early baseball season has been Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. A top prospect and just 23 years old, Bryant certainly appeared to have done enough in spring training to earn a spot on the Cubs roster. However, Chicago chose to have Bryant start the season in the minor leagues, likely to delay the start of his service time for contractual reasons. Whatever the motivation behind his early demotion, Bryant is in the Windy City now and he is likely to make an immediate impact in the Cubs lineup.
Minor League Pedigree
Having played college baseball at the University of San Diego, the 23-year old Bryant has only played a total of 181 games at the minor league level. While that is a small sample of professional experience, the results have been nothing short of amazing. In those 181 games, he has hit 55 homeruns and driven in 152. He also showed impressive plate discipline, accumulating 99 walks along the way. All of that adds up to a minor league career OPS of 1.092. It doesn’t matter which numbers are used, the minor league career of Kris Bryant has been short but memorable.
Power is the name of the game for Bryant, even though he sports an impressive .327 career minor league batting average. That power comes from a 6’5’’ frame, and it seems very likely that he will be able to continue producing power numbers even facing the best pitchers in the world at the major league level. Just four games into his major league career at this point, Bryant already has a pair of doubles to his credit, along with four walks and four RBI.
Big Name Infield in Chicago
Many baseball fans and writers are predicting big things for the Chicago Cubs in coming years, and much of that has to do with the names that now line up across their infield. Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Starlin Castro, and Kris Bryant are currently the starting infielders for the Cubs. Each is young, and each comes with a background as a high-profile prospect. If even three of these players is able to translate into a quality major leaguer, the Cubs will have one of the best infields in baseball. If all four are able to do it, Chicago may just have what it takes to break the longest title drought in sports.
Often it is easy to project the two teams from the previous World Series as obvious candidates to return – but that might not be the case with the 2015 season. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals in seven games in the 2014 World Series, yet both teams have major questions heading into this upcoming year. If either is going to make it back to the top of the game, they will have to meet many challenges along the way.
Somewhat surprisingly, neither team was very active in the offseason in terms of acquiring free agents. Each team lost players who were major contributors to their success in 2014, and both got into the playoffs through the wild card route – meaning that they weren’t among the very best during the regular season.
The Outlook for the Giants
The most notable departure from the 2014 team is Pablo Sandoval, who took a free agent deal in Boston to play for the Red Sox. Sandoval has been one of the most-visible figures for the Giants during each of their three World Series titles in the last five years. While he might not be a superstar-level performer, the Giants could have trouble replacing his production both in the field and at the plate. The Giants also lost power hitting Michael Morse to the Marlins, taking away some of the limited power they featured in the lineup. If the Giants are going to return to the playoffs and make another push for the World Series, they are going to need contributions from players who have not yet produced at a high level in the major leagues.
The Outlook for the Royals
The Royals offseason followed in a very similar track to the Giants – meaning that there wasn’t much going on in K.C. They did sign Kendrys Morales to replace the loss of Billy Butler. However, Morales is coming off of a terrible season with Minnesota and Seattle, so he will need to rebound in a big way if they are to get any value or production from that deal. Also, James Shields has moved on to San Diego in free agency. While the Royals did make it to game seven of the World Series, there were already major questions regarding their offense in 2014. Nothing that they have done during the offseason would seem to have solved any of those problems. Much like the Giants, the Royals may need contributions from unexpected places in order to contend once again.
After sitting out the entire 2014 season, Alex Rodriguez will be back in uniform for the New York Yankees as spring training gets underway in Florida. Rodriguez will turn 40 during the season, and it is easy to say that no one knows exactly what to expect from the former star at this point in his career. Major league pitching is hard to hit for anyone, let alone a player who had to sit out an entire year and is approaching forty years of age. A-Rod is owed more than $60 million total over the next three seasons, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him released at any point by the Yankees if his performance does not return to a reasonable standard.
Not only is Rodriguez returning after sitting out all of 2014, he also only played in 44 games in 2013, hitting just .244. So, if he is going to return to form as one of the best hitters in the league, he is going to have to overcome an extended period of inactivity to restore the timing and power that used to be so impressive. Rodriguez is truly one of the best hitters in baseball history, and the Yankees are hoping that some of that former glory will be able to return for at least the 2015 season.
What position will he play?
Of course, Rodriguez moved from shortstop to third base when he came to New York because of the presence of Derek Jeter. However, the Yankees signed Chase Headley during this offseason to handle the third base duties, meaning that Rodriguez is likely headed for a DH role on the 2015 squad. There is also the possibility that he could take reps at first base as well, with Mark Teixiera often struggling with injuries of his own.
Spring Training Will Be Important
For most players, spring training is just a time to work off the rust, get in game shape, and get into the rhythm of playing games every day. However, for Alex Rodriguez, spring training 2015 is likely to be far more important. Not only will Rodriguez be making his return to the field after an extended break, but he will also need to show the Yankees what he can do before heading north to start the year. If he is unable to find the timing in spring training, the Yankees could face a tough decision when the start of the regular season comes around. This will be one of the most-interesting stories to watch from all around baseball in March.
In recent years, one of the more-predictable aspects of the American League was the dominance of the Central division by the Detroit Tigers. Even in 2014, when the Kansas City Royals would up going all the way to the seventh game of the World Series, it was actually the Tigers who won the regular season crown in the Central. They have been the best team in this division for several years now, and are consistently one of the best teams in the American League. However, as the 2015 season gets ready to go, there is a certain level of doubt surrounding the once-dominant Tigers.
One of the problems that the Tigers would seem to face in the years ahead is the age of three of their most-notable players – Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Victor Martinez. While Martinez is the oldest by a good margin, each player has seen some kind of performance drop off in recent years. Verlander struggled for the most part in 2014 after being one of the best starters in the game for many seasons. Cabrera is still a feared hitter to be sure, but his defense is a question mark, as is his health. Martinez has already had surgery in this offseason and will be questionable to be ready by opening day.
Uncertain Future on the Mound
Verlander is under contract for many more seasons, so the Tigers will simply have to hope that he returns to form. With Max Scherzer departed via free agency and David Price entering the final year of his contract, the future for the Tigers from a pitching perspective seems to be up in the air. If Verlander fails to return to most of what he was, the Tigers could be in real trouble for the next few seasons. Added to these concerns is the fact that most people rank the Tigers farm system as one of the poorest in baseball at the present time.
As mentioned above, the Royals made the World Series from this division last year, so the Tigers will need to watch out for them in the coming season. Also, the White Sox and Indians both seem to be better positioned than they have been in recent years to make a run late into September. The Twins appear to be the only team that doesn’t have much of a chance on paper to be a contender in 2015. With stiffening competition and an aging group of star players, it could be a tough go for the Tigers in the coming season and beyond.
As seems to be the case in every even-numbered year, the San Francisco Giants were once again the National League Champions in 2014. Although the only got into the postseason as one of the two wild cards, the Giants were again able to call on their October magic and make it all the way through to another World Series title. The most-memorable moment from their playoff run is likely the walk-off, series-ending homerun against the Cardinals by outfielder Travis Ishikawa.
So, are the Giants a safe bet to head back for another World Series? Not so fast. With the loss of Pablo Sandoval, there will be questions about the offense in San Fran as the 2015 season get started. Here are some other National League teams worth paying attention to.
The Nationals just might be the most-talented team in the entire National League – and maybe in all of baseball. With Bryce Harper anchoring a deep offense and an incredible pitching staff including the likes of Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals are a team to be reckoned with for sure. Also playing in their favor is the fact that the rest of the National League East – specifically the Phillies and the Braves – figure to have down years.
Los Angeles Dodgers
If the Nationals aren’t the best team in baseball, then it probably is the Dodgers. Another incredibly deep team, the Dodgers traded away former star Matt Kemp to the Padres and yet still have a powerful roster from top to bottom. The pitching staff is led by Clayton Kershaw, certainly the best pitcher in all of baseball. On offense, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig are just a couple of the many threats that the Dodgers can send to the plate. The defending National League West champions are certainly going to be difficult to knock off of their spot at the top of the league.
San Diego Padres
After one of the most-active off-seasons in baseball history, the Padres are going to be interesting to watch, if nothing else. They will feature a whole new outfield including the afore mentioned Kemp, Justin Upton acquired from the Braves, and Wil Myers who was received in a trade with the Rays. Despite the list of names that will fill the outfield, and the addition of James Shields on the mound, there are still serious questions about the quality of the infield that the Padres will be able to put in the lineup. Win or lose, few teams are likely to be as interesting to watch as the 2015 San Diego Padres.
In the end, the 2014 American League Champions turned out to be the Kansas City Royals. Not many would have predicted that outcome at this time last year, but what an incredible ride it ended up being for the loyal fans in KC. The Royals played countless dramatic games coming down the stretch in September and October, including the stunning rally against the A’s in the A.L. Wild Card game.
However, as we turn the calendar and get ready for the 2015 season, things don’t look so rosy for the defending league champions. They had a very quiet offseason, and saw James Shields depart for San Diego along the way. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility that the Royals could repeat as A.L. champs, but it doesn’t seem particularly likely. So, if they fall short of the mark this season, which teams are poised to take their place? Following are three possibilities.
Boston Red Sox
Despite having a dismal season in 2014, the Red Sox appear ready to get right back into the mix. They have added a number of new faces, including Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez both moving from their previous homes in California to the northeast. Those two should provide a significant upgrade for the Red Sox, who will also be hoping the David Ortiz can continue his production even with another year on the odometer. One of the biggest questions surrounding the Red Sox might actually be Dustin Pedroia, who had a down year in 2014 after being such a consistent performer for so long.
The Mariners fell one game short of the postseason in 2014, and basically that entire team returns for another run – with the notable addition of 2014 homerun leader Nelson Cruz. By adding Cruz, the Mariners will be able to present a formidable 3-4-5 in the order, with Cruz presumably hitting between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. All three of those players were All-Stars in 2014, so Seattle may finally have the offense they have been searching for to pair with their impressive pitching staff. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and James Paxton all return to the rotation, along with new addition J.A. Happ from Toronto.
Toronto Blue Jays
There is a chance for an exciting race to develop in the A.L. East this season between the Red Sox and the Blue Jays. It seems like the Jays have been expected to improve for several years now, but this just might be the season where it all comes together. Sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are still in place, but they have added to that lineup with All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson via a trade with the A’s. If their young pitching can come through for a full season, the Blue Jays could be tough to deal with for the rest of the league.