Baseball

Kyle Gibson and the First Pitch Blues

Kyle Gibson struggled in 2016. This is hardly news for Twins fans after a 103 loss season. In the midst of the #DealDozier sweepstakes the Twins have several other areas that will have to improve if they are going to compete with a division which is weakened from 2016, but with an emerging super power in Cleveland. The primary reason the Twins must trade Dozier lies in his value reaching its peak; this fact, combined with the difficulty mid-market teams face in producing enough front-line pitching talent to win a division (never mind the World Series) also bring us back to Gibson. If the Twins are to take a step forward in 2017, Minnesota’s 2009 first rounder will have to rebound to help anchor a rotation made up largely of unreliable pieces outside of Ervin Santana.

In 2015 Gibson appeared to be developing into the number three starter the Twins had hoped for when drafting him as a first round value play in 2009. In 194 plus innings he posted his best ERA 3.84, WHIP 1.28, SO/9 6.7 while posting a 3.96 FIP, all very tidy numbers. By contrast in 2016 his numbers jumped to a career worst ERA 5.07, WHIP 1.56, and FIP 4.70. What’s interesting in Gibson’s case, is some of the numbers which underlie his 2016 struggles.

Anecdotally, Gibson seemed to struggle early in the count in 2016, with hitters being very aggressive at attacking his first pitch. Below is a heat map of Gibson’s pitch percentage on 0-0 counts against lefties with his two seam fastball (the pitch he most typically starts off a hitter with). As you might expect from a ground ball hitter, the majority of Gibson’s pitches were located down and away versus left handed hitters.

final-lhp

Here’s a similar look for right handed hitters in 2016. As you can see, Gibson typically locates down and in or down and away to right handed hitters.

rhp

The biggest issue Gibson faced in 2016 was that opposing hitters picked up on this tendency and drilled his two seam fastball. On the first pitch of an AB, opposing hitters crushed Gibson to the tune of a .467 average while slugging .907 off him. Gibson also gave up 17 XBHs including 8 HR on the first pitch of an AB. In 2015, hitters slugged a much more respectable .538 in first pitch situations, giving up 10 less XBHs. Below is a similar heat map for Gibson’s two seam fastball location in 0-0 counts in 2015, his best season as a Twin, where he spread the ball around the strike zone significantly more.

old-rhp

One of the few clues we have been given about the proclivities of Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine came through their signing of Jason Castro, an offensive struggler known for his pitch framing. This is perhaps indicative of a desire of the front office to put a greater emphasis on more detailed statistics and analytics than Terry Ryan. Castro is undeniably a defensive upgrade over Kurt Suzuki, who struggled in various defensive metrics throughout his tenure with the Twins. One attraction of Castro in addition to his pitch framing is his experience and quality in leading a staff and as a signal caller. Gibson struggled significantly with Suzuki in 2016 to the tune of a 6.15 ERA with opposing hitters managing a .359 BaBIP, compared to a 3.72 ERA and .293 BaBIP when caught by Juan Centeno or John Ryan Murphy. This trend is also true of 2015 (Gibson’s best season as a Twin) in which he performed significantly worse when Suzuki was behind the plate compared with Chris Hermann or Eric Fryer.

Whatever the exact reason behind Gibson and Suzuki’s lack of chemistry one would think Castro will be a shot in the arm to a pitcher the Twins desperately need to take a significant step forward in 2017.

TJ, Japan and the Six Man Rotation

by JDCam 05.05.15

The epidemic of Tommy John surgeries sweeping the major leagues shows no signs of abating. Already in 2015, the Mets Zach Wheeler, Rangers ace Yu Darvish and the Royals Tim Collins have undergone the procedure, to name but a few.

While the long term effects of procedure do not compare, the prevalence of elbow issues for pitchers in the major leagues are starting to draw comparisons to the long term effects of concussions in the NFL. What remains clear is that the number of pitchers undergoing TJ remains high, approximately 1.1 per team in 2014.

The implications TJ surgery has on various levels of the game is a fascinating discussion. At a youth level there is a need for a greater breadth of creditable research on how to develop and maintain arm strength in a sustainable way, when to introduce young pitchers to offerings that put a greater strain on their arm (such as breaking balls) and arm conditioning regimens which can be followed at all levels of youth baseball to begin to decrease the risks of TJ.

A useful starting point and road map for this conversation can be found in the differing models of youth baseball in the United States and Japan.

Year TJ/Team NPB TJ/Team MLB
2012 0.833 2.30
2013 0.667 1.63
2014 0.083 1.10

At the major league level the particulars and possibilities are no less fascinating. A starting pitcher in 2015 and a starting pitcher in the 1960s have very different roles, naturally. It is easy to overlook how the statistics have traced the arc of the starting pitching role, the introduction of the ‘quality start’ being the most striking example of this (not to mention its alteration from 7 innings with 2 runs or less conceded to 6 and 3).

Pitching is an increasingly specialized trade with innings shared in greater and greater numbers between the rotation and bullpen (ever see a MLB team break camp with 13 pitchers in the 1970s)? With the combination of career threatening injuries to pitchers at a consistently high level and the explosion of power arms in recent years, one wonders if MLB teams could ever field 6 man rotations consistently?

Jose Fernandez in another pitching start rehabbing from season ending surgery

Jose Fernandez in another pitching start rehabbing from season ending surgery

This is a popular practice in Japan, where despite overusing and overexposing young and talented arms at the youth level through tournament play, the clubs of the Nippon League ere on the side of caution with starting pitching. Typically Japanese teams feature a 6 man rotation, with a season typically featuring a day off per week; the idea of a particular pitcher generally occupying a spot on a particular weekday is not uncommon. This raises interesting economic questions around the subject of a 6 man rotation. The most exceptional starters would probably be lined up on weekend days when more fans have an opportunity to attend games. This would however, create a divergence in pitching quality between weekdays and weekends, with the Kershaws and Scherzers of the world being trotted out on Saturday and Sunday while the J.A Happs and Trevor Mays perhaps occupying the Thursday matinee.

A further intriguing possibility would be a more extreme reduction in work load for back of the rotation starters and splitting innings between two or more multi-inning bullpen options, much like a traditional spring training game is handled. There are several problems with this notion (length of game, matchups)

Whatever the path forwards, there are certainly disturbing trends emerging in the status of pitchers who have undergone TJ surgery. According to a recent article from ESPN’s Stephania Bell ‘since 1999, of the 235 MLB pitchers have undergone TJ surgery, only 32 have undergone a revision – but one-third of them have occurred in the last year’. This data disturbingly points toward the misnomer that TJ recipients somehow miraculously strengthen their arms through their rehab and end up pitching at the same level and with the same effectiveness as they did prior to their surgery.

The bottom line here seems to be that despite an increasing willingness of pitchers to have and/or repeat the procedure the long term effects are still incredibly unpredictable. MLB seems to be moving forwards with a number of different research studies, educational programs and even technology aimed at reducing and limiting the number of pitchers that require TJ surgery, including obtaining data as specific as which pitches place the greatest long term biomechanical strain on various parts of the throwing arm.

MLB needs to continue its own in house research about the logistics of a possible 6 man rotation (expanding rosters, the potential stress placed on relievers, the potential for extra jobs creating some good will with the players union to name but a few).  While positive steps are being taken, pitchers are not yet carefully protected by major league baseball and out understanding of the specific relationship between work load and arm health will continue to limit this understanding, to the detriment of the most important players on the diamond.

Yoan Moncada’s signing marks controversy in MLB amateur Process

3.09.15

Cuban 19-year-old Yoan Moncada completed a celebrated courtship last week when he signed with the Boston Red Sox, receiving $31.5 million in up-front bonus money. This bonus easily marks the largest bonus in professional baseball history, and it has sparked debate over amateur signing reform in MLB. With Rob Manfred taking over as commissioner, the responsibility of creating a more equitable system may be the most underappreciated need of his regime, as it speaks to baseball and ethical issues around the globe.

Baseball has three very distinct systems for acquiring players that are first-time eligible for major league contracts. First is the Rule 4 draft, also known as the amateur draft or first-year player draft. This is for American and Canadian amateurs, typically 18-22 years old, and goes by round in reverse order of regular season standings from the year before. There have been a myriad of wrinkles added to the draft, which can all be read about here. A second method is for players who have signed professional contracts in foreign leagues, such as Jose Abreu (Cuba), Yu Darvish (Japan) and Jung-ho Kang (Korea), a posting fee may be required to negotiate a buyout of the player’s other professional contract. Posting fees are blind-auction, all up-front to the current team that holds the player’s contract. When the Rangers posted $51.7 million for Darvish prior to the 2012 season, baseball created a hard cap for these posting fees to attempt to maintain competitive balance in the signing of these players.

Yu Darvish commanded so much on the open market in 2012 that MLB changed the way they do business surrounding foreign professionals.

The last method is for international amateurs, primarily in Latin America and the Carribean. Players who turn 16 on or before June 1st of the calendar year are eligible for bonus offers from MLB teams to sign minor league contracts. Teams have a soft cap of $3 million for signing bonuses of these players, and every dollar over $3 million gets taxed at 100%. In addition to the tax, penalties for following years are enforced, and get more stringent the more a team exceeds the cap.

Since Moncada still had his amateur status, he was eligible for the international amateur free agent signing policies. The Red Sox did not need to pay a posting fee, but could only be signed by teams using their $3 million for international draft pool money. With Moncada receiving $31.5 million, the cost to the Red Sox with tax was $63 million, all up front.

Let’s put this number into perspective: Only 23 free agents have signed contracts with total values greater than this figure of the entirety of the past 5 seasons. The second highest bonus to an amateur was earlier this offseason, when 17-year-old Cuban SP Yoan Lopez received $8.25 million from the Diamondbacks (costing the team $13.5 million). Stephen Strasburg received $7.5 million in his bonus in 2009, and the bonus coupled with his $15.1 million deal for four years marks the most lucrative amateur signing for an American citizen. (Since 2009, the MLB has put in place even more stringent bonus pools for the North American amateur draft). Moncada’s figure is the largest number ever shelled out for an amateur player, and may stay that way if rule changes come into play. It is also the largest cost paid out for any player in one calendar year.

Strasburg was the last of a draft era – where signing bonuses were larger than what they are today.

This deal represents a perfect storm of issues all coming to a head, some of which are not baseball related. First, Moncada is a tremendous talent, a potential all-star prospect, and is 19 years old. He is by far the oldest of the amateur signees from the Caribbean who have made multi-million bonuses. This means he is more physically developed, and it is easier to see his awesome tools. He is more of a sure thing. So, why is he so much older? In case you haven’t heard, foreign policy between the US and Cuba has drastically changed in the past months. With recent changes to those politics, it is no longer a defection and abandonment of your culture to pursue the MLB dream (some defection stories can be incredible). He hit the market at the perfect age for money, where he has shown top-prospect promise, all while still being younger than many U.S. prospects.

For high success, high revenue teams, it can be very difficult to acquire good young talent. You draft late in the first round, missing out on can’t miss prospects through the draft. Baseball’s revenue sharing and luxury tax makes every dollar spent on MLB talent even more costly for teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. Teams are trying to find ways to get young price controlled players. The Dodgers did it by paying Dan Haren’s contract for the Marlins. The Yankees seemed to realize this, and signed every amateur they could this offseason. The Red Sox don’t need Moncada, in a personnel sense: they have all their infield locked up for several years. They are just acquiring young talent in a cost effective way, like any good organization should do. The Yankees did something similar this offseason.

At first glance, this move seems anything but cost effective. With all the tax and penalties, how can you justify $63 million to a minor league shortstop? A glaring truth for the big-spenders in MLB is the lack of fear of the penalties. A new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is coming up in December of 2016. Sure, the Sox can’t spend on international players for 2 seasons. Within 1 year, the system probably will be overhauled anyway. Changes could come to the format as early as next year, rendering punishments for over-spenders moot.

The big debate comes with what should be changed to the system. Most people agree that spending 4 times more on Moncada is not equitable, but there is no easy or just fix. The most popular choice in the MLB front office – met with severe resistance from MLB’s player’s association – is an international amateur draft, which Manfred wants to implement as soon as 2016. There are huge concerns in the transfer here. What to do about all the Cuban-born players who are older, wanting a shot at the majors? Or, what about the next Yu Darvish? Exceptions will still need to be made for foreign-born, already-professional players. Where do those exceptions end?

Another concern with the international draft is having two separate amateur drafts. This would heavily reward poor teams, far past a level of reasonable competitive balance. The worst team would hypothetically get first pick at two different elite talent pools. Some then vote for one universal player draft, which has many of its own concerns. The age difference between 16 (minimum age in international pool) and 18 (minimum in American pool) creates immense physical discrepancies – far greater than the difference between high school and college players- and some questionable ethics regarding foreign- born talent. Do you change the age to a universal 18? And it is easy to forecast modern economic imperialism when it comes to this player draft; if the CBA is not explicit, this system could result in teams trying to get cheap foreign born talent, because they know they could lure a impoverished 16-year from Latin America far easier with less bonus money. The ethics of the universal player draft could get very questionable in a matter of a few years.

Ultimately, the largest concern is how inequitable the draft pool money is in comparison to the value of the drafted players. As Moncada showed, amateurs on the free market are worth way more than the draft bonus slot would indicate. The #1 pick in the US would make tons more if he were a free agent. So, that brings us to abolishing the draft altogether, and adapting a system similar to European soccer leagues. That has the possibility of killing competitive balance, practically ensuring higher revenue teams get all the best young talent.

To ameliorate this, Jeff Cameron of Fangraphs proposes an inverse cap on player spending, with the teams that spend more at the big league level having less to spend at the amateur level. While I love this principle, in actuality it would run into the problem of bad contracts: the Phillies would never be able to get out of their current hole, because of the terrible contracts they have signed. It would be a revolving door of aging players getting paid too much, since you would never be able to spend on young talent. In addition, drafts seem to be an essential part of the American sports experience, and resistance to a pseudo-open market would be severe.

Lastly, there is an idea of making the minor leagues independent, but still heavily subsidized by MLB. If we gave a couple years for player development, say until 20 years old or so, the good prospects would float to the top more reliably, and then they could hit an open market (or be drafted), making the bonus money go to the more deserving player. This is similar to the hockey/NHL minor league system. This runs into the competitive balance issue, as well as getting into trouble with young players who advance through the minors quickly, such as Bryce Harper.

Moncada – along with his 6’1″ frame, monster athletic ability and potent switch-hitting bat – may forever change the way business is done in Latin American baseball.

Ultimately, this issue needs to be about paying the players fair market value, while keeping competitive balance as a priority. I don’t think the universal first year draft is necessarily a bad thing, I am just concerned that the bonus pools will not be expanded enough to represent market price for players. A drafted player has so much less bargaining power than a player on the open market; MLB knows this, and wants to keep the cost of these players low for business. If we can set a priority of higher bonuses for drafted players, and be quick to adapt some of the nuances of the draft, a more equitable draft can maintain balance in the game, all while supporting a global economy, rather than colonizing it.

MLB Divisional Preview, Part 6: NL East, The worst for last

by Conway West 03.04.15

The NL East has seen better days. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a 12-year stretch where the division represented the NL in the World Series 9 times. All five teams have either represented the NL in the Series or had the league’s best record in the past 16 seasons, an honor no other division holds.

At this point, the division looks weak. The division may have the two worst teams in baseball, and the second and third best teams do not look elite either. However, due to the disparity between the top tier and middle tier of teams in the National League, I predict two playoff teams from the East.

  1. Washington Nationals

2014: 87 wins; Steamer 2015: 91 wins; Conwaywest: 95 wins; JD Cam: 94 (1st place)
In: Max Scherzer, Yunel Escobar, Casey Janssen
Out: Tyler Clippard, Rafael Soriano, Adam LaRoche, Ross Detwiler, Asdrubal Cabrera

Things to like: 6 excellent starting pitchers; a balanced and strong lineup; Anthony Rendon becoming an elite player.
Things to worry about: Bryce Harper and Jason Werth staying healthy; finding the closest thing they can to Clippard in the bullpen.

This is the safest and easiest division pick in all of baseball. The Nationals are loaded: veteran talent and experience; home grown and free agent; power, speed and defense; and most importantly, the best rotation in baseball. Their 5 may be the best in the past 5 years, and they have the best #6 in baseball in Tanner Roark. I believe this is also the year that Anthony Rendon is a national star.

Rendon, one of the most valuable players in MLB last year, could get even better.

This is not to say the Nationals don’t have their problems. The bullpen will miss Tyler Clippard – he has been one of the most valuable relievers in baseball for 5 seasons – and they have 3 injury prone outfielders. But besides predicting injury, this is one of the best teams in baseball. With SS Ian Desmond and SP Jordan Zimmerman becoming free agents after the season, this may need to be their year with the current roster makeup. I am one that thinks it may be.

  1. New York Mets (wild card)

2014: 79 wins; Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conwaywest: 84 wins; JD Cam: 78 wins (3rd)

In: Michael Cuddyer, John Mayberry
Out: Eric Young Jr

Things to like: Juan Lagares catching a lot of baseballs; Matt Harvey pitching 150 innings; Lucas Duda and David Wright making two good hitters; innovative GM in Sandy Alderson; playing in the NL East.
Things to worry about: lots of bullpen question marks; no corner outfield defense; little middle infield production.

The Mets?! The Mets! After a decade of horrible contracts, poor management, and a little bad luck, the Mets are… still very much the Mets. The team didn’t change very much, has a terrible bullpen, and got a lot older in right field with the addition of Cuddyer. So why the heck do I pick the mets for the second wild card?

The Mets, who won 79 games last year, have tons of young arms to choose from for their rotation (and one very old overweight one). They have young(ish) options up the middle, that all look to produce at or above league average value this year. And, they play in the NL East. If they can take advantage of the Braves being much worse and win 5 more against them, that’s 84 wins. And in the National League, where the second tier teams all have issues, that might be enough for our first Mets postseason birth since 2006. Even if they come up short, they look at least to be in the right direction.

Sandy Alderson looks to have the Mets moving in the right direction after almost a decade of mediocrity.

  1. Miami Marlins

2014: 77 wins; Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conwaywest: 81 wins; JD Cam: 85 wins (2nd, wild card)
In: Mat Latos; Martin Prado; Mike Morse; David Phelps; Dan Haren; Dee Gordon; Ichiro Suzuki
Out: Nathan Eovaldi; Andrew Heaney; Anthony Desclafani; Chris Hatcher

Things to like: Giancarlo Stanton challenging for 2nd best player in baseball; the return of Jose Fernandez; Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna rounding out top 3 outfield in baseball
Things to worry about: up-the middle defense; infield positions hitting.

The Marlins sure were busy this offseason. As a team that seems to grow young arms on trees, they traded several of them away this offseason for more reliable options: namely, the versatility of Prado, the speed of Gordon, and the potential all-star starter in Latos. They will have 3 new infield starters to supplement their awesome, young outfield.

But is reliable and different better? Latos has been steadily declining over the past several seasons. This team was middling at scoring runs last year, and with Casey McGehee in San Francisco now, who else will step up with crazy high BABIPs ad RISP averages to score runs? The Marlins hope Mike Morse is up for the task.

This team has geared up to win, which is similar to what we saw in 2013. I just don’t see it. I see a .500 team that has two stars in Stanton and Fernandez, but can’t do the little things (including pitch framing) well enough to win.

The Marlins may be mediocre, but Giancarlo Stanton will continue to do amazing things this year.

  1. Atlanta Braves

2014: 79 wins; Steamer 2015: 71 wins; Conwaywest: 68 wins; JD Cam: 70 wins (4th)
In: Nick Markakis; Shelby Miller; Jonny Gomes; Eric Young Jr; Jace Peterson; Alberto Callaspo; AJ Pierzinski; Jason Grilli; Jim Johnson; Wandy Rodriguez; Melvin Upton
Out: Jason Heyward; Justin Upton; Evan Gattis; Ervin Santana; Kris Medlen; Brandon Beachy; Aaron Harang; Gavin Floyd; Jordan Walden; Tommy La Stella; David Carpenter; Emilio Bonifacio; BJ Upton

Things to like: Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman are still on this team; Julio Teheran and Alex Wood are a decent 1-2 starting pitching punch; Craig Kimbrel throws hard; Christian Bethancourt getting lots of starts at catcher;
Things to worry about: lots of dead lineup spots; getting any value from their outfield; any bullpen arms past Kimbrel.

This is where the NL East gets fun! The Braves gutted their outfield, traded their best power bat, saw an entire starting rotation of arms depart, and lost their two best bullpen arms outside all-world closer Craig Kimbrel. All for Shelby Miller, some fringe prospects and financial flexibility. If financial flexibility equates to 4 years and $44 million to Nick Markakis, this team is in trouble for the foreseeable future.

Much like the Phillies, the Braves appear to be in all-out tank mode. Also like the Phillies, their farm system lacks huge talent to turn around their team quickly. The Braves sold off their best assets besides Kimbrel – he may be traded as well – so it may be a tough year in Atlanta, and 100 losses isn’t out of the question. Hopefully Andrelton Simmons can develop into a power bat to go along with his incredible defense. That could give Braves fans a couple things to look forward to… for 2017 when the new stadium is complete.

The Braves hope Andrelton Simmons can become an all-around star to compliment his elite defense.

  1. Philadelphia Phillies

2014: 73 wins; Steamer 2015: 68 wins; Conwaywest: 66 wins; JD Cam: 66 wins (5th)
In: Aaron Harang
Out: Jimmy Rollins; Marlon Byrd; Kyle Kendrick; AJ Burnett

The Phillies finished 2014 with 73 wins, which feels surprisingly high for the attention their roster received for its need to be disassembled. This offseason, the Phillies began that rebuilding job in earnest, trading franchise icon Jimmy Rollins and aging bat Marlon Byrd. Now, they look to move Cole Hamels (probably), Jonathan Papelbon (hopefully), and Ryan Howard (good luck!) as they try to turn the page in what was the most successful Phillies core in team history.

The trading of parts is why my 66 wins may be high: this team is only planning on getting worse in 2014. They may end the year with many fringe big leaguers logging heavy usage. 100 losses may be a formality is many of their pieces get traded away (as they should). The “Fire Ruben Amaro” fan club will only grow.

Phillies fans are not too happy with how the current regime has handled the team.

MLB Divisional Preview, Part 5: A Division full of questions

by JDCam 02.25.15

The AL East was unusually uncompetitive in 2014. The Red Sox dropped a staggering 26 wins on 2013, Tampa Bay dropped 15, only the Blue Jays and Orioles improved, with the Orioles running riot by a 14 game margin at the end of the regular season. The division promises to be much closer in 2015, with the Red Sox and Blue Jays making major roster upgrades this off-season, while the Yankees in particular are tough to project. There are dozens of questions surrounding the division, both on the field (Red Sox youth movement) and off the field (A-Rod, sigh). With an influx of mediocre pitching and elite hitting into the division, expect the AL East to be a slugfest in 2015.

1. Boston Red Sox

2014: 71 wins; Steamer 2015: 88 wins; Conway West: 90 wins; JDCam: 89 wins

In: Alexi Ogando, Robbie Ross, Ryan Hannigan, Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval,

Out: Yoenis Cespedes, Ryan Lavarnway, Anthony Ranaudo, Will Middlebrooks, David Ross, Allen Webster

Things to Like: New infield high impact bats; a season for Rusney Castillo to shine; Mookie Betts talent (and the best name in baseball)

Things to Worry About: An inferior rotation; Hanley staying healthy; Will Xander Bogaerts live up to the hype?

Will Castillo provide a boost for the Red Sox in 2015?

Will Castillo provide a boost for the Red Sox in 2015?

Just about everything that could go wrong for the Red Sox did go wrong for the Red Sox in 2014. Between poor performances, injuries and blooding young prospects they were a shadow of their 2013 World Series winning team. The 2015 Red Sox should have a huge turnaround, with exciting talents Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts as well as Cuban import Rusney Castillo given a whole season to test their mettle. After losing Jon Lester, their biggest question mark will be their rotation, with mid-level starters Justin Masterson, Rick Porcello and Wade Miley who will all be relied upon to deliver in the absence of a true ace. Additions like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval don’t hurt either; if the Red Sox stay healthy, they should be in the hunt for another AL East crown.

2. Toronto Blue Jays

2014: 83 wins; Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conway West: 88 wins; JDCam: 85 wins

In: Michael Saunders, Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Marco Estrada

Out: Casey Janssen, Colby Rasmus, George Kottaras, Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie, JA Happ, Anthony Gose, Adam Lind,

Things to Like: The arrival of Josh Donaldson; one of the strongest lineups top to bottom; a potential sleeper in Marcus Stroman

Things to Worry About: An inevitable letdown year from Russell Martin; will their rotation hold up?

Donaldson will form a formidable 3/4/5 combo with Encarnacion and Bautista

Donaldson will form a formidable 3/4/5 combo with Encarnacion and Bautista

The Blue Jays have been the teaser team of the AL East the past two years after an aggressive building process from GM Alex Anthopoulos. This could finally be the year when the Jays break through. Their 3/4/5 of Encarnacion, Bautista and Donaldson rivals the Tigers as the best in baseball and the addition of Russell Martin will be a huge upgrade at catcher, particularly if he can continue his 2014 form. Much will depend on the competitiveness of the Jays rotation, with arms like Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison who will need to keep the Jays competitive for their big bats to take over.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

2014: 77 wins; Steamer 2015: 83 wins Conway West: 81 wins (4th place); JDCam: 82 wins (4th place)

In: Asdrubal Cabrera, John Jaso, Rene Rivera, Steven Souza, Ernesto Frieri

Out: Jeremy Hellickson, Joel Peralta, Yunel Escobar, Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers

Things to Like: Replacing one potential star in Wil Myers with another in Steven Souza; a rotation full of sleepers (Smyly, Cobb); an improved Evan Longoria

Things to Worry About: Losing Joe Maddon; a potentially crippling team OBP; no one wants to watch them play

Drew Smyly is one of several underrated Rays rotation pieces

Drew Smyly is one of several underrated Rays rotation pieces

The Rays finally broke up a core of players that had seemed to be in play forever at Tropicana field, with David Price leaving (got fleeced by the Tigers) and Ben Zobrist departing for the As. Much more importantly, longtime GM Andrew Friedman headed to LA after he was handed the keys to the Dodgers. Much will rest on new GM Matthew Silverman and his ability to tap into the undervalued player market in the same way Friedman was able to, as well as building expertly through the draft. The Rays promise to be an average team, with a surprising rotation, but they may be stuck in a rut of mediocrity for the foreseeable future.

4. New York Yankees

2014: 84 wins; Steamer 2015: 83 wins Conway West: 82 wins (3rd place); JDCam: 83 wins (3rd place)

In: Andrew Miller, Didi Gregorious, Justin Wilson, Garrett Jones, Nathan Eovaldi

Out: Ichiro Suzuki, David Phelps, Martin Prado, Francisco Cervelli, Shane Greene, David Robertson, Brandon McCarthy

Things to Like: The return of Masahiro Tanaka; A better year from Carlos Beltran; I’m reaching here…

Things to Worry About: The return of Masahiro Tanaka; Michael Pineda staying healthy; CC Sabathia (just their rotation in general!)

TanakaSlider2

Last year we were looking at footage of Tanaka from Japan. Now we are wondering if he can return to his pre-injury form from 2014

Yankee fans witnessed the end of an era with Derek Jeter’s retirement after the 2014 season. This was also symbolic of the Yankees slow transition to become more youthful as they possessed one of the oldest rosters in baseball. Many questions surround the 2015 Yankees and they are genuinely hard to project. If Tanaka and Pineda can remain healthy and promising starter Nathan Eovaldi can be effective they could compete. Yankee fans should be prepared for another season that is dominated by off the field news (A-Rod), another unwelcome distraction from the teams on field play and improvement.

5. Baltimore Orioles

2014: 96 wins; Steamer 2015: 79 wins Conway West: 78 wins; JDCam: 78 wins

In: Nolan Reimold, Delmon Young

Out: Steve Lombardozzi, Nick Hundley, Andrew Miller, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis Joe Saunders

Things to Like: The return of Manny Machado; Chris Davis on Adderall; high impact pitching prospects (Gausman, Bundy)

Things to Worry About: Not really attempting to replace any lost pieces; No super human effort from Nelson Cruz; Steve Pearce will go back to being Steve Pearce

Machado GIF

Much will depend on whether Manny Machado can recover from his horrific 2014 knee injury.

There was no team that did as little this off-season as the Orioles, resting on their laurels after an impressive 96 win season in 2014. They lost two thirds of their outfield and an integral piece of their bullpen. The return of wonder kid Manny Machado and a not so inept Chris Davis should help, but the Orioles should expect some regression in 2015 after doing too little to replace their key departures.

MLB Divisional Preview, Part 4: Its Not All About the Cubs

by JDCam 02.21.15

While the off-season dialogue around the NL Central has largely surrounded the Cubs and their aggressive rebuilding, the division promises to be highly competitive in 2015. The NL Central got far worse in 2014, particularly the exceptionally disappointing Cincinnatti Reds who had a -14 win swing. Even the division’s elite teams, the Cardinals and Pirates, dropped 7 and 6 wins respectively. The division’s less competitive teams did improve, with the Brewers and Cubs picking up 8 and 7 wins respectively. With the exception of the Cubs, NL Central teams had a relatively quiet off-season, which should lead to a three team showdown in September with the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs battling for supremacy in the central.

1. St. Louis Cardinals

2014: 90 wins: Steamer 2015: 86 wins; Conway West: 88 wins; JD Cam: 89 wins

In: Jason Heyward, Mark Reynolds, Matt Belisle

Out: Shelby Miller, Jason Motte, A.J Pierzynski, Daniel Descalso, Pat Neshek, Justin Masterson

Things to Like: Cleaning up in the Heyward trade; having a ton of underrated players; playing in a weak division

Things to Worry About: Replacing Oscar Taveras; Rotation depth; The Cubs

The Cardinals didn’t do much in the off-season, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. They did ship Shelby Miller to the Braves with a package for OF Jason Heyward, a significant defensive upgrade who should continue his steady offensive improvement. The Cardinals did lose top prospect Oscar Taveras to a tragic car accident this winter, but come September, this team will be in the hunt for another NL Central crown.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates

2014: 88 wins: Steamer 2015: 85 wins; Conway West: 85 wins; JD Cam: 86 wins

In: Corey Hart, Steve Lombardozzi

Out: Edinson Volquez, Clint Barmes, Ernesto Frieri, Ike Davis

Things to Like: No key departures; maintaining a stockpile of solid prospects; an OF of McCutchen, Polanco and Marte

Things to Worry About: No key additions; rotational depth and consistency from Gerrit Cole

400+ ABs for Gregory Polanco should bode well for the Pirates talented outfield

400+ ABs for Gregory Polanco should bode well for the Pirates talented outfield

The Pirates are going places. After two excellent seasons under the guidance of underrated helmsman Clint Hurdle, the Pirates could be primed to take the next step and make a deep October run if all goes well in 2015. Much will depend on the consistency and development of former number 1 pick Gerrit Cole, who needs to make the jump into the upper echelon of NL starters. The Pirates starting outfield of McCutchen, Polanco and Marte is frightening, with a truly impressive combination of speed, power and defensive range. With several other underrated pieces such as Joey Harrison, Neil Walker and unknown quantity Jung Ho Kang the Pirates will be a formidable team in 2015.

3. Chicago Cubs

2014: 73 wins: Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conway West: 80 wins; JD Cam: 82 wins

In: Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Jason Motte, David Ross, Chris Denorfia, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero

Out: Kyuji Fujikawa, Justin Ruggiano, Dan Straily

Things to Like: Significant upgrades at multiple positions; number 1 farm system in baseball; Joe Maddon

Things to Worry About: Consistency from Soler and Baez; a young inexperienced team

Jorge Soler is just one of a litany of talented players at Joe Maddon's disposal

Jorge Soler is just one of a litany of talented players at Joe Maddon’s disposal

Very few teams in baseball have a front office who have played their hand more brilliantly than the Cubs. In the midst of another losing season the Cubs traded away their best major league assets for prospects which boosted their farm system to the best in baseball. They picked up their prized pitching anchor in Jon Lester and resigned stalwart Jason Hammel. Chicago’s most important acquisition however may have been manager Joe Maddon, the perfect foil for the Cubs litany of young talent. There are a lot of question marks around the Cubs young and talented roster. They may not be quite ready, but this Cubs team is primed to be dominant in the next few seasons.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

2014: 82 wins: Steamer 2015: 76 wins; Conway West: 72 wins (5th); JD Cam: 70 wins (5th)

In: Adam Lind, Neal Cotts

Out: Marco Estrada, Zach Duke, Mark Reynolds, Tom Gorzelanny, Yovani Galllardo

Things to Like: The better ‘Cargo’; Jean Segura improving on his .286 OBP from 2014

Things to Worry About: Ryan Braun NOT enhancing his own performance; a weak rotation; little improvements across the roster

Top prospect Orlando Arcia maybe all Brewers fans have to look forward to in 2015

Top prospect Orlando Arcia maybe all Brewers fans have to look forward to in 2015

The Brewers just scream .500 don’t they? They don’t provoke much of a reaction, either positive or negative. Several Brewers had poor seasons in 2014 after a blistering start. Ryan Braun suffered from constant niggling injuries and Jean Segura was as bad in 2014 as he was good in 2013. The Brewers will suffer this season from a lack of rotational depth (after shipping innings eating Yovani Gallardo off to the Rangers). While the arrival of top prospect Orlando Arcia is exciting, Brewers fans may have little else to cheer in what promises to be an underwhelming 2015 season.

5. Cincinnati Reds

2014: 76 wins: Steamer 2015: 76 wins; Conway West: 77 wins (4th); JD Cam: 78 wins (4th)

In: None of note

Out: Chris Heisey, Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon

Things to Like: Aroldis Chapman; Johnny Cueto; an improved year for Jay Bruce

Things to Worry About: Where did the rotation go? Mesoraco can’t reproduce 2014’s numbers

Having ace Cueto back for a whole season will be critical to the success of the Reds in 2015.

Having ace Cueto back for a whole season will be critical to the success of the Reds in 2015.

The Reds 2014 was disastrous, dropping a full 14 wins from 2013. They had several key contributors who struggled with injury and poor performance (most noticeably Johnny Cueto and Jay Bruce). The Reds lost Mat Latos to a trade with the Marlins and breakout sensation Alfredo Simon to the Tigers. Tony Cingranni will need to step up if their rotation is going to be competitive. Even if Devin Mesoraco can’t continue his remarkable form from 2014 a healthy season from Cueto and Homer Bailey ought to yield a marginal improvement on 2014.

MLB Divisional Preview, Part 3: Don’t Sleep on Cleveland

By JDCam 02.16.15

There was greater parity in the AL Central in 2014. A strong off-season by its poorer clubs (White Sox) and recent playoff success (Tigers, Indians and Royals have all been in the last two seasons, including an AL Central World Series representative in two of the last three seasons) has led to the division shaking the mantle of one of the weakest in baseball.

In 2014, aside from the Royals remarkable run, the hapless Twins and White Sox got a little better (4 and 10 more wins respectively), while Detroit and Cleveland got a little worse (3 and 7 more losses than in 2013). With perhaps no team having a stronger off-season than the Chicago White Sox, the Central is shaping up to a slugfest four horse race in 2015.

1.Detroit Tigers

2014: 90 wins: Steamer 2015: 85 wins; Conway West: 84 wins (2nd); JD Cam: 85 wins (1st)

In: Yoenis Cespedes, Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene, Anthony Gose

Out: Max Scherzer, Don Kelly, Danny Worth, Rick Porcello, Tori Hunter

Things to like: Yoenis Cespedes: a healthy Jose Iglesias; a dominant middle of the lineup

Things to worry about: Miguel Cabrera and V-Mart coming into spring off of surgery; Pressure on a rebound season from Justin Verlander; an awful bullpen.

Cespedes will bring another huge bat to the middle of the Tigers already formidable lineup

Cespedes will bring another huge bat to the middle of the Tigers already formidable lineup

With V-Mart’s torn meniscus the latest in a series of winter challenges, the Tigers may have an uphill battle to retain their AL Central crown. The addition of Cespedes, pending the health of Martinez and Cabrera, creates the most formidable 3/4/5 combination in baseball. Detroit is counting on Justin Verlander returning to ace-like form and not going the way of CC Sabathia. The Tigers did little to improve their bullpen which hamstrung them the last few season both in the regular season and playoffs. The Tigers face a lot of question in 2015 but should still have enough to top the division for the fifth straight year.

2. Cleveland Indians

2014: 85 wins: Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conway West: 88 wins (1st); JD Cam: 84 wins (2nd)

In: Brandon Moss, Gavin Floyd, Scott Downs

Out: Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Masterson, Nyjer Morgan

Things to like: Underrated rotation; Solid core of young hitters; Francisco Lindor’s debut

Things to worry about: Not enough offensive production; question marks surrounding young starters.

Top prospect Lindor should make his arrival sometime in 2015

Top prospect Lindor should make his arrival sometime in 2015

The Indians didn’t do much this off-season, but then, they didn’t have to. With a core of excellent young hitters (Brantley, Kipnis, Santana) and the emergence of 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the Indians look primed to challenge the Tigers for divisional supremacy. Much will depend on the development of Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazaar, who could combine with Carlos Carrasco and Kluber to form a dominant rotation. Cleveland fans have to be excited by the possibility of top SS prospect Francisco Lindor making his debut in 2015. Do not sleep on the Indians; they should be competing for a wild card spot at worst come September.

3. Kansas City Royals

2014: 89 wins: Steamer 2015: 81 wins; Conway West: 80 wins (4th); JD Cam: 80 wins (4th)

In: Alex Rios, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Kris Medlen

Out: Billy Butler, James Shields, Nori Aoki, Aaron Crow, Bruce Chen, Josh Willingham

Things to like: Alex Rios is due for an ‘on’ year; a dominant bullpen, high end young starters

Things to worry about: Inferior replacements for their lost pieces; not enough offense; risky rotation pieces

Will Alex Rios strengthen the Royals OF or continue his consistent inconsistency?

Will Alex Rios strengthen the Royals OF or continue his consistent inconsistency?

The Royals enjoyed a remarkable fall run hanging onto the coattails of an equally remarkable bullpen. The late inning trifecta of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland is as good as any in baseball. The Royals lost a huge part of their identity in Billy Butler in the off-season, as well as number one starter and a clubhouse leader in James Shields. They added to an already strong outfield by overpaying for Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen are worthy rotation gambles. KC caught lightening in a bottle in September last season but Royals fans should be prepared for an inevitable letdown.

4. Chicago White Sox

2014: 73 wins: Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conway West: 83 wins (3rd); JD Cam: 82 wins (3rd)

In: David Robertson, Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, Gordon Beckham

Out: Marcus Semien, Dayan Viciedo, Paul Konerko

Things to like: See ‘in’ category; no more Adam Dunn; Carlos Rodon’s fast development

Things to worry about: An average infield; not enough rotational depth

No team got better this off-season that the White Sox. GM Rick Hahn deserves a ton of credit for aggressively addressing areas of need. David Robertson will give them much needed stability at the back end of their bullpen, while a one two rotational punch of Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija is a formidable one, particularly with the emergence of Jose Quintana in 2014. The White Sox upgraded in the outfield, replacing Dayan Viciedo with Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche replaces south side legend Paul Konerko in the comfy confines of US Cellular Field which are LITERALLY made for him to mash 25-30 HR. If everything goes right for the White Sox they could challenge for the division, however a finish around .500 is more realistic and not to be sniffed at given recent seasons.

5. Minnesota Twins

2014: 70 wins: Steamer 2015: 76 wins; Conway West: 69 wins ; JD Cam: 73 wins

In: Ervin Santana, Tori Hunter, Tim Stauffer

Out: Jared Burton, Jason Kubel, Anthony Swarzak

Things to like: Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes at the front end of an improved rotation; a slew of young power bats; a more progressive manager in Paul Molitor; Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer making MLB debuts in 2015.

Things to worry about: Apocalyptic outfield defense; a still weak rotation; Joe Mauer’s decline.

Dozier is one of the bright spots in a roster still lacking enough rotation arms to compete for the division

Dozier is one of the bright spots in a roster still lacking enough rotation arms to compete for the division

Coming off the back of 4 consecutive 90 loss seasons the Twins front office unusually made a few moves this off-season, adding Ervin Santana to the front end of a rotation that was anchored by a remarkably under-appreciated season from Phil Hughes in 2014. The Twins added fan favorite Hunter for some vocal clubhouse leadership and while he will contribute offensively he is a defensive liability. Minnesota had one of the most productive offenses in 2014 a trend that could continue if Brian Dozier (Kyle Seager 2.0), Danny Santana and Oswaldo Arcia can continue to develop and Kennys Vargas can build on an impressive debut. Look for some of the Twins vaunted prospects to make their MLB debuts in 2015. The Twins should be better, but they aren’t ready to compete for the division yet. Look out AL Central 2017.