Sunday, April 5, 2015

MLB 2015 Predictions, Part 1: National League

Reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates will look to finally overake the Cardinals.
Spring has sprung and a new baseball season is upon us. As is the usual tradition around here, I'm going to share my predictions for the season's outcome using the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections* for how many wins each team will have and noting whether I pick them to finish with a better or worse record.

*The win numbers are from a few days ago. They may have changed a bit since then but I'm sticking with what I've got. Reminder: the PECOTA projections are generated for each team based on the sum of individual player projections.

Must admit, I did pretty damn good with National League picks last year, getting 13 out of 15 picks correct and coming very close to nailing the other two. Part of that is just that the NL is kinda predictable right now. They've had the same upper echelon of elite teams for a few years (Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Pirates) and, from the looks of things, that ought to basically remain the same this year. If you look at the staff picks from both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs there's a glaring monotony in their NL choices.

One thing pretty much everyone seems to agree on is that Washington and Los Angeles look like they could be the best teams in baseball. I so wish I could come up with some daring underdog pick to unseat either one of those guys, but unfortunately I'll have to concede to convention in that regard.


NL East

1. Nationals
PECOTA: 92 wins
My pick: Over

This is the final stand for a team that's been a beast the last three years despite never advancing past the first round of the playoffs. A handful of significant contributors are at the end of their contracts, including shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span, and starting pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann. Strikeout machine Max Scherzer was added onto an already deep pitching staff and Yunel Escobar will plug in the team's lone gaping hole at second base.

Their starting rotation from top to bottom (even including the 6th and 7th starters) should be the best in all of baseball and with potential MVP candidates Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon leading a stacked lineup, they could run away with the division. They're a safe bet to win 95 games, dominate all year and then get knocked out in the first round again.



2. Mets
PECOTA: 82 wins
My pick: Over

With Matt Harvey back throwing bullets, this may finally be the year the Mets start to sniff playoff contention again. It's been a long and frustrating wait, but Sandy Alderson has managed to build a nice roster with plenty of pitching depth. Better yet, almost everybody is homegrown or was developed through the Mets minor league system after arriving in a trade. It's the outside additions, their overpaid free agent pickups Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer whose performances could dictate the success of the team this year, though. There's little doubt the Mets will pitch well---even after losing Zack Wheeler to Tommy John surgery they've got one of the best rotations in the league, led by Harvey and last year's Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, and the bullpen showed signs of respectability last year---but they'll need to start hitting if they want to finish ahead of the surging young Marlins.

Former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long will be in Queens this year to get Granderson's swing in order. The last full seasons Granderson spent under Long's tutelage he crushed 41 and 43 homers. Cuddyer had a great spring training but he's always an injury risk and is an atrocious fielder. He'll need to show some pop to be worth the Mets' investment. Beyond those two, there is great potential in this lineup with Lucas Duda and Travis d'Arnaud coming into their own last year (the latter only after a demotion) and Wilmer Flores getting a chance to play full-time. And, of course, no matter what the Mets do, newly extended center fielder Juan Lagares will remain one of the most enjoyable players to watch in all of baseball.

I'm optimistic about the Amazins this year, I think they'll win 87 games and fight for a Wild Card spot.

3. Marlins
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Over

As a Mets fan this team scares the crap out of me. While so many other teams in baseball undergo long and painful rebuilding cycles, gutting their rosters and making slow progress back toward contention, the Marlins seem to have figured out an efficient destroy-and-rebuild strategy. Two years ago they lost 100 games, now they're already looking like a possible contender. The NL's best hitter Giancarlo Stanton leads a lineup supported by other homegrown young hitters with tons of potential in Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. The rotation lacks depth, with young ace Jose Fernandez still making his way back from Tommy John surgery, but there is surely enough talent on this team to give the Mets lots of trouble in their hunt for a Wild Card spot. The two teams will likely be neck and neck all year, while some prognosticators think the Marlins have the talent in the place to threaten the Nationals for the division title. Here's hoping they slip just enough in their swift ascent to finish below the Mets but I don't have much conviction in this pick.

4. Braves
PECOTA: 72 wins
My pick: Under

A team that has baffled most people with their recent moves, the Braves went from 96 wins in 2013 to a disappointing middling finish last year and now they've traded away two of their best young hitters. Without Justin Upton or Jason Heyward in the lineup to support stud first baseman Freddie Freeman, this team simply won't score any runs. They'll play pretty good defense, though, and the rotation is heavy on youth and potential with the game's best closer finishing games off which, in all, ought to keep them from losing 90 games. (EDIT: on the verge of Opening Day, the Braves just pulled off a gigantic trade sending star closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres for spare parts. That will most likely knock them below 72 wins toward a 90-something-loss season.)

5. Phillies
PECOTA: 67 wins
My pick: Under

While the trendy movement in baseball for many years now has been to build up a front office filled with intelligent, analytical, open-minded people, the Phillies have lagged behind in all respects and now stick out like a sore thumb as, quite possibly, the very worst organization in all of baseball. They've hung onto aging, expensive stars for far too long and haven't made any serious attempt to inject youth into the roster or depth into their farm system and now they're going to suffer for it. The rotation looks horrendous behind Cole Hamels (who ought to be traded to a contender any day now) and whatever positive contributors the lineup does have are strong candidates for age-related injury or decline. Dark times are ahead in Philly.


NL Central

1. Pirates

PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Over

This admirably forward-thinking organization has been building toward sustained success for a while now. With two straight playoff appearances under their belt, it looks like a consistent trend of winning seasons has only just begun. They've got the NL's version of Mike Trout, perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, holding down center field with young players all over the lineup. Left fielder Starling Marte is a budding superstar, right fielder Gregory Polanco is 23 and entering his first full season, 27-year-old infielder/outfielder Josh Harrison became a Ben Zobrist-esque super utility player last year with pop and speed, and Pedro Alvarez could settle in as a big fat slugger now that he's shifted over to the less-demanding first base position.

Losing catcher Russell Martin sucks, it'll hurt them both on offense and defense after he worked so well with this pitching staff. But there is a ton of talent on this roster and they've got a coaching staff that specializes in extracting extra value out of its players and gaining small advantages over opponents. I'm picking them to unseat the Cards in what should be a thrilling rivalry all year.

2. Cardinals (Wild Card)
PECOTA: 89 wins
My pick: Under 

Same old, same old for one of the top organizations in all of sports. Despite the tragic death of one of their most promising young players last year, the Cardinals are once again primed for a run at the World Series. They had an off year last year, losing Yadier Molina to injury and suffering from an excess of offensive slips from key players, yet still made it all the way to the NLCS. The addition of Jason Heyward is huge for them, he seems like a player who'll thrive in the Cardinals winning atmosphere and this is his contract year. It's a minor detail on a loaded roster, but I also love the pickups of Matt Belisle and Jordan Walden for this bullpen. While they may lose out to the Pirates for the division, they're still as smart a pick as any team to win it all.

3. Brewers
PECOTA: 81 wins
My pick: Over

They led the division most of last year and then couldn't get out of their own way in the final months, gradually falling out of the playoffs and torturing their fans. With the Pirates establishing themselves as steady contenders, the Cubs rapidly moving into the final stage of their rebuilding cycle, and the Cardinals never slipping from their string of dominance, the Brewers' success window could be on the verge of closing. Nevertheless, they've got a deep, exciting lineup with plenty of power and the addition of left-handed hitting first baseman Adam Lind solves their two biggest needs. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is a budding MVP candidate, center fielder Carlos Gomez is a speedy, powerful firecracker, and Ryan Braun isn't too far removed from being one of the most dominant hitters in the game. A sore wrist ruined Braun's resurgence last year but if he's healthy this could be the best lineup in the division.

The rotation is a bit strange in that it's filled with overhand-throwing righties. No variety there. Most teams like to throw different looks from the mound each day, but the Brewers have five pitchers pitchers who do largely the same thing. All of them are pretty good, though, and with an okay bullpen they might fight for the last wild card spot.

4. Cubs
PECOTA: 85 wins
My pick: Under

Despite the possible prescience of winning the 2015 World Series in Back to the Future Part II and the well-earned optimism surrounding the Cubbies this year, I don't think they're quite there yet. The lineup is overflowing with potential with young players everywhere, even Starlin Castro just turned 25. There are also likely to be growing pains as they try to establish all these guys as full-time major leaguers and sort out who's going to play where. It shouldn't be considered a disappointment for them to finish around .500. They're on the way up and, win or lose, this will be one of the most fun teams to watch in all of baseball...whenever they let Kris Bryant play, that is.

5. Reds
PECOTA: 76 wins
My pick: Under

This team baffles me. It's hard to figure out exactly what they want to do. It certainly doesn't look like they're trying to construct a roster that will contend moving forward, but there are some great players here, so why not? Are they conceding the division because of so many other good teams? Are they accepting Jay Bruce's sudden decline as an indication that they can't hang with the big boys? I can't figure them out and even their prospects for this year are tough to figure. They've got a pretty good lineup (depending on the health of Joey Votto, of course), an elite ace in Johnny Cueto, a fire-breathing dragon at the back of the pen, and an okay defense. Yet, they might suck. I don't get it.


NL West

1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 98 wins
My pick: Under

Any time the projections are this extreme, it's best to go the other way. Last year PECOTA had them at 98 wins too, I chose the under and they won 94. For such a good team, they made a number of significant changes over the winter thanks to a revamped front office staff led by some of the smartest people in the game (namely, former Tampa Bay Rays president Andrew Friedman and ex-Oakland A's stats guru Farhan Zaidi), picking up a new double-play combo, a new catcher, ditching Matt Kemp to make room for their best prospect in the outfield, and stockpiling every injury-prone-yet-talented starting pitcher they could find.

Frankly, the Dodgers are set up to be scary good for the foreseeable future. They've already got two superstars in Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, their farm system is one of the best in the game, the front office replaced one of the game's lesser GMs with some of the most brilliant, creative minds in the sport, and the new ownership team has the deep pockets and willingness to outspend everyone, even the Yankees. The playoffs are a crapshoot so who knows when they'll end their World Series drought, but right now they're a good bet to play in the October tournament every year from now until forever.

2. Padres (Wild Card)
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Over

Holy shit, the Padres. Wow. Looking back on it, baseball's offseason was pretty exciting all around, with Boston, LA, Toronto, and both Chicago teams all making significant moves. The Padres take the cake, though. New GM AJ Preller came on and immediately started wheeling and dealing, completely revamping a Padres roster that's disappointed for years. One of the worst offensive teams in the history of baseball suddenly turned into one of the most intriguing as Preller swung deals to bring in slugging outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers (when he already had a full outfield in place), then picked up a new third baseman and catcher for good measure before landing one of the top free agents available in righthander James Shields. Those moves alone were enough to make the Padres one of the quirkiest and most intriguing teams this season. They've got an almost completely new roster, but it's an unbalanced one and they'll have to battle some great teams for a Wild Card spot because overtaking the Dodgers is unlikely.

As I've been writing this, they've sealed the deal on yet another jaw-dropping acquisition, picking up the game's best closer, Craig Kimbrel, from the Braves (as well as the other Upton brother). A fascinating and fun team just got better and I can't wait to watch how things play out. One thing is for damn sure: the Padres mean business.

(After spending three years living in San Diego within super close proximity to beautiful Petco Park, attending many many games, I'm interested to see how fans respond to this new team.)

3. Giants
PECOTA: 84 wins
My pick: Under

With this being an odd-numbered year and their division rivals adding a bunch of talent, it's easy to brush off the defending champs as non-factors this year. They lost one of their most important hitters and haven't made any significant additions (although I do think both Casey McGehee and Norichika Aoki are good fits for this team and ballpark) and the rotation could potentially collapse. But there are still some great players here, including the best catcher in the game in Buster Posey, and young players like Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford who still have the potential to improve. All they need to do is hang around the race. If they manage to sneak into the playoffs, watch out. More realistically, this will be a down year in which they can try to figure out who'll pitch for them in their next shot at contention in 2016.

4. Rockies
PECOTA: 71 wins
My pick: Over

No use beating around the bush here: they've got plenty of good hitters but the best ones (Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez) always get injured and the pitching staff looks alarmingly bad. Kyle Kendrick is their Opening Day starter. This team is not designed to win this year.

5. D'backs
PECOTA: 74 wins
My pick: Under

I've been a stats nerd for many years now, beginning a couple years before the Red Sox broke their 86-year curse led by a sabermetrically-inclined braintrust. During that time, I've found myself tending to root for the teams with smart, savvy decision-makers while those who openly (often antagonistically) express their ignorance and dislike for the usage of numbers and objective data have become heels. The heels are fun to root against and the game always needs teams like that. The Phillies are the best example, the Dusty Baker-led Reds were another. The Diamondbacks have become one of those teams.

Their last GM, Kevin Towers, was once a respected figure in the game before taking a heel turn in Arizona by bloviating about the importance of guts and manliness as he built a team of "gritty" players led by a "hard-nosed" manager that did nothing but cause trouble and lose lots of games. New GM Dave Stewart has already said some dumb things about being an organization that doesn't use analytics. Coincidentally, he's made some head-scratching personnel moves that will help position the D'backs for further descent down the win spectrum and out of relevance. This should be fun.

2 comments:

  1. Great overview!

    Whew, yeah, it's been tough in Philly, and there appears to be no end in sight.

    I don't mind rooting for a last place team that's rebuilding, but rooting for a last place team that's still falling is pretty boring.

    On the plus side though tickets to games are suddenly very affordable!

    I find that my sports fandom, even in hockey, is becoming more generalized, and I'm starting to follow the leagues as a whole, and specific stand out players, rather than just my home teams. Though that may just be the last refuge of a sports fan w/out a local contending team! (Though it also makes sense in the current culture of fantasy teams and ubiquitous national coverage)

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  2. It's tough to foresee when the Phils might start winning again at the rate they're going. Plus the division rivals are improving. Dark times are ahead in Philly. (At least the Chip Kelly Eagles are a fascinating team!)

    I've experienced the same thing with my sports fandom expanding beyond regional boundaries. The wonderful but sadly defunct NBA writing collective FreeDarko termed this Liberated Fandom: https://medium.com/the-cauldron/on-some-basic-precepts-of-freedarko-com-d654382a79f6

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