Five Things I Believe About the 2014 Season

The Major League season is, I guess, already three games old, but for basically everyone who isn’t the Dodgers, today is still the real Opening Day. We have a nearly full slate of games on the docket, and we’ll be live blogging throughout the day here on the site. But before we get to the actual games, let’s run through a few more preview-ish things I believe about the 2014 that you might not infer from my picks in the Staff Predictions (NL, AL) posts from Friday.

1. I believe that the Cubs might be better than we think.

The Cubs return most of the same team that lost 96 games a year ago, except they don’t have Matt Garza, David DeJesus, Alfonso Soriano, and Scott Feldman this time around. They have a lot of young talent on the way, but those guys are all starting the year in the minors, leaving the Major League at-bats in the hands of low upside stop-gaps. No one expects much, including our forecasts, which have the Cubs as a 74 win team, leaving them with about the same playoff odds as the Mets and Marlins. This isn’t supposed to be a very good team.

But I think this team might be surprisingly not awful, in part because I think the players who are taking the field on Opening Day might not be regulars for a terribly long period of time. Javier Baez looks to be on the verge of a Major League call-up, and if he hits in Triple-A like he did in Double-A last year, the Cubs won’t keep him down for too long. And depending on how the infield shakes out, he might not come alone. Arismendy Alcantara and Kris Bryant also aren’t that far off, and depending on how aggressive the Cubs want to be with second half promotions, Jorge Soler could see Chicago towards the end of the year as well.

Toss in the addition of an arm like C.J. Edwards on the pitching side, and the Cubs have a wave of pretty great prospects that could finish the year in Wrigley Field. It’s unrealistic to expect all of them to contribute this year, but with this kind of talent, the odds are good that one or two of them prove to be ready faster than expected, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Baez, Bryant, and Edwards ended up being pretty solid Major League players as soon as they hit the field. I’m not expecting any of them to pull a Yasiel Puig, but given early enough call-ups, I could see some combination of prospects adding three to five wins to the Cubs total this year, and I don’t think a .500 season is completely out of the question.

2. I believe the Royals are being overrated.

I’m sure Kansas City fans will just take this as more evidence that I’m biased against their organization, but I just don’t see the evidence that this team is as good as some national writers are suggesting. Jon Heyman has them as his AL pick to go to the World Series; Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi have them winning the AL Central, as does Jeff Passan. I just can’t get there.

James Shields is great, but behind him, the rotation is really kind of terrible. Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen are all okay back-end starters who have some history of out-pitching their peripherals, but these are the #2, #3, and #4 starters on a team that is supposed to be among the best in the AL? Really? I know Yordano Ventura has exciting velocity, but he had that last year too, and his results in both Triple-A and the Majors were just okay. For as much as we hear about pitching winning championships, this is simply not a championship rotation.

So, essentially, a bet on the Royals is a bet on the team’s offense. And it’s not a bad offense, certainly, but is it really a great offense that can carry a pretty meh pitching staff? Butler, Hosmer, and Gordon are good-not-great hitters and they’re the three best bats on the team, which is fine if you have a deep line-up full of guys who can hit at every spot, but this team is also starting Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain. They are worthy starters based on their defense, but having second tier middle-of-the-order hitters makes it hard to be an offensive behemoth when you also start some glove-first guys who aren’t much at the plate.

The Royals bullpen is good — though losing Luke Hochevar hurts — and they have some nice pieces, but it feels to me like this team is being projected as a contender based on the presumption that a young team that won 86 games should win 90+ this year. That just isn’t how things work, generally. There are some real problems with this roster, and as long as Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Max Scherzer have a pulse, it’s hard for me to see this roster stacking up against the Tigers and coming out ahead.

3. I believe Giancarlo Stanton is going to remind us how good he is.

Stanton’s raw power is such that it is almost unfathomable that he only hit 24 home runs last year; I think he might double that this year. Certainly, you should always take the under on anyone hitting 48 home runs in a season, but I don’t think we’ve seen Stanton at his best yet, and if I’m taking anyone to go all Chris Davis on the 2014 season, I’m taking Stanton.

I know, he doesn’t have any “protection” in the line-up, and if he’s crushing the baseball, he’ll just end up drawing a bunch of walks. However, I think pitchers are already pitching around him about as much as they’re going to — the 41.1% Zone% he saw last year was fourth lowest in MLB, behind only two notorious hackers in Pablo Sandoval and Josh Hamilton and the aforementioned Chris Davis — and he’s got the kind of strength that allows him to launch bombs on pitches that shouldn’t lead to home runs. Stanton might have lost a little shine with his down season in 2013, but I think he’s going to re-establish himself as a dominant offensive force this year.

4. I believe we’re going to see #YearOfTheSplitter show up on Twitter before long.

The split-finger/split-change/splitter has been making a resurgence in the last few years, led in part by the dominance of a series of Japanese hurlers who rely heavily on the pitch. Hiroki Kuroda, Koji Uehara, and Hiasahi Iwakuma have drastically outperformed expectations by pounding hitters with fall-of-the-table splitters, and at this point, I think every pitcher on the Rays — except for David Price, maybe — throws the pitch with frequency. This year, we’re going to see Masahiro Tanaka‘s splitter on a regular basis, and if he has the kind of success that the numbers suggest he might, then the call-it-whatever-you-want-vertical-drop-pitch may experience unprecedented recognition.

And while baseball trends are cyclical, this seems like one that might have some staying power. Pitches with significant vertical movement without relying on horizontal movement are usually the most effective weapons against opposite-handed hitters, making the splitter a better out pitch than something like a slider, which usually only works against one type of hitter. Pitchers who pitch off their fastball and throw an off-speed pitch that looks like their fastball instead of a big breaking ball seem to be regularly developing into better pitchers than they are given credit for as prospects, and if Tanaka becomes the latest pitcher to come over from Japan and dominate with a splitter, then I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw more teams emphasizing the pitch in the same way that the cutter rose to prominence a few years back.

5. I believe last year’s busts might redeem themselves this year.

I tipped this one in the Staff Picks piece when I tabbed the Angels and Nationals as division winners, but one of the stories of 2013 was how many of the high priced favorites just fell flat on their face and were outplayed by plucky underdogs. The Blue Jays were declared winners of the off-season before losing 88 games, and watched Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland claim three of the five AL postseason berths instead. The Nationals were supposed to be a powerhouse; they finished 10 games behind the Braves in the NL East.

I think this year is going to go a bit better for teams who entered last year with some pretty high expectations. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton almost have to be better than they were a year ago, and there’s enough talent there for me to take the Angels as AL West favorites, even after their 78-84 finish from a year ago. I think the Nationals are going to get better years from a lot of their returning players, and I still don’t see too many flaws with their roster. The Blue Jays are going to have the toughest road to redemption, given the competition in the AL East, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a Wild Card run, especially if they can find another starting pitcher somewhere.

The plucky underdogs aren’t going to just hand things over, but this year, I’d expect that the big budget expected winners actually win more often than they did a year ago.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


73 Responses to “Five Things I Believe About the 2014 Season”

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  1. Mikniks says:

    I don’t see a universe where the Royals make any sort of noise this year. There are at least 3 (arguably 4) teams in the AL East alone that are better, and to me, the Tigers are also clearly better. I can’t fathom a reason a guy like Jon Heyman would see a WS contender in a team that trots out Bruce Chen and Jason Vargas every week

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    • ALZ says:

      Right. Not to mention they Royally overpaid for those players. Small market teams like the Royals can’t be affording to spend that type of money on what are backend starters.

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      • ColKiner says:

        Where else would they have spent the money? They upgraded the black hole at 2B through free agency. There rest of the position players are younger with team friendly contracts. The bullpen is still cheap and was the best in the AL last year. Spending on the rotation was the only place left to spend and they got what they needed, legit major league starters who will keep the team in games and not force Ned to blow through the pen most nights.

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        • Herk Robinson says:

          They have $28.1 million invested in Vargas, Chen, Davis, Hochevar and Guthrie, and only Guthrie was a contract they were responsible for prior to the offseason. I believe there is only one free agent in the history of baseball with an AAV higher than 28.1. I think they could have found something better to spend that money on

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    • Bruce Chen says:

      I’m RIGHT here!

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  2. triple_r says:

    Heyman provided you with a straw man for #2. No writer in his right mind would pick the Royals to win the pennant.

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    • Iron says:

      Heyman has a way of doing that. He also wrote an article about this year’s free agents focussing on how Nelson Cruz deserved a huge contract based on his RBI’s and discussed the free agent pitchers largely on their win-loss records. He is militantly stupid.

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  3. tz says:

    I’m totally on board with the last three.

    For the Royals, having 36 games vs. the Twins and the White Sox should keep them in the wild-card hunt. And that could lead the Royals to making a mid-year deal like Ventura for Samardazjia to put them in a better spot.

    And because of that possibility, #1 is also a risky bet. Though the Cubs could be real pesky right until the trade deadline.

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    • LaLoosh says:

      WHAT!! Ventura for Szamardzija?! That would be the heist of the century for Theo/Jed.

      I don’t think the Royals overtake the Tigers, but I don’t see how picking them for one of the WCs would be considered a surprise or long shot pick. Like them or not they are a very balanced team and their pen can go a long way toward making an average rotation look very solid. I have them at 86 and a WC.

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      • Pinstripe Wizard says:

        As a WC contender, yes. As a pennant winner? No. Match them up with any of the other contenders (except for maybe the Angels) on a rotation basis, and they just fall short. Sure they can beat up on the dregs on the league and make a run at the WC, but no way that team makes the WS.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          Not saying they will.

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        • Do you see it? says:

          Any team that wins the wild card can win the World Series.

          Since 1997, 5 wild card teams have won the world series, and 4 others have lost in the WS

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        • Bill says:

          My first thought on reading this comment was that this guy should be calling into Sportzilla and the Jabberjocks with his inane trade idea, but is such a trade really that much worse than the Myers trade? Sheilds is worlds better than shark but Myers was better than Ventura. But, I still think Ventura for Shark would be worse.

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      • asdf says:

        To be fair, this is the royals. This trade is stupid, but entirely plausible.

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      • tz says:

        Agree with both of LaLoosh’s points. I was exaggerating on the Ventura/Sam..ja trade, but the main thing is I think KC (as is Cleveland) is in a good spot for a WC because of the relative weakness of their division (2 weak teams vs. 1 1/2 in the West and none in the East).

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  4. Theonewhoknocks says:

    I don’t think the cubs could get Ventura for Samardjiza, but I do think if the royals swing a trade for a Samardjiza type without giving up Ventura, they could be a lot more interesting.

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    • Mike says:

      I don’t know. The Braves inquired about Samardjiza and the Cubs replied they wanted a package that included a top prospect and Jayson Heyward. I don’t think the Cubs are really interested in trading him at this time.

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  5. Mike says:

    If #YearOfTheSplitter does start appearing in 2014 twitter feeds with regularity, I predict #YearOfTommyJohn will have a strong showing in 2015.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I have never seen any evidence that the splitter actually leads to more arm injuries. It’s one of those things that gets repeated, but has never really been shown to be true.

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      • pudieron89 says:

        Pretty sure he was referring to the number of season-ending elbow injuries already, and that surely there are more to come. No reference to the splitter, or connection between it and arm injuries.

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        • Anon21 says:

          No, I think Dave is reading him right. He’s saying splitters in 2014 will lead to elbow injuries in 2015.

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        • tz says:

          Dave’s response is right.

          Also, it’s interesting that Bruce Sutter took to the splitter because a prior arm injury had taken away his stuff.

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      • Spit Ball says:

        Yeah, I’ve heard the comparison as well. I’ve had a theory on a possible correlation. Pitchers usually turn to the splitter after a few years in the league due to the strain sliders and other breaking pitches put on the arms. It’s often used as a pitch to prolong careers or resurrect them (unless you are the Rays I guess). I’m theorizing that pitchers who pick up the splitter perhaps already have some mileage on their arm and that’s what leads to possible arm trouble, not the pitch itself. Not anymore than a fastball anyway.

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      • channelclemente says:

        What baseball is waiting for is someone like Mike Scott or Jack Morris to throw a 90 MPH splitter again. That truly would be a game changer. Oddly, Lincecum threw a few at 88 MPH in his no hitter last year.

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      • pft says:

        ““I always thought that if thrown properly with the fingers really split like a forkball, that’s when you can get hurt because there’s no resistance against the ball being thrown and it really put a lot of pressure on the elbow,” Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. “But it’s not just about them getting hurt. They’ll never develop their other pitches because they’ll always get guys out with that pitch.”

        and

        “I think there is a correlation between some stresses put on the arms — some guys have had elbow problems, forearm problems, shoulder problems — and that pitch,” Scioscia said”

        and

        “Splitter-heavy pitchers who have developed shoulder and elbow problems include Bryan Harvey, Rod Beck and John Smoltz, who took a break from throwing his splitter after experiencing elbow pain. ”

        http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/sports/baseball/split-finger-fastball-use-of-a-popular-pitch-falls-off-the-table.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        Since so few pitchers throw a split much, it’s not likely one will be able to obtain statistically significant evidence it causes injuries, especially since pitchers who don’t throw the split are injured so much as well.

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        • Simon says:

          That’s a bunch of people repeating that the splitter causes injuries, rather than evidence.

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    • SabathiaWouldBeGoodAtTheEighthToo says:

      I think 2015 appears to be about 12 months too late for your prediction.

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  6. Roger Craig says:

    “This year, we’re going to see Masahiro Tanaka‘s splitter on a regular basis, and if he has the kind of success that the numbers suggest he might, then the call-it-whatever-you-want-vertical-drop-pitch may experience unprecedented recognition.”

    There might be some precedence….

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  7. Anon21 says:

    With regard to Stanton, I have only one comment:
    Hey
    Ward’s
    Bett
    Er

    Forever and ever, amen.

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    • Chucko says:

      No
      He
      ‘s
      Not

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      • Anon21 says:

        You’d hope that on Fangraphs, people would remember that baserunning and defense count, and not just get struck by dingerzzzz lust. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

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        • Vince says:

          I’d also hope that on Fangraphs, people would have better things to do than make every thread about whatever sweet meat they have a hardon for.

          Are you that butthurt that there wasn’t a Brave mentioned? Nobody pputs Freddie in the corner. OK – you got your attention.

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      • cthabeerman says:

        He has been so far. 3 more WAR in less than 200 more PA. It projects to a 2 WAR difference over the same amount of time.

        That’s only about 0.5 WAR difference on a seasonal basis, which could be chalked up to margin of error issues, but the margin of error would always have had to fall in Heyward’s favor in all four seasons to suggest they’ve done equally well, performance-wise.

        -C

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    • Randy Travis says:

      If you’re going to quote me, have the balls to use your real name.

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    • pinch says:

      lolololol BARVES

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      • Boris Chinchilla says:

        barves fans are like religious people, they don’t get the joke. Just leave them be and hope they don’t try to give you a copy of the watchtower. That could be a good nickname for Heyward, THE WATCHTOWER

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    • Pinstripe Wizard says:

      I’m not sure Dave’s prediction had anything to do with baserunning or defense. I think he was talking strictly about Stanton’s ability to make baseballs weep in fear.

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      • Anon21 says:

        I’m not really taking issue with what Dave said; I think that if Stanton is healthy, he’ll have a great season. (If Heyward is healthy, he’ll have a better one.) It’s things that have been said elsewhere that lead me to believe people are just viewing these two guys the wrong way. Stanton is the one with something to prove in this comparison; Heyward has comfortably outproduced him both overall and weighted for different amounts of playing time.

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        • Pinstripe Wizard says:

          I concur. I also think the Braves got an absolute steal with that 2 year extension he signed. He’s had some fluky injuries and that had to be what held his value down.

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    • Pumpsie Green says:

      Thank-you for the proper phrasing and punctuation, intimating that Stanton is Heyward’s better, rather than “Heyward is better” than Stanton.

      My apologies to the other readers who will now be forced to scroll past anon21’s biased vitriol.

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  8. LaLoosh says:

    I think this is the year we’ll see regression from upstart teams like Tampa, Oakland and yes, the Sawx. A very strong ALE will squeeze Tampa and I can easily see them fall back to the pack. How long can you patch together a pen like they have? The young arms Oakland is heavily dependent on seems too banged up to be able to take them to the playoffs. And there’s no getting around that the Sox are aging and are replacing Jacoby Ellsbury with Grady Sizemore, going very young on the left side and have a 38 you catching tandem.

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    • pinch says:

      i don’t think you can say that BOTH tampa and boston are regressing and then talk about a very strong division. where’s the strength coming from? yeah, nyy/balt/tor are good, but the division is tough because the 3/4/5 teams are really 3/3/3 teams, not because it’s full of title contenders.

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      • LaLoosh says:

        it’s strong because of the relative parity in the division. all 5 teams may be over .500 unless there is a colossal failure. there doesn’t appear to be a real weak link in the division. that was my point.

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    • iwest says:

      Disagree with Oakland, agree with the rest. Even with OAK’s pitching injuries, they still are starting Tommy Milone, a quite good pitcher IMO, #5. Besides, they have Pomeranz even if another SP happens to fall victim to injury. Their rotation is still certainly playoff-quality, not to mention leagues ahead of Anaheim or Texas. Their rotation is so deep that the injuries they’ve been hit with are certainly manageable to this point.

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      • Bip says:

        Leagues ahead of Texas? Maybe right at this second, but once some guys return from injuries, certainly not. Darvish/Harrison/Holland/Lewis is downright intimidating. Even with many playing time projections scaled back due to injuries, Texas projects for 3 more WAR from their rotation than Oakland.

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        • iwest says:

          Okay, leagues ahead may have been a slight exaggeration on my part. However, Harrison and Darvish are on the 15-day DL, Holland is on the 60-day DL, and Lewis is in AAA right now. Holland won’t be back until All-Star Break. Lewis is a gamble, and by no means intimidating in my book. Let’s face it: they’re using a middle reliever as their opening day starter. He had 8 starts in his entire professional career (all in the minors). So currently, none of those pitchers are actually in their rotation.

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    • Baltar says:

      It’s hard to believe you’re not just trolling. In case you’re not, how can you call a team that has won 90 or more games in 5 of the 6 last years an upstart?

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  9. Paulie says:

    I disagree with the Cubs comment and think this could be the worst year of the rebuild. Baez and Bryant still need work on defense and if they are still striking out in 25% or more of their AB’s then the earliest you will see them is September. Hoyer and Epstein have mentioned several times that the young players will not be rushed. Almora and Soler are not ready. Now that could just be noise to temper expectations, but there is no real incentive for them to be brought up this summmer. Sure the Cubs will most likely lose attendance again this year, but they still will draw well over 2 million.

    The 2013 Cubs were also fairly healthy outside of players that where already injured like Baker and Vizcaino. Fujikawa, who suffered from chronic forearm strains in Japan didn’t make it out of spring training. But Wood, Jackson and Samardzija all made over 30 starts for the Cubs. Feldman made 15 before being traded and ended up with 30 starts. Garza had some issues and started 11 games before being traded and ended up starting 24 games overall.

    With midseason trades virtually guaranteed, the 2014 Cubs could easily lose 100 games. Particularly if they replace the traded players with the minor league filler and waiver wire pickups they have been fond of in recent years.

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    • Joe says:

      I think the cubs will exceed expectations, but not because of the youth. I think it will actually be because these “place-holders” are actually pretty good. Also, it looks like platooning will be used very effectively.

      If there is help from the minors, it will be mostly Kyle Hendricks, maybe Alcantara. Vitters is a long shot, but maybe. Most of the big names aren’t good enough.

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  10. Otter says:

    I agree with #2-5, not so sure about the Cubs. Not much pitching still. And one thing that has to be considered is the pressure put on these kids when they come up. If Baez doesn’t hit like a Puig or Trout from day one, there will be a lot of Cub fans who are going to be pissed. Living in Chicago, there are a number of Cub fans that bought tickets to Cooperstown in 2030 for Baez’s induction. The hype is a tad out of control.

    Anyway, I was trying to think of a ‘sleeper’ team (ie if everything thing breaks right) in each league and it was easy to find on in the AL (Seattle since things have already started breaking their way) but not so easy to find one in the NL… is it the Mets? Brewers? Can’t find that team in the NL.

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    • Aaron says:

      I sure hope Javier Baez doesn’t retire at 32

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      • Ruben Amaro Jr. says:

        No way. Not with 10-15 good years left in him.

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        • jim says:

          when he hits 32, the tigers will sweep in and sign him to a 10 yr contract (or do they do that only for guys already under contact for 2 more yrs?).

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      • dl80 says:

        That would be a heckuva career to be inducted after retiring in 2024. So he’d be 31/32 (depending on his retirement date) and would have to play this year or next and every year in between to be eligible.

        If he needs 60+ WAR (assuming voters get more sabermetric and less focused on RBI and R and such), that’s a crazy good 10-11 years.

        #takingarandomblogcommentandwayoveranalyzingitbutstill

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    • Marco says:

      I can see any of the Rockies, Padres, Reds, or Diamondbacks surprising this year. (The first two surprising general expectations, the second two overperforming just-shy projections.)

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    • mitch001 says:

      The Brewers are my sleeper pick in the NL. With Braun, Gomez, Segura, Lucroy, a breakout year from Khrush Davis, a healthy year from Aramis Ramirez…they have the potential for a really good offense. Garza and Estrada are nice starters, and they have a sneaky-good bullpen with Henderson and Kintzler.

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  11. rustydude says:

    Biased against Kansas City? Wait – I thought you were biased against the White Sox, er – I mean, the Braves? How many teams are you biased against, anyway?

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  12. Paul G. says:

    “I believe last year’s busts might redeem themselves this year.”

    Wow! Way not to put any wiggle room in that prediction!

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  13. yolo says:

    I really don’t see how, in any world, the Royals are better than the Indians. They’ve got a better offense, they’ve got a better rotation by far, and their bullpen isn’t awful. I don’t get it, baseball writers. I just don’t get it.

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