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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