Were all those offseason moves enough?
The White Sox haven’t made the postseason since 2008 and are coming off back-to-back seasons in which they lost 188 games. But they have a new starter to complement Chris Sale in Jeff Samardzija. They have a new closer to stabilize a bullpen that posted the third-worst ERA in baseball last year in David Robertson, plus lefty Zach Duke to help set him up. They signed Adam LaRoche and his 79 homers the last three years to replace franchise icon Paul Konerko in the lineup. They signed Melky Cabrera and his .809 OPS over the past four seasons to add still more pop. These were all moves of a team that expects to win, and win now. Samardzija, for example, isn’t signed beyond this year. But last season, it took 88 victories to gain a berth in the wild-card game, a precarious fate. That would mean all those acquisitions have to add up to 15 more wins.
Is Corey Kluber this good?
Headed into 2014, Kluber had made 36 major league starts and had a career ERA of 4.32 with 195 strikeouts over 214-2/3 innings. Yet last fall, at age 28, Kluber beat out Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young award. In between, he went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA, throwing 235-2/3 innings in which he struck out 269 men. Now, the Indians would appear to have an ace. There is, too, a way to imagine that Kluber could not only reproduce that season, but improve upon it. Last year, opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP, which takes into account batted balls that aren’t home runs) against Kluber was .316, tied for the fifth highest among AL starters. The AL BABIP was .296, a 20-point difference. This is usually linked to some bit of misfortune, and is supposed to even out over time. What if that happens to Kluber this summer? Maybe he’ll be even better.
Are they about to become the Phillies?
Justin Verlander had his highest ERA (4.54) in his fewest innings (206) with his lowest strikeout rate (17.3 percent) since 2008. Miguel Cabrera had his fewest home runs (25) since he played half a season as a rookie in 2003 and his lowest slugging percentage (.524) since 2004. Victor Martinez is coming off a career year, but he tore the meniscus in his left knee during an offseason workout and may not be ready to start the season. Shortstop Jose Iglesias hasn’t played a regular-season game since 2013. Max Scherzer left via free agency, Rick Porcello via trade. Their bullpen brings back Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria and some of the chief contributors to the fourth-worst reliever ERA in all of baseball a year ago. Yet the Tigers are still projected to have a payroll that exceeds $170 million, and the expectations that come with it. Could they become Philadelphia West – an aging core of a team that used to contend annually, now unable to be propped up by whatever young players are around it?
Who will replace James Shields?
In 2013 and ’14, Shields’s two seasons in Kansas City, only Adam Wainwright threw more innings in all of baseball. In that time, the only other Royal to throw more than 211 innings – combined — was Jeremy Guthrie, whose 414-1/3 innings still didn’t approach Shields’s 455-2/3. So there is a volume issue here. Even if Shields ultimately failed in the postseason (6.12 ERA in five starts), someone must fill the void left by the person who helped Kansas City end its playoff drought. Free agent signees Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen (coming back from injury) could help. But this spring, expect more eyes to be on two additional candidates – Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. In his four postseason starts, the hard-throwing Ventura posted a 2.52 ERA, and he shouldered the heaviest workload of his life – 208-1/3 innings, including October – without an issue, throwing seven shutout innings in his final outing of the year, Game 6 of the World Series. Duffy only pitched 4-2/3 innings in the postseason because of a ribcage injury that wasn’t disclosed until afterward, but he was arguably the Royals’ most effective starter for long stretches of the summer, with a 2.53 ERA over 31 appearances, 25 starts.
Will Byron Buxton be healthy enough to realize his potential?
The 21-year-old center fielder entered last season as the top prospect in the game, then missed three months with a wrist injury, returned and suffered a concussion in his first game back, and ended up playing just 31 games all summer. He got healthy for the Arizona Fall League, but dislocated a finger diving for a ball, ending his year. Buxton’s chief tool, his blazing speed, won’t be hindered by all these maladies. But his development no doubt was. Since he was drafted out of high school in 2012, he has 826 minor-league at-bats and has just one game above Class A. The Twins will certainly want to see more of him in the minors, and it’s an open question whether he can play enough games this summer – and develop quickly enough – to earn a call-up this year.
What will Kris Bryant’s impact be?
Everyone has the 23-year-old third baseman ranked as the game’s best prospect coming into 2015. A year after being taken out of the University of San Diego with the second pick in the draft, Bryant led all of baseball with 43 home runs in a season split between Class AA and AAA. In 740 minor-league plate appearances, he has a 1.095 OPS, and he is a primary reason – though there are others – Cubs fans are unusually excited about the future. But will he be kept in the minors until May, a common strategy used by clubs with hot prospects to delay free agency six years down the road? “You have to balance a number of factors, but they’re all baseball-driven factors,” Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein told reporters this month. “Kris’s development, who else we have to play a certain position, roster implications.” Collectively, Cubs third basemen – mostly Luis Valbuena and Mike Olt – combined to hit a baseball-worst .220 last year. There’s a baseball-driven factor that would suggest Bryant would arrive sooner than later.
Is this it for Johnny Cueto in Cincinnati?
In a world with no Clayton Kershaw, Cueto could well have been the National League’s Cy Young winner last year – 20-9 with a 2.25 ERA while leading the league in strikeouts and innings pitched. But unlike teammates Homer Bailey and Joey Votto, he has not signed an extension to remain with the Reds, and therefore is due to be a free agent at season’s end. Yes, he has a history of injuries (only 11 starts in 2013), but think about his potential pay day. This offseason, Max Scherzer signed for seven years and $210 million and Jon Lester for six years and $155 million. Cueto would join a free agent class that could include David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Jeff Samardzija and Rick Porcello and would almost certainly set a record for money spent on starters.
Was 2014 the Brewers’ best chance for the foreseeable future?
On June 28 of last year, Milwaukee beat Colorado for its fourth straight win, moved to 51-32 on the season and held a 6-1/2 game lead in the NL Central. The collapse that followed included a 31-48 finish, including a 9-17 September, and a surefire playoff spot was ceded to division rivals St. Louis and Pittsburgh. The Brewers’ response this offseason? Not a heck of a lot. They traded right-hander Yovani Gallardo, who had given them more than 180 innings for six straight seasons, to Texas for prospects. They got first baseman Adam Lind (.301/.366/.490 the past two years with Toronto) for pitcher Marco Estrada. But closer Francisco Rodriguez (44 saves in 49 opportunities) remains a free agent, and the Brewers seem to be involved in trade discussions for Philadelphia’s Jonathan Papelbon, who may not be an upgrade. Just as important, lefty reliever Zach Duke (2.45 ERA in 79 appearances) departed as a free agent. So the Brewers seem to be in the worst position: caught in between trading veterans for prospects to build for the future, while simultaneously thinking they might be able to win now. If they can’t this year in a stout division, then when will they?
Is Josh Harrison this good?
It would appear there’s nothing the first-time all-star can’t do. He played 72 games at third base, 50 in the outfield, 17 more at second and eight at shortstop in 2014. He became a vital part of the Pirates’ second straight playoff appearance. (Repeat that to yourselves: Pittsburgh has been in the postseason two straight years.) But was this a mirage? Harrison entered the 2014 season with a .250 batting average and .367 slugging percentage in 575 major league plate appearances that had yielded seven home runs. Yet somehow, he hit .315 with 13 homers and a .490 slugging percentage in 550 plate appearances a year ago. In three full minor-league seasons, he had never come within 40 points of the .837 OPS he produced in the majors in 2014. One suggestion that Harrison might fall back to earth in 2015 would be his .353 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) from last summer, a full 54 points above the major league average. Was that good fortune that will be corrected this year?
Could Jordan Walden be the sneaky key to the Jason Heyward trade?
The Cardinals’ intentions for 2015 became clear when, in November, they traded for Jason Heyward of the Braves, perhaps the best right fielder in the game who has but one year remaining before he’s a free agent. They gave up promising young starting pitcher Shelby Miller in the deal, and that’s largely how it was recorded. But also headed to St. Louis was Walden, a 27-year-old right-handed reliever who gives the Cardinals yet another hard-throwing option to set up closer Trevor Rosenthal. The Cardinals lost Pat Neshek, a surprise all-star in his one year in St. Louis, to free agency, and his numbers (1.87 ERA, 68 strikeouts in 67-1/3 innings) might seem hard to replace. But Walden’s fastball averages nearly 96 mph. In 58 appearances for Atlanta last year, he had a 2.88 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 50 innings, good for a 30 percent strikeout rate, and opponents hit a paltry .186 against him. St. Louis will be among the NL favorites because of Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and the rest of a seasoned bunch, but by the end of the year Walden might have crept up on people as a key cog.