At some level, it is ridiculous to consider this question in the second week of February, as Fenway Park is still filling with snow and the closest things we have to real baseball are pictures of 18-wheelers loading up and heading south. Keep in mind, it wasn’t that long ago – two years, as a matter of fact – when then-Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson outlined his team’s goals as “World Series or bust,” and they busted.
But off the top of your head, list the favorites to win the 2015 World Series. Right now.
The Los Angeles Dodgers. The Washington Nationals. The St. Louis Cardinals. In some order, right?
Now, the dreamers among you might want to latch a trailer to the Chicago Cubs, and you’d be in for a fun ride, no doubt, but realistically the Cubbies don’t appear at the top of this piece until next year. And Las Vegas oddsmakers say the Los Angeles Angels should be included here, ahead of the Cardinals, but keep in mind the oddsmakers only reflect what the public says they should, and money on the Angels is money on Josh Hamilton finding health and productivity and a rotation fronted by Jered Weaver having Garrett Richards fully recovered from his knee injury by Opening Day.
But there’s no denying the Dodgers, the Nationals and the Cardinals. And with that, can we say the balance of power has shifted to the National League?
Let’s look at this a number of ways, starting with a focus on the World Series.
Baseball Prospectus’s projections give the Dodgers 97 wins, the most in baseball, a reasonable assessment even if you put aside all the math needed to get there. They still have Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, they used their outfield surplus (Matt Kemp) to upgrade at catcher (Yasmani Grandal), came up with a new double-play combination (Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick) and have what could be two of the league’s most exciting young players in Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson. Nitpick if you must – the 2014 bullpen was substandard, Don Mattingly’s not a very good manager, whatever – but those perceived flaws aren’t enough to stop them from being an obvious contender.
The Nationals had the NL’s best record a year ago and signed the most significant free agent of the offseason in Max Scherzer. Critics would say they didn’t need another starting pitcher, but rather a bat to offset the loss of Adam LaRoche, but they scored the third-most runs in the league a year ago with both Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper on the disabled list for long stretches. No, they’re not a guarantee to reach the postseason for a third time in four years. But on this chilly date, they must be considered a contender.
The Cardinals? Yes, Adam Wainwright might finally be a concern after all those innings, we still don’t know about right-hander Michael Wacha’s ability to stay healthy, and St. Louis fans grew tired of what they deemed an inconsistent offense last summer (ninth in runs, eighth in OPS). But they added the best right fielder in the game (Jason Heyward) and a superb setup man (Jordan Walden) to a team that has made four straight playoff appearances.
So give the NL those three. Now, find an obvious favorite from the American League.
Start with the usual suspects: the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers. Each has serious questions, New York and Boston in the rotation, Detroit in the bullpen and the trainer’s room, where we don’t know what we’re going to get from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez. Throw in the specter of Alex Rodriguez with the Yankees, and it’s hard to just grant them a spot in the postseason. Boston would have to go from last to October for the second time in three years. Possible? Sure. Probable? Ehhhhh.
Even the two teams from the American League Championship Series last year seemed to go backward – or at least not clearly forward. Baltimore lost 40 homers from Nelson Cruz and their company man/Gold Glove right fielder Nick Markakis. Kansas City lost workhorse right-hander James Shields, and Baseball Prospectus’s projections have them somehow falling from 89 to 71 wins. The top of the American League is rife with flaws.
Not convinced? Make a list of the most intriguing moves from the offseason. They would have to include:
- The Dodgers poaching Andrew Friedman from the Rays to head their baseball operations.
- That move freeing up the Cubs to pursue former Rays manager Joe Maddon.
- The Cubs making the first, true we’re-in-this move of the Theo Epstein era by signing lefty Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract.
- The Padres essentially transforming their entire team by adding – get this – Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Kemp, Derek Norris and, earlier this week, James Shields.
- The Nationals spending $210 million on Scherzer over seven years, even though their rotation had the best ERA in baseball in 2014.
- The Marlins – the Marlins! – becoming the first team to sign a player for $300 million, which is $25 million shy of what it cost them to keep Giancarlo Stanton for eight years.
- The Cardinals responding to the tragic death of Oscar Tavares by trading for Heyward.
- The Dodgers pulling off trades for Rollins and Kendrick.
Yes, the White Sox and A’s had interesting offseasons, and their trade that sent right-hander Jeff Samardzija from Oakland to Chicago could be included, as could the four-for-one trade that shipped third baseman Josh Donaldson from Oakland to Toronto. The Mariners, too, added Nelson Cruz, and the Red Sox overhauled much of their rotation and added shortstop Hanley Ramirez – to play left field.
But the Interesting Meter clearly leans to the National League.
Now, make a list of players you would pay to see play. Couldn’t be more subjective. But here’s one, in no particular order: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Andrew McCutchen, Stanton, Troy Tulowitzki, Puig, Felix Hernandez, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.
Yeah, yeah, that leaves off Cabrera and Donaldson and Jose Abreu and David Price and Jose Bautista and Evan Longoria, all American Leaguers. But it’s not a crazy list, and the only American Leaguers on it are Trout and Hernandez.
What does this amount to? Follow along as the spring opens up and then rolls on. Keep track of which teams and players generate the most interest and optimism. Here’s betting the NL comes out several runs ahead.