For many, baseball is more exciting than ever. The sport has appeared to reach a level of parity never seen before. Just look at some of the early returns this offseason. Basically, every team is "going for it." OK, maybe not the Philadelphia Phillies. But nearly every other team can envision a scenario where it can get into the postseason. And once you get in, anything can happen. Ask the 88-win San Francisco Giants.
Let's look at all 30 teams this week and check in on their path to the playoffs.
We'll start with the National League Central, where the Chicago Cubs have made the biggest splash so far this offseason.
2014: 90-72, +16 run differential, lost NLCS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 87-75, +56
The Cardinals will likely enter the season as the division favorite, no matter what happens the rest of the offseason with the other four clubs. I love the addition of Jason Heyward, who brings elite defense and on-base skills to a position where the Cardinals hit just .237/.283/.326 in 2014, the worst right-field wOBA in the majors. Heyward projects as a 5-WAR player, a huge upgrade over the replacement-level performance the Cardinals received from right field. Mark Reynolds was also signed, bringing in a much-needed right-handed bat for the bench. Factor in a better season from second-year second baseman Kolten Wong and the Cardinals look poised to win a third straight NL Central title.
The key to the playoffs, however, resides in the right arms of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha. Trading away Shelby Miller for Heyward thinned out the rotation, and Wainwright will be coming off minor elbow surgery and Wacha off an injury to his shoulder that left him out of the postseason rotation. A rotation with those two plus the underrated Lance Lynn and a full season from John Lackey should rank as one of the best in the league if Wainwright and Wacha are able to provide 30-plus starts. Carlos Martinez may finally get a full-time shot to start and has the electric stuff to develop into a breakout player.
Another key will be receiving a repeat performance from Jhonny Peralta, who hit .263 with 59 extra-base hits and finished 14th in the NL MVP voting. He led the club in home runs and was second behind Matt Holliday in RBIs while playing solid defense at shortstop. But Peralta will turn 33 in May and has had inconsistent offensive performances throughout his career.
There is some concern about the offense, which ranked ninth in the NL in runs. The Cardinals were last in the NL in home runs, and "The Bill James Handbook" rated the Cardinals the second-worst baserunning team in the majors. So they don't have much power or speed. Heyward will help in both areas, but it's still a lineup that relies heavily on batting average. The Cardinals hit .269 in 2013 -- with an all-time record .330 mark with runners in scoring position -- but just .253 in 2014 and a more normal .254 with RISP.
The Cardinals have been in the playoffs the past four seasons and 11 out of the past 15 years. Since 2000, they have finished under .500 just once. Cardinals fans have come to expect a postseason appearance as a birthright, with good reason.
2014: 88-74, +51 run differential, lost wild-card game
2015 projection: 87-75, +48
After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have reached the playoffs in two straight years, albeit both times as a wild-card entry. Hey, it beats losing 100 games. The Pirates have achieved success through successful drafts, wise gambles on players like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez, a sabermetric-friendly front office and the wonderful Andrew McCutchen, maybe the best player in the NL.
The Pirates suffered a major loss when catcher Russell Martin signed with Toronto as a free agent, although Francisco Cervelli was a nice pickup as a solid defender with a .348 career OBP. Still, Martin was worth 5.5 bWAR in 2014, a top-10 position player in the NL; of course, Martin is unlikely to repeat that performance. Volquez remains a free agent, but the Pirates signed A.J. Burnett to replace him and also re-signed Liriano. Ike Davis is out as the first baseman, with Pedro Alvarez moving over from third base as Josh Harrison turns into a full-time player at third.
Even with some regression from the catching position and Harrison, the Pirates have three players who could improve:
1. Alvarez. After leading the NL with 36 home runs in 2013, he lost playing time at third base due to throwing problems and then missed the final month with a stress reaction in his foot. He hit just 18 home runs and saw his WAR drop from 3.7 to 0.8.
2. Gregory Polanco. He has the talent to explode on the league after a rookie season in which he hit .235/.307/.343.
3. Gerrit Cole. One thing the Pirates have lacked the past two seasons is an ace. In fact, FanGraphs WAR rated the Pirates' rotation the worst in the majors in 2014, suggesting it has depended on its defense and ballpark for much of its success. Cole was 11-5 with a 3.65 ERA in 22 starts in 2014, but the former No. 1 overall pick has the stuff -- a four-seam fastball that can touch 100 mph, plus a curveball, slider, two-seamer and changeup -- to develop into a Cy Young candidate.
Path to the playoffs? Cole pitches 200-plus innings with an ERA around 3.00, Burnett thrives in his return to Pittsburgh, Liriano stays healthy, Alvarez bounces back, Polanco delivers, and Harrison hits again. Most of Pittsburgh's top players are in their prime, and while you worry about the depth in the rotation, you know this team will play good defense, it has one of the best manager/pitching coach combos in Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage, and an MVP candidate anchors the offense.
2014: 82-80, -7 run differential
2015 projection: 78-84, -29
After winning the division title and reaching the NLCS in 2011, the Brewers have been spinning their wheels, winning 83, 74 and 82 games the past three seasons. The 2014 club was 20-8 at the end of April, went 18-10 in June and was tied for the division lead entering September. But the Brewers lost 13 of 14 in late August/early September and that was that.
It's been a quiet offseason, as they traded for first baseman Adam Lind and lost reliever Zach Duke to the White Sox. Closer Francisco Rodriguez is a free agent, so the bullpen could have a different look next season with Jonathan Broxton or Jim Henderson closing.
To get back to the postseason, the Brewers have to score more runs, especially playing in Miller Park, a good park for hitters. When they won the Central in 2011, they scored 721 runs. They lost Prince Fielder but still scored 776 runs in 2012. In 2014, the Brewers scored 650 runs. If they maintain their run prevention, they need to add about 90 runs to become a 90-win team.
How does that happen?
You start with a healthy Ryan Braun. He averaged .326/.394/.596 and 37 home runs in 2011 and 2012 but just .275/.339/.466 the past two seasons. Brewers right fielders (mostly Braun) created about 88 runs in 2014; Braun averaged 140 runs created in 2011 and 2012. He is just 31, so if the thumb that bothered him in 2014 is better, there's no reason he can't bounce back. Maybe he doesn't create 140 runs again, but let's say 120. That's a 32-run improvement from their 2014 right fielders.
Jean Segura reverses his sophomore slump. Segura created 79 runs in 2013, just 47 last year. That could be another 30 runs.
Brewers first basemen hit .207/.286/.357, creating about 56 runs. Lind will help. Give them 25 runs here.
There you go. Ninety wins and a playoff spot.
2014: 76-86, -17 run differential
2015 projection: 76-86, -44
We knew the main reason this happened: Joey Votto was injured and played in just 62 games, and Jay Bruce had knee surgery and hit .217 with 18 home runs; their combined bWAR fell from 11.3 to 0.8, and the offense scored 103 fewer runs. Getting those two back and healthy could be enough to push the Reds back into playoff contention.
Cincinnati traded away starters Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, so there's the perception that the Reds initiated a bit of a rebuilding process (Cueto, Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman are all free agents after 2015). I don't see that being the case. Simon rode a hot first half to 15 wins, but he is unlikely to do that again. And Latos' health is certainly a concern. The Reds have other rotation candidates: Tony Cingrani, so good in 2013; Daniel Corcino, who debuted in 2014; Anthony DeSclafani, acquired in the Latos trade; Dylan Axelrod; and David Holmberg. They shouldn't feel the effects of losing Simon and Latos all that much.
Here's another reason the Reds could get back in the playoff hunt: J.J. Hoover went 1-10 in relief. He was excellent in relief two seasons ago with a 2.86 ERA, so I'll bet that he won't go 1-10 again. Overall, the Reds' bullpen went 11-31. It wasn't a good pen (26th in the majors in ERA), but it's pretty hard to go 11-31.
Finally, some small improvements: Billy Hamilton gets better at the plate; Chapman and Homer Bailey don't miss time; Brandon Phillips has a slight bounce-back season; Eugenio Suarez gives Reds manager Bryan Price a better offensive option at shortstop; and GM Walt Jocketty finds a left fielder (Reds left fielders were 28th in the majors in wOBA).
The ingredients are there for a 90-win team. This may be the final chance for the Votto/Bruce/Phillips/Cueto/Chapman Reds, but it can happen.
2014: 73-89, -93 run differential
2015 projection: 83-79, +16
As you can see, the FanGraphs projection system already sees the Cubs on the fringes of playoff contention, thanks to an offseason that has seen them sign Jon Lester, re-sign Jason Hammel and trade for Miguel Montero. New manager Joe Maddon certainly won't disagree, saying at his introductory news conference, "For me, I'm going to be talking playoffs next year. I'm going to tell you that right now. Because I can't go to spring training and say any other thing. I'm just incapable of doing that. Why would you even report? It's all about setting your standards and your goals high, because if you don't set them high enough you might actually hit your mark."
So 83 wins appears realistic. How do the Cubs get a few more to return to October baseball for the first time since 2008?
Let's start with the idea that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's offseason may not be done, even if they have already received an A-plus from Jim Bowden.
They could add another starter to go with Lester, Jake Arrieta, Hammel, Travis Wood and Kyle Hendricks, although they have possible depth already in reclamation projects Edwin Jackson (remember, he had his first success under Maddon in Tampa Bay), Felix Doubront and Jacob Turner. More likely, they will look to add an outfielder. Jorge Soler is set in right field, but center and left are unsettled among the likes of Arismendy Alcantara, Justin Ruggiano, Chris Coghlan and Ryan Sweeney. The Steamer/FanGraphs projections has the Cubs outfield at just 4.5 combined WAR, so there's room for improvement.
Aside from that, some of the projections for the Cubs youngsters are pretty conservative:
• Anthony Rizzo: .271/.359/.501 after hitting .286/.386/.527 last year in his age-24 season;
• Javier Baez: .225/.279/.419 but who has the ability to hit 30 home runs;
• Kris Bryant: .260/.341/.485 in 315 plate appearances.
Bryant will probably spend two to three weeks in Triple-A to save on service time, but give him 550 to 600 PAs and he could be a 30-homer guy as well.
Projection systems by nature are a little conservative. But Lester is a good bet to post an ERA better than 3.28 as he moves to the DH-less National League, and I like Arrieta to beat his 3.59 mark.
Maybe the Cubs are looking to 2016 and beyond. But don't be surprised if the future arrives now.