It's time for my second annual pre-spring training power rankings. You love them, you hate them, you laugh, you cry. But they stir up debate and get us thinking about baseball with spring training right around the corner.
Big offseason moves: Hired Chip Hale as manager; signed Cuban 3B/LF Yasmany Tomas to six-year, $68.5 million contract; traded LHP Wade Miley to the Red Sox for RHPs Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa and a minor leaguer; traded C Miguel Montero to the Cubs for two minor leaguers; acquired RHP Jeremy Hellickson from the Rays; acquired LHP Robbie Ray from the Tigers in a three-team deal that sent SS Didi Gregorius to the Yankees; signed Cuban RHP Yoan Lopez for an $8.25 million bonus.
Most intriguing player: Expectations will be high for Tomas following the success of fellow Cubans Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu the past two seasons. But Tomas isn't viewed as an all-around player like Puig or a polished hitter like Abreu. He has power potential, but the first test will be to see whether he can handle third base; many scouts view him as a left fielder but the Diamondbacks will give him a shot at third.
Due for a better year: Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, projected to perhaps combine for 70 home runs, both missed large chunks of time and instead combined for just 33 as they missed a combined 127 games.
Due for a worse year: Outfielder Ender Inciarte, pressed into service after a slew of injuries, didn't hit much but the defensive metrics loved him, pushing his WAR to 3.7, third best on the team behind Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. He's likely to serve in a bench role this year, especially if Tomas ends up in the outfield.
I'm just the messenger: New general manager Dave Stewart, hired by chief baseball officer Tony La Russa in late September to clean up the mess that Kevin Towers left behind, remains a bit of a mystery. It didn't help his reputation, especially among statistical analysts, when he said in January that the Diamondbacks may be viewed as more of a "true baseball team versus some of the other teams out here that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things." It was also a bit curious that La Russa hired a veterinarian named Dr. Ed Lewis, whom he has known for 30 years and worked with in the past, as the team's director of analytics. There are certainly different ways of doing things but this regime doesn't look all that different so far from the previous one that espoused grit and toughness.
The final word: Stewart's first moves brought in some interesting young arms but this is still a rotation that doesn't look much better than the group that ranked 27th in the majors in ERA in 2014. Offensively, the D-backs plan to rely on the power of Goldschmidt, Trumbo and Tomas. The issues here are even if Trumbo hits 30 home runs, he owns a .298 career OBP and he's a big defensive liability in the outfield; Tomas may end up profiling similar to Trumbo as a guy with a low OBP who doesn't project as a plus defender at either third base or left field. Catcher is currently a black hole -- Tuffy Gosewisch, come on down -- and the whole lineup aside from Goldschmidt has an aversion to taking walks.
Big offseason moves: Traded SS Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers; traded OF Marlon Byrd to the Reds for minor league P Ben Lively; umm ... signed OF Jeff Francoeur, which even as an act of desperation is a curious act of desperation; have shopped LHP Cole Hamels, RHP Jonathan Papelbon and 1B Ryan Howard; signed RHPs Aaron Harang and Chad Billingsley.
Most intriguing player: Hamels, obviously. He may start the season with the Phillies but nobody expects him to end it there.
Due for a better year: Domonic Brown gets what is maybe his final chance to prove himself as a big league regular. An All-Star in 2013 when he hit 27 home runs, he fell apart in 2014 with a .235/.285/.349 line. There's still some talent here, but how much?
Due for a worse year: Ruben Amaro Jr.
I'm just the messenger: Everyone has been predicting the decline of the Phillies for a few years and Amaro finally admitted that a rebuilding was in order. He's been asking for a ransom for Hamels, understandably so because he's really the only valuable commodity he has, unless Chase Utley agrees to a trade or Cliff Lee comes back and proves he's healthy. The past two seasons were painful for Phillies fans, but 2015 could be their worst season since losing 97 games in 2000.
The final word: Hey, on the bright side the Phillies outperformed my prediction last year by seven wins .. and still won just 73 games. If there's a bright spot, it's the bullpen, led by closer-in-waiting Ken Giles (1.18 ERA as a rookie), which should be solid even if Papelbon is traded.
28. Atlanta Braves
Big offseason moves: Hired former Indians GM John Hart as president of baseball operations; traded OF Jason Heyward and RHP Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for RHPs Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins; traded OF Justin Upton to the Padres; traded C/OF Evan Gattis to the Astros; signed OF Nick Markakis, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Jason Grilli, IF Kelly Johnson and IF Alberto Callaspo; lost free-agent Ps Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang and Kris Medlen.
Most intriguing player: Hart is gambling on Miller putting everything together after two solid but inconsistent seasons with the Cardinals. The 24-year-old righty had a 2.92 ERA in the second half after he started using a sinker to go along with his four-seamer. If he proves to be a solid No. 2-type starter, the Braves will be happy with the return they got for Heyward.
Due for a better year: Andrelton Simmons makes too much contact to hit .244 and saw his extra-base hit total fall from 50 to 29, a big reason his WAR dropped from 6.9 to 3.5 despite another Gold Glove season at shortstop.
Due for a worse year: It wouldn't be nice if I said B.J. Upton. Alex Wood went 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA, using that funky delivery to hold batters to a .239 average. The peripherals are solid (3.25 FIP), so this doesn't scream out "fluke" to me, but natural regression suggests he won't post a 2.78 ERA again and I worry about an injury with that delivery.
I'm just the messenger: The Braves have been pretty public about what they did this offseason, so there's no reason to pile on. Instead of trying to compete with the Nationals, fall short, and then lose Heyward and Upton to free agency, they decided to rebuild and aim for 2017 when the new ballpark opens. The issue is whether Hart did well in the trades he made and there's no way of knowing that for several years, because most of the prospects he got in return won't be major league ready in 2015.
The final word: The Braves haven't had back-to-back losing seasons since the pre-dynastic seasons of 1989 and 1990, but that's going to happen in 2015. The rotation could actually be pretty solid with Julio Teheran, Miller, Wood and a back-to-form Mike Minor, and funny things can happen with a good rotation. But the offense is going to be horrific. The Braves were next-to-last in the NL in runs last season and they've traded away three of the four good hitters they did have. They'll head into 2015 with one good hitter in Freddie Freeman and one average-ish hitter in Markakis, who is coming off neck surgery. So good luck. But at least they won't strike out as much.
27. Minnesota Twins
Most intriguing player: Center fielder Byron Buxton was baseball's top prospect entering 2014 but suffered a series of injuries -- wrist, dislocated finger, concussion -- that limited him to 31 minor league games in the regular season before a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He's still a potential superstar (Keith Law has him ranked as his No. 2 prospect in baseball) and could reach the majors this season.
Due for a better year: Joe Mauer's move to first base was supposed to get him in the lineup more often; instead he played just 120 games and he hit just .277, the lowest of his career. He turns 32 in April so there's no guarantee he gets back to hitting .300, especially considering his walk-to-strikeout ratio has decreased from better than even just two seasons ago to 60 walks and 96 K's in 2014 (still a strong ratio compared to the MLB average, but this is a guy who walked more than he struck out most of his career).
Due for a worse year: Danny Santana hit .319/.353/.472 as a rookie, fueled by a .405 BABIP -- the highest by a player with 400 plate appearances since Rod Carew in 1977. Santana never hit .300 in the minors so look for a sizable decline.
I'm just the messenger: I know a lot of Twins fans are kind of excited by the rotation -- well, at least compared to recent Twins rotations: Phil Hughes had a breakout year, they signed Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson won 13 games in his first full season, Alex Meyer appears ready for a shot and Ricky Nolasco can't be that bad again. Well, Nolasco can be that bad again and I'm skeptical about the Santana signing. He had a 3.95 ERA with the Braves (3.39 FIP) but now moves over to the American League and won't have Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons playing behind him. Plus, there's this problem: Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia are penciled in as two starting outfielders, two guys who would have trouble covering enough ground in a beer league softball outfield. Hunter had minus-18 defensive runs saved and Arcia minus-10 (in about half a season of playing time). The Twins ranked as the second-worst defensive team in the majors via defensive runs saved in 2014 and that's going to be a big issue again.
The final word: There is potential here on offense, which ranked fifth in the league in runs. But I don't see any improvement coming there as players such as Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have likely peaked and Santana regresses. The defense is still a problem and the rotation -- which had the worst ERA in the majors in 2014 -- still doesn't do a lot for me. It looks like another holding year as the Twins wait for Buxton and Miguel Sano to arrive.
26. Colorado Rockies
Big offseason moves: Promoted Jeff Bridich to general manager; signed RHP Kyle Kendrick; signed IF Daniel Descalso; traded 2B Josh Rutledge to the Angels for RHP Jairo Diaz; lost OF Michael Cuddyer, LHP Brett Anderson and RHP Matt Belisle to free agency; some other minor moves that probably won't turn the Rockies into the 1927 Yankees.
Most intriguing player: Troy Tulowitzki. Isn't he always the most intriguing Rockies player? He was having an MVP-level season last year until he predictably landed on the DL. Bridich resisted the temptation to deal Tulowitzki or outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, but if the Rockies are way back come in July, you have to wonder if those two will be back on the trading block.
Due for a better year: Gonzalez played just 70 games and hit .238/.292/.431.
Due for a worse year: Charlie Blackmon made the All-Star team on the basis of hitting .374 in April with a 1.034 OPS, but his highest OPS in any month after that was .806. He had a .269 OBP on the road. In a neutral park, he's probably a borderline starter and he'll platoon with Drew Stubbs assuming Gonzalez and Corey Dickerson stay healthy.
I'm just the messenger: Same old Rockies. The rotation isn't good -- and don't blame Coors Field, as the Rockies had the worst road ERA in the majors. The offense is overrated -- maybe you can blame Coors Field, as the Rockies led the NL in runs but barely outhit the Padres on the road with a .228 average. Tulo and CarGo have to stay healthy. The young starters have to stay healthy.
The final word: Everyone also focuses on the pitching problems with the Rockies and it's certainly not good that 26 pitchers have started for the Rockies over the past two seasons. But Bridich must also properly evaluate the offense; the Rockies are always going to score runs because of Coors Field but they're not going to be competitive unless they score more runs on the road. They were 45-36 at home but a miserable 21-60 on the road. Winning at altitude isn't the issue; it's winning away from altitude.
25. Texas Rangers
Big offseason moves: Named Jeff Banister manager; acquired RHP Yovani Gallardo from the Brewers; acquired LHP Ross Detwiler from the Nationals; traded LHP Robbie Ross to the Red Sox for RHP Anthony Ranaudo; re-signed RHP Colby Lewis; acquired C Carlos Corporan from the Astros; lost OF Alex Rios to free agency.
Due for a better year: Well, the Rangers led the majors in days spent on the disabled list, so pick your injured player of choice.
Due for a worse year: No obvious candidates, although Adrian Beltre has to start showing his age one of these years and his home runs did drop to 19 after topping 30 the three previous seasons.
I'm just the messenger: The Rangers ran through a mind-numbing 64 players in 2014, including -- is this right? -- 40 different pitchers if you count position players Mitch Moreland, J.P. Arencibia and Chris Gimenez. So, yes, you can easily dismiss the disaster of 2014. But I can't just as easily dismiss a starting rotation that looks shaky behind Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. Gallardo's strikeout rates have plummeted the past two seasons and now he goes to the league with deeper lineups and a park where the ball flies out to right field. The Nos. 4 and 5 spots are up for grabs. The bullpen is full of question marks, starting with closer Neftali Feliz, who had a 1.99 ERA in 31.2 innings ... but a 4.90 FIP. He's hardly a sure thing and hasn't pitched a full season since 2011.
The final word: The Rangers are probably the most difficult team in the majors to evaluate. I could be way off here and Banister should certainly be an upgrade on the strategic front over Ron Washington, but I see too many unknowns on the pitching staff, a tough division and concerns about the overall value of Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo.