Welcome to my annual preseason power rankings, where I make predictions and you get to mock me at the end of the season for how I poorly I did. You want to bring up last year? OK, I’ll bring up last year.
I predicted the Kansas City Royals would win 80 games ... and they won 95 and a little thing called the World Series. Hey, at least I didn’t pick them to win 72 like some of the computers out there. My biggest miss was the Texas Rangers: I had them at 72 wins and they won 88. A 16-game miss is inexcusable and Cole Hamels accounts for only a small margin of that difference. I thought the Minnesota Twins would be bad; they won 83 instead of 68. I thought the Washington Nationals would be great; they won 83 instead of 98. At least I was reasonably high on the New York Mets (86 wins) and Houston Astros (83), although I didn’t quite have the guts to pick them to make the playoffs.
So enjoy these rankings for what they are: talking points to get us all excited again about baseball as spring training is soon to begin. Even if I’m wrong about your team.
30. Cincinnati Reds
Big offseason moves: Traded 3B Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox in a three-team deal that netted 2B Jose Peraza and OF Scott Schebler; traded closer Aroldis Chapman to the New York Yankees for four minor leaguers; reportedly had a deal in place to trade 2B Brandon Phillips to the Washington Nationals, but he exercised his veto rights.
Most intriguing player: It has to be Joey Votto, right? It’s still a pleasure watching one of the best hitters in the game ply his craft. He quietly finished third in the 2015 MVP voting after one of the best second halves in recent history, hitting .362/.535/.617. In fact, the last player not named Barry Bonds to have a .500 OBP in any half of a season was Frank Thomas in 1994.
I’m just the messenger: The Reds started rookie pitchers in their final 64 games, a major league record. They also went 20-44 in those games, suggesting that this group has a lot of room for improvement. Raisel Iglesias, a now 26-year-old Cuban righty with a good sinking fastball and slider who fanned 104 in 95.1 innings, showed the most promise, while Anthony DeSclafani had a workmanlike 4.05 ERA over 31 starts. Prospects Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett and Cody Reed are on their way as well, although likely will be of limited help in 2016. Still, minus Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, both of whom were traded last season, and now Chapman, this looks like a rotation that will struggle to find consistency -- without a proven bullpen to back it up.
Where I could be wrong: I feel a little guilty putting the Reds here because they do have some talent. Votto is one of the best players in the game and Zack Cozart and Billy Hamilton will provide very good up-the-middle defense. But Cozart and Hamilton also can’t hit and this team lost 98 games with Cueto and Leake in the rotation for two-thirds of the season and Frazier hitting 35 home runs. Maybe the young pitching comes together at once, Homer Bailey returns at some point from Tommy John surgery and Devin Mesoraco stays healthy and hits like he did in 2014. If Hamilton learns to get on base and Jay Bruce gets his OBP back over .300 after two straight subpar seasons, maybe the offense will be respectable.
The final word: The Reds aren’t hiding from their game plan: They're rebuilding, and it could be ugly. They’d love to trade Phillips and Bruce, but Phillips apparently wants to stay and Bruce has no value right now. Other than Votto, Cincinnati has a hodgepodge collection of talent. So, given that they play in a tough division, the Reds may be facing their first 100-loss season since 1982.
29. Atlanta Braves
Big offseason moves: Traded SS Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for LHP Sean Newcomb, SS Erick Aybar and RHP Chris Ellis; traded RHP Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for OF Ender Inciarte, SS Dansby Swanson and RHP Aaron Blair; traded C Christian Bethancourt to the Padres for RHP Casey Kelly and C Ricardo Rodriguez; re-signed C A.J. Pierzynski; traded CF Cameron Maybin to the Tigers for LHP Ian Krol; signed IF Kelly Johnson; signed C Tyler Flowers.
Most intriguing player: Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, has star potential -- but don’t overlook what Inciarte brings to the table: Inciarte is a plus defender and runner who hit .303/.338/.408 for the Diamondbacks. His value at the plate is all built into his batting average but I believe he can sustain that high average. Even if he regresses a bit he’s a solid major league starter; getting him straight up for Miller would have been a decent deal, letting alone getting Swanson as well. And with prospect Mallex Smith (.306, 57 steals in the high minors) on the way, Inciarte could end up being valuable trade bait as well.
I’m just the messenger: During my chat on Tuesday a Braves fan suggested that all Atlanta needed to become a .500 team was a power-hitting third baseman. I don’t see it; the Braves could add 1980-vintage Mike Schmidt and still struggle to win 75 games. Freddie Freeman is the only bat in the lineup who elicits any fear from opponents, but he’s not in the Votto/Paul Goldschmidt class. His park-adjusted wRC+ in 2015 wasn’t any better than Brandon Belt’s or Lucas Duda’s and nobody is claiming those guys can carry a lineup. Outside of Freeman and maybe Hector Olivera, Atlanta’s lineup has minimal power (the Braves were last in home runs). It’s funny: The Kansas City Royals won the World Series and their contact ability was lauded as a key reason. Well, the Braves led the National League in fewest strikeouts ... and finished last in the league in runs, scoring 40 fewer runs than the Marlins. Simply putting the ball in play doesn’t mean you have a good offense.
Where I could be wrong: I’d say that the Braves are young and young teams can develop quickly, but that’s not really the case: Pierzynski is 39, Nick Markakis and Aybar are 32, Olivera and Adonis Garcia are 31. Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Kelly Johnson are hanging around on the bench. This is actually one of the oldest lineups in the league. Good luck with that.
The final word: Of the rebuilding teams on the bottom of this list, the Braves are probably a year or two ahead of the others thanks to a farm system that Keith Law ranked No. 1. But this is clearly still a transition year as they wait for players such as Swanson, Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Lucas Sims to develop one more year in the minors and to see if young pitchers such as Matt Wisler and Mike Foltynewicz can prove themselves as major league starters.
Big offseason moves: Traded closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros for a package including RHP Vincent Velasquez, RHP Mark Appel and LHP Brett Oberholtzer; acquired RHP Charlie Morton from the Pirates for RHP David Whitehead; acquired RHP Jeremy Hellickson from the Diamondbacks for RHP Sam McWilliams.
Most intriguing player: Maikel Franco was sort of a forgotten member of the star-studded 2015 rookie class, but the 22-year-old third baseman hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 home runs in 80 games, including a memorable two-homer, four-hit night at Yankee Stadium. He broke his wrist in August but returned for the final three games of the season. Along with the power came a pretty good contact rate; he looks like a legit middle-of-the-order bat, a guy the Phillies will build their next lineup around.
I’m just the messenger: Phillies fans are eager to get shortstop J.P. Crawford -- No. 4 on Law's top 100 prospects -- up to the majors as soon as possible, but there’s no reason to rush him to the majors. Crawford didn’t tear things up at Double-A, hitting .265/.354/.407, and he’s just 21, so barring a big breakout in April and May, a full season in Triple-A makes sense, setting the stage for him to take over in 2017.
Where I could be wrong: Do any of those bottom-feeders in the National League have a reasonable scenario in which they even crack .500 and contend? Not really, but in the Phillies’ case there’s a better-than-zero chance that the rotation could be sneaky good. Maybe Aaron Nola develops into a No. 2 instead of a No. 3. Jerad Eickhoff was very good in eight starts last season (2.65 ERA with supporting peripherals). I’m a big fan of Velasquez’s upside. Appel was a No. 1 overall pick who has struggled in the minors but still has a great arm. Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton are veteran starters who have had success at one point in their careers. Let’s put it this way: This group should be better than the David Buchanan/Jerome Williams/Aaron Harang horror story of 2015.
The final word: The Phillies are finally all-in on their necessary rebuild. They won’t be that good but they at least have some interesting players on whom Phillies fans can dream. The Cole Hamels and Giles trades have added an infusion of young talent, and the front office hopes it struck gold in somebody like Velasquez, Appel or high-upside, high-risk talents such as outfielder Nick Williams or catcher Jorge Alfaro.
27. Colorado Rockies
Most intriguing player: Third baseman Nolan Arenado had his breakout season in 2015, moving from Web Gem specialist to Web Gem specialist who also hit 42 home runs and led the majors with 130 RBIs. While Rockies fans are quick to point out that he hit more home runs on the road (22) than at home (20), he also posted a meager .296 OBP away from Coors Field. Don’t get me wrong: Arenado had a terrific season and has certainly become the face of the franchise. But he’s enticing not just because he’s already good but because there’s still room for improvement.
I’m just the messenger: The Rockies seem to view themselves in a different place than those of us analyzing from a distance. While they did trade Troy Tulowitzki last season, no team has been as quiet as Colorado the past two offseasons. Signing guys like Parra and Reynolds sort of indicates they believe they’re just a few spare parts away from contending. But the numbers remind us that, while the Rockies led the NL in runs scored, they were next-to-last in runs scored on the road (one run ahead of the Braves). Put it this way: Their two best hitters, Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez, ranked 43rd and 61st in the majors in park-adjusted wRC+. That’s not good enough to carry an offense that has other holes ... let alone a pitching staff that had the highest ERA in the majors.
Where I could be wrong: In signing Motte and Qualls and trading for McGee, the Rockies are going back to a formula that has worked when they have been successful: Trying to construct the pitching staff from the back forward by building as deep a bullpen as possible. That makes sense, given the difficulties of pitching at high altitude. I don’t know if Motte and Qualls are the answers, so the bigger question is how good some of the young pitchers will be: Jon Gray made nine starts last year and will get a full season in the rotation. Chad Bettis had a solid 4.23 ERA in 20 starts. Jordan Lyles, Eddie Butler and Tyler Chatwood still loom as rotation hopefuls. Jeff Hoffman, acquired in the Tulo trade, could jump to the majors. If two or three of those guys figure things out the Rockies could surprise.
The final word: The Rockies resisted dealing CarGo this offseason, but if they’re down and out by July you know the trade rumors will heat up. With outfield bats David Dahl and Raimel Tapia coming soon, it makes sense to trade Gonzalez -- assuming he remains healthy, of course.
Big offseason moves: Traded SS Jean Segura and RHP Tyler Wagner to the Diamondbacks for RHP Chase Anderson, IF Aaron Hill and SS Isan Diaz; traded 1B Adam Lind to the Mariners for three minor league pitchers; signed 1B Chris Carter; traded RHP Francisco Rodriguez to the Tigers for IF Javier Betancourt; acquired SS Jonathan Villar from the Astros.
Most intriguing player: Jonathan Lucroy. It’s not so much if he’ll be traded but when. He’ll need to show in spring training that he has completely recovered from his 2015 injuries. If so, he could be traded before the season begins.
I’m just the messenger: The Brewers’ website lists Wily Peralta as the staff ace. Which ... well, that’s why they’re listed here.
Where I could be wrong: OK, let’s say Peralta stays healthy. And Jimmy Nelson harnesses his stuff. And Taylor Jungmann builds upon a solid 2015. And for whatever reason Matt Garza actually has a good year. So the rotation is decent. You never know with bullpens. And, well, the Brewers could hit a lot of home runs, given that they have Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, Chris Carter and Domingo Santana. Even Aaron Hill hit 36 homers one year (OK, that was way back in 2009) ...
The final word: Most likely, it’s going to be a long season in Milwaukee. The most exciting times could come in the second half, when shortstop Orlando Arcia, the team’s top prospect, and center fielder Brett Phillips, acquired in the Carlos Gomez trade, could be in the lineup -- and right-hander Jorge Lopez could be in the rotation.
Big offseason moves: Acquired 1B Yonder Alonso and LHP Marc Rzepczynski from the San Diego Padres for LHPs Drew Pomeranz and Jose Torres; traded 3B Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox for two minor leaguers; signed RHPs Ryan Madson and John Axford; signed RHP Henderson Alvarez; traded RHP Jesse Chavez to the Blue Jays for RHP Liam Hendriks; signed LHP Rich Hill; acquired 3B Jed Lowrie from the Astros for RHP Brendan McCurry.
Most intriguing player: GM Billy Beane says he isn’t going to trade Sonny Gray. But it’s Billy Beane! No player is untouchable, and if he gets the proverbial offer he can’t refuse ...
I’m just the messenger: Are the A's really counting on Coco Crisp again? On Billy Butler, who hasn’t been decent since 2013? On a first baseman, in Alonso, who has a career high of nine home runs? On Stephen Vogt to hit like he did in the first half (.872 OPS, All-Star appearance) of 2015 and not the second half (.630 OPS)? I get that the A’s are usually better than the sum of their parts, but it’s a lineup with several question marks and without an elite bat.
Where I could be wrong: Beane seemed a little bored this offseason, focusing primarily on collecting relievers -- which was understandable, given that the Oakland bullpen imploded last season, going 21-31 with an AL-worst 4.63 ERA and losing eight games they led after seven innings. So in come Madson, Axford, Hendriks and Rzepczynski, plus the return of a hopefully healthy Sean Doolittle, who pitched just 13.2 innings last year. Then there’s this: The A’s finished 68-94 last season, but their projected record based on runs scored and allowed was 77-85, so they underperformed that by nine wins (in large part because of the bullpen). By base runs (based gained and allowed), they should have finished 80-82. So Oakland had really bad sequencing in 2015. It’s possible that its true talent level was higher than that of a 68-94 team and that the bullpen additions will help correct much of that.
The final word: I have less confidence that I’m right about the A’s than the other five teams on the list. The rotation could be interesting, especially if Hill’s four-start performance last September for the Red Sox was a true indicator of some new level of ability. Gray is an ace, and guys such as Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman and Chris Bassitt are interesting even if they don’t overwhelm you with their raw stuff. Back in 2012 the A’s improved from 74 to 94 wins -- and that team scored just 19 more runs than the 2015 team. If you want a deep sleeper for 2016, the A’s are your team.