This is it. The final six teams in my preseason power rankings. Like just about everyone else, I have the Cubs as the best team in baseball entering spring training. My top six teams also all made the playoffs last year ... which, well, that doesn’t seem right. Something will go wrong. Sounds like a follow-up column: Why my predictions are wrong.
Big offseason moves: Lost RHP Zack Greinke in free agency; signed Japanese RHP Kenta Maeda; LHP Brett Anderson accepted club’s qualifying offer; re-signed 2B Howie Kendrick and 2B Chase Utley; signed LHP Scott Kazmir; signed RHP Joe Blanton; in three-team trade, acquired RHP Frankie Montas, OF Trayce Thompson and 2B Micah Johnson from the White Sox for 2B Jose Peraza, OF Scott Schebler and IF Brandon Dixon; SS Jimmy Rollins remains a free agent.
Most intriguing player: Maeda is a slightly-built right-hander who turns 28 in April. A big star in Japan with a 2.39 career ERA, he posted a 2.09 ERA in 2015, striking out 175 in 206.1 innings for Hiroshima with just five home runs allowed. While Maeda was durable in Japan, rarely missing a start, irregularities in his medical exam meant he had to sign an incentive-laden deal that has a base value of just $25 million over eight seasons; he can earn an extra $10 million-plus per season based on starts and innings. How good is he? The Steamer projection system forecasts a 3.55 ERA/2.7 WAR over 178 innings.
I'm just the messenger: It’s a long laundry list. Yasmani Grandal is recovering from shoulder surgery that led to him hitting .162 in the second half. Justin Turner is expected to be ready for spring training after microfracture surgery on his left knee. Enrique Hernandez had offseason shoulder surgery. The Dodgers are hopeful Hyun-Jin Ryu will be ready for Opening Day after missing all of 2015 with a shoulder injury. Then there’s Yasiel Puig, who played just 79 games in 2015, and Brett Anderson, healthy in 2015 but injury-prone throughout his career.
Where I could be wrong: Well, if Clayton Kershaw goes down ... aside from that, there are legitimate concerns about the offense. What will Puig’s production be at this point in his career? Was Joc Pederson's second-half slump just a blip or a young player unable to make adjustments? What about the late slide of Adrian Gonzalez, who turns 34 in May? He hit .238/.316/.371 the final two months. The Dodgers have depth and versatility, but rookie shortstop Corey Seager may have to be a key cog in the middle of the lineup, and that’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old, even one rated as the No. 1 prospect in the game.
The final word: With an estimated $242 million payroll, the largest in the game, the Dodgers really have only one big star. Oh, Seager is going to be one, Puig still has the potential to play like one and Gonzalez used to be one, but this is a team built on the depth of its 40-man roster. There are more young players coming as well, like pitchers Julio Urias and Jose De Leon. This won’t be a transition year under new manager Dave Roberts. The Dodgers will be expected to win the division. The loss of Greinke obviously hurt, but I think that depth wins out and the Dodgers edge the Giants for the NL West title.
Big offseason moves: Re-signed RHP Marco Estrada; lost LHP David Price in free agency; signed LHP J.A. Happ; acquired RHP Drew Storen from the Nationals for OF Ben Revere; acquired RHP Jesse Chavez from the A’s for RHP Liam Hendriks; lost C Dioner Navarro, RHP Mark Lowe and IF Cliff Pennington in free agency; LHP Mark Buehrle retired.
Most intriguing player: AL MVP Josh Donaldson hit .297/.371/.568 with 41 home runs and 123 RBIs last season, and he particularly loved the Rogers Centre, hitting .330 with 24 home runs at home. Donaldson’s career already has defied normalcy, with his move from catcher to third base in the minors and his late career arc. While his 2015 season wasn’t a fluke -- he’d finished fourth and eighth in the MVP voting in 2013 and 2014 -- you would expect some regression. This, however, is a driven, athletic player who loves to win. I wouldn’t bet against another monster season.
I'm just the messenger: The Jays scored an astonishing 127 more runs than any other AL team. And, no, that wasn’t just a result of their home park. They scored 58 more runs than any other team on the road. Will they get 120 home runs again from Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion? Probably not -- Steamer projects 91. Those guys are all 30 or older, as are Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. The Blue Jays should still have the best offense in the league, but the age of the lineup lurks in the background.
Where I could be wrong: If the Jays miss the playoffs, it will be a combination of age in the lineup and a rotation that blows up. They’re counting on Estrada to repeat his excellent 2015 and free agent Happ to prove that whatever he discovered with the Pirates translates to continued success. I love Marcus Stroman, but he still has to prove he can get through a 30-start, 200-inning workload. I like this group overall -- hey, I’m picking them to win the division -- but I can see why some have doubts.
The final word: Another reason I like the Jays: I think the front office has built a deep bullpen. Picking up Storen was a good move, and while Aaron Sanchez will compete for a rotation job in spring training, he likely ends up in relief where his fastball velocity plays up. Roberto Osuna had a big rookie season and Brett Cecil (who missed the postseason) and Aaron Loup provide quality from the left side. The Jays ranked fifth in the AL in bullpen ERA, but they struggled at times in the middle innings. Bullpens are volatile, but I think this pen will be one of the best in the AL.
Big offseason moves: Re-signed LF Alex Gordon; signed RHPs Ian Kennedy and Joakim Soria; re-signed RHP Chris Young; lost RHPs Johnny Cueto and Ryan Madson and 2B Ben Zobrist in free agency; RHP Greg Holland (out for the season) was not extended a contract; OF Alex Rios, LHP Franklin Morales and RHP Jeremy Guthrie remain free agents.
Most intriguing player: Third baseman Mike Moustakas had been a disappointment his first four seasons in the majors, hitting just .236, including a .212/.271/.361 line in 2014 that raised doubts about his future. But Ned Yost believed in him, he punched five home runs that postseason and then he had a breakout season in 2015 as he focused on going more to left field. In the first half, he hit .297 and made the All-Star team; in the second half, he hit 15 home runs and drove in 51 runs in 69 games. He’s always had good contact skills. If the improvement against left-handers (10 home runs) is for real, he could be in line for a 30-homer season and his best campaign yet.
I'm just the messenger: Once again, the computers expect mediocrity from the Royals. FanGraphs has the Royals right around .500 and projects the bullpen just 24th in the majors in WAR, worse than the Rockies or Twins. When you dig into the numbers, you can speculate why the computers are bearish on the K.C. relievers: They were 11th in the majors in strikeout rate, 15th in walk rate and 11th in home run rate, all while pitching in a good pitchers’ park with a good defense behind them. So how did the Royals finish second in the majors in bullpen ERA? They had the lowest batting average allowed on balls in play at .260, 13 points better than the Astros and 37 points better than the MLB average of .297. The computers would suggest they were a little lucky. Tell that to Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera.
Where I could be wrong: The rotation ranked 12th in the AL in ERA (while pitching the fewest innings). The main addition is Kennedy, who has had one season with an ERA under 4.00 the past four seasons (3.63 in 2014). He has been durable -- six straight seasons of 30 starts -- but if things turn sour in 2016, it will likely be because the team is unable to make up for a mediocre rotation like it did in 2015.
The final word: I still hear the Royals referred to as a young team. This is wrong. They had the third-oldest lineup in the AL in 2015 (weighted by playing time) and the oldest pitching staff. But their key players are in their primes and last year they played with a chip on their shoulders. Before Game 1 of the World Series, Moustakas was still complaining about the preseason predictions. This year, they’ll be out to prove the doubters wrong once again. We know they’ll play defense. We can assume the Soria/Herrera/Davis trio at the back end will lock late-game leads. I’d like the offense better if the Royals had a second baseman, but they should score enough runs. And Yost has that devil magic. The Royals win the AL Central.
Big offseason moves: Acquired RHP Ken Giles from the Phillies for RHP Vincent Velasquez, RHP Mark Appel, LHP Brett Oberholtzer and two others; OF Colby Rasmus accepted the team’s qualifying offer; re-signed LHP Tony Sipp; signed RHP Doug Fister; traded IF Jed Lowrie to the A’s for RHP Brendan McCurry; lost LHP Scott Kazmir, LHP Oliver Perez and RHP Chad Qualls in free agency; declined to offer a contract to 1B Chris Carter; traded SS Jonathan Villar to the Brewers; sold C Hank Conger to the Rays.
Most intriguing player: Highest OPS+ for a player in his age-20 season since World War II, minimum 400 plate appearances:
Mike Trout, 2012: 168
Al Kaline, 1955: 162
Mickey Mantle, 1952: 162
Alex Rodriguez, 1996: 161
Frank Robinson, 1956: 143
Ken Griffey Jr., 1990: 136
Bryce Harper, 2013: 133
Tony Conigliaro, 1965: 133
Carlos Correa, 2015: 132
Jason Heyward, 2010: 131
With the exception of Correa and A-Rod, the others were all outfielders. If we extended the list to the top 25, 11 are already Hall of Famers. So, based on his rookie season, Correa has established about a 50 percent chance to turn into a Hall of Famer. I’m not betting against him.
I'm just the messenger: The Astros had three primary positions of questionable production in 2015. Their DHs -- mostly Evan Gattis -- ranked ninth in the AL in wOBA and last in OBP with a .294 mark. Their first basemen, mostly Carter, ranked ninth in wOBA and 10th in OBP. Their center fielders -- Jake Marisnick, Carlos Gomez, Rasmus -- ranked 13th in wOBA and last in OBP. The Astros are hoping they simply get better production from guys already in-house. At first, Carter has been jettisoned in favor of Jon Singleton, who hit .254/.359/.505 at Triple-A Fresno and failed miserably in the big leagues in 2014 with a .168 average. In center field, they’ll expect Gomez to regain his 2013-14 form after battling injury issues in 2015. At DH, Gattis may miss the beginning of the season after recent surgery to repair a sports hernia, perhaps opening up time for Preston Tucker. Prospect A.J. Reed, who tore up Class A and Double-A, also could factor into the picture. Improved production at these spots will help push the Astros past 90 wins, but there’s no guarantee that happens.
Where I could be wrong: Hey, I like the rotation. I completely buy into Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel as a legitimate ace. Collin McHugh is a solid 2/3, and don’t overlook his second half when he made some adjustments, cut down his home run rate and posted a 3.11 ERA. I love Lance McCullers, one of the big surprises last year, jumping from Class A at age 21 to post a 3.22 ERA in 22 starts. There’s depth after that, especially if Fister rebounds from his own injury-marred 2015 with the Nationals. The FanGraphs projection system is a little more lukewarm on the rotation, however, ranking them tied for 12th in projected WAR. I think it’s a top-10 rotation, but McCullers is just a year removed from a 5.85 ERA in the California League and maybe Keuchel regresses to 3.48 ERA instead of 2.48.
The final word: This is a team with stars, depth and balance. The bullpen was very good last year (sixth in the majors in ERA and third in strikeout rate) until that Game 4 blowup against the Royals, but now has a big-time closer in Giles. George Springer cut down his strikeouts and has breakout season written all over him. Correa is already a star and now he’ll be here all season. Gomez is a huge key; if he bounces back, there’s a good chance the Astros run away with the AL West.
Big offseason moves: Re-signed OF Yoenis Cespedes; acquired 2B Neil Walker from the Pirates for LHP Jonathon Niese; signed SS Asdrubal Cabrera; re-signed RHP Bartolo Colon; signed OF Alejandro De Aza; lost 2B Daniel Murphy, RHP Tyler Clippard, 3B Juan Uribe and 2B Kelly Johnson in free agency; OF Michael Cuddyer retired; RHP Jenrry Mejia banned for life for a third positive steroids test.
Most intriguing player: Matt Harvey? Noah Syndergaard? Jacob deGrom? Cespedes? While I believe Harvey will have a monster season, Syndergaard’s upside remains tantalizing. He went 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA as a rookie, averaging 97 mph on his fastball as he struck out 166 in 150 innings. There’s still room for improvement, however: He had a 4.23 ERA on the road; he gave up 14 home runs in 83.1 innings in the second half; he’s still learning some of the finer points of getting out big league hitters. As much as we love the stuff, however, you have to love this:
RT @statcast Your eyes did not deceive you. @Mets starters just throw harder than the rest.https://t.co/tqILsn0vDg pic.twitter.com/cjnAm0Dl6e— Noah Syndergaard (@Noahsyndergaard) February 4, 2016
I'm just the messenger: One way to measure “stuff,” is swing-and-miss rate. Syndergaard ranked 10th in the majors in this category (among pitchers with at least 150 innings), deGrom ranked 14th and Harvey ranked 15th. Only the Indians also had three pitchers in the top 20. In other words, the hype for this rotation is deserved.
Where I could be wrong: Hey, the Mets’ rotation ranked just fourth in ERA in 2015, behind the Cardinals, Dodgers and Cubs, so maybe the hype machine is a little out of control. The trade of Niese has thinned the depth, meaning they’re counting on the 42-year-old (43 in May) Colon to deliver until Zack Wheeler returns from Tommy John surgery. Aside from one of the big three going down, defense is also a potential issue here: Cespedes is below average in center, Cabrera and Wilmer Flores both have limited range at shortstop, David Wright's back issues limit his mobility at third base and Lucas Duda and Walker aren’t exactly Gold Glove candidates.
The final word: The Mets won 90 games last year. In early July, they ran out a lineup against the Cubs that included Darrell Ceciliani batting second, Eric Campbell in left field and Johnny Monell catching. The next day, John Mayberry Jr. hit cleanup. In the second half, the Mets led the NL in runs scored. Yes, Cespedes played out of his mind for four weeks, but even if he doesn’t match his 2015 numbers, this lineup is better and deeper than the 2015 squad. Maybe it lacks that one superstar hitter, but Terry Collins has depth and versatility with the likes of Juan Lagares, De Aza and Flores. Michael Conforto can rake, and Walker will pick up Murphy’s production. The division is weak. The pitchers are cocky good. The Mets win more games than last year.
1. Chicago Cubs
Big offseason moves: Signed OF Jason Heyward; signed 2B Ben Zobrist; signed RHP John Lackey; traded IF Starlin Castro to the Yankees for RHP Adam Warren; re-signed RHP Trevor Cahill; lost RHPs Jason Motte, Fernando Rodney and Tommy Hunter in free agency; OFs Dexter Fowler and Austin Jackson remain free agents; RHP Dan Haren retired.
Most intriguing player: Heyward’s big contract and move to center field puts him in the spotlight. Heyward seems to have grown comfortable with the kind of player he is, so the fear that he may try to do much and struggle is probably overblown. In fact, I wonder if Joe Maddon puts him in the leadoff spot since there isn’t another obvious candidate. Maddon could run out a lineup of Heyward, Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell. There’s power, there’s OBP, there’s left-right balance, there’s youth, there are MVP candidates, there are no easy at-bats for opposing pitchers. Good luck, National League.
I'm just the messenger: The Cubs are the heavy favorites as the best team in baseball. But how often does the preseason favorite actually live up to those odds? Let’s go back to 2010 ...
2015: Nationals (over/under 93.5 wins) -- won 83, missed playoffs
2014: Dodgers (92.5) -- won 94, lost in NLDS
2013: Tigers (90) -- won 93, lost in ALCS
2012: Phillies (95.5) -- won 81, missed playoffs
2011: Phillies (96) -- won 102, lost in NLDS
2010: Yankees (95) -- won 95, lost in ALCS
Two big flops and four teams matched or exceeded expectations, although all failed to reach the World Series.
Where I could be wrong: Is there any way the Cubs don’t win 90-plus games? Sure, the 2015 Nationals and 2012 Phillies are instructive examples. In the Nationals’ case, they were devastated by injuries on the offensive side, but here’s the odd thing: They actually scored more runs than the year before. Their collapse was a result of the pitching, which allowed 80 more runs. That’s probably the most likely scenario for a disappointing Cubs season: Jake Arrieta is human, Jon Lester isn’t quite as good, maybe Lackey gets old overnight. The 2011 Phillies had one of the great rotations in history, but Roy Halladay got hurt in 2012 (4.49 ERA), Cliff Lee went 6-9 despite a 3.16 ERA and the back of the rotation wasn’t good. The lineup was old as well -- less of an issue for the Cubs -- but the Phillies allowed a staggering 151 more runs.
The final word: Barring a long list of injuries, the Cubs look like a powerhouse. They’re loaded with depth and versatility in both position players and starting pitching. Unlike the 2015 Nationals, they also have the right manager to make sure there’s no coasting on hype or clubhouse issues that incinerate the team. Considering I think the Pirates and Cardinals fall back a bit this year, the Cubs win the tough NL Central pretty easily. Then comes the postseason ...