Can Justin Verlander Return to Form in 2015?

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Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2011, when he won both the American League Cy Young and MVP awards, Justin Verlander has gotten progressively worse. His ERA has risen, his strikeout total has decreased and he has pitched fewer innings each year since then.

All of those factors culminated into a terrible 2014 season.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, his 88 ERA+, which takes the traditional ERA stat and adjusts it according to park factors, was the worst of his career, as was his 9.7 hits allowed per nine innings.

Verlander had core surgery before the 2014 season and, regardless of whether or not that injury was the cause, he hasn't been the same pitcher since.

His velocity has steadily decreased over the past three years and he has been trying to reinvent himself as a pitcher. In his prime, Verlander possessed one of the filthiest curveballs in the league. However, he doesn't throw that power curve as much anymore. He relied on his slider in 2014 more than he has throughout the rest of his career, according to FanGraphs.

Yet, it still appears as though Verlander has what it takes to return to being a dominant starter. He may not be an ace-caliber pitcher like he once was, but he can still be someone who can take the ball every fifth day, work deep into games and give his team a chance to win.

Arguably the biggest factor that Verlander will have to overcome is that he no longer possesses swing-and-miss stuff. In 2014, he recorded a career-low whiff percentage when throwing his fastball and slider, and near career lows with his changeup and curveball, as per Brooks Baseball.

But it's not as though Verlander is refusing to accept that he must improve. He made a concerted effort to bulk up over the offseason and he reported to spring training with 28 extra pounds of muscle on his 6'5" frame.

Going off comments he made to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, the hope appears to be that the extra muscle will allow him to use his legs more when he pitches. In one of Stark's most recent articles, Verlander outlined the way he felt last year:

I didn't feel weak last year. I didn't feel hurt in my core area. It just translated to [soreness in] my shoulder area. I wasn't using my legs. The power from my legs couldn't really translate through my core. So then I'm trying to create it through my shoulder, which is obviously a downhill slide from there.

From what we have seen so far in spring training, the results have been positive. After Verlander threw live batting practice for the first time last Sunday, manager Brad Ausmus said he definitely noticed a difference.

"That's the best I've seen Ver stuff-wise, off the mound, since I've gotten this job," Ausmus said to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. "It was exactly what we wanted. He looked very good today."

However, successful outings in the preseason are not going to outweigh how bad Verlander was last year. He no longer has the arsenal of a dynamic ace, but he can rebound if he changes his pitching philosophy.

It might not be the "macho" thing to do, but Verlander needs to transform into more of a finesse pitcher. He will not be able to strike batters out like he used to with his current velocity, so incorporating more deception into his repertoire might be something for him to ponder.

In the past, Verlander could get away with throwing fastballs in the zone, because he threw too hard and his breaking pitchers were too nasty for the hitters to be able to capitalize when he made a mistake. But now his stuff isn't as overpowering, and if he continues to pitch like his old self he will likely continue to struggle.

B/R's MLB Lead Writer Zachary D. Rymer summed it up nicely in a recent article:

So, in a nutshell: Verlander was throwing way too many hittable fastballs in 2014 and exacerbating matters by throwing way too many hittable secondaries. He was giving hitters every excuse to sit fastball and making it too easy for them to adjust when they didn't get one.

Throwing too many hittable pitches is something that Verlander must change. The Tigers lost Max Scherzer to free agency, so an effective Verlander is vital to the Tigers' chances of winning their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.

It is very hard to bet against someone with such a productive track record like Verlander, but he is making it harder and harder to believe. However, if these spring training reports prove to be accurate, Verlander may very well return to being a terrific pitcher.

But expectations should be made with caution. He is not the same pitcher he once was, but if he changes his pitching style to keep hitters off-balance, he has the potential to be a borderline No. 2 starter.

And with a front end of the rotation consisting of David Price, a healthy Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers may have just enough pitching to keep them in games.


What to Expect from Brewers Outfielder Ryan Braun in 2015

Check out HC3's big expectations for Ryan Braun this upcoming season.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Turn back the calendar only two years, and Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun was one of the premier hitters in all of baseball—if not the best.

From 2007 to 2012, Braun's first six MLB seasons, he averaged more than 33 home runs and 107 RBI. That kind of production is off the charts, and Braun was more than just a power hitter. He hit .313 over that span, didn't strike out a ton and reached 30 steals in two of those seasons.

However, Braun's reputation and stats plummeted when he vehemently denied using PEDs—only to admit to using them in August 2013. His confession earned Braun a suspension that forced him to miss the remainder of the 2013 season.

Then he ran into more trouble—this time physically. Braun was ailed by a nerve injury in his thumb in 2014, and his production slowly but surely worsened as the season wore on. Not only did the injury get progressively worse, but it also robbed the slugging 31-year-old outfielder of most of his power.

ESPN.com's Buster Olney published a column last July outlining just how much Braun's power decreased in 2014. The discoveries were mind-boggling.

Braun didn't pull the ball much last year, and a career-high 46.1 percent of his hits were to the opposite field. Also, Braun's batted balls traveled an average of 17 feet shorter than they did in 2013.

It is unknown whether the thumb is entirely to blame for these numbers, but it surely hampered him in some way.

So what are some realistic expectations for the former Miami Hurricanes third baseman in the upcoming season?

Most importantly, it's going to come down to whether he is completely healthy. Braun had a cryotherapy procedure done on his thumb over the offseason, which applied extreme cold in an attempt to freeze out the lingering nerve issues.

According to news coming out of the Brewers camp, per Fox Sports Wisconsin's John Pesetski, Braun is feeling great:

"So far it (the thumb) feels great. Everything so far has gone as well as I possibly could've hoped. I don't think I'll be limited or anything. I'll have to be conscious about how many extra swings I take. But aside from that, I'm able to do everything."

That is very encouraging news, and Braun did not shy away from portraying plenty of optimism.

"I feel good. I've always felt that as long as I'm healthy, success is inevitable," Braun told Fox Sports. "The better I play, the more I am going to help the team. I expect to go out there and be one of the best players in the league."

If he truly feels that he can return to being among the best pure hitters in baseball, it is definitely a possibility.

FanGraphs' Steamer projects Braun to hit .276 with 24 home runs and 78 RBI. While those numbers would be a slight improvement over 2014, they don't do him justice.

Braun is one of the best players in Major League Baseball when healthy, and he has what it takes to return to that prestigious group in 2015. If his thumb can stay healthy for the duration of the season, he will be an All-Star-caliber outfielder.

I am going to go out on a limb and predict that Braun will hit at least .285 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

He is still a premium talent, and his numbers will reflect his tremendous ability in 2015.

A Healthy Tanaka Can Lead Yankees to Postseason

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees have a ton of question marks heading into spring training. It will be the first time in a long time without Derek Jeter at shortstop. Alex Rodriguez will likely lead the league in publicity, but he may or may not hit. And there is no clear-cut choice to start at second base.

But the biggest concern might be ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.  The Yankees signed the Japanese star to a seven-year, $155 million contract last January, and even though he pitched wonderfully in his first 20 starts of big league action, a huge scare jolted the organization when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow in July.

After throwing his first bullpen this spring, a 21-pitch session at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa Bay, he said he feels better than ever.

"I actually feel a little bit better than last year," he told ESPN.com. "My overall body and health is better."

When healthy, Tanaka is an absolute beast. He is already one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, and he makes opposing hitters very uncomfortable by repeating his delivery and mixing his pitches with tremendous efficiency.

Last year, he used his fastball, splitter, slider and curveball with impeccable variety.  But the thing that makes him to most effective is his ability to repeat his delivery.  He threw his fastball 40.6 percent of the time and his splitter 25 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. Those two pitches have about a five mph difference, and when the batter cannot tell what pitch is coming until it is out of the pitcher's hand, it is nearly impossible to hit.

But even if he comes back and pitches similarly to how he did last year, will the Yankees even be able to contend?+

On the surface, it looks like 2015 will be a bleak year for the Bronx Bombers. In Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA rankings, the Yankees are projected to finish fourth in the American League East with a record of 80-82. But they do have some talent on the roster, and manager Joe Girardi has shown he is willing to be creative if it will help the team win.

There is a chance the Yankees start the season with a six-man starting rotation.  Pitching coach Larry Rothschild hinted at that possibility to reporters last Wednesday, per Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News.

While it is definitely unorthodox, teams generally use five starting pitchers, and it actually makes a lot of sense for the Yankees because the rotation has a history of injury.

Tanaka is coming off of surgery, CC Sabathia is coming off of knee surgery, and Michael Pineda spent time on the disabled list last year with a strained back muscle

The Yankees acquired Nathan Eovaldi in the offseason in exchange for Martin Prado, and the hard-throwing righty should be ready to contribute immediately in the upcoming season. Adam Warren and Chris Capuano are two quality arms that would likely thrive out of the bullpen, but if management decides to go with a six-man rotation, one of those two would be the sixth starter and the other would be the club's main long reliever.

That rotation, although injury prone, has the potential to be among the league's best. Tanaka is an ace, Sabathia used to be an ace, and Pineda still has his better days ahead of him.

Sabathia has been brutally ineffective in the past two seasons, but one scout is confident that he has what it takes to resurrect his career going into his age-34 season. The scout, quoted in an article written by Andrew Marchand of ESPN.com, feels Sabathia is smart enough to be successful even though he doesn't have the dynamic arsenal he once did.

"When a guy gets into their 30s, they have to have a second career," the scout said. "I always felt CC could do that because he really knows how to pitch."

If Tanaka returns from injury fully healthy, Sabathia has a good season and Pineda builds on his excellent 2014 when he went 5-5 with a 1.89 ERA and a phenomenal 59-7 strikeout-to-walk rate, the Yankees will have one of the best starting rotations in the American League.

In the bullpen, things look bright as usual.  While former closer David Robertson opted to sign with the White Sox in the offseason, the Yankees were able to lure Andrew Miller to the Bronx.  Miller will pair with breakout star Dellin Betances to form one of the most formidable late-inning reliever duos in the MLB.

The offense, however, does not look nearly as promising as the pitching staff. 

The Yankees finished 13th out of 15 American League teams in runs scored last year, and the starting lineup is filled with players who are past their primes.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both solid, speedy outfielders at the top of the order, but after that, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, Alex Rodriguez, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew are either unproven or over the hill.

It's not entirely hopeless, though. 

Beltran is only one year removed from hitting .296 with 24 home runs in his age-35 season with the Cardinals. He is a good enough hitter to continue to produce even as he ages.

Teixeira struggled last year with a career-low .238 batting average on balls in play, according to Fangraphs. He was one of the best power hitters in the game as recently as 2012, and while he might never hit over .230 again in his career, he could easily hit 30 home runs in 2015.

Catcher Brian McCann faced big expectations when he signed with the Yankees last offseason. His powerful left-handed swing was supposed to result in huge home run totals in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, but he struggled mightily all season.  However, he told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News that he expects to have a huge bounce back in his sophomore season wearing pinstripes.

Third baseman Chase Headley is a steady third baseman, great defensively and a solid hitter, but he is not the type of player who can anchor a lineup. He is a nice complementary piece, but if he is forced to be the go-to guy in the middle of the order, the Yankees are in trouble.

And then there's Alex Rodriguez. He will undoubtedly command a huge crowd when he arrives at spring training, but if he can hit, nobody will care about his questionable past. Despite the fact that he has been arguably the most criticized player in sports for the past few years, he is still a gifted hitter. If he can get in a groove, he could have a decent season playing as the designated hitter.

Finally, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew are good defenders but don't provide much with the bat. Rob Refsnyder may have a future at second base, but it is unclear whether or not he will have an opportunity to crack the big league club in 2015.

All in all, the roster does not look intimidating. The Yankees have the potential to be a good pitching team and a decent hitting team, especially if Tanaka comes back strong from surgery. He is the key.

If Girardi can count on Tanaka every fifth (or sixth) day to flummox the opposition with his filthy fastball-splitter mix, the Yankees will be in a good position. But if Tanaka shows some of the ill effects of elbow surgery and the Yanks are forced to rely on Sabathia and Pineda, it could be a long year.

The Yankees likely won't make the playoffs. They are just too old, and there are too many questions regarding the team.

But with the way the postseason now works, with two wild-card spots, anything can happen. Last year seemingly every team had a chance to make the playoffs until the final days of the regular season. The Yankees have a chance to be one of those teams, and a healthy Tanaka would drastically improve their chances.

And if the Yankees did find a way to qualify as a wild-card team, a healthy Tanaka would ideally pitch the one-game playoff in an attempt to take the team to the ALDS for the first time since 2012. 

No Reason Josh Donaldson Should Have Lost Arbitration

Josh Donaldson got ripped off in arbitration, and will play 2015 with a contract much too cheap for his talent.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays were very aggressive this offseason in trying to improve a team that finished third in the AL Central last year with a 83-79 record. 

Arguably the most important acquisition was third baseman Josh Donaldson, whom the Jays received in a surprising five-player deal last November.  Donaldson, a late bloomer who recorded monster seasons in each of the past two seasons, made only about $500,000 in 2014 with the Oakland Athletics.

While the A's were obviously getting his outstanding play at a ridiculous bargain, it was understandable because Donaldson was still within his first five seasons as a big league regular. 

But on Friday, Donaldson was absolutely shafted.  In his first time being eligible for arbitration, he lost to the team, according to the three arbitrators who heard his case, and will make $4.3 million in 2015 instead of the $5.75 million he would have earned had he won the case.

The most glaring reason that this is absurd is Donaldson's tremendous production in the past two seasons.  In that span, he hit .277 with 53 home runs, 191 RBI and a phenomenal 15.4 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com.  He finished in the top eight in the MVP voting in both seasons and plays terrific defense in addition to his hitting.

With numbers like that, there is no question he should be making way more than $4.3 million.  To be clear, $4.3 million is an obscenely large amount of money and is plenty for any human to live off, but in an age where teams are spending outrageous sums of money on players, Donaldson deserves much more.

Let's compare him to a few other players.  First, let's take Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, whose breakout 2014 season netted him a seven-year, $100 million contract.  Seager is a nice player, but he is nowhere near as skilled as Donaldson.

Donaldson recorded a higher WAR than Seager last year, and even though Seager is touted as a great fielding third baseman and won the Gold Glove award in 2014, Donaldson's defensive WAR was better than Seager's, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

I understand that Seager is younger and might have more long-term potential, but Donaldson is the better player now, and the two will make about the same amount of money in 2015.

It's easy to forget just how elite Donaldson has been.  Going by WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Donaldson has been the third-most valuable player in baseball since 2013, trailing only Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw.

Before you crucify me for using a stat like WAR, let me explain my logic.  I'm not necessarily saying that Donaldson is MLB's third-best player, but WAR at least takes everything into account and puts it into one number, making it easier to compare players.   

Like WAR or hate it, it has a mathematical basis, and it really likes Josh Donaldson.  And the fact that a trio of judges wouldn't side with him is mind-boggling.

Adrian Beltre, the Texas Rangers' third baseman, is thought of by most as the best all-around third baseman in the league.  He made $17 million in 2014.  Donaldson might not be as good as Beltre, but he isn't far behind.  As it stands, Beltre will make approximately four times what Donaldson will in 2015.

That is highway robbery if I've ever seen it, and the Blue Jays should be embarrassed for sticking it to their new acquisition.

Donaldson should hit at least 25 home runs with 90 RBI, playing home games in the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre and in the other AL East parks where plenty of runs are scored.  Fangraphs' The Steamer projects him at 26 homers and 81 RBI, but that is a bit pessimistic, especially hitting in a lineup with sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

The only downside to Donaldson is the fact that he is 29 years old and has only recorded two significant big league seasons.  However, that should not be held against him. 

ESPN.com's David Schoenfield wrote an article in early January about whether or not Donaldson can continue his success, and after taking statistics and past history into account, his conclusion was that Donaldson will have no trouble sustaining his productivity down the road.

I'm not sure what kind of arguments Donaldson's side brought up during arbitration, but there is no way he should have lost.  He is one of the top three third basemen in the league, and the fact that he wasn't awarded the $5.75 million he asked for is crazy.

Even if he had won the negotiation, he would still be underpaid in my opinion.

Ultimately, the Blue Jays are getting All-Star caliber production at third base very cheaply for 2015.  And Donaldson will fetch plenty of money when he reaches free agency, so it's not like he's completely out of luck.

But for now, Donaldson is going to be arguably the biggest bargain in all of baseball, and it is absolutely unbelievable that he lost his case.


Why the Reds Can Win the National League Central

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Coming into 2014, the Cincinnati Reds had won at least 90 games in each of the previous two seasons. Unfortunately for them, they struggled mightily down the stretch last year en route to a disappointing 76-86 record and a fourth place finish in their division.

The Reds were in the thick of the playoff race for most of the season, only 1.5 games behind the Brewers at the All-Star Break, but they were a putrid 25-42 in the second half of the season.  Their struggles included several long losing streaks as well as multiple injuries to top-tier players.

First baseman Joey Votto played in only 62 games, and wasn't his usual stellar self when he was on the field.  He hit a career low .255 with only six home runs and 23 RBIs, but he had knee surgery in the offseason and is feeling better per Kevin Goheen of Fox Sports Ohio.  

"I feel like I've made progress and I feel like I'm heading in the right direction," Votto told Goheen.  "I would say it's coming along and I would say that I feel like I've made a lot of really good progress in the right direction."

It is unknown whether Votto can return to 100%, but even if he cannot gain full strength of his lower body and he doesn't drive the ball out of the park like he has done in the past, he can still be a tremendous asset.  He is the best in baseball at getting on base, and his power should not hinder his ability to draw walks and help his team score runs.

Fangraphs' The Steamer projects Votto to lead the league in on-base percentage to go along with 18 home runs and 64 RBIs.  While that is not exactly optimal production, especially for a corner infielder, he impacts the game more than his numbers might suggest with his defense, savvy and leadership.

But Votto wasn't the only Red who battled injury, as the team had 15 different players register a total of 19 appearances on the Disabled List.  All-Stars Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips were also hampered by injuries in 2014.

Phillips missed over a month after suffering a torn thumb ligament diving for a ball, and Bruce battled knee troubles and hit a paltry .217.

Both those lynchpins are back and looking for rebound seasons.  The Reds activated Phillips in August, and he finished the season by hitting .295 in September.  Bruce, on the other hand, stumbled to the finish. He hit only .213 in the final month of the season, but manager Bryan Price had only positive things to say about the 27-year-old right fielder.

"I think he'd prefer not to be asked about his knee because he feels he's 100 percent," Price said via John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer.  "It was a part of 2014 and will not be part of 2015.  At this point, it's a non-issue."

And while 2014 was overall a bleak year, there were plenty of bright spots, including two players who had breakout seasons.  Third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco each earned their first trip to the All Star Game.  Frazier hit 29 home runs and drove in 80, while Mesoraco launched 25 round trippers and recorded an outstanding 149 OPS+ according to Baseball-Reference.

In addition, there's the curious case of Billy Hamilton.  In his rookie season last year, he displayed the blazing speed that scouts have been drooling about since he played in the minors.  His 56 stolen bases were tied for second in the league, but he finished the year in a massive slump and finished with a .250 average and an unimpressive .292 on base percentage.  He also led the league with 23 caught stealing

According to John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer, Hamilton has spent this offseason getting stronger, improving his baserunning and trying to hit more line drives in an attempt to perform well at the plate for an entire season.  If he can find a way to raise his OBP to the .325 range, he could steal more bases and score more runs.  

The Reds also acquired Marlon Byrd from the Phillies right before New Year's Day.  Despite his age (37), Byrd had one of his best seasons last year.  He hit .264 with 25 home runs and 85 RBIs, and should provide even more pop to the middle of the order.

Check out the projected lineup that the Reds will send out on Opening Day, per B/R MLB Featured Columnist Joel Rueter:

1

CF

Billy Hamilton

2

3B

Todd Frazier

3

1B

Joey Votto

4

C

Devin Mesoraco

5

RF

Jay Bruce

6

LF

Marlon Byrd

7

2B

Brandon Phillips

8

SS

Zack Cozart

9

 

Pitcher

They have solid pitching as well.  Last year, the Reds' starting rotation was third in the majors in ERA (3.59).  And even though they traded away both Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon this offseason, the staff is still in good hands.

Young lefthander Tony Cingrani will step into the rotation, and he has the tools to perform at a high level. Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey return, giving the Reds plenty of experience starting games.

The bullpen had the fifth-highest ERA in the majors in 2014, and after Aroldis Chapman they really don't have any quality arms.  Sam LeCure, J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra must have better seasons this year for the Reds to have a chance to contend for a playoff berth.

With the lineup they have, they are going to score plenty of runs if their stars can stay healthy.  If the pitching staff can endure the loss of Latos and Simon, there is no reason that Cincinnati shouldn't be able to challenge the Cardinals' two-year streak of winning the NL Central.

 


Detroit Tigers Run of Dominance Will Stop in 2015

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have become a perennial powerhouse in the American League in the last few years, winning their division four years in a row and repeatedly making deep playoff runs. They have done this thanks to a deep starting rotation and a powerful lineup.

However, it looks like they might not have either as the start of spring training approaches. The most recent bad news to hit the Tigers’ camp is that Victor Martinez has a torn meniscus in his left knee and will miss at least 6-8 weeks.

Martinez had arguably his best season in 2014, hitting .335 with 32 home runs, 103 RBIs and a league-leading .974 OPS. His uncanny ability to draw walks and get on base resulted in an outstanding 70:42 walk-to-strikeout rate, almost unparalleled territory as most hitters are sacrificing strikeouts and batting average for power. His outstanding season netted him a 4-year, $68 million contract.

Unfortunately, that was one of the few moves that the front office made this offseason, and the absence of Martinez adds yet another question to the already spotty roster.

Miguel Cabrera had ankle surgery in late October, and Chris McCosky of The Detroit News reported that it is still unclear whether or not the two-time MVP will be ready for the start of spring training.  Even if he is healthy, a bit of uncertainty remains if he can return to his usual stellar self.

The Tigers did acquire outfield slugger Yoenis Cespedes from the Red Sox in exchange for Rick Porcello, and while he should provide some power in the middle of the order, it can't be forgotten that he hasn't hit above .270 since his rookie year in 2012 and he doesn't get on base that often either.

The rest of the lineup is filled with question marks as well.  J.D Martinez had a nice year in 2014, but he cooled off down the stretch and it isn't hard to believe he may return to being the underperforming outfielder that the Astros released before the start of last season.

Third baseman Nick Castellanos wasn't too impressive last year and is not in a position to carry any type of significant burden on his back.  

Jose Iglesias will return at shortstop after missing all of last season with a shin injury.  And while Iglesias is an exciting young player with phenomenal range at short, it is unknown whether or not he can be even a league average hitter.

Center fielder Anthony Gose possesses game breaking speed, but unfortunately you can't steal first base in baseball.  He hit only .226 with nearly nonexistent power in 2014, and he hasn't shown any signs of improvement in that regard in his three-year career.

The lone bright spot of the order might be Ian Kinsler, who has entrenched his name in the conversation of the best second basemen in the game.  He hit .275 with 17 home runs and 92 RBIs in his first season in Detroit. 

But there is even risks with him.  He accumulated those numbers hitting in front of Cabrera and the two productive Martinez sluggers.  If those guys have off years, which wouldn't be a huge surprise considering their age and injury history, Kinsler may struggle to replicate his 2014 numbers.

The pitching staff is similarly questionable.  They have David Price to anchor the starting rotation, but after him it is not near as deep as it has been in years past.

Anibal Sanchez is a ultra-consistent pitcher when healthy, but he only logged 126 innings last year due to injury.  But at least then the Tigers had Max Scherzer as well.  With Scherzer now a Washington National,  the cupboard is pretty bare after Price and Sanchez. 

Justin Verlander is no longer the ace he once was, his ERA was 4.54 last year, and the only pitcher they added this offseason was Alfredo Simon.  And while Simon did have a mini-breakout season last year, he struggled in the second half of the season and will have a hard time matching last year's 3.44 ERA.

Even worse, it's not like the team can expect an influx of young talent to come to the big league club any time soon.  The Tigers have the worst farm system in the league, and it's not close.  In other words, the future does not look good in Detroit.

Ultimately, the Tigers need way too much to go right to even have a chance to compete in 2015.  They need Cabrera to return from ankle surgery and have an MVP-caliber season.  They need Victor Martinez to overcome a second surgery on his left knee and be the stud he was last year.  They need J.D. Martinez to follow up last year's breakout campaign with another strong season.  They need Sanchez to play an injury-free season, Verlander to return to Cy Young status and the bullpen to hold a lead every once in a while.

It's way, way too much to expect, and I don't think there is any way the Tigers make the playoffs.  The Royals will come into 2015 with confidence after their run to the World Series, and the White Sox and Indians both improved this offseason.  Detroit is losing their grasp on the AL Central, and they could easily miss the playoffs this year.

And it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.


Cubs Will be Competitive in 2015, but Can Win a Championship in 2016

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For the first time in a long time, things are looking bright on the North Side of Chicago. Theo Epstein, the team's president of baseball operations, has quickly transformed the Cubs' farm system into one of the best in baseball, been aggressive on the trade/free agent market and lured one of the game's best managers to lead the squad.

Confidence is brewing in the clubhouse, especially for Epstein and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Epstein has stated that the club's goal for the upcoming season is to win the NL Central, and Rizzo took it a step further two weeks ago by saying the Cubs are going to contend for a World Series.

Rizzo's predictions are very ambitious, and his quotes are admirable, talking like there is no doubt in his mind the Cubs will play deep into October. Here is what he told ESPN.com:

It's [winning the division] going to happen this year. It's what we are going to do. We're going to play and we're going to win the NL Central, you can quote me on that. We should be the team, with all due respect to every other team, we're going to do some things this year. That's what we're going to put our sights on and we're not going to accept anything else.

The 25-year-old first baseman has developed into a star the past couple of seasons and had his best year so far in 2014, hitting .286 with 32 home runs and a whopping 151 OPS+. And he will have plenty of help in the order for years to come.

The Cubs traded for outfielder Dexter Fowler earlier this month, and he has the ability to impact the offense in a big way. He can hit in any top-of-the-order slot, and he has recorded an on base percentage of at least .360 in each of the past four seasons. He has a history of getting injured, but if he can stay healthy he should be very productive playing at Wrigley Field.

Their biggest acquisition, though, has been the signing of prized free agent left-handed pitcher Jon Lester. They handed out a 6-year, $155 million contract to Lester in hopes that he will anchor the pitching rotation as all the young players find their footing in the big leagues.

And arguably the most significant move this offseason was not a player, but someone to lead the players. Joe Maddon was swayed by the Cubs' tradition and expectations as well as the 5-year, $25 million contract he was given to shift his managerial genius to the National League. Maddon is the perfect person to lead this transition from rebuilding to contending, and he hasn't been bashful about making predictions either.

The Cubs have shown they are not afraid to spend money. Not only on players and managers, but on facilities as well. Wrigley Field is undergoing $375 million stadium renovations that will leave them without outfield bleachers until May. Included in those plans is a new Daktronics video board that will bring Wrigley up to 21st-century standard.

But even with all these additions, Rizzo's bold statements will likely not come true in 2015. Despite the wealth of young talent that will be on the roster by season's end, it is going to take some time to get accustomed to playing in The Show. Players like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler will need to adjust to big league pitching and the wear and tear that comes with a 162-game season.

For Baez, a 22-year-old Puerto Rican who was the ninth-ranked prospect in MLB.com's 2013 Prospect Watch, it might take more time than expected. In his debut season toward the end of 2014, he struggled mightily. Sure, he flashed his massive power on occasion, but when he wasn't hitting home runs he was striking out at an alarming rate. He struck out on over 41 percent of his plate appearances, which is the main reason his batting average was only .169.

After those struggles, Baez chose to play winter ball in Puerto Rico in an attempt to improve his contact skills. However, he hasn't shown any signs of changing his approach. He struck out in 21 of his 49 plate appearances in the Roberto Clemente League, which was the worst strikeout rate of any position player with at least 20 plate appearances.

However, Baez has too much raw talent to not be at least an above average big league player. He will figure it out soon enough, and will be a part of the Cubs' keystone combination for years to come.

Bryant and Soler look like the real deal. Soler, a 6'4", 225 pound physical specimen from Cuba, hit .292 with five homers in 24 major league games at the end of last season, and has the potential to be the next Yoenis Cespedes or Yasiel Puig.

Bryant, on the other hand, had arguably the best minor league season in recent memory and will likely be called up to the big leagues sometime in 2015. He was named the top prospect in ESPN's recent Top 100 Prospects list (Insider Required). According to projections compiled by Fangraphs' The Steamer, Bryant will hit .261 with 21 home runs in 97 games played. Whether or not those numbers prove to be true, it gives an idea on what to expect in his rookie season.

However, even with the loads of talent, the Cubs cannot realistically expect to win the World Series this year. They do have an outside shot to make the playoffs now that there are two wild card slots, but the World Series is too far fetched.

It's easy to get caught up in the bright future and optimism, but the Cubs finished last place in their division last year with a 73-89 record. Lester will surely add a few wins, as will Maddon, but last year it took 88 wins to make the playoffs in the National League. The year before that, the Reds grabbed the second wild card spot with 90 wins. Assuming those numbers stay consistent, the Cubs would need to improve by more than 15 games to make the playoffs in 2015.

According to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA rankings, which projects the standings and records for the upcoming MLB seasons, the Cubs will go 82-80 and finish second in the NL Central. With that record, they would not make the playoffs.

I agree that the Cubs will be much improved yet won't make the playoffs, but 2016 will be a different story. All of their youngsters will have a year of experience under their belt and will be more comfortable playing with each other.

With Bryant, Rizzo and Soler hitting in the middle of the order and Baez clubbing home runs while increasing his contact rate, the Cubs can potentially have the most productive lineup in baseball.

And with Lester at the top of the order followed by Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood, the Cubs can win the World Series.

So if things don't go exactly as planned this year, don't get worried, things are getting better in Chicago. They are eventually going to end the championship drought that goes all the way back to 1908. It just won't be this year.

But if all the pieces fall into place like they should, 2016 might be the year.

Casey Janssen a Tremendous Signing for Nationals

Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Nationals' signing of Max Scherzer last Wednesay, I wrote an article about why Washington can win the 2015 World Series. However, I also said that they need to improve their reliever core to maximize their team's chances.

They did just that on Wednesday, signing former Toronto closer Casey Janssen to a one-year contract. This is a terrific move for the Nats, and it has the potential to be a home run signing.

The Nationals traded both Ross Detwiler and Tyler Clippard in the offseason, and will probably not re-sign former closer Rafael Soriano. They needed to add at least one arm to make up for those losses, and there are several reasons why Janssen might be the ideal fit.

First, and most importantly, is the fact that Janssen is a great pitcher. From 2011-2013, he recorded an ERA below 2.60 in each year and converted 58-of-65 save opportunities. He is not an overpowering pitcher, averaged below 90 MPH on his fastball per Fangraphs, but he effectively mixes in a cutter, curveball and changeup to keep the ball off the barrel of the bat.

He battled injuries last year and spent some time on the Disabled List, but he still managed to save 25 games.

Janssen will join a Washington bullpen that is very young, and his experience and veteran presence should translate to better production for all the relievers. The 33-year-old Grand Valley State graduate will be the second oldest reliever on the staff, behind only Matt Thornton, who is 38.

The recent signing means that 2015 will be the first time in Janssen's career that he will not wear a Blue Jays jersey. However, he should feel valued with his new team and his numbers should be similar to what they have been in the past.

For the Nationals, this was an excellent decision. With nearly unparalleled experience pitching in big games, the ability to pitch in the ninth inning if needed and a price tag of only $3.5 million, the club will surely get incredible bang for the buck on its investment.

Janssen will likely begin the season as the eighth inning man, setting up closer Drew Storen, but if Storen runs into a rough patch and loses his job, Janssen has the experience and competence to thrive in that role.