It may be the dead of winter, but spring training has opened across Major League Baseball as we prepare for another season. Last season ended with the San Francisco Giants winning their third World Series in five years over the Kansas City Royals, who made their first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1985. In the months that followed there was a flurry of activity with players, executives, and managers changing teams all leading up to what should be a very exciting 2015 season.
The Boston Red Sox had one of the busiest offseasons, bringing back two former Sox, Hanley Ramirez and Justin Masterson, in addition to adding Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello, and Wade Miley as they hope to get back to the postseason after finishing last season in the AL East basement. The Detroit Tigers traded for Yoenis Céspedes and Alfredo Simon and with a full season from David Price, should remain a force atop the AL Central. The Seattle Mariners signed reigning home run champion, Nelson Cruz, and hope to improve upon last season's 87 wins as they battle it out in the AL West. The St. Louis Cardinals will be playing with heavy hearts as they deal with the death of promising young prospect Oscar Taveras and try to remain the premiere team in the NL Central. In the NL East, the Washington Nationals added Max Scherzer to an already stacked rotation and are the early favourites to win the World Series. Out in the NL West, the Giants are hoping a quiet offseason doesn't mean they'll continue their trend of following up a World Series victory by missing the playoffs.
The baseball season is a 162-game marathon. There will be plenty of injuries, breakout stars, expected improvement from some players, unexpected regression from others, as well as trades and waiver claims along the way. Anything can happen. A lot will happen. There will be plenty of surprises. Here's a look at who will surprise us the most in 2015.
9 San Diego Padres
The Padres traded for pretty much everyone and signed James Shields this offseason as new general manger A.J. Preller put his stamp on the team. Shields joins a rotation that had the Majors' ninth best ERA last season and should continue to be a strength. The new outfield trio of Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, and Justin Upton should provide plenty of offense, although their defense may be questionable.
The biggest concern for the Padres will be their inexperienced infield. It is far from the best looking infield in baseball, but they should get enough offense all around and their pitching is strong enough that the defense would have to be really bad to keep the Padres from winning games. At the end of the day, don't be surprised if 2015 is the year the Padres finally contend for top spot in the NL West.
8 Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks had a somewhat quiet, yet productive offseason. They began by replacing general manager Kevin Towers with Dave Stewart and manager Kirk Gibson with Chip Hale. They signed Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas to a six-year, $68.5 million contract and plan to use him as their third baseman. They traded away a couple of veterans in Wade Miley and Miguel Montero, as well as the not so veteran Didi Gregorius, and traded for veteran starter Jeremy Hellickson.
Newcomers Hellickson, Rubby De La Rosa, and Allen Webster make up 3/5 of the new rotation which should be better than the one that finished with the fourth worst ERA in the Majors last season. The Diamondbacks are also hoping promising pitching prospect Archie Bradley can rebound from an off year and make his way to the big leagues at some point this season. With a new pitching staff and more offense from Tomas and a healthy Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, the Arizona Diamondbacks should be much better than the team that finished last season with the worst record in the Majors.
7 Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers had almost as busy an offseason as the Padres. They began by hiring Andrew Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays as their new President of Baseball Operations. Friedman started his tenure in Los Angeles by trading away Dee Gordon, Dan Haren, and Matt Kemp and bringing in Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins. Relying on an infield built around four guys who are all on the wrong side of 30 might not be the soundest of strategies.
While Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu should continue to provide strong performances at the top the rotation, Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy haven't exactly been the picture of health the last couple of years. The Dodgers don't have much rotation depth beyond those five and that could take a toll on the bullpen, which just lost its closer for eight to twelve weeks. When all is said and done, the Dodgers could take a big step back this season.
6 Houston Astros
Unlike years past, the Astros actually made an effort to add major league talent to their roster for 2015. The Astros traded for former janitor turned catcher turned left fielder Evan Gattis, brought back Jed Lowrie to play shortstop, and signed Colby Rasmus to play center field. They also traded away center fielder Dexter Fowler for third baseman Luis Valbuena and pitcher Dan Straily. With a full lineup of actual major leaguers, the Astros should be able to produce more runs in 2015.
A young rotation of Straily, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Feldman, and Brett Oberholtzer should continue to improve and be formidable, albeit unspectacular. This is a team of youth with many prospects on the way and while they remain a couple years away from dominance, the Astros will no longer be a cakewalk in 2015.
5 New York Mets
This year's Mets team doesn't look a whole lot different than the one that finished 2014 with a 79-83 record. Michael Cuddyer was the only major offseason addition. So why should we expect an improvement from the Mets in what should be a very competitive NL East? Well, like every team in baseball, the Mets will be relying heavily on a strong performance from their starting rotation. Matt Harvey is back after having a full season to recover from Tommy John surgery and while the young ace can't be expected to be at the top of his game immediately, he should only get stronger as the season progresses. The Mets have said he could reach over 200 innings this year, so they aren't worried about coddling him.
Harvey along with reigning 2014 Rookie of the Year, Jacob DeGrom, Bartolo Colon, Jonathan Niese, and Zach Wheeler should form a strong rotation. The Mets also have Dillon Gee available to start with top prospect Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings. Provided the rotation gets enough run support from an aging lineup and the bullpen remains a strength, the Mets should be in a season long battle for second behind the Nationals in the NL East.
5. Colorado Rockies
I'm not sure that any team in baseball had a quieter offseason than the Colorado Rockies. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Despite winning just 66 games last season, the Rockies did get strong performances from Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Nolan Arenado. The Rockies finished third in the Majors in runs scored in 2014, and if their young players continue to improve and their two stars, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, can stay healthy - which is no sure thing - the Rockies are a team that's capable of producing runs with the best of them.
Pitching in Colorado is always a problem - the Rockies have finished in the bottom five of the majors in ERA every season since 2011 - but the Rockies have brought in Steve Foster as their new pitching coach and if Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, and company can finally stay healthy in 2015, they should be vastly improved.
4 Oakland Athletics
Things are never dull in Oakland. Billy Beane is never satisfied with the status quo and he proved that this offseason by trading away Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, and Jeff Samardzija. The A's also lost Jon Lester and Jason Hammel to free agency. Not many teams could lose that many key players and expect to stay competitive. The A's are hoping that the additions of Ben Zobrist and Billy Butler can provide enough offense to make up for the lost of Donaldson, Norris, and Moss.
The A's may have lost three starting pitchers, but the impact might not be as big as you might expect. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are both expected back by midseason to join a rotation that includes Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Drew Pomeranz, and the newly acquired Jesse Hahn. Tyler Clippard should help stabilize the back end of the A's bullpen. If the Athletics' rotation can keep them competitive, they won't by shy about trading for help in season either, so don't be surprised if the A's equal their win total of 2014.
3 Tampa Bay Rays
It was a rough winter to be a Rays fan. After trading away ace David Price last summer, the Rays watched both their general manager and their manager leave for greener pastures after the season. The Rays then traded away 2013 Rookie of the Year, Wil Myers, longtime super utility man, Ben Zobrist, and controversial shortstop Yunel Escobar. Aside from shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, the Rays didn't add much to their roster for 2015.
Still, as in years past, the Rays starting rotation should be its strength. The rotation is built around the young arms of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, and Alex Colome. They expect to have former 17-game winner Matt Moore back from Tommy John surgery by mid June. If there's one thing we've learned about the Tampa Bay Rays over the years it's that you should never bet against their pitching and if their young arms continue to improve, the Rays should have no problem topping last season's 77 wins.
2 Miami Marlins
Oh, it seems like only yesterday Marlins fans were calling for Jeffrey Loria's head on a platter following the trade of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. Times certainly have changed. The Marlins may have finished last season with the fourth best record in the NL East, but after a big offseason they could surprise a lot of people in 2015. The acquisitions of Dee Gordon and Martin Prado should provide the Marlins with some infield stability, which they've lacked the past few years.
The Marlins rotation added Mat Latos and Dan Haren to a group that includes youngsters Jarred Cosart and Henderson Alvarez. Young ace Jose Fernandez is expected back by midseason. With the offseason additions and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins will have no problem contending for a Wild Card spot this season.
1 Chicago Cubs
The Cubs made headlines this offseason when they signed former Red Sox starter Jon Lester to a six year, $155 million deal and brought in former Rays manager Joe Maddon to manage the team. They also brought in Dexter Fowler to play center field and Miguel Montero behind the plate. Lester joins a rotation that includes a returning Jason Hammel, as well as Jake Arrieta, who is expected to have another big year. Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood round out their top five.
In addition to a strong rotation, the Cubs should expect another strong season from Anthony Rizzo. They'll also have a full season of major league ball from Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, who hit 43 home runs between AA and AAA last season, should be in the big leagues by May. If the rotation pitches as it should and the Cubs young players contribute, they will shock many people by going from worst to first in the NL Central.