As we say farewell to 2014, here are five New Year’s resolutions to help us look forward to what baseball will bring in 2015.
1. Max Scherzer resolves to sign the largest free agent contract of this offseason.
Just three weeks ago, Scherzer was said to be seeking a contract worth in excess of $200 million, a total eclipsed by just one pitching contract in baseball history, the seven-year, $215 million extension the Dodgers gave the then-25-year-old Clayton Kershaw last January. However, as Scherzer's free agency extends into 2015 with surprisingly few teams showing interest, the 30-year-old righthander may have to adjust his expectations significantly. Not only have teams apparently been scared off by his asking price, but several of those teams, the Red Sox being a prime example, have made other moves that have effectively ended their interest in the 2013 AL Cy Young award winner. With fellow free agent James Shields, who is sure to sign for less than Scherzer, and top trade target Cole Hamels, whose contract guarantees him just $96 million over the next four years, still available, Scherzer isn’t even the only ace remaining. A $200 million contract, which once seamed plausible, now seems out of reach. A more realistic target for Scherzer is simply edging out the $155 million Jon Lester received from earlier this month from the Cubs, which is currently the richest free agent deal of this offseason.
Because that’s what he is.
Rodriguez’s return from his year-long suspension for his role in the Biogenesis scandal is sure to generate significant interest from the moment he reports to spring training, but the Yankees have already signaled their intent to make him a part-time player -- at most -- in the coming season. Correctly identifying the $61 million left on Rodriguez’s contract as a sunk cost, New York re-signed Chase Headley to be its everyday third baseman and traded for lefty slugger Garret Jones, who can help give the aging Mark Teixeira days off at first base but projects primarily as the lefty side of a designated hitter platoon with Rodriguez. Switch-hitters Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, who turn 35 and 38, respectively, in April, are also likely see time at DH in the coming year; the righthanded Chris Young could do so at well while filling in at rightfield for Beltran.
As a result, Rodriguez may not even draw all of the available at-bats on the short side of that DH platoon, and that’s before factoring in the likelihood of injuries for a player who averaged 88 games over his last three eligible seasons and will turn 40 in July. Rodriguez’s return will be fascinating, at least initially, but his impact on the field is likely to be minimal.
3. The San Diego Padres resolve to outscore somebody, anybody.
In 2014, the Padres scored 38 fewer runs than any other team in baseball and 42 fewer runs than their opponents on the season. In June they fired their general manager. In August they hired Rangers’ assistant GM A.J. Preller, and this offseason, Preller has made a huge splash, trading for outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton and catcher Derek Norris in an attempt to radically remake San Diego's lineup.
As impressive as those acquisitions may be, they all come with significant question marks. Can Kemp, whose pre-trade physical examination detected arthritis in both of his hips, stay healthy? Can Myers, the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year, rebound from a season ruined by a fractured wrist to deliver on his promise? Can Norris out-hit his defensive shortcomings behind the plate? Can any of the four, all of them righthanded hitters, overcome the significant disadvantage of playing their home games in Petco Park, a ballpark that is particularly hard on righthanded power hitters? Preller obviously believes all of those questions will be answered in the affirmative, and it’s impossible to argue that the Padres' lineup isn’t better now than it was in September, but the degree of that improvement remains to be seen.
4. The Chicago Cubs resolve to temper expectations.
The Cubs have long had 2016, the final year of team president Theo Epstein’s current contract, as their target date for contention, but they are already being hailed as a potential break-out team for 2015. That's due largely to the potential shown in 2014: promising call-ups of utilityman Arismendy Alcantara, infielder Javier Baez, pitcher Kyle Hendricks and outfielder Jorge Soler; break-out seasons from first baseman Anthony Rizzo and pitcher Jake Arrieta; a rebound from shortstop Starlin Castro; the acquisition of shortstop prospect Addison Russell; and the sensational full-season debut of minor league third baseman Kris Bryant. All that plus the big offseason additions of Lester and manager Joe Maddon have caused expectations for Chicago's 2015 performance to skyrocket.
It would be wise to temper those expectations. Bryant, though obviously ready (he hit .295/.418/.619 with 21 home runs in 70 Triple A games after his promotion to that level in June), may start the season at that same level due to arbitration-eligibility concerns. Baez and Alcantara exhibited alarming strikeout rates in their debut seasons at the major league level -- Baez struck out in 41.5 percent of his appearances, Alcantara in 31 percent -- which indicate that significant adjustments, perhaps even some more time in Triple A, will be required before they are ready to thrive for the Cubs. As for Soler, his major league numbers were inflated by a fantastic first five games, after which he hit just .229/.273/.400 over his next 19 contests. Chicago should absolutely be improved in 2015, but contention may have to wait until 2016 after all.
5. The Kansas City Royals resolve to prove that 2014 was not a fluke.
Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions are broken. The 2014 Royals outplayed their third-order record by more than 10 wins (the math says they were no better than a 79-win team during the regular season). That performance that was heavily dependent on the performance of their bullpen (a typically volatile aspect of any team, even one with Kansas City's late-game talent). This offseason the Royals stand to lose their ace, Shields, whom they have thus far replaced with solid but unspectacular 31-year-old Edinson Volquez. Their other two significant additions have been rightfielder Alex Rios and designated hitter Kendrys Morales, a pair of players in their 30s who combined to hit .254/.295/.373 this past season.
There are some positives for Kansas City. It has a number of young players who could build on their breakout postseason performances, such as centerfieldr Lorenzo Cain, the ALCS MVP, and first baseman Eric Hosmer; the club will be reintroducing Luke Hochevar, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, to its stacked bullpen; and the team has reason to expect Morales to rebound from a season in which he went unsigned until June simply by virtue of having a full spring training to prepare. Those positives don’t seem likely to outweigh the negatives, but they’ll always have 2014.