New Year's resolutions for National League teams
With 2014 having just gotten started, it's time for the 30 major league teams to make their New Year's resolutions. As with all New Year's resolutions, it won't be long before the optimism of the new year crashes upon the rocks of realization that changing a number on the calendar doesn't, in and of itself, change the fortunes of one's circumstances.
Still, hoping for an unlikely favorable result is the very foundation of sports fandom. We started yesterday with resolutions for each American League team. Here, then, are ones for the 15 National League teams, presented by division based on their order of finish in 2013:
Atlanta Braves resolve to fix B.J. Upton.
In his six full seasons with Tampa Bay from 2007-12, Upton hit .255/.338/.430 with an average of 19 home runs and 36 stolen bases. Atlanta signed him before last season to a five-year, $75.25 million contract, hoping that he could better realize his full potential outside of pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. In year one of that contract, Upton hit .184/.268/.289 with nine homers and 12 steals in 126 games. That line translated to a 53 OPS+ that was tied for the worst in baseball among players with 400 or more plate appearances.
Upton had bad luck on balls in play in 2013, but he also had a career high strikeout rate, punching out in more than one-third of his plate appearances, and he hit for less power than in any of his other full major league seasons (.105 isolated power compared to a .174 mark the previous six seasons). Upton doesn't just need a fresh start in a new season, he needs fixing from the Braves' coaching staff. Atlanta might be able to play Jason Heyward in center and paper over leftfield with some combination of Ryan Doumit and Evan Gattis, but it still owes Upton $59.8 million over the next four years and will need something to show for that investment.
Washington Nationals resolve to score more runs.
A 98-win team in 2012 and the consensus favorite to win the National League pennant heading into last season, the Nationals proved to be one of the biggest disappointments in baseball in 2013, and it's not hard to pinpoint why. Over the first four months of the season, the Nats scored a mere 3.7 runs per game and went 52-56 (.481). Over the final two months of the season, they scored 4.7 runs per game to make a late run at the wild-card and were ultimately the last NL team eliminated in the regular season.
The reasons for their downturn aren't hard to pinpoint either. Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos all missed significant time in the first half of the season while second baseman Danny Espinosa spent the first two months sabotaging the offense from within, hitting a brutal .158/.193/.272. By August, the first three were healthy, Werth was on fire and rookie Anthony Rendon, who replaced Espinosa at the keystone in early June, hat heated up, going on to hit .279/.359/.417 over the final two months. With Rendon in place, if the rest of the lineup can stay healthy, Harper should be able to pick up the slack from Werth's inevitable cooling off and put Washington right back in that pennant conversation.
Yes, of course they will miss him. Heck, I'll miss him, but with Bartolo Colon keeping his spot in the rotation warm, a full season of sophomore Zack Wheeler and the potential arrival of fellow prospect Noah Syndergaard, the Mets should have enough front-end starting pitching to enjoy/dream about while they wait for Harvey's return in 2014.
Philadelphia Phillies resolve to trust people under 30.
Domonic Brown's breakout age-25 season should help in this regard. It will keep the now-26-year-old Brown in the lineup and also provide some positive reinforcement to the team's management for giving a young player a job and room to breathe. Cody Asche, the team's 23-year-old third baseman, could be the main beneficiary of that approach in 2014, but beyond those two and centerfielder Ben Revere (26 in early May), Philadelphia's youngest projected regular in 2014 is likely to be 34-year-old Ryan Howard. On days that Cliff Lee pitches, five of the team's starters will be 35 or older.
Miami Marlins resolve to behave like a legitimate major league franchise.
The 2013 season vindicated the Marlins' decisions to trade Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to the Blue Jays in December 2012 and to jump top prospect Jose Fernandez straight to the majors from High A at age 20. As a result, they enter 2014 with more credibility than they had a year ago despite coming off a 100-loss season.
Fernandez, outfield prospect Christian Yelich and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton give Miami something to build on for 2014, and the team actually went out and spent some money on free agents this offseason. Miami effectively gave John Buck's old contract to new catcher Jarrod Saltalamachia (three years, $21 million compared to Buck's $18 million) and is rolling the dice on Pirates non-tender Garret Jones, veteran infielder Rafael Furcal -- who is coming off a season lost to Tommy John surgery -- and Casey McGehee (who hit .292/.376/.515 in Japan against Nippon Professional Baseball's juiced balls in 2013).
Those may not be terribly impressive moves, but they are legitimate attempts to improve a lineup that posted the seventh-worst team OPS+ since 1900 (73, the worst mark since the 1963 Colt .45s, a second-year expansion team).
St. Louis Cardinals resolve to be the best team in baseball.
In 2013, the Cardinals tied the Red Sox for the most wins in baseball with 97, then pushed Boston to Game 6 of the World Series before finally being eliminated. Since then, general manager John Mozeliak has executed his offseason plan to perfection. He signed Jhonny Peralta to fill the team's gaping hole at shortstop; flipped Davis Freese to the Angels for outfield depth that can help bridge the gap between departed free agent Carlos Beltran and the impending arrival of top prospect Oscar Taveras; and signed Mark Ellis to back up rookie Kolten Wong at second base, allowing 2013 MVP candidate Matt Carpenter to replace Freese at his natural position at third base. The Cardinals are so flush with young talent that those moves were all they had to do to make another pennant (which would be their third in four years) a strong possibility.
Pittsburgh Pirates resolve not to be one-year wonders.
Setting aside the obvious target of a World Series win, few teams have as clear a goal for 2014 as Pittsburgh. After snapping a streak of 20 consecutive years with a losing record with a 94-win season and a trip to the Division Series, the Cinderella Pirates desperately want to avoid turning back into a pumpkin.
That puts a lot of pressure on Billy Hamilton, who proved his ability to steal bases in the major leagues in September, but has yet to be properly tested as a full-time hitter in the Show and hit just .256/.308/.343 over 547 plate appearances in his Triple A debut last year. A healthy Ryan Ludwick, a rebound from Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips responding to offseason trade rumors with a reversal of his recent decline would help. Nevertheless, a player who posts an .423 on-base percentage with power across 712 plate appearances as did Choo, who signed with the Rangers, is almost impossible to replace.
What choice do they have? They owe him $127 million over the next seven years, and at his best -- assuming his best wasn't dependent on the performance-enhancing drugs he claims he took only to recover from an injury -- he's one of the top players in baseball. His remaining contract looks like a bargain compared to the deals signed this offseason by Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million) and Shin-Soo Choo (seven years, $130 million), both of whom are older than the 30-year-old Braun.
If Milwaukee is going to return to the playoffs in the next five years, it's going to be with Braun leading the way, so it might as well find a way to move past the revelations of the past 12 months.
Castro, a two-time All-Star who hit .300/.347/.408 as a 20-year-old rookie in 2010 and led the NL in hits at the age of 21, is supposed to be a centerpiece of the next contending Cubs team. Chicago made that expectation explicit and its fulfillment necessary when it signed Castro to a seven-year, $60 million extension in August of 2012. However, in 2013, Castro took a big step backward in every facet of his game, hitting a weak .245/.284/.347 (carer lows in every category), stealing just nine bases (ditto) posting a career-high strikeout rate and a career-low walk rate and giving back the gains he appeared to make in the field in his otherwise stagnant 2012.
Some of Castro's poor performance last year can be blamed on the distraction caused by an ongoing lawsuit that has resulted in the bulk of his 2013 salary -- his first to significantly exceed the major league minimum -- being frozen in various bank accounts in the Dominican Republic. Still, whatever the reason, Castro has been as much a source of frustration as elation for the Cubs over the last two seasons.
He is still young (24 in March) and Chicago is still a few years away from fielding a team it expects to contend, but the time to get Castro on the right track is now. There's hope that the team's new manager, Rick Renteria, himself a former middle infielder of Latin descent, might have a better chance of making a connection with Castro than former skipper Dale Sveum, who's fuming over Castro's various on-field lapses seemed to have little effect.
Puig is one of the most talented players in the major leagues, and the enthusiasm and abandon with which he plays the game make him one of the most entertaining as well. As good as he is, however, it is becoming increasingly evident that his perception of his own ability and invincibility is unrealistic and potentially dangerous.
The latest and most serious example of this was Puig's arrest for reckless driving this past Saturday, his second such arrest of 2013. Though speeding down a highway at 110 mph, as Puig was, is far more serious and dangerous than any offense he may have perpetrated on a baseball field, such behavior stems from the same part of Puig's brain that has him apparently convinced that he cannot be thrown out on the bases (something disproven by the 21 times he ran into an unnecessary out as a rookie), or that he can throw out any runner from anywhere on the field (something disproven by his poor throws in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series).
Puig is a budding superstar, and I do believe there is a place in the game for well-earned hot dogging (think Reggie Jackson and Rickey Henderson). Still, for Puig to earn his strut and realize his true value, he needs to recognize that he's neither Superman nor immortal.
Arizona Diamondbacks resolve to walk the walk against the Dodgers.
No team was more publicly offended by the Dodgers and Puig in 2013 than the Diamondbacks, as evidenced by the teams' bean-brawl in June and the offense Arizona took when Los Angeles celebrated clinching the National League West title by taking a dip in the Chase Field pool.
Of course, the Diamondbacks didn't show much class themselves in the former game and, as I wrote at the time, could have prevented the latter situation by "not being the first second-place team to be eliminated from a division race this season, or at least not letting that happen in their own ballpark." Arizona did win the season series against L.A. 10-games-to-9, but it was out-scored in those 19 contests (83 to 77) and lost both the bean-brawl game in June and seven of their last nine head-to-head games against the Dodgers.
Given those tensions, it's ironic that these two teams were the ones chosen to open the 2014 season in Sydney, Australia. They will play two games in Sydney on March 22 and 23rd, then have a week to stew over the results before the regular season begins in the States and nearly three weeks before they meet again in Phoenix on April 11.
San Diego Padres resolve to have a strong starting rotation.
I have yet to understand what some in the sabermetric community have found so encouraging about the Padres' team building in recent years. However, I do see some potential in San Diego's starting rotation for the coming year, which, if nothing else, has a ton of depth. In 2014, the Padres will have a full season of Ian Kennedy, they signed free agent Josh Johnson and they have prospects Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland and Casey Kelly returning from Tommy John surgery. Those men join Robbie Erlin, Eric Stults, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, all of whom are coming off solid showings in the rotation last year.
None of those pitchers is a sure thing, but there's as much upside there as there is potential for struggle, particularly given San Diego's pitching-friendly ballpark. If the Padres can't assemble an above-average rotation from those 10 guys, there's no hope for them in 2014.
San Francisco Giants resolve to return to contention.
That's a goal San Francisco shares with half the league, and it is easier said than done. Still, the Giants are unique among the teams that finished 2013 with a losing record in that they did so as the defending world champions and a team that had averaged 90 wins and won two World Series over the previous four seasons. The Red Sox' return to glory after a last-place finish in 2012 provides an additional source of inspiration, but then Boston largely remade its team between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, while San Francisco has spent the last several months doubling down on the likes of Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Javier Lopez.
Still, pitcher Tim Hudson and outfielder Mike Morse were nice additions, and there are a number of Giants who had poor or injury-plagued seasons in 2013 who could contribute more in 2014 (Angel Pagan, Matt Cain and Vogelsong chief among them).
Colorado Rockies resolve to figure out how to hit on the road.
This is the same resolution the Rockies had two years ago, but the team's inability to hit outside of Coors Field remains their largest obstacle to success. In 2013 they scored an MLB-best 5.4 runs per game at home compared to just 3.4 per game on the road (27th in the majors), that despite Carlos Gonzalez's big surge in road performance (CarGo on the road 2009-2012: .261/.318/.438; in 2013: .332/.381/.606). As I wrote in the Rockies essay in Baseball Prospectus 2011, hitting on the road has been Colorado's' biggest weakness throughout the history of the franchise. It has resulted in the team having a losing road record in all but one of its 21 seasons (they were 41-40 on the road in 2009, when they won a franchise-record 92 games overall). Only the Cubs, Phillies and Marlins scored fewer runs away from home than the Rockies last year in either league, and all of those teams finished fourth or fifth in their respective divisions and each had a losing record.