In the second part of our 2015 season predictions, our MLB experts choose their surprise team, breakout player, free-agent flop and more for the upcoming year in baseball.
In the second of our two-part series of predictions for the 2015 major league season, SI.com asked its baseball writers to name this year's surprise team, breakout player, free-agent flop and bold prediction for the season, as well as choose a player to be the new face of the game. Click here for Part I, including their World Series and awards picks. And to see SI's ranking of every team before the season begins, click here.
Tom Verducci: San Diego Padres
They acquired two impact hitters capable of carrying the team in stretches (outfielders Matt Kemp and Justin Upton), have a deep rotation featuring three horses who can pitch deep into games (James Shields, Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross) and have two very solid options at the back end (Ian Kennedy and Brandon Morrow). With a league average offense, they should win 88 games.
Albert Chen: Chicago White Sox
No, the projections don't give this team much love, but the American League Central is up for grabs this year: the Indians are getting a little too much praise, and the superstar-dependent Tigers are vulnerable. The Sox have legit candidates for AL MVP (Jose Abreu), Cy Young (Chris Sale) and Rookie of the Year (Carlos Rodon), and they have arguably the AL's best 1-2-3 atop their rotation in Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana. There's big-time upside here—this isn’t a 90-win team, but a mid-80s win total might be enough to take a weak division, and if everything breaks right, the Sox could get there.
Ben Reiter: Colorado Rockies
There are only about a half dozen teams whose participation in the playoffs would really come as a surprise, and of those, I like the Rockies best. The offense is as loaded as ever, featuring a pair of injury-prone (but currently healthy enough) superstars in Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki; last year’s batting champion, Justin Morneau; one of the best young third basemen in the league, 23-year-old Nolan Arenado; and Charlie Blackmon, an All-Star last year. But there’s a chance, however slim, that Colorado finally has a rotation that will hold up, as a pair of highly-rated prospects, Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, will join the underrated Jordan Lyles and solid veterans Jorge De La Rosa and Kyle Kendrick.
Cliff Corcoran: Oakland Athletics
I’m as surprised that I picked the A’s to return to the Wild-Card Game as you are. After all, this is the team that traded Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris and Jeff Samardzija this off-season and Yoenis Cespedes at last year’s deadline. Looking at their roster now, however, I see a strong pitching staff backed up by an excellent defense and built around the potentially impressive double-play combination of Ben Zobrist and Marcus Semien (the latter the key player acquired for Samardzija). It’s not an overwhelming profile, but this team is built to its home ballpark, will get to play 38 games against the Rangers and Astros in the coming season and is led by a manager in Bob Melvin who has a track record of getting more from the whole than the sum of its parts might suggest. The Angels will miss Howie Kendrick more than they expect, and Oakland will take advantage.
Jay Jaffe: Cleveland Indians
After claiming a wild-card berth in 2013, the Indians appeared primed for even bigger things last year, but injuries and slow starts doomed them to a third-place finish. Still, the rotation was outstanding during the final third of the season, with Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House meeting or beating expectations and Corey Kluber snatching away the AL Cy Young Award from Felix Hernandez. With rebounds at the plate from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana plus the eventual arrival of Francisco Lindor at shortstop, I think they’ll be a stronger team this year.
Joe Sheehan: Houston Astros
In an era of 24/7/365 media coverage and in a season where parity is the watchword, can there even be a surprise team? Would the Padres in the playoffs, or the Marlins or the Indians or the Yankees, surprise enough people to make such a thing notable? I suppose it will be a surprise to see the Astros, who could hit 200 homers and strike out 1,600 times, finish .500 and hang around the wild-card race into September.
Verducci: Mookie Betts, Red Sox
Boston's 22-year-old outfielder was the most exciting player in the Grapefruit League, and he looks like the whole package: crazy good hand-eye coordination, extra-base pop, stellar defensive skills and a high baseball IQ.
Chen: Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays
If you’re picking the Blue Jays in the AL East, then you’re counting on some breakouts in the Jays’ young rotation with Marcus Stroman out for the year. I’m predicting a big year from Hutchison, who was a beast down the stretch last season thanks to a new and improved slider. Toronto obviously thinks highly of the 24-year-old, tabbing him as its Opening Day starter.
Reiter: Avisail Garcia, White Sox
Garcia has been around for a while, as he debuted in the majors in 2012, but he won’t turn 24 until June. He might have broken out last year, his second with the White Sox, if not for a major shoulder injury he suffered eight games into the season. After he made a surprisingly early return in mid-August, he flashed an impressive all-around skill set—in 38 games, he had five homers, 25 RBIs and four steals. I think this is the year he establishes himself as a perennial All-Star and the X-factor in a Chicago lineup that features bigger names like Jose Abreu and new imports Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche.
Corcoran: Marcus Semien, A's
Semien has hit just .240/.293/.380 in 326 major league plate appearances with the White Sox, but that performance has come in pieces: a September call-up in 2013, regular playing time last April and part-time duty thereafter. He has made just four major league starts at shortstop, his primary position. Meanwhile, he hit .278/.393/.487 in Double and Triple A over the last two years, drawing more walks than strikeouts and homering at a rate of 25 per 162 games. Now 24, he’ll be Oakland's Opening Day shortstop and should finally emerge as one of the better infielders in the league.
Jaffe: Gregory Polanco, Pirates
Between the general prospect hype, the blistering start at Triple A (.347/.405/.540 before getting called up) and the 11-game hitting streak that opened his major league career last season, expectations couldn’t have been higher for Polanco. But the league caught up to him, as did the lack of rest from playing year-round—329 minor league, major league and winter league games in 2013–14, not including spring training. With a winter to rest and reset mentally, he’ll come into his own this year.
Sheehan: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
Bogaerts shouldn't be eligible for this list, but the Red Sox completely screwed up his rookie season by moving him to third base last June, and he never recovered. He's back at shortstop this spring and his bat is coming along. Bogaerts had a fairly polished approach at age 21, and he'll be a doubles machine at 22.
Verducci: Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks
The Cuban import, who signed a six-year, $68.5 million contract during the off-season, has yet to shake the suspicion that he’s a designated hitter miscast in the NL.
Chen: Michael Cuddyer, Mets
After surprisingly turning down a $15.3 million qualifying offer from the Rockies, Cuddyer somehow got a two-year, $21 million deal from the Mets, a shocking overpay for an injury-prone–36-year-old coming off a season in which he appeared in just 49 games. Cuddyer was a batting champ just two years ago, but it’d be a near miracle if New York gets a positive return on its investment.
Reiter: Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox
His hand-eye coordination is nonpareil, and he’s as clutch as they come. But five years and $95 million—this winter’s third-biggest contract—seems like a lot for a player who hasn’t hit 25 homers in six years, has never driven in more than 90 runs, whose OPS over the last three seasons (.759) ranks 85th overall, is a strictly average defensive third baseman and, it must be said, has never been in excellent physical condition. While I think the Red Sox’ other big free-agent signing, Hanley Ramirez, will prove a bargain at $88 million over four years, I’m not nearly as sanguine about Sandoval.
Corcoran: Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks
It’s not that I think Tomas can't hit major league pitching. It’s that I think a player with a low on-base percentage, brutal defense and who blocks other, potentially more valuable young players will do more to harm Arizona’s attempt to get out of the NL West basement than help it. It would be no disaster for the 24-year-old Tomas to open the season in the minors, which he may do, but if the D-Backs send him down to get more reps at third base, they’re wasting their time on a player who is not athletic enough to field a position shared by the organization’s top hitting prospects: Jake Lamb (the likely Opening Day starter) and Brandon Drury. Put Tomas in the outfield and he’s blocking Ender Inciarte, a four-win player as a rookie last year, and David Peralta. Those two deserve starting jobs after impressive rookie seasons and strong springs, but instead Arizona will run out Tomas and Mark Trumbo, the latter representing the exact sort of one-dimensional player I’m afraid Tomas will prove to be.
Jaffe: Nick Markakis, Braves
One of the more puzzling off-season signings was the four-year, $44 million deal for Markakis, a declining outfielder heading into his age-31 to -34 seasons. The fact that it came from a team tearing apart its roster in a rebuilding effort made it all the more surprising. Markakis has averaged just 1.7 WAR per year over his past five seasons, and between his troubling loss of power and the neck surgery he underwent just after signing, this one looks like all risk with very little reward.
Sheehan: Nelson Cruz, Mariners
Cruz is 34, one-dimensional and heading to a place where righthanded flyball hitters go to die. On the other hand, he's only signed for four years. The Mariners continue to chase power when what they need, and have needed, is on-base percentage. Cruz will disappoint them.
The New Face of Baseball
With Derek Jeter having retired, we asked our writers to pick a new player to represent the game going forward.
Verducci: Mike Trout, Angels
The best player in baseball also has fun playing the game and treats everyone from fans to clubhouse kids to opponents with respect. What more could you want? Okay: how about winning a playoff series?
Chen: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
McCutchen should be the new face of baseball, even after the haircut, and not just because he does a solid Tom Cruise impersonation. The 2013 NL MVP is also one of the most exciting players in the game, of course, and he’s helped lead the resurrection of the Pirates, one of the game’s best stories.
Reiter: Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout are all eminently qualified candidates to fill Derek Jeter’s shoes as MLB's top ambassador, but here’s the case for Puig: He plays for one of the league’s premier franchises. He’s supremely exciting and is due for a monster season one of these years, quite possibly this one. He’s a foreign player in an ever more international game. Perhaps more than that, though, he’s as irreverent as Jeter was conservative, and I suspect that quality, which has earned him a lot of opprobrium over his first two seasons, will become increasingly appreciated as baseball modernizes and is embraced by a new generation of fans.
Corcoran: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
This isn’t a prediction as much as an observation. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw might be the most dominant players in the game right now, but McCutchen isn’t that far behind Trout in terms of on-field ability, and he’s light years ahead of him in terms of personality. Remember, Derek Jeter was never the best player in baseball. Being the face of baseball has as much to do with charm, intelligence, eloquence and, let's face it, good looks as it does with on-field performance. McCutchen is a five-tool spokesman, with Giancarlo Stanton as his understudy.
Jaffe: No one specifically
I'm so ready for this meme to die, because the game doesn't need to rest on the shoulders of one player. The new face of baseball is Mike Trout … and Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Clayton Kershaw, Giancarlo Stanton, Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper et al. It's a multitude of supremely talented players who illustrate the sport's diversity and appeal.
Sheehan: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Well, Kershaw is the best pitcher alive, and he builds orphanages. Again, don't make it hard.
• CORCORAN: Six unfamiliar names to know for Opening Day
Verducci: NL East will be close
The Nationals will find themselves in a close race with the Mets and Marlins. Washington is clearly the best team in the division, but spring training injuries and a strikeout-prone offense suggest this is not going to be the runaway it once looked like on paper.
Chen: Unlikely names will win home run crowns
The home run leaders in the two leagues will be Cleveland's Brandon Moss in the AL (hello, Progressive Field), and—despite moving to that graveyard for hitters, Petco Park—San Diego's Justin Upton in the NL.
Reiter: Aroldis Chapman will average two strikeouts per inning
The Reds' 27-year-old closer almost pulled this trick last year, recording 106 strikeouts in 54 frames for a rate of 17.67 per nine. But I’m saying that he will improve upon what was the most dominant strikeout season of all time—Chapman whiffed a full batter more per nine than anyone who had ever before worked more than 21 innings in a season—and will break a barrier that not long ago seemed entirely impenetrable. He’ll do it because of three reasons: overall strikeouts continue to climb incrementally league-wide; he’s got the extra motivation of pitching in a contract year; and he has suddenly, and even unfairly, developed a devastating slider. Hitters batted just .063 against that pitch last year, which he threw 25% of the time (up from 14.6% in 2013), and it will nicely compliment his ridiculous, 104 mph heat.
Corcoran: Games will be shorter, runs will increase
Neither change will be drastic, but there’s correction due on both fronts. The new pace of game rules combined with everyone in the league—particularly umpires, managers and team replay assistants—being more experienced with instant replay will help lower the average time of game. As for run scoring, expect more lefties to have worked on their opposite-field strokes to beat the shift, which could result in fewer shifts in the second half of the season, and with the mass defection of elite pitching from the AL, look for the DH league to lift the average of runs per game.
Jaffe: Pace of game will improve
The steps that MLB has undertaken to speed up the game will have their intended effect, reversing the recent trend of longer games by shaving between five and 10 minutes off the average time. Their success will be seen as a big, early victory for new commissioner Rob Manfred, generating considerable positive PR.
Sheehan: "Parityball" will be a flop
Great teams drive attention, and while the Nationals may be one, they're the only one. A decade of aggressive revenue sharing and other rules changes have turned MLB into the NFL. Well, what works for 16 games gets boring over 162, and watching a dozen teams try not to lose a 75th game is not compelling. MLB has to find its way back to higher standards, and this summer will make that clear.