Five Things I Believe About the 2015 Season by Dave Cameron April 7, 2015 While I ran through my thoughts on all 30 teams in the division previews, I had a few stray things that didn’t fit into the capsule format, so I’m tackling them here. A year ago, I wrote this same post, including gems like this one: 2. I believe the Royals are being overrated. Let’s see if I can do better this year. On to the five things I believe about the 2015 season. 1. The game will be quicker and the strike zone smaller. Perhaps one of the most encouraging things about Rob Manfred’s first few months as commissioner has been how data-driven some of his statements have appeared. In his comments about both pace of play and the rising trend of strikeouts within the game, he’s continually made statements that are supported by — and likely the result of — evidence that supports his conclusions. He’s already taken some steps to remove some of the down time between pitches, which I expect will mostly work and he’s noted that the commissioner’s office has been gathering information to make sure that they’re ready to intervene if the strike zone continues to grow at the pace it has grown of late. In fact, there’s some information to suggest that the league might have already acted. As Rob Arthur noted in his season preview at 538, the strike zone appeared to start going back up towards the end of last year. While MLB will admit that they give detailed feedback to umpire’s based on the data about what they’re calling and not calling, they’re not going to tell us what kind of feedback they’re giving the umpires, so we’re going to have to infer it from how the strike zone changes. I expect that we’re going to see the bottom of the zone continue to climb, as the league looks for ways to get some offense back into the sport without making dramatic on-the-field changes. Like with pace of play, I expect the changes to be more tweaks than overhauls, but I’d expect that we’ll see fewer of those two-seamers below the knees getting called for strikes this year. 2. The Brewers have a real chance to be terrible. I promise I believed this before they got destroyed by Colorado on Opening Day, and this isn’t a reaction to the beating they took yesterday. But among the 25 or so teams who are projected to at least be respectable in 2015, Milwaukee is the one that I think could just completely fall apart. As I mentioned in the division preview, this is a team with zero depth, so their 77 win projection is based on full seasons of their frontline players; that’s not a reasonable expectation, and the second-line players are almost uniformly awful. The Brewers have no margin for error, especially in the rotation, where their options to replace a struggling or injured starter are all replacement level scrubs. With Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza on the wrong side of 30, and Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson on the wrong side of reliable, this is a rotation that seems likely to need multiple fill-ins throughout the year. But there just aren’t any real options, and if Lohse hits a wall — he’s 36 and playing the weak-contact game, which is a dangerous way to live — at the same time that Fiers’ arm starts barking again, they’re going to be in serious trouble. The NL Central is not going to be an easy division this year, and unless their offense leads the league in runs scored, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brewers won 67 games instead of 77. 3. This Masahiro Tanaka experiment isn’t going to work. Jeff did a nice job breaking down his first start of the year yesterday, and there are some important reminders in there about this being just four innings against a good offense. Tanaka’s splitter was still a weapon, and you don’t absolutely have to throw a bunch of fastballs in order to be a good big league pitcher. But I’m just not sure what the point is, really. The Yankees project as roughly a .500 team with Tanaka pitching at nearly full strength, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be as good as the projections are expecting. If he’s more of an okay pitcher than a good one, the Yankees are a pretty weak threat in the AL East, and while they might be able to get enough things to go right to hang around in the Wild Card race, they don’t really have the look of a team that is going to make a deep run in October. I know the Yankees don’t rebuild, and it’s not in their best interests to lose on purpose, but with Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and Carlos Beltran coming off the books after the 2016 season, 2017 feels like the next year the Yankees will have a real shot at being a top-tier team again. If you let him get too far into this season and then he breaks down and needs Tommy John surgery during the summer, he’d likely miss all of the 2016 season while rehabbing, and the team would go into that year not really knowing what they have. If he gets the surgery earlier, and gets back on a mound in the second half of next year, they’ll at least get a good look at Tanaka and how well he was able to come back from the procedure. If the Yankees were strong contenders this season, okay, maybe you have him try to pitch through it and see if it pays off. But if they’re just going to limp to a .500 record anyway, I don’t see a lot of upside in having him pitch at 80% effectiveness just because he can. 4. Jorge Soler is going to steal Kris Bryant’s limelight. Kris Bryant is going to be up in a week or so, and I think he’s going to be quite good this year; one of the main reasons I expect the Cubs to contend all season, in fact. But I don’t think he’s going to be the Cubs best young player this year. I think that’s going to be Jorge Soler. Our projections have him as roughly a league average player this year, but I’ll be honest, I don’t entirely understand why. His minor league track record is remarkably strong, and he destroyed Major League pitching in a 100 at-bat trial last year. At 23, he’s still plenty young enough to improve on his contact rate, and the power looks quite legitimate. He probably won’t walk nearly as often as he did in the minors, but he’s not Javier Baez at the plate, and looks like he does know how to take a pitch out of the zone. So I’m taking the over on the 114 wRC+ projection from our depth charts, and wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up in the 130 range. I’ve heard more than one Matt Kemp comparison, though Soler’s power has probably developed even earlier than Kemp’s did. If Soler stays healthy, I won’t be at all surprised if Bryant is the second best young slugger on the Cubs this year. And between the two of them, the middle of the Cubs order should be just fine. 5. The Padres are going to make a dozen more trades. The Padres are a fascinating team. They’ve collected enough pieces to be interesting and maybe even good, but the pieces don’t really fit together that well. The line-up is almost entirely right-handed. The left side of the infield is awful, and the right side tops out at mediocre, but they have 10 good relievers, including a couple of guys just optioned to Triple-A who could probably close for a bunch of Major League teams right now. I’m a bit skeptical that, as constructed, this roster is going to work out for San Diego, but if there’s one thing A.J. Preller has taught us, it’s that we shouldn’t assume that he’s ever done. And I’m pretty sure they know that their infield is bad. When relievers start dropping like flies and teams are scrambling for bullpen help, San Diego is the most natural first phone call, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Padres were already planning on ways to turn a pitcher or two into a shortstop or third base upgrade. That’s not the easiest task in the world, but the price of pitching goes up dramatically in-season, and the Padres do have pitching to spare. But beyond continuing to tweak the roster, the Padres have also set themselves up to pivot aggressively in July if this grand roster experiment hasn’t worked out. The surprising thing about the Craig Kimbrel trade wasn’t that the Braves moved him, but that they didn’t wait until July to do so, when the game’s best closer might have been in extremely high demand. While I think the Padres paid a pretty steep price to get Kimbrel, they could flip him for more talent than they gave up to get him, and effectively use the cost difference to buy some better future talent. Add in Justin Upton and a bunch of pitchers headed towards free agency, and the Padres could be extremely active sellers in July if the first half doesn’t go well. The nice thing about the risks the Padres have taken is that they aren’t tied to most of them, and if they have to trade Upton and four or five pitchers this summer, they’re in a position to potentially get a lot back, maybe even more than they gave up in some cases. So while I don’t love this Padres team, and I think some of the individual moves have been questionable, I do like the Padres flexibility. If they win, well, great, then it worked and they reap the benefits. If they don’t win, there are a lot worse positions to be in than to have a bunch of right-handed power hitters, a couple of good starters on short-term contracts, and the best closer in baseball available to sell in July. Either way, I expect the A.J. Preller Trade Frenzy to continue all year long.