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2014 MLB Team Previews

The 2014 MLB season is almost here! Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman brings you an in depth look at each of the 30 teams, prospects and key questions as we head towards opening day.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Arizona Diamondbacks

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: 
Arizona Diamondbacks
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview
You win some, you lose some. But back-to-back .500 seasons can’t really be considered a triumph, especially in the wake of some controversial, head-scratching trades including the departure of Justin Upton. Fans were probably wondering where he was while Jason Kubel hit .220, and the ‘extra’ player in that trade, Chris Johnson, almost won a batting title for Atlanta (.321). Oops. Meanwhile, Miguel Montero loses his mojo, but Paul Goldschmidt becomes an MVP candidate.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Mark Trumbo, Bronson Arroyo, Addison Reed
Going: Tyler Skaggs, Adam Eaton, Heath Bell, Matt Davidson (minors)
Also, don’t forget Ian Kennedy is gone as well, having been traded for peanuts on the July 31 deadline. Overall, the stupid mistakes of 2013 are compounded this winter, eroding Arizona’s talent base and solidifying them as mediocre also-rans. For no good reason Adam Eaton is swapped out for Mark Trumbo, and former top prospect Tyler Skaggs is gone in the deal to boot. There are plenty of bad reasons for adding Trumbo’s one dimensional power, however. Trading away Upton and signing the disappointing Cody Ross left Arizona without a reliable right-handed power bat in the outfield. Now they have that, but it won’t amount to much if Trumbo can’t take a few pitches. Addison Reed is a generic reliever, and Matt Davidson is a non-generic third base prospect. But oh well, he’s blocked by Martin Prado, who has to play because right now he’s all they have to show for trading Upton. And why is Bronson Arroyo on this team? He proved he can pitch successfully in a bandbox, but 37-year-olds with no fastball don’t last long. After all these roster shenanigans, Arizona is left with just one blue-chip prospect, Archie Bradley, when a few years ago it looked like they would soon have the best collection of young starters in the league.

Wild Card(s): 
Miguel Montero should be a solid hitting catcher again, as there was no discernable reason for his 2013 collapse other than he started slow and couldn’t recover. Just two years ago he was an on-base machine with above-average power and defense; if that player comes back, maybe Arizona can make a push for the wild card.

On the mound, Brandon McCarthy has never made more than 25 starts, but his 4.53 ERA should go down this year as more of the ground balls he induced last year become outs instead of hits (he got unlucky in this regard last year). A sub-4.00 ERA is very possible. And after Pat Corbin’s season-ending surgery, very needed.

Key Contract 
Years: McCarthy maybe? In their defense, Arizona’s management has done a good job locking up nearly all their useful players, particular their better hitters (Goldschmidt, Aaron Hill, Montero).

Chris Owings won the opening day shortstop job (over Didi Gregorius) and he looked good this spring, and last year hit well during his September big-league call up (.291 in 55 at-bats). However, his .330 batting average and 51 extra-base-hits last year in AAA Reno are not as impressive when you consider that they came with only 22 walks (for a .359 OBP) and in one of the best hitting environments in all of the minor leagues. Owings has mostly been too aggressive in his approach during his minor league career, and his only offensive strength at the moment that will translate to the majors is above average power. His .263/.291/.377 line in half a season with AA-Mobile two years ago offers a more realistic projection of what he might do this year. With above average defense, that’s not a terrible player. But he probably won’t be an all-star.

D-backs fans have more reason to get excited about righty Archie Bradley, the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball going into this year. He’s nearly ready for the majors after blowing hitters away in AA last year. Over all between there and high-A Visalia, Bradley went 14-5 with a 1.84 ERA and 162 K in 152 IP. He walks a lot of batters but his stuff is good enough that Bradley could iron out his command in the majors and still be a dominant starter. He might be their best pitcher by the end of 2014.

Key Questions: 
Speaking of which, when does Bradley get his big chance?
How does the rotation fill out in Pat Corbin’s absence?
Can Randall Delgado be a league-average starter?
What will Arizona do with Didi Gregorius, who is arguably too good to play in AAA or sit on the bench in the majors?
Can any of their incumbent starters improve to all-star level? Right now only Paul Goldschmidt looks like a projectable all-star.

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 
Archie Bradley is the best pitching prospect in the game, but after him and Chris Owings the system is rail thin. There are a handful of interesting recent draft picks, mostly pitchers, but several of their more high-profile signings had terrible years in 2013. 2012 top pick Stryker Trahan was converted from catcher to outfielder this spring, which lowers his prospect status (and obscures his development time frame). Mostly the Diamondbacks system is bad due to hemorrhaging of prospects in their misguided trades. The one major positive note (aside from Bradley’s emergence) was the breakout of third basemen Brandon Drury, acquired from Atlanta in the Upton deal. Drury could be an offensive stud but he’s still very far away.

2014 Prognosis: Possible Contenders
The Diamondbacks have played this game before; over the past decade their rosters have been composed of players who are often solid regulars but rarely stars. That’s made for volatile shifts from one season to the next, oscillating between contention and disappointment. Kevin Towers’ reign as GM has seemingly determined to eliminate some of this unpredictability, swapping out mystery men like Upton and Ian Kennedy for more reliable regulars. That also explains why they’ve had little patience for high-upside, low-control prospects like Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer. But by raising the floor, Towers has also lowered Arizona’s ceiling. They are a strong bet to hover around .500, but it will take a fair bit of luck for them to move beyond that threshold.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview: 
It started as an expensive disaster but after mid-season the Dodgers turned their season around in dramatic fashion, going 54-27 after July first and making a deep playoff run (they lost in game 6 of the NLCS to St. Louis). Hanley Ramirez looked like an MVP candidate in the second half and rookie Yasiel Puig emerged as one of the most exciting young players in the game. On the mound, Clayton Kershaw put together his second Cy Young season at age 25 with a miniscule 1.86 ERA and a not-so-miniscule contract extension that will make him the highest paid player in the game next year.

Winter Grade: B+
Coming: Dan Haren, Alex Guerrero (Cuba), Erisabel Arruebarrena (Cuba), Paul Maholm
Going: Ricky Nolasco
There wasn’t much to do after the Dodgers looked to have assembled the NL’s most talented roster; their fourth-best outfielder is all-star Andre Ethier. Although the Dodgers ended up upgrading their rotation with Haren and Maholm, they also have Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett due back at some point this year. With their infield in flux after this year (when Hanley Ramirez is set to be a free agent), the Dodgers signed two Cuban defectors, Guerrero and Arruebarrena. Although they have to be pleased with their successful scouting of Yasiel Puig, neither of this winter’s signings offer that same kind of offensive potential. Guerrero has already seemingly lost the second base job to incumbent Dee Gordon. Re-signing Juan Uribe to play third base was a boring but necessary move for the time being.

Wild Card(s): 
Dan Haren is once again a rebound candidate as his ERA has been much higher than his peripherals would indicate (BB/K rate, HR/IP), but could that be because his declining fastball is yielding more home runs and hard-hit gappers? If so, Dodger Stadium might still be able to mask that better and push him back towards a 3.75-4 ERA, making him a solid third or fourth starter if he’s durable.

Another pitcher to get excited about is Chad Billingsley, who looked very strong in 25 starts in 2012 before missing nearly all of last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Considering how common it is for pitchers to bounce back after the procedure, Billingsley could be a better-than-solid upgrade in the rotation when he returns in late May. The former all-star has had several seasons where he’s looked like no worse than a no. 2 starter.

Key Contract Years: 

Hanley Ramirez could be the most coveted free agent of the 2014-15 offseason if he even comes close to repeating last year’s insane production in half a season (.345/.402/.638 slash line). Haren and Maholm were both signed to one-year deals, so they will be free agents as well, perhaps joined by Josh Beckett if he’s healthy enough to pitch this year. Billingsley has a $14 million option for 2015 which will be picked up if he’s even league average post-surgery.

Arruebarrena might play the whole season in the minors, but Guerrero is on the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster (he struck out in one at-bat during the two-game opening series in Australia this weekend). Above-average power is his best tool; some scouts think he will be an offense-first second basemen, and others think he will just be a utility-man/AAAA infielder. The most likely rookies to contribute are pitchers Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez, relievers who already have shown success in brief major league samples. They both throw hard and good succeed in high-leverage situations in 2014. Starter Zach Lee may be ready for the majors later this year but he is likely buried behind the Dodgers starting pitching depth.

Key Questions: 
What is the health status of Matt Kemp?
When he plays, who sits between Ethier, Puig and Carl Crawford?
How will the second base situation shake out by season’s end; we know Dee Gordon can run and play defense but can he hit enough to play everyday (his track record says no)?
When do Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett come back?
What will the Dodgers do with their blocked prospects who are ready for the majors?
Could they upgrade at third base or catcher?
Is Hanley Ramirez back to being a superstar?

Farm System Overview: GREEN (above average) 
Boosted by the Cuban signings, the Dodgers have plenty of depth in case their more expensive veterans disappoint or get injured. Just 17, Julio Urias is set to be the youngest pitcher in high-A ball this year, and he could be the next young pitching phenom to debut for LA. He pitched under strict rules last year limiting his innings but still put up a 2.48 ERA and 11.1 K/9 strikeout rate in low-A. Further up, outfielder Joc Pederson and third baseman/shortstop Corey Seager will attempt to prove themselves big-league ready, and both are five-tool talents despite having no clear path to Los Angeles’ starting lineup. Beyond that, the Dodgers don’t boast much position player talent, but they have a nice collection of power arms.

2014 Prognosis: Strong Contenders
They’re already 2-0! On paper they look like a 95-100 win team, and they’ve shown they have the financial wherewithal to make changes midseason if necessary, either to replace injuries or to bring in another star-level player. More importantly, no other team in the NL West looks like a challenger for this roster, and full seasons from “Han-Ram” and Puig could mean that Kershaw can find some extra victories to match his league-leading ERA.

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Chicago Cubs
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
Another last place finish, although at least this time they avoid losing 100 games. Since coming over from the Red Sox, GM Theo Epstein and his group have taken a very different approach to the Cubs; even in the large media market of Chicago, they have opted for a slow methodical rebuilding process. The result is a franchise with exceptional young talent in the minors but not much going on at the major league level, other than some roster turnover in July the past few years.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Jason Hammel
Going: Dioner Navarro
Perhaps gun shy about spending after signing the disappointing Edwin Jackson to a five-year-deal last winter, the Cubs don’t pursue anyone significant and instead continue their pattern of trying to find potential trade trips from the bottom of the free agent barrel. Over the past few years they’ve been able to resurrect the careers of Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman, among others; they will try to do the same with Jason Hammel and Pirates castoff James McDonald. Trade discussions for Jeff Samardzija haven’t really gained much traction at all, although he’s a likely candidate to be dealt this July. The Cubs aren’t expected to contend this year but it is still strange to see them not pursue any outfielders.

Wild Card(s): 
Simon Castro was the Cubs’ lone young star going into last year, but they tried to change his approach last year and the results were disastrous; Castro hit a weak .247 with only 9 SB and a .284 OBP, and he saw a major jump in strikeouts (129 in 666 AB). Before that, he was a dynamic contact hitter, who led the league in hits in 2011. Considering he is only 25, Castro is a good bet to return to his former level of near-stardom, and could even improve, adding a few more home runs or competing for a batting title. If his defense remains solid, he is still a player the Cubs can build around. Sometimes players have off years. Even Robinson Cano hit .270 once.

Key Contract Years:
Jason Hammel was signed to a one-year deal. Nate Schierholtz is a solid platoon player but he’ll have to show he can repeat 2013’s power surge (career-high 21 HR).

Very quickly, Chicago might have an infield logjam; the first chance at third base may go to older rookie Mike Olt, who was primed for a big 2013 with Texas but contracted vision problems and wound up scuffling all year in AAA, eventually getting traded as part of the Matt Garza deal. He could be a power-hitting third basemen, but his window of opportunity is very short. That is because much better prospects are waiting for their chance, headlined by Javier Baez, currently a shortstop (but blocked by Castro). Baez has some of the best power in the minors, blasting 37 HR last year and 20 SB to boot. He’s an incredibly aggressive hitter (167 strikeouts last year) so Chicago may want him to learn how to be more patient in AA or AAA to avoid having him become another Pedro Alvarez, but if Baez is hitting and the Cubs are bad he may force their hand. Another third basemen, Christian Villanueva, has a good glove and potential 15-20 HR power, and he will start the year in AAA.

The most likely hitter to debut for the Cubs is infielder Arismendy Alcantara, a 20/20 threat who could immediately supplant Darwin Barney at second base. He has a solid approach at the plate as well (62 walks and a .352 OBP last year in AA).

Key Questions:
Who gets promoted and when?
Where do all the pieces fit? The above-mentioned players may all be ready but it will be tricky to place them all and give them playing time in Chicago. And how dose Chicago determine where each newcomer is best positioned?
Who plays in the outfield?  Right now their depth chart is quite thin, with also-rans like Ryan Sweeney and Justin Ruggiano projected for increased playing time.
Is Junior Lake their best outfielder? That’s a scary thought.
Who gets traded this year?
Are there any pitchers Chicago can call up later this season?
Can Anthony Rizzo develop into a stronger offensive threat?

Farm System Overview: BLUE (elite) 
An army of infielders are waiting to make a difference in Chicago. But in addition to those mentioned above, there are also quite a few outfielders who project as potential all-stars making their way through the system right now, topped by back-to-back first round picks Al Almora and Khris Bryant. Finally, Chicago also has some pitching to match their incredible array of minor league power bats. CJ Edwards was acquired in the Matt Garza deal and had a 1.86 ERA in 116 IP last year. Several other pitchers acquired in trades—Arodys Vizcaino, Kyle Hendricks and Neil Ramirez—also look like potential starters down the road.

2014 Prognosis: Rebuilding 
Although their situation was never as dire, the Cubs have taken a similar approach to the Astros over the past few years, cycling through some veterans and flipping them for prospects, while spending money in the draft on early picks (the result of their prior losing seasons). Progress at the major league level has been slow, but things could change in a hurry. But not in time for them to be a playoff threat this season.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: Milwaukee Brewers
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Overview:
Three years ago Milwaukee went all-in to acquire Zach Greinke and Shawn Marcum, and last year they find out how far you can fall when you run out of prospects and/or pitching. The Brewers go the whole year without a first basemen and the late signing of Kyle Lohse can’t mask a thin and uninspiring pitching corps. The Brewers thought they had something more, but almost all of their young back-end starter candidates hit the wall as AAAA batting practice fodder. Remember when Mike Fiers was a nice story?

Winter Grade: C 
Coming: Matt Garza, Mark Reynolds
Going: Norichika Aoki, Corey Hart
Milwaukee is sort of stuck in a holding pattern until they discover for good that this roster doesn’t have what it takes. Under those circumstances, signing Matt Garza was a pricey addition but all he cost was money, as under the new CBA rules no player traded midseason is subject to draft pick compensation. However, Milwaukee was better off trying to retain longtime Brewer Corey Hart; they spent the winter fruitlessly searching for a first basemen, from Ike Davis to James Loney. Their inability to find anything better than Mark Reynolds and (yuck!) Lyle Overbay is extremely uncreative but also speaks to their lack of prospect depth; Milwaukee could not afford to give up even a mid-range pitching prospect for any of the available hitters on the market (Ike Davis, Logan Morrison, et al). Trading Aoki for a relief pitcher (Will Smith) was also a head-scratcher; they will miss his presence atop the lineup.

Wild Card(s): 
A trio of hitters who made their debut in 2013—Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett and Caleb Gindl—could potentially serve full-time roles this year. Davis is the most likely to maintain some semblance of his 2013 production (.279/.353/.596 slash line in 56 games) based on his track record, but he’s also 26 and a poor defender. Gennett showed unexpected power last year (.479 slugging) but his minor league track record predicts more of a utility profile; ditto Gindl.

Pitcher Wily Peralta was a much better pitcher in the second half of last year, with a 3.99 ERA after the all-star break and a higher strikeout rate. He has a good fastball and some potential secondary pitches, so it would not be too unexpected for him to take another step forward in 2014.

Key Contract Years: 

Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo both have options that are unlikely to be picked up. Aramis Ramirez, however, has an intriguing mutual option for $14 million, which is basically the equivalent of a qualifying offer. Considering his age and production last year, it’s about a 50/50 proposition that both sides agree to those terms.

Nobody very interesting. Righty Jimmy Nelson had a so-so year in AAA last year, and made his debut last September. He struck out a bunch of guys (163 in 156 IP) but without better command, Nelson is more likely a no. 4 starter at best or a power arm out of the bullpen. First basemen Hunter Morris belted 24 Home Runs in AAA but hit just .247 without many walks, which is why someone like Mark Reynolds is the opening day starter in Milwaukee, not him. It’s possible Morris gets some playing time if/when things go back.

Key Questions:
What happens if the Brewers get off to a bad start?
How long does management wait?
Will the Brewers avoid being stuck in also-ran status the way the Astros were several years ago?
Who gets more playing time at second base, Scooter Gennett or Rickie Weeks?
Is Tyler Thornburg a starter or reliever?
What are the Brewers going to do with Ryan Braun?
If he hits again, will fans and management embrace him or will they use that to extract more in a trade and give him a ‘fresh start’ somewhere?

Farm System Overview: BLACK (one of the worst) 
The Brewers have traded away talent, drafted poorly, and given away picks by signing free agents. They also haven’t spent much on the international market. The result is a system with no depth and no impact prospects. Their best prospect is either a likely bullpen arm (Nelson) or 19-year-old outfielder Tyrone Taylor, who could be a league average player after hitting .274/.338/.400 in low-A ball last year. If the Brewers are lucky, there are a handful of role players in the system who can come up and have a career, like Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett did last year.

2014 Prognosis: Unlikely Contenders

The Brewers are not really a threat to make the playoffs; their roster as is cannot compete with the Cardinals or Reds and they don’t have any depth either. However, they can’t really be classified as ‘rebuilding’ with stars like Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez still on the roster. Ideally, management allows Doug Melvin to bite the bullet and restock the farm system a little by trading away some guys like Ramirez or pitcher Yovani Gallardo, but it will be a hard sell, especially if Milwaukee is hovering around .500 most of the year. That said, this is not really a young .500 team, and so every year they don’t recycle some younger talent they are going to slide further into irrelevance. This looks like a team staring down a precipice.

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