With the World Series over, the 2014-15 offseason officially begins and all eligible players become free agents. The wheeling and dealing (and recovering) begins as teams look to either establish a dynasty or simply raise themselves out of mediocrity. The winter months are especially important for teams on the rise; these teams have shown significant competitive potential and look to 2015 as a chance to assert (or reassert) themselves. With the right move or moves, a team can easily go from worst to first, or at the very least, give themselves a legitimate chance at finishing above .500, which, given the new wild card system, almost guarantees competitiveness right up to the end.
With that in mind, here are four teams in the National League that are poised for breakout seasons next year:
1. Milwaukee Brewers (NL Central)
The Brewers were the closest of these four to making a comeback this year. A hot start caused many analysts to wonder why they had written off this year’s Brewers team. But in the end the Brewers ran out of gas near the end of August, and not only fell out of first place, but failed to make the postseason entirely. They finished with a respectable 82-80 record, which was a modest improvement over 2013, but still significantly disappointing given their first half of the season.
The Brewers have one of the better offenses in the National League, led by Carlos Gmez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Ryan Braun. This offseason the Brewers have at least one big hole to fill offensively, and that is at first base, which has been a serious problem for the Brewers over the past few years. Their best options are Adam LaRoche (whose option will almost certainly be declined by Washington, making him a free agent) or Michael Morse. LaRoche, while older, does bring solid defense along with a respectable bat, thus making him a logical target for the Brewers. The Brewers also figure to exercise their end of Aramis Ramrez’s mutual option. Although he’s had issues with injuries and durability, at 36 years old he still is one of the best clutch hitters in the league and still provides good defense. Durability was a major problem for the Brewers this year and probably one of the main reasons why they failed to reach the playoffs. If the Brewers can consistently have these players on the field, their chances of success are much higher.
On the pitching end, the Brewers have a solid rotation, though not spectacular. The four top pitchers (Lohse, Peralta, Gallardo, and Garza) all had pretty good years, but none had a dominant year. A contending team needs an ace, someone who can pitch to an ERA below 3.00 and accumulate over 215 innings. Any of those four has the capability of doing just that. Maintaining a good bullpen might prove difficult for the Brewers this winter. Several of their best relievers from this year are free agents and could therefore be in line for significant paydays. The Brewers’ payroll is at a record high for the franchise, which makes one wonder how much more money ownership is willing to commit. They do have Rickie Weeks’ bad contract coming off the books, which certainly helps, but still have a lot of money committed to players like Braun, Garza and Lohse. Ultimately, the Brewers success in 2015 comes down to their ability to plug the hole at first base and improve the bullpen.
2. Chicago Cubs (NL Central)
The Cubs will probably have the most hype surrounding them come Spring Training. With half of the Core Four (Javier Bez and Jorge Soler) already at the major league level, and the other half (Kris Bryant and Albert Almora) not far behind, the Cubs look to have a seriously potent offense in the making. While power hasn’t been a problem for the Cubs these past few years, average and especially clutch hitting have been major issues. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo rebounded nicely this year and showed that they can hit for average, but they were the only ones that did. With the addition of Soler and Bryant (although he won’t be on the team for Opening Day), the Cubs’ ability to hit for average should dramatically improve. If Bez can improve his contact rates and Bryant comes up and performs as he has throughout the minor leagues, the Cubs could potentially have the best and most complete infield in the league by the end of next season. Not to mention they have several top outfield prospects ready or nearly ready.
With the offensive pieces in place, the Cubs’ primary concern this offseason should and will be pitching. Although Jake Arrieta had a breakout season, he hasn’t shown he can be the staff ace. Thus the Cubs will have to be one of the frontrunners for one of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields. Behind a top free agent pitcher and Arrieta (should he maintain his success), the Cubs have a pretty good, though somewhat unproven, back end that includes rookie standout Kyle Hendricks. The Cubs’ top starting prospect is C.J. Edwards, who probably won’t be a major leaguer until 2016, but he profiles potentially as a top of the rotation pitcher. The Cubs’ 2014 bullpen was vastly improved including young standouts such as Hector Rondon, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop. With no major bullpen pieces departing, the Cubs’ 2015 pitching staff should be very similar to this years, with the exception of the likely addition of a staff ace, which would give their starting pitchers an enormous boost. The Cubs look pretty good on paper heading into 2015, but any success hinges on top prospects coming up and being able to perform at reasonable levels. Several players such as Soler and Hendricks have shown so far that they can, while others such as Bez have struggled at first.
The Cubs are also rumored to have hired Joe Maddon, although both sides currently insist that no deal has been reached. Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays last week, opening the floodgates to rumors surrounding a possible move to the Cubs. Maddon led the Rays to the postseason four times from 2006 through 2014, including an American League Pennant in 2008. This move, combined with the Cole Hamels waiver claim this past August and the recently commenced half billion dollar Wrigley Field renovation, appears to show that Cubs are once again willing to spend significant amounts of money.
3. New York Mets (NL East)
The Mets’ major focus this winter will be offense. Although they have productive players such as David Wright, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Travis d’Arnaud and Curtis Granderson, the rest of the lineup is a gaping hole for the Mets. The most logical solution would be to work out a deal with the Cubs for a middle infielder, as they appear to have a logjam there. The Cubs meanwhile need a pitcher, something the Mets have plenty of. The Mets also need a third outfielder, preferably someone who could hit for some power or at least be a consistent run producer. Free agents such as Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer or Alex Rios are possible choices for the Mets and would be logical as none would require outrageous commitments. If the Mets can add either an infielder or an outfielder (preferably both), they will have a much more complete offense.
The Mets’ major strong suit is their pitching, and with Matt Harvey likely ready for Opening Day, the Mets will have a formidable rotation that also includes Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom. The Mets also have Bartolo Coln, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee, plus several prospects, to round out their rotation or serve as useful trade chips for offense. Their bullpen was also solid in 2014, and will return mostly intact. All told, the Mets’ pitching staff looks good heading into 2015, especially after a Harvey-less Mets had the fifth best ERA in the NL last year. Although the Mets finished slightly under .500 last year (79-83), their Pythagorean Record was actually 82-80, meaning they scored more runs than they allowed, a major testament to the quality of their pitching staff since the offense was relatively weak. Barring some blockbuster deal or massive spending, the Mets probably won’t quite be in a position to compete with the Nationals in 2015, but they should be able to get themselves back above .500 and into the Wild Card discussions.
4. Miami Marlins (NL East)
The Marlins made a serious statement this year, improving by 15 wins over 2013 and even remaining in Wild Card discussion for most of the year. They very quietly had a slightly above average offense this year, led mostly by MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton is probably the most coveted outfielder in the league right now, and if the Marlins were to extend him, he could be the centerpiece of their lineup for years to come. Protecting him are fellow outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Casey McGehee also was a big run producer for Miami, and he figures to be back as well next year. The rest of the lineup isn’t quite as exciting, however. It consists of either defensive minded players (such as Adeiny Hechavarria) or players who profile as more platoon players (such as Garrett Jones). If the Marlins can add another bat, and it need not be a big one, just a solid and consistent one, they ought to be able to produce runs at a respectable rate.
When Jos Fernndez returns in the late spring, the Marlins will have an excellent top of the rotation, with Henderson çlvarez coming in behind Fernndez, although the back end leaves somewhat to be desired. Thus an area for the Marlins to target this winter would be a third or fourth starter. Perhaps roll the dice on a pitcher to see if he can have a bounce back year. Such pitchers can usually be had for good prices and frequently work out quite well. Players such as Jason Hammel, Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano fit that description. The Marlins’ bullpen was also solid during 2014 and should remain intact next year. Thus the Marlins are in a similar position to the Cubs, in that they look like they’re only a few critical pieces away from possibly contending for a wild card spot. That being said, they’d have to play extremely well, as they lack the overall depth of teams higher on this list.
Read more of George’s posts at http://gsmbaseball.blogspot.com/