1 Huge Fear Every 2016 MLB Contender Should Have This Spring
Although Major League Baseball's spring training generally isn't a haunted house environment, even would-be contenders never know when something is going to pop up and say, "Boo!"
It's on this note that we're going to comb through 20 presumed contenders and pick out one big fear each of them should have this spring. And because it would be too easy to suggest that maybe the best players could suffer devastating injuries, we're going to stick to practical concerns.
For instance, the Los Angeles Angels have more reason to worry about Albert Pujols than they do about Mike Trout. Also, the Boston Red Sox have more reason to worry about Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez than, say, David Price. And so on.
We'll begin with the team that has the lowest projected win total, according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections and end at the team with the highest projected win total.
Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon Breaks Down
PECOTA: 76 Wins
Let's skip past the part where we unhinge our jaws and gawk at PECOTA's lack of respect for the reigning champs and acknowledge that, yes, they should be really good in 2016.
Provided, of course, that Alex Gordon's health doesn't betray him again.
Gordon was limited to 104 games in 2015 by a groin injury that sidelined him for nearly two months. And even after he returned, he wasn't quite himself. He OPS'd just .682 in the final month of the season, and there were times when the four-time Gold Glover didn't look like himself in left field.
None of this stopped the Royals from inking Gordon to a four-year, $72 million contract this winter. And in their defense, his production over the last five years and his track record of durability (150-plus games each year between 2011 and 2014) say they got a steal.
But it's also possible that Gordon's durability is past its expiration date. He's going into his age-32 season, and having to roam Kauffman Stadium's gigantic outfield over the years has put a lot of miles on his legs. If his health acts up again this spring, the Royals would face the notion that maybe last year's troubles were just the beginning of a larger breakdown.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Yasmany Tomas and Jean Segura Continue to Struggle
PECOTA: 78 Wins
The Diamondbacks went all-in on improving their pitching this winter, signing Zack Greinke and Tyler Clippard and trading for Shelby Miller. They should at least have competent pitching, which is a lot better than what they had in 2015.
But now for the not-so-bright side: Another thing the D-Backs did this winter is make two apparent downgrades to an awesome lineup.
In right field, Yasmany Tomas is taking over for Ender Inciarte. At shortstop, Jean Segura is slated to take over for Nick Ahmed. The two of them can't hope to replicate the 49 defensive runs saved that Inciarte and Ahmed combined for in 2015, so the D-Backs will need them to hit a whole bunch to justify the switch.
That's where the D-Backs need Tomas and Segura to show them something this spring. Tomas debuted as a below-average hitter in 2015, and Segura's bat hasn't been any good since the first half of 2013.
That is, Arizona is putting a lot of faith in hitting talent that may not be there. If Tomas and Segura continue to struggle at the plate this spring, the D-Backs will head into the season with two anchors just waiting to drag them down.
Detroit Tigers: Victor Martinez Breaks Down
PECOTA: 78 Wins
Hey, don't blame PECOTA. The Tigers made a lot of moves this winter, but it was all in service of repairing a team that won just 74 games in 2015. They still need much to go right in 2016.
At the top of the list is Victor Martinez's health. A bad left knee limited him to just 120 games in 2015 and caused his OPS to tumble over 300 points from the year before. That contributed to the Tigers ranking 10th in the American League in runs scored.
The veteran switch-hitter is feeling good going into 2016, telling Jason Beck of MLB.com that he "felt like Superman" while doing his offseason work. If he can stay healthy, maybe he can go back to being the lethal offensive force that he was in 2014.
That's not something to take for granted, though.
Martinez is going into his age-37 season, and the knee that bothered him in 2015 is the same knee that sidelined him for all of 2012. And knowing that he had such a hard time producing in 2015, the last thing the Tigers need is his knee acting up again this spring. That could take away not just a great offensive weapon but really the only hitter they have who can be a threat from the left side of the plate.
Los Angeles Angels: Albert Pujols Suffers a Setback
PECOTA: 79 Wins
PECOTA isn't alone in being down on the Angels. It seems many are, with one of the main concerns being that they didn't do much to upgrade an offense that ranked 12th in the AL in runs last year.
The Angels will have an even bigger problem on their hands if Albert Pujols' health betrays him this spring. Though the veteran first baseman is still recovering from surgery on his right foot, he told Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times that he wants to be ready by Opening Day.
The Angels seem unsure of that idea, as they darn well should. They shouldn't want Pujols pushing his 36-year-old body harder than he should be, as that would only increase the risk of him hitting a snag in his recovery.
If that happens, the Angels' playoff hopes could be dead before the season even begins. If their offense could struggle even with Pujols and his 40 home runs last season, one doesn't need to be Nostradamus to predict that things could be considerably worse in 2016 if he's out of commission for a significant chunk of time.
Texas Rangers: Adrian Beltre Breaks Down
PECOTA: 80 Wins
As the Rangers to prepare to defend their AL West title, the easiest worry may be over whether Yu Darvish can recover from Tommy John surgery without any setbacks.
But because the Rangers showed in 2015 that they can win without Darvish, Adrian Beltre may be the guy they should really be nervous about.
The veteran third baseman may be known just as much for his durability and toughness as he is for his excellent hitting and fielding, as he's played through just about every injury in his 18-year career. Most recently, Beltre played the entire second half of 2015 with a torn thumb ligament and was also able to have some moments in the postseason despite a bad back.
But at some point, you have to ask how much more Beltre can take. He's going into his age-37 season, and that's an age where relatively few third basemen have played in so many as 120 games. And if Beltre's durability finally gives way, the Rangers will be missing a guy who's been their best player by a laughable margin over the last five years.
Chicago White Sox: Adam LaRoche Continues to Struggle
PECOTA: 82 Wins
With Todd Frazier being the club's only big addition this winter, the White Sox need a lot of things that went wrong in 2015 to go right in 2016. Since we can only pick one, we're going with Adam LaRoche.
LaRoche was supposed to be a left-handed partner in crime for Jose Abreu when he arrived in Chicago last winter, but that didn't happen. His OPS fell nearly 200 points from where it was in 2014, and he was even worse at the end of the year than he was at the beginning.
"Last year sucked," LaRoche admitted, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune. "It was tough. But I'm over it now, and we do it all over again."
Though LaRoche may be over it psychologically, realistically may be another story. One thing that stood out in 2015 was how much more often he was swinging and missing, and Brooks Baseball shows that fastballs and breaking balls were especially tough for him to hit.
If that's a sign that his bat has slowed down in his age-35 season, it could look even slower this spring as he prepares for his age-36 season. And if that's what the White Sox see, they may not be able to count on him to be the lefty power threat their lineup needs.
St. Louis Cardinals: Yadier Molina Suffers a Setback
PECOTA: 82 Wins
Some questions on this list loom larger than others, and this one may loom the largest. The Cardinals without Yadier Molina is a thought that doesn't sit well but also can't be ignored right now.
The veteran catcher had surgery on his left thumb early in the offseason and then another in December after the first didn't take. After that, it's no surprise that the Cardinals haven't yet set a date for Molina to resume baseball activities.
"He had one surgery, then had to have a second. The last thing you want to do is have a third, because that would be a problem," general manager John Mozeliak said, per Chuck King of the Associated Press via Fox Sports.
That's putting it lightly. Molina may not be the hitter he once was—his offense has been safely below average the last two years—but he's still the glue that holds the Cardinals together. Between the work Molina does with St. Louis pitchers, his defense behind the dish and the way he captains the club's defense as a whole, he's a valuable presence even when he's not hitting.
If Molina's thumb acts up again, the Cardinals will be left to trust Brayan Pena and a collection of spare parts to handle their catching. Needless to say, they don't want that.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Gerrit Cole Breaks Down
PECOTA: 83 Wins
For a team that just won 98 games in 2015, the Pirates are going into 2016 with a surprisingly long list of concerns. Chief among them is their starting pitching depth—or lack thereof.
That makes it imperative that Gerrit Cole's health behaves, and that's where there's room for a shred of doubt.
As Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported, Cole dealt with a bout of rib inflammation in January. And though reports out of Pirates camp have been positive, you still wonder. Cole is a hard-thrower who pitched 70 more innings in 2015 than he did in 2014, so maybe his body won't feel like obeying him this spring.
If Cole goes down, the rotation will lose a guy who posted a 2.60 ERA and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young voting last year. That's something this rotation can ill afford, as there's not a ton of depth behind Francisco Liriano. And though Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has a reputation as a miracle worker, even he surely has limits.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez Breaks Down
PECOTA: 84 Wins
After all their offseason moves, the Mariners might be the sleeping giant of the American League. But they're only going to wake up if their stars perform likes stars, and there's cause for concern with one of them.
And though Robinson Cano is the easy answer, it's not him.
Felix Hernandez is coming off a season in which he wasn't much better than a league-average pitcher, and it's getting harder and harder not to worry about his elbow. It was a sticking point when he signed his contract extension a couple of years ago, and he had more issues with it at the end of 2015.
Granted, Hernandez has indeed been a picture of durability throughout his career. But he's at a point where that could turn from a blessing to a curse. Only 28 other pitchers have pitched as many innings through the age of 29 as he has. With his 30th birthday coming up, that workload could soon catch up to him.
If King Felix goes down this spring, whatever chance the Mariners have this year will likely be gone. They have good depth but probably not enough to withstand the loss of their ace.
New York Yankees: Masahiro Tanaka Breaks Down
PECOTA: 85 Wins
Perhaps because they enjoyed the experience so much a year ago, the Yankees have talent and question marks in seemingly equal supply going into 2015. And once again, Masahiro Tanaka's elbow is the big one.
Last spring, everyone was worried that Tanaka's balky right elbow would need surgery. This spring, he's actually recovering from elbow surgery, having undergone a procedure to remove a bone spur back in October.
At the time, nobody sounded worried about Tanaka not being ready for Opening Day. But he opened that door a crack recently, telling Erik Boland of Newsday that he "can't say for sure" if he'll be ready in time.
Though Tanaka also insisted he's "perfectly healthy," it appears he doesn't want to push himself. This makes it all too easy to wonder if he is lacking confidence in the strength of his elbow, which in turn makes it easy for us to wonder if he's really out of the woods.
If it turns out he's not, the Yankees rotation would suddenly find itself without its de facto ace. That would put pressure on Luis Severino, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and CC Sabathia to step up. And due to those players' own red flags, that's a group that only inspires so much confidence.
Toronto Blue Jays: David Price's Absence Looms Large
PECOTA: 86 Wins
The consensus on the Blue Jays appears to be that they're no longer the superteam they were at the end of 2015. The departure of David Price is a factor, since he was just the ace the Blue Jays thought they were trading for when they got him last July.
Granted, Price's exit hardly wrecked the Blue Jays. They should once again have a lineup that excels on offense and defense, and their bullpen is quietly stacked. We must also grant that Marcus Stroman has the ability to step into Price's shoes, so you can't fault John Gibbons for not being worried.
"We've got a good ballclub," the Blue Jays manager said in December, per Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com. "I think everybody's hoping that Price would come back. That didn't happen. So we've got to adjust, and we've still got to respond."
But while there's still plenty to like about the Blue Jays, nobody will be surprised if Price's absence looms large this spring. As good as Stroman is, the mediocrity of Toronto's rotation behind him is hard to ignore. Ask FanGraphs' projections, and they'll tell you the Blue Jays have one of MLB's five worst rotations.
The Blue Jays don't want anyone to worry about Price being gone. But if their rotation starts living up to low expectations this spring, even they may start sweating his departure.
San Francisco Giants: Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto Continue to Struggle
PECOTA: 87 Wins
To avoid needing Madison Bumgarner to single-handedly carry their rotation again in 2016, the Giants invested over $200 million in Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija this winter.
They'll be glad they did if those two can put their up-and-down 2015 seasons behind them, and the Giants aren't nuts to think they can. Both should benefit from the move to the National League and from pitching regularly at AT&T Park, as well as pitching in front of a talented Giants defense.
But then again, what if Cueto's and Samardzija's struggles in 2015 were no fluke?
It's possible. Samardzija's decline as a strikeout merchant doesn't bode well, and Cueto was just plain erratic in the latter half of 2015 with the Royals. With the two of them now on the wrong side of 30, their struggles in 2015 could have been a case of them entering their twilight years.
If that becomes apparent this spring, the Giants will face the prospect of having the same problem they had last year: plenty of offense and defense but not nearly enough pitching.
Washington Nationals: The Injury Bug Strikes Again
PECOTA: 87 Wins
On paper, the Nationals have enough talent to wash away a disappointing 2015 season. And with the ever-agreeable Dusty Baker running the show, what should be much-improved team chemistry can only help.
There's just one potential problem: The Nationals have as much cause as any team to fear the injury bug. It bit them hard at the beginning of 2015 and kept biting throughout the rest of the year. That ended up being their undoing, and one fears the same once again in 2016.
Between Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and even Bryce Harper, the Nationals have injury risks up and down their lineup. Stephen Strasburg, who was limited to 23 starts last year, is another big one in their rotation.
These injury risks would be easier to stomach if the Nationals had loaded up on depth this winter, but they still look like a team that can ill afford another rush of injuries. Their rotation is really only five men deep, and the only pieces they added this winter for depth purposes were Ben Revere and Stephen Drew.
It was during spring training last season that the Nationals' yearlong injury problem began to take shape. If it's the same ol' story this spring, they may wish for a do-over on their offseason.
Boston Red Sox: Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez Continue to Struggle
PECOTA: 88 Wins
The Red Sox had some good vibes going at the end of 2015, and they added to them this winter by bringing in the likes of David Price and Craig Kimbrel. What were already good vibes are now, well, better.
But that doesn't mean it's any easier to be optimistic about Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The Red Sox need them to rebound from being two of the American League's worst players in 2015, and that could be asking too much.
After he showed up to spring training with a noticeable boiler, the worries have already begun in Sandoval's neck of the woods. Ramirez is doing better, but David Schoenfield of ESPN.com isn't wrong to think that his transition to first base will be a disaster. Ramirez has been a lousy defender everywhere else he's played, after all.
In theory, the Red Sox could probably survive if Sandoval and Ramirez were to play so poorly this spring to warrant being pushed aside. But that's something that will be difficult to do in reality, as a team can't exactly make two players who are still owed nearly $150 million just disappear.
That leaves the Red Sox no choice but to hope for the best. Because if it looks like Sandoval and Ramirez are headed for another disastrous season, the good vibes will go south in a hurry.
Houston Astros: First Base Remains a Question Mark
PECOTA: 88 Wins
After rising from the depths in 2015, the Astros have everything they need to take the next step in 2016. Everything, that is, except for a clear answer at first base.
Slugging 24-year-old Jon Singleton is the de facto favorite to earn the job, and he got off to a good start by showing up to camp with more muscles and a better attitude.
"It's obvious he put in some time at the gym and is very aware of what his situation is, and there's a seriousness to him," Astros manager A.J. Hinch told Brian McTaggart of MLB.com.
This may not fix Singleton's shortcomings, however. With a career strikeout rate of 36 percent and minus-six defensive runs saved, whiffs and poor defense have overshadowed the power he's been able to provide at the major league level.
If Singleton continues to struggle in those two departments, the door will be open for prospects Tyler White and A.J. Reed, the latter of whom is our AL Rookie of the Year pick. But confident though we are in Reed, there's no denying that he and White have a lack of experience that could get in their way. If nothing else, Houston's first base situation may remain a fly in the ointment of a talented team.
Tampa Bay Rays: Injury Bug Returns for Their Starting Pitchers
PECOTA: 91 Wins
The fond feeling that PECOTA has for the Rays doesn't seem to be shared by many, but one thing that stands out as a possible strength is their starting rotation. Buster Olney of ESPN.com, for instance, ranks it as a top-10 unit going into 2016.
But that's health permitting, which happens to be an especially pressing concern with this rotation.
Contrary to their track record, Rays starters had a tough time staying healthy in 2015. Alex Cobb was lost for the year with Tommy John surgery. Drew Smyly and Matt Moore made only 12 stars apiece. Jake Odorizzi missed a month with an injury.
Because none of those latter three has a track record of durability, the Rays need to make sure not to push them too hard this spring. For that matter, staff ace Chris Archer arguably deserves the same treatment. He may have thrown over 210 innings last year, but he did so with a mere 190-pound frame that generated a lot of velocity.
If the Rays can exit spring training with a healthy starting rotation, they might actually have a shot at disrupting the status quo in the AL East. But if the injury bug finds their rotation again, well, maybe not.
New York Mets: The Defense Looks as Bad as Advertised
PECOTA: 91 Wins
With the surprise re-signing of Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets went from being one of the offseason's big losers to one of the offseason's big winners.
But as soon as they slated him to play center field instead of his customary left field, a nagging question emerged: Just how bad is this Mets defense?
It could be pretty bad. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs argued that the Mets are making a big bet against fielding, writing that their defenders figure to be "somewhere between average and lousy relative to their positional peers." After finishing as one of baseball's 10 most efficient defenses, per Baseball Prospectus, the Mets defense could be about to take a big step back.
Of course, the trade-off is that the Mets figure to hit and pitch very well. In theory, these things could serve to downplay their need for good defense.
But as Cameron noted, teams with especially bad defenses have a lousy track record in the win column. That's a reminder that bad defense is not as easy to overcome as the Mets are hoping, which leaves them to hope that their defense looks better than advertised this spring.
Chicago Cubs: Somebody Shows Up with a Billy Goat
PECOTA: 92 Wins
Look, your humble narrator tried to come up with a serious idea for this slide. But after all the Cubs have done, that proved to be difficult.
On the strength of a powerful offense and an excellent pitching staff led by Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, the Cubs won 97 games last year. They then signed Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey this winter, addressing three pressing needs.
Up until Thursday, the only big question for the Cubs concerned their outfield, specifically whether playing Heyward in center field was such a good idea. But then they surprised everyone by re-signing Dexter Fowler, allowing them to move Heyward back to right field.
In so doing, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs is right in arguing that the Cubs addressed their last big question. Their offense, defense, starting rotation and bullpen are all now unquestionably championship quality, and they don't even have any obvious injury concerns.
Knowing all this, the only thing the Cubs need to fear is somebody cursing them. According to legend, that takes a billy goat.
Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley Suffers a Setback
PECOTA: 92 Wins
Though the attention in the AL Central is mainly on the Tigers and Royals, the Indians have the goods to crash the party in 2016. Their starting pitching, in particular, is loaded.
But their offense isn't quite as strong, and it will be considerably weaker if Michael Brantley's shoulder doesn't cooperate this spring.
The sweet-swinging outfielder had surgery on his right shoulder at the start of the offseason, at which point his status for Opening Day was put in jeopardy. But as Brantley told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, he's doing everything he can to be ready for Opening Day.
Hopefully not too much, though. Brantley's right shoulder is his front shoulder in the batter's box, and front-shoulder injuries have been known to be slow to heal. The last thing Brantley wants to do is aggravate it, lest he set a slow-healing injury back even more.
That's not what the Indians need. With a .319 average and an .876 OPS, Brantley has been by far their best hitter over the last two seasons. If he has to miss an extended period of time, their offense will find it harder to come up with enough runs to support their starting pitching.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Zack Greinke's Absence Looms Large
PECOTA: 94 Wins
It came as a shock when the Dodgers lost Zack Greinke to free agency this winter, but PECOTA's projection goes to show that they recovered well from that.
The Dodgers did so by replacing Greinke in the aggregate by signing Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda to help aid Clayton Kershaw. As Rob Neyer explained at Fox Sports, this could work out just fine:
My point is that as great as Greinke was, a) they've still got Kershaw, b) once you get past Kershaw, there are four rotation slots that offer opportunities to replace what's lost in Greinke, and c) finally getting to the real point here, those opportunities are well within reasonable boundaries.
There's also this: Lest anyone lump the Dodgers in with the Blue Jays sans Price, FanGraphs actually has them projected for the best starting pitching in baseball.
Still, even the Dodgers' confidence in what they have behind Kershaw could be rattled if their rotation struggles this spring. For though there's not much room for doubt that the Dodgers are going to be a good regular-season team this year, rotation struggles in the spring could foretell how much they'll miss Greinke come October.
And last anyone checked, that's really the only month these Dodgers care about.
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