Wild Cards That Could Completely Change MLB Landscape in '15

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2015

Wild Cards That Could Completely Change MLB Landscape in '15

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    A team's fortunes over the course of a six-month season typically hinge on more than one factor, but depending on how critical said factor is, that one wild card can affect things greatly.

    It can be a good or bad performance. It can be a health issue, for better or worse. It can be how a player bounces back from an injury or a poor previous season. It can even be how a player produces during the ever-important contract year.

    Whatever the case or reason, these are players who can greatly impact their teams, their division races and even World Series chances depending on how they turn. That is why they become important pieces in determining how their league's landscapes play out.

    This year, there is no lack of such examples. Every team has at least a couple of these X-factors, and they have the potential to make or derail an entire season depending on how they break.

    For 2015, these are some of the most important variables. Either way they go, they will all have a significant impact on their team's year.

Jose Fernandez’s Return

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Jose Fernandez was on the verge of superstardom when his right elbow betrayed him last year, forcing him to have Tommy John surgery in May.

    Fernandez is expected back in the Miami Marlins’ rotation this season, and per Christina De Nicola of Fox Sports Florida, he has targeted July 16 as his comeback day, which is the start of the second part of the season. Essentially, his return will be like a major midseason acquisition just before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. 

    If he comes back at or even near the top of his game, he will be one of the best right-handers in baseball. He put up a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts during his rookie season, earning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He followed that with a 2.44 ERA through eight starts in his sophomore campaign before the injury struck.

    The Marlins have postseason aspirations because of a young, budding roster. Fernandez is a major part of those hopes, even if he is available for fewer than three months. A successful return to the rotation would give the Marlins a great boost. And on the flip side, if he comes back and is ineffective, or if that timetable has to be pushed back significantly, the Marlins’ playoff chances would take a serious hit.

    Fernandez is that good, and he is that important to his franchise’s fortunes.

Madison Bumgarner and the Post-World Series Effect

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Madison Bumgarner cemented a reputation as a big-game pitcher during last year’s postseason, and his 1.03 ERA over 52.2 innings were the No. 1 reason the San Francisco Giants captured a third World Series title in five seasons.

    Between the regular season and playoffs, Bumgarner threw 270 innings, which is by far the most he’s ever gone in a season. He also threw 4,074 pitches, the second-highest total in baseball last year behind James Shields, and became one of 32 pitchers since 1995 to throw 4,000 pitches in a season.

    Bumgarner’s teammate Matt Cain threw 249.1 innings in 2012 when the Giants won the second of those World Series. Since then, he has faced performance and health issues, going from one of the league’s elite right-handers to one who posted a 4.06 ERA over 45 starts the last two years.

    That is not to say Bumgarner’s workload last season will negatively affect his performance, but the Giants certainly need him to be the kind of stud he was the last two years if they are going to have any kind of realistic chance at making the postseason.

    ZiPS, which is released by FanGraphs, projects Bumgarner to throw 210 innings with another superb sub-3.00 ERA while providing 4.3 wins above replacement. Clearly, the system does not see him having a drop-off after such a busy 2014. 

    And that is exactly what the Giants need.

A Healthy Michael Pineda

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    When the New York Yankees traded away catching prospect Jesus Montero, they did so believing they were getting in return a pitcher on the verge of becoming a legitimate front-line starter. What they have gotten so far from Michael Pineda is a man who has struggled to stay healthy enough to fulfill his promise.

    Pineda injured his right shoulder during his first spring training with the Yankees in 2013 and missed the entire campaign. Last season, he started making good on his upside with a 1.89 ERA over 13 starts, but while serving a 10-game suspension for using pine tar, Pineda suffered a muscle strain in his shoulder that kept him off the mound for more than three months.

    Considering the fragile state of the Yankees’ roster, and especially within the rotation, Pineda’s health is one of those critical variables that could make or break the team’s season.

    “I feel like everything is in the past right now,” Pineda told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. “I feel great. I’m feeling good, feeling strong, and I’m happy with that.”

    If Pineda is healthy and stays on the course that saw him post a 0.825 WHIP last season, he will be a stabilizer for the Yankees and could help give them the best rotation in the American League East.

Jason Heyward's Contract Year

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Jason Heyward broke into the big leagues with a loud bang, smoking a home run off Carlos Zambrano in his first major league at-bat in 2010. Since then, though, Heyward has been an offensive letdown.

    That is not to say he has not been productive. He has been, especially on the defensive side as one of the game’s best right fielders. But he has just not lived up to the lofty expectations that came with being the 14th overall pick in 2007 by the Atlanta Braves.

    But now Heyward is a St. Louis Cardinal after a blockbuster trade in November, and he is in that ultra-important contract year with free agency and a hefty payday a season away. A big offensive campaign from him would go a long way toward not only securing major financial security but also in cementing the Cardinals as the best team in the National League Central.

    Heyward also thinks the change of scenery could help him produce big numbers.

    “I spent five years at this level with one organization and I still don’t know if I’ve seen the best of myself,” Heyward said to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I would say a fresh start would be good. I feel like that was kind of self-explanatory. Look at it. I do feel that this is the best thing that could have happened to me as far as playing this game, getting a new start somewhere else. Absolutely.”

    Seeing as how the Cardinals have so many lingering questions about their rotation and little depth to fall back on—Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins were promising pitchers the team included in the trade to net Heyward—a huge offensive contribution from the outfielder might be necessary to hold off clubs like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs.

The Padres’ New Roster Must Jell

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    Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres underwent an overhaul this offseason, as they added to their rotation and infield, and revamped their entire outfield. And while this rebuild appears better than recent ones in Miami and Toronto, this team still has to win.

    The remade outfield has serious defensive questions, and beyond that, all three players—Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers—have had at least a touch of character concerns during parts of their careers.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers traded Kemp in part because they wanted to change the atmosphere in the clubhouse. Myers has been among those with the most upside in the game for a few seasons, but he has already been traded twice before his 25th birthday—and with team control—prompting questions about his makeup.

    Upton’s issues are a bit less prominent, but the Arizona Diamondbacks traded him because former GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson did not believe he fit the club dynamic they desired.

    If those issues come back to hurt the Padres, this rebuild could turn out disastrously. However, if this team jells, the outfield produces and James Shields pitches like the No. 1 starter they signed him to be, a postseason berth for the first time since 2006 is a realistic possibility.

David Price Carrying the Tigers Rotation

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    When the Detroit Tigers traded for David Price at last year’s deadline, they had the makings of a super rotation. As it turned out, the swap did not help them advance in the postseason. And now that Max Scherzer is gone, this is Price’s rotation to lead.

    Between the Tampa Bay Rays and Tigers, Price put together a 3.26 ERA, 2.78 FIP and led the American League with 248.1 innings in 2014. He was also good for a 4.6 WAR at Baseball-Reference and a 6.1 WAR at FanGraphs. He will at least have to duplicate that effort if the Tigers are going to win the AL Central for a fifth straight season and make any kind of noise in the playoffs.

    Then there is also the fact that Price is in a contract year. He will be entering an all-time great crop of free-agent starting pitchers after this season, and in order for him to secure a nine-figure contract approaching Scherzer’s (seven years, $210 million), he will again have to be one of the game’s elite lefties.

    If Price has an off year or catches the injury bug, the Tigers’ chances at winning a championship fall to basically nil. But with him being ace-like, they should walk away with the division and possibly find some postseason success.

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