50 Reasons You Should Be Excited for the 2015 MLB Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2015

50 Reasons You Should Be Excited for the 2015 MLB Season

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    Ladies and gentlemen, we are officially less than two weeks from Opening Day and what promises to be another thrilling MLB season.

    While spring training games have served as a nice teaser for the upcoming campaign and provided fans with a chance to see their favorite clubs, the first official action can't come soon enough.

    The hope surrounding a new season and a fresh start is reason enough for most baseball fans to be excited, but if that doesn't quite do it for you, allow me to offer up a few others.

    Here are 50 reasons why you should be excited for the 2015 MLB season.

The Spectacle of Opening Day

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    It may just count as one game in the win-loss column, but there is no question Opening Day means a little something extra for fans and players alike.

    Oftentimes it's still heavy-jacket weather in some states when the MLB season kicks off, but at the same time it's hard not to associate the beginning of baseball with the beginning of summer.

    From the pregame festivities to the lineup introductions to what are generally some of the best pitching matchups we'll see all year, there's nothing quite like Opening Day.

More Web Gems from Andrelton Simmons

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    His offense is still a work in progress (.244 BA, 74 OPS+ in 2014), but Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons has quickly become must-see TV for his defensive prowess.

    The 25-year-old has won back-to-back Gold Glove awards, and whether one takes a look at his advanced metrics or gives a simple eye test, there is little question he is the game's elite defensive shortstop.

    From his seemingly limitless range to his cannon arm, if a ball is hit in the same hemisphere as Simmons, there's a good chance he's going to make a play on it.

The Eventual Return of Jose Fernandez

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    Jose Fernandez took the baseball world by storm in 2013, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, 0.979 WHIP and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings to win NL Rookie of the Year and finish third in Cy Young balloting.

    He was well on his way to another big season last year (8 GS, 4-2, 2.44 ERA, 70 K, 51.2 IP) when the monster that is Tommy John surgery claimed another victim and effectively ended his season in May.

    Marlins general manager Dan Jennings recently put his timetable to return at somewhere between June 15 and July 15, according to Christina De Nicola of Fox Sports.

    For Marlins fans and baseball fans alike, that day can't come soon enough.

The Miami Marlins' Dynamic Young Outfield

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates may have something to say about it before the 2015 season is over, but right now the best outfield trio in baseball belongs to the Miami Marlins.

    Giancarlo Stanton has already become a household name with his mammoth home runs, but he's joined by a pair of budding stars in Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna.

    Their 2014 stats:

    • Stanton: .288 BA, .950 OPS, 37 HR, 105 RBI, 89 R, 6.5 WAR
    • Ozuna: .269 BA, .772 OPS, 23 HR, 85 RBI, 72 R, 4.4 WAR
    • Yelich: .284 BA, .764 OPS, 9 HR, 54 RBI, 94 R, 3.6 WAR

    Stanton and Yelich both signed long-term extension this offseason, while Ozuna is under team control through 2019, so this group should be together for the foreseeable future.

The Return of Matt Harvey

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    The New York Mets and baseball fans in general were robbed of another budding superstar when Matt Harvey saw his breakout 2013 campaign end in Tommy John surgery.

    After a strong showing as a rookie in 2012, Harvey emerged as one of the best in the business in 2013.

    Thanks to a filthy repertoire of pitches, the right-hander went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA, 0.931 WHIP and 191 strikeouts in 178.1 innings. He also earned the start in the All-Star Game and finished fourth in Cy Young voting.

    Big picture, if he was going to need Tommy John surgery, the end of 2013 was a better time than the beginning of 2014. He's now had a full year to recover and is set to retake his place atop the Mets' rotation.

The Impending Cole Hamels Blockbuster Deal

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    There is not much reason for excitement when talking about the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies, but at least the team has finally realized it's time to start rebuilding.

    The problem: There is little in the way of young talent to build around.

    The solution: Trade ace Cole Hamels.

    All right, so that won't give them an entire roster of young players, but it would no doubt go a long way in expediting their return to relevance.

    The team has been unwilling to budge from its high asking price this offseason, per ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, and rightfully so, as the 31-year-old is one of the best pitchers in the game and a relative bargain at $90 million over the next four seasons.

    It's all but guaranteed he'll be moved at some point in the near future, though, and the return package the Phillies receive will be the centerpiece of their rebuild.

A Juggernaut Rotation in Washington, D.C.

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    We've seen loaded starting rotations fall short of winning it all before.

    The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies with their foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt immediately come to mind, as they won 102 games but fell in the Division Series.

    That being said, it's hard not to get excited about what the Washington Nationals boast in the starting pitching department after the offseason addition of Max Scherzer.

    Let's take a quick look at their projected staff:

    • Max Scherzer: 18-5, 3.15 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 252 K, 220.1 IP
    • Jordan Zimmermann: 14-5, 2.66 ERA, 1.072 WHIP, 182 K, 199.2 IP
    • Stephen Strasburg: 14-11, 3.14 ERA, 1.121 WHIP, 242 K, 215.0 IP
    • Doug Fister: 16-6, 2.41 ERA, 1.079 WHIP, 98 K, 164.0 IP
    • Gio Gonzalez: 10-10, 3.57 ERA, 1.197 WHIP, 162 K, 158.2 IP

    Throw in Tanner Roark, who was 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA last season but now finds himself relegated to the bullpen, and this may very well be the best stable of starting pitching we've seen in recent memory.

    Will it be enough to finally get the Nationals over the hump come October? We shall see.

The Arrival of Kris Bryant

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    People have talked about Kris Bryant to death this offseason, but you know what? He's earned every bit of the hype, and he has the tools to back it up.

    The 23-year-old absolutely demolished minor league pitching last season, hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs and 110 RBI in 492 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A.

    As if that wasn't enough fuel for the hype machine, he's gone 12-for-25 with two doubles and eight home runs so far this spring, making a compelling case to break camp with the team.

    Chances are he won't, as a few weeks in the minors will buy the club a full year of control, but once he arrives in Chicago he could immediately become one of the best sluggers in the game.

Joe Maddon at the Helm of a Legitimate Contender on the North Side

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    Since the Chicago Cubs last reached the postseason in 2008, they have gone through four managers in six years. But it looks like they have finally found their man in Joe Maddon.

    After the Cubs poached him from the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason, many view Maddon as the perfect guy to handle not only the lofty expectations in Chicago, but the young, talented roster at his disposal.

    Maddon took over a 95-loss Tampa Bay Rays team in 2006 and built them from an afterthought to perennial contender in the AL East.

    Chicago will task him with doing the same for the long-suffering Cubs, and the pieces are there for this team to make some serious noise in his first year at the helm.

The Game-Changing Speed of Billy Hamilton

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    It was a mixed bag for Billy Hamilton as a rookie last season, but the one constant was his blazing and often game-changing speed.

    After stealing a ridiculous 334 bases over his final three seasons in the minors, including a record 155 in 2012, Hamilton broke camp last season as the Reds' everyday center fielder.

    His .250/.292/.355 line left a lot to be desired out of the leadoff spot, but some growing pains were to be expected, and he did manage to steal 56 bases.

    It's his defense in center field that really opened eyes, as he had 14 defensive runs saved and a 21.7 UZR/150, according to FanGraphs.

    As he learns to make more consistent contact and finds himself on base more, Hamilton should develop into a deadly weapon atop the Cincinnati lineup.

Ryan Braun, For Better or Worse

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    There are two camps on the subject of Ryan Braun.

    On one side, you have the people who despise the fact that he cheated and loved every second of his career-worst 2014 season.

    Braun battled a thumb issue for much of the campaign, and the results were a .266/.324/.453 line with 19 home runs and 81 RBI, amounting to a career-low 1.0 WAR.

    On the other side, you have those who are willing to look past his transgressions and just want to once again watch what was one of the most dynamic offensive players in all of baseball.

    Either way, someone will be happy with the results in 2015.

5-Tool Superstar Andrew McCutchen

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    Outside of Mike Trout, there might not be a more complete player in the major leagues right now than Pittsburgh Pirates superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

    The 2013 NL MVP could have won the award again last season, as he hit .314/.410/.542 with 38 doubles, 25 home runs, 83 RBI and 18 stolen bases. 

    He's been the driving force behind the Pirates making back-to-back postseason appearances, and he is the definition of a five-tool player.

    The 28-year-old is in the prime of his career, and at this point there are not many players in the league who are more fun to watch than McCutchen.

    Side note: I'm a big fan of the Pirates' new matte-black helmets.

The Mystery That Is Jung Ho Kang

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    The stats are impossible to ignore.

    Jung Ho Kang posted .356/.459/.739 line with 36 doubles, 40 home runs, 117 RBI and 103 runs scored, numbers that are made even more impressive when you consider a shortstop put them up.

    However, no one knows exactly what to expect out of Jung Ho Kang after the 27-year-old signed a four-year, $11 million deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates this offseason.

    No position player has ever made the jump from the extremely hitter-friendly Korean Baseball Organization to the majors, but it was a risk worth taking on some undeniable tools.

    An opposite-field home run in his first spring at-bat only added to the intrigue.

    At this point Jordy Mercer still looks like the Pirates' starting shortstop, and whether Kang eventually unseats him or fills a super utility role, he'll be an interesting player to watch in 2015.

Jason Heyward Playing for a Huge Contract in St. Louis

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    Jason Heyward entered the league in 2010 with as much hype as any prospect in recent memory, and the then-20-year-old only elevated those expectations with a big rookie season.

    While he's been a productive player in the four years since, the general consensus is that he has yet to reach his full potential.

    Heyward was a 6.3-WAR player last season thanks to his Gold Glove defense in right field, plus on-base skills and base-stealing ability, but his .271/.351/.384 line and 11 home runs still leave plenty of room for improvement.

    The 25-year-old is entering a contract year, and his age and skill set should mean a massive payday, whether it comes in the form of an extension with the Cardinals or a free-agent deal.

    That motivation, coupled with a change of scenery, could mean we finally see the monster season we've been waiting for out of Heyward.

MLB's Latest Cuban Superstar Arrives in the Desert

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    A year after Jose Abreu made the jump from Cuba and flat-out dominated, fellow countryman Yasmany Tomas is looking to do the same in 2015 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    Signed to a six-year, $68.5 million pact after many predicted he would cost north of $100 million, Tomas brings legitimate 70-grade power, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America.

    His defensive position is still up in the air, as he has struggled at third base this spring and could still wind up in left field, but his bat should play from the get-go.

    With Tomas penciled in alongside Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, the Diamondbacks could boast the most dangerous middle-of-the-order trio in the National League.

Jon Gray, Who Just Might Wind Up as the Best Pitcher in Colorado Rockies History

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    Quick, name the best starting pitcher in Colorado Rockies history.

    Ubaldo Jimenez? Aaron Cook? Pedro Astacio? Denny Neagle? All right, not Denny Neagle.

    It's fair to say the starting rotation has been a major weakness since the team's inception in 1993, and with a rotation set to be led by Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Matzek and Jordan Lyles, it figures to be an issue once again.

    Hope is on the way, though, in the form of top prospect Jonathan Gray.

    "He's a talented kid, we can all see that," manager Walt Weiss told reporters (via Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post). "We see the radar gun when he throws a fastball. We see the body type—he looks the part. All those things a big-time pitcher looks like, he has that. Now it's just a matter of maturing and knowing he belongs."

    Gray was 10-5 with a 3.91 ERA, 1.190 WHIP and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings in a full season in Double-A last year, and if he doesn't break camp with the team, the burly right-hander will be knocking on the door before too long.

Clayton Kershaw Just Entering His Prime

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    The regular-season numbers for Clayton Kershaw in 2014 were nothing short of brilliant: 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA, 0.857 WHIP and 239 strikeouts in 198.1 innings.

    That earned him his third Cy Young Award in the past four years and also made him just the 10th pitcher in baseball history to win MVP honors, and he may just be getting started.

    Kershaw just turned 27 years old on March 19, meaning he's entering what most pitchers would consider to be the prime of their career.

    Is it possible he could get even better in the years to come?

    That's an awfully scary thought for the rest of the league.

More Yasiel Puig Bat Flips

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    No one flips the bat like Yasiel Puig, and the Los Angeles Dodgers will count on plenty more such moves in 2015.

    With Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez in San Diego and Boston, respectively, the Dodgers will rely on Puig to carry the run-production load alongside Adrian Gonzalez.

    The polarizing 24-year-old hit .296/.382/.480 with 37 doubles and 16 home runs last season, but he was prone to lengthy slumps throughout the course of the year.

    The raw tools are there for him to be one of the game's true superstars, it's just a matter of him finding a bit more maturity and consistency moving forward.

A Real-Life Offense for the San Diego Padres

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    The San Diego Padres offense was abysmal last season, as it ranked last in the league in batting average (.226), OPS (.634) and runs per game (3.30).

    That effectively undermined a pitching staff that ranked fourth in the league with a 3.27 ERA, as the team went 77-85 for its fourth consecutive losing season.

    The offseason started with the hiring of new GM A.J. Preller, and he quickly went to work overhauling the offensive attack.

    The Padres acquired Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks via trade, and Preller managed to do it without giving up prized prospects Austin Hedges, Hunter Renfroe and Matthew Wisler.

    There are still holes, and the matter of the team coming together and jelling as a group, but with some newfound offensive firepower the Padres look like legitimate contenders in 2015.

The Continued Rise of Madison Bumgarner

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    For all of the accolades that were heaped on Clayton Kershaw last season, and deservedly so, when the dust settled on the 2014 season, it's hard to say any pitcher performed better than Madison Bumgarner.

    After going 18-10 with a 2.98 ERA, 1.090 WHIP and 219 strikeouts in 217.1 innings during the regular season, MadBum took his game to another level in October.

    He kicked things off with a four-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card Round and capped it off with five shutout innings of relief in Game 7 of the World Series on two days' rest to secure the title.

    Entering his age-25 season, he should only get better. And he figures to be one of the game's elite arms for years to come.

Buster Posey: The Face of Major League Baseball

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    Let's preface this by acknowledging the fact that the "Face of the MLB" bracket-style competition is a complete joke.

    It's a gauge of which fanbase is most active on Twitter and nothing else.

    Otherwise, a career .235 hitter named Eric Sogard would have been nowhere near the bracket last year, let alone close to winning.

    That being said, a strong case can be made for this year's winner, Buster Posey, legitimately being the face of the league.

    He's the leader of a Giants team that has won three World Series titles in five years, has a Rookie of the Year and MVP award to his credit and is the definition of a humble superstar.

The Return of Manny Machado

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    Fellow teenagers Mike Trout and Bryce Harper somewhat overshadowed Manny Machado when he first broke into the league, but he has every chance to be a superstar in his own right.

    A pair of season-ending knee injuries the past two years have slowed his progression, but the Orioles expect him to be back at full strength to kick off the 2015 season—and they will need him.

    With Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis departing in free agency, and Chris Davis still a wild card as far as what one can expect offensively, a breakout season at the plate from Machado would go a long way.

    The 22-year-old had 14 doubles and 12 home runs through 327 at-bats last season before landing on the disabled list, and a healthy campaign could make him one of the league's elite third basemen.

David Ortiz and His Push for 500 Home Runs

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    Entering his age-39 season, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz is still one of the game's most dangerous hitters.

    Big Papi has posted consecutive 30 home run-100 RBI seasons, giving him eight such years in his career, and he rolls into 2015 sitting on 466 total long balls.

    The additions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval should make for improved lineup protection, and after Ortiz tallied 35 home runs last season, the 500 mark is within reach.

    Ortiz has $10 million team options for 2016 and 2017, so it's safe to assume he'll hit No. 500 wearing a Red Sox jersey.

    It's just a question of whether he'll get there late in the 2015 season or early in 2016.

Panda Heads at Fenway Park

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    Oversized panda heads have been a staple at AT&T Park for years, with fan favorite Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval manning the hot corner for the hometown San Francisco Giants.

    Now Sandoval will suit up for the Boston Red Sox, and the panda heads will presumably follow him to Fenway Park.

    The 28-year-old Sandoval signed a five-year, $95 million deal this offseason as one of the top bats on the free-agent market, and he joins David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Mike Napoli to form what should be a dangerous middle of the order.

    Sandoval has shined in October throughout his career, and if he can continue his postseason heroics in Boston, he'll quickly endear himself to Red Sox Nation.

The 1-2 Punch of Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda (If Healthy)

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    The New York Yankees' starting rotation is a significant question mark heading into the season, and a big reason for that is the health of right-handers Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda.

    Both pitchers were terrific when healthy last season and are capable of being front-line arms if they can stay on the field.

    Tanaka went 13-5 with a 2.77 ERA, 1.056 WHIP and 141 strikeouts in 136.1 innings, but he missed 65 games after suffering a partially torn UCL in his elbow.

    The 26-year-old opted for rehab as opposed to surgery, and it has worked for the time being. But at any point that partial tear could turn into something worse and require Tommy John surgery.

    As for Pineda, he spent most of 2012 and 2013 rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn labrum, and 2014 was his first big league action with the Yankees.

    The 26-year-old had a 1.83 ERA through his first four starts but then missed the next 87 games with a shoulder strain.

    He returned in August and finished the year at 5-5 with a 1.89 ERA in 13 starts, but his injury history is an obvious concern.

The Return of Alex Rodriguez, For Better or Worse

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    Whether you're rooting for him to make a successful comeback or can't stand the sight of him, the return of Alex Rodriguez is one of the biggest storylines of the 2015 season.

    The 39-year-old played just 44 games in 2013 while recovering from hip surgery, then he missed the entire 2014 season serving a suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.

    Despite that significant time off, he's looked sharp so far the spring, going 7-for-26 with a double and two home runs.

    He'll likely have to settle for a part-time role, despite his $22 million salary, but that shouldn't stop him from reaching some significant milestones.

    Entering the 2015 season, A-Rod is just 61 hits away from 3,000 for his career, and with seven more home runs he'll pass the great Willie Mays to move into fourth place on the all-time list.

A Pitching Staff Capable of Carrying a Subpar Offense

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    Young players like Steven Souza and Kevin Kiermaier have upside, but outside of Evan Longoria there is no one in the Tampa Bay Rays lineup who is really going to strike fear into the opposing pitcher.

    That being said, the team still has an outside chance at contending in the AL East, and it's thanks to one of the best starting rotations in baseball.

    Even with David Price no longer on the roster, the club still boasts a stable of terrific young arms in Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly.

    Many expect prospect Alex Colome to round out the rotation in the early going. But at some point All-Star Matt Moore will return to the fold as well, as he is on the rehab trail from Tommy John surgery.

    How many 2-1 games can the Rays win this season? That's the question.

The Blue Jays' New Heart of the Order

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    The Toronto Blue Jays already had perhaps the most dangerous one-two punch in the big leagues in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

    With the offseason additions of Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson, they may now have the most dangerous heart of the order in all of baseball.

    Let's take a quick look at their Nos. 2 through 5 hitters:

    • 2. Martin: .290 BA, .832 OPS, 11 HR, 67 RBI, 45 R, 5.5 WAR
    • 3. Bautista: .286 BA, .928 OPS, 35 HR, 103 RBI, 101 R, 6.0 WAR
    • 4. Encarnacion: .268 BA, .901 OPS, 34 HR, 98 RBI, 75 R, 3.6 WAR
    • 5. Donaldson: .255 BA, .798 OPS, 28 HR, 98 RBI, 93 R, 7.4 WAR

    Throw in table-setter Jose Reyes and top prospect Dalton Pompey potentially making an impact at the bottom, and it's a dangerous lineup to say the least.

The Character That Is Daniel Norris

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    Outside of being one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Toronto left-hander Daniel Norris might also be the most interesting guy at Blue Jays spring training.

    The 21-year-old began last season in High-A, and went 12-2 with a 2.53 ERA, 1.118 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 124.1 innings over three minor league levels. That earned him a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and he's competing for a rotation spot this spring.

    However, it's the story of Norris slowly driving his 1978 Volkswagen van from his home in Johnson City, Tennessee, to spring training in Dunedin, Florida, and living in it along the way that has endeared him to baseball fans around the league.

    This is a guy who was a second-round pick in 2011 and landed a $2 million signing bonus, just marching to the beat of his own drum.

    Baseball is a game of characters, and Norris is just that.

An Overhauled Chicago White Sox Team Ready to Contend

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    Heading into the offseason, the Chicago White Sox looked like a team on the rise.

    They had a good core in place of Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia, and they had the flexibility to add some pieces in the offseason.

    And add they did.

    The Sox acquired Jeff Samardzija from the Oakland Athletics, while Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Zach Duke and Emilio Bonifacio all joined via free agency.

    The addition of Samardzija gives the team three front-line arms, while Cabrera and LaRoche will help take some of the pressure off Abreu. But the biggest difference could come in the bullpen.

    Last season, the relief corps ranked 28th in the league with a 4.38 ERA, going 23-32 and converting just 36 of 57 save chances.

The Continued Rise of Chris Sale

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    After spending his first two big league seasons in the bullpen, Chris Sale has quickly emerged as one of the game's truly elite starting pitchers.

    The left-hander went 12-4 with a 2.17 ERA, 0.966 WHIP and 208 strikeouts in 174 innings last season, finishing third in AL Cy Young voting after coming in fifth and sixth the previous two years, respectively.

    The on-field performance not enough to make you a Sale fan?

    How about the fact that he slips a "word of the start" into each postgame press conference, with team video coordinator Bryan Johnson selecting one elaborate word each start that he has to work into his answers.

    Still not enough?

    How about his nickname, The Condor, which is absolutely perfect when you witness the funky mechanics that have played a big part in making him so effective.

    Let's just say there are a lot of reasons to cheer for the 25-year-old ace.

The Arrival of Francisco Lindor

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    Since being selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2011 draft, Francisco Lindor has been pegged as the shortstop of the future for the Cleveland Indians.

    That future should arrive at some point in 2015, and with Lindor ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the league according to Baseball America, expectations are high.

    The 21-year-old has always had the glove and figures to be a perennial Gold Glove contender once he arrives. However, his bat has also come along nicely over the past few seasons.

    Lindor hit .276/.338/.389 with 16 doubles, 11 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 507 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

    All signs point to Jose Ramirez being the Opening Day starter at shortstop, but expect to see Lindor in Cleveland before the All-Star break.

An Underrated Indians Rotation That Could Be the Best in the AL

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    Everyone knows who Corey Kluber is after his unexpected run to win the AL Cy Young last season, but his running mates in the Cleveland Indians rotation are still a largely underappreciated group.

    Behind Kluber are a pair of dynamic young arms in Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, with former top prospect Trevor Bauer and rock solid left-hander T.J. House expected to round out the staff.

    That group was lights-out after the All-Star break last season, helping propel the Indians back into wild-card contention.

    Here's a quick look at their post-break stats:

    • Kluber: 104.0 IP, 9-3, 1.73 ERA, 0.96 WHIP
    • Carrasco: 78.2 IP, 6-4, 1.72 ERA, 0.90 WHIP
    • Salazar: 69.1 IP, 5-4, 3.50 ERA, 1.24 WHIP
    • Bauer: 80.1 IP, 2-4, 4.48 ERA, 1.34 WHIP
    • House: 57.0 IP, 4-1, 2.53 ERA, 1.16 WHIP

    They don't receive much fanfare, but this is a group that could legitimately be the best rotation in the American League if everything breaks right.

Miguel Cabrera Has Something to Prove After a 'Down' Year

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    For most players, a .313/.371/.524 line with 52 doubles, 25 home runs and 109 RBI would be a career year.

    For Miguel Cabrera, it was a down season, at least by his standards.

    With his massive eight-year, $248 million extension set to kick in following the upcoming season, the Tigers will be counting on Cabrera to return to his elite level of production.

    Given his track record and the fact that he was playing through injury for much of last season, there's no reason to think he won't.

    A bum ankle hampered the 31-year-old for much of the year, and he finally underwent surgery at the beginning of the offseason to remove bone spurs and repair a stress fracture.

    A return to 100 percent health could mean a return to the form that netted Cabrera back-to-back AL MVP awards in 2012 and 2013.

The League's Most Dominant Bullpen Trio

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    It takes a quality starting rotation to reach the postseason, but more and more a dominant trio of late-inning relievers is becoming a necessary weapon come October.

    Just ask the Kansas City Royals.

    Last season, the trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was historically good in helping the Royals to an unexpected AL pennant.

    Let's look at their numbers:

    • Herrera: 70 G, 20 HLD, 1.41 ERA, 1.143 WHIP, 7.6 K/9
    • Davis: 71 G, 33 HLD, 1.00 ERA, 0.847 WHIP, 13.6 K/9
    • Holland: 65 G, 46 SV, 1.44 ERA, 0.914 WHIP, 13.0 K/9

    There are other quality trios around the league, with the New York Yankees coming to mind after their offseason addition of Andrew Miller, but at this point the Royals should again have the league's best stable of late-inning arms.

Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano Back on the Path to Minnesota

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    The future looked bright for the Minnesota Twins heading into the 2014 season, as they had the No. 1 prospect in the league in Byron Buxton and the No. 6 prospect in Miguel Sano, according to Baseball America.

    That future is still bright, but 2014 wound up being a lost year for both highly regarded prospects.

    The Twins lost Sano for the season during spring training when he needed Tommy John surgery, while Buxton played just 31 games while battling a wrist injury and then a concussion.

    Those two are again highly ranked by Baseball America, with Buxton at No. 2 and Sano at No. 13. They could both arrive at some point during the upcoming season.

A Full Season of Budding Superstar George Springer

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    George Springer showed he was ready for the big leagues in 2013, hitting .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A.

    He was an early call-up last season, making his debut on April 16, and from there he would post an .804 OPS and 20 home runs in just 295 at-bats.

    Unfortunately, the reason he saw just 295 at-bats is because he missed 64 games with a quad injury at the end of July. If it weren't for that he would have been very much in the AL Rookie of the Year conversation.

    With Springer now locked into an everyday job from the start of the season, the 25-year-old looks like a superstar in the making for the ever-improving Houston Astros.

The Arrival of Former No. 1 Pick Mark Appel

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft after he opted to return to Stanford for his senior season, many expect Mark Appel to move quickly on his way to the majors.

    His pro debut was a successful one, as he had a 3.79 ERA over 38 innings and reached Single-A after signing, but he hit a major bump in the road last season.

    Opponents shelled the right-hander to the tune of a 9.74 ERA over 12 starts in High-A, but he turned things around with a 3.69 ERA in 39 innings after the team promoted him to Double-A.

    That momentum carried over into the Arizona Fall League, where he had a 2.61 ERA in 31 innings, and with that it appears he's back on track to reach Houston in the near future.

    "There's no question that with an injury (to a pitcher) or a strong year from him that he could be in Houston in 2015," GM Jeff Luhnow told Eric Smith of the Houston Chronicle. "Nobody wants him here more than I do and more than he does, and I hope we can make that happen."

Mike Trout Doing Mike Trout Things

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The 2014 season gave us a different Mike Trout, as his strikeout rate climbed and his batting average dropped, but in the process he picked up his game as a run producer.

    The 23-year-old phenom hit .287/.377/.561 with 39 doubles, 36 home runs and 111 RBI, as he led the AL in total bases (338) and runs scored (115) but also strikeouts (184).

    That was enough to win him his first AL MVP, after finishing as runner-up to Miguel Cabrera the previous two seasons. And he's just getting started.

    Spring training numbers don't mean much, but Trout has been on fire, going 15-for-29 with three home runs and 12 RBI in 11 games.

    To put it simply, Trout might be the most exciting player in the game, and whether or not you're an Angels fan he's worth the price of admission.

The Latest Billy Beane Roster Overhaul in Action

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    It's been a busy offseason to say the least for Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, as only 12 players remain from last year's Opening Day roster.

    A completely new infield of Ike Davis, Ben Zobrist, Marcus Semien and Brett Lawrie will take over, while Stephen Vogt is now the primary catcher after Beane traded John Jaso and Derek Norris.

    Kendall Graveman, whom the team acquired along with Lawrie and two others in the deal that sent Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays, looks to be the front-runner for the No. 5 starter job.

    The starting rotation as a whole is in a state of flux behind Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir, though recovering starters A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker should both be back from Tommy John surgery at some point.

    Beane has proven capable of overhauling the roster and remaining competitive more than once in the past, but this was by far his most drastic roster turnover.

Switch-Pitcher Pat Venditte

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    USA TODAY Sports

    On the surface, switch-pitcher Pat Venditte may seem like a novelty, but don't be surprised if he finds his way to the big leagues at some point in 2015.

    For those of you unfamiliar with his story, I'll direct you to a recent article from B/R National Columnist Scott Miller. Even if you do know the story, it's a piece worth reading.

    A member of the New York Yankees' system for seven years, Venditte put up a 2.46 ERA, 1.074 WHIP and 10.1 K/9 during that span. Last season, splitting the year between Double-A and Triple-A, he had a 2.64 ERA, 1.111 WHIP and 9.5 K/9.

    Chances are he won't break camp with the big league club, but he's proven to be enough of an asset that we may very well see a switch-pitcher in the majors in 2015.

    On a related note, there could soon be another switch-pitcher in pro baseball by the name of Ryan Perez, who pitched in the Cape Cod League this past summer and is entering his junior season at Judson University.

    Fun fact: Judson University is in my hometown of Elgin, Illinois.

Taijuan Walker and James Paxton...Oh, and King Felix

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The Seattle Mariners are a trendy pick in the American League this season, and for good reason. They're probably the most complete team in the league.

    While the offense figures to be significantly improved, pitching will again be the strength of the team, and rising stars Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will be the difference-makers.

    Injuries slowed both pitchers in 2014, but when they were healthy, they were impressive:

    • Paxton: 13 GS, 6-4, 3.04 ERA, 1.203 WHIP, 59 K, 74.0 IP
    • Walker: 8 G, 2-3, 2.61 ERA, 1.289 WHIP, 34 K, 38.0 IP

    If those two can pitch up to their potential, which is incredibly high, the Mariners could quickly emerge as the favorites in the AL West.

    Meanwhile, the team still boasts one of the game's truly elite starters at the top of that rotation in Felix Hernandez.

    The 28-year-old went 15-6 with a 2.14 ERA, 0.915 WHIP and 248 strikeouts in 236 innings last season, and he should again be among the AL Cy Young front-runners.

A Well-Balanced Offense in Seattle for the 1st Time in Years

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    Despite falling just one game short of reaching the playoffs last season, the Seattle Mariners still ranked near the bottom of the league offensively, averaging 3.91 runs per game.

    Left-handed hitters Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager both made the All-Star team, but the club was in desperate need of a right-handed power bat to slot between them.

    They got their guy this offseason, signing Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million deal after he slugged 40 home runs for the Baltimore Orioles last season.

    They also upgraded their corner outfield situation with Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano set to man right field and Rickie Weeks expected to see some platoon action with Dustin Ackley in left field.

    Add in a full season of Austin Jackson and the continued progression of young players like Mike Zunino and Brad Miller, and things are looking up offensively in Seattle.

Adrian Beltre Passing the Torch to Joey Gallo

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Even entering his age-36 season, Adrian Beltre is still one of the best hitters in the league.

    His power numbers were down last year in an injury-plagued lineup, but he still hit .324/.388/.492 with 19 home runs and 77 RBI.

    Beltre will make $16 million this season, and he already had his $18 million option for next year exercised, but his replacement at third base and in the middle of the lineup is waiting in the wings in the form of Joey Gallo.

    The 21-year-old hit .271/.394/.615 with 42 home runs and 106 RBI between High-A and Double-A last season, and his raw power is impossible to ignore.

    Gallo enters the season as the No. 6 prospect in the league, according to Baseball America. If he gets off to another hot start, don't be surprised if he at least supplants Mitch Moreland as the primary designated hitter.

Another Potentially Busy Trade Deadline

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The 2014 MLB trade deadline was one of the busiest the sport has ever seen.

    After Jeff Samardzija, Brandon McCarthy, Huston Street, Chase Headley, Joakim Soria and Jake Peavy all found themselves traded in the days and weeks leading up to the deadline, things really exploded on July 31.

    A total of 12 trades involving 37 different players went down on the final day, with a pair of blockbuster deals for aces Jon Lester and David Price highlighting the moves.

    With a deep crop of upcoming free agents and the ongoing trade candidacy of Cole Hamels, this July could bring another exciting trade season.

    Johnny Cueto will be a name to watch if the Cincinnati Reds fall out of contention, while second-tier arms like Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir and Ian Kennedy could also wind up on the move.

The All-Star Game at Great American Ball Park

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The MLB All-Star Game always gets a good deal of attention, from the Futures Game and Home Run Derby to the Midsummer Classic itself.

    This July 14's contest will be played in Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds.

    It's the first time since 1988, when they were still playing in Riverfront Stadium, that the Reds have hosted the game.

    Thanks to its cozy dimensions, Great American Ball Park was the fourth-easiest stadium to homer in last season, according to ESPN Park Factors.

    That should make for an exciting Home Run Derby, and one that will almost certainly feature a Reds player from the group of Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Joey Votto or Jay Bruce.

    From debating the rosters in the days and weeks leading up to the game, to enjoying the Home Run Derby in spite of Chris Berman, to watching the best players in the game square off, it's an exciting event.

A Fresh Set of Eyes at the Top

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    Associated Press

    Speaking of new commissioner Rob Manfred, for the first time since 1992, we have a fresh set of eyes at the MLB helm.

    The league named Manfred chief operating officer in September 2013, but prior to that he was executive VP of labor relations. In that role, he ran point on the last three collective bargaining agreements, helping to avoid another work stoppage.

    That gives him a good working relationship with the MLBPA, and that may well have been the single biggest chip in his favor when it came to choosing a replacement for Selig.

    In his short time in office, Manfred has already taken steps to address the pace-of-play concerns and reworked the replay system, showing a willingness to make necessary changes.

    There are a number of issues facing his time in office.

    Globalization of the game remains a focus, as does finding new ways to engage the next generation of young fans.

    However, his biggest task will be continuing to grow the $8 billion industry he has inherited, and with ever-growing TV deals that shouldn't be too hard.

A Potential Pete Rose Reinstatement

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    John Swart/Associated Press

    One of the big stories to emerge in recent days is Pete Rose submitting an application to new commissioner Rob Manfred requesting reinstatement.

    The game's all-time hits leader with 4,256 has been out of the game since 1989, when he agreed to a lifetime ban after it was revealed that he had bet on games during his days as Cincinnati Reds manager.

    For his part, Manfred has not really tipped his hand on whether he'll consider reinstating Rose.

    "Honestly, I don't think people should read any disposition into what I'm saying about this. I see it as a really simple thing. He's made a request," Manfred said, per Mark Saxon of ESPN. "Part of my obligations under the major league constitution is to deal with those requests, and I'll deal with it."

    This could go a few different ways.

    Manfred could reinstate Rose and make him eligible for the Hall of Fame but still ban him from ever having a job in Major League Baseball again.

    Chances are the sport will never allow Rose to manage again, and rightfully so.

    Or, Manfred could simply stay the course and deny the request, which would likely be the final nail in the coffin of the 73-year-old Rose's chances of being inducted during his lifetime.

    It's big decision for Manfred, and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

A Terrific Hall of Fame Class

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    This year's MLB Hall of Fame class will be inducted on July 26, and it's a good one.

    The pitching trio of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz all earned enshrinement in their first year on the ballot, while second baseman Craig Biggio finally made it over the hump in his third go-round.

    Let's take a quick look at their accomplishments:

    • Johnson: 303-166, 3.29 ERA, 4,875 K, 5x Cy Young winner, 10-time All-Star
    • Martinez: 219-100, 2.93 ERA, 3,154 K, 3x Cy Young winner, 8-time All-Star
    • Smoltz: 213-155, 154 SV, 3.33 ERA, 1x Cy Young winner, 8-time All-Star
    • Biggio: .281/.363/.433, 3,060 H, 668 2B, 291 HR, 414 SB, 7-time All-Star

    B/R National Columnist Karl Buscheck ranked this year's class as the fourth-greatest in history, and whether you agree or not, it's certainly one of the best we've seen in recent memory.

Baseball Is the Epitome of Summer

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    At the end of the day, most baseball fans don't need 50 reasons to get excited about the upcoming season.

    Most have already reached a tipping point as far as their excitement is concerned and are calendar watching until Opening Day finally arrives.

    Maybe I'm spoiled living a few blocks from Wrigley Field, but for me there's no better way to spend a summer day than at a baseball game.

    Summer and baseball just go hand-in-hand, and after another frosty winter here in the Midwest, the idea of soaking up the sun in the bleachers on a 90-degree day is plenty of reason for excitement in itself.

    The 2015 season officially kicks off on April 5 with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals playing on Sunday Night Baseball, with the rest of the league getting underway the following day.

    It might be 40 degrees here in Chicago that day, but for me and countless others around the country, that will be the start of summer.

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

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