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Takeaways From MLB Opening Week

With the 2015 MLB Opening Week in the books, there have been some early surprises and early disappointments. However, as we all know, it’s a long season so don’t get too excited or fret too much with over 150 games remaining this year. To me, there have been four storylines that have caught my eye so far: 1. Atlanta starting 5-1. 2. The Royals and Tigers combining to start 12-0 in the AL Central. 3. The NL-favorite Nationals struggling. 4. The lackluster Cubs.

The Braves, whom many expected to be in tank mode this season (including myself), have shocked the league by winning five of their first six games. Is it because the Miami Marlins and New York Mets aren’t as good as many predicted? Possibly, but not probable. General Manager John Hart and Manager Freddi Gonzalez have to be given credit for their hot start. Atlanta could have easily limped out to a one or two-win start to the season and no one would have batted an eye, but instead, Gonzalez has a plucky Braves team playing hard and winning with small ball and strong pitching.

Out of everyone from Atlanta’s depleted offense, who would have predicted journeyman Alberto Callaspo would lead the team in hitting out of the gates with a .538 batting average? And who would have thunk that the mixture of rookie relievers and well-traveled veterans in the backend of the bullpen would combine for a 0.44 ERA in 20.1 IP while striking out 22 and allowing a MLB-low .097 batting average to opposing hitters? Definitely not me. Enjoy this recent run of success, it may not last much longer or for all we know, the Braves might be the Hawks of baseball.

On the flipside of the NL East, the Nationals, who some picked to win 100-games, have fumbled their way to a 2-4 start. Ian Desmond has already committed four errors in his first six games; two of which helped the Mets take two out of three games in Washington. The Nationals’ pitching hasn’t been as dominant as predicted but has been good enough to win games. It’s been their offense which has faltered scoring just 13 runs thus far–least in the division. It is a long season, but every single game counts as the wins and losses begin to pile up. Washington fans shouldn’t worry about the slow start yet.

The AL Central race has already begun with the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers both 6-0. The Royals just completed a statement sweep of the Angels in Los Angeles. Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez and new additions Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios highlight the success of the Royals’ offense. The pitching staff without James Shields has flourished as well with Yordano Ventura looking like he might be ready to take his game to the next level at the tender age of 23. The Tigers already boast a +31 run differential and have clicked on all cylinders. Miguel Cabrera is coming off a ho-hum 11-for-14 weekend series against the Indians in which he drove in six runs. Justin Verlander is on the 15-day DL with a triceps issue, but it hasn’t affected the team at all now that David Price is in the Motor City for his first full season. The 2012 Cy Young award winner has yet to allow a run in his first 14.1 innings pitched.

The Cubbies (3-2) took the stage in the first game of the season and proceeded to lay an egg. Jon Lester’s arm already looked dead as he was rocked for eight hits in 4.1 innings. The Cubs have rested him eight days before his next start this week. The 31-year-old signed a six year, $155 million dollar contract this offseason and if he can’t find his form and his age catches up to him, it is the type of contract that can cripple an already cursed franchise. Also, the renovations of Wrigley Field have been a disaster. Toilets did not work and lines lasted nearly an hour for the bathroom. Fans had to pee in cups and one concession stand ran out of hotdog buns but not hot dogs. Just another year of the Cubs being the Cubs.

MLB Opening Day Preview

The grass is cut. The infield is raked. Opening Day 2015 will officially be here on Sunday, April 5. The tedious month of drills and meaningless games finally are finishing up and America’s Pastime will be in full swing. As you flock to the ballpark or to your couch for opening day, it’s important to make sure you’re up to date with all the shuffling of players and changes that occurred during the long offseason. Here is a quick preview and some storylines you will need to know as the first pitch quickly approaches.

The Atlanta Braves have undergone a major overhaul led by new General Manager Jon Hart after Frank Wren was shown the door after the Braves woefully under-performed in the second half of the season. Gone are fan favorites Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis and Ervin Santana. Say hello to Shelby Miller, Jonny Gomes and native-son Nick Markakis who starred at Woodstock High School. Another big change is the name of Atlanta’s most despised player, Melvin Upton Jr. B.J. Upton decided to change his name and hopefully change his success at the plate after hitting .208 and taking the brunt of Braves’ fans’ criticism.

All signs point to it being a very long year for Atlanta. Hart has decided to build a farm system which Frank Wren left in shambles. The present day product will suffer greatly, but Hart has an eye towards 2017 and the opening of SunTrust Park. By that time the gamble Hart made by trading away his top players for prospects will need to pay off as the Braves will try to reap the benefits and open up their new park with a bang and a slew of young talented players.

As far as this season goes, expect the Braves to hover around 68-72 wins. Make no bones about it, this is a rebuilding year and fans will need to be patient. The NL East has gotten considerably stronger and the Braves will have to patiently wait for their prospects to develop.

NL East

            The sexy pick to win the division is Washington with its pitching staff headed by the $210-million dollar man, Max Scherzer. He teams up with Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister to form the deepest rotation in baseball. Behind Washington, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins will push hard to make the playoffs. The Mets have looked great in spring training and hold the best record in the Grapefruit League. Michael Cuddyer has hit extremely well and new hitting coach Kevin Long has already seemingly made an impact on the likes of Curtis Granderson and Juan Lagares who look crisp at the plate. Injuries, which have plagued the Mets for years, have already begun to bite them with Zack Wheeler and Josh Edgin going down with tommy john surgery along with Daniel Murphy, and Vic Black ailing. The Marlins have a young exciting team led by Giancarlo Stanton. If he can receive protection in the lineup and the young pitching staff can produce, Miami should be in the hunt for a wildcard spot.

NL Central

            The Cardinals and Pirates have owned the division lately, but the laughing stock Chicago Cubs may get the last laugh this year. GM Theo Epstein has opened up the checkbook signing Jon Lester and anointing Joe Maddon as manager. The Cubs are oozing with uber-talented young hitters. Kris Bryant smashed nine homers to lead all players in spring training but unceremoniously was sent down along with Javier Baez in order to save another year of control down the line. If those two along with Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Starling Castro hit like they are capable, the Cubs very well may challenge to make the postseason coming out of a difficult division.

            NL West

The defending World Series champs, the San Francisco Giants, will be without the lovable Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval was poached by the free spending Boston Red Sox this offseason. It may be difficult to repeat with the Dodgers and the suddenly intriguing Padres in the mix for a playoff berth. New San Diego GM A.J. Preller made waves wheeling and dealing as if the MLB was his personal video game. Though they still play in Petco Park, the additions of Justin Upton, Wil Myers and Matt Kemp make the Padres’ outfield one of the most exciting in baseball. Add in James Shields as an ace, and things look bright in sunny San Diego.

AL East

Baltimore will try to improve upon a 96-win season, but it will be difficult with the improvements of Boston and Toronto. The Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez away from the Dodgers and will plug him in leftfield for the first time in his career. Pablo Sandoval is the Sox’s top signing this offseason, but they also landed prized Cuban prospect Yoan Moncada, a 19-year-old infielder who will join Boston’s minor league system. The Blue Jays added great veteran leadership in Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson.

AL Central

The Tigers won the division, but the Royals stole the spotlight in the postseason.  Detroit has lost Max Scherzer, but David Price assumes the role as ace in his first full season in the Motor City. Rick Porcello was dealt for slugging Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes who will provide a cannon arm and great pop. The Royals will have plenty of new faces. James Shields is gone from the top of the rotation, and big Billy Butler has departed also. Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez will try to fill in at their respective positions.

AL West

            Moneyball is alive with A’s GM Billy Beane. Questionable trades backfired last season, but the gambling genius has not gotten gun-shy. Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, and Ike Davis have been brought in. Billy Butler will take over the DH role. Seattle is a team ready to make the next step. Nelson Cruz brings his 40+ homerun power and will team up with Robison Cano to provide offense for a strong pitching staff.

Pre-Spring Training NL East Division Preview

Georgia might have just had another scare with potential snow and ice storms, but spring is in our midst and with that Spring Training is right around the corner. Pitchers and Catchers are set to report by the end of this week, while many players have already come to camp early to break off the rust and start getting their bodies back in game shape. Each spring teams enter training camp with optimism and aspirations of winning the World Series. I will be heading down to Florida to check out some Spring Training action for the first time this year. I will be attending Bradenton (Pirates) and Port St. Lucie (Mets), two teams that are primed to make the post season. With that being said, let’s take an early look at the National League East and how I think things will stack up this season.

Washington Nationals

Last year’s porous division now looks to be one of the toughest, with three of the projected top teams all having realistic sights on the playoffs. The Nationals are seemingly the new trendy pick and are 5:1 favorites to win the World Series this year after making moves that brought in Max Scherzer and Yunel Escobar. Washington has a rotation loaded with power arms, but its bullpen will need retooling. Tyler Clippard was shipped off for Escobar and Rafael Soriano is currently a free agent. Drew Storen will likely return as the closer, a full time job he had back in 2011 when he saved 43 games. While they may be the most talented team in the division, I doubt they will completely run away with it.

New York Mets

The Mets have the best young top three pitching trio in the MLB with Matt Harvey-Jacob deGrom-Zack Wheeler. Their pitching staff will be one of the strongest in the league, but questions loom on whether David Wright can ever return to the player he once was. The fences have been moved in yet again and should benefit Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda who emerged as the Mets’ number one long ball threat last year. If Wright, Granderson, and Michael Cuddyer can produce close to what their career averages are, then the Mets should be battling for the division and wild card all season long.

Miami Marlins

As they seemingly do every offseason, the Marlins have shaken their roster up like a snow globe. Mat Latos and Dan Haren give the Marlins some much needed veteran leadership atop of their young rotation that hopes to get young ace Jose Fernandez back sooner rather than later from Tommy John surgery. The addition of Dee Gordon who had a career year last season will give them speed to burn. Veteran Martin Prado was brought in to do what he always does—hit. Michael Morse should shore up first base if he can find a way to stay healthy. Miami has had strong teams on paper in the past, but they have never been able to create that type of success on the field. Now in his third year as manager, Mike Redmond will try to sneak the fish back into the postseason where they have made magic happen.

Atlanta Braves

No team in the MLB has torn down the walls as much as new GM John Hart has after the Braves decided to clean house. Atlanta has tried to replenish its beleaguered farm system and has done a decent job so far. Craig Kimbrel has been whispered to be the next one on the move. It should be a long painful season as ownership eyes 2017; the good thing for Atlanta is that Philadelphia is in the same division.

Philadelphia Phillies

No franchise has been more mismanaged in the past five years than this one. A blind loyalty to aging stars who no longer produce has crippled the franchise along with a weak farm system. Year-in and year-out, Ruben Amaro has had a chance to flip Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels for young players, but he has sat on his assets and continues to depreciate their value. Unlike the Braves, there is no light at the end of this tunnel just yet.

Is the Light at the End of the Tunnel for the Mets?

It has been eight long and grueling years since the New York Mets have made the playoffs. Fans have ridden the emotional roller coaster of Oliver Perez surrendering a devastating home run to-be that was miraculously brought back in by Endy Chavez and turned into a double play on possibly the greatest catch in post season history. Just an hour or so later we had to suffer through the slow moving comeback that was built and eventually lost all steam when Carlos Beltran struck out looking against an Adam Wainwright curve ball which propelled Wainwright into elite status and the Mets spiraling into one of the most painful doldrums the franchise has seen.

The 2007 and 2008 last day losses that kept them out of the post season are too painful to relive. The rebuilding process and clearing house of Omar Minaya, Willie Randolph, and Jerry Manuel getting axed seems like ancient history. The Bernie Madoff scandal to this day seems to linger over the Mets franchise which has some people thinking the team is still strapped for cash while others think the stingy owning group of the Wilpons just don’t want to spend money. A New York team with a payroll barely reaching $100 million is almost unfathomable, but alas, the light seemingly is finally in sight at the end of the tunnel.

The prudent and methodical workings of Sandy Alderson have not wowed anyone, but the Mets slowly have built one of the league’s stronger farm systems and one of the MLB’s deepest pitching staffs in baseball with the likes young aces Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, the usually reliable veterans of Bartolo Colon, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, and the highly touted prospects Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, and others. The Mets have begrudgingly made splash-worthy moves under the tenure of Sandy Alderson, but he has slowly tried to make the right decisions. Last season Curtis Granderson was brought aboard and was streaky with the Mets, but showed signs of life throughout the season. This year the oft-injured but productive Michael Cuddyer was signed to strengthen the offense, but still holes remain.

The Winter Meetings have come and gone and the NL East (aside from Philadelphia & Atlanta) has gotten stronger on paper. Whispers have swirled that the Mets, after passing on a bid to sign Jung-Ho Kang, are now slightly interested in acquiring Troy Tulowitzki. Alderson continues to deny anything being remotely close, but the fact that it is out there is interesting. The Mets are sitting on a plethora of MLB-ready pitching talent, and I say it is time to let it fly and roll the dice.

Tulo is injury-prone yes, and plays at Coors Field, but he is the big name that would get New Yorkers back interested in the team from Queens. Tulowitzki is a career .299, but hits just .274 away from home. If the Mets were able to send a package to grab him, he of course most likely will not hit .320 and won’t play 162 games. But a line of .280/20/90 is more than reasonable and would be a massive upgrade over Ruben Tejada and Wilmer Flores, who I still think can be a solid offensive player. Today on MLB Network Jon Heyman brought up the package of Syndergaard, Gee, Flores, Montero, and Kevin Plawecki for Tulowitzki and $30 million to help the salary the Mets will be taking on.  Syndergaard is the Mets’ No.1 ranked prospect while Plawecki and Montero come in at Nos. 5 and 8 according to Baseball America’s 2015 team rankings.

As much as a gamble it may be, it is a trade that I would push to get done. The Mets made a similar big splash six years ago when they traded Kevin Mulvey, Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, and Phillip Humber for Johan Santana. Out of those four prospects only Carlos Gomez has made an impact besides from Humber’s fluke perfect game. The simple fact is that prospects are prospects; they aren’t proven players. There are hundreds of prospects in each farm system and at the end of the day, it is all a crap shoot on who will turn into the next Derek Jeter and who will turn into the next Matt Bush. Farm systems can be easily replenished in just a year or two, but acquiring stars does not happen every day.

Worst case scenario, Tulo flops hard and Syndergaard proves to be the real deal. The Mets have been burned before with Mo Vaughn, Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, and so on and on, but the fact that you got burnt in the past doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. You have to be able to roll the dice. High-risk, high-reward moves are often the moves that can push a team from the bottom of the standings into playoff contention (Royals trading top prospect Wil Myers for Jason Shields). Sandy has seemingly been too scared to make a splash and go all out. If the cash is there, and the right move is there, its time to go all out and make something happen. He must know the fan base is getting tired of his frugal spending and his unwillingness to try and make the playoffs due to the fact that if he falls flat on his face, his time in New York may be up.

Alderson wants to temper expectations, but the fan base and even Terry Collins and the players know the time is now to make a push for the playoffs. Whether it is the blockbuster move trading for Tulowitzki, or another minor move shipping away Gee or Niese, the Mets are still a piece away from being able to call themselves locks for the postseason. Right now they are on the precipice of contending for a Wild Card spot. Its time for Sandy Alderson to grab the opportunity by the throat, and give it all they got to make the playoffs for the first time in eight long, and arduous years.