Over the next several weeks, The Baseball Haven will be creating season previews for all 30 MLB teams. You’ll find their projected records (based on PECOTA records from Baseball Prospectus, as of 2/15/2015), each team’s top three players (based on Steamer WAR projections from FanGraphs), and some valuable notes on each team, including likely bounce-back candidates, potential breakout players or fantasy sleepers, as well as a look back at offseason transactions which led to each team’s projections. Stop back frequently to see where your favorite team ranks!
2015 Projected Record: 92-70 (1st in NL East, 2nd in MLB)
Shoulder woes have slowed Zimmerman in the same way that they did Scott Rolen, but the Nationals have moved Zimmerman to first, where he won’t have to make as many throws. The end result should be a healthier, productive season; although, a thigh and fractured finger were the primary injuries that allow Zimmerman to play in only 61 games last season. This will the the 11th season in a Nationals uniform for Zimmerman, and this is his age-30 season. Don’t consider him washed up. He is locked in at .280/.350/.480 with about 25 home runs and 85 RBI in a dynamic lineup.
Fantasy Player to Watch: OF Bryce Harper
Duh, right? At 22, Harper is ready to continue his assault on opposing pitchers, but THIS is the year that he reaches 30 home runs and stays healthy. What is he capable of when he stays on the field and has Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, and Ian Desmond on the field with him? This is a dangerous lineup and Harper has the potential to be the most productive player in that lineup. This is the year that he starts heading towards that ceiling, closing in on a .300/.400/.500 line, while increasing his power output as he becomes more physically mature.
Offseason Overview: When you have five very good starting pitchers and you’ve won 96 games, what do you really need to do to improve? Well, sign the best free agent pitcher on the market to a seven-year, $210 million deal, which is what they did when signed RHP Max Scherzer. The move pushed Tanner Roark (15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 31 starts) to the bullpen, while making LHP Ross Detwiler expendable, as he was shipped to Texas for a couple of prospects. The Nationals didn’t need to do much to improve their team, but they still made a huge splash and got better.
The Verdict: A healthy Zimmerman and Werth will help the Nationals to 100 wins, but it will be Harper, Rendon, Desmond, and the pitching that will get them to 95 wins. This is the best team in baseball, regardless of PECOTA projections. The pitching is elite and they have Roark ready in a swing role and A.J. Cole ready in Triple-A. With Lucas Giolito and Joe Ross likely to start the year in Double-A, they are far off from making an impact, either. Michael Taylor, a powerful, speedster, will be taking over center for the first several weeks with Denard Span on the shelf. The Nationals are very good, and this is the year that they put it all together.
The 2014 season has been quite interesting to this point. With so many teams floating around contention due to unforeseen parity in a game that has had so little over the years, we haven’t seen many top talents reach the big leagues to assist their clubs compete. Gregory Polanco finally reached Pittsburgh, but the Cardinals just sent Oscar Taveras back to the minors following the activation of Matt Adams from the 15-day disabled list. With injuries to Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Archie Bradley, and Taijuan Walker, the elite level prospects haven’t provided a lot of positive material for minor league analysis. For that reason, you have to reach deeper. Here are some names that you may be familiar with, but, if you’re not, you should get to know a little better.
Bryant is a one-man wrecking crew in the Double-A Southern League in 2014, and you should already be familiar with him, as Bryant was the No.2 overall pick out of San Diego in the 2013 MLB Draft. For all of the fears that went along with the holes in his swing, which is still present based on the 75 strikeouts, Bryant can still draw a walk while producing elite-level power from the right side. He may have to move to an outfield corner in the long run due to Starlin Castro being at short and Javier Baez likely moving to third, as the Cubs have Anthony Rizzo locked up through 2021 (including options) at first. Regardless of where he plays, he’ll be an All-Star talent. The Cubs don’t need to bring him up due to their 27-38 record and ongoing rebuild, but the scariest part of his numbers are the fact that they could only get larger with a move to Triple-A and the Pacific Coast League. He could break camp with the Cubs in 2015 and will likely get a nice audition this September.
The Mariners have a lot of young pitchers who get a lot of attention with Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Erasmo Ramirez each earning some starts at the major league level over the last couple of seasons; however, with those names receiving so much attention, there is a sneaky exciting talent coming up who isn’t getting nearly as much recognition as most players with his skills would, and that is Victor Sanchez. At 19, Sanchez is already in Double-A, having skipped the horrific pitching environment of the California League, and he is pitching very well. Over his last two starts, Sanchez has allowed just two earned runs over 13.2 innings (1.32 ERA), striking out 13 and allowing 11 base runners (0.80 WHIP). Sanchez isn’t a dynamic strikeout pitcher, but he has plus command and, at his age, he may further develop his stuff to take another step forward. He could certainly give up fewer home runs, but when you consider that he is 5 1/2 years younger than the average player in the Southern League, he deserves a break. He’s a very mature pitcher given his age and deserves more attention than he is getting.
Another Houston Astros prospect who is near ready to make an impact at the major league level, Tucker was just promoted to Triple-A after being near the top of the Texas League in doubles, home runs, and total bases. After thriving in 2013 between High-A and Double-A, Tucker has made the adjustments necessary to continue his progression to Houston to join Jon Singleton and George Springer, while the club waits for Carlos Correa and others in the lower minors to help make Houston a World Series contender in the next three seasons. Even thriving against left-handers, Tucker is capable of being more than just an average outfielder in the majors.
After being taken in the 4th round of the 2012 MLB Draft out of South Carolina, Christian Walker had a somewhat productive first full minor league season in 2013 (.815 OPS, just 67 strikeouts in 439 plate appearances), but it was also somewhat disappointing (11 home runs). Walker did play at three levels in 2013, so, perhaps, he wasn’t in one location long enough to make the adjustments necessary to showcase his power, but the 2014 season has been quite different. Walker already has 17 home runs and is sporting an OPS of .913 as of publishing. While his strikeout rate has increased, that is allowing him to produce at higher levels. With Chris Davis under team control through the 2015 season, could you be looking at the future first baseman in Baltimore? It could be the case, but Walker has to continue his offensive outburst if he is going to make it in the majors as a right-handed hitting first baseman.
Even after missing all of the 2013 season due to Tommy John surgery, Rymer Liriano is young for his league. The 22-year-old outfielder is back on track, showcasing all of his tools, though the swing and miss looks to be a bit larger than anticipated after his long layoff. Regardless, in 2011, Liriano showed the speed (66 steals) and power (50 extra-base hits) that make fantasy baseball fans salivate. He could probably make the Padres offense a little better if he were called up today, but he still has some work to do to become an All-Star level talent in the future.
Prior to the 2013 season, Jackson was heading towards becoming an organizational arm, even though he was a first round draft pick in 2010. Then, it all seemed to click last year and over his last 200.1 innings he has a 2.34 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and 208 strikeouts. Now, with the Texas Rangers reeling and in need of pitching depth after injuries to Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Matt Harrison, Luke Jackson has positioned himself for some time in Arlington at some point this summer.
Michael Taylor is breaking out. After an impressive repeat of High-A in 2013 (57 extra-base hits and 51 stolen bases), Taylor has reached a career-high in home runs in just 62 games, while still showing tremendous speed (17 steals) in his first go-round in Double-A. There is a lot of swing and miss in his bat, but the power and speed skills that he possesses make him an intriguing prospect, especially when you consider that he could be in a pretty electric lineup with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and company in the next couple of seasons. With Denard Span due a $9 million option or a $500,000 buyout in 2015, Taylor is likely leaving a lot of questions for Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and Washington management about just what to do in center field in 2015. If nothing else, Taylor could spend some time in Triple-A next year, or even later this season, before earning a full-time role in 2016.
Jake Lamb was a 6th round pick out of Washington in 2012, and all that he has done since getting drafted is hit. This season, his numbers in the Southern League are being mocked by Kris Bryant’s absurd outburst, but they are still very, very good. The doubles and home runs show the power potential in Lamb’s bat, and the .996 OPS in 59 at-bats against left-handed pitching shows that Lamb is quite capable of becoming a regular in Arizona. With Kevin Towers around, Lamb could be traded before ever reaching the desert, but he would be an extremely solid option to force Martin Prado off of the hot corner, and joining Paul Goldschmidt as a tremendous offensive threat in the Diamondbacks lineup in the near future.