15 Things to Watch in Baseball in 2015

Rob Manfred's rookie season as Commissioner is just one of the intriguing storylines entering the 2015 MLB season

Teams have started to report to spring training in Florida and Arizona, which means the 2015 MLB season has officially begun. Opening Day is still six weeks away, but here are 15 storylines to whet your appetite between now and then.

 

1. He’s the Manfred

Baseball hasn’t started a season with a new commissioner since 1993, the spring after Bud Selig took over for the ousted Fay Vincent. Massive changes followed in the next few years: realignment, a strike that wiped out a World Series, wild cards, interleague play and expansion, all while the steroid issue bubbled to the surface. Selig stepped down in January, and his successor, Rob Manfred, seems less inclined to implement radical change to a game that is booming financially. Then again, Manfred has been coy about his plans. After owners elected him as commissioner-elect last August, Manfred would not identify any priorities: “I think probably the single biggest challenge is filling the shoes of the gentleman standing to my right,” he said, referring to Selig. “He’s established a great tradition of unity among the 30 clubs, and I’m going to work very hard to try to maintain that.” In a way, Manfred is right. For all of Selig’s obvious successes, his greatest skills were political, steering a group of owners with competing interests to a common cause while ending with 20 years of labor peace. But fans want to see more than maintenance, and Manfred will need to find ways to speed up a game that is getting ever slower; revive flagging national TV viewership (although local viewership is strong); make the amateur game safer for pitchers and more accessible to low-income athletes; resolve the stadium situations in Oakland and Tampa Bay; negotiate a new collective-bargaining agreement in 2016; and so on. He inherits a healthier industry than Selig did, but the agenda is already full.

 

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2. Miami Millions

The Miami Marlins’ megacontract for Giancarlo Stanton (13 years, $325 million) was not even official before folks began wondering how long Stanton would actually stay. Such is the skepticism around the Marlins, who have a history of aggressive spending and equally aggressive dismantling. It’s also a fair question because of Stanton’s opt-out clause after 2020. For now, though, the money will catapult Stanton to a new level of stardom and celebrity, and it will be interesting to see the kind of image he cultivates with that platform. Far more compelling, though, is that vicious Stanton swing, the kind that launches majestic drives over any outfield wall and connects at a higher rate than just about any other slugger. He’s an edge-of-your-seat performer in person, and if you’ve got tickets to a Marlins game, be sure to get there for his batting practice. You won’t regret it.

 

3. Dodgers Brainpower

The Dodgers have proven at least two things since their new owners took over during the 2012 season: They know how to win the National League West, and, boy, can they write checks. They’d like to continue doing the first without doing as much of the second. To that end, they hired two maestros of small-market success — Andrew Friedman, the former general manager of the Rays, and Farhan Zaidi, the assistant to Billy Beane in Oakland. Friedman is the president of baseball operations, Zaidi is the GM, and Josh Byrnes, the former San Diego general manager, is also on board as “senior vice president of baseball operations.” That’s a big group of smart, innovative thinkers with years of experience handling small payrolls. Now that they have much more money, will they stay as disciplined in seeking and exploiting market inefficiencies? What kind of edge will the team gain from their knowledge of statistics? And will Don Mattingly, a manager they did not hire, be on board? As a concept, this sounds promising. But the Dodgers, despite October letdowns, are starting from a high point. So the pressure’s on for the new front office to win big — right away.

 

4. (More) Cuban Imports

Jose Abreu became the latest, and most successful, Cuban defector to hit the majors last season, winning the Rookie of the Year award for the White Sox while leading the majors in slugging. His example helped Rusney Castillo get a $72.5 million contract from the Red Sox in August, and Yasmany Tomas land a $68.5 million pact from the Diamondbacks in December. The secret is out: Cuban sluggers like Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig are a safe buy, and Castillo and Tomas will try to become the latest. Castillo played for the Red Sox in September and, like Tomas, profiles as a slugger with speed who can cover ground in the outfield. But teams and fans won’t really know until we see them more consistently. The contracts are largely based on faith, with teams having few opportunities to see these players in high-level competition before signing them. Someday, one will be a bust. But the air of mystery surrounding them and the possibility of Abreu-like success make Castillo and Tomas especially intriguing to watch.

 

5. How the Astros Handle the Draft

For the first time since 2011, the Houston Astros will not be picking first in the June draft. The Diamondbacks will choose first, but the Astros will be right behind them, as compensation for failing to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken, a high school pitcher, last summer. The Astros will also pick fifth overall, giving them two of the top five selections and a chance at an unprecedented haul of top-end amateur talent. The Astros have passed on Byron Buxton and Kris Bryant at the top of recent drafts — taking Carlos Correa and Mark Appel instead — so their choices will be intriguing no matter what. But this year, they will bear even closer scrutiny by the union, which was furious last summer after the Astros backed out of an agreement with their fifth-round pick, pitcher Jacob Nix, whose bonus amount was tied to Aiken’s. The Astros will have a bountiful pool of bonus money to use on their picks, and the way they allot it will be just as fascinating as the players they select.

 

Related: A Look Back at the 2005 MLB Draft

 

6. Will the Mets Pass the Yankees?

The Mets and the Yankees awoke last Sept. 10 to a strange reality — both teams were exactly five and a half games out of a playoff spot. The story was a source of amusement in New York, another way to make fun of the Mets (do you believe the Yankees are this bad?), and by the end of the year the teams were in their regular roles: the Yankees with a winning record, the Mets a losing record. But neither team made the playoffs, and while the Yankees struggle to break free of their over-the-hill character, the Mets may finally have found the right mix of veterans and prime-age, ascending talent to go with their core of emerging pitchers. The Mets have a streak of six losing seasons in a row (tied with Houston for the majors’ longest), and the Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992, so this might be a longshot. But it would be foolish to bet on the Yankees’ older, declining hitters suddenly rediscovering the best versions of themselves, and the Mets can dream on catcher Travis d’Arnaud, first baseman Lucas Duda and Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares. Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer — David Wright’s childhood friend from Virginia — offers nice value for two years and $21 million, and a rotation led by Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Jacob deGrom, with top prospect Noah Syndergaard nearly ready, could be a legitimate force. The results still have to show it, but for real baseball optimism in New York, Citi Field is now the place to be.

 

7. Montreal Momentum?

For the second year in a row, baseball will hold two exhibition games in Montreal at the end of spring training, this time with games between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cincinnati Reds. Last year’s games, between the Blue Jays and the Mets, drew more than 96,000 fans and fueled hope that MLB could return to the city that hosted the Expos from 1969-2004. “I think they would be an excellent candidate in the future,” Bud Selig said in July, at his final All-Star game as commissioner. “No question about it.” Of course, there is one overriding question — how will the city build and finance a viable alternative to decrepit Olympic Stadium, where the Expos failed to draw 1 million fans in their final seven seasons? Until that question can be answered, it’s still a fantasy. But the Tampa Bay Rays are suffering from chronically poor attendance, an outmoded stadium and an exodus of talent from the clubhouse and the field. The Rays maintain they have not discussed relocation, but as long as baseball stays at 30 teams, the failure of the Tampa Bay franchise seems like the best hope for Montreal. Former Expos outfielder Warren Cromartie has been arranging a local coalition of politicians and businessmen looking for an opportunity to bring a team back. Again, a lot must take place for this to happen, but the trend lines could be pointing Montreal’s way.

 

8. Back in Action

Though the incidence of the injury mercifully slowed as the summer went along, the torn ulnar collateral ligament was the story of the early 2014 season, claiming Jose Fernandez (left), Matt Moore (right), Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Griffin, Ivan Nova, Bruce Rondon and Luke Hochevar. All of them needed Tommy John surgery, like the Mets’ Matt Harvey, who spent the season recovering from his Oct. 2013 procedure. Harvey should be ready to go at the start of spring training, and the others should come along soon after. Major League Baseball formed a task force and a website in November to address the issue, aimed largely at keeping amateur elbows healthy. The results of those efforts, which include formal, coordinated recommendations and several research projects, will take years to see. For now, we are eager for the return of the missing pitchers, especially Harvey and Fernandez, two of the more dynamic young righthanders in the game. This could be a transition year for both, but at least they will be back on the mound, hopefully working back to the form that offered such promise.

 

9. Free Agent Pitchers

It’s impossible to predict who will be traded during the season, but a useful place to start is by looking at the upcoming free agent class. And next winter, barring contract extensions, it will be loaded with starting pitchers, including David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Cliff Lee, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, Rick Porcello, Yovani Gallardo, Scott Kazmir and Mat Latos. That’s more than two rotations’ worth of high-quality starters. Some of them may sign new deals before free agency, some may stay with their teams through the end of the season, and some may be traded. All will bear watching to see how their stock changes before their status does, but expect to hear a lot about Cueto, especially. Cueto, the Reds ace who finished as the runner-up for the NL Cy Young, will need a deal larger than that of teammate Homer Bailey, who somehow scored a six-year, $105 million contract before last season. Can the small-market Reds, who also have Joey Votto on an exorbitant contract, really afford another mega-deal? Likewise, while the White Sox acted boldly to trade for Samardzija, who grew up a fan of the team, they’ve never given out a $100 million contract. If Samardzija pitches well and the White Sox struggle, they might have to consider flipping him to a contender. And if Lee proves that his elbow is healthy, the clearly rebuilding Phillies will be eager to move him — though the structure of Lee’s deal (with a $12.5 million buyout for 2016, if a $27.5 million option does not vest) will limit the return they can get.

 

10. Pedro Martinez’s Hall of Fame Speech

When the mood struck Pedro Martinez, the great righthander could be just as entertaining behind a microphone as he was on the pitcher’s mound. He could wax nostalgic, reminiscing about his boyhood under the mango trees in the Dominican Republic. He could turn feisty, challenging Babe Ruth to rise from the grave and grab a bat. He could be creatively conciliatory, calling the Yankees his daddy after another rough game. Martinez showed the depth of his insights on the modern game during TBS’ postseason coverage, and he has always had a deep respect for baseball history. As a new inductee to the Hall of Fame, Martinez will bring his best stuff to Cooperstown for his induction ceremony in late July. Expect richly detailed memories, unfiltered opinion, fanciful wordplay and a whole lot of emotion.

11. Broken Hearts in the Desert?

Tony La Russa used most of last season to survey what he had with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired the Hall of Famer to oversee their baseball operations after a disastrous start. En route to an MLB-worst 98 losses, La Russa decided to replace general manager Kevin Towers with the ace of his old Oakland teams, Dave Stewart. A rookie manager, Chip Hale, takes over for Kirk Gibson. Now the Diamondbacks have to get real. One of Stewart’s first moves was to trade prospects for Jeremy Hellickson, the former Rookie of the Year for the Rays, who has a 5.00 ERA the last two seasons. La Russa’s former pitching coach, Dave Duncan, works for him in Arizona and turned around Stewart’s career in the mid-1980s. Perhaps he can work his magic on Hellickson and other Diamondbacks, because without some unforeseen surge, it’s hard to picture this team as a contender for 2015. Arizona’s 4.26 staff ERA ranked 14th in the NL, and the offense has little to fear besides Paul Goldschmidt, Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas (if he’s as good as advertised) and the big-power, on-base-challenged Mark Trumbo. But La Russa and his staff are dedicated to quickly reviving the Diamondbacks. As he told Arizona reporters in November: “I will be absolutely brokenhearted if we don’t have a winning record next year, which is 82–80. … I think the message that we’re careful to send to our fans is that we are not a patient bunch.” La Russa knows more baseball than just about anyone alive, but quick fixes rarely seem to work.

 

12. Royal Revolution, or just a KC Thing?

The Royals insist they were not trying to reinvent the game with their style of play while winning the American League pennant last season. General manager Dayton Moore’s disciplined, single-minded mission to acquire athletic players with speed who excelled on defense was born of necessity. Kauffman Stadium’s outfield has the most square footage of any park in the majors, and the Royals need fielders who can cover it. They also need runners who can take extra bases when balls go in those gaps — and speed, of course, helps on defense and never goes into a slump. Such players are more cost-effective than power hitters, anyway, and they generally offer the added benefit of contact hitting. This is a lost art in baseball, but the Royals do it well, and it drove opponents crazy in the postseason. Kansas City hitters had the majors’ fewest strikeouts in an era when strikeouts rise across baseball every year. Will other teams take notice of the Royals’ success — their lack of empty at-bats — and preach contact? Or will the industry keep desperately pursuing home runs in an era of declining power? Moore isn’t sure. “You can only understand from your own perspective and what you have to do for your team,” he said. “It’s hard to say what someone else should do or how they should build their team. For us, it’s just the way we all set out to do it.”

 

13. The Crowds in Cleveland

On a pillar in the second deck in Cleveland, above right field, is the number 455 and the words, THE FANS. The Indians “retired” that number in 2001 to recognize the 455-game sellout streak that accompanied the team’s recent glory years. It took a unique set of circumstances for that streak to happen — a new downtown ballpark, the departure of the Browns, a boring Cavaliers team and, of course, a winning product on the field. Now, the ballpark is familiar, the Browns are back and the Cavaliers are exciting. But the Indians are winning again — and the fans don’t seem to notice. Only the Rays and the Indians drew average crowds under 20,000 last season. The Indians have been hurt by the changing economy in Cleveland — 20 years ago, there were 100,000 more people who worked downtown — and have embarked on a two-year renovation plan that will eliminate 7,000 seats at Progressive Field, which remains a wonderful place to watch a ballgame. Terry Francona’s team has two of baseball’s best players in outfielder Michael Brantley and AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who leads an intriguing rotation. The Indians have raised their payroll in recent seasons, won a wild card in 2013 and came close in 2014. If they contend for a third year in a row, will the fans respond? And if not, what more can the team do to entice them?

 

14. Bryce Harper

Baseball got a seven-game World Series to close out the postseason, and in the process found an October icon in Madison Bumgarner of the Giants. But the championship series and World Series were largely devoid of young, marketable superstars with potential to resonate beyond the baseball world. This was not the fault of Bryce Harper, the 22-year-old Washington Nationals outfielder, who seemed poised to break out in a big way. Harper crunched three home runs in the division series against the Giants, showing off the kind of monstrous power that can captivate the casual fan. The Nationals are strong but have not escaped the first round in two trips to the postseason. Likewise, Harper is enormously talented but has not escaped the injury bug in his young career. His high-energy (some would say reckless) style has led to injuries in the field and on the bases, and Harper has no plans to change. In short, he’s the perfect player to dream on: He’s offered us a taste of what he can do, while leaving us eager to see more. And if Harper can lead a Washington team to a World Series title for the first time in 90 years? Then we’ve got a legend in the making.

 

15. Padres Cycle or No-Hitter

This is one of those baseball oddities that defies explanation. How could a franchise exist for 46 seasons and not once, in more than 7,000 games, have a player hit for the cycle or a pitcher throw a no-hitter? It’s happened to the San Diego Padres. Of course, the Padres have not been big winners, with two pennants and no championships in all that time. But they’ve had their share of stars, too, and simply by showing up for all those games, you would think at least one of those feats would have happened. The Padres have had close calls, including a near-cycle last year by Tommy Medica, who missed by a single in May. For the record, there have been 120 no-hitters and 140 cycles since the start of the 1969 season — and because of the lightning-bolt nature of those events, few, if anyone, predicted they would happen before those games began. But just for fun, we’ll keep an eye on Andrew Cashner, the big righthander with overpowering stuff. Cashner struggles to stay healthy; he’s 28 years old but has never made more than 26 starts in a season. Yet he pitched one-hit and two-hit shutouts last year, and once faced the minimum 27 batters in a one-hitter. When he’s on, he’s always got a chance to make history.

 

— Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports

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