Fear not baseball fans — Sunshine and warmer weather are on their way, and spring training is knocking on Old Man Winter’s door. Thankfully, it is almost time for baseball, as camps are in full gear in Arizona and Florida.
Many players are getting acclimated to new spring training surroundings, as these past few months proved to be busy for general managers, agents and players alike. Between blockbuster trades and free agents signing robust contracts with new teams, there has been no lack of player movement this offseason.
Lucky for you, Athlon Sports has kept a close watch on the MLB Hot Stove while you’ve been shoveling snow. So get your pencils and scorebooks ready as we list the Five National League Players on New Teams to Watch in 2015.
Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals
It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner was going to test the free agent market this offseason after Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million contract offer from Detroit last March. Instead of re-signing with the Tigers and fighting for a fifth straight AL Central division title, Scherzer headed to the National League and Capitol Hill, as he penned a seven-year deal worth approximately $210 million with Washington.
Last season the Nationals were the poplar pick to win the NL pennant, and rest assured they will be even more favored in 2015 with the addition of Scherzer. The Nats’ 2014 rotation was special, but this season has the opportunity to be historic. Manager Matt Williams’ starting five will feature (in some order) Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, a teammate of Scherzer’s on the Tigers in 2011-13. While some in-season tinkering cannot be ruled out, if this quintet lives up to lofty expectations, it could be a historic season on the mound for the Nationals. And hopefully, it also will produce winning results in October.
With the Braves in full-on rebuilding mode and the Mets and Marlins considered fringe postseason contenders, the NL East is the Nationals’ to lose, and all eyes will be fully fixed on their new $210 million dollar ace.
Matt Kemp, OF, San Diego Padres
Four years ago Matt Kemp was the darling of MLB after he fell one home run short of the elusive 40/40 club and posted a slash line of .324/.399/.586 along with 126 RBIs, 115 runs, 195 hits, 353 total bases, an OPS of .986 and an OPS+ of 172. Sadly, Kemp fell short in the MVP voting to Ryan Braun, who was suspended 65 games in 2013 for his part in the Biogenesis scandal.
What’s even more despairing is that Kemp has never been the same since that 2011 season. Kemp, who is easily one of the most genuine and likable guys in sports today, was robbed of his prime due to constant, nagging injuries. Kemp has yet to top 30 homers, 100 RBIs, or 10 stolen bases since his near-MVP campaign, and baseball has been lesser for it.
In 2014, Kemp had a resurgence. He appeared in 150 games for the Dodgers, hitting .287/.346/.506 with 25 homers, 89 RBIs and 38 doubles. The bat was back for Kemp, but the range and defensive prowess in the outfield and speed on the base paths weren’t the same. The recipient of two Gold Gloves as a center fielder, Kemp spent most of his time manning the corner outfield spots last season, which led to noticeable frustration with manager Don Mattingly.
Kemp is now 30, suffering from arthritis in both hips, and is just one of three brand-new outfielders San Diego acquired in the offseason, along with Wil Myers and Justin Upton. Kemp swears his hips won’t be a nuisance, that he’s happy in his new home, and ready for a full slate in 2015. Kemp and the Padres might be the biggest question marks coming into spring training. Most pundits don't know what to make of new Padres GM A.J. Preller’s extensive roster makeover, but here’s hoping that we witness the next chapter of the Matt Kemp Comeback that began in 2014. Baseball is better when Kemp is at his best.
Wil Myers, OF, San Diego Padres
Speaking of the Padres’ outfield…It’s funny how baseball works itself out. In December 2012 Myers, a third-round draft pick by Kansas City, was shipped to Tampa Bay for pitchers Wade Davis and James Shields. Last season, Shields and Davis helped the Royals reach their first World Series since 1985, while Myers was named the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013 when he hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers, 23 doubles and an OPS of .831 in just 88 games for the Rays.
After a disastrous 2014 in which Myers hit just .222 in 87 games due to a broken wrist, the Rays shipped him to San Diego in December in a three-team trade that also involved the Nationals. The funny thing is, Shields also wound up in a Padres uniform after signing a four-year, $75 million free-agent contract a few weeks ago. See, baseball is a funny game.
Myers, like fellow new teammate Matt Kemp, is looking for somewhat of a resurrection on the West Coast. Myers has already been named the starting center fielder by skipper Bud Black, and will find a spot somewhere in the heart of the lineup. Perhaps the opportunity of a fresh start in San Diego will be welcomed by Myers, who was tabbed as a “can’t miss” prospect. However, the increased expectations of the new-look Padres could be a bit cumbersome for a player who just turned 24 in December and has yet to play a full season in the majors.
Jon Lester, SP, Chicago Cubs
As if breaking a 107-year old curse wasn’t stressful enough, tack on the pressure of $155 million over six seasons for a 31-year old pitcher. No big deal, right? Oh, don’t forget the eyes of the entire baseball world are upon Wrigley Field, as some publications are picking the Cubs as a World Series contender. Not to mention Chicago is home to one of the most loyal, obsessed, and passionate fan bases in all of sports. No pressure, Mr. Lester — no pressure at all.
Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ brass, and their rabid fans, are ready to start winning, and start winning now. The signing of one of the most reliable pitchers in baseball over the past decade is proof of this win-now mindset. After three seasons of sub-.500 baseball, prospect collecting, sign-and-trades, and big contract expulsion, the Cubs finally made their power play to sign Lester, the ace they so desperately needed. But there are still too many questions for this team before we anoint them as World Series-bound.
The Cubs know what they’ve got in Lester, a pure professional who has improved with age, who commands the strike zone as well as any pitcher, and delivers 200-plus innings of work.
Lester isn’t the issue. This issue is most of this Cubs lineup is still wildly unproven. Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, Arismendy Alcantara, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant are all fantastic prospects but none of them have a full season of big-league ball on their resumes. Heck, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro are considered cornerstones, but are just 25 and 24 years old, respectively. That is a lot of pressure to put on a team built with kids in their early 20s.
The only way this contract proves to be a winner is if the Cubs win —Duh, right? But if Lester lights up the NL only to see the offense falter, the deal is a wash. If the Cubs’ young lineup lives up to the hype, but it’s Lester who doesn’t deliver over time, the deal will be regarded as too pricey for the results.
The only way this deal works is by winning an NL pennant, which seems plausible. But who are we kidding — it’s the Cubs we’re talking about. No matter the outcome of the 2015 season, the signing of Lester will be the signature of the Epstein regime in Chicago, for better or worse.
Jason Heyward, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Remember when Heyward homered in his first big league at-bat off of Carlos Zambrano in 2010? Remember how quickly Heyward was anointed as the next big thing? That seems so long ago…
Since 2010, when Heyward finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, his inaugural batting average of .277 hasn't gotten higher than .271. Heyward’s power numbers are also a thing of the past, not hitting more than 15 homers or driving in 70 runs or more in three of the past four seasons. In his career, Heyward has never slugged over .500.
Maybe it’s time to simply accept that Heyward isn’t the big bat we all thought he might turn into. He did show flashes of what could be in 2012 when he hit 27 homers and drove in 82 runs, but has totaled just 25 homers and 96 RBIs the last two seasons.
The falling numbers and the Braves’ rebuild made Heyward expendable to the new Atlanta brass. After the death of elite prospect Oscar Taveras, the Cardinals needed outfield help, and Hayward became a perfect trade target — great glove with possible offensive upside.
Heyward, a first-round pick in 2007 and two-time Gold Glove winner, will only strengthen what already is one of the NL’s better defensive teams. If Heyward can tap into what worked at the plate in 2010 and ‘12, that would be a much-needed bonus for a Cardinals offense that lacked consistent run-producers a season ago.
Heyward’s glove has never been a question, which begs another question — where does Heyward’s bat fit in this lineup? Lead off? Second? Fifth? Seventh?
Heyward is just 25 years young, yet this will be his sixth season in The Show, so he’s no longer a kid in baseball time. The Cardinals, ripe with experienced veterans, are looking for Heyward to be the player that he was projected to be just a few seasons ago. How will Heyward respond in the baseball-crazed city of St. Louis?
- By Jake Rose