A lot has happened in the world of sports since the final out of the 2014 World Series. Tom Brady deflated his balls, Pete Carroll blew the Super Bowl, Steph Curry took his game to another level, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather finally agreed to a fight, and the Kentucky Wildcats got to within two games of a perfect season—just to name a few off the top of my head.
But don’t worry if you’ve been preoccupied with all that and have not given much thought to the 2015 MLB season. Today we’re doing a rundown of the biggest MLB storylines you need to follow this season. It is not a comprehensive list of every transaction, or set of predictions about who will what awards and which teams will make the playoffs. Instead, this list is a primer, an introduction, a way in.
Sound good? Okay then. Let’s check out some MLB storylines…
In case you hadn't noticed, baseball games are ridiculously long these days. In 2010 the average game was 2:55, in 2011 it was 2:57, in 2012 it was 3:00, in 2013 it was 3:04, and in 2014 it was 3:08.
Luckily, MLB understands ain't nobody got time for that. So in the offseason they introduced a couple of modest measures aimed and speeding things up.
Under the new rules, batter are no longer allowed to step out of the batters box in between every pitch—just after foul balls—and starting in May they'll get fined if they do.
There's also an official pitch clock that runs between innings and during timeouts. If a pitcher doesn't get to work before time runs out, they'll get fined.
Finally, managers are supposedly not allowed to come out and argue with an umpire to stall before issuing a replay challenge like they've been doing. If they want to challenge a play, they've got to do it right away.
Will these measures work? Only time will tell. But if they don't, expect more drastic measures next year.
13. Will Games Actually Get Shorter?
This year we'll see the return of the Mets' Matt Harvey and the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, two electrifying young aces who missed the majority of the 2014 season with torn UCLs.
In 2013, Harvey started 26 games for the Mets, allowing just 2.27 runs per nine innings and earning the start in the 2013 All-Star game at Citi Field. Meanwhile, Ferhandez accrued an ERA of just 2.19 in 28 starts for the Marlins, striking out 187 in the process.
However, just as baseball fans started to get really excited about these guys, their elbows gave out. Harvey went down first in September of 2013. Then Fernandez went down in May of 2014. Both required Tommy John surgery.
Obviously, the big question for 2015 is can these guys bounce back and regain their form? If so, the NL Wild Card race should be pretty interesting.
12. Return of the Young Aces
Every year, baseball is losing more and more big name pitchers to UCL tears and Tommy John surgery. Over the last five years, we've seen Neftali Feliz, Josh Johnson, Stephen Strasburg, John Lackey, Adam Wainwright, and of course Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez all go under the knife.
This year we've already lost Yu Darvish, and history suggests he won't be the last. So who's next? Clayton Kershaw? Felix Hernandez? For whatever reason, every ace is pretty much a ticking time bomb these days. We're just waiting for the next one to go off.
11. The Tommy John Problem
The bad news is that we keep losing stud pitchers to Tommy John surgery. The good news—if you like low-scoring baseball—is that baseball has never seen such a glut of incredible pitching talent. This really is the golden era of pitchers.
Seriously, let's just name all the "aces" in baseball right now. In the "established" camp we have Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Cole Hammels, and Jordan Zimmerman—just to name a few. In the "emerging" camp we have Matt Harvey, Jose Fenandez, Jacob deGrom, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Andrew Cashner, Tyler Ross, and James Paxton—again, just to name a few.
Hell, the Nationals, Dodgers, Mariners and Padres all have rotations that could fill out All-Star rosters. It should hardly come as a surprise that in 2014 team scoring fell to 4.07 runs per game (lowest since 1981) while strikeouts spiked to 7.7 per game (an all-time record).
Assuming the biggest aces stay healthy, the offensive drought is only going to get worse.
10. Will There Be ANY Offense?
Every season, teams that had losing records the year before wind up making the playoffs. The Angels and Giants did it last year. The Red Sox and Indians did it the year before. The Orioles, A's, and Nationals did it the year before that. And that's just teams that had sub-.500 records, which excludes teams like the Royals, who had a .500 record in 2013 but reached the postseason in 2014 for the first time since 1985.
So the big question here is, what teams are going to make big turnarounds this year?
The Red Sox finished 71-91 in 2014, but added Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to a lineup that already featured Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.
The White Sox finished 73-89, but added Jeff Samardzja to a rotation that featured Chris Sale and Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to a lineup that featured Jose Abreu.
The Blue Jays finished 83-79 and lost Melky Cabrera, but added Josh Donaldson and Russel Martin.
And the Cubs finished 73-89, but are adding a host of top-tier prospects, plus ace Jon Lester and rockstar manager Joe Maddon.
Then there's the Padres. They finished 77-85, but went out and got an entirely new lineup starring Matt Kemp, Wil Meyers, Will Middlebrooks, and both Upton brothers. PLUS they signed workhorse James Shields to join an already formidable starting rotation. AND they just traded for Craig Kimbrel, one of the best closers in the game, who joins what was already one of baseball's most reliable bullpens. If this team isn't poised for a turnaround and a serious run at the postseason, nobody is.
9. Big Turnarounds
There is no salary cap in Major League Baseball. But there is a luxury tax, and revenue sharing, and a playoff system that makes it easy for weaker teams to knockoff stronger ones in single-elimination games and five-game series. As a result, right now, there has never been more parity in the game.
You want evidence to support that claim? Just look at the image above. That's a screen cap of ESPN's "expert" prediction for the 2015 season. As you can see, there are only three teams that really seem to stand out above all the other teams in their division—the Mariners, Nationals, and Dodgers. Every other division in baseball looks like a complete tossup. AL Central? Could be the White Sox, Royals, Indians, or Tigers. NL Central? Could be the Cardinals, Pirates, or even the Cubs. AL East? Could be the Red Sox, Orioles, or even the Blue Jays.
And then there's the wild cards. There are really only two teams in all of baseball you could say have absolutely no chance of snagging a Wild Card spot, and those of the Phillies and Braves. Literally every other team has a glimmer of hope, even if it's small.
The point? Don't pay any attention to expert predictions this year. It's a total tossup.
Okay, "suck" might be a strong word. But is the AL East, long the toughest division in baseball, decidedly average now?
Yes. Yes it is.
The Red Sox and Blue Jays both have major pitching problems. But their lineups are potent, with Pedroia, Ramirez, Ortiz, and Sandoval raking for the Sox, and Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion, and Donaldson raking for the Jays.
After that, the division gets really weak. The Rays and Orioles seem headed in a downward trajectory. Meanwhile, the average Yankees player is about 43 years old, so baseball's evil empire could actually see it's first losing season since 1992.
Oh the humanity!
7. Does the AL East Actually Suck Now?
The Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton is one of the few offensive powerhouses in the golden era of pitching. Though five years in the big leagues, he's cracked 154 home runs while going .270/.364/.538 with an OPS of .902.
Those aren't quite Mike Trout numbers, but they're still better than most in this day and age. And that's why the Marlins gave him the biggest contract in baseball history in the offseason—even if it is a mirage.
Unfortunately, Stanton's 2014 campaign was cut short when he took a Mike Friers fastball to the face on September 11. So this year, everyone is wondering how Stanton will respond—to the terrifying injury, and to the supposed burden of his $325 million contract.
6. Can Giancarlo Stanton Bounce Back?
After the Red Sox's historic September meltdown in 2011, management blew up the team in 2012. During the season, they shipped Kevin Youkilis to the White Sox, then Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers in one of the great salary dumps in baseball history.
The following offseason, the Sox hired John Farrell as their manager and signed free agents Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, and Koji Uehara, going from worst to first and winning the 2013 World Series.
After winning the World Series, the Sox blew things up again. They let Jacoby Ellsbury walk via free agency, and traded Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jonny Gomes, Jake Peavy, and Stephen Drew. Result: back to last place.
Now the Red Sox are trying to pull off the worst-to-first thing yet again. In the offseason they gave an un-Godly amount of money to Pablo "Where's the Nearest Dunkin' Donuts" Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, while also bringing in Hanley Ramirez from the Dodgers.
So can they pull it off? Can the Red Sox win the AL East and go from worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first? Only time will tell. But yeah, maybe.
5. Will the Red Sox Go Worst to First to Worst to First?
Despite the fact that he's the most-hated man in baseball, and the fact that he'll get booed mercilessly in every stadium he visits this year, and the fact that he's going to be turning 40, and he breaks down more than a used Jaguar, Alex Rodriguez still wants to collect the $63 million the Yankees still owe him. So he's decided to return from his year-long PED suspension rather than retiring.
This surely will not go well. Sure, Yankees fans are preaching forgiveness now. (See photo.) But it's the first week, and without Jeter they have no moral compass. A few years ago they booed him off the field, and that was before the suspension when he wasn't completely useless. How will they treat A-Rod once he starts to play like a 40-year-old who's not on steroids any more?
No, this is going to get ugly. Pull up a chair and grab some popcorn.
4. Will A-Rod Go the Whole Season without Crying?
In 2013 is was the Pirates. In 2014 it was the Royals. Will yet another epic postseason drought be broken in 2015?
Thanks to the Royals' magical run to the World Series last year, the longest postseason drought in North American pro sports (let alone baseball) now belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays. They haven't taken a swing in October since Joe Carter crushed a Mitch Williams fastball over the fence at the SkyDome on October 23, 1993.
Could 2015 finally be the year the Jays return to the postseason? If not them, then maybe the Mariners will return for the first time since their 2001 ALCS loss to the Yankees.
3. The Next Postseason Drought to Get Snapped?
The Chicago Cubs have been rebuilding (again) in 2009 when the Ricketts family bought the team and appointed Theo Epstein team president. This year, they decided their time is now. They went out and hired Joe Maddon as their manager, and snagged top free agent pitcher Jon Lester. Those moves, combined with the glut of prospects who have recently arrived (Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler) or are about to arrive (Kris Bryant), have Cubs fans mapping out possible parade routes.
Of course, no one doubts that the Cubs are going to be very good in the near future. The question is how soon is soon? Is it this year? Next year? The year after that?
It's been 107 years since the Cubs won the World Series. Now, finally, it seems their fans are getting antsy.
2. Will the Cubs Really Exorcise Their Demons?
The Cubs may be poised to become juggernauts in a few years, but the Washington Nationals are poised to be juggernauts in 2015. This offseason they added Max Scherzer to what was already one of the best starting rotations in the league, giving the former Cy Young winner a whopping seven-year, $210 million contract. As a result, people are saying they might have one of the best starting rotations in baseball history.
Unfortunately, people also said that about the Phillies in 2010 after they added Roy Halladay to a rotation that included Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. But in 2010 the "Greatest Rotation of All Time" lost to the Giants in the NLCS, and in 2011 they lost to the Cardinals in the NLDS. So a monster rotation is no guarantee.
Luckily, the Nats also have Bryce Harper, who seems primed for a breakout season. And backing him they have Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.
So is this the year the Nats finally win the World Series like they're supposed to? We'll have to wait and see.
1. Can the Nats’ Pitching Arsenal Finally Get them to the NLCS?
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