Five Teams on the Rise
1. Miami Marlins: Two years after losing 100 games, the Marlins have put together a stellar outfield and a very good starting rotation — and they expect a midseason return of ace Jose Fernandez from Tommy John surgery.
2. San Diego Padres: New general manager A.J. Preller, a Cornell honors grad, is getting high marks for makeover of lineup that scored an MLB-low 535 runs in 2014. Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Derek Norris and Wil Myers give Padres the look of an actual offense.
3. Chicago Cubs: Manager Joe Maddon, who worked wonders with a bargain-basement budget in Tampa Bay, is the perfect match for a team loaded with uber-prospects and deep pockets.
4. Chicago White Sox: Between slugger Jose Abreu and ace Chris Sale, the White Sox could become the first team since the Twins in 2006 to boast an MVP position player and Cy Young Award winner.
5. Houston Astros: Last season the Astros improved by 19 victories, and while it’s unreasonable to anticipate a similar quantum leap, they’re trending in the right direction.
Five Teams on the Decline
1. New York Yankees: Joe Girardi probably will be identified as the scapegoat, but it’s not the manager’s fault starting pitcher CC Sabathia, a 14-year vet, is past his prime, or that right fielder Carlos Beltran, a 17-year vet, is past his prime, or that first baseman Alex Rodriguez, a 20-year vet, is past his prime.
2. Los Angeles Angels: Owner Arte Moreno is still on the hook for a combined $320.5 million owed to the over-the-hill trio of first baseman Albert Pujols, outfielder Josh Hamilton and pitcher C.J. Wilson.
3. Cincinnati Reds: Aside from Johnny Cueto, the starting rotation is Mike Leake and three question marks — and it’s almost certain Cueto will be traded for the prospects necessary to retool a roster incapable of contending, any time soon, in a tough NL Central.
4. Detroit Tigers: There’s still a ton of talent on hand for the Tigers to win a fifth consecutive AL title, but that once-superior starting pitching staff no longer is the envy of baseball, and the bullpen remains a concern. Although the window hasn’t closed on the Tigers, the opening is looking ever more narrow.
5. Atlanta Braves: The Braves, who haven’t endured consecutive losing seasons since 1989-90, finished 79-83 in 2014, and won’t get anywhere near as close to a .500 record in 2015.
Five Players to Watch
1. Mike Trout: En route to winning his first MVP award last season, the Angels outfielder struck out a league-leading 184 times. Ever the perfectionist, Trout has vowed to cut down that total by half. Sounds like a plan, but more than a few swings have been wrecked by overthinking.
2. Jose Abreu: Cactus League stats are as worthless as postmarked stamps, but the White Sox first baseman hit over .500 during spring training. Don’t be surprised if the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year is the league’s 2015 MVP.
3. Giancarlo Stanton: A mid-September bean ball to the face prevented the Marlins outfielder from winning the NL MVP. He’s back, with a custom-made mask, apparently recovered from an injury that poses challenges more psychological than physical.
4. Matt Kemp: Despite his disputes with Dodgers management over, well, you name it, Kemp won player of the month honors in September by hitting .322, with nine homers and 25 RBIs. San Diego’s acquisition of Kemp could be as beneficial for him as it is for the offensively challenged Padres.
5. Michael Pineda: Former Mariners rookie star has logged one full season in the majors since 2011, but his Grapefruit League dominance — 23 strikeouts, one walk — vaulted him into the role of Yankees’ ace. Can he handle it?
Five Rookies to Watch
1. Kris Bryant: His nine homers and 15 RBIs in 14 spring-training games, during which he hit .425, weren’t enough to convince the Cubs their third base prospect is worthy of a big-club roster spot. The decision — steeped in keeping Bryant under club control for an extra year — won’t deny him the 30-homer season that awaits.
2. Rusney Castillo: Signed last year to a $75.5-million contract, the Cuban defector impressed the Red Sox after his late-season call-up last September, and he continued to rake in spring training. Never mind that he didn’t make the opening-day roster; Castillo will be a Fenway Park fixture by May.
3. Yasmany Tomas: Another Cuban ex-patriot who hit the jackpot, Tomas appears to be a better fit in the outfield for the Diamondbacks than at third.
4. Joc Pederson: A Triple-A superstar last season, when he became the first Pacific Coast League player since 1934 to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases, Pederson’s potential was key in the Dodgers’ decision to trade Matt Kemp.
5. Noah Syndergaard: Disregard his 4.60 ERA for the Mets’ Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate in 2014. Syndergaard averaged slightly better than a strikeout per inning, and he’s got what might be the coolest nickname ever a placed on a rookie: “Thor”
Five Story Lines To Watch
1. Umpires enforcing pace-of-play rules: Like the replay-review system implemented last season, it’ll take a while before everybody gets comfortable, but hitters need to get used to the idea they no longer can step 10 feet out of the batters box, between pitches, to collect their thoughts.
2: Rob Manfred: The new commissioner already is addressing concepts — in-market streaming, for instance — that would’ve furrowed the typically furrowed brows of his successor, Bud Selig.
3. Defensive shifts: Since Joe Maddon revived the idea of neutralizing pull-hitters by moving an infielder to the hitter’s pull side, the shift has become commonplace. Can hitters adjust? Should they?
4. The emergence of a genuine superstar: It’s not a good thing for baseball when Alex Rodriguez is more recognized in airport terminals than Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton.
5. The Washington Nationals: They’re the team to beat. The first and only team from D.C. to win the World Series was the 1924 Senators, managed by 27-year-old second baseman Bucky Harris. What was that about?
Five Bold Predictions
1. Pete Rose will be reinstated as eligible for the Hall of Fame.
2. Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi will be fired before Labor Day.
3. The Padres-Mariners “rivalry,” contrived by an arranged marriage forced by the interleague schedule, actually will resemble a rivalry.
4. Somebody — the Reds’ Billy Hamilton, perhaps? — scores on a straight steal of home in April, and the SportsCenter replays will be so riveting that others attempt the single most exciting play in sports.
5. Mariners’ pitcher Taijuan Walker will take a no-hit bid into the ninth inning, and the tension proves more exciting than a stolen-base attempt of home.