It used to be easy to predict the contenders for an upcoming Major League Baseball season. For all the fuzzy situations, there were always the mainstays you could count on.

These, however, are strange times.

The New York Yankees have gone from being a sure thing to being stuck on thin ice. The Atlanta Braves’ NL East empire is long gone. The former Montreal Expos, the Baltimore Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates are powers to be reckoned with. Heck, the Kansas City Royals darn near won the 2014 World Series.

And following an offseason with enough twists to overwhelm even Christopher Nolan, don’t count on the strange times quitting. If anything, they’re only going to get stranger.

I would break things down division by division…but since I’ve already done that and a subsequent storm of moves has since complicated things further, let’s just consider how the two leagues have changed.


The National League: Usual Suspects in Place, Unusual Suspects Gunning for Them

The National League was awfully top-heavy in 2014. Outside of the five playoff teams—the Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giantsonly the Milwaukee Brewers finished over .500.

To one extent, things shouldn’t be different in 2015. FanGraphs’ projections for the NL have the Nationals, Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers and Giants projected to be favorites again.

But to another extent, things look completely different. The usual suspects may still be there, but unusual suspects will be coming for them in 2015.

In the NL East, the Miami Marlins and New York Mets are poised to capitalize on the Braves’ transition into a rebuilding phase. The Michael Cuddyer signing and the return of Matt Harvey put the Mets close to contention, and Miami clearly aims to be even closer.

After first extending Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins have surrounded him with the likes of Mat Latos, Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Martin Prado. Maybe they can’t help the Marlins overtake Washington, but adding that much MLB-caliber talent can only help them improve on last year’s 77-win effort. 

Moving over to the NL Central, we find two teams stuck in the mud in the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds and one team ready to rise above it.

In trading for Miguel Montero and signing Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, the Chicago Cubs now have an enviable mix of youthful and veteran talent, and contention in 2015 is in play. Here’s FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron in the wake of the Lester signing:

As currently built, we have the Cubs as roughly an 84 win team…Is that really an unreasonably optimistic forecast, given that they won’t be trading Lester and Hammel away at midseason this time around, and the kids are probably more ready for prime time than they were a year ago?

Yes, the Mets have been busy. Yes, the Marlins have been even busier. Yes, the Cubs have been busy and loud.

No team in the National League, however, has been as busy or as loud as the San Diego Padres.

The nutshell version of the Padres’ winter is that new general manager/tireless android A.J. Preller repaired a truly terrible offense with trades for Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Derek Norris. That Preller has done so while keeping an elite pitching staff intact makes his work doubly impressive.

And it’s hard to ignore how good the Padres look now. As Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh opined:

The Padres should at least escape the 70-something-win limbo where they’ve been living for the last four seasons, and under the 10-team playoff format, any team whose true-talent win total starts with an “8” has a shot at October.

This would seem to be especially true of the Padres. Though the Giants should be in the middle of things once again in 2015, it bodes well for the Padres that the defending champs are having a rough winter.

In all, you can expect a different sort of playoff hunt in the Senior Circuit in 2015. The teams that were able to pull away in 2014 will contend again. But if the moves made in New York, Miami, Chicago and San Diego pan out, nobody’s going to be pulling away again.


The American League: Wild West, Wilder Central and Upside-Down East

The Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals were the American League’s five playoff teams in 2014. But where the favorites in the NL are in minor danger of being dethroned, all five AL favorites are in major danger of being dethroned.

For beginners, look at the AL West. With the A’s effectively punting on 2015 by jettisoning virtually all their top players and the Angels largely standing pat, the door is open for a new team to arise.

Cue the Seattle Mariners, who look poised to end their 13-year October drought.

Coming off an 87-win season, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan (writing at pegged the Mariners as the AL’s strongest team at the start of the winter. They’ve since signed Nelson Cruz and added a solid platoon bat in Justin Ruggiano and rotation depth in J.A. Happ, leaving them with few, if any, glaring weaknesses.

Speaking of glaring weaknesses, the Tigers have some of those. The four-time defending AL Central champs’ bullpen still resembles a LOL-pen. Their typically excellent starting rotation is missing Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. And, alas, Miguel Cabrera is crumbling.

This is good news for the Royals, who have downgraded in replacing James Shields, Nori Aoki and Billy Butler with Edinson Volquez, Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales. What’s not good news, though, is that they’ll have company chasing the Tigers in 2015.

A Cleveland Indians team that was good enough to win 85 games went and got Brandon Moss and his 30-homer power. Then there are the Chicago White Sox, whose offseason haul of Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke rivals even that of San Diego.

“Nothing happens until you go out and you win those ballgames and you prove to the fans that all those moves were the right moves and that you are in it to win it,” Samardzija said, via “Time will show that, but I think right now it’s an exciting time to be part of all of this, for sure.”

This brings us to the AL East, where the Orioles might now be the worst team in the division. While they’ve been busy losing Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller, the competition has loaded up.

The Toronto Blue Jays, typically baseball’s most reliable also-ran, have added Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and Michael Saunders to an already dangerous lineup. Pitching could be an adventure for them, but having a downright lethal offense at a time when few teams can hit is hardly a bad philosophy. 

The Boston Red Sox are also abiding by that philosophy, paying nearly $200 million to sign the top two hitters on the open market in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. If their refurbished starting pitching staff holds together, the Red Sox may pull off their second worst-to-first season in three years.

But unlike how it was in the hands of the Orioles in 2014, the AL East shouldn’t be any team’s plaything in 2015. The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays haven’t been as loud as the Blue Jays or Red Sox, but the FanGraphs projections expect them to be right there in 2015.

All told, the American League features a new power in the AL West, an AL Central race that could be up for grabs and an AL East race where only the defending champs look out of it. It’s a mess.

But it’s a beautiful mess for those who dig parity. And just as it has been in recent seasons, that promises to be the name of the game in 2015. 

Why this is happening isn’t some big mystery. There are some good reasons for it.


Why All the Parity?

After the World Series ended, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News was lamenting the extinction of the “super team.” For this, he pointed to how expansion has spread baseball’s talent pool too thin.

An interesting theory, indeed. But also way too simplistic.

For one, MLB clearly doesn’t want “super teams” to exist, as things like the luxury tax and spending limits on the draft and international markets were brought about to increase competitive balance. Second, expansion hasn’t watered down the talent pool in one very important area: the front office.

“The difference to me is that the people who are running baseball teams are really smart now,” A’s GM Billy Beane told Barry M. Bloom of last year. “The group each year gets smarter and smarter.”

Rules meant to increase competitive balance and smarter front offices aren’t necessarily new. What’s newer are these two things: money and incentive.

As Maury Brown of Forbes reported, MLB’s revenue crossed the $9 billion threshold in 2014. New national TV deals and MLB Advanced Media helped, and those are revenue streams that all 30 teams draw from. Though some teams are still richer than others, there’s no longer such thing as a “poor” team.

As for the incentive, it’s all about the second wild card.

Maybe teams were hesitant to treat it as a worthwhile pursuit in previous winters, knowing that a wild-card berth only guarantees one postseason game. But thanks to the Royals and Giants, skeptical teams now know that going from a one-game playoff to the World Series can be done.

So don’t look at the apparent changing of the guard this winter as some kind of freak occurrence. With the way things are now, this is just how things are supposed to be.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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