As we look towards the start of the 2015 MLB season, there are more than a few teams in the league that look as though they could be the surprise package of this year. It’s probably fair to say not many baseball fans tipped Kansas City to make it to the World Series last year, but the Royals shocked a lot of people by reaching the season-finale only to come up against a strongly-backed San Francisco Giants.
On the back of Kansas City’s incredible year, the question now is which MLB teams could be capable of shocking the league in 2015 in the same way the Royals did last year?
Theo Epstein was always going to get it right in Chicago; it’s just that it was never going to be an overnight job for the Cubs president of baseball operations. After another tough campaign, the Cubs look a much more attractive proposition in 2015 now they have former Rays manager Joe Maddon steering the ship. The 2002 World Series-winning head coach has been tasked with getting the best out of this talented but inexperienced Cubs roster and the new manager has been given a whole new set of toys to play with in Chicago.
The signing of Jon Lester earlier this offseason was a real statement of intent for the Cubs, adding some genuine starting quality to a pitching roster that needed a leader. While the likes of Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood are all talented pitchers in their own right, having someone with Lester’s experience and ability has added a new dimension to this pitching staff. If the Cubs can secure a deal to bring Max Scherzer to Chicago before the start of the season, there could be an argument that this pitching line-up rank alongside any of their NL Central rivals in 2015.
With two of the best sluggers in the game in the shape of Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, there is more than enough talent in this batting line-up for Cubs fans to feel confident about the new season. Combine that with the talent in the outfield with Arismendy Alcantara and Jorge Soler, as well as the new options as catcher following the offseason arrivals of Miguel Montero and David Ross, there is every reason to suggest this year’s Cubs team is going to be a lot stronger than the one that ended last season.
Chicago White Sox
Across town and the other Chicago team could also be surprise contenders in 2015, with the White Sox having been one of the most active teams during the offseason, dropping to around 28/1 with betfair to reach the World Series. On the back of a disappointing season, the White Sox have been extremely busy in the offseason, acquiring players they feel will take this franchise back into World Series contention in 2015 and make sure their fans have something to cheer about after a tough decade.
General Manager Rick Hahn has already brought Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, Zach Duke and Emilio Bonifacio, with former Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija returning to Chicago from the Oakland Athletics. As well as the exciting boat-load of new signings, the White Sox have a number of players who are really hitting their stride, not least in the shape of pitcher Chris Sale and big-hitting first baseman Jose Abreu, who are both expected to have a huge role to play this year for the franchise.
While 2014 was a complete disaster, there weren’t a huge amount of positives to take from stumbling to a fourth-place finish in the AL Central with an underwhelming 73-89 record to wrap up the season. The consistent form of Sale and Abreu were two rare shining lights, though, and the duo look set to be part of a much stronger team than they were last season. It feels as if 2015 could be a very different year for White Sox fans than they have grown accustomed to in recent years. But there is a lot of work to be done before the start of the season and the White Sox management will know there is much more to putting together a winning team than just stacking it full of talent.
Similar to the White Sox, the Oakland Athletics wasted little time in strengthening their roster since the end of last season. Unlike the White Sox, however, General Manager Billy Beane has been making changes to a group of players that are coming off the back of a successful season. Despite making it to the Wild Card Game in 2014, the Athletics have let a number of key players walk out of the door during the offseason. As well as letting Jeff Samardzija return to Chicago and sign for the White Sox, the A’s also traded Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays, all-star slugger Brandon Moss to the Indians, catcher Derek Norris to the Padres, with shortstop Jed Lowrie leaving to the free agency.
Oakland fans might have been a little worried with so many key players leaving but the signings of Brett Lawrie and Billy Butler went some way to filling the voids left on the roster. The Oakland GM sprung a major surprise at the end of January by trading John Jaso to the Rays in exchange for Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar, ensuring the A’s will start the new season with a brand new starting infield and one that is perhaps more exciting than the one that was broken apart at the end of last year after the Wild Card Game defeat to the Royals.
It might have been an offseason of change in Oakland but there is little doubt there is everything needed for the A’s to have a very strong offense in 2015. As well as their offensive line now looking promising, having fit-again AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker returning to a pitching roster already boasting the likes of Sonny Gray and several talented youngsters, there is a real belief among Oakland fans that this could be their year.
Any hope the Cincinnati Reds had last season was all but killed off by a number of injuries to key players, but a fully fit roster in 2015 could see the franchise as one of the teams to watch this year. As well as Joey Votto missing 100 games last year, star second baseman Brandon Phillips was forced to watch over 40 games from the stands with his own injury problems. Former all-star Jay Bruce managed to play through a knee injury for much of the season, although the problem clearly had an impact on the 27-year-old slipping to a career-low average of .217.
But despite being robbed of some of their best players for large parts of the year, the Reds still managed to post a decent 76-86 season and put themselves in contention for the playoffs all the way up until the all-star break. With Votto, Phillips and Bruce all expected to be back fully fit in time for the start of the season, though, the Reds will be heading into 2015 with plenty of belief that they will be a much stronger unit than they were last year. The loss of Mat Latos might have taken something away from the bullpen, the Reds moved quickly to sign Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey in the hope of keeping some consistency going. But after being relied on for much of last season, Aroldis Chapman will be hoping he is not the only Reds pitcher on the top of his game.
On the surface, the Reds might not be the most obvious choice for dark horses next season. But there is little doubt Cincinnati tick every box when it comes to this team having all the tools needed to reach the World Series. The question will now be whether they can keep those key players fit throughout the year, especially during the second half of the season.
For large parts of last season it was the Miami Marlins who were the surprise contenders in the NL East, only for a gloomy second half of the year which resulted in the franchise coming in 19 games out of first with a 77-85 record in 2014. With their talented young players now a year older and wiser, combined with some smart business in the offseason, the Marlins have attracted some interest from those looking for a possible surprise package in 2015. Clearly one of the most ambitious teams in the league, this year will be another indication of just how far the Marlins have to go before they can really start thinking about reaching a World Series.
As with many teams in the league, the Marlins’ hopes in 2015 stand at the door of their starting rotation. With some of the most exciting youngsters in the MLB in their bullpen, Miami will be hoping to find a balance of youth and experience this season, and Jose Fernandez has been tipped by many to be the man to watch this year, as well as young starters Henderson Alvarez and Jarred Cosart. The Marlins have brought in more options during the offseason in the shape of Mat Latos from the Cincinnati Reds.
The addition of Michael Morse and Martin Prado have strengthened the Marlins corner and infield positions, although it could be the monster deal to keep outfielder Giancarlo Stanton at the franchise that turns out to be the best bit of business done by Miami this winter. A 13-year $325 million contract might look to be a huge financial gamble by the franchise, but if it one day results in a World Series victory, the Marlins management will feel it was a deal worth doing. While there are still areas of concern for Marlins fans this year, 2015 could be a very interesting year for a team that is definitely heading in the right direction, although it remains to be seen just how quickly.
Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington (pictured above) made it clear towards the end of last season that his focus was on making sure the franchise started 2015 in the best possible shape. While last year was not quite as disastrous as 2012, it was a season the Red Sox will want to move on from pretty quickly. Not everyone will feel the Red Sox have done enough during the offseason to prove they will be contenders this year, those who watched the team last season will know why their fans are quietly confident about 2015. After such an incredible run to the World Series in 2013, last season’s failure to reach the playoffs was a fairly sizeable shock for many baseball fans. But while some have already ruled out the Red Sox next season, it would not be a massive surprise to see the franchise back in World Series contention again in 2015.
Brock Holt, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Christian Vazquez, Matt Barnes might have fallen short during spells last year, but those youngsters are now a year older and more accustomed to what it takes to succeed in the MLB, as will Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks. But Cherington knows he cannot just rely on those younger players and the Red Sox have already secured two of their three starting outfielders for 2015 in Yoenis Cespedes and Rusney Castillo; two signings that show just how seriously the franchise are taking this year.
The arrivals have not stopped questions being asked as to whether Allen Craig can get back into his groove or if Clay Buchholz can remain injury-free for a full season. Then there is the doubts as to whether or not Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli can still handle top-level baseball after seasons in which both players came in for criticism. While both players have been vocal in claiming they are heading into 2015 fully fit and ready for action, it is going to take a consistent run of performances for fans to really feel either is a long-term option for this young team.
Featured image via Marc Serota/Getty