Fearful, foolish 2016 predictions

Opening DayProspect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill fearlessly shared his forecast for 2016 yesterday. So, I figured that I should I join the fray and add my projections for the new season, although mine are more likely to end up in either the “fearful” or “foolish” categories.

Since Jason skillfully covered the standard stuff — playoff teams and awards winners — I decided to do something a little different. Perhaps, offbeat or quirky in the eyes of some. I’m going to avoid projecting the winners of awards and pennants. Instead, I’ll make several Seattle Mariners predictions and a few random projections about the rest of the league. Some of my choices will be safe bets. Hence, the use of the term “fearful.” The rest have a decent chance to land in the “foolish” category.

Regardless of how my projections turns out, it’ll be fun to look back at the end of the season to see how I did. It’ll either be fun for me when I’m crowing about how smart I am, or you’ll be provided with more opportunities to remind me how dumb my predictions turned out to be. Without further ado, let’s get going.

The King will reign on Opening Day
I’m not exactly going out on a limb with this one. Felix Hernandez has a 6-0 record with a 1.49 earned run average (ERA) on Opening Day. Still, I wanted to include this one because it’s tied into a larger issue; Spring Training stats are irrelevant.

Felix, once again, posted so-so results with a 0-2 win-loss record and 4.11 ERA and, once again, some fans were sounding the alarm on social media. In mid-February, I discussed the annual madness that goes on when a player either overachieves or stumbles down in Peoria. Yet, the insanity continues.

FelixFor those of you don’t remember, “King Felix” had a 10.22 ERA in Cactus League play last year, while Taijuan Walker was lights out during his audition for the fifth starter spot. Look how things turned out for both hurlers after the real games started.

Hernandez was outstanding during last season’s opener and Walker struggled until Memorial Day. Walker may become the eventual heir to the King’s thrown. However, his 2015 Spring Training numbers didn’t foreshadow his early-season difficulties or Felix’s regular season success.

Again, Spring Training results mean nothing and that’s why I’m taking the easy path on my first prediction; the King reigns supreme on Opening Day. If he doesn’t, I guess I’ll be considered the court jester.

The Mariners will use at least ten starting pitchers
This isn’t a very bold prediction either. Yet, it’s worth reiterating that the starting five in April rarely makes it through the entire season without needing reinforcements. Actually, the 2003 Mariners were the last major league team to use just five starters during a season.

That’s why the “Nate Karns or James Paxton for fifth starter” discussion during Spring Training won’t matter by the end of the season. Paxton, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, and a few others are likely to start games for the Mariners in 2016.

I opted to predict ten starters because that’s been the major league average for ball clubs during recent seasons and that’s how many starting pitchers that the Mariners and both World Series participants — the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals — used last season. The fewest starters used was eight by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who still felt compelled to add a starting pitcher — former Mariner J.A. Happ — at the trade deadline last season.

Boomstick will lose some boom
It’s not exactly courageous to predict that Nelson Cruz — who’ll be his age-36 by the end of the season — will slow down. Some fans won’t agree with me, but I covered my reasoning in great detail yesterday when I discussed if the Mariners could survive a predicted swoon by their star slugger.

Fans will blame Cruz’s decline on playing DH
In 2015, “Boomstick” played 80 games in right field and 72 as the Mariners designated hitter. Most observers expect that he’ll spend considerably less time in the outfield compared to his first year in Seattle or during any point in his 11-year major league career.

If my prediction about a Cruz regression pans out, a segment of Mariners faithful will protest that his reduced playing time in the field will be the true reason for his decline. They’ll even back it up with career splits that illustrate that he’s always been a better hitter when used as a fielder.

Nelson Cruz’s 2015 Splits
Split G PA H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
as RF 80 346 105 11 0 31 31 78 .337 .402 .670 1.072
as DH 72 309 73 11 1 13 28 86 .263 .333 .450 .783
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/3/2016.

There’s no disputing that there was a sizeable production split between Cruz’s outfield and designated hitter time during 2015. But, it’s a small sample-size that doesn’t distinguish the fact that 32 of his 72 games at designated hitter came when he was hobbled with injuries in June and September — his two worst statistical months during last season.

Is it possible that Boomstick struggles in his new role? Sure. But, I’d be more inclined to chalk up any difficulties to age-related regression, injuries, or just an old-fashioned slump. Even if Cruz stumbles out of the gate, he’ll have a good role model and mentor at his disposal — hitting coach Edgar Martinez. After all, the award that annually recognizes the best designated hitter in baseball is named after Edgar.

Okay, onto a few non-Mariners items. Let’s see how I do at making predictions about other teams and baseball related issues.

The Yankees will have a winning record
Perhaps, the Bronx Bombers will fall below the .500 mark this season. But, they haven’t registered a losing record since 1992 and I have no reason to believe that the streak will end in 2016.

The Mets will have a better record than the Yankees
This one has little meaning outside of the New York metropolitan area. Nevertheless, I grew up a Mets fan and I haven’t had many opportunities to say that the Mets are better than the Yankees. Therefore, I’m saying it now and it’s not just some deep-seeded resentment speaking.

The “Amazins” have a far superior starting staff — maybe the best in baseball — plus a decent offense and defense to support it. The Bombers, on the other hand, are not nearly as deep and play in a much more competitive division. The Yanks will have a winning season; they just won’t be as good as the Mets. Boy that felt good!

Minnesota stalls
The Twins are chock full of young talent that’s either on their big league roster or very close to reaching the majors. However, this is a ball club that overachieved last season when they finished with an 83-79 win-loss record.

From a statistical standpoint, they shouldn’t have been in contention for the second wild card spot going into the last full week of the season. Yet, they were. Minnesota had the worst team on-base percentage in the American League, and they were also near the bottom of the league in batting average and slugging percentage.

Twins hitters weren’t very good against right-handed pitching — which constitutes approximately 80-percent of the league — and mid-pack when facing southpaws. Their pitching was similarly pedestrian and was either below league-average or at the bottom of the league in most significant categories. So, how did they do it?

This may make some Twins fans see red, but luck? The offensive category that Minnesota excelled at is my least favorite statistic, batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP). Last year, I tried my best to debunk RISP and the notion that the metric indicates whether a play is or isn’t “clutch.” Yet, baseball broadcasters and pundits continue to refer to this small-sample size statistic as if it were reliable, or predictive in nature.

With that said, I don’t think that the Twins will take a huge step backwards. But, I expect that their 2015 RISP luck has run out.

Fallen Angels
Anytime you look at the Mariners’ woeful rankings for offensive production in 2015, you’ll find Anaheim lingering nearby in every category. The former club of Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto didn’t have a potent offense last year and the new front office didn’t do much in the offseason to improve their chances for 2016. It’s true that they have one of the best players on the planet in Mike Trout, but who’s going to get on base so Trout can drive them home?

When I discussed how the runs batted in (RBI) stat had no value in early January, I pointed to the fact that, among the nine players with 40 or more home runs last season, Trout had the fewest runners on base when he came to the plate. What’s the use of having a player of Trout’s ilk if the players in front of him in the batting order can’t get on base?

Assuming that Anaheim’s rotation continues to be near league-average as they were last season, it’s tough envisioning them scoring enough to win as many games as last year. They’ll finish closer to the bottom of the division than the top in 2016.

The Diamondbacks won’t take the next step
This pick isn’t much of a reach either, at least in my mind. Though it’ll probably upset the team’s fan base. There’s no doubt that the Diamondbacks made several splashy moves during the offseason. But, I don’t see how trading away the number-one overall pick from the 2015 amateur draft (Dansby Swanson) and an outstanding defensive outfielder (Ender Inciarte) for starting pitcher Shelby Miller, plus overpaying (six-years/$206.5 million) to 32-year-old ace Zack Greinke actually helps Arizona in 2016 and beyond.

Yes, their starting pitching will be significantly better and they have one of the most underrated and best hitters in the game — Paul Goldschmidt — in their lineup. But, I don’t see it being enough to win the National League (NL) West division and winning a wild card berth will be a challenge with some many good teams in the NL East and Central divisions.

Unfortunately, for Arizona and baseball, A.J. Pollock will be lost for three months due to a broken elbow. Losing a budding star like Pollock leads into a conversation about ownership’s willingness or ability to add salary and make in-season roster adjustments.

According to information available at Baseball Prospectus, the Diamondbacks have exceeded their current 2016 payroll projection of $91 million only once during their club’s history. Will management make the necessary moves or will the Greinke deal hamstring the team’s ability to improve? I suspect it will.

Letting pitchers hit will continue to be a dumb
Other than the entertainment value of watching a Bartolo Colon helmet swirl, what’s the point in having pitchers continuing to make plate appearances?

Colon HittingWhat’s the result of letting pitchers hit? More pinch-hit appearances and fewer runs scored, which leads to less fun. Only five NL teams scored over the major league average of 4.25 runs-per-game in 2015, while major league pinch hitters batted .218 last season. This doesn’t make for compelling baseball, ever.

As comedian/writer Larry David might say while during his most recognizable political impersonation, “Enough is enough!”

There’s still hope at the All-star break 
Even if your team is struggling at the midway point of the season, there is hope. Look at how many first place teams from the last five all-star breaks didn’t win their division or completely missed the postseason.

First Place Teams at the All-Star Break
Year AL East AL Central AL West NL East
NL Central NL West
2015 NYY KCR LAA WSN STL LAD
2014 BAL DET OAK WSN MIL LAD
2013 BOS DET OAK ATL STL ARI
2012 NYY CHW TEX WSN PIT LAD
2011 BOS DET TEX PHI MIL SFG
Finished as a Wild Card                                  Missed the postseason

Some old guy will spout off about something
Another former player will likely follow in the steps of  Goose Gossage and gripe about Bryce Harper or other players who don’t “respect the game.” For the old-timer, the bat flip is sacrilegious. Today’s fans and players don’t see it that way.

That “get off my lawn” guy will echo Gossage’s sentiments. As I noted in a recent “N4N” piece, complaining about the kids is rite of passage for the older generation.

As an “old guy” myself, I can’t say that I like everything that Millennials do on the field. But, who cares? It’s baseball played by young men, not people eligible for Social Security. Besides, nothing that the younger generation of ball players do will ever bother me as much as Washington state drivers who loiter in the passing lane of highways.

Alright, enough of the old guy speak. Let’s close this out with a few more Mariners related items.

The Mariners bullpen will be better than last year
This projection isn’t exactly hard to envision either. With the exception of Carson Smith, the 2015 relief corps was a complete disappointment. Yes, the current group may not inspire confidence. But, I expect it’ll still be better than last year’s group. No where to go, but up, for Seattle’s relief corps.

Jerry Dipoto won’t stand pat
Second easiest prediction ever; the easiest one comes later. During his first offseason with the Mariners, Dipoto added 12 new players to his club’s 25-man roster, including two starting pitchers, his closer and eighth inning set-up man, and four starting position players.

The 47-year-old’s aggressiveness is another reason to believe that the team’s bullpen will be better in 2016. Dipoto won’t rest if his relievers are collectively tanking, especially if the Mariners are have a reasonable chance to make a postseason run at the all-star break.

Based on his busy offseason and his stated willingness to pivot when things don’t work out, Dipoto should keep the Prospect Insider staff busy during the regular season.

The Mariners will have a winning record
I’m not saying they’ll be in the postseason. But, I do believe that the Mariners are — at least — six wins better than last season when they finished with a 76-86 win-loss record. So yes, I do expect his club will have a winning record during the first year of the Dipoto/Servais regime.

As Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times noted, Dipoto feels the same way and expects to enter the season with a chance of winning 85-86 games. As the new general manager said, “We built the roster with the idea to get into the mid-80s.”

Whether the Mariners have a realistic shot to contend will likely come down to their overall health, how the revamped bullpen performs, and how well Dipoto pivots during adversity. Regardless, the team should crack the 81-win barrier in 2016.

Finally…Seattle will rejoice when Junior goes to Cooperstown 
This is the easiest prediction I’ve ever made. Ken Griffey Jr. made baseball and Mariners history when he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in January. First, the best player to wear a Mariners uniform justifiably earned the highest vote percentage ever recorded during the Hall’s 80-year history.

Then, the club unexpectedly announced that “Junior” would be the first Mariners player to have his uniform number retired. From this point forward, no one will ever wear the number “24” at any level within the Mariners organization.

Regardless of how the Mariners do during the 2016 season, Seattle will celebrate on July 24, when Griffey formally enters Cooperstown, and during “Ken Griffey Jr. Weekend” at Safeco Field on August 5-7, when his jersey is officially retired. At least I know that I’ll get one 2016 prediction right.

About the author

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team.

You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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