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March 12, 2015

The Lineup Card

Nine Games We're Most Looking Forward to in 2015

by Baseball Prospectus

1. The Dodgers and Nats meet right after the All-Star break

I’ve been looking forward to this one since the day both teams were dumped in the Division Series within hours of each other.

Indeed, the Nationals are the betting favorites with the Dodgers no. 2. The teams don’t meet for a while, but when they first get together on Friday night, July 17th, in Washington, it should be the start of a really fun weekend of pitching matchups and young hitting stars. As a bonus, this series falls immediately after the All-Star break, meaning the top starters should be going and after four days essentially off, we’ll get that shot-on-an-empty-stomach buzz. —Zachary Levine

2. Kris Bryant's home debut
Anyone who is paying attention is aware of the hype surrounding Kris Bryant. For the Cubs, there hasn't been a consensus top-five prospect this close to Wrigley since Mark Prior in the summer of 2002. Add in the fact that people actually believe the Cubs could win their fair share of games this year, and it's quite understandable why fans are salivating for Bryant's arrival.

Sure, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler are both highly thought-of prospects and arrived last year, but Bryant feels different. Like Prior, there's a national buzz around Bryant, with whispers of all-time great already being bandied about. Indeed, those expectations are completely unreasonable, but in the prospect-heavy world we now live in, it's an expected byproduct. I have to admit, while I'm usually pretty level headed about prospects and their immediate impact, I'm struggling to temper my expectations for the University of San Diego product. Barring anything unforeseen, the Cubs are likely to bring Bryant up toward the end of April, probably on the road, meaning a home date against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 27th is circled on my calendar.

Most of us already know Bryant's ridiculous numbers, but just for the sake of seeing it typed out, I'm going to give them to you once again: .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs, 34 doubles, and every minor-league award he was eligible for filling his trophy case. Elite power, exceptional work ethic and makeup, blessed with the type of good looks destined for billboards; Bryant has it all. I've mentioned Prior's name a couple times and I'm all too aware of how that ended, but I'll also never forget how amazing it was to watch the 2003 season he delivered unfold as a fan. To be able to cover a player the caliber of Bryant from day one seems like a very unique opportunity. Bryant's career could take many different paths, but it's that day one at Wrigley that's going to feel so special. It's been a while since the Friendly Confines has shook with optimism, however, 2015 expects to see it's fair share. Excepting a surprise October appearance, Bryant's arrival could be the biggest of the bunch. —Sahadev Sharma

3. Garrett Richards' return
Garrett Richards scared the hell out of me last season. When he went to cover first base in a game last August against the Red Sox and went down awkwardly, his knee bending at an angle that can best be described as "nauseating," I thought he could be done for. It might have been my experience watching seeing knee injuries in college football and basketball effectively wreck guys' careers, but to me, Richards' injury, a tear of the patellar tendon in his left knee, seemed just as scary as a UCL blowout.

Well, he's is basically fine now. Early reports from spring training are favorable enough, though he's not quite up to full strength. He most likely won't be ready for opening day. But when Richards is ready to get back on the bump in regular season action, I'll be watching, as we all should be. PECOTA projects him for 0.7 WARP this season, which I guess I disagree with, as much as I can disagree with an all-knowing baseball projecting machine. A little context, though, might be merited for Richards' projection: 2014 was just the second season in which he recorded a positive WARP, and PECOTA pegs his chance for a breakout 2015 at 29 percent, with a 57 percent chance to improve in general.

And seriously, his stuff. Good lord. Perusing BP's PitchF/X leaderboards, I see that Richards' fastball, in 2014, was seventh among qualifying starters in average velocity. His slider/power curve (I think it's more like the latter) was second in vertical break, and he regularly throws it in the upper 80s. Richards' curveball was first in vertical movement by more than an inch-and-a-half. The separation between second and tenth place with that pitch was just over an inch.

The main thing holding Richards back is his command, which is just alright, but he genuinely has one of the most outrageous arsenals in baseball. I love and care for him very much, and I'll be anxiously awaiting his 2015 debut. You should be doing the same.Ian Frazer

4. A Matt Harvey-Jose Fernandez duel
There was a stretch last year on Twitter where anytime I saw “UCL” trending, I immediately assumed it meant someone was going to get Tommy John surgery. (Apparently it is more commonly an acronym for UEFA Champions League, a European soccer league.)

The fear is real, and the trauma comes from those times that the game’s most exciting players succumb to season-ending injuries. Pace of games be damned—the single thing that robs me of the joy of watching baseball is losing talented pitching to arm injuries. The baseball gods are off to an unmerciful start already, claiming Yu Darvish, Marcus Stroman, and Cliff Lee as victims so far. As a new crop of Tommy John surgeries arrives, a previous class rehabilitates.

The gods owe us one, so I’m counting on them to align the Mets’ and Marlins’ schedules when they meet in New York in mid-September. We deserve a Matt Harvey-Jose Fernandez matchup. By September, we can realistically hope that both pitchers will be healthy and back to their old, dominant selves. Aside from the thrill of the pitching matchup itself, there’s another reason to watch: One or both teams could be fighting for a wild card spot. —Dan Rozenson

5. The American League Wild Card Game
I’m as excited for the regular season to finally get started as anyone, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it more than the playoffs. We have no idea who will be participating at this point, but that really doesn’t matter. Nothing beats postseason baseball. This is especially true of winner-takes-all games. Whether that means a game seven (or five) or a one-game series, the excitement and stress involved in those contests is unmatched.

Of course, many people have a problem with the wild card game. Those people are wrong. They have many arguments against it, most of which boil down to the concept being unfair. This is a sport that plays 162 games over a season to get to this point. It arguably has more luck involved in any given than any other sport. It’s not right to have these teams’ seasons come down to nine innings of play. At least that’s what the wild card game opponents would say.

There’s one thing they’re forgetting, though. Major League Baseball is an entertainment business. We’re not talking about a presidential election here, the World Series champion ultimately doesn’t matter. The sport exists to entertain the masses, and there’s nothing more entertaining than it coming down to one game. The added strategy is fascinating. How short of a leash do you give the starting pitcher? How early do you start bunting and playing for one run? The backseat managing is a part of the charm. Last year’s American League wild card game was as fun as any game I have ever watched. Yeah, it sucked that Oakland got knocked out because of that game, but that’s life. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I can’t wait for this year’s game. This is true despite there being a decent chance my favorite team, the Red Sox, will be participating.

I’m not really looking forward to the American League game much more than the National League one, but I had to pick one game. Them’s the rules. I’ve grown up an American League fan, and have grown to strongly dislike the National League rules, so the AL won out. Both games are going to be a blast though, despite what anyone says. The regular season will be awesome, but I can’t wait for the postseason to start off with a bang with the wild card games. —Matt Collins

6. Value baseball: Royals-Twins day game in April
Day games in April are baseball’s best-kept secret, especially in Minnesota, and especially when the home team stinks. There are often discounts on concessions. There are cheap tickets available by the thousands, because none of the season-ticket holders want anything to do with these, and no young families can get away from school and work, and no senior groups or farmers’ associations want to trek in to muddle through three hours of 40-degree losing. It’s nothing but empty seats and cold sunshine (or clouds, but cold, for sure) as far as the eye can see. Kyle Gibson will probably pitch for the Twins. Edinson Volquez will probably pitch for the Royals. This game will, by objective standards, suck. And I’m going to love it. It’s value baseball, in comfort and quiet. I’m just looking forward to letting the game back into my bloodstream. —Matthew Trueblood

7. Padres vs. Braves on June 11th
I can't blame anyone for not noticing this one on the schedule. It's a random breakaway Thursday in June that starts at noon, and while it is the only time that the Padres will visit Turner Field, I swear I'm not going to see the Upton brothers reunite. It also happens to be my daughter's birthday. How kind of the Braves to schedule a matinee that day! There will be plenty of fun games to watch this year, but that's the one I'm looking forward to. Me and my baseball buddy hanging out eating ballpark food and me tearing up because she's getting so old so fast. I mean... because of the sheer majesty of the home run that Freddie Freeman just hit. Yeah, that's why I'm crying. —Russell A. Carleton

8. Brady Aiken's first start in Kane County, sometime in August
The thing that's so fascinating about Brady Aiken (who, for this entry, I'm assuming will be taken first overall by the Diamondbacks this June) is that he's our first Minority Report injury. He lost his contract offer from Houston not because he's hurt, or in any way whatsoever weakened at the moment, but (reportedly) because something about him struck somebody as likely to be injured in the future. Maybe that somebody was wrong and Aiken will pitch 4,200 innings in his career--that's certainly the way I prefer to think about it, and it's as good as any given what we really know--but the more dramatic way to think about it is that Aiken is the best pitcher in the world (for his age) and is doomed by the gods to lose that ability before his time. In the near future? The distant future? We don't know, but his doom has been prophesied. Tell to the king that the cavern wall is fallen in decay.

Put it this way: You know you're going to die, yet you don't think about it very often. You don't wake up thinking how important it is to hug your children and spend $1.95 on guacamole. That's because you don't really think you're going to die. But if you knew you were going to die--if you knew it was going to happen on, say, June 14, 2018--don't you think you'd live differently? And don't you think you'd be happier with the way you lived these next three years? Even if your doctor turned out to have just read the results of your tests wrong?

Aiken is probably not actually any more doomed than any other pitcher. But as much as we don't really think we're going to die, we don't really think Clayton Kershaw is going to have Tommy John surgery anytime soon. But Aiken is in the forefront of our minds. He's our doctor telling us we've got three years, three months, and two days to live. I'd like to make our days together mean something. —Sam Miller

9. Double-A Frisco's home opener on April 9th
Here could be where I rhapsodize over the chance to watch Joey Gallo hit balls several miles, look forward to Julio Urias out-pitching players multiples of his age (possibly, if I can catch him on one of Tulsa's six games at Frisco), or wax poetic about the possibility of seeing any one of a number of prime prospects fighting their way towards the big leagues in Double-A this summer. However, I'll instead dedicate this few column inches of web-based print to the first game of the season I'll see, when Frisco opens at home against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's Arkansas Travelers on April 9th.

Why am I looking forward to this game? It's easy to talk about general nostalgia, to separate oneself (the writer, as high and mighty as that sounds) from the game and say "Well, if one could be excited, one would be excited about..."

I simply miss baseball when I'm not around it. I like the sounds, watching other people watch baseball, watching the way the game unfolds in seeming slow-motion in front of me. I like how it's a maturing and continuation of a love that stretches back into my childhood. When I sit down at that first game on April 9th, I'm just continuing something that began before I could comprehend it. Something that began with Eric Nadel's voice telling me "that ball is history," a batting-practice ball handed over the fence, warm calzones on a hot summer evening, and the over-sugared candied popcorn mentioned in song has become too many hot dogs, notes, and a different appreciation for the voices on the radio. With this maturation comes a different way of viewing the games, no better or worse than that of the casual fan. I like having something to write about that I've got passion for, I like looking for the little things in stories and in players, the little things that separate good from mediocre and future greatness from the good. —Kate Morrison


Related Content:  Major League Baseball,  MLB

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