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April 2, 2014

The Lineup Card

10 Headlines for 2014

by Baseball Prospectus


1. David Price's Next Team
Where Price will pitch in 2015 is going to be a popular question no matter how the season plays out. If Price is good, there'll be nonstop chatter about his next team. If Price is bad, there'll be nonstop chatter about his next team. If the Rays are good, there'll be nonstop chatter about his next team. If the Rays are bad, there'll be nonstop chatter about his next team. Even if Price is traded, the odds are that there'll be nonstop chatter about his next team. —R.J. Anderson

2. Cabrera and Trout
Somehow, two entirely unrelated players—on different teams, playing different positions, of different ages, who come in contact relatively little—have become linked. Since the great AL MVP debate of 2012, it has been hard to conjure the names of either Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout without comparing one to the other.

That debate became a flashpoint for the ongoing culture clash betwixt the old and new schools of baseball analysis. With vicious vitriol, commenters on both sides of that divide hurled criticism on the Trout-backers and the Cabrera-champions, all while knowing full well that both players are great. The battle was resurrected in 2013, when, magically, both players improved to even more impressive levels (albeit without any Triple Crowns). Both years ended in Cabrera being named MVP, to the surprise of no one and the bitterness of many.

Now they are linked once again, this time by their contract extensions, agreed upon within days of each other. Trout’s extension is among the best bargains in baseball. Meanwhile, the Tigers achieved the objective of resigning Cabrera, but at a questionable cost. Whereas Trout is young and likely to maintain his performance in the future, Cabrera is exiting his prime and ready for regression. However, with any luck, we will observe epic performances from both players, the relative values of which epic arguments will be made. But their twin contract extensions ensure that the careers of Cabrera and Trout will be compared far into the future, long after the MVP debates are settled and we go back to deciding player value based on RBI and pitcher wins (I kid, of course).

In the long run, Cabrera and Trout’s inadvertent affiliation stems from their respective talents: similarly impressive, but manifesting in different ways. To that point, whatever your views on statistics or contracts, the value of the Triple Crown or the stolen base, we as baseball fans ought to consider ourselves lucky to live in an era in which we get to view two of the game’s best do amazing things, in wholly different ways. —Robert Arthur

3. Bench Heroics
It’s bad enough that the best starting pitcher in baseball and the runner-up for last year’s AL Cy Young Award are injured. Now let’s add Aroldis Chapman, Manny Machado, Doug Fister, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Jurickson Profar, Patrick Corbin, Shane Victorino, Mat Latos, Michael Bourn, Jose Iglesias, Bruce Rondon, A.J. Griffin, Jeremy Hellickson, Jose Reyes, Wilson Ramos, and almost Bryce Harper. That’s a lot of talent that’s gonna miss time on ballclubs that have a good shot at the postseason, and the season is barely even under way. Oh, and the Braves now have three guys on the DL about to undergo, or recovering from, their second Frank Jobe surgery.

Injuries to stars, however, open up opportunities for bench players. Career reservists, fringy prospects, and over-the-hill veterans in Triple-A are inevitably going to play significant roles for many franchises this year. Many of those performances will be forgettable. However, fans hold a special place in their memories for the fill-ins who, if even for a half-season, plug an important gap in the team’s roster. Yankee fans recall, for instance, the surprising effectiveness of Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon (1.4 WARP combined in 155 innings) on a 2005 team whose starting rotation was battered by injuries to Kevin Brown and Carl Pavano.

It looks like some clubs that thought they’d be contenders will need to reach for some organizational depth this year. Some of the returns could actually be pretty exciting, though. —Dan Rozenson

4. The Year of the Splitter
I anticipate the continued success of Koji Uehara, and I expect Masahiro Tanaka to perform well for the Yankees throughout 2014. For both pitchers, that will come on the backs of really good splitters. Uehara has superlative command and movement on his, and Tanaka's splitter comes with a big reputation.

There are a few other guys whose success will be dependent on the split-finger pitch. Jeff Samardzija is one pitcher who immediately comes to mind, as his splitty is devious. The point is that we're going to be cognizant of the splitter in 2014, and much like the slurve was the "it" pitch in the early aughts, I think the split-finger fastball will be the pitch to replicate in the mid-teens. We go through this cycle every so often. It's just the splitter's turn now. —Mauricio Rubio

5. Rally Squirrel Runs Inefficient Route
Be honest: Do you want to know just how good Juan Lagares is, or do you want to know how quickly various Flushing, New York, squirrels go after stray peanuts? I also hope they put this thing on the security guards who take out the idiots who run on the field. So many uses. —Harry Pavlidis

6. Bunting to Beat the Shift
I wrote about this at length last month, so click to read my full thoughts on the subject. Basically, it boils down to this: Teams are shifting more often; they're shifting not only at higher rates against the usual slow-footed, southpaw sluggers who are classic shift candidates, but also against more marginal hitters whom they wouldn't have bothered to defend before, down to and including Ryan Flaherty; the math suggests that it makes sense for an average hitter to attempt a bunt with third base open as long as he has a >=40 percent chance to get it down; and the more common the shift is, the more worthwhile it becomes for a hitter who hasn't had to do it before to invest the time necessary to become a competent bunter (as extreme pull hitter Brandon Moss did this spring).

More and more teams are getting on the defensive positioning bandwagon. At some point, the batters will strike back, using one of the only anti-shift tactics available. I'll be tracking this throughout the season for any sign that hitters have had enough. —Ben Lindbergh

7. Instant Replay Becomes Just Another Part of the Game
The most horrible thing possible is happening in baseball: They're changing something. EVERYBODY PANIC!!! And I promise I'm not coming out of my room until instant replay is banished from the game (and I get a pony. Unrelated. I just want a pony.)

By the end of the year, we will discover that like a lot of things in life, instant replay has some good features (it probably will cut down on those arguments that make for awkward "Daddy, why is he doing that?" conversations with the kids) and bad features (it... will... add... 90 seconds to a three-hour game!), but eventually, people will realize that the thing that it was set up to do, make sure that the umpires got the call right, is actually getting done. There will undoubtedly be a game where a call that turns a game is overturned, and properly. People will start realizing that 90 seconds of dead time is a small price to pay for the integrity of the game. Plus, the replay delays have a little bit of suspense attached to them, so they're even mildly entertaining.

Instant replay won't be perfect, but after a year, people will realize that it wasn't such a big deal after all and it represents actual progress. Then, to get rid of it, you have to start making arguments that begin with, "But I love the human element of the game" which is the same thing as saying "I wish that the umpires would get more calls wrong." And it'll become just a part of the game. —Russell A. Carleton

8. Andrelton Simmons: MVP Candidate
In the annual Baseball Prospectus pre-season predictions column, I was one of the only staff members to pick the Atlanta Braves coming out of the NL East. Atlanta needing to replace Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy didn't deter me, though it did make me hesitant. One of the main reasons I picked Atlanta is because of Andrelton Simmons, who I believe is primed for a breakout 2014 campaign. From a scouting perspective, I'm careful when writing off a defensive wizard that is all-glove-no-stick, because these players possess an incredible amount of hand-eye coordination. Simmons isn't useless at the plate, though. While muscling 17 balls into the seats, Simmons also showed good contact skills, striking out in only 8.4 percent of his plate appearances last year. It's fair to say Simmons outperformed most prognosticators' predictions of his performance at the plate last year, but there is no telling how good he can be going forward. If he's able to come even close to repeating his unprecedented season with the glove while making the necessary improvements at the plate, Simmons could very well be a MVP candidate from the NL East winning Atlanta Braves. —Ronit Shah

9. Ben Revere Gives it a Ride
One of these days, weeks, or months, it's going to happen. The wind is going to blow in precisely the right direction. The dimensions of the park will be just cozy enough. A pitcher will put the ball in his tiny sliver of a power alley. Or, if all else fails, a ball he hits will carom off a wall at an angle just crazy enough to befuddle a helpless outfielder.

However it happens, at some point this year, Ben Revere is going to hit a home run.

PECOTA has him hitting four. I won't go that far. I won't even say three or two. But one? Somehow, some way, it's going to happen. And Tom Oliver's Live Ball Era record of 2,073 plate appearances without a dinger will be safe—at least until the next Revere-like throwback makes his way to The Show. —Daniel Rathman

10. Where Have All the Free Agents Gone?
As I wrote a couple weeks ago, we're heading for an unusually (perhaps historically) thin free agent class, particularly for position players. As the offseason draws closer and additional players sign extensions midway through their walk years—David Ortiz signed on for another year in Boston after my article came out, and Hanley Ramirez could be the next star to opt out of the open market—expect to hear a lot about how hard it will be to upgrade this winter. One side effect of the lack of free agent choices: We might be in for a busy trading block, as teams that have needs attempt to fill them with any options available before their competitors can. —Ben Lindbergh

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