5 Players Due to Rebound in 2015

(Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

The New Year cannot come soon enough for some players, who want nothing more than to turn the page on a disappointing 2014 campaign. With the new year just two days away and Opening Day less than 100 days away, it is appropriate that we look at the five players most primed to rebound from a down 2014 season. This list includes three veterans, who failed to reach their career norms last season and two youngsters that have yet to truly establish themselves in the Big Leagues. Each of these players has a very promising 2015 season ahead, which will make 2014 the exception, not the new normal.

Chris Davis

After two strong seasons from 2012-2013, Davis endured a very difficult 2014 season. After slashing .278/.350/.571 (Avg/Obp/Slg) from 2012-2013, Davis collapsed to a .196/.300/.404 slash line. On the field 2014 was tough enough, but Davis was also hit with a 25-game suspension with 17 games left in the season for using Amphetamines. Davis had been cleared to use Adderall in previous seasons, but not for 2014. However, this suspension is completely behind him and he has actually been cleared to use Adderall in 2015, so there is no concern over a longer suspension. While his K% is alarmingly high, that comes with the territory of being an elite power hitter and many of his other peripheral statistics point to a rebound in 2015. Davis’s BB% actually increased to a career high, which bodes well for his on-base abilities moving forward, but it also suggests that pitchers still feared Davis as a hitter. In fact, his .196 batting average was likely greatly influenced by a career low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .242. His career mark for BABIP is .320, so once that normalizes, Davis will soar above the Mendoza line and more resemble his 2012-2013 self. While Davis will not match his 2013 power numbers, he is likely to surpass his 2012 campaign, where he hit 33 home runs. Even in his down 2014, his ISO (Slugging Percentage – Batting Average) was not far off his 2012 ISO, which shows his power did not go anywhere.

Jay Bruce

Jay Bruce’s 2014 season was painful to watch, especially because it came seemingly out of nowhere. Beyond being painful to watch, it was also painful to play, as Bruce battled nagging knee issues throughout the season that contributed to his reduced production. However, there is no reason to believe this is how Bruce will perform moving forward, even if the knee injuries are not entirely to blame for his struggles. Throughout his 6-year career before 2014, Bruce had been one of the most consistent players in the league, averaging over 2.7 fWAR per season. During his disastrous 2014, Bruce’s Ground Ball% soared, while his Fly Ball% sank to a career low. This does not indicate a healthy power hitter, but rather someone who does not have their legs underneath them and must instead do their damage using their upper body. The Steamer projection system calls for Bruce to post a 1.4 WAR, which would be a 2.5 win improvement. However, I think Steamer is being too conservative in its projection because Bruce should be fully recovered from knee surgery before the 2015 season, which will allow him to return to his previous norms. I would project Bruce to post a season closer to 2011, when he played about average defense and slugged 32 home runs, en route to a .349 wOBA and a 3.0 fWAR.

Evan Longoria

Longoria probably does not fit with the rest of the players on this list because he actually turned in an above average campaign by most players’ standards, but not his own. His 3.4 fWAR would have been a career low, if not for his injury-shortened 2012 season. Despite this being the first unimpressive season in Longoria’s extraordinary career, many fans are concerned about his decline beginning well before his $100 Million extension starts in 2017. Longoria’s 2015 season will quell any concerns about his new extension, at least the first few years of the deal. The 29-year-old third baseman averaged over 6 wins per season for his first 6 Big League seasons, and is unlikely beginning his decline, in what should be the middle of his prime. Instead, Longo suffered from a poor batted ball profile in 2014, which should readjust to his norms and an unusually average season on defense. Longoria saw a slight uptick in his GB%, but more significantly his FB% dropped 4% and saw a 4% increase in Infield Fly Balls (IFFB). Both of these shifts suggest that his timing was off, which is a poor excuse for an entire season; however this is not something that persisted the entire season, as his FB% increased by 10% in the second half and his IFFB% decreased by nearly 4%. He will likely enter this season with his normal timing, which will help him reach his career offensive norms. Longoria also posted the lowest HR/FB rate of his career, which will not repeat itself, as that usually remains near a player’s career norms, so he should expect at least a 5% increase, which will significantly help his power output. On the defensive end, I do not put much weight in one season of fielding statistics, so I do not have any concern over his defense, since he grades out as a gold glove defender by any metric for his career. With improved timing and a normalized HR/FB rate, Longoria will put to rest any mentions of his decline.

Danny Salazar

Salazar differs from the players above, as he has yet to truly establish himself at the Major League level. He dominated during his 50 innings of work in 2013, striking out 11.25 batters per 9 innings. However, in his first chance at a full season, Salazar struggled mightily to match expectations. He finished 2014 with a 4.25 ERA across 110 innings, but his 3.52 FIP suggests he was better than his ERA indicates. But there are plenty of more reasons for optimism heading into 2015 and the Indians should expect a more similar performance to his 50-inning sample in 2013. Salazar is not going to strike out 11 batters per 9 innings again, but he does not need to. 2014 was a season of two halves for Salazar, as he cut his FIP from 4.71 in the first half to 2.83 in the second half, which fit with his ERA dropping more than 2 runs from the first half. The second half version of Salazar most closely resembles the real Danny Salazar, as in the first half he was plagued by an inflated BABIP of .369 and an enormous HR/FB rate of 14.8%. Once these things that are not entirely under his control normalized, Salazar thrived, which is what I expect him to continue in 2015. He should be able to carry over his impressive K/BB ratio of 2014 and he is unlikely to have a BABIP north .340 again, which will help keep his ERA closer to his FIP.

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez is very similar to Salazar, in that he has yet to match expectations at the Big League level, but this will be his first opportunity at being a full-time starter. Even in his time stuck in purgatory between starting and relieving, Martinez’s talent has shined, but the results have not always matched what people have seen. In his 117 2/3 Major League innings, the righty has carried a 4.28 ERA, but a 3.15 FIP, which points to better results ahead, once his surface statistics match his peripherals. While Carlos Martinez has been hurt by an inflated BABIP of .336 for his career, but based on pitchers with a similar profile, that is not likely to persist. The 13 pitchers in 2014 with at least 8 K/9 and at least a 50% Ground ball rate average a BABIP of .293, which suggests that Martinez is likely to see improved batted ball results. One thing he can control is home runs and Martinez has been fantastic at stifling home runs, allowing just .38 HR/9 through his career, which bodes well for future success, especially since he can strike guys out. Martinez will need to limit his walks better, but even when he walked over 3.5 batters per 9 last year, he carried an FIP of 3.18, so if he is more lucky with balls in play, it should not be an issue. I think Martinez should excel in his first opportunity as a full-time starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to reach the 200-inning threshold, as he will need to build up his workload, but also because his high number of walks will drive up his pitch counts.

 

I expect Longoria to turn in the best season of the players on the list, which isn’t surprising as he is the only established star and the one coming off the best season. Jay Bruce is my pick for the largest improvement, because I believe his performance was heavily influenced by his knee injury, which should be behind him. Of the pitchers, I’d expect Martinez to turn in the best season because I believe in his incredible talent, but also because his profile of high strikeouts and groundballs bodes well for success.

Anthony Cacchione

Significant Off-Season Ahead for Reds

The Cincinnati Reds just completed a disastrous season, in which they fell from just 1.5 games back at the All-Star Break to 14 games back by the end of the season. They have experienced more than their fair share of injuries, but even without all the injuries, this probably is not a playoff team. The Reds’ offense has multiple holes it will need to fill in order to contend in the competitive NL Central. Defensively, the Reds excelled, ranking as the best defensive team in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Offensively, however, they were among the worst teams in baseball, ranking 30th in wRC+. That means when removing context from events, the Reds were the worst offensive team this season. Even when considering all the injuries they suffered, this is not a good offensive team. They also have a pitching staff that ranks 27th in baseball in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), meaning their pitchers are near the bottom of the league in what they can control. Recently extended General Manager, Walt Jocketty, will need a very effective off-season to return the Reds to contention, but he’ll need to do it without much financial flexibility.

In 2013, the Reds’ posted a wRC+ of 97, which was slightly below average, but still 13 points higher than the figure they posted in 2014. It is easy to attribute most of this difference to the injuries suffered by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, however, neither of them were having particularly strong seasons offensively. Votto slashed .255/.390/.409 (avg/obp/slg), which is partly due to his injuries, but even prior to his first DL stint, Votto’s numbers were down. While I certainly expect Votto to return to his prototypical form in 2015, there are no guarantees that his knee injuries will be behind him, as he also had knee issues in 2011. Brandon Phillips on the other hand has provided little offensive value for the last two seasons. While his defense is still among the best at 2nd base, Phillips’s offense has been declining for a few years and I do not believe his struggles are due to his thumb injury. His OBP and SLG% have declined in each of the last 3 seasons. The Reds also have significant offensive holes in Leftfield, Centerfield and Shortstop. Leftfield will be their biggest area of need this offseason, as they ranked 29th in WAR from their Leftfielders. Billy Hamilton will again be their centerfielder in 2015, but he will need to make substantial improvements on offense, where he often looked overmatched. Their shortstop position seems to be set, as well, with Zach Cozart providing enough defensive value to overcome his shortcomings on offense. Cozart posted the worst wRC+ of any qualified hitter this season, but rated as one of the best defenders in the game, so he will likely remain entrenched at short for the Reds. Their offense has three glaring holes, and that is assuming that Jay Bruce returns to his normal form, after an abysmal 2014. They will likely be able to find an upgrade in Leftfield, but will likely receive little offensive production from the Centerfield and Shortstop positions.

The Reds experienced some more injuries on the pitching side, as Homer Bailey, Mat Latos, Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman all landed on the DL. However, even with each pitcher healthy, their staff is not all that imposing. They ranked 16th in ERA, but 27th in FIP, which is more evidence as to how good their defense is, but also a result of a good amount of luck. The pitching staff ranked 26th in BB/9, but also posted the 3rd lowest BABIP, which will be difficult to repeat, even with their strong defense. If they are going to improve their offense this off-season, it will likely happen by trading away one of the starters, which will further weaken their rotation. While their rotation is considered one of their strengths, it is not deep enough to sustain trading away one of its top members. Assuming everyone is healthy they have 5 quality starters that appear ready for the rotation in 2015, with Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Alfredo Simon under control for next year. However, Bailey just had surgery on his forearm and this is Simon’s first season as a starter and he has far outperformed his peripherals. If one of these starters is dealt, the Reds do not have many internal candidates to fill the void. Tony Cingrani struggled in his sophomore season, David Holmberg has been hit hard in his debut season and top prospect Robert Stephenson struggled mightily in Double-A this season. There is plenty of uncertainty in their rotation and their bullpen was a complete disaster this season, ranking 24th in ERA and FIP.

Unfortunately, the Reds do not have much financial flexibility in order to add top talent through Free Agency. Their 2014 payroll of $112 Million was the highest in franchise highest and does not appear to be a very sustainable figure, considering their payroll increased by $25 Million from 2012 to 2013. Their payroll for 2015 will likely be in a similar range to this past year, which does not leave them much room for outside personnel. They already have $71 Million committed to their 2015 roster, and that covers only 10 players. This leaves them with around $45 Million left to sign their arbitration eligible players, as well as their $10 Million club option on Johnny Cueto. With at least $20 Million going to arbitration eligible players, the Reds will only have around $15 million to allocate to free agents. With such little flexibility, the Reds are certainly out of the running for the top free agents, which means they will likely fill smaller holes through free agency and trade one of their starters to improve one of the more significant weaknesses, such as Leftfield. While the Reds would love to trade Brandon Phillips and his remaining $39 Million over the next 3 years, not many teams will be interested, unless the Reds eat a chunk of his salary. The most likely player to be dealt is Johnny Cueto, as his value has reached it peak, following a Cy Young-type season. If Cueto is the starter to go, the Reds will need someone like Latos to step up as the Ace, but Cueto will bring back a significant haul.

While the Reds can argue that they would have been able to compete without so many injuries, injuries happen to every team, and this team was not all that good even with a healthy roster. They have far too many holes on offense and a pitching staff that far outperformed their peripherals. With such little financial flexibility, the Reds will need to find improvements from within their organization that can add around 15 wins. Otherwise, the Reds will need to trade one of their top starters in order to bring in an offensive upgrade at an affordable price. With so much money allocated to such few players, the Reds need to improve this roster, while those players are still performing up to their contracts. That makes this offseason that much more important, as their window to contend with this core will not be open much longer.

Anthony Cacchione