With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince is compiling his annual series of Top 10s. We'll begin with the offenses, then continue Tuesday with starting rotations, Wednesday with bullpens and Thursday with defenses before concluding Friday with an early overall power rankings.
When we evaluate lineups in Major League Baseball in 2015, we're grading on a curve. Last year, the Angels led the Majors in runs scored -- with just 773. That was the lowest total for a runs leader in a full season since 1992. And to put that in added perspective, in 2009, just five seasons earlier, a 773-run total wouldn't have even ranked in the game's top 10.
So consider that context in this presentation of my Top 10 lineups for 2015. Each has its own set of flaws or possible sources of frustration, but these are the 10 clubs I feel are best-positioned to produce at the plate.
Feel free to contribute your own thoughts, counter-arguments and lists in the comments section.
10 (tie). Rockies: They deserve a spot on this list because, at year's end, I suspect they'll again be in the top 10 in runs scored. They deserve the last spot on this list because, I suspect, this will once again be a fundamentally different ballclub on the road than at Coors Field (last year they averaged a Major League-best 6.17 runs per game at home and a Major League-worst 3.15 on the road).
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but much of Colorado's production will be dependent on the health of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Having said that, Nolan Arenado has developed into one of the game's more productive third basemen, Justin Morneau has enjoyed a Coors-aided renaissance, Charlie Blackmon had a sensational first half that landed him an All-Star spot and Corey Dickerson was a power-prone revelation in a crowded outfield picture in '14. So the Rockies definitely have intriguing pieces beyond their two most recognizable stars.
Astros: The extreme example of the modern-day embrace of gargantuan strikeout totals is right here. With the additions of Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, Houston now has six guys (including Jon Singleton, George Springer, Chris Carter and Jason Castro) who ranked in the top 20 percent in strikeout rate among those with at least 300 plate appearances last year.
On the flip side, the Astros also have 10 guys projected by the Steamer system to finish with a double-digit homer total, with Carter (32), Gattis (28), Springer (28) and Rasmus (23) all projected to finish north of 20.
So this is a really boom-or-bust outlook. But with where we're at in the game offensively, I'll lean toward anybody with serious boom potential. The Astros scored 629 runs last year and had arguably the worst production in baseball at three spots -- first base, third base and left field. The additions of Gattis, Rasmus, Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena have given them the flexibility to improve at those spots, and the power potential could push the Astros north of 700 runs in '15.
9. White Sox Some of the projection systems -- PECOTA and ZIPs, for instance -- don't like Chicago's reshaped lineup as much as I do, but the fact of the matter is they ranked 13th in the Majors in runs scored last season before sandwiching Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche around reigning Rookie of the Year (and MVP candidate) Jose Abreu. I like Adam Eaton's strengths as a leadoff man, Avisail Garcia's potential as an X-factor and Alexei Ramirez's production out of the No. 6 spot.
There's considerably drop-off from there, but the White Sox present a lot of problems for the opposition.
8. Orioles: Look, they've lost a lot -- the 40 homers Nelson Cruz hit last year, and the steady on-base presence of Nick Markakis. But in both cases, the O's were better off in the long run to let other people overpay for those assets. The company line of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado coming back to keep up the offensive pace is not without merit, nor is it crazy to conceive of a bounce-back season from Chris Davis (who was a mess yet still hit 26 homers last year) and J.J. Hardy (whose power went suddenly south). Adam Jones' bat still strikes me as underrated.
I also like Travis Snider as a sneaky pickup for right field. And you just know the O's will probably have some waiver claim or retread (Alex Hassan, perhaps?) rip off a bunch of big hits for them, because that's the sort of thing that happens for the Orioles.
7. Pirates: It's no longer just the Andrew McCutchen Show at PNC Park, though the 2013 MVP's offensive numbers were, amazingly, even better in '14. McCutchen's supporting cast has improved considerably, thanks to the breakout of third baseman Josh Harrison and the rising production of Starling Marte. The Bucs were one of the game's most productive teams in the second half last season, despite severe regression for Pedro Alvarez, who could be due for a bounce-back season with his shift to first base. And though his initial break-in left a bit to be desired, Gregory Polanco gives the Pirates an opportunity to field a truly dynamic outfield. The Pirates also figure to have a strong bench with the addition of Korean home run hero Jung-Ho Kang, Corey Hart and Sean Rodriguez.
Losing Russell Martin was a big blow on both sides of the ball, but the Pirates still project to field one of the National League's deeper and more well-rounded lineups.
6. Dodgers: The Joc Pederson appeal is certainly due in some measure to his beefing up his Triple-A totals in the hitter haven that is the Pacific Coast League, and Jimmy Rollins is fighting off Father Time at a demanding position. So it's possible the departures of Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez will have a drastic effect on what was a top-six offense (despite home games in a pitcher's park) in 2014.
But the Dodgers have improved their production projection for second base, with Howie Kendrick, and at catcher, with Yasmani Grandal. They'll really take off if Yasiel Puig (an inspiration in May and July, and a source of frustration in June and August) is more consistent. They also got really nice bench contributions from Justin Turner and Scott Van Slyke last season, and that could/should continue.
A slight dip in production is possible here, but the Dodgers have the goods to remain elite.
5. Nationals: Speaking of deep NL lineups, even after the departure of Adam LaRoche and even with Jayson Werth coming off shoulder surgery, the Nats are well-situated. If Yunel Escobar is just a league-average second baseman, his production will still be a big improvement over what the Nats received last year, and Ryan Zimmerman's shift to first base should help keep him on the field.
Most prominently, Denard Span is coming off a big year, and the Nats have the talent to get elite production at three spots -- third base (Anthony Rendon), shortstop (Ian Desmond) and left field (Bryce Harper). So Washington is in solid shape beyond its vaunted rotation.
4. Angels: I'd feel a lot better about the Kendrick trade and its impact on the lineup if you could promise me that Josh Hamilton is going to stay healthy. But we already know that's not the case, because Hamilton is recovering from last week's shoulder surgery. So with questions about how much that procedure will impact Hamilton's already sagging power and, of course, if a 35-year-old Albert Pujols can repeat the great gains he made in '14, it's difficult to assume the Angels can repeat as the game's most productive offense.
Still, the Matt Joyce addition will help address the Hamilton riddle, and Kole Calhoun has now established himself as a viable corner outfield bat who can help set the table. I'm curious to see what David Freese can deliver in his walk year, because he settled in for the second half of '14.
Anyway, we all know the primary reason the Angels are high on this list: Some guy named Michael Nelson Trout.
3. Tigers: I had them second overall before the Victor Martinez news. Now I don't know whether to still consider them a top-three team or worry that they'll slide back significantly. That's how much Martinez means to this lineup, and, until we get more word about his recovery and timetable, we're in a holding pattern.
We're also in wait-and-see mode with Miguel Cabrera, who will be on a slow track for Spring Training after ankle surgery. That said, Miggy is so sharp of mind and eye and swift of hands that he had a 1.118 OPS last September while playing on the bum ankle. So while I don't know that he'll bounce back to his Triple Crown-caliber, I do think he'll remain a force. He'll also have decent protection -- from J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes -- even if Victor misses time.
Ian Kinsler gave this lineup the jolt it needed at the top of the order in 2014, but it remains to be seen if the Tigers have an internal piece (Alex Avila? Jose Iglesias?) to get on base enough in the No. 2 spot. That question is now secondary to the V-Mart situation, which, one way or another, will have a big impact on what this lineup accomplishes in '15.
2. Blue Jays: Were Dalton Pompey more established, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak more reliable and second base not such a worry, I'd strongly consider the Blue Jays for the top spot on this list. Alas, those are, of course, all big questions.
Still, there is a lot to like about a lineup that begins with Jose Reyes, Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion. Those are five steady on-base presences and a middle of the order that can straight-up mash.
There are big questions to be answered in Toronto, but you'd be hard-pressed to find (on paper, at least) a lineup with a better top five.
1. Red Sox: Here we go. Flame me about my East Coast bias (even though I live in the Midwest), but this pick is about infrastructure, additions and depth.
The Red Sox were an elite offensive team in 2013, a pedestrian one in '14. Injuries and less-than-expected contributions from younger guys like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks contributed to a rapid regression.
Still, the late-season arrivals of Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo, improved health for Mike Napoli and, of course, the arrivals of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez turned this into as deep a lineup as any in the game today. It remains to be seen what happens with Allen Craig, Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino, but, however that logjam shakes out, the fate of the Boston lineup is not riding completely on the shoulders of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, which is a good thing.
Honorable mentions: The Mariners and Padres should be drastically improved and the Marlins might have a better cast surrounding the game's best power threat, Giancarlo Stanton. But for now, the rest of my top 15 would look like this: 12. Rangers (in that ballpark, I like the chances of their lineup bouncing back from last year's incredible injury epidemic), 13. Indians (big questions about the health of Nick Swisher and the newly acquired Brandon Moss, but the Michael Brantley-Carlos Santana pairing is terrific), 14. Cardinals (I find it hard to believe they'll be as frustrating offensively as last year, especially if Jason Heyward shores up the No. 2 spot), 15. Twins (this was, surprisingly, a top-10 offense in '14, and the addition of Torii Hunter, better health for Joe Mauer and a full season of Kennys Vargas could allow them to stabilize that rank).
Who did I miss? Let me know below.