We like to joke about predictions being ludicrous and pointless, and how you know they're wrong if they exist, but more than a few of them end up being right. The Dodgers looked like favorites in the NL West, and then they won the NL West. The Cardinals looked like a postseason team, and then they made the postseason. This predicting stuff, why, it's simple. Sometimes.
And then there are the confusing teams, the teams that relish the idea of you scratching your head while making your predictions. You'll temporarily skip them, but they'll be there, waiting, making you question the prognosticative powers you know you don't have. Here are the three most confusing teams in baseball.
Confusing team No. 1: White Sox
In retrospect, why were we all so excited about the offseason the White Sox had last year? They got a closer, a 35-year-old DH and an aging PED bust, and because we were all hopped up and freebasing transactions, it was easy to mistake activity for effectiveness. And those three players are still key components of the 2016 White Sox roster. Last year, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and David Robertson combined to make $35 million. They also combined for a win over replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. That's a brutal combination, and everyone's a year older.
Those three players might have been a part of the problem, but they weren't the reason the White Sox were so disappointing, Crumbling defense, especially in the infield, combined with hundreds and hundreds of at-bats given to low-upside young players, hamstrung the White Sox far more than the offseason mini-spending spree helped. That's why this offseason, the team addressed the most immediate, unmistakable concerns.
Second base was a pit of despair last season. They got Brett Lawrie. Third base wasn't much better. They got Todd Frazier. Alex Avila has enough promise with the bat and glove to hope he's an improvement over Tyler Flowers. If the rotation lacked depth at the back end, Mat Latos is a fantastic, low-risk gamble, and Erik Johnson is a sixth starter who might be the fourth-best starter on the team. They're a better team than the one that excited a lot of us last year.
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And they could get better. If they have clear and obvious issues still, they're at shortstop, where Tyler Saladino is the projected starter, and in the outfield, where Avisail Garcia continues to try everyone's patience. Except, those are two spots where there are still free agents. Helpful, legitimate free agents. There probably isn't a more obvious fit than Ian Desmond to the White Sox, especially if it's a one-year deal to rebuild value.
The combination of skills and ballpark seems like a way for Desmond to make $90 million in six short months (click for more details). And if the team isn't sure about Garcia, like the rest of us, Dexter Fowler would give them even more lineup depth, stretching the lineup nine deep. Even without the help, the White Sox are confusing. With extra help, they might be division favorites.
Or the White Sox could be awful. Carlos Rodon might be a year away from assuming his next form. The lineup might be Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Frazier, and six guys with a below-average adjusted OPS. John Danks and Mat Latos might give up a combined 60 home runs.
You tell me. USA Today thinks they're the best team in the American League, which seems silly until it actually happens.
Confusing team No. 2: The Diamondbacks
The earth moaned. The sky shrieked. Zack Greinke was on the Diamondbacks, and everything we thought we knew was different.
Well, now what?
The wind howled. The farm system vomited. Shelby Miller was on the Diamondbacks, and everything we thought we knew was different.
Well, now what?
Not much, frankly. Jean Segura's age makes him intriguing, and the change-of-scenery argument works incredibly well with him, but he's still spent the last two seasons being one of the very worst hitters in baseball. Yasmany Tomas is taking over for Ender Inciarte, a defensive swap that's like Fred Durst taking over lead guitar duties for Robert Fripp. That might be a tortured analogy, but it sure gives me the excuse to leave this here:
I watch that on a loop every time I'm reminded of it. Now it's your turn.
It's not just Tomas the Diamondbacks have to worry about. Welington Castillo -- a catcher recently thought of so highly that the Mariners let him slip away -- might hit in the middle of the order, unless that's Jake Lamb's job.
Other than A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt, who might be the best 1-2 player combo in the NL West, if not baseball, I'm not sure if the Diamondbacks have a single sure thing in the lineup. Like most teams, they also have a couple question marks at the back of the rotation. And if you think this is all concern trolling, note that both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have the Diamondbacks at comfortably under .500, with FanGraphs giving them the exact same record as 2015. Moving from Inciarte's two-way contributions to a full season of Tomas can't really be enough to wipe out the $206 million gains from Greinke, right?
No idea. But the idea is that you start with a legitimately devastating front three (Greinke, Miller, Patrick Corbin) and add two of the most complete players in baseball (Goldschmidt, Pollock) and let the other 20 players figure it out. It's a brilliant start to a roster. They just need more support than the computers are predicting, and there are all sorts of permutations that could get them there.
Just like there are all sorts of permutations that could get them right back to 78-84.
Confusing team No. 3: Pittsburgh Pirates
While it's fun and instructive to check out the FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus projected standings, it's not always necessary. Sometimes you can just look at a roster and make a cartoonish whistle and say something like "yowza!" or "my stars!" The Cubs have that kind of roster right now. They signed John Lackey to a sensible deal in a nonsensical market, and they signed the best all-around position player to a huge contract. They were already overstuffed with stars in their mid-20s, and they just got substantially better.
The Pirates signed Ryan Vogelsong and traded for Jon Niese.
Unless they traded for Dillon Gee. I can't ever get those two ... no, they traded for Niese. Oh, and they signed John Jaso as their Pedro Alvarez replacement, which makes a fair amount of sense. But in a merciless, top-heavy division, the Pirates just sort of hung back and let the offseason come to them. You can understand why if you look at it from their perspective. They still have the young outfield they extracted from the ore beneath Mt. Olympus, and they should have a fantastic bullpen again. Gerrit Cole is the No. 1 the universe has owed them for a couple decades, and the team defense should be strong, especially if Jung-ho Kang is back at full strength.
Still, I can't decide if the non-response is hubris or pragmatism. The idea is probably to settle for competence in the rotation until Tyler Glasnow and/or Jameson Taillon are ready, with Cory Luebke a perfect Pirates gamble that might pay off, but it's extraordinarily bold to count on a prospect-led cavalry when 60 percent of the rotation features low-upside veterans and the No. 2 starter is Francisco Liriano -- who used to be synonymous with the cruelty of baseball and the fragility of the human arm. Maybe he's entered the Kazmir phase of his career, where he becomes durable just to keep us on our toes, but it sure seems like they've piled a lot of risk into one rotation.
Meanwhile, Ray Searage is checking his watch, almost bored, like The Man With No Name, not worried about a danged thing. Do you want to bet against the Pirates and their pitcher-whispering? You do not. But it's still surprising to see the lack of urgency from a franchise that waited two decades to get back to where they are. They're never a candidate to empty the farm for help -- they need those low-cost youngsters too much -- but there had to be a sexier way to keep up with the Cubses.
If there's one team that knows it shouldn't settle for the horrors of the Wild Card Game, it's the Pirates. But while they aren't giving up on the division, not at all, it sure seems like the Wild Card safety net made it just a little too comfortable to have a very Pirates offseason. Some teams would get annoyed and antsy after three straight early postseason exits. The Pirates are apparently unflappable, and that's almost refreshing.
A little more flapping would have made sense, though. As is, I'm not convinced the Pirates are a postseason guarantee, which is a shame considering the head start they had to work with. Baseball Prospectus has them at 79-83. FanGraphs has them tied for second place and missing the NL Wild Card by a game. They'll have to count on internal help and surprises to make the prognosticators look silly, but it didn't have to be like that.