MLB SEASON PREVIEW 2014
Spring is on the doorstep and the Dodgers and D–Backs head for Sydney, Australia, for the opening games of the Major League Baseball season. Grab a hot dog and some Cracker Jack as Jay B. Webster takes a critical look at the prospects for all 30 teams.
The BoSox capped off a magical worst–to–first run to their third World Series title in ten years last season. They insist they aren't resting on their laurels, however, with Jonny Gomes famously and eloquently summing up the team's mindset entering the 2014 campaign by insisting "We ain't no defending champs". Boston led the majors with 853 runs produced last season, and with the exception of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew, return the core of that lineup. There are questions as to whether youngsters Jackie Bradley in center, Xander Bogaerts at short and third basemen Will Middlebrooks can develop into pieces of a championship–caliber team, but a starting rotation that now includes Jake Peavy should once again be one of the best in baseball and ensure that the Red Sox will be in the mix come September and October.
Tampa Bay Rays
The cream of the AL East crop this season would look to be the Rays. With outstanding defense, a top–notch rotation and a quality bullpen, Tampa Bay is a team without a lot of flash but with very few flaws. David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb anchor one of the top rotations in baseball, and they have one of the best run–limiting defenses in the game cleaning things up behind them. Offensive firepower could be a concern, but with the ever–present Evan Longoria and lots of upside from youngsters David DeJesus, Desmond Jennings and Wil Myers, the Rays should be able to muster enough offense to keep things ticking along nicely.
New York Yankees
There is no doubt that the times are a changing in the Bronx, with Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retiring, Robinson Cano leaving for Seattle and Alex Rodriguez suspended for the year. After missing the playoffs for the second straight season, the Yanks approached the situation the way they know best, by throwing a lot of money around, signing outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltrán, catcher Brian McCann, and bringing in Kelly Johnson to man third in A–Rod's absence. They also shelled out a cool $155 million to land Japanese pitching import Masahiro Tanaka. Despite the buying spree, an awful lot will have to break right for the Yanks to stay relevant in the loaded AL East, starting with plenty of production from aging veterans Derek Jeter (in his swan song season), Mark Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano, and a return to effectiveness from pitchers CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda. You get the feeling that one way or the other, it's bound to be entertaining.
Playing in the same division as the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays always makes things tough. After reaching the ALDS in 2012, the O's took a step backwards last year, missing out on the second wild–card slot by six games. With the addition of Nelson Cruz to a lineup that includes Adam Jones and Chris "Crush" Davis, the O's figure to have enough power to light up the Eastern seaboard once again, after leading the majors in round trippers a year ago. The Orioles will dazzle with their power, which should make them fun to watch, but they will need a lot from a so–so starting rotation if they are going to keep up in the division.
Toronto Blue Jays
Two off–seasons ago GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays went all New York Yankees, throwing money around at the likes of José Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Things didn't exactly work out, as the Jays finished in dead last in the AL East. However, there is still plenty to get excited about north of the border with Reyes – if he can stay healthy – José Bautista – one of the biggest boppers in the game – Edwin Encarnación and Adam Lind manning the top of the order. Pitching was a huge issue last season. Needless to say, bounce–back years from Dickey and Buehrle will be imperative for the Jays to stay relevant.
Discussions of the Tigers' prospects will always start with pitching, and with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez atop the rotation, why wouldn't they? At the plate the Tigers still have one of the best (if not the best) hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera. He won't have Prince Fielder to protect him in the lineup this year, as Fielder was shipped to Texas for three–time All–Star second baseman Ian Kinsler. The Tigers are obviously high enough on prospect Nick Castellanos to plug him in at third and move Cabrera back to first base. There certainly is no reason to think the Tigers won't still be playing baseball again come October.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals won 86 games last year, their highest total since 1989, and played meaningful games in September for the first time since the Reagan administration. The question is whether KC can take the next step in their perpetual rebuilding process and reach the post–season for the first time since 1985. The Royals get on base a lot and were the best in the league at stealing them last year. They also had the best ERA in the league and three Gold Glove Award winners, but no team in the AL hit fewer home runs. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer in particular need to live up to the expectations the organization has long held for them in order to lead the playoff–starved fans in Kansas City to the Promised Land.
The Tribe surprised many by winning 92 games and reaching the playoffs as a wild card team. Though they added some talent before last season with the likes of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, it was new manager Terry Francona who pulled all the right strings on the way to winning the AL Manager of the Year Award. However, the Indians' total clearly exceeded the sum of their parts. Expect regression in Cleveland this season, but the Francona factor and rising stars such as Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis should be enough to keep them competitive.
Chicago White Sox
After finishing in the cellar a year ago, the White Sox quite rightly made wholesale changes, with their biggest addition being 27–year–old José Abreu, who hit .453 with 93 RBI in 66 games in Cuba last year. The Southsiders figure to be better this time around, but unfortunately, that isn't saying much.
With the physical toll behind the plate catching up with him, Joe Mauer moves to first base, but it figures to be another long season on the Upper Mississippi as the Twins wait for the fruits of one of the game's best farm systems (including baseball's top prospect Byron Buxton) to ripen.
The A's have two straight division titles under their belts, but also two straight Game 5 ALDS losses to the Detroit Tigers. With their nucleus intact and depth up and down the roster, the A's remain the cream of the AL West crop, despite the lack of a bona fide superstar. Yoenis Céspedes and Josh Reddick are always worth the price of admission, and Oakland has a young, well–rounded rotation with plenty of upside. Despite quality throughout the lineup, the lack of a go–to ace has been their Achilles heel, as they've been out–duelled by Justin Verlander in playoff elimination games both of the last two seasons.
After reaching the World Series in 2010 and 2011, the last two seasons have felt somewhat disappointing, despite win totals of 93 and 91. Ian Kinsler is out and slugger Prince Fielder is in, while on–base machine Shin–Soo Choo will hit leadoff and man left field. Outside of Yu Darvish, the starting rotation looks sketchy at best, though Matt Harrison and Derek Holland could return from injury to boost things down the stretch.
Disappointment is the word that springs to mind when considering the Halos over the past two seasons. Expectations were sky high two years ago when they brought in Albert Pujols, and maybe even more so last year with the addition of Josh Hamilton, but they missed the playoffs both years, finishing a woeful 18 games behind the A's last season. Center fielder Mike Trout will one day be the best player in baseball, and may even be right now. Any kind of return to form of the afore–mentioned Pujols and Hamilton could make the Angels the AL's top offensive team.
The Mariners made by far the biggest splash of the off–season luring second baseman Robinson Canó away from the bright lights of Broadway with a 10–year $240 million offer. Cano has been one of the best players in baseball over the past few years, and he joins right–hander Félix Hernández, one of the top starting pitchers in the business. After that, however, the drop off is precipitous.
How bad were the Astros last year? Basically they were a minor league team in Major League uniforms, winning but 51 games. And the thing was, it was all according to plan. Astros management has the team on one of the most massive rebuilds in baseball history, with the theory being that you have to get really bad in order to amass the assets that will make you really good down the road. Well, they've certainly gotten the first part right.
After tallying the best record in baseball in 2012, expectations were sky high a year ago, but the team never really managed to get off the ground. They finished the season 32–16 over their final 42 games, however, which was the best record in baseball over that span. There is depth up and down the roster as well as one of the best rotations in the game, anchored by Stephen Strasburg. Is this the year Bryce Harper really breaks out? He battled nagging injuries all of last season, and if he can stop crashing into things, he could be ready to join baseball's elite. If he can, look for the Nationals' fortunes to rise with him.
It is fairly safe to consider the NL East a two–horse race between the Nationals and Braves, but the Braves will be hoping for a healthier Jason Heyward and improvement from B.J. Upton in center field. The rotation lacks a standout arm, but as a unit they are one of the most efficient in baseball. With a 96–win season under their belts, there is a lot to like in Atlanta coming into this season.
After one of the greatest five–year runs in franchise history, the Phils have seen their win totals drop from 102 to 81 to 73. They said goodbye to long–time manager Charlie Manuel, and hello to Ryne Sandberg who will enter his first full season at the helm. A few of the pieces of the glory years are still on board, but questions remain as to how much tread is left on the tires, and there hasn't really been much influx of young talent to compensate for any drop off.
New York Mets
The Metropolitans have suffered through five straight losing seasons and saw their ace Matt Harvey undergo Tommy John surgery. They did make efforts to upgrade, bringing in Curtis Granderson from the cross–town Yankees, as well as starter Bartolo Colón. Third baseman David Wright remains a cornerstone of the franchise, and the team has some developing young talent in the pipeline, all of which leaves the Mets firmly in the chase for third place in the division.
After enduring yet another rebuilding job, Marlins fans suffered through a 100–loss season, and the battle at this stage seems to be merely to reach respectability. Right fielder Giancarlo Stanton is a superstar in the making and José Fernández showed he is one of the best young pitchers in the game, but after that there isn't too much to cheer about in South Florida.
St Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals reached the World Series last season before losing to the Red Sox. They lost Carlos Beltrán and David Freese, but there seems to be plenty of talent to make up, with Allen Craig and Matt Adams looking to help fill the void. While the Cards can score runs (they led the NL last season) their pitching may be their best strength. Adam Wainwright finished second in Cy Young voting, and while Lance Lynn won 15 games last year, he'll have competition for his starting spot this season from the likes of Shelby Miller and playoff hero Michael Wacha. The Cardinals are a top–flight organization from top to bottom, with the talent to match, and it's hard to see them tripping up any time soon.
It's a testament to expectations when your team wins 90 games and secures a wild card berth, yet considers the season a disappointment and fires their manager, but that's exactly what happened to the Reds. With Shin–Soo Choo gone from the top of the batting order, electric speedster Billy Hamilton will have the chance to prove he's more than a one–dimensional base–stealing machine as he takes over in center field. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce anchor a solid offensive unit, while Homer Bailey (he of the $100 million contract extension) will anchor the rotation. With such a solid lineup, a few breaks here and there could see this team put some pressure on the Cards atop the division, but it's hard not to see them at least return to the wild card game.
Last season was a glorious one for Pirates fans with an MVP–caliber season from Andrew McCutchen, breakout years from Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole and the team's first playoff appearance since 1992. A lot went right for the Pirates last year, and the same will have to happen again to regain the thrill of last year's campaign. The Bucs were a fun team to watch, and hopefully they will be this time around as well, but it's hard not to feel that this is a team poised for regression.
The whole organization suffered a black eye when Ryan Braun was suspended last season, but it's time to move on, and the Crew will be looking for a return to form from their new right fielder. With a healthy Aramis Ramírez and continued production from shortstop Jean Segura and centerfielder Carlos Gómez, and a few breaks here and there, the Brewers could find themselves in the mix for a wild card, but that's a lot of ‘ifs'.
The Cubbies have been in rebuilding mode for a couple of seasons now under GM Theo Epstein, and the team's long–suffering fans will be hoping that this is the year things start to at least move in the right direction in the Friendly Confines.
The Dodgers return with virtually the same talented, exciting, and very expensive roster that ran away with the division crown. With a lineup that includes the excitable Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramírez, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, along with starting pitching from the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Josh Beckett, the Dodgers are what you might call loaded. About the only things that can derail them this year are injuries or under performance, but neither of those stopped them last year.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants would figure to be due for a great year after winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012, while struggling in 2011 and 2013. Pitching will once again be the Giant's strength, with a rotation that includes Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong. If Buster Posey and the offense can find ways to score runs in cavernous AT&T Park, good things could happen.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt established himself as an elite talent last season, and he should lead one of the division's stronger offenses. Pitching will be an issue, and top prospect Archie Bradley could get a crack at the Big Leagues before the year is out.
San Diego Padres
The Friars were a middle of the pack team a year ago, and there is little reason to think they'll be much more than that this time around. Chase Headley is one of the better third basemen in the NL, while starter Andrew Cashner has breakout potential on the mound.
Despite two straight years in the cellar, the Rockies have held on to Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González in hopes of staying competitive. If things don't turn around soon, however, look for Colorado's brass to go into full–blown rebuilding mode, which could see Tulo and CarGo on the trading block before long.