There are very few signs of spring in the air here in Maine, but my Twitter feed tells me baseball season is on its way back. Much like I did last year, I’m going to eschew the full projected standings in favor of a ranking of all 30 MLB teams by the likelihood, in my estimation, of their winning the 2014 World Series.
In case you didn’t click the link above, I was not altogether successful in this endeavor in 2013, picking the eventual champion Red Sox 13th and the NL-pennant-winning Cardinals 11th. I did a little better with LCS contenders Detroit (1st) and the Dodgers (7th). My 2nd and 4th picks, Washington and Texas, missed the playoffs, while my 22nd and 23rd picks, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, made them. I suspect most of those misses were not minority opinions. On to this year’s list:
30. Minnesota Twins. Yeah, the Astros are probably worse, but this feels like a nod to the strides Houston has made while Minnesota seems to have gotten willfully worse. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes probably improve their rotation, but that’s only because they had nothing resembling a league-average starter in the fold before their acquisitions, and these guys don’t make the Twins any younger. Joe Mauer should hit and should stay on the field more as a full-time first baseman, but he’s a little less valuable there than he was behind the plate, and ZIPS doesn’t project any other position player on the team to be worth half of Mauer’s 3.2 wins above replacement.
29. Houston Astros. Not being 30th on this list may represent a quantum leap for the Astros, but they’re still bad. New “ace” Scott Feldman is probably more reliable than Nolasco, but his upside is embarrassingly low for any staff’s number one starter. Some progression from Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer would be a step toward future contention, as would big-league seasons from Jason Castro and rookie George Springer. If Houston can feast on the Rangers’ depleted pitching and the non-Felix Mariners starters, 70 wins aren’t out of the question.
28. Chicago White Sox. Chris Sale could be the best pitcher in the AL this year. Even if he is, he might go 8-10. Unless Cuban import Jose Abreu pays immediate dividends, this team won’t hit at all.
27. Florida Marlins. It’s probably a compliment to the Marlins to call them the 27th-best team in baseball, but this “optimism” is based largely on their awful division. Sure, they’re not going to play with the Nationals and Braves, but the Mets and Phillies should provide some easy wins on days when Jose Fernandez is dealing and Giancarlo Stanton is raking.
26. New York Mets. There should have been one reason to watch the Mets this year, as Matt Harvey had a season for the ages before going down with an elbow injury. Without Harvey, Mets fans will spend the season hoping Zack Wheeler develops into another top-of-the-rotation starter and David Wright sticks around long enough for this team to contend with him.
25. Philadelphia Phillies. On paper, this team may be bad-but-not-awful, with Cliff Lee likely to pitch well and Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz candidates for at least one more productive season. In the front office, this team is such a mess that it’s hard to imagine them pulling the right strings if, by some fluke, they’re in contention midseason. Roy Halladay is gone, Cole Hamels is hurt, and Ryan Howard is a $25 million replacement player. It’s going to be another long summer in Philly.
24. Chicago Cubs. Like the Astros, the Cubs get bonus points for counting on development from young players, rather than signing mid-level free agents, to move toward respectability. Unlike the Astros, the Cubs have some real major league experience from some of those developing players. Darwin Barney is a wiz with the glove, Anthony Rizzo might hit 30 bombs this year, and Starlin Castro, despite a few down years, is a (barely) 24-year-old shortstop with 692 career hits. The Cubs still look like the worst team in the NL Central, but with a couple of breaks, who says they couldn’t finish third?
23. Seattle Mariners. If the Marlins, with one of the best pitchers and one of the best hitters in the NL, but not much else, rank 27th, why should we expect much more of the Mariners, who will depend similarly on Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano? Kyle Seager can play, and Hisashi Iwakuma won’t have to repeat last year’s magic to be a quality starter once he returns from injury, but there’s not much depth anywhere on this roster.
22. Milwaukee Brewers. ZIPS actually has the Brewers finishing above .500, but I think some of their individual projections are a little optimistic. Carlos Gomez may be the game’s best defensive outfielder, but will he really save another 11.5 runs this year, as ZIPS projects? Ryan Braun is likely still a great player after a year off, but we have no idea how he’ll handle the distractions of a post-suspension national tour. There’s not much to love on the mound, with Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza headlining the staff. I suppose if Jean Segura and Khris Davis continue to develop while Braun has an MVP-type comeback, this team could contend, but they need a lot to fall their way.
21. San Diego Padres. I think we’ve flipped a switch from “not in your dreams” to “hey, you never know”. The Padres don’t have much pitching, with Andrew Cashner and a few possible starts from the fragile Josh Johnson the only bright spots. They do, however, have Yonder Alonso’s bat, Everth Cabrera’s wheels, Chris Denorfia’s glove, and Chase Headley’s all-around excellence. The difference between last place and second in the NL West is a few bounces in the right direction, and the Padres could get those bounces.
20. Colorado Rockies. For a few years, this team has been Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, and pray for a wild pitcher. After impressive seasons from Nolan Arenado at third and Wilin Rosario behind the plate, they look a little more rounded in the field, and the pitching is not as bad as you might think. Jorge de la Rosa and Juan Nicasio project for better-than-average seasons. If Brett Anderson can stay healthy and Jhoulys Chacin can get healthy, this rotation may have the depth to contend.
19. Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s the Dodgers and the clones in the NL West. Arizona has one great hitter- MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, one great fielder- Gerardo Parra, and a solid catcher in Miguel Montero. They’ve had a breakout pitcher each of the past four seasons, with Daniel Hudson, Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley, and Patrick Corbin successively outperforming expectations. With Corbin undergoing Tommy John surgery, Miley is the only one of those four in the rotation this year, but Randall Delgado and Archie Bradley are candidates to be this year’s surprice ace.
18. San Francisco Giants. You probably think the Giants are better than this, and they may be, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to list the four NL West also-rans in order. Buster Posey’s in the conversation for best player in the National League. Pablo Sandoval looked good this spring, and Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence should hit too. On the other hand, I don’t believe in the pitching. Madison Bumgarner projects for 3.5 WAR, and I suppose Matt Cain could bounce back, but in 2013, he was the pitcher his peripherals tell us he’s always been. Tim Lincecum seems like a prime candidate to decompose early, and who knows what to expect of Tim Hudson at age 38? The Giants might prove me wrong, as they have twice in the past four years, but I see a team that’s not much different from the dregs of its division.
17. Cleveland Indians. Last year’s playoff appearance for Cleveland was a little bit fluke and a little bit taking advantage of the new playoff system, which awards the two non-division-winners in each league with the best records, despite the unbalanced schedule. It would be hard to make a case that Cleveland was one of the five best teams in the AL in 2013, and they’re not much different in ’14. That’s not all bad, though, as Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar, and Corey Kluber constitute a strong core of young starters, the bullpen is good, and there’s at least a league-average player at just about every position around the field. If the Carlos-Santana-to-third-base experiment works out and Asdrubal Cabrera bounces back from a bad year, this team could find itself right where it was last fall.
16. New York Yankees. So much talent, so much age. This is not a last-place prediction for the Yankees, but an assertion that all the other teams in the AL East have more upside. If newcomers Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann play 300 games between them, they’ll score some runs and save some runs. On the other hand, the geriatric infield of Teixeira, Roberts, Jeter, and Johnson is likely to demand plenty of time off this summer, and unless Dean Anna and Scott Sizemore are the answer in reserve, it’s hard to see this team being consistently good. On the pitching side, Masahiro Tanaka’s signing transformed the rotation from potentially embarrassing to intriguing, but the odds of CC Sabathia returning to form and Hiroki Kuroda continuing to defy his age and Tanaka immediately succeeding in the states are low.
15. Toronto Blue Jays. It’s hard to know what to make of the Blue Jays, who seemed to make all the right moves before the 2013 season, but none of them really paid off. The offense, highlighted by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, is solid, and Brett Lawrie and Jose Reyes are the best left side of any AL infield if they’re healthy. The pitching, though, doesn’t look as strong as it did last March, with Josh Johnson gone and RA Dickey unlikely to pull off another 2012 at age 39. If Brandon Morrow strikes everybody out, Mark Buehrle doesn’t walk anybody, and the offensive stars stay healthy, this could be a great team, but as we saw last year, high-risk, high-reward doesn’t always pay off when your portfolio is capped at 25 roster spots.
14. Texas Rangers. A few weeks ago, I would have ranked the Rangers in the top five, as favorites to run away with the AL West. That was when guys I’d heard of were lined up to pitch for them. Now Derek Holland is likely out for the season. Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish will start the season in the trainer’s room. Tanner Scheppers, who has never started a major league game, will start on opening day. The Rangers will lean on Joe Saunders and Robbie Ross pitching at the Ballpark at Arlington. Even if Adrian Beltre continues his late-career Hall of Fame push and Prince Fielder finds a fountain of youth, this team might not even be the second-best in its division.
13. Kansas City Royals. The Royals are not better than the Yankees or the Rangers. They do, however, play in a weaker division and boast young talent with a broad range of skills. Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, and Alex Gordon may each be the best defensive player at his position in the American League. Eric Hosmer’s and Billy Butler’s bats should take advantage of Lorenzo Cain’s and Jarrod Dyson’s speed to score some runs. The bullpen, headed by Greg Holland, is one of the game’s best. The biggest roadblock for the Royals is the rotation behind James Shields, as Bruce Chen is unlikely to repeat last year’s 3.27 ERA and newcomer Jason Vargas is likely not the answer. This team could regress to 70 wins, but it’s also possible that they take a leap similar to what Pittsburgh did in ’13 and finally break their playoff drought.
12. Baltimore Orioles. I still can’t tell if the Orioles are good. They had a flukishly great 2012, made no changes, and won 85 games in 2013. Then they sat idle for four months this offseason while other teams filled holes with players who might have helped them, only to jump in at the last minute and nab Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Johan Santana. Manny Machado is a defensive beast whose offense is bound to improve. Matt Wieters and JJ Hardy are well-rounded stars, and Adam Jones has some power and some speed. If Chris Davis has half the season he has last year (which is no guarantee), this team will score some runs. No one in the rotation is guaranteed to succeed, but Ubaldo Jimenez had a bit of a bounce-back year for Cleveland in 2013, while Chris Tillman was breaking out in Baltimore (albeit relying heavily on a low BABiP). Dylan Bundy and Johan Santana could offer a lot or nothing this year, while Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez look like steady, back-of-the-rotation contributors. The bullpen could be as bad as 2012′s was good, and the corner outfield spots look atrocious, but Buck Showalter has a lot of talent with which to work.
11. Los Angeles Angels. How bad can a team with Mike Trout be? Pretty bad, if Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton continue their declines, but history tells us most declines are more bumpy than linear, which means there’s a decent chance one of them bounces back significantly this year. I’ve got my money on Pujols. Kole Calhoun could break out in right field, and the Conger/Iannetta catcher platoon is better than average. Aside from Pujols and Hamilton, another key for the Angels will be success of the starting pitching. If Hector Santiago emerges as a threat behind Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson, this might be the year the shakier AL West gives Trout a chance to play in the playoffs.
10. Pittsburgh Pirates. Caution: teams buoyed by a great bullpen often regress the following year, when relievers show very different small sample size results (see Baltimore, 2012-’13). But the 2013 Pirates were legitimately good, and they bring back most of that roster, which is now more than just Andrew McCutchen. Starling Marte has arrived, and Russell Martin is still one of the better catchers in the NL on both sides of the ball. The drop from AJ Burnett to Edinson Volquez could be a severe one, but steps forward for Gerrit Cole and rookie Jameson Taillon (if he’s healthy and ready) could keep Volquez off the mound. They’re not the Cardinals, but the Pirates are serious Wild Card contenders, now and for the foreseeable future.
9. Cincinnati Reds. ZIPS is unimpressed with the Reds, pegging them for a 77-win team in 2014. I don’t see what makes them all that different from the Wild Card team they were last year. Shin-soo Choo is gone, and Mat Latos will start the season hurt, but Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto are back to anchor the rotation with a lot of promise in Tony Cingrani. With due respect to Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto is still the best hitter in the NL and Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier can hit a little too. If Billy Hamilton can get on base enough to wreak havoc on the basepaths, this team should score runs, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t prevent them.
8. Oakland A’s. In any other sport, it’s hard to imagine a team like the 2010s A’s having as much success as they’ve had. Sure, Josh Donaldson was great in 2013, and Josh Reddick was very good in 2012. But neither of them projects to play at that level in 2014, and there’s no real star power in the lineup or in the rotation. Teams without stars don’t win football or basketball games. But what the A’s bring once again is depth, with 12 players ZIPS projects for at least 315 plate appearances and .8 WAR. Their outfield of Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, and Craig Gentry might be the best in the AL. And while Jarrod Parker missing the whole season will hurt the pitching, Sonny Gray is ready to take the reigns, and Tommy Milone and Dan Straily could take steps forward as well. This could be the year that the A’s regress to 75 wins, but with the Rangers’ rotation in tatters, I’m picking Oakland to win its third straight division title.
7. Tampa Bay Rays. After Longoria and Zobrist, there are no guarantees in Tampa’s lineup, but Wil Myers has a ton of potential, James Loney hit well last year, and Desmond Jennings can run all day. Perhaps more importantly, 2012 Cy Young winner David Price is back and Matt Moore went 17-4 last year, but I see Alex Cobb being perhaps the best pitcher on the staff in 2014. The Red Sox probably have more talent, but Joe Maddon and the Rays win 90 games every year and there’s no reason to think this will be the year they won’t.
6. Atlanta Braves. Ok, the Upton brother experiment didn’t work well for the Braves in 2013, but just about everything else did. Jason Heyward is due for an MVP-type season. Andrelton Simmons might be the next Ozzie Smith. Freddie Freeman has developed into a beast with the bat. If the rotation looked as strong coming into this year as it did coming into 2013, I’d predict another division title for the Braves. Tim Hudson is gone, though, Kris Medlen is out for the year, and Mike Minor will start the year on the DL. The opening day start will likely go to Julio Teheran or Ervin Santana, and at this point, it’s hard to foresee a five-man rotation that doesn’t involve Aaron Harang. If only Craig Kimbrel could throw 250 innings…
5. Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were no fluke in 2013, and youth and depth were two of their strengths, so there’s no reason to believe they’ll be bad in 2014. That said, they did lose Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew this offseason and will lean heavily on rookies Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts in key, up-the-middle roles. The pitching was Jeckyll in 2013 and Hyde in 2014, but if John Lackey’s resurgence is real and Jon Lester is the ace he looked like last October, Boston might be the best team in baseball again this year.
4. Washington Nationals. Clearly the team that most underachieved its true talent in 2013, the Nationals return stacked in 2014. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez headline what may be the best rotation in the National League. Seven starting position players, including rookie Anthony Rendon, project to be well above average, led by MVP candidate Bryce Harper. The bullpen is probably this team’s only weakness, but if the starters pitch deep into games, it may not matter.
3. Detroit Tigers. The Tigers may be the best team in baseball, as I believe they were in 2013. I think the Tigers “won” the Fielder-Kinsler trade, and filled a great hole in doing so. The Doug Fister trade was another matter, but Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez-Porcello-Smyly will do just fine. If Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter can fend off father time for another year and Miguel Cabrera knocks the cover off the ball as he always does, this team should cruise to another division title. Unless the Yankees make the playoffs, they’ll face younger teams in the playoffs this year, and that was their undoing in 2013. Still, the playoffs are a crapshoot once you’re there, and the Tigers have the best chance to get there of any AL team.
2. St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals are always good, and it seems they’re always young. Oscar Taveras should fill Carlos Beltran’s shoes this year. Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta will be upgrades over David Freese and Pete Kozma in the infield, and center field is in better hands with Peter Bourjos than it was with Jon Jay. Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha slot in behind Adam Wainwright to form an intimidating rotation, and we know the bullpen has a ton of talent. There’s nothing not to like on this roster.
1. Los Angeles. I don’t know whether the Red Sox, Nationals, Tigers, Cardinals, or Dodgers are the best team in baseball, but I know the Dodgers have the clearest path to the postseason. Clayton Kershaw will pass Sandy Koufax as the best lefty in Dodgers history very soon. Zack Greinke is about as good a number two starter as one can imagine. The bullpen is loaded. If healthy, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez could all be among the best players in the NL. Most importantly, the Dodgers, more than any other contender, can afford to have a few things go wrong this year. They’ve already seen some injury concerns in the rotation, but they’ll hit enough to win some high scoring games with their lesser starters on the mound, and they’ll play almost 80 games against a relatively weak division. Getting to the playoffs is more than half the battle, and having Kershaw and Greinke once you get there is icing on the cake.
As a bonus, here are the most likely players to win the postseason awards:
NL Cy Young:
5. Zack Greinke
4. Cliff Lee
3. Stephen Strasburg
2. Clayton Kershaw (who would have been first had he not just hit the DL)
1. Jose Fernandez
AL Cy Young:
5. Yu Darvish
4. Max Scherzer
3. Chris Sale (who might be most likely to deserve it)
2. Justin Verlander
1. Felix Hernandez
10. Yadier Molina
9. Jason Heyward
8. Freddie Freeman
7. Giancarlo Stanton
6. Buster Posey
5. Paul Goldschmidt
4. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Andrew McCutchen
2. Bryce Harper
1. Joey Votto
10. Eric Hosmer
9. Josh Donaldson
8. Yoenis Cespedes
7. Manny Machado
6. Miguel Cabrera
5. Robinson Cano
4. Dustin Pedroia
3. Adrian Beltre
2. Evan Longoria
1. Mike Trout (who will regress to under 8 WAR, but won’t have to fight a Miguel Cabrera narrative)