Spring training has arrived! Baseball is back!
Every Monday during the regular season, I’ll use The 30 to take a close look at a few teams making headlines. Today, though, I’m breaking format to go bigger, ranking and examining every club. With the offseason winding down and our collective attention shifting to camps across Florida and Arizona, it’s time to take stock of where each franchise sits.
You’ll be able to find plenty more analysis of individual teams and players as Grantland’s 2014 MLB preview unfolds throughout late February and March, but for now, consider this a big-ass sampler platter to whet your appetite for the coming season.
Two final things before we dive in: First, if you disagree with these rankings or any of the 2014 rankings to come, remember that I made my decisions based solely on my bias against your favorite team, with no consideration whatsoever for data or objective analysis. Second, please enjoy the official theme song of The 30:
(Click here for all of Grantland’s 2014 MLB preview coverage.)
30. Houston Astros
The Astros were stupefyingly bad in 2013. They lost 111 games, including their final 15. Considering the front office put zero effort into winning, it was no great surprise. Houston’s Opening Day payroll was just $26.1 million; the Yankees had four players who made more than $20 million last year. The Astros were the worst team in baseball as a result, and were in fact so bad that their mere presence in the AL West allowed the Texas Rangers to contend until the last minute.1 And really, why not tank? Baseball doesn’t have a salary floor. Ownership and management risked alienating fans by fielding a reprehensibly awful team for the third year in a row, but that was more than mitigated by securing the top pick in the upcoming draft (Houston’s third in as many years) while pocketing obscene amounts of money from low salaries and high national revenue streams. It was ugly, but this is the system MLB has fostered.
The Rangers went 17-2 against the Astros last year, pushing Texas to 91 wins and a Game 163 showdown with the Rays. Division-winning Oakland went 15-4 against Houston.
This year, it looks like the Astros are going to try … a little. They made two notable acquisitions this winter. First, they traded a back-of-the-rotation arm (Jordan Lyles) and a fringe outfielder (Brandon Barnes) to Colorado for Dexter Fowler, a solid outfielder in his prime. Three days later, they spent real money, signing no. 4 starter Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract so he can be their no. 1 guy. Those moves, coupled with the all-under-30 lineup improving with experience and some high-level prospects getting the call, mean the Astros should be considerably better in 2014 than they were in 2013, and a fair bit better than the first batch of prognosticators are predicting. But for now, they’re still bringing up the rear.
29. Miami Marlins
At least the Astros are likely going with all twentysomethings in their lineup. The Marlins, in contrast, are supplementing their kiddie corps with something exceedingly rare: two non-rookies who failed to play a single game in the big leagues the prior year.2 Rafael Furcal, 36, is penciled in as the team’s Opening Day second baseman, leadoff hitter, and fourth-highest paid player despite missing all of 2013 to injuries, and despite being more or less a replacement-level player in 2011 and 2012. Third baseman Casey McGehee, meanwhile, did hit .292/.375/.515 with 28 home runs and 93 RBIs in 144 games last year — he just happened to do so for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan after two replacement-level MLB seasons of his own in 2011 and 2012.
Per Elias, the last time a team started two non-rookie position players on Opening Day who hadn’t appeared in a single major league game the prior season was in 1965, when the Milwaukee Braves started Mack Jones and Tommie Aaron.
This isn’t necessarily a terrible plan, given the alternative. Despite their perennially low payrolls, the Marlins are notoriously aggressive about ignoring service time considerations when calling up prospects. Sometimes that works out great, as it did with my favorite player on earth, Jose Fernandez.3 Other times, as with outfielder Jake Marisnick last year, a premature call-up can slow a prospect’s development.
Writers are allowed to have biases, right? Eh, I’m sticking with Fernandez regardless.
With Fernandez and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton, the Fish will have one of the most dynamic pitcher-hitter combinations in the game, and there’s more talent percolating down on the farm. As long as the Marlins are choosing between promoting kids who belong in Double-A and filling half the infield with aging players who wouldn’t see any action on a playoff team, however, don’t expect that promise to translate into wins this year.
28. Chicago Cubs
Unlike some of the other teams near the bottom of this list, the Cubs have multiple players on the big-league roster who would be excellent trade bait. Staff ace Jeff Samardzija has come up in so many offseason trade rumors that it’s actually a bit surprising to still see him in a Cubs uniform. Then again, pegging his value is tough: Samardzija is a long-limbed, 29-year-old righty who’s been a full-time starter in the big leagues for only two years; he’s one of the most prolific strikeout pitchers in the league, but his run prevention hasn’t matched his peripheral stats, and he’ll be a free agent in two years. Travis Wood, meanwhile, posted a terrific 2013 season, a surprise given that he was traded for a lefty setup man in December 2011 and considered a back-of-the-rotation starter entering last year. He looks like an attractive target for contending teams eyeing a reliable no. 4 starter but not worried about long-term potential. Edwin Jackson wouldn’t seem to be as strong a trade candidate after posting a near-5 ERA in the first year of his four-year, $52 million contract, but his track record (not to mention a run of horrific luck that resulted in the worst strand rate in the majors last year) suggests a turnaround might be coming.
The tricky part here is that the Cubs’ farm system is overloaded with terrific position-player prospects, but short on impact arms. No one would argue that the Cubs can’t return to glory if they deal Jackson, but even a team that’s years away from contending should probably have at least a few pitchers capable of soaking up some innings. At any rate, keep an eye on the Cubs this summer, as they could have more starting pitching talent to offer at the trade deadline than any other also-ran team.
27. Minnesota Twins
Rarely have two position-player prospects come up at the same time in the same farm system and generated as much excitement as Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. They’re both consensus top-10 MLB prospects, with Buxton ranked no. 1 in many circles, and Sano’s talent and backstory so amazing that he’s already been the focus of one movie, with another on the way. Unfortunately for Twins fans, Sano’s highest level of experience came in 67 games at Double-A last year, while Buxton has yet to advance beyond Class A ball. There’s no reason to rush either player, so it follows that there’s no reason to get too excited about the Twins. Yet.
26. New York Mets
There’s a quiet sense of optimism coming out of Queens — well, at least by tortured Mets fans’ standards — after the cash-strapped Wilpons spent some actual money to acquire Bartolo Colon, Curtis Granderson, and Chris Young this offseason. Throw in optimism over talented right-hander Zack Wheeler and promising young catcher Travis d’Arnaud delivering their first full big-league seasons, and Mets fans can dream of … well, the first .500 season since 2008, if not an actual pennant race.
Still, so much has to go right just to reach those 81 wins. Colon and Granderson are essentially replacing Matt Harvey (who’s likely out for the season after Tommy John surgery) and Marlon Byrd (who last season proved to be one of the best low-cost pickups by any team in years), while d’Arnaud and Young are serious injury risks. With Harvey out, there’s no real top-flight talent on the roster except for David Wright and (if everything breaks perfectly) Wheeler. Bet on 67 Grantland columns extolling the virtues of Ike Davis, though; it’s an immutable annual tradition.
25. Philadelphia Phillies
A.J. Burnett didn’t like the aggressive defensive shifts the Pirates put on last year, even though those shifts turned a range-limited group of infielders into a competent defensive unit. Now Burnett will join the least-shifty team in baseball after signing a one-year, $16 million deal to play at the other end of the state, with the Phillies.
Cole Hamels is out until at least mid-April with a shoulder injury, and the team’s Hamels-less rotation gets thin in a hurry after Burnett and Cliff Lee. The roster is riddled with holes, even as the Phils try to surround Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard with younger talent. Burnett was the NL’s most prolific ground-ball pitcher last year, and the Phillies are going to need as many of those grounders as possible to turn into outs if they hope to approach their GM’s extremely optimistic goals.
24. Chicago White Sox
Few GMs in recent memory have moved as aggressively to overhaul a rebuilding team’s lineup as Rick Hahn did this winter for the White Sox. Hahn took advantage of Arizona GM Kevin Towers’s burning need to dump most of his prospects, snatching 22-year-old third baseman Matt Davidson for closer Addison Reed and 25-year-old center fielder Adam Eaton in a three-team trade that sent Tony Batista 2.04 to Arizona. The big move was the six-year, $68 million deal Hahn gave to Jose Abreu, a Cuban slugger who comes in with some question marks, but also immense upside. Those moves, coupled with a young rotation led by 24-year-old, Cy Young–caliber lefty Chris Sale, could make the White Sox fun to watch on many nights, and a welcome change from the Astros’ tanktastic approach to rebuilding.
23. Colorado Rockies
His friends call him Mark Trumbo.
Rockies starters posted a 4.57 ERA in 2013, which looks horrendous. But consider the circumstances: Coors Field is the most hitter-friendly park in baseball, and is so damaging to pitchers’ stats that the 4.57 mark was actually the third-best ever for Colorado starters. Plus, the Rockies were a mediocre defensive team last year, canceling out stellar glove work from Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado with leaky results from Todd Helton (since retired) and Michael Cuddyer (a nuclear disaster patrolling the vast expanses of the Coors Field outfield). And that staff ERA suffered because of a complete void at the back of the rotation, with Drew Pomeranz, Jeff Manship, Collin McHugh, Chad Bettis, Jeff Francis, Jon Garland, and a depleted Roy Oswalt combining for 50 miserable starts.
The good news is that the Rockies acquired Brett Anderson from Oakland this winter, and will soon get a gigantic boost from two of the best pitching prospects in the game: fireballing right-handers Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler. Gray, the third overall pick in last year’s draft, made just five starts at Class A in 2013, but he’s a 6-foot-4, 255-pound pitching machine, with high-level collegiate experience at Oklahoma and the kind of build, delivery, and raw stuff to suggest he could surge through the minors and crack the big-league roster as soon as this summer. Butler, a supplemental first-round pick in 2012, also boasts a high-90s fastball, along with a terrific changeup. Though he might be half a tick behind Gray in terms of scouting accolades, Butler has also advanced further in the minors; he reached Double-A last year and is a surer bet to make the big leagues this season. The possibility of these two power righties coming up and pitching well is what makes the Rockies a bit of a sleeper this season. And even if it doesn’t all come together this year, the 2015 club could be pretty damn exciting.
22. Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays were one of the five 2014 bounce-back candidates I highlighted last month. A snippet:
While the leaky pitching staff rightly shouldered most of the blame for Toronto’s disappointing season, the Jays also suffered multiple lineup setbacks. Colby Rasmus’s breakout season was undermined by 44 games lost to injury. Jose Bautista maintained his status as one of the AL’s top sluggers, but he, too, missed 44 games. Brett Lawrie’s track record suggests he’ll do better than .254/.315/.397 when he’s not missing 55 games. Jose Reyes carries an extensive history of injuries, but his 93 games played in 2013 marked his second-lowest total since becoming a full-time player in 2005. J.P. Arencibia, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio, and Maicer Izturis were so bad that the mere act of deleting them from the roster (Arencibia and Bonifacio), relegating them to the bench (Izturis), or putting them on a very short leash if they stink again (Cabrera) portends a gigantic improvement.
Arencibia and Bonifacio are gone, as are Josh Johnson and his 6.20 ERA. The Jays figure to improve on last year’s 88-loss disaster almost by default, and they’ve looked like prime candidates to sign Ervin Santana all winter long, given their thin starting rotation and their ability to avoid sacrificing a first-round pick if they sign him, since their two 2014 first-round selections are protected. But as constructed, the Jays still look like a last-place team, maybe fourth-place at best. And given both Santana’s tendency to serve up long balls and the strength of the division’s top teams, dishing out $50 million to cap a suspiciously quiet offseason might not make much of a difference.
21. San Diego Padres
There’s so much heat on the Padres in stathead circles that calling San Diego a sleeper isn’t quite fair. But there are lots of good reasons to believe the hype. Many of the team’s most talented players — including Andrew Cashner, Jedd Gyorko, Yonder Alonso, Everth Cabrera, and Chase Headley — are in their mid-to-late twenties, the age range in which baseball players most often peak.
Cashner in particular looks like an emerging star. He wielded the fifth-hardest fastball among all qualified starting pitchers last year, and the pitch was also well located, making it the fifth-most valuable heater among all starters as well. Despite his excellent velocity, Cashner’s strikeout rate was actually a tick below league average last year, but that could rise as he polishes his secondary offerings. For now, Cashner excels at pounding the strike zone, inducing weak contact, and generating a ton of ground balls. Health has long been Cashner’s biggest concern, but he at least took the first step toward quelling those fears last year, tossing 175 innings and making 26 starts. In a division that might not have any truly weak teams, the Padres could sneak in among the big boys if Cashner and his twentysomething pals take the next step forward.
20. Milwaukee Brewers
It seems impossible that the Brewers won 96 games and stormed to the NL Central title just three seasons ago. Much has changed since. Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, and Nyjer Morgan, three of the team’s four most productive position players in 2011, now play for other teams, while Rickie Weeks has gone from being one of the league’s top-hitting second basemen to a Mendoza Line–hugging, $11 million–making backup. On the pitching side, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum are gone, while Yovani Gallardo has regressed from being one of the best young starters in the game to being an entirely ordinary pitcher.
And yet, the best player on that division-winning team is still around. Ryan Braun will return to everyday action this season after serving a 65-game suspension last year, with 2013’s nagging injuries hopefully behind him and more elite numbers likely to come. The Brewers have assembled one of the best collections of up-the-middle talent in the game, with Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, and the wildly underrated Jonathan Lucroy all Milwaukee property for several more years. The Brewers spent some bucks to bolster the rotation by signing Matt Garza to a four-year deal, and the bullpen seems poised for better results after blowing 23 save chances in 2013. The Cardinals are clearly the best team in the Central, but the teams are tightly grouped after that. Cincinnati’s offense looks suspect beyond Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, while the Pirates seem destined to fall back to the pack after losing Burnett and having so many things go their way last year. If you want to make one far-out bet before Opening Day, you could do worse than picking the Brewers to finish second in the Central.
19. Seattle Mariners
Kudos to the Mariners for spending some of their gigantic stockpile of local TV money to upgrade their lineup, stealing Robinson Cano from the Yankees and securing a handful of other bats as well. But while the M’s certainly improved by adding Cano, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, and potentially Nelson Cruz, the starting rotation figures to be this team’s Achilles’ heel. Coming off a terrific 2013 campaign, Hisashi Iwakuma is sidelined until at least mid-April with a finger injury, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be in top form when he returns. Top prospect and potential no. 3 starter Taijuan Walker seems to be pitching well, but he’s already faced a health scare this spring. Fellow rookie James Paxton isn’t facing health concerns, but he’s inexperienced. And scrap-heap pickup Scott Baker has made just three big-league starts since 2011.
If the M’s truly intend to challenge the top dogs in the AL West this year, they’d do well to keep spending and make a late run at Santana to bolster their Swiss cheese rotation. I love Felix Hernandez to pieces, but even the King can’t be Old Hoss.
18. Baltimore Orioles
Finally! The Orioles spent some money! After pulling off a typical Dan Duquette value move by nabbing Korean pitcher Suk-min Yoon as a potential no. 5 starter or useful reliever for less than $2 million a year plus incentives over three seasons, the O’s opened their wallet further, agreeing to a four-year, $48 million deal with right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez. Now, there are certainly reasons to wonder how well this deal will work out. For one thing, “agreeing” doesn’t mean the same thing as “signing” when it comes to the Orioles, who backed out of deals with closer Grant Balfour and outfielder Tyler Colvin earlier this offseason after those players failed their physicals. For another, Jimenez built much of his 2013 renaissance on a 15-start stretch to end the season that netted a 2.01 ERA and included dominant outings against the feckless Astros, Mariners, Royals (twice), Twins (twice), and White Sox (twice) offenses.
O’s fans fed up with owner Peter Angelos’s profit pocketing and the perception that the team is settling for being good instead of great should still welcome the move, which is the biggest deal Baltimore has ever given to a free-agent pitcher. Now, Baltimore and its fans need to hope that a great defense anchored by Brooks Robinson clone Manny Machado can paper over Jimenez’s flaws, that Kevin Gausman gets the minor league seasoning he needs to eventually emerge as an impact starter in the majors, and that the Orioles catch the kind of breaks that made them a surprise playoff team two years ago.
17. Pittsburgh Pirates
The 2014 Pirates remind me a lot of the 2013 Orioles. Like the Orioles, the Pirates delivered a magical season that snapped a really long losing streak. Like the Orioles, the Pirates are a mortal lock to see some regression after a yearlong run in which just about everything went right. And so, like the Orioles, the Pirates are a lousy bet to return to the playoffs.
In the Buccos’ case, losing Burnett exacerbates the drop-off we’d already expect to see from a team that won 15 more games in 2013 than in 2012. The rotation as currently constructed needs Francisco Liriano to repeat his off-the-charts 2013 season (unlikely), Gerrit Cole to quickly become a top-of-the-rotation starter (possible), and Edinson Volquez to perform like a respectable big-league starter (really unlikely). The Pirates also need the bullpen to repeat its terrific 2013 run (another parallel with the O’s) and for Gaby Sanchez to deliver 600 quality at-bats as the starting first baseman since the team failed to acquire a superior alternative.
The good news is that the farm system is so loaded, the Pirates might be able to call on homegrown talent to fill whatever voids exist. Jose Tabata not cutting it as the starting right fielder? Well, Gregory Polanco looks like a future All-Star, and he could be ready soon. Tired of watching Volquez hurl pitches to the backstop? Jameson Taillon is very close. The Pirates can’t expect every rookie to excel right away, so maybe 2014 will be a bridge year no matter what, but with a solid young core already in the majors and another batch of dynamic prospects developing in the minors, the Buccos have to feel pretty damn good about their chances for 2015 and beyond.
16. Kansas City Royals
James Shields may be only one player, but it still feels like his walk year should double as an all-in season for a Royals team that decided to turn GM Dayton Moore’s infinity-year plan into something more immediate. Yet after winning 86 games last year and giving K.C. fans their first taste of September pennant-race fever since the Taft administration, the Royals look ready to let Ervin Santana walk, leaving the rotation with Shields, three no. 4 or 5 arms, and the hope that Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, or Kyle Zimmer can be an impactful starter in the majors this year.
Then again, run prevention wasn’t an issue for K.C. last season. The Royals missed the playoffs because of their 2013 offense, which was the sixth-worst in baseball on a park-adjusted basis. Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain were out-generating machines, as was every Royal who tried and failed to cover second base. Adding Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante should stabilize the top of the lineup, with Infante potentially panning out as one of the biggest year-to-year positional upgrades by any team this winter. But if the Great Gamble is going to work out in the Royals’ favor,5 they’ll need to do better than three automatic outs per nine at-bats.
15. Cleveland Indians
That uncertainty is no knock on Shields, by the way. I love, love, love the guy.
It’s tough to remember another season in which so many incredibly talented pitchers will get their first crack at full big-league seasons with so much at stake. I, for one, am hopping on the bandwagon early for #TeamDannySalazar. The 24-year-old righty has three excellent pitches in his holster, with a 96 mph fastball, a nasty slider, and a backbreaking changeup that all generate lots of swings and misses. He missed more and more bats as he climbed the ladder in the minor leagues, and he dominated in his 10-start major league debut last year, fanning more than four batters for every walk.
Of course, if we’re going to scrutinize Jimenez’s cupcake second-half 2013 schedule, we should probably also note that Salazar got five total starts against the White Sox (twice), Royals, Mets, and Twins. On the other hand, Salazar also faced multiple top-10 offenses in the Tigers (twice), Angels, and Braves. Moreover, betting on Salazar reflects his raw talent and strong recent track record more than those 10 starts, whereas Jimenez seemed to resurrect his career thanks almost entirely to his second-half performance. With Jimenez in Baltimore and Scott Kazmir in Oakland, the Tribe needs big results from its under-30 arms. Salazar is my pick to outshine his peers, give the Indians another shot at contending, and maybe even tiptoe into some Cy Young discussions.
14. Arizona Diamondbacks
There’s a longer discussion to be had (and a longer article to be written) about the Diamondbacks shipping a boatload of young talent out of town, making constant pronouncements about the importance of makeup (and in some cases valuing it more than actual talent), going from 94-win division champs in 2011 to consecutive .500 seasons, and then giving contract extensions to GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson. But I digress …
Both men owe a debt of gratitude to scouting director Ray Montgomery (and his predecessor, Tom Allison) and farm director Mike Bell (and his predecessor, Mike Berger): Arizona has a bona fide star in Paul Goldschmidt, a balanced roster fueled by other homegrown contributors like Miguel Montero and Gerardo Parra (and acquired talent like Patrick Corbin), and two more prospects who could give the big-league club a boost this year in Archie Bradley and Chris Owings. There’s too much talent here for another 81-81 finish to be considered acceptable.
13. Los Angeles Angels
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to slot the team with the best player on the planet at no. 13 at the start of spring training. But so it goes for the Angels, who are suffering from great uncertainty both in the lineup (can Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton bounce back?) and the rotation (can young lefties Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs fortify a miserable back of the rotation? Can Jered Weaver keep getting by with a fastball that wouldn’t dent a loaf of bread? Will the Angels regret their bizarre “Take it or leave it, NOW” offer to Matt Garza?).
As long as Mike Trout is active, it’s hard to imagine the Angels being truly bad. But plenty of other outcomes remain in play, from another sub-.500 season if the pitching fixes don’t work and the two guys making $375 million don’t produce, to a playoff run if the team can get an extraordinary performance or two from someone other than no. 27.
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12. New York Yankees
It’s hard to overstate how bad this Yankees infield might be from first base all the way around to third. Aside from the Grantland-approved Brian McCann signing, things are bleak. Mark Teixeira is coming off a lost season and has admitted that his wrist hasn’t fully healed; Brian Roberts is expected to start at second despite failing to play more than 77 games in a season since 2009; Derek Jeter is almost 40 and is coming off an injury-ravaged year; and Kelly Johnson looks like the best bet at third with Alex Rodriguez suspended.
The Yankees obviously addressed needs by spending loads of money to get McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Masahiro Tanaka, but it would be a mistake to use last year’s 85 wins as a baseline and assume the Yankees will now coast to 90-plus. This team was so old and leaky in 2013 that it’s a damn miracle Joe Girardi coaxed it to a better-than-.500 finish. The offseason additions are nice, but the Yankees’ former best player is now in Seattle, the bullpen looks weaker without Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte’s quiet consistency will be missed in its own right.
This is a good team, but it still might not be a playoff team.
11. San Francisco Giants
It’s an even-numbered year, so get excited. That may seem like a glib way of assessing the Giants, but it’s pretty fair: This team has gone from a World Series win to a negative run differential to a World Series win to a miserable 86-loss campaign without major changes to the core roster. If that pattern continues, last year’s underachievers should fare better in 2014.
In particular, Matt Cain (who’s coming off a 4.00 ERA, which was his worst in seven years) and Pablo Sandoval (a notorious good-year-bad-year player who’s mysteriously in fantastic shape entering his walk year) could deliver strong bounce-back seasons, while Tim Hudson should provide the kind of competent innings that Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong failed to last year. And of course, notorious deadline dealer Brian Sabean has trade chips at his disposal if the Giants are in the race come June or July and want to upgrade.
10. Cincinnati Reds
I already hate this ranking. With Shin-Soo Choo gone, Cincinnati’s offense looks frighteningly thin after Votto and Bruce, with a lot of easy outs against right-handed pitching elsewhere in the lineup. The wild card is Billy Hamilton, a spectacularly tantalizing fantasy baseball commodity who could steal 100 bags by getting on base 50 times … except he might be so ill-equipped to hit major league pitching that getting on base those 50 times might be a stretch.
So really, it comes down to the Reds’ theoretically excellent, and deep, starting rotation. Bronson Arroyo’s gone, but young left-hander Tony Cingrani could be an immediate upgrade in his first full season in the bigs. Homer Bailey might soon have 100 million reasons to stay in Cincinnati, which is great news given his emergence as an elite pitcher. Mike Leake is never going to strike out many batters, but he also doesn’t walk many guys, and he’s shown he can be at least a league-average starter, which is valuable out of the no. 5 spot. Oddly, the two biggest question marks come from the staff’s presumed co-aces. Johnny Cueto is no sure thing after making just 11 starts last year because of back and oblique problems, while Mat Latos just had knee surgery; the procedure was supposedly minor, but we’ll see.
The Reds allowed the fourth-fewest runs in the NL last year, which got them to 90 wins and a wild-card berth. They might need to be even stingier this year to make the playoffs again.
9. Texas Rangers
The Rangers needed to add left-handed pop after fielding a mediocre offense in 2013 in the wake of Josh Hamilton’s departure … and they sure got it. Fielder and his contract aren’t going to age well, even with the Tigers picking up $30 million of the tab, but in the here and now, he looks capable of belting 35 homers in the friendly confines of whatever the hell they’re calling this stadium now. Plus, adding run machine Choo to the top of the lineup means Fielder and Adrian Beltre will become instant MVP candidates, because RBIzzzz!
The Rangers’ ability to hoard arms means they probably won’t miss departed closer Joe Nathan much, either. Losing Derek Holland for part of the season to a knee injury definitely hurts, but that just means that instead of being the AL West front-runners, the Rangers are going to be part of the most compelling race in baseball along with the rebuilt Mariners, the Trout-led Angels, and the plucky A’s. (Sorry, Astros.)
8. Atlanta Braves
Despite winning 96 games last year, a lot went wrong for the Braves. B.J. Upton turned in one of the worst offensive performances by any starting outfielder in MLB history, while Dan Uggla was a tire fire in his own right. Jason Heyward missed 58 games. Brian McCann missed the first five weeks of the season. Tim Hudson got hurt. Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, who were both elite lefty relievers in the not too distant past, were nonfactors. And so on.
The Nationals had their own share of bad luck last year, only without the gaudy win total to match, so we shouldn’t assume the Braves will reign as NL East champs, especially with McCann and Hudson now gone. Here’s what we can say: With two excellent clubs at the top of the division, and three potential dogs at the bottom, a lesser version of 1993’s unforgettable pennant race is a real possibility.
7. Washington Nationals
So why am I giving the Nats the slightest of NL East nods right now? Because this team might actually have more talent than the 98-win juggernaut from two years ago that many figured would trigger a huge run in D.C. Anthony Rendon is on everyone’s breakout list, Bryce Harper figures to continue his steady improvement,6 a full season of Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton should stabilize last year’s chaos at catcher, and new addition Doug Fister will strengthen an already excellent rotation.
Just watch out around outfield walls, kid. Seriously.
The Nationals might not be the best team in baseball, but it’s not hard to argue that they have fewer obvious weaknesses than any other club. Their biggest problem is a bullpen that’s merely OK, and since that’s the easiest and cheapest shortcoming to solve via trade, they’re in pretty good shape.
6. Detroit Tigers
Max Scherzer has to sign a long-term deal sometime soon, right? The defending AL Cy Young winner says he won’t discuss an extension once the season starts. While the Tigers have yet to address the Scherzer situation, they’ve dealt with plenty of other team maintenance, ditching Fielder’s big contract and mysteriously unloading Fister.7 And expensive veterans Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez are entering walk years. Scherzer will probably ask for 49 percent controlling interest in one or more of the Big Three automakers as part of his inevitably gigantic new contract, but it still feels like his extension has to be the other shoe to drop on the Tigers’ slightly confusing offseason.
I’m assuming Fister will remain the same excellent, highly underrated pitcher he’s been for the past three seasons. But since we’re over here in Crazy Footnote Land … does it feel like maybe Dave Dombrowski knows something the rest of us don’t? I still don’t understand this trade, even though I acknowledge the Tigers have another quality arm in Drew Smyly.
I don’t love losing Fister (or at least losing the near-five-WAR production he provided), I’m not sold on Nick Castellanos being a plus hitter right out of the gate, and I wonder if a team with this much money could’ve done better than an Andy Dirks–Rajai Davis platoon in left. But regardless of whether the Tigers extend Scherzer before Opening Day or not, they remain the class of the AL Central until further notice.
5. Oakland A’s
No more doubting. No more glancing at their on-paper roster, picking out the flaws, and demoting them to also-ran status before the season begins. While the A’s lack the kind of superstars typically associated with winning teams, they’ve hit on a formula that emphasizes limiting weaknesses and maximizing depth at every position. And it’s working.
The latest gambit has Oakland building a ludicrously deep bullpen, improbably led by a closer set to make $10 million this year.8 The A’s have platoons on platoons and are pulling Scott Kazmir from the scrap heap into a key rotation spot, but they’re also set to get a full season out of terrific young righty Sonny Gray and could have top prospect Addison Russell bolstering the lineup soon. It’s nothing too flashy, but it’s enough to finally make us believe.
4. Boston Red Sox
Seriously, when was the last time an offseason move confused statheads as much as the A’s deal for Jim Johnson? Someone asked Billy Beane how he felt about the Cubs acting like a small-revenue team. His response: “I’m having trouble keeping sewage out of the Coliseum.” Yet the closer is the second-priciest player on the roster! Weirdest. Moneyball 2 premise. Ever.
At this altitude, there’s little to distinguish one elite team from another. Because I have to justify ranking the defending World Series champs anywhere other than no. 1, though, I’ll note that losing Ellsbury is going to hurt in the short term, while allowing Stephen Drew to sign elsewhere might hurt a little more than most think. It’s tough to fault Boston management, though. Following a quiet offseason, the Sox are giving three 25-or-under players (Will Middlebrooks,9 presumptive new starting center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., and wunderkind Xander Bogaerts) a chance to prove they’re ready to produce, and the team has a cavalcade of other excellent prospects not far behind.
Who the hell knows what the Sox will get from Middlebrooks’s feast-or-famine bat, though.
The Drew loss might not be a guarantee, either. Scott Boras can yell and moan about Drew needing to make $14 million or more to justify turning down Boston’s qualifying offer, but as the list of likely suitors dwindles and spring camps begin, Drew’s people are probably starting to sweat. The Sox, meanwhile, find themselves with payroll wiggle room following Ryan Dempster’s surprise decision not to pitch in 2014, and they’ll have negotiating leverage for any scenario that doesn’t involve Drew going to play in Papua New Guinea. If no team is willing to give up a juicy draft pick to sign Drew, bringing him back to Boston on a low-impact, one-year deal could be the perfect depth move as the Sox gear up for a run at a repeat.
3. Tampa Bay Rays
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the best team in the American League. After rolling to their fourth playoff berth in six years despite a 2013 Opening Day payroll of less than $62 million, the Rays spent some real money this winter. James Loney’s back on a three-year deal that probably wasn’t ideal, but was certainly justifiable amid a barren first baseman market. David DeJesus got a two-year deal to be the kind of doubles-and-defense player who isn’t sexy, but is favored by Rays brass. And Ryan Hanigan’s on board with a three-year contract after a three-team trade that seems really confusing until we remember that Tampa values Hanigan’s pitch-framing skills and general attention to detail on defense and won’t sweat his potential lack of offense.10
Even on that front, the Rays could have reason for cautious optimism: Hanigan was plagued by wrist problems in 2013 but has shown very good on-base skills in the past, even after controlling for the fact that he batted eighth in the order and thus drew a few more intentional and semi-intentional walks than he might’ve elsewhere in the lineup.
That’s just the small stuff. The big news is that the Rays didn’t trade David Price, and the Price we saw after his month-and-a-half-long 2013 DL stint looked like the Cy Young winner from 2012; that Wil Myers and Chris Archer will be in the bigs from Opening Day to season’s end for the first time; and that Alex Cobb looks primed to become the next Shields, now that he’s recovered from his frightening head injury.
The gap between the Rays and the Red Sox is nearly zero entering the season. Get ready for a hellacious AL East battle.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Credit the Dodgers for not resting on their laurels after winning the NL West last year, and for recognizing that star power alone guarantees nothing. In signing quality veteran Dan Haren and playable lefty Paul Maholm to one-year deals worth a combined $11.5 million, GM Ned Colletti accounted for that most baseballish of realities: The no. 4 and 5 starters take the ball nearly as often as the no. 1 and 2 guys. As good as Zack Greinke and newly minted kazillionaire Clayton Kershaw are, and as impressive as Hyun-jin Ryu was in his first MLB season, the Dodgers would have problems if they got strafed two out of every five games. Now, with Haren and Maholm, plus Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley if they can get healthy, the Dodgers can claim both the high-wattage talent expected from a team with a $220 million–plus payroll and the depth that poorer cousins like the A’s, Rays, and Pirates obsess over every minute of every day.
The other X factor here is Matt Kemp. Even if we figure that we’ll never again see the one-man wrecking crew Kemp was in 2011, he’s still just 29 years old, and he still has All-Star ability. He just needs to avoid the injury bug. Of course, since the Dodgers are the Dodgers, they have three other startable outfielders signed to long-term deals. Still, a consistent showing from Kemp could mean the difference between a very good season for the Dodgers and the team’s first World Series berth in 26 years.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
Last year, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, and Yadier Molina all finished in the top 10 in the NL for batting average with runners in scoring position. The easy explanation is that this was something of a fluke, that #CardinalsDevilMagic hung around all season, and that St. Louis claimed the NL pennant as a result. Then again, it had happened before. Going back to 2011, the Cardinals have hit .294 with runners in scoring position, comfortably ahead of Detroit (.282) and Boston (.276). Whether or not St. Louis has somehow defied 150 years of baseball history by turning clutch hitting into a skill, Cards diehards might argue that there’s something going on here.11
Hat tip to ESPN SweetSpot’s Jason Collette for the clutch Gchat discussion … and to Craig for hitting .427 in 301 plate appearances with runners in scoring position over the past two years, which is simply not human.
The thing is, the Cardinals will be a great team even if those RISP numbers dip in 2014. Acquiring Peter Bourjos gives the Cards the elite outfield defense they sorely need, while signing Jhonny Peralta eliminates the offensive black hole they had at shortstop last year. The prospect of full seasons from Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez should inspire terror in NL opponents. And somehow, outfield phenom Oscar Taveras, a prospect so explosive that Keith Law says Taveras reminds him of “Vlad Guerrero but from the left side,” is still waiting down in Triple-A.
The best fans label remains a point of debate. Best team, though? With Opening Day six weeks away, the Cardinals get the nod.