Bold predictions: A look at all 30 Major League clubs
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Los Angeles Angels: First baseman Albert Pujols bounces back. The slugger, who turns 34 in January, was already written off by some after an injury-marred 2013 season, but Pujols is healthy and likely hungry to prove his detractors wrong. He may not be a superstar for all eight remaining years of his deal, but don’t be surprised to see a premium performance this season.
Oakland A’s: Both of the team’s 2013 All-Stars are gone, and Oakland’s AL West rivals are beefing up big-time. Still, the lower-payroll A’s outshine the competition where it really counts: on the mound. With a rotation headed by young right-handers Sonny Gray and Jarrod Parker, and the league’s best bullpen anchored by new closer Jim Johnson, Oakland completes a three-peat in the West.
Seattle Mariners: It took $240 million for the Mariners to plug in the kind of top-flight hitter the lineup was missing for more than a decade, but the team’s fortunes have less to do with Robinson Cano than the state of the rotation.
Texas Rangers: After barely missing out on the playoffs in 2013, the Rangers get back to the postseason for the fourth time in five years. Newly signed left fielder Shin-Soo Choo provides an upgrade at the leadoff position, and first baseman Prince Fielder more than replaces the power production of free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz in the middle of the lineup. Right-hander Yu Darvish goes from AL Cy Young Award runner-up to Cy Young Award winner.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Chicago White Sox: In acquiring third baseman Matt Davidson from the Diamondbacks, “The New Core,” as general manager Rick Hahn called it, is now in place. Not only do the White Sox put a 99-loss season far behind them, but they generate a little buzz in a city where baseball became very stale the past few seasons. There won’t be a playoff run in ‘14, but there will be hope — an accomplishment in itself.
Cleveland Indians: The Indians’ three best pitchers at the end of last season, starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir and reliever Joe Smith, are all gone, and they will be followed out of town by right-hander Justin Masterson and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera when the 2014 season does not go as hoped. Cleveland, which still lacks a true cleanup hitter, fails to duplicate its 92-win season from 2013.
Detroit Tigers: New skipper Brad Ausmus never managed in the majors or minors before, but veteran bench coach Gene Lamont makes sure nothing slips past him. A stable rotation backed by an improved defense guides Detroit to a fourth consecutive AL Central title. However, a questionable bullpen and diminished power prevent the Tigers from earning the World Series win that aging owner Mike Ilitch desperately wants.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals’ last taste of the playoffs came when they won the 1985 World Series, but the drought ends in 2014. Newly acquired left-hander Jason Vargas, second baseman Omar Infante, outfielder Norichika Aoki and third baseman Danny Valencia play key roles as the Royals take another step forward after they won 86 games in 2013, their highest victory total since 1989.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins overhauled their rotation in the offseason, and the new-look staff is a big improvement over the old crew. However, the offense set a franchise record for strikeouts in 2013, and the hitting woes were not addressed. Moving Joe Mauer to first base to keep him in the lineup helps, but with problems at leadoff, a lack of power in the middle and little production in the back of the lineup, Minnesota stumbles to another 90-loss season.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Baltimore Orioles: After two seasons of winning back fans in Baltimore, the success comes to a screeching halt. Issues with the back of the bullpen, the front of the rotation and the middle of the lineup befall the Orioles, who don’t get nearly the 53 home runs they received from first baseman Chris Davis in 2013. Right-hander Chris Tillman struggles, right fielder Nick Markakis doesn’t rebound. The club shops catcher Matt Wieters at the trade deadline, and second-half attendance plummets.
Boston Red Sox: A year after winning one of the most pleasantly surprising championships in franchise history, most of the band returns for an attempted encore. Shortstop Xander Bogaerts emerges as Rookie of the Year, while ageless designated hitter David Ortiz bashes 30 homers yet again. In the end, though, the Red Sox miss center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury more than they expected at the top of the order, and they come up short in their bid for a repeat World Series title.
New York Yankees: After losing free agent second baseman Robinson Cano, the Yankees went on a holiday spending spree that ensures they won’t miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season. They committed $295 million to six new players — outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann, left-handed reliever Matt Thornton and infielders Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson. Cano’s production is missed, but a more balanced lineup vaults New York back into contention in the AL East.
Tampa Bay Rays: After all the talk, the Rays decide no team met their price, and they instead keep left-hander David Price and ride him into the postseason for the fifth time in seven seasons. With their tidy infield intact, Ryan Hanigan stepping in behind the plate and outfielders Wil Myers and David DeJesus aboard for full seasons, the Rays possess one of their most talented teams.
Toronto Blue Jays: All the things that went wrong last season go at least a little better in 2014. Does it mean a postseason appearance? Not quite.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
Arizona Diamondbacks: New left fielder Mark Trumbo averaged 31 home runs over his first full three major league seasons, and a move to more hitter-friendly Chase Field helps. Management OK’d a nine-figure payroll, the highest in team history, and the payout results in a playoff contender.
Colorado Rockies: After three consecutive losing seasons, the Rockies finally play meaningful September games. The bullpen is deeper and more physical, and first baseman Justin Morneau lengthens the lineup and takes advantage of hitting at Coors Field.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers enter the season juggling four frontline outfielders — Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig. That quartet will make a combined $58.75 million in 2014 with egos every bit as super-sized. The odds of all four making it through the season healthy, happy and productive are slim. One of the four will be playing elsewhere by the end of the season.
San Diego Padres: The Padres made gains this winter, and they could finish in the black and in the hunt for a wild-card berth.
San Francisco Giants: If they’re on the every-other-year routine, things look rosy in 2014. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 but failed to reach the playoffs in 2011 and 2013. Winning another championship is a bit much to ask, but reaching the playoffs (at least as a wild card) is realistic for a team that added pitcher Tim Hudson and left fielder Michael Morse.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Chicago Cubs: Despite the grand rebuilding plan, the Cubs roll out the worst major league roster in the three years of the Theo Epstein regime. The trade last summer of left fielder Alfonso Soriano left the team without an offensive threat, especially with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro both taking steps back. The Cubs can’t sign ace pitcher Jeff Samardzija and end up trading him, and they surpass the 100-loss mark for the second time in three seasons.
Cincinnati Reds: New manager Bryan Price inherits a job with a high bar for success. For Price to be successful, the Reds’ young players must take the next step, and that is unlikely to occur in 2014.
Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun, now a right fielder after moving from left, returns from his 65-game suspension and puts together one of his best seasons, proving he can play clean. However, the Brewers falter, and they trade Braun at the July 31 deadline, ridding themselves of more than $100 million in salary as well as the stigma of having the “face of the franchise” be a drug cheat. The move signals an admission by the front office that it is time to rebuild.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The magic of 2013 — ending a streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons and earning a postseason berth — won’t carry over to 2014. Pittsburgh won’t fall below .500, but gaping holes at first base and right field prevent the team from making it make to the postseason.
St. Louis Cardinals: Outfielder Carlos Beltran’s production will be missed, especially at playoff time, when he is among the all-time best. However, the door is open for first baseman Matt Adams and right fielder Oscar Taveras to play in some combination with outfielder/first baseman Allen Craig. A second consecutive division title and fourth straight playoff appearance appear very doable.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Atlanta Braves: The Braves proved the forecasters wrong in 2013, taking the National League East title away from Washington. Atlanta won’t pull off a repeat performance, though.
Miami Marlins: The Marlins finally lift themselves out of the cellar, but they might not get much higher in the standings.
New York Mets: The Mets find that outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young and right-hander Bartolo Colon fit snugly onto the third-place roster that they already possessed.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies are counting on sand still being in the hourglass of their aging veteran core group of first baseman Ryan Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and left-hander Cliff Lee.
Washington Nationals: After the team underachieved in 2013, GM Mike Rizzo put a check mark by all three of the club’s biggest offseason needs: a frontline starter (Doug Fister), a quality fourth outfielder (Nate McLouth) and a left-handed reliever (Jerry Blevins), all without giving up a top prospect. The newcomers team with outfielder Bryce Harper and right-hander Stephen Strasburg to guide Washington to its second NL East title in three seasons.