2014 AL Preview

EAST

Can the Red Sox repeat their success from last year?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Tampa Bay Rays (94-68)

2. Boston Red Sox (90-72)

3. Toronto Blue Jays (85-77)

4. New York Yankees (82-80)

5. Baltimore Orioles (79-83)

SLEEPER TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays

All five teams in the AL East have at least a reasonable chance at contention in what shapes up to be the most competitive division in baseball.  But of the five teams, the Blue Jays seem to be getting the least amount of buzz.  Projected to challenge for the division title last year after a very active offseason, the Jays instead slumped into last place with a 74-88 record, the only sub-.500 team in the division.  And this offseason, they added only catcher Dioner Navarro to the fold, returning essentially the same roster as the one that was so disappointing a year ago.  So why will they succeed in 2014?  Because they can’t possibly be as unlucky as they were in 2013.  As this handy chart (warning: language is NSFW) compiled by Reddit user atomicbolt displays, the Jays had more freak injuries than a bus crash at a carnival last year.  Assuming the team is healthy, the talent is there.  If Jose Bautista can play more than the 105 games he has averaged over the past two seasons, he will anchor a lineup that has as much firepower as any in the American League.  The rotation is a little shakier — behind R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, the team will throw two injury risks — Dustin McGowan and Brandon Morrow — and a 23 year old prospect, Drew Hutchinson.  But if the Jays can miraculously stay at something resembling full strength throughout the season, they could finally live up to the expectations heaped on them before the 2013 season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: New York Yankees

Last year, despite scoring 21 fewer runs than they allowed, and despite frequently starting the likes of Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart, and Lyle Overbay, the New York Yankees managed to contend until the last week of the season, finishing with a record of 85-77.  And this offseason, they bought nearly every player available on the open market, spending a total of $491 million to acquire the likes of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Masahiro Tanaka.  But despite the spending spree, the Yankees still have gaping holes in their infield — one talent evaluator called it “the worst in baseball.”  They’ve lost superstar second baseman Robinson Cano, their first baseman is coming off a major wrist injury, their best third baseman is suspended for the year, and their shortstop is 40 years old and on the doorstep of retirement.  The pitching staff has question marks as well — formerly reliable ace C.C. Sabathia is coming off his worst career season and has seen his velocity drop precipitously over the past three seasons.  The team is old everywhere (nobody in the starting lineup is under 30) , and simply doesn’t have the depth to weather the inevitable attrition that comes with the injuries of an aging team.  For the first time since the 1980s, a spending spree won’t be enough to fix what ails the New York Yankees.

WHY WILL THE RAYS WIN THE EAST?

It seems amazing that the Tampa Bay Rays could possibly be the favorites in a division that contains both the defending world champion Red Sox and the free-spending Yankees.  And yet, the Rays have compiled such an impressive amount of talent that it seems a fifth playoff appearance in seven years is not only possible, but likely.  The team’s stable of pitching depth is so impressive that the Rays could have traded away former Cy Young winner David Price in the offseason and still had one of the best rotations in the sport.  And unfortunately for the rest of the American League, they hung onto Price, who will headline a rotation that includes three other pitchers whose ERAs sat under 3.30 in 2013.  The lineup, led by Evan Longoria and James Loney at the corners, as well as Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings up the middle, is no slouch either.  They have a payroll that projects to be among the bottom five in the league, but the Rays have their best opportunity yet to prove that money isn’t everything.

CENTRAL

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

Can James Shields help make some magic happen for the Royals in 2014?

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73)

2. Kansas City Royals (85-77)

3. Cleveland Indians (79-83)

4. Chicago White Sox (69-93)

5. Minnesota Twins (65-97)

SLEEPER TEAM: Kansas City Royals

This may be the best shot the Royals have towards breaking the playoff drought that has lasted since their only World Series title in 1985.  They have a bona fide ace in James Shields, a superstar talent in flamethrower Yordano Ventura, and a bullpen that last year was easily the best in the American League.  Offensively, the 2013 season saw Eric Hosmer break out at age 23, posting a .302/.353/.448 slash and 3.6 bWAR, and the Royals have another breakout candidate this year in 25 year old Mike Moustakas.  Elsewhere on the diamond, the Royals finally solved their long-standing second base problem by signing the reliable Omar Infante, and made a savvy pickup in outfielder Norichika Aoki.  Of course, the Dayton Moore-led front office also made a couple missteps this offseason, handing Jason Vargas a 4 year, $32 million contract and allowing Ervin Santana to escape while simultaneously re-signing Bruce Chen.  Thus, the back of the rotation is shaky, with Vargas and Chen joining the adequate but unspectacular Jeremy Guthrie.  Their pitching will likely regress, but the Royals have a real shot to usurp the Tigers and bring the AL Central crown back to Missouri for the first time.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

After 94 losses in 2012, the Indians shocked the baseball world in 2013 with a scalding second half that enabled them to win 92 games and a wild card berth.  They did so on the backs of an emerging superstar in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes, as well unlikely resurgences from  key members of their pitching staff, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.  Unfortunately for the Indians. Jimenez and Kazmir are gone, Jimenez heading to Baltimore and Kazmir to Oakland.  Gomes’ 2013, in which he hit .294/.345/.481 with 11 home runs in 88 games, might be sustainable (he hit a freakishly similar .287/.345/.484 in his 5-year minor league career), but it also might not.  And in order to accommodate Gomes, the Indians have moved the defense-challenged Santana to third base (a position he hasn’t played regularly in eight years), where he could either be a revelation or a tire fire.  The Indians have too many question marks, too many things that have to break that way. It’s impossible to feel confident predicting success for them, but don’t rule out another surprise season.BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Cleveland Indians

WHY WILL THE TIGERS WIN THE EAST?

The Tigers, even without Doug Fister, have one of the most formidable rotations in the major leagues.  Their rotation is so good that reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer is the team’s number 2 starter, behind 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.  And Scherzer might not even be better than the team’s 3 starter, Anibal Sanchez, the 2013 AL ERA leader.  The lineup has more holes than it has in the past (especially at shortstop), but with reigning MVP Miguel Cabrera alongside Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter, the Tigers should hit enough to back up that outstanding pitching staff.

WEST

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers' fall.

The addition of Prince Fielder may not be enough to slow the Rangers’ fall.

PROJECTED FINISH

1. Los Angeles Angels (92-70)

2. Oakland Athletics (89-73)

3. Texas Rangers (84-78)

4. Seattle Mariners (74-88)

5. Houston Astors (59-103)

SLEEPER TEAM: Los Angeles Angels

It’s a little hard to call that plays in Los Angeles and has some of the most notable stars in the sport a sleeper.  But after four years without a playoff berth, and two years of disappointment in the shadow of the Albert Pujols contract, it’s difficult to find a prognosticator who’s bullish on LA’s other team.  And for good reason — the Angels struggled mightily in the first half of 2013, finishing with a 79-83 overall record.  Albert Pujols, their highest-paid player played in only 99 games, and hit a career-low .259 with just 17 home runs.  Josh Hamilton, the superstar who hit 43 home runs the year before signing a 5 year, $125 million deal with LA, hit fewer than half that in his first year of the contract, with an on-base percentage that barely cracked .300.  So why be optimistic?  Because despite the struggles of Pujols and Hamilton last year, the two are still superstar talents primed for ascension back to their career norms.  And of course, the Angels have recent $144.5 millionare Mike Trout, unquestionably the greatest talent in the game right now.  Despite having a thin pitching staff that features C.J. Wilson, Jared Weaver, and not much else, the Angels still seem likely to be buoyed by their superstars to a strong finish in 2014.

 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Texas Rangers

After the greatest five-year run in the history of the franchise, it seems the door is finally shutting on the Texas Rangers dynasty.  Last year, the team’s formerly prolific offense slid back to the middle of the pack, posting a .737 OPS, which ranked 8th in the league, and a 99 OPS+.  So the Rangers spent heavily this offseason to rectify this problem, signing free agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and taking on Prince Fielder’s contract in exchange for second baseman Ian Kinsler.  Choo is a solid addition, but the Fielder trade, which opened a spot on the infield for top prospect Jurrickson Profar, seems more a lateral move than a positive one — after all, Kinsler was second among Rangers’ position players with 4.5 bWAR last year.  Additionally, the pitching staff looks very thin behind Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish, who is injured and will not start Opening Day.  In his stead, the Rangers will give the Opening Day nod to Tanner Scheppers, the first player since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to make his first major league start in his team’s first game.  Behind Darvish, Scheppers and Martin Perez, the Rangers will go with Joe Saunders and Robbie Ross, neither of whom inspires confidence.  And frankly, neither do this year’s edition of the Rangers.

WHY WILL THE ANGELS WIN THE EAST?

The Angels are a team of superstars, and as previously mentioned, this might be the year that those superstars finally perform up to expectations.  Their division is weakened from previous years by injury and attrition, leaving the Angels a prime opportunity to finally reach the lofty heights owner Arte Moreno has spent heavily to reach.  Also, Mike Trout.

AL MVP: MIKE TROUT, LOS ANGELES ANGELS

AL CY YOUNG: JUSTIN VERLANDER, DETROIT TIGERS

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: YORDANO VENTURA, KANSAS CITY ROYALS

FIRST AL MANAGER FIRED: RON GARDENHIRE, MINNESOTA TWINS

AL WILD CARD GAME: RED SOX OVER ATHLETICS

AL DIVISION SERIES: RAYS OVER RED SOX, TIGERS OVER ANGELS

AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: RAYS OVER TIGERS

WORLD SERIES: RAYS OVER CARDINALS

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The Battle for League Supremacy

These four young stars could help end the AL's reign of dominance

Young talent could help end the AL’s reign of dominance

In 1901, Ban Johnson reconstituted his fledgling Western League and declared it a major league, much to the consternation of the established National League. Johnson and his league, now called the American League, pilfered talent from the NL, using the promise of higher salaries to lure Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, and Wee Willie Keeler from their teams. Finally, the NL, weakened by the fight, compromised with Johnson. Under the National Agreement signed in 1903, the AL and NL would continue to operate as two distinct, major leagues. The two pennant winners would meet at the end of their respective seasons for a postseason series to determine which league was truly superior — thus, the World Series was born.

Since the American League’s inception, the two leagues have fought to determine which was superior. But in the last decade, the pendulum has shifted towards the so-called senior circuit. The AL had won 11 straight all-star games from 1997 to 2009, and although they lost three in a row from 2010 to 2012, they recovered to win in 2013 (though obviously, one game says very little about the talent of an entire league). More indicatively, the AL has finished with a winning record in interleague play every year since 2004, including a 164-146 advantage in 2013. It’s been rough going in recent times for the National League.

And as anyone who has been paying attention to the free agent market has noticed, the AL’s dominance has extended to the Hot Stove League. This, from Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan:

After I got over how much money both leagues had spent, I got to considering whether this was good news for the AL. My first thought? Of course. But then I began to ask myself; why is this the case? The answer — the AL is getting older. There is a shocking disparity between the amount of young talent in the NL and the relative lack of it in the AL. In the NL, position players 25 and younger received 24052 plate appearances, and accounted for 70.4 fWAR, roughly a quarter of the league’s total. But in the AL, players under 25 tallied only 17768 plate appearances, and accumulated only 43.9 fWAR — only 15% of the league’s total. On the pitching side, the disparity is almost equally as wide — 71.6 fWAR for NL youngsters against 53.5 fWAR for those of the AL.

And it seems many of the brightest young stars reside in the National League. The NL has Paul Goldschmidt, Andrelton Simmons, Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez — all of whom are scarcely old enough to rent a car. The AL, of course, has Mike Trout, Manny Machado, and Chris Sale, all top-flight stars. But beyond those three, there is little else. Behind Trout, Machado, and Sale, the next-best sub-25 position player by fWAR is Salvador Perez, the next-best pitcher Jose Quintana — useful players, but not stars by any definition of the word.

With the relative lack of young stars in their systems, AL teams must chase the more established, more expensive older stars available in free agency. Thus, the AL might have a chance of retaining the last vestiges of their dominance in the near-future. But like in all things, change is inevitable in the world of baseball. And for the National League, the future is looking very bright.