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

Dreaming of a Royal Postseason

After years of disappointment, the Royals finally have a team worth believing in

After years of disappointment, the Royals finally have a team worth believing in.

Though the plight of Pirates fans has been far better-documented, fans of the Kansas City Royals have endured pain and suffering that rivals that of Pittsburgh.  Their World Series victory in 1985 was followed a decade of mediocrity; from 1986 to 1993, they failed to make the playoffs, with win totals ranging from 72 to 92.  Then, following the strike, the team slipped from mediocrity to utter ignominy.  The team’s power structure shifted, as General Manager John Scheurholz departed for Atlanta and beloved long-time owner Ewing Kauffman passed away.  The new ownership, headed by Wal-Mart executive David Glass, was seemed less willing to hold on to young talent as it got expensive, and thus, the Royals went from perennial contenders to constant cellar-dwellers.  In fact, from 1995 to 2012, the team finished out of 4th or 5th place just 4 times, and posted just one winning season (in 2003, when their pythagorean record indicated the talent of a 78-win team).

In 2006, the Royals brought on a new GM, a disciple of Schuerholz in Atlanta and lifelong Royals fan Dayton Moore.  Moore, a scout who had worked his way through the Braves organization, announced that he had a plan to rebuild the organization through scouting, trades, and smart free agent signings — a plan he called “The Process.”  But The Process stalled; Moore’s farm system failed to produce major league talent, and his biggest free agent signing, a 5 year, $55 million deal for starter Gil Meche, was ridiculed both at the time and in retrospect, as arm problems forced Meche into retirement at 31.  At the end of his first half-decade at the helm, it seemed Moore had made little progress towards restoring the Royals to their former glory.

But while Moore continued to struggle with major league personnel decisions (see the 2 year, $13.5 million extension for Jeff Franceour, worth -3.8 bWAR over the life of the contract), the farm system began to pay dividends.  After a rocky start to his major league career, Alex Gordon became the all-star befitting his first-round pedigree.  Homegrown talent such as Salvador Perez, Billy Butler, and Eric Hosmer blossomed into bona fide major league players.  And in the offseason before the 2013 season, Moore finally decided to cash in some of the talent in the farm system for a chance to win now.  In a move that looked controversial then and now, he traded mega-prospect Wil Myers, along with top-100 pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, to the Rays for two years of proven starter James Shields.

While the deal has been widely panned from the Royals perspective (especially after 2013, when Myers lived up to his top-prospect billing and won AL Rookie of the Year), there is little doubt that the acquisition of Shields made them a better team in the short-term.  Shields was far and away the best pitcher in the KC staff, leading the team’s starters in innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA, FIP, and fWAR.  As a result (and due to the bounceback season from Ervin Santana, a cunning Moore acquisition), the Royals’ team ERA dropped over a run from 2012 to 2013 (5.01 and 3.87 respectively).  Additionally, Moore had assembled a bullpen that put up the best ERA in the American League, anchored by closer Greg Holland, who racked up a Royals record 47 saves.  The offense regressed some (Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar were especially disappointing), but the remarkable pitching turnaround was enough to improve the Royals’ record by 13 games, as they posted an 86-76 record, their best since 1989, and stayed until the playoff hunt until the last week of the season.  But can the Royals repeat their success in 2014, and maybe bring postseason baseball back to the barbecue capitol of the world?

Well, the initial results look promising.  The team recorded 86 wins, and their run differential indicates a team with 87-win talent.  In a world with two wild cards, where 90 wins is generally enough for a playoff spot, the Royals have but a small hill to climb.  One area that seemed in dire need of improvement was at second base; Royals’ second basemen put up a 64 wRC+ last year, worst in the American League.  The Royals addressed this need in a big way through the signing of Omar Infante.  The 32-year old Infante, who got a 4 year, $30 million deal, is by no means a star.  But he fills the biggest hole in the Royals’ infield; he plays solid defense, and his 117 wRC+ last year was the best of his career and 5th-best in baseball (min. 450 PAs).  Additionally, the Royals can look for improvement on the left side of their infield; Escobar’s career OPS+ before this year was 80 (as opposed to the putrid 53 OPS+ he posted this year), and Moustakas, despite lackluster career major league numbers, is just 25 and thus has the potential to improve (his career minor league OPS was a very solid .840).

On the other side of the ball, the Royals may be primed for a little regression.  There is no chance they re-sign Santana; they have already replaced him by giving Jason Vargas a 4 year, $32 million deal.  But Santana posted 3.0 fWAR last year, better than Vargas’ career high — in fact, over the last 3 years, Vargas has averaged only 1.5 fWAR.  Additionally, the bullpen seems likely to regress, as their 81.4% strand rate was tops in the American League, often denoting a lucky season.  But the Royals, who haven’t developed a true major league starter since Zack Greinke, seem to have some reinforcements coming from the farm.  Yordano Ventura, who can hit 102 on his fastball, struck out 11.5 per 9 in AAA last year, and made a solid major league debut.  And Shields sitting at the top of the rotation, as he will for one more year before heading to free agency, gives the team much needed stability in the form of a true ace, the kind they have lacked since Greinke’s 2009 season.

The Royals have suffered through decades of mismanagement and futility.  But they finally have a chance to put it all behind them, and give the city of Kansas City the winner they have sorely lacked but so desperately deserve.