Might as well start off with a bang. Tampa Bay is my choice for division winner and for eventual World Series champion. “Pitching and defense” has become a bit of a trope at this point, but nobody does it better than the Rays and skipper Joe Madden is the best at using defensive switches and metrics to set his defense. Notable losses from the 2013 squad include Alex Torres, Fernando Rodney, Luke Scott, Kelly Johnson, and Jose Lobaton. Notable additions are David DeJesus, Grant Balfour, and Heath Bell.
Jake Odorizzi, the lesser known piece of the Wil Myers for James Shields trade, won the 5th starter spot in Spring Training. Look for him to shore up the backend of the best rotation in baseball while Alex Cobb breaks out into a true superstar in 2014. And that is without even mentioning David Price, who I expect to stay in Tampa Bay at least until the end of the season and is also my choice for AL Cy Young. Wil Myers is ready to take the next step after a solid freshman campaign and its time for Desmond Jennings to finally put it all together. Many of these players are young and relatively unproven, but if this team plays up to its potential, look out.
Baltimore was the hardest team for me to figure out going into this year. They lost Brian Roberts and Nate McLouth to Free Agency along with trading away their 40 save closer Jim Johnson to the A’s for once-prospect Jemile Weeks. They then stood pat for most of the offseason before making a flurry of moves late in Spring Training. Johan Santana looks like his days in the bigs are over, but Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez could have real impacts, unfortunately both are flawed players. Cruz will be a negative defensively, unless they utilize him as a full-time DH, left field could be an adventure. Jimenez has had stretches where he has been unhittable in his career, usually coming right before a contract. We’ll see if his new digs translate to his old successful ways, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Suk-min Yoon could be the steal of the season despite flying under the radar as Hyun-jin Ryu did in the 2012-2013 offseason.
This team has real stars in Chris Davis and Manny Machado. It has solid position players in J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters. But the rotation just won’t be able to keep up in the talented AL East. All-Star Chris Tillman’s 19-win season glosses over some problems with his underlying numbers, but he’s still the closest the team has to a number 1 starter. Marwin Gonzalez, Bud Norris and Wei-Yin Chen should not be in the rotation of a team that is looking to win now. And that is what the Orioles need to do. Their team is not built for the future, its built for now, but it is still missing a few key pieces if they look to surprise the baseball world again with another playoff berth.
The first thing you might notice is that I did not pick the reigning World Series champions to repeat, or even reach the playoffs. Everything went right for the Boston Red Sox last year and they overcame a lot of underlying issues with their pitching and team as a whole and went on an incredible run in the postseason. However, this is not the same team from 2013, and there are real problems heading into the season. Notable losses from the offseason include Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia along with Ryan Dempster who decided to take a year off. Those losses have been replaced with some real question marks in the oft-injured Grady Sizemore, the untested Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., and the consistently mediocre A.J. Pierzynski. Look for Will Middlebrooks to settle into his role as starting third baseman after an up and down freshman campaign and have a moderate breakout. Unfortunately, this team has lost too many key players and is asking too much of its young players as they look to follow up on their 2013 world championship.
This Yankee team looks remarkably different from the one that took the field in 2013, with a new starting position player at every position on the diamond in 2014. The loss of Robinson Cano obviously loomed over everything that occurred in the offseason, but the Yankees tried valiantly and expensively to mitigate his loss of production with the additions of veterans Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran along with Masahiro Tanaka the $155 million man. All of these players will contribute in 2014 and help the Yankees to field one of the most experienced and productive teams on the field in 2014, but there are real question marks in the rotation. CC Sabathia has declined for two years in a row now and the zip is off his fastball taking him down from an ace to a hittable middle of the rotation starter. Tanaka will be good, but fans should temper their expectations. The first year in America can be a rough one for players making the jump from Japan, and there is already a lot of wear on his arm from 7 years in the big leagues in Japan – don’t expect Darvish-like production. New York’s best pitcher last year was the ageless Hiroki Kuroda who had one of the best years of his career at 38. The question is how much longer the Yankees can expect him to hold up. At age 39, there may not be much left in the tank, and he will be asked to carry the load all season. Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda represent real upside at the back end of the rotation, and the way they pitch could dictate if the Yankees finish near the top or bottom of the AL East standings.
Everything went wrong for the Blue Jays last year, with a majority of the players on the Jays’ roster succumbing to some form of injury or another. That being said, the 2014 Toronto team still has some work to do to contend in the deep AL East. Notable departures include Josh Johnson, Rajai Davis and J.P. Arencibia. Though Johnson never put it together in a Jays uniform, he represented the best chance this staff had for an anchor, and without him or a bounce back from R.A. Dickey, this staff will repeat as one of the worst in the majors. With the loss of Arencibia, the Jays looked to upgrade at the catcher position and did so with the addition of Diner Navarro. Navarro has yet to prove himself as a full-time backstop, but a 2013 slash line of .300/.365/.492 definitely turned some heads. The bat is there, but the defense remains a question, and Toronto is one of the hardest staffs to catch in the big leagues with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and junk-thrower Mark Buehrle. The lineup is one of the best in the bigs, and look for Colby Rasmus to finally break out this year, but the pitching remains a problem even with newcomer Drew Hutchinson making his way into the rotation full time.