“I’ll just write a few lines for each division.” Almost 2,000 words later, I had to force myself to stop.
I knew that, upon finishing my 2014 MLB Predictions, I would be pacing around the living room for hours, waiting for the Dodgers and Padres game to start later that night. I never intend to go into such depth when breaking down a season of any sport, but I find that I have too much to say and too few outlets through which to say it. That, and I let the excitement of a new season build to the point that I cannot stop myself.
As an effort to spare those where I could not spare myself, I have provided the short version of my MLB picks first, followed by the full breakdown and the playoff picks below.
American League – Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Rays – WC, White Sox – WC
National League – Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Reds – WC, Cubs – WC
National League East
While nothing in the world of sports predictions is “easy”, the NL East needs to be considered the most obvious division in baseball. The Mets, Marlins, and Phillies all could realistically lose 100 games (they won’t since they will get cheap wins against one another). This leaves only the Braves (and their laundry list of crippling injuries) and the Nationals to vie for the division title. The Nationals have the pitching staff and potential to be the best team in the NL, but even if they were mediocre this year, they will cruise to an NL East crown.
National League West
How can any other team besides the Dodgers be projected to win this division? Largely compared to the New York Yankees of recent years, the Dodgers showcase extreme talent across the board, however poorly they may fit together. The best pitcher in the game headlines a staff that should easily be good enough to support their deep offense. While their postseason success may be a question, their regular season should not. The Dodgers should win the NL West for the second straight year.
Between the Padres, Rockies, and Giants, the team with the greatest upside is Colorado. A healthy Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki (neither played 130 games last season) would put the Rockies in the mix for a Wild Card berth, but every piece would need to fall into place for that to be realistic, and recent history suggests to not bet on the health of either player.
The Diamondbacks remain the only real threat to the Dodgers’ division hopes, but the loss of Patrick Corbin should not be taken lightly. In the same vein as the Atlanta Braves, starting the season without the ace of your staff is immediate grounds for a setback. Arizona does have a not-so-secret weapon in Paul Goldschmidt, but it won’t be enough to catch Los Angeles.
National League Central
The Pirates surprised everyone last year, but only because they seemed to arrive one year too early (see Cubs, Chicago, below). 2014 was the season most analysts would have pegged for Pittsburgh. However, the culmination of every positive factor last year could ultimately have a very simple explanation: they overperformed. This year will be the true test of handling success versus expectations, and the logical outcome is regression.
St. Louis remains the class of a rather consistent division. Despite letting Albert Pujols walk away a few seasons ago, the Cardinals continue to field winning teams. In addition, their bullpen is so stacked that two of their best relievers (Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez) would be number two starters on most teams. This season. St. Louis’ continued front office success gives them the slight edge in the NL Central.
The Reds quietly won 90 games for the third time in the past four years. Their season came to an abrupt (and expected) end when they drew the short straw by going to Pittsburgh to play in their division rival’s first home playoff game in two decades. This year, Cincinnati boasts potentially the most explosive offense in the game, built around speed as much as power. Coupled with a solid rotation, the Reds should find themselves in a Wild Card game, yet again.
2013 was brutal to both the Brewers and the Cubs for separate reasons. Milwaukee lost the face of their franchise when Ryan Braun was suspended the entire season for his use of performance-enhancing drugs and Chicago was outright terrible. The Brewers get Braun back on opening day (he will certainly have a chip on his shoulder), but little else to give much hope, especially with their pitching staff.
The National League’s surprise team this year could be the Chicago Cubs. Teams built around youth tend to always receive the same pre-season predictions: next year. Yet every time this happens, a team (like the Pirates) surprise one year “too early”. The Cubs have a minor league roster that could be better than their veterans, and when June rolls around and Chicago is only a few games out of playoff berth, expect the cavalry to arrive and the Cubs to grab the second Wild Card spot.
American League East
The American League East is the NCAA Tournament bracket of this year’s baseball season. Any permutation of the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Rays is realistic. The baseball world would only be surprised if the Blue Jays vaulted past the other four teams foes to the top of the most loaded division in baseball.
Do they Red Sox get the edge as the defending champions? If so, and history has weight, then the Yankees should be included as well. The Rays seem no worse for wear than their past four seasons, all in which they won at least 90 games. And then there’s the wild card (figuratively and, possibly, literally) Baltimore Orioles, who waited patiently enough to nab two of the highest upside free agents on the market.
Conventional wisdom says that the Rays and Red Sox should vie for the division title. They were the class of the AL East last year, and neither team looks to have taken a hit in any major department. In that same regard, the Yankees are getting a lot of previously important pieces back from injury, and made the biggest splash in free agency by signing Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to fill their team’s biggest hole.
On the opposite side of the “return from injury” spectrum, the Orioles are currently missing their potential superstar third baseman as Manny Machado recovers from his brutal knee injury at the end of last season. A question mark for one of the team’s most important players coupled with the lack of dominance from any other component of the rotation or lineup should leave Baltimore at the bottom of a very respectable list of AL East contenders.
The simple answer is that three playoff teams should come from the AL East. It’s not only realistic, it’s probable. But the disrespect for other divisions should not be taken lightly. Assuming one of the many capable upstart teams like the White Sox or Mariners engage in a season-long battle with former division winners in the Rangers, Tigers, Angels, and Indians, the American League, as a whole, will create a massive bottleneck for the fourth and fifth playoff berths come October. While the Yankees could very well reach their peak performance and win the division, their risk is equal to their reward, and could just as easily be on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.
Between the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees, the team with the shortest ceiling might be Boston. However, they also have the highest basement and some wiggle room to drop without compromising their division crown. With the least amount of concerns and the smallest perceivable reasons for failure, the Boston Red Sox should win the American League East for the second straight year, leaving the Rays, once again, playing in the Wild Card game.
American League West
The AL West has had consecutive division winners with three teams for the past six years (Oakland ’12-’13, Texas ’10-’11, Anaheim ’07-’09). While the trend is nothing about which to build an argument, it does bode well for overall balance across the better part of a decade.
The Rangers made a big improvement to the middle of their lineup by acquiring Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, but their already questionable pitching staff took a huge hit when Yu Darvish was placed on the disabled list before the season started. The A’s pitching injuries appear equally as daunting, as both teams will have to rely on their offenses, once again, to carry them through the season. In a very competitive AL West, the chances of success for either team look grim.
The Astros and Mariners are two of the American League’s biggest stories for different reasons. Much like the Cubs (see above) and Twins (see below), the Astros have a minor league system bursting with potential All-Stars, most of which won’t see the field until next season (when they should be extremely competitive). The Mariners made the big splash this offseason to become a win-now team when they signed free agent Robinson Cano. While all eyes will be on the massive contract he now owns, the franchise did little else to take strides forward. The interesting thing to watch in Seattle will be how quickly they become sellers if things turn bad early.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim largely resemble their National League counterpart Dodgers, except they exhibited the negative ying to the Dodgers’ positive yang. No one believes the contracts of Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols will ever provide a good enough return on investment, but they both enter 2014 relatively healthy and with the potential to have one more explosion before the careers start to erode faster. There is no reason why the Angels can’t bounce back this season and win the American League West.
American League Central
Much like the AL East, everything about the Central division can be justified. The Tigers should win the division, but probably have more questions than any other team. Can Max Scherzer repeat last season? Is Justin Verlander going to return to his “true” form? Is Ian Kinsler a better fit for the Tigers’ lineup than Prince Fielder? The Tigers would need every one of the answers to be positive to withstand the rise of the other AL Central teams. In all likelihood, this is Detroit’s year to crumble.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Royals are far-and-away this year’s hot pick to usurp the Tigers. Much like the Cubs’ explanation about teams arriving one year earlier than expected, the Royals fit the bill of a massive disappointment in the making. Key players are entering their prime at the right time, as well as youth and upside abound. However, it is reasonable to consider last season’s 14-win improvement from 2012 their peak. It is much harder to follow that up with another jump that would put them over the edge. Kansas City will not be the laughing stock of previous years, but they could very well fail to meet the lofty goals placed on them for 2014.
The Cleveland Indians are possibly the most intriguing team in the AL Central. Last season’s rise to success was a perfect example of the team arriving before expected. But much like the Pirates of 2014, the Indians are primed for a regression. The difference between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, however, is the Indians’ depth and balance. Between Cleveland’s lineup and pitching staff, they are one of the most underrated teams in baseball, and, with Terry Francona at the helm, should be atop the AL Central when the dust settles.
The Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros (explained above) appear to have the best on-paper teams in 2016. Their time will come sooner rather than later (probably next year), but it won’t be 2014.
The American League surprise team for ’14 resides in the same city as the National League sleeper: Chicago. The White Sox have quietly assembled the biggest upside team in baseball. With the acquisitions of players like Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, coupled with the potential growth of Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson and staff ace Chris Sale, the White Sox could realistically compete for the division, let alone the fifth Wild Card spot. Robin Ventura, entering his third season as manager, should take the team to the playoffs for the first time since ’08.
The adage, “Pitching wins Championships” is valid, but only after hitting has carried a team to the playoffs. Once the field is set, the more dominant staffs tend to thrive in the short series that follow. This gives the edge to the Nationals and Dodgers in the NL, and the Indians and Rays in the AL.
The Rays, battle-tested and more experienced than the Indians, should eliminate them for the second straight year en route to an American League pennant. The Nationals’ top-to-bottom pitching staff should be the perfect antidote for the Dodgers’ lineup, and Washington could finally cash in on the investment made in young pitching years ago.
A World Series between the Washington Nationals and Tampa Bay Rays would be the culmination of two young, balanced teams coming from opposite directions. When the dust settles, the Tampa Bay Rays, fighting all season in the league’s best division, led by manager Joe Maddon, and with the talent and recent history, should stand alone as the 2014 World Series Championships.