As always, the American League is stacked from top to bottom. It is anyone's guess as to who will represent the junior circuit in the fall classic. Of the 15 teams in the AL, I believe it is safe to say 11 of them have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, only five teams get a crack at October baseball.
The amount of off-season activity indicates just how wide open 2014 will be; seven of the top nine spending teams were American League clubs (the O's were eighth overall with their late winter flurry). Even the Twins, who I don't consider to be a contender, spent some cash.
But enough chit-chat. Let's get into a team-by-team glance of the contenders in the American League for 2014:
The big boys in the central had a lot of moving pieces this off-season but they didn't necessarily get better. Ian Kinsler comes over from Texas in an interesting trade that saw Prince Fielder pack his bags for the Lone Star State. The move leaves a hole in the lineup that new Detroit skipper Brad Ausmus hopes Kinsler can fill. The former Ranger has seen his power drop in 2 straight seasons from 32 home runs in 2011 to just 13 last year. Accompanying that is a 64 point difference in slugging from .477 in '11 to .413 in '13. More than anything this was a move to get Miguel Cabrera off the hot corner and make a place for highly-touted rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos.
Another head-scratcher was the trade with Washington that sent righty Doug Fister to DC in exchange for two prospects, with tempered expectations, and utilityman Steve Lombardozzi (who, just earlier today was traded to the Orioles). Fister was a solid cog in the rotation and they cast him off for a couple of unknowns and a benchwarmer. However, they did add closer Joe Nathan from Texas. The righty is on his way to his 40th birthday but he can bring it. In 2013 he had a measly 1.39 ERA and saved 43 games for the Rangers.
Though this was a wishy-washy offseason Detroit is going to be good again in 2014. Their division is the weakest in the American League and they still have Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to anchor the rotation. And oh yeah, two-time defending league MVP Cabrera swings a pretty sweet bat in the middle of the lineup.
What decade is is again? All of the perennially bad teams are good again. The O's, Pirates, and these Royals. And if things continue to trend this way for Kansas City then they will be good for quite a while. First baseman Eric Hosmer, at the age of 24, has re-emerged as one of the premier young players in the game. He snapped up the Gold Glove from the muscular hands of Baltimore's Chris Davis and added to that a .302 average and 17 home runs.
Another young gun in KC is their catcher Salvy Perez. He's only 23 and also has a Gold Glove to his name. Perez has had concussion problems in the past, and if the new collision rule helps him avoid any further issues, then the game may have its next great, all-around backstop. Aside from his stellar work with the leather, the man from Venezuela also boasted a .292 BA in 2013. He needs to walk more but, as mentioned before, he is still young and will only improve.
A few under the radar moves have the Royals setup pretty well. They have replaced the departing Ervin Santana with lefty Jason Vargas. He's an innings-eater that will help get the game into the capable hands of the KC bullpen. Norichika Aoki comes over from Milwaukee to play right field and spark the top of the lineup. Their big catch of the winter was second baseman Omar Infante. They likely overpaid for him with a four-year contract worth $30.25 million but he is a steady offensive player who will hit right around .300 and play solid defense.
This is a tough team to call. I would expect them to compete all season, however I don't foresee a playoff berth. They need more pitching and have some promising arms in the system. However, many of those arms are in their first or second pro season. If KC is to win right now they will likely have to deal some of them to get MLB-ready arms.
I was unsure of including them just because, to me, they don't stack up with some of these other impressive AL teams. I'm not alone, Sporting News also asked the question "One-year wonders?" I think that's very possible following an unexpected 92 win season in 2013. They lost two-fifths of that rotation which was a big reason for their success. But let us not forget this was a playoff team and there is still a lot to like
Justin Masterson is the face of the team. He was a standout last season, leading the team with 193 innings pitched and striking out 195 in that time. But after that the rotation is unclear. Trevor Bauer was once a highly touted prospect, but has floundered in the big leagues. Danny Salazar pitched well, but in limited innings (52 IP). Zach McAllister showed some good stuff, but needs to get deeper into games. Question marks abound and extends to the bullpen where newly sign John Axford was brought into close games which he struggled with towards the end of his run in Milwaukee.
The lineup is a prettier picture. Carlos Santana is a certifiable stud with the bat. Baseball Reference (BR) gives him a 5.5 offensive WAR, but his work with the mitt was worth a putrid -1.2 WAR.You can see why Cleveland is looking to make him an everyday DH. In Jason Kipnis they have one of the best second baseman in the game. He is a grinder to the full extent and gets results. BR has Kipnis as a 5.9 WAR player and he gets there but stealing 30 bases, hitting .284, getting on base at a .366 clip, and smacking 17 home runs. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrara will look to get back into form that saw him get MVP votes in 2011. The Indians will need his bat and glove to get back to that level for them to compete.
I see this team slipping. They played over their heads last year and had to play perfect baseball, which they did, to squeak into the playoffs. It will take an ever bigger performance this year as the rotation is weaker than in 2013. I would expect a third or fourth place finish and that Asdrubal Cabrera to be one of the hottest names by the July 31st trade deadline.
The Orioles own division may include some of the fiercest competition in the league. I won't focus on these teams too long as my fellow Camden Chat writers went much more in depth on the teams this past week, but I will mention a little bit about the three teams (sorry, Toronto) that I believe will challenge the Birds for the pennant and wild card.
New York did what they always do in the winter: spend money, and lots of it. They gave out a league leading $471 million in contracts to bring in Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran among others.
Even after all of that, the Bronx Bombers still have a number of questions. They lost Robinson Cano to Seattle, leaving their infield old and injury prone. If the aging roster can stay healthy, this team will have no problem scoring runs. The pitching is iffy. Tanaka is unproven and ace CC Sabathia regressed greatly last year. In the 'pen David Robertson looks to take the place of the now-retired Mariano Rivera. CC's Sung-Min Kim goes deeper with New York here.
Tampa made headlines with what they didn't do by hanging on to lefty David Price. This team is so stacked in their rotation. Behind Price are three guys 26 and younger that all have electric stuff. Matt Moore throws straight gas from the left side, Chris Archer does the same from the right. Alex Cobb is the "ho-hum" guy of the bunch because he doesn't wow you until you look at the stat sheet: 2.76 ERA in 143.1 innings and an 8.4 K/9. The worry here is if they can support the pitching staff. Third baseman Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist lead a lineup that is middle of the pack in the AL in terms of runs scored and home runs. Where they excel is making the most of what they have. They led the league in walks and were third in on base percentage. We all need to be scared if they start scoring runs. CC's Alex Bender breaks down Tampa here.
Oh yeah, Boston are the reigning World Champs. However, they did lose a few key cogs in Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Ryan Dempster. Even still, this team is solid all-around. Veteran pitchers Jake Peavy and John Lester were revitalized in 2013. They brought a fire that spurred this team on. This season will see the emergence of two rookies in shortstop Xander Bogaerts and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. My feeling is that this team has to regress as the bullpen pitched out of their minds this past year and nearly everyone on the team seemed to click again, but it's the damn Red Sox. We know they are going to compete all year long. CC's Kevin Ebert checks out Boston more here.
The Rangers missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2009, but the team still won 91 games. The difference in the "new" Texas Rangers is that they are taking a more all-around approach to the game rather than just trying to outhit their opponents. But don't think for a second that there won't be plenty of baseballs flying out of Arlington this summer.
Fielder, acquired in a trade with Detroit, may get back into the MVP race this season. He manged to hit 55 home runs in two seasons while playing in spacious Comerica Park. The move to Texas should see a Chris Davis-like uptick in production for the big man. On base for many of those round trippers could be free agent signee Shin-Soo Choo. The Korean ballplayer brings with him a massive OBP of .423 from 2013. The Fielder trade sent Kinsler packing and made room for former top prospect Jurickson Profar.
In spurts of playing time, Profar has shown his five-tool ability. The Rangers were hoping regular playing time would help him to realize his potential. Unfortunately for Profar and the Rangers, on Sunday they found out he would be missing the next 10-12 weeks with a torn shoulder muscle.
Adrian Beltre, coming up on age 35, shows few signs of slowing down. He is coming off a season in which he hit 30 home runs and batted a robust .315. However his defense struggled a bit as he posted a negative UZR for the first time since 2007.
Much of their hopes rest on the shoulders of the pitching staff. Yu Darvish has shown to be worth every dime they spent on him. His performance in 2013 was eye-popping. He threw 209.2 innings and struck out a league leading 277 batters. He will challenge for the Cy Young again in 2014. After Darvish it gets murky. Lefty Derek Holland has yet to throw a bullpen, he's not expected back until the All-Star break following an off-season knee injury where sustained while playing with his dog (that's not a metaphor, his dog's name is Wrigley). They need Matt Harrison fully recovered from the back injuries that have plagued him.
I'm not as high on this club as many pundits seem to be. They have a long list of players attempting to return from injury (I didn't even mention potential closer Neftali Feliz coming off Tommy John surgery). Darvish is great and that offense should be able to score. But the AL West got much better this winter, this is no longer a two horse race.
The A's are officially back to being the A's. They manage to not only compete but storm into the playoffs with a roster full of guys that many people had written off as "over the hill" or you had simply never heard of them before. Many of them are products of the Oakland farm system that just churns out major league talent.
The winter saw them lose two all starts in closer Grant Balfour and starter Bartolo Colon but they were adequately replaced. Lefty Scott Kazmir takes the place of Colon. He was revitalized in Cleveland where he managed to return from nearly two full years away from major league ball and post a 10-9 record with a 4.04 ERA and an impressive 9.2 K/9. Former Oriole Jim Johnson takes over closing duties and he looks to be in a situation where he will flourish. The occasional home run ball Johnson was prone to in Baltimore should be quelled by the huge dimensions of the Coliseum. Sonny Gray leads the way for the young rotation. Gray was very impressive in 66.1 innings last year, posting a 2.67 ERA. Jarrod Parker's 197 innings will be missed as the 25 year old will have his second Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season.
One wouldn't be able to tell how huge that stadium is by watching Oakland hit. They were third in the Bigs in home runs. Five men in their lineup hit at least 15 bombs. Center fielder Coco Crisp had a career year in which he received MVP consideration. Josh Donaldson may have been the surprise of the summer. According to Fangraphs, Donaldson finished 2013 with a 7.7 WAR and nearly took home a gold glove at third base and finsihed fourth in the MVP voting. The question is if he can do it again. Equally important may be which Josh Reddick do the A's have? The 32 home run man of 2012 or the injury prone player of last year? Sadly, it may be the latter. Manager Bob Melvin will also look to see left fielder Yoenis Cespedes for a bounce back season. The power was there but the 28 year old Cuban struggled to a paltry .294 on base percentage.
While this team may not quite match the 96 wins they put up in 2013 this will be another stellar campaign. There isn't a weak spot in their rotation and the bullpen may be even stronger this season. Even though a member or two of the lineup overachieved this past season, others could rebound from disappointment. Expect the A's to contend for the AL West crown.
These guys are going for it. Seattle spent $268 million to bring in Robinson Cano and Corey Hart, and a few smaller additions. Offense has long been their deficiency in cavernous SafeCo Field. General Manager Jack Zduriencik is hoping he has done enough this winter to lift the M's to their first winning season since 2009.
That Cano contract isnt gonna be pretty after the first five years, but for right now he will be as great as always. The sweet-swinging lefting is currently on a streak of five straight seasons of batting at least .300 with 25 home runs and 85 RBI. Hart may prove to be the steal of the offseason if he can stay healthy. A knee injury wiped out his 2013 season. Prior to this he had three consecutive seasons of 25 home runs. He can be an impact bat. The last big addition was noted Twitter fiend Logan Morrison. The former Rookie of the Year candidate had played through knee injuries and seemed to wear out his welcome in Miami. A change of scenery should do him some good.
Do I even need to mention how good Felix Hernandez has been? He owns a career ERA of 3.20 and 8.4 K/9. The only worry with him is wear and tear on his arm. There haven't been injury concerns as off yet, but he has eight straight seasons of at least 190 innings pitched. Hisashi Iwakuma was brilliant last year, finishing third in the Cy Young with a 219.2 innings pitched and a puny 2.66 ERA. He may miss a start or two to a finger injury on his pitching hand. Fernando Rodney will close games for them after coming in via free agency. He snapped back to reality in 2013 with a 3.38 ERA following a standout 2012, but still managed to throw a career high 11.1 K/9. Good luck identifying anyone after Rodney in their 'pen. Many teams have shaky relief situations but Seattle's is the most unsettled of the teams mentioned here.
Seattle is top heavy in all phases of the game. Their order has some boppers in it, but they will need the table-setters to improve if the team is to move from the bottom third of the league in runs scored. King Felix and Iwakuma are as good of a 1-2 punch in baseball, but question marks abound after them. Can Taijuan Walker make the jump from super-prospect to MLB stud? Things will have to break just right for this club to be playing in October.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
There is too much talent on this team for them to not compete in 2014. They have, arguably, the best player in baseball in Mike Trout. And they have the guy who was the best player in baseball about 4 years ago in Albert Pujols.
Much has been made about the disappointing performance by both Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Neither would qualify as a "starter" when looking simply at their WAR. Anything between 0 and 2.0 is considered a bench player. In 2014 Hamitlon posted a 1.5; Pujols a measly 0.7. Even still, the Angels managed to score the fifth most runs in all of baseball last season. I'm sure they wish there was more to it, but it is nearly all because of Mr. Trout. He played another stellar season, possibly outdoing his 2012 campaign. In 2013 his slashline was .323/.432/.557 with 27 home runs, 97 RBI and 33 stolen bases.
This pitching staff is where they need help. Righty Jered Weaver can be as filthy as they come, but following an elbow injury and three season where he received Cy Young votes, 2013 was not his most dominant. LA will need him healthy all season, which hadn't been a problem before last April, in order to anchor the staff. They did bring in Hector Santiago from the White Sox. The lefty will slot somewhere in the middle of the rotation. In his second MLB season, the 26 year old did well. He posted a 3.56 ERA in 149 innings, however he also walked 72 batters in that time. The bullpen, like many other teams is a work in progress. Ernesto Frieri will close, but he struggled last year for the first time in his MLB career.
I smell a turnaround in LA. These players are too good and Mike Scioscia is too high-calber of a manager to allow this ship to sink. This team will get back above .500 into the 85-90 win range, challenging for a wild card spot. If not, this may be Scoscia's last season at the helm.
Good pitching still beats good hitting. The teams that have two to three rock solid starters tend to dominate the playoffs. In my mind the teams that meet that criteria in this season's American League are Detroit and Tampa Bay (If they keep Price all season). I expect those two to meet in the ALCS with Tampa breaking through to their second World Series appearance. But fear not O's fans. Baltimore may have an X-factor in Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy. The emergence of one or both can completely turn this league on its head.