MLB storylines to look forward to in 2014

Koji Watanabe

As 2013 draws to a close, and with many of the premier free agents already off the board, what are the storylines that we’ll be reading, and the questions that we’ll be asking, in 2014?

One day in the future, when we're all old and living in futuristic retirement homes, eating grey-colored "protein fuel," and being tended to by nurse drones, we'll look back on 2013 and smile. We'll fondly recall the team of sentient beards that won the World Series, the Pittsburgh Pirates squad that finally broke a 20 year losing streak, and one Miguel Cabrera, who somehow had an even better season the year after his winning of the triple crown. We'll also wonder how the hell Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" got so much damn radio play.

But the time for reflection on 2013 is for 3,000 years in the future when we awake from the cryosleep and we're ready to begin our lives on Xylon-14XU. So, today it's time to look ahead to 2014.

With a majority of the premier free agents already off the board, there's not a whole lot left to get excited by in the free agent market (unless Bronson Arroyo rumors get you all hot and bothered), so what are the things we'll be talking about to kick off 2014? Here's a few likely topics:

Who Will Sign Masahiro Tanaka?

Originally, this was going to read, "Will Masahiro Tanaka ever be posted?" It seemed like a good question to ask, at least for a few more weeks, what with the Rakuten Golden Eagles seemingly changing their minds on posting him every few hours.

Which made sense. After all, before the new posting agreement between MLB and NPB that limited posting fees to $20 million, it seemed like a pretty good bet that Tanaka would earn at least the $50 million+ that Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish commanded, especially after a 24-0, 1.72 ERA season. Hell, it would make sense for Rakuten to keep Tanaka just out of spite.

But now that he's been posted, who will sign him? Or perhaps the better question is, how many teams will bid the maximum amount, creating something akin to a restricted free agent market for the pitcher?

Though Tanaka lacks the pure stuff of Yu Darvish, his low-90s fastball and superior command would represent an upgrade to nearly every rotation in the game. Add in the extra revenue, attention, and excitement that Tanaka will command, and the fee for the pitcher is simply a small investment for the future.

The Yankees, having shown they're not nearly as constrained as originally thought, and with an aging rotation, could be in on him. As could the other big market clubs like the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Mets. Or it could be the Cubs, who, according to David Kaplan, "will not be outbid." Or maybe it will be the Angels or Diamondbacks.

Really, the shorter list is who won't be bidding on Tanaka, the small market teams like the Pirates, Rays, or Royals unlikely to be able to afford the $20 million posting fee and possible $100 million contract.

While the pitching market has been sluggish while teams been waiting to hear the verdict on Tanaka, don't expect it to heat up all of a sudden. Because there will be plenty of jockeying for the pitcher.

Will the Yankees' additions get them back to the postseason?

This was supposed to be the new austere Yankees, the Yankees team that worried about things like payroll, budgets, and the amount of caviar included in the post game spread. Instead, all they've done is sign Jacoby Ellsbury (7 years, $153 million), Carlos Beltran (3 years, $45 million), and Brian McCann (5 years, $85 million), not to mention the $140 million the team reportedly offered Shin-Soo Choo or the Scrooge McDuck-esque money pit they could use to lure in Masahiro Tanaka.

Of course, the Yankees also lost out on re-signing Robinson Cano, letting the Mariners blow away their offer by a good $30 million, and are counting on Alex Rodriguez's suspension for 2014 and beyond to stand up, saving a good $33 million in the process. But are the new pieces enough to cover up the holes?

While the new additions are upgrades in their respective positions, this is a still a team whose rotation is led by CC Sabathia coming off the worst season of his career (4.78 ERA), and Hiroki Kuroda, who had another fine season in 2013 (3.31 ERA), but will be 39 years-old next year. Factor in a defensively porous and struggling Derek Jeter, the made-of-glass Brian Roberts, an unknown quantity in Mark Teixeira, and no real backup plan at third base if Alex Rodriguez is suspended, and the Yankees could still struggle to compete in the AL East.

Of course, seemingly everything that could go wrong did go wrong last year and the Yankees managed to win 85 games and remain relevant in the postseason picture until the very end. It's a fool's errand to ever bet against the Yankees.

Will Matt Kemp be traded?

After an absolutely bonkers 2011, falling one home run shy of the vaunted 40/40 club, Matt Kemp was awarded an eight year, $160 million contract. Unfortunately, Kemp lost time due to injuries in 2012 (.303/.367/.538, 23 HR) and never recovered his strength from shoulder surgery last year when he hit just .270/.328/.395 with 6 HR and couldn't stay on the field. With six years left on his contract and the top outfielders like Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, and Curtis Granderson off the market, Kemp could be the most attractive piece of trade bait remaining this offseason.

The Dodgers have a full outfield with Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier, so, on paper, they could most likely weather the loss of Kemp. But if Kemp, hoping to return from ankle and another shoulder surgery, is healthy, he could instantly be the best player on the Dodgers' team. Only 29, Kemp still has the chance to have a long and successful career, with his potential performance far outweighing his current trade value.

But that's if he's healthy. Baseball history is sadly filled with a number of great players whose careers were interrupted by injury. Right now, Kemp has some value left as other GMs dream of a return to 2011-era Matt Kemp. But if Kemp struggles in 2014 or sees himself beset with more injuries, the market for him will dry up considerably.

The Dodgers, with their unlimited budget, would seem to be the team best suited to taking on a $20 million lottery ticket, which is why it's difficult to imagine Kemp going somewhere else.

Can the re-vamped Rangers knock off the Oakland A's?

For two consecutive seasons, the Texas Rangers held a mid-summer lead in the AL West, only to watch the Oakland Athletics pick up steam in the second half and take the division title. It's something that Billy Beane seems supernaturally gifted at.

Thanks to Jon Daniels' work at the helm of the Rangers, rather than seeing the window of victory closing after a run of success that started in 2009, the Rangers have been able to re-load and re-tool along the way. With Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin, two players with high ceilings, joining the team on a full-time basis, a rotation led by Yu Darvish and his 1,000 pitches of gold, Prince Fielder at first base (a huge upgrade in both size and performance) over Mitch Moreland, and Shin-Soo Choo replacing David Murphy in left, the Rangers have to be excited by their chances in 2014.

But the A's haven't sat back and rested either. They acquired groundballing Jim Johnson to take over for Grant Balfour, traded away Brett Anderson, and even made a challenge trade with the Rangers, picking up Craig Gentry for top prospect Michael Choice.

With only a four-game difference separating the two teams last season, the AL West should once again come down to a end of the year race. Right now, though, the edge may belong to the Rangers.

Can the Pittsburgh Pirates continue their winning ways?

It seems strange to be asking the question. I mean, after all, the last time someone could ask such a thing would have been 1993, right after the Pirates were bounced from the NLCS by Sid Bream's slide.

For Pirates fans, the 2013 offseason has been a frustrating one. Despite the postseason appearance and a multitude sold out games, the team has still been hesitant to open their checkbook, their biggest signing being a $5 million contract given to Edinson Volquez in the hopes that he can morph back into the pitcher he was in 2008, much like Francisco Liriano last year.

Fortunately for the club, most of last year's pieces are young and returning for 2014, with NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the way. While they wait to see if A.J. Burnett decides to hang up the spikes, Gerrit Cole has proved that he is an ace in the making, and top prospect Jameson Taillon should be ready for a midseason call-up.

Still, this is a small market team with a limited budget. If a star player gets injured or struggles, there aren't many options to fill his shoes. Last year, a number of things had to break right for the Pirates to reach the NLDS. They'll need to count on that kind of luck again.

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