Although the offseason is technically still rolling on with Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew remaining available on the free agent market, the first pitch of the 2014 season is three days away. That means it's everybody's favorite time of the year: prediction time. Am I going to be wrong with these? Probably, but that's the fun part.
Tampa made the right decision by not dealing David Price this winter, and will once again have one of the best rotations in baseball led by Price, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore. Adding Ryan Hanigan behind the plate and Grant Balfour to the back of the bullpen were two of the more underrated moves of the entire offseason, putting the Rays in great shape to be a playoff team once again.
2. Red Sox
The Red Sox shocked the world last year by turning a last place team into a World Series champion, and spent a conservative offseason filling key holes without breaking the bank. Reports out of Fort Myers speak highly of Grady Sizemore as he works his way back from injury problems, meaning that a tandem of Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. in centerfield could be as effective as Jacoby Ellsbury at less than a third of the price. Boston''s rotation will again be solid with the return of veterans Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz, and seeing Xander Bogaerts for a full season at shortstop is something to look forward to.
$491 million spent in an offseason should guarantee you more than third place in a division, but there are too many questions in the Yankees' infield for me to be sold on their chances. Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury are far from safe bets after signing $150MM+ contracts this offseason, and Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter can't be expected to be as productive as they need to be for the Yankees to have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Yes, the Bronx Bombers will win a ton of games and make a strong push--but aging superstars and an extremely weak infield will hurt down the stretch.
While late-offseason additions of Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez should help, it's going to be tough for the Orioles to compete against the likes of the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees in what should still be considered the toughest division in baseball. It's unlikely that Chris Davis will repeat his incredible 2013 performance, and Manny Machado's injury concerns and the distraction of impending free agency hovering over J.J. Hardy throughout the season should hurt Baltimore's chances as well.
5. Blue Jays
The Blue Jays, who made Dioner Navarro their signature offseason addition this winter, are likely to once again end up in the cellar of the AL East. While there is plenty of talent on the roster with Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion, the Jays' rotation is unquestionably the worst in the division, causing many to wonder why they were not more aggressive in their pursuit of starters this offseason.
Yes, most will consider the Tigers the favorite to once again win the AL Central, but the Indians are my team to watch in the division. The Tribe surprised everyone last year by finishing only a game behind the Tigers and clinching a playoff birth, and are poised to turn some heads again this year. While the loss of Ubaldo Jimenez may hurt the team's rotation, a young core of Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister paired with ace Justin Masterson will still be a challenge for AL Central hitters. And with one of the deepest outfields in all of baseball, Cleveland could look to swap a spare outfielder for another piece at the deadline.
After a surprisingly aggressive offseason in which the Tigers traded Prince Fielder and Doug Fister while adding Joe Nathan and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers are going to be good again. Miguel Cabrera is still the best hitter in baseball and the front three of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez is as scary as it gets for opponents. Keys to the team's success will be the performance of Austin Jackson, the resolution to the shortstop situation in wake of Jose Iglesias' injury, and how the back-end starters (Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello) fare behind Verlander, Scherzer, and Sanchez.
Kansas City had one of the more interesting offseasons in baseball, swapping out Ervin Santana in exchange for Jason Vargas in the starting rotation and adding Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante in a couple of surprising moves. James Shields seems ready to deliver a strong performance in anticipation of landing a monster deal on the free agent market next winter, but the rotation behind him is full of question marks. Vargas as a number-two starter is a risk for any team, especially with aging veterans Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen behind him. The offense should be slightly above-average after having the ninth-highest team average in all of baseball last year, led by veteran sluggers Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.
4. White Sox
Chicago is bound to get out of the cellar after a tough 2013 season, but the young White Sox don't seem ready to contend in 2014. Recent additions like Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton are going to help the club for years to come, but are not yet ready to step into key roles on a major league contender right now. Question marks at catcher and third base partnered with a weak back-end of the rotation also put the Sox behind the Indians, Tigers and Royals in the division.
The future is extremely bright in Minnesota, but sadly for Twins fans, the future is not the present. The days of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are coming, but until then, the Twins will look at a starting lineup that includes the likes of Trevor Plouffe and Pedro Florimon. The rotation, with new additions Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes in tow, will be better than last year, but it will be a year of change for a cast of new characters getting acclimated to their new club. The goal for the Twins is not to win this year, and it's not likely that they will.
Although the season-ending injury to Jarrod Parker will hurt the A's, the rest of the club is just too good to be beaten in the AL West. Following a year in which they had the sixth-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball, Oakland added key relievers Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty to what should now be considered the best bullpen in the league. Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick are in front of new additions Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld in a very deep outfield, anchoring a powerful lineup.
After two disappointing seasons in a row, it's time for the Angels to bounce back and make a run at the AL West crown this year. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have to bounce back after struggling a bit in 2013, and Mike Trout is only getting better. The rotation is full of question marks behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, meaning that Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago will be keys to the Halos' success.
Texas' big offfseason looks good on paper, with Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo joining an already potent lineup that includes Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus, but I'm not sold on the Rangers' chances this year. Injuries to Andrus, Jurickson Profar, Geovany Soto and Derek Holland will have the Rangers without key pieces until at least July, and a rotation that includes Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross and Joe Saunders behind ace Yu Darvish is not going to be able to compete with Oakland's starting five.
Seattle made the biggest splash of the offseason, signing Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240M deal, but they failed to add other big pieces to a weak lineup. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are risky additions who could struggle at Safeco Field, while injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker to start the season severely weaken the team's rotation behind Felix Hernandez.
The Astros are not looking to compete this season, and they won't. Houston began it's ascent towards relevancy with a couple of nice additions this winter (Scott Feldman and Dexter Fowler), but the team is too young and unexperienced to compete in 2014. The future for the Astros is extremely bright, but the process takes time.
Washington had a very impressive offseason, adding Doug Fister in a move that puzzled the baseball world due to the seemingly-low return that the Tigers got for him. With Fister joining an impressive rotation that already includes Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals will be hard to beat in a weakened NL East. A strong bullpen and tough lineup full of sluggers like Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth will propel the Nats towards a rebound season that will place them among the best teams in the National League.
Yeah, you read that right. The Marlins, who finished with only 62 wins last season, are going to surprise a lot of people this season. After completing their annual fire-sales for what seemed like the better part of a decade, the Marlins now carry one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball, headlined by 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez. Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez and Tom Koehler have also impressed scouts this winter, and Giancarlo Stanton is still one of the most exciting players in the game. If the Marlins play well in the early part of the season and are in contention around the trade deadline, they could sure use another bat or two to help out what should be a stellar pitching staff.
If these predictions were written at the beginning of spring training, the Braves wouldn't be this low. Atlanta has had a horrible spring training, losing starters Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen (and possibly Cory Gearrin) to severe elbow injuries and having to rely on pitchers like Aaron Harang and David Hale to carry a good amount of the workload during the early part of the season. A bounceback year from B.J. Upton would play a huge role in the Braves being contenders, but the rotation losses may be too much to overcome.
The loss of Matt Harvey likely takes the Mets out of contention this year, but they should still improve a bit from the 74 wins they had last season. New additions Chris Young and Curtis Granderson definitely improve the outfield, and the veteran presence of Bartolo Colon should stabilize the rotation in Harvey's absence. Still, too many question marks (Ike Davis at first base, Ruben Tejada at shortstop, Juan Lagares in center) remain for the Mets to be thought of as legitimate division contenders.
It's hard to count on a team that will trot out an Opening Day lineup that has six out of nine starters on the wrong side of 34. The Phillies are old, and it seems like their offseason philosophy (signing Marlon Byrd and AJ Burnett) was to just get older. New manager Ryne Sandberg seems to be taking a different approach to things in Philly, already causing some clubhouse chemistry problems. Expect the Phillies to be a club with veteran pieces to move at the deadline.
The Cardinals, who came two wins away from a World Series title last season, have some of the best young arms in the game in Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal. They re-shuffled their infield this winter, shipping out veteran David Freese and bringing in shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Peter Bourjos will help improve their outfield situation, and the bullpen will be strong yet again. The Cardinals are always good, and this year will be no different.
Cincinnati didn't do enough this offseason, losing a key piece of their lineup in Shin-Soo Choo and only adding complementary pieces like Skip Schumaker and Roger Bernadina. They still have a strong rotation headlined by Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Mat Latos, and will get decent offensive production from veterans Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Brandon Phillips could be flipped during the season to a team looking for infield help.
The Brewers may turn some heads this season with a pretty good 1-2-3 rotation punch of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza. Jean Segura, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are sure to be productive, but a huge factor in the Brewers' success this year is how Ryan Braun plays in his return from his PED suspension.
It's tough putting them this low, but the Pirates' inactivity this offseason may cost them a chance at the division title. Replacing AJ Burnett in the division with Edinson Volquez (and his 9.64 spring ERA) is going to hurt, and there's a chance Francisco Liriano will not repeat his stellar 2013 performance. Large holes exist at first base and shortstop for the Pirates, who should be thought of as major threats to sign Kendrys Morales or Stephen Drew if they're still available after the draft in June.
Just like the Astros and Twins, the future is extremely bright for the Cubs, but Chicago isn't expected to compete this year. They could flip Nate Schierholtz or Darwin Barney into prospects at the deadline, and could always move Jeff Samardzija to a team looking for an ace. Prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and CJ Edwards are going to be very good for many years, so be patient, Cubs fans.
The Dodgers are stacked, and should be thought of as the runaway favorites in the West again this season. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke headline a strong rotation that includes Hyun-Jin Ryu and new addition Dan Haren, and a closer-filled bullpen of Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson and Chris Perez is poised to be lights-out. Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and of course, Yasiel Puig, fill out what is one of the top 5 lineups in all of baseball.
The Giants had one of the more aggressive offseasons in the league, locking up veterans Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum while adding nice pieces like Mike Morse and Tim Hudson. The rotation of Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Hudson, Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong should be a formidable challenge for opponents, and Pence, Buster Posey and a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval will be key members of an above-average lineup. San Francisco could deal from their pitching depth to add a bat during the season.
San Diego should be better than a lot of people think they'll be, largely due to Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy headlining a pretty good rotation. Josh Johnson, if healthy, could be a nice addition for the Padres, who will rely on Chase Headley to bounce back and have a solid season at third base. San Diego seems to be a bat or two away from contention in the NL.
Arizona made a couple of interesting moves this winter, bringing in Addison Reed, Bronson Arroyo and Mark Trumbo while shipping out Tyler Skaggs, Adam Eaton and Matt Davison. The loss of ace Patrick Corbin for the entire season definitely hurts the team's chances, and reliever David Hernandez could be headed for Tommy John surgery as well. Trumbo and Paul Goldschmidt should pack a nice punch in the team's lineup, but there are too many holes for Arizona to be thought of as a legitimate contender.
Colorado tried to be aggressive this winter, making big-money bids for Carlos Ruiz, Brian McCann, Ervin Santana and Jose Abreu. The biggest name they came away with was Justin Morneau, and the confusing trade of Dexter Fowler for two non-prospects should hurt a bit as well.
AL DIVISION WINNERS: Rays, Indians, Athletics
AL WILD CARD: Red Sox, Tigers
NL DIVISION WINNERS: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers
NL WILD CARD: Giants, Reds
ALCS: Rays over Red Sox
NLCS: Nationals over Dodgers
WORLD SERIES: Nationals over Rays (6 games)