8. Cincinnati Reds (90-72)
Team Ace: Mat Latos
Breakout Player: Billy Hamilton
I can’t see this team beating the Cardinals for the division title, but even with there injuries coming into the year I don’t see a scenario where the Reds fail to make the playoffs either.
The only real change in the offseason was replacing Sin Shoo Choo with speedster Billy Hamilton in center field. Defensively Hamilton is a huge improvement (Choo ranked at the bottom of the league in defensive runs saved last season), and the two players are completely different offensively. Choo was an all around player, combining modest speed with a great OBP and some power. Hamilton won’t be nearly as effective getting on base, or driving in runs from the leadoff spot, but when he gets on base will give the team a lot of options.
It’s unrealistic to expect Cueto to start more than 16 or 17 games at this point, but the team does have a few strong options at the top of the rotation. Homer Bailey has been improving ever so slightly every season since he’s been in the major, and he’ll take another step this year, and can be a poor man’s Madison Bumgarner.
7. Detroit Tigers (91-71)
Team Ace: Justin Verlander
Breakout Player: Nick Castellanos
The new-look Tigers could regress a bit while new skipper Brad Ausmus works the kinks out, but are still a dominant team. The Tigers have the best hitter in the league, and the two of the last three AL Cy Young winners. They upgraded their defense over the offseason, trading away Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, allowing them to move Miguel Cabrera off third base. Even if the team’s power numbers are down, the infield should be more competent overall.
(I wrote that before it was announced Jose Iglesias was out until at least the break. They’ve signed Alex Gonzalez, who’s old but still a good defender.)
Justin Verlander is due to bounce back from his lackluster 2013 campaign, which should offset any regression from Max Scherzer. The also go into the year with a much more stable closer situation.
Subtract a win or two because of the Iglesias injury, but this team should still make the postseason.
6. Oakland Athletics (90-72)
Team Ace: Sonny Gray
Breakout Player: Sonny Gray
I had the A’s at number four before the Parker and Griffin injuries, which put a pretty big damper on things. I expect a huge season from Sonny Gray, which will lighten the blow, but they can’t have anything else go wrong in the rotation.
The outfield is filled with upside, and the infield is effective thanks to Bob Melvin. And I expect another strong bullpen this year. Personnel wise this team probably wouldn’t win 80 games under most circumstances, but each player knows their role and the chemistry they have carries them every year.
5. Boston Red Sox (92-70)
Team Ace: Jon Lester
Breakout Player: Xander Bogaerts
The defending champs did little to improve this season, and are really counting on things to fall right again this year, like they did in 2013. That being said, the core and rotation remain the same, and they had great chemistry last season it’s hard to imagine them not clicking again this year.
The only major concern is replacing Ellsbury’s production with the combination of Grady Sizemore and Bradley Jr. which could be a struggle if Seizmore gets injured and Jr. can’t adjust to major league pitching.
4. Tampa Bay Rays (92-70)
Team Ace: David Price
Breakout Player: Chris Archer
Is there a better-run organization in baseball? Every year they have a new arm added to the rotation who has future all-star written all over him. If it’s not Chris Archer it’ll be Jake Odorizzi this year.
Last year I wrote that the Rays’ success hinges on Evan Longoria’s health almost exclusively. Wil Myers lifts a lot of that burden off the third baseman’s shoulders. Myers lived up to his potential when he was called up last year, and even if he doesn’t take another step forward will be a huge contributor.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68)
Team Ace: Clayton Kershaw
Breakout Player: Alex Guerrero
The Dodgers looked like a mess two months into the season last year and then became the hottest team in the league once Yasiel Puig came to the team. I don’t think he’ll have the same effect this season, but their outfield is five men deep. Third base remains an issue, but the combination of Dee Gordon and Alex Guerrero at second will improve the infield as a whole.
The rotation’s top three are dangerous, and even though Josh Beckett and Dan Haren are past their primes, the add veteran depth and leadership. Paul Maholm also gives them a fall back option if they suffer an injury. The bullpen is extremely deep too, and improved from last season.
2. Washington Nationals (94-68)
Team Ace: Stephen Strasburg
Breakout Player: Anthony Rendon
They’ll take advantage of an injured Braves team and a soft division over all. Last year was a fluke, where Harper got hurt and Strasburg couldn’t get wins despite a great ERA. The team took their 2012 success for granted, and went into the season assuming they were a lock for the playoffs. By the time they got into form, it was too late to catch up. New manager Matt Williams will not let that happen again.
This starting rotation is sick; Gio and Zimmerman would easily be number ones on most teams in the league and newly acquired Doug Fister is an extremely solid fourth.
The addition of Nate McLouth adds depth to a very competent outfield. Harper’s upside alone should scare opponents, and Jason Worth had a nice bounce back season after he got over his injuries last year. Anthony Rendon fills the one hole the infield had.