The 2013 MLB season included the Boston Red Sox going from worst in the AL East in 2012 to World Series champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates breaking their record streak of 20 straight losing seasons and the Cleveland Indians improving their win total by 24 games.
Every season there always seems to be a few teams that defy expectations, so there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2014. While there’s no guarantee that said improvement will result in a World Series appearance, let alone a postseason berth, here are some teams that could be a part of the playoff discussion come August and September.
Los Angeles Angels
Take out the Angels’ horrendous start (9-17 in April) to last season and a rough beginning to the second half of their slate (4-9 in first 13 games after All-Star break) and the end result is a 65-58 record. What’s more, other than April and July, the Angels outscored their opposition by 50 runs (527 scored, 477 allowed) the other four months. Only six American League teams finished the season with a better run differential.
So what’s the reason for optimism when it comes to the other team that calls Los Angeles home you ask? For starters, there’s Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the game at the ripe age of just 22 years old. But Trout can’t do it alone, which is why it’s critical that former MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton do their part at the plate. Age isn’t on the side of this duo, but provided Pujols and Hamilton can stay healthy they should be able to surpass last season’s combined totals of 122 runs, 38 home runs and 143 RBIs fairly easily.
While the offense had its issues in 2013, pitching was more of the problem, as the team’s starters posted a collective ERA of 4.30. Jered Weaver, who missed time due to a fractured elbow, and C.J. Wilson are back to front the rotation and have been joined by young lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. This duo was part of the three-team trade in December that saw slugger Mark Trumbo wind up in Arizona with outfielder Adam Eaton going to the Chicago White Sox.
And while the Angels will certainly need to stay healthy in order to have their best product on the field, the team has already benefitted to a degree from the misfortune that has struck division rivals Oakland and Texas. The A’s have lost ace Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery while the Rangers have been beset by a slew of injuries during spring training – ranging from Derek Holland’s freak accident that led to microfracture surgery on his knee to Jurickson Profar’s torn shoulder muscle (out 10-12 weeks) to ace Yu Darvish’s stiff neck, which will cause him to miss his Opening Day start, at minimum. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Angels have already gotten a decent dose of the former.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals went 86-76 last season, thanks to a strong 43-27 second half. This team is young, headlined by several rising stars at different positions and has a chance to be even better on the mound in 2014. That’s saying something considering Kansas City led the AL with a 3.45 team ERA last season.
On offense, first baseman Eric Hosmer, left fielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez and designated hitter Bully Butler form the core of a lineup that could end up being one of deepest and most productive in the majors. During the offseason, the team added right fielder and leadoff man Norichika Aoki via trade and signed free agent second baseman Omar Infante. Couple their production with any sort of improvement from the likes of shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain and this has the makings of a lineup that should score plenty of runs a variety of ways.
James Shields headlines a starting rotation that swapped Ervin Santana (9-10, 3.24 ERA in 2013) for lefty Jason Vargas and also includes reliable innings eater Jeremy Guthrie, veteran Bruce Chen and young fireballer Yordano Ventura. The bullpen (2.55 ERA) was second only to Atlanta’s in the majors with closer Greg Holland (47 saves, 1.21 ERA) leaving little doubt at the end of games. While the pen will miss Luke Hochevar (Tommy John surgery), there are no lack of options to take his place with setup guys Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow and young lefty Danny Duffy waiting in the wings.
The Royals went 44-32 against AL Central foes last season. Provided the pitching doesn’t take a major step back, the offense could improve enough to produce a few more wins, which could find this young team in the thick of the playoff chase come September.
The Brewers finished 14 games below .500 last season, but also were missing 2011 MVP Ryan Braun for nearly two thirds of the campaign while third baseman Aramis Ramirez played in just 92 games. Both will be back this season and even though right fielder and leadoff man Norichika Aoki was traded to Kansas City, the team is high on young left fielder Khris Davis, who hit 11 home runs in just 136 at-bats in his first taste of major-league action. With Braun and Ramirez teaming up with center fielder Carlos Gomez, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers’ offense should be much more dangerous than last year’s lineup that finished eighth in the National League in runs and sixth in home runs.
The key to Milwaukee’s fortunes in 2014 is its starting rotation. Last year, the Brewers’ starters posted a 4.20 ERA, but this group has been bolstered by the addition of Matt Garza via free agency. Garza went 21-18 with a 3.45 ERA in two-plus seasons with the Chicago Cubs and the 30-year-old should get even more offensive support as a Brewer in his return to the NL. If Yovani Gallardo can prove that last season’s disappointing campaign is the exception and not the norm and youngster Wily Peralta can continue his development, Milwaukee’s rotation could end up being quite deep with veteran Kyle Lohse and promising Marco Estrada rounding out the staff.
If Braun can prove that he’s the same MVP-caliber hitter he was before his embarrassing 100-game Biogenesis-related suspension, then the Brewers’ lineup has the pieces to make some noise at the plate. If the rotation can step up and take advantage of this run support and the bullpen maintains its level of performance, then the Brewers could fill the same role that Pittsburgh did in 2013 and be the surprise team in the NL Central this season.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays finished last in the AL East in 2013 with a 74-88 record. Injuries and pitching were largely to blame, as Toronto’s 4.81 ERA from its starting rotation was next to last in the majors (Minnesota). While there are still certainly question marks in this area, the hope is that 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey will fare better in his second season in the AL while Brandon Morrow looks to show he’s healthy and recovered from a forearm issue that limited him to just 54 innings last season. The Jays also are hoping that righties Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchinson can help stabilize the back end of the rotation, something that was a major weakness in 2013.
The real reason I am somewhat bullish on Toronto’s chances in 2014, however, is because of what this team has the potential to do at the plate. As bad as the pitching was last season, the Jays finished with a run differential of just minus-44. Even though the pitchers surrendered 756 runs, the fourth-most in MLB, the offense plated 712 (ninth).
What’s even more impressive about this number is the fact that slugger Jose Bautista played in just 118 games, while leadoff man Jose Reyes saw action in only 93. The Jays also got little production from catcher and second base, as the two positions combined for a .230 batting average. Entering Opening Day, Bautista appears healthy and has been hitting the cover off of the ball in spring training, although Reyes has been slowed by a nagging hamstring injury.
Still with Bautista raking, he and fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion (.272-36-104 in 2013) should form a formidable heart of the order, which also will hopefully include a healthy Reyes as the catalyst, reliable Adam Lind (.288, 23 HRs) and Colby Rasmus’ power (22 HRs, .501 SLG) at the bottom and the breakthrough season from Brett Lawrie that everyone has been waiting for these past few seasons.
A lot of things will have to break just right for Toronto to maximize its potential in 2014, but there also are a lot of pieces in place to like, especially in a division with so much uncertainty once you get past the Red Sox and Rays.
San Diego Padres
I must admit that I am not as keen on the Padres as I was when spring training started, as a rash of injuries have impacted their makeup. However, only one of these is of the season-ending variety to this point, so I will still make my case as to why I think San Diego could be a factor in the NL West all season long.
In 2013 the Padres finished 76-86 for the second straight season despite ranking 24th in the majors in runs scored. The primary reasons for this were twofold – they had a solid pitching staff (3.98 ERA, 20th in MLB) and thrived at Petco Park (45-36). The moves the team made in the offseason were relatively minor, but all with an eye towards shoring up weaknesses.
Pitcher Josh Johnson was signed to a one-year deal to help bolster a starting rotation that already included Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, lefty Eric Stults and the surprising Tyson Ross, who really came on late in the season. Joaquin Benoit was added to replace primary setup man Luke Gregerson, who was traded to Oakland for left-handed hitting outfielder Seth Smith.
With Johnson in tow and lefty Cory Luebke expected to return from Tommy John surgery, the Padres were putting together what could have been one of the deepest starting rotations in all of baseball. Unfortunately, Luebke reinjured his surgically repaired elbow and had to undergo a second Tommy John procedure in February, while Johnson is expected to miss between four to five weeks with a flexor strain in his right forearm.
San Diego still has some arms, but now it’s even more imperative for the offense to pick up the slack. Shortstop Everth Cabrera was an All-Star before missing 50 games because of his connection to the Biogenesis scandal, which also claimed catcher Yasmani Grandal as one of the punished participants. Both players need to put this embarrassment behind them and show they are still capable of being solid contributors at both the plate and in the field.
The key to the Padres’ offense is a bounce-back season from third baseman Chase Headley, who already has been limited in spring training by a calf injury, along with the continued emergence of versatile outfielder Will Venable (22 HRs, 22 SBs) and the development of second-year slugging second baseman Jedd Gyorko (23 HRs in 486 AB). First baseman Yonder Alonso also needs to stay healthy and show no ill effects from a nagging hand injury that limited him to just 97 games in 2013.
No one is going to mistake this Padres team for the Dodgers, the clear-cut division favorites. However, if San Diego can catch a few breaks on the injury front, their young players continue to emerge, and a few of the veterans do their part, there’s no reason to think that the Padres can’t at least improve on last season’s showing. It’s not the like the Diamondbacks, Giants or Rockies don’t have their own injury-related issues or weaknesses of their own.