Dustin Pedroia and the Red Sox hope to go from worst to first in the AL East
Half of the MLB teams finished with a losing record in 2014. Of these 15 teams, which are in the best position to experience better results on the diamond this season? Preseason hope is never a guarantee of success once the games that count begin, but fans of these five teams have plenty of reasons to be excited with Opening Day just around the corner.
Boston Red Sox
(71-91, 5th in AL East in 2014)
If any team knows what it’s like and takes to go from worst to first, it’s the Red Sox. Boston pulled off the feat in 2013, improving from 69-93 to 97-65 and eventually winning the World Series. While it’s premature at this point to paint the Red Sox as a legitimate championship contender, it’s also pretty clear that general manager Ben Cherington is focused on getting back to the postseason.
Following a flurry of offseason moves, the only aspect of the team that remains relatively unchanged is the bullpen. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were both signed to bolster the heart of the Red Sox lineup to give stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia some much-needed support. Boston also hopes it has budding superstars in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Cuban import Rusney Castillo.
The rotation is pretty much brand new too, as Clay Buchholz is all that remains from the quintet that Boston opened 2014 with. Rick Porcello (Detroit) and Wade Miley (Arizona) were both acquired in trades and Justin Masterson was signed to a one-year deal. Joe Kelly, who came over as part of the John Lackey trade with St. Louis last summer, is expected to round out this young and relatively unproven group. Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem for this Red Sox team. If the new-look rotation comes together and the bullpen gels, Boston could find itself back atop the AL East standings.
Chicago White Sox
(73-89, 4th in AL Central)
Whether you are a Cubs or White Sox fan, the Windy City is abuzz and eagerly anticipating the start of this season. Despite the additions the Cubs (see below) made, the White Sox were even more aggressive this offseason. General manager Rick Hahn took care of every item on his to-do list, adding a front-of-the-rotation starter (Jeff Samardzija) via trade, while signing a closer (David Robertson), a left-handed bullpen specialist (Zach Duke), a No. 2 hitter (Melky Cabrera) and a new DH (Adam LaRoche) in free agency.
These significant new pieces will join cornerstones Chris Sale (the ace) and Jose Abreu (the slugging first baseman from Cuba, pictured above right), as the White Sox look to join the Royals and Indians in the pursuit of ending the Tigers’ four-year reign in the division. There’s no question the White Sox have improved their roster, but this is not a team without flaws (back end of the rotation, lineup depth). That said, the front office and ownership were intent on getting better, and they put their money where their mouth was in hopes of accomplishing this. It’s now up to manager Robin Ventura and the players to make the moves pay off in the win-loss column.
(73-89, 5th in NL Central)
Is THIS the year the Cubs break their century-long World Series drought? Probably not, but expectations are definitely on the rise, as Theo Epstein and company’s comprehensive rebuilding plan should finally start bearing tangible fruit. Not only is the organization’s farm system ripe with impact talent, headlined by uber-prospect Kris Bryant, but Joe Maddon also appears to be the right manager to lead this team to the next stage – becoming a consistent contender.
While much of the focus in the first three years of the Epstein regime has been to strengthen and develop the farm system (mission accomplished), the franchise also showed its commitment to winning by signing ace Jon Lester in free agency, while also acquiring leadoff man/centerfielder Dexter Fowler, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, and bringing back reliable righty Jason Hammel. They beef up a roster that already featured All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, along with an underrated bullpen.
Things are looking up for the North Siders, but this team may still be a year or two away from being a legitimate contender. However, things could change, especially if Bryant (when he arrives) and fellow highly regarded prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara end up being as good as advertised. The Wrigley Field renovations won’t be finished for the April 5 season opener against archrival St. Louis, but it will be the team on the field, not the empty bleachers, that will have everyone’s attention.
(77-85, 4th in NL East)
The Marlins improved by 15 wins from 2013 to ’14, and while it may be too much to expect them to pull off an encore, Miami could make a serious push for a Wild Card spot. First off, any team that boasts NL home run leader Giancarlo Stanton has to be considered a threat, but it appears the lineup is starting to come together around him. Not only do the Marlins boast one of the majors’ best outfield trios in Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, but speedy Dee Gordon and the versatile Martin Prado were acquired via trades and Mike Morse was signed in free agency.
The rotation got some help too in the additions of veterans Mat Latos and Dan Haren, but it’s the eventual return of ace Jose Fernandez that could hold the key to this season. The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year made just eight starts last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He probably won’t be back on the mound until the summer, but Fernandez has the potential to be a difference-maker down the stretch.
Miami also benefits from the company it keeps in that once you get past Washington in the NL East, the other three teams all enter with plenty of question marks, especially Atlanta and Philadelphia. Whether the Marlins can take advantage of this remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Mike Redmond’s club is still in the postseason discussion come September.
(70-92, 4th in AL West)
Don’t look now, but it may be time to start taking the Astros seriously. Yes, this team is just a season removed from going 51-111, but last year saw a 19-game turnaround. Playoff contention is probably a bit too much to expect for 2015, but things appear to be headed in the right direction
Similar to the Cubs, Houston has a pretty stocked farm system that offered a glimpse of the future last season. George Springer made his much-anticipated debut last April and he didn’t disappoint, swatting 20 home runs in just 78 games before a quad injury ended his season in the middle of July. Springer and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who led the majors in 2014 with a .341 average and set a franchise record for hits (225), are the centerpieces to a lineup that now includes former Brave Evan Gattis and some other former top prospects (catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Jon Singleton) who need to take the next step in their development.
The rotation could surprise, especially if Dallas Kuechel and Collin McHugh can match last season’s success. The key will be if the other starters — expected to be veteran Scott Feldman, lefty Brett Oberholtzer and trade acquisition Dan Straily — can hold their own. If the starters can make it through five or six innings, the bullpen should be able to close things out, as Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek were both signed in free agency to bolster a group that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons.
Among the five teams on this list, Houston is definitely the one that has the most question marks entering 2015. The Astros are probably the farthest away from playoff contention, but that doesn’t mean new manager A.J. Hinch’s team won’t make some noise of its own this season either. Houston still has problems, but it finally has some hope for the future too.