Early 2014 MLB Playoff Team Projections Heading into the New Year
With the calendar set to flip from 2013 to 2014, there is still a good deal of MLB offseason left between now and the start of spring training, but already it has started to become clear who will and will not contend in the season ahead.
There are always surprises, as the Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles in 2012 and Cleveland Indians this past year can attest to, but it's still fun to predict how things will play out.
Don't hold me to these predictions, as I'm sure I'll change my mind several more times between now and Opening Day, but as things stand at the end of December, here are my early guesses at who the 10 postseason teams will be in 2014.
AL Non-Playoff Team Rankings
6. Kansas City Royals
7. Tampa Bay Rays
8. Los Angeles Angels
9. Toronto Blue Jays
10. Baltimore Orioles
11. Cleveland Indians
12. Seattle Mariners
13. Chicago White Sox
14. Minnesota Twins
15. Houston Astros
AL East Champion: Boston Red Sox
The reigning World Series champions lost a few major pieces this offseason, with the most notable being center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who will now be patrolling the outfield for the rival New York Yankees.
They will be relying on unproven youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley in key roles and have a relatively old rotation with a lengthy injury history. That said, there is still a ton of talent on this roster, and as of now, the Boston Red Sox have to be viewed as the favorites to repeat in the AL East.
AL Central Champion: Detroit Tigers
It's been an interesting offseason for the Detroit Tigers, as they traded a pair of key pieces in Prince Fielder and Doug Fister. There is no question that those two guys played a key role in the team's recent run of success, but when the dust settles on the Tigers' offseason, they may yet be a better team overall.
Adding Ian Kinsler allows them to move Austin Jackson down in the order and makes the lineup better as a whole. Signing Joe Nathan gives them one of the best in the business at the back end of their bullpen, and Drew Smyly should be more than up to the task of filling the No. 4 spot in the rotation.
Chances are the Tigers won't run away with the division as many expected them to each of the past two years, but they're still the favorites.
AL West Champion: Texas Rangers
Last offseason, the Texas Rangers lost a good deal of punch from what was arguably the league's most dangerous offense, as Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young all found new homes. In the end, though, it was their pitching that kept them out of the playoffs, as they were inconsistent all season behind Yu Darvish and Derek Holland.
With Matt Harrison expected to be back healthy and full seasons from Alexi Ogando and Martin Perez in the cards as well, the pitching should not be an issue this time around. Meanwhile, the offense has added a pair of impact bats in Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, as the Rangers figure to be among the most feared attacks in the AL once again. They have all the pieces to unseat the A's atop the AL West.
AL Wild Card No. 1: New York Yankees
First of all, let me preface this prediction by saying this assumes that the Yankees will add an impact starter between now and the start of spring training. With Hiroki Kuroda already re-signed to join CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and a finally-healthy Michael Pineda, they will need at least one more arm to fill out their staff.
That said, with the additions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts to the offense, they should be vastly improved at the plate. Considering they almost made the playoffs last year in spite of all the injuries they had to deal with, it's hard to bet against them playing in October with all the additions they've made.
AL Wild Card No. 2: Oakland Athletics
The A's have captured back-to-back AL West titles despite boasting one of the smallest payrolls in the league year in and year out. With a terrific young starting rotation and a manager who knows how to get the most out of his lineup by playing the matchups and shuffling positions, they get more out of less than anyone in the league outside of maybe the Rays.
Adding Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Fernando Abad to the bullpen should more than offset the loss of Grant Balfour in free agency, and signing Scott Kazmir to replace Bartolo Colon made a lot of sense as well. The A's may not be the most talented team in baseball on paper, but they have proven capable of winning with the guys they have and should no longer be underestimated.
NL Non-Playoff Team Rankings
6. Cincinnati Reds
7. San Francisco Giants
8. Arizona Diamondbacks
9. Colorado Rockies
10. New York Mets
11. San Diego Padres
12. Philadelphia Phillies
13. Milwaukee Brewers
14. Chicago Cubs
15. Miami Marlins
NL East Champion: Washington Nationals
For as bad as the Blue Jays and Angels were last season, an argument can certainly be made for the Washington Nationals being the biggest disappointment in baseball. Many had them pegged to win the NL pennant, but a slow start by their offense had them just one game over .500 at the All-Star break, and they wound up on the outside looking in when the postseason rolled around.
Their acquisition of Doug Fister this offseason may wind up being the best deal of the winter, and it gives them arguably the best rotation in baseball top to bottom. Getting a full healthy season from Bryce Harper will be key, as he is the straw that stirs their drink, if you will. Should he go down, though, the Nats have a backup capable of playing everyday in the recently signed Nate McLouth.
NL Central Champion: St. Louis Cardinals
As things stand today, the St. Louis Cardinals are the team to beat heading into the 2014 season in my opinion. Even with the departure of Carlos Beltran in free agency and retirement of Chris Carpenter, the team should be in a great position to defend its NL pennant thanks to a wealth of young talent.
Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta and Matt Adams join the starting lineup in place of David Freese, Pete Kozma and Beltran, as the offense shouldn't miss a beat. On the pitching side of things, a full season of Michael Wacha and the return of Jaime Garcia could make St. Louis' staff even better. Top to bottom, the pieces are all there for the Cardinals to make another long October run.
NL West Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers used their newfound payroll flexibility to return to the postseason this past year, and they could be perennial contenders for the foreseeable future. The signings of Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu gave them a formidable staff, and their offense got a shot in the arm from Yasiel Puig when they needed it most.
It's be a significantly quieter offseason for them this time around, but the addition of Dan Haren and re-signing of Juan Uribe and a handful of key bullpen pieces have the Dodgers without any major holes. A full season from Puig, a healthy Hanley Ramirez and continued dominance from Clayton Kershaw should make them runaway favorites in the NL West.
NL Wild Card No. 1: Atlanta Braves
Thanks to a disappointing season from the Nationals, the Atlanta Braves wound up running away with the NL East title despite having some problems of their own. When they were firing on all cylinders, they were perhaps the best team in baseball, but inconsistency plagued them all season.
It's been a quiet offseason, as they signed reclamation project Gavin Floyd and traded for Ryan Doumit, but they didn't have any glaring needs to address. Their pitching remains a plus, even with the departure of Tim Hudson, and the offense is more than capable of being among the best in baseball if everything breaks right.
NL Wild Card No. 2: Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates reached the playoffs for the first time since 1992 this past season, and with a young, homegrown core that should only get better in the year ahead, they are in a position for long-term contention.
Losing A.J. Burnett hurts, but a full season from Gerrit Cole and healthy years from Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton should be enough to offset that if he does in fact wind up elsewhere. Top prospects Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco should be able to help in the rotation and outfield, respectively, at some point in 2014, and a return to the playoffs could be in order.