2014 MLB Preview : NL West

Image

By Greg Hudson

For the NL West, the 2012 and 2013 seasons were about two teams: in 2012 it was the eventual World-Series-Champion San Francisco Giants, and in 2013 it was about the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 2014 season seems set to be a potential showdown between the two organizations since the times when they played at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. But appearances can be deceiving and improvements for other teams may make the NL West anyone’s to take.

 
Arizona Diamondbacks (81-81, 2nd in 2013)
 
The fact that a .500 record was good enough for second place in the division last season shows the weakness of the division on the whole. But thanks to a good offseason the Diamondbacks will be looking to finish well above .500 this year, and it will be thanks in no small part to their work to bolster the pitching staff. Veteran starter Bronson Arroyo and new closer Addison Reed will look to keep the Snakes in the playoff hunt with consistent results, while slugger Mark Trumbo joins a powerful lineup that already features Martin Prado, Cody Ross, and Paul Goldschmidt, who all know how to swing a bat.
 
Don’t expect to see them in October, but don’t expect them to drop out of the race in the early going.
 
Colorado Rockies (74-88, 5th in 2013)
 
To think that just seven years ago the Rockies rode momentum into a World Series appearance, it’s hard to fathom how far the nearly-mighty have fallen in just a few seasons. The glory days of Matt Holiday and Ubaldo Jimenez are long gone, and last season showed it as the Rockies finished at the basement of the division.
 
But there remains potential for the team, albeit it mostly in the form of some relatively unknown quantities. Starting pitchers Brett Anderson and Jordan Lyles join a rotation that is wholly devoid of spark. Anderson put up mixed numbers during his time in Oakland while Lyles’ numbers with Houston are atrocious – but that may be a product of playing for baseball’s worst team rather than a lack of ability or grit.
 
The lineup has potential too, as Justin Morneau joins the likes of Troy Tulowitzki and fellow ex-Twin Michael Cuddyer in the thin air of Denver – and that could be a big factor in improving the offensive production the Rockies need if they want to reach the .500 mark again this season.
 
Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70, 1st in 2013)
 
The Dodgers won the NL West by 11 games last season with a record which may not have even earned a wild card in the American League. But the Dodgers don’t lack fire power – or star power, for that matter, with names like Clayton Kershaw, Brian Wilson, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez at the club.
 
But despite the efforts of Cy Young-winner Kershaw and former Cy Young winner Zach Grienke, the rest of the rotation was less than stellar. Paul Maholm and Dan Haren – veterans both, join the rotation this season with a view to changing that.
 
The lineup, meanwhile, looks much the same, except for the addition of Alex Guerrero at second base to replace the outgoing Mark Ellis, and one would expect them to continue their high-powered offensive push for the playoffs, but don’t expect them to win the division by 11 games this season.
 
San Diego Padres (76-86, 3rd in 2013)
 
After years of disappointment the Padres showed significant signs of improvement last year, although the faithful shouldn’t get too excited, as their third place finish was largely due to the inexplicably poor season from the reigning champion Giants.
 
But that being said, there’s hope for this Padre’s team, thanks in no small part to some major moves in the pitching department. Highly-touted Josh Johnson joins the rotation, and relievers Alex Torres and Joaquin Benoit come to help a bullpen not know for reliability put more marks in the W column.
 
The fairly young lineup has room for improvement, but that improvement is likely to come with time. Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso are only 25 and 26, respectively, and with more experienced sluggers like Chase Headley and Will Venable in the lineup to mentor them, they could grow and mature in the kind of players that could give the Padres faithful a .500 season again soon – just not this season.
 
San Francisco Giants (74-88, 4th in 2013)
 
Hero to Zero.
 
The phrase sums up the Giants season in 2013, the year after waltzing to their second World Series title in three years. But while some consider it a one-off season, there remain struggles if the Giants want to make another run deep into October in 2014.
 
Limited off-season moves saw only two big names join the team – but they were big names. Michael Morse joins the outfield while Tim Hudson joins the rotation. But both these players embody the struggles that face the Giants: they aren’t getting any younger. Wrist surgery sidelined Morse for much of last season, while the 38-year-old Hudson has already undergone Tommy John surgery and frankly doesn’t have that many good years left in him. The bullpen is comprised almost exclusively of soon-to-be pensioners and youngsters without much experience but plenty of promise.
 
The lineup is much the same. Marco Scutaro is 38, while the rest of the infield features Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Pablo Sandoval, the oldest of whom is the 27-year-old Sandoval. And it’s the Panda who likely holds the key to the Giants’ playoff potential this season: the pudgy third baseman has dropped over 30 pounds since the end of last season and is determined to lose even more of the chub that earned him his nickname, and a healthier, more productive Sandoval could be the catalyst the Giants need to put them back in contention for October.
 
Prediction:
 
1st: Dodgers
2nd: Giants
3rd: D’Backs
4th: Padres
5th: Rockies
Advertisements

2014 Preview: NL East

Image

By Greg Hudson

 
Atlanta Braves (96-66, 1st in 2013)
 
The Braves had a spectacular season in 2013, finishing 30 games over .500 and falling just one game short of the Cardinals for top seed in the National League. But while they certainly had some powerful offensive performances – thanks to the likes of Chris Johnson, the brothers Upton, and Jason Heyward – the story of the Braves season was all about pitching. Atlanta pitchers ranked first in the majors in ERA at 3.18, and second in both quality starts (102) and WHIP (1.20), thanks is no small part to Chris Medlen’s 15 wins and 3.11 ERA, and the positively lights-out work from closer Craig Kimbrel.
 
The 2014 Braves Lineup should look very much like last year, seeing as no major moves happen into or out of Atlanta, with one major exception: the announcement that the Braves will be leaving the Atlanta Metro area and taking up residence at a new home some 15 miles out of the city. But for the next few years, until the stadium is ready for the 2017 season, Braves fans can expect the recent string of success to continue, provided the quality of players in the current lineup stick around and keep improving.
 
Miami Marlins (62-100, 5th in 2013)
 
For as impressive as the Braves were last season, the Marlins were just as much entirely awful in their second season in their new Miami home. While their pitching was an improved mediocre, Marlins hitters ranked dead last in the majors in runs scored, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and were rather lucky to lose only 100 games.
 
With such awful hitting stats it’s no surprise that the Marlins have made several lineup changes, most notably the additions of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Rafael Furcal, and Casey McGehee, who will hopefully add some production to a lineup otherwise mostly devoid of oomph.
 
There have been no major moves in the pitching staff, but top prospects Andrew Heaney and Kevin Slowey will be fighting for a spot in the rotation against the likes of Tom Koehler during spring training. A successful season for either of them will be the highlight of the year for the fish.
 
New York Mets (74-88, 3rd in 2013)
 
When one looks at the Mets season last year, one has to admit they were remarkable. A team that couldn’t really hit (29th in batting average), couldn’t really field, and aside from Cy Young candidate Matt Harvey, couldn’t really pitch (20th in opponent batting average), finished less than 15 games under .500 despite having one of the worst home records in the majors. 
 
To say that the Mets have turned the corner in the off-season would be overselling the improvements the organization has made, but there’s no doubt the division’d third-place team last season has taking steps in the right direction, signing outfielders Chris Young and Curtis Granderson, while adding veteran hurler Bartolo Colon to the rotation and set-up man Kyle Farnsworth to the bullpen.
 
It isn’t likely to be a very successful season this year, but with Matt Harvey due to return next season and some very highly rated prospects coming through the system, including infielders Gavin Cecchini and L.J. Mazzilli, son of Met legend Lee Mazzilli. Don’t expect them to play October just yet though. Yet.
 
Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, 4th in 2013)
 
The Phillies were a team of contradictions in 2013. The team with the 9th most quality starts had one of the worst ERA’s and WHIP’s in the league, and while ranking 21st in batting average, Phillies hitters ranked 24th in on base percentage. So for them to finish with 73 wins, it’s tough to predict the 2014 season based on last season’s lineup.
 
Fortunately, we don’t have to try, they’ve added several key players in an attempt to improve their weakest elements. Marlon Bird features in the outfield while AJ Burnett, Roberto Hernandez, and rookie Miguel Gonzalez are part of a total overhaul of the rotation after the retirement of Roy Halladay.
 
They won’t be in the playoffs, but they could prove spoilers for teams like the Braves and the Nationals as they fight for the division title.

2014 Preview: AL Central

Image
By Greg Hudson
Chicago White Sox (63-99, 5th in 2013)
The White Sox endured a terrible 2013 season when they lost 99 games and finished at the basement of their division for the first time since 1989. The reason for their failure wasn’t do to a particular shortcoming but rather a mediocrity in all departments, from run production (598 runs, 29th in the league) and on-base percentage (.302, 27th) to team WHIP (1.33, 24th) and bullpen ERA (4.00, 23rd).
The Sox dipped into the free agent market to land highly-touted Cuban defector Jose Abreu, who is expected to take over duties at first base from aging Paul Konerko. It was certainly a risk to offer a six-year, $70 million contract to a rookie, but his potential is so high, especially in the power department, that the Sox seem to believe he’ll follow in the footsteps of Yasiel Puig and become an overnight All-Star. They also brought in outfielder Adam Eaton from Arizona in a three-way trade involving the L.A. Angels.
But the weaknesses in the pitching staff and underwhelming lineup, especially the catcher position, remain, and will likely plague the Sox this season. Chris Sale will have to turn in a killer season to lead a poor rotation that still includes John Danks, whose 4-14 record in 2013 was one of the worst among starting pitchers in the league. Don’t expect a revelation this year, but perhaps an improved hitting performance will help Robin Ventura’s men win more of the close games they always seemed to lose last season.
Cleveland Indians (92-70, 2nd in 2013)
The Indians were a solid all-around ream last season, wrapping up a wildcard spot. Their offensive production was stellar, with Indians hitters ranking 5th in runs scored with 745 and 7th in on-base percentage at .327. A pitching rotation led by veterans Scott Kasmir and Ubaldo Jimenez ranked second in strikeouts.
But the offseason departure of both Kazmir and Jimenez leaves a big void to fill, most likely by youngster Danny Salazar and newly-appointed ace Justin Masterson. The Tribe will need to continue to rely on their hitting, which they improved with the acquisition of outfielder David Murphy, a standout in his time with the Texas Rangers. Should the hitting do the job, they’ll hope to rely on new closer John Axford, who had a decent season with Milwaukee and St. Louis last season, but hasn’t featured as a regular closer since 2012.
The roster strength in Cleveland is so high that it’s unlikely that they won’t be a part of the playoff picture, but with the likes of Tampa Bay and Baltimore in the East, the Tribe will have to have another consistent season in order to compete in September, let alone challenge for the division with Detroit.
Detroit Tigers (93-69, 1st in 2013)
The 2013 ALCS losers had a dominating season last year, ranking in the top five in the league in all major hitting categories, and topping the column in batting average. The power of infield duo Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder was matched by the lights-out pitching from Justin Verlander and Cy Young Winner Max Scherzer.
The offseason has been productive for the Tigers, who dealt Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, and acquiring relievers Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos will be looking to prove his worth in the big leagues after making a few appearances in 2013.
It looks like another open-and-shut case for the Tigers in the Central in 2014 – if they can stay healthy.
Kansas City Royals (86-76, 3rd in 2013)
They came up short of the playoffs, but the Kansas City Royals finally delivered on a decade of promises that the team would have quality young players that would give them a chance at the playoffs let alone a long-sought .500 record. Young phenoms Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer led a lineup that won 86 games to give them a winning record for the first time since 2003.
The Royals added veteran second baseman Omar Infante and outfielder Norichika Aoki to their lineup, which will add further quality, but made a risky move for inconsistent hurler Jason Vargas, who struggled mightily for the Angels last season.
It isn’t likely that they have a playoff team this season. But the qualifying word in the sentence is this season. If they continue to develop their younger players into stars like Perez and Hosmer, they’ll be playing in October on a regular basis in the next five years.
Minnesota Twins (66-96, 4th in 2013)
The Twins had another disappointing season last year, and the early signs didn’t look good for this season either. The team ranked in the bottom third of the majors in all hitting categories last season, and a simply shambolic pitching rotation ranked dead last in quality starts and opponent batting average.
But the Twins added pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and while both have had struggles living up to their potential, the potential remains very high, and it’s almost impossible not to improve on last season’s 4.55 team ERA. DH Jason Kubel and defensive-minded catcher Kurt Suzuki will both contribute to an improved lineup, even though Suzuki isn’t renowned for his bat.
While it’s a step in the right direction, the Twins remain the team of Joe Mauer and little else, and the pressure of leading an underwhelming team has clearly affected his performances in recent seasons.
Prediction:
1st: Tigers
2nd: Indians
3rd: Royals
4th: White Sox
5th: Twins