Premier League Preview III

Cardiff City v Manchester City - Premier League

By Greg Hudson

MANCHESTER UNITED F.C.

Nickname: The Red Devils
Kit Colors: Red/White/Black; White
Home: Old Trafford
 
The Red Devils have been the dominant force in English football in the past quarter century, but when legendary boss Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of the 2012-13 season, United’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. David Moyes took the helm last season, but seemed to immediately run into trouble getting results from the team considered by many to be the most fearsome in England.
 
So it was of little surprise when David Moyes was sacked towards the end of last season, when United finished a lowly 7th. He was replaced by Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal, who guided the Dutch to the World Cup Final in 2010 and to a third place finish this past summer in Brazil. Van Gaal comes in with a highly touted tactical understanding of the game, something which cannot always be said of his predecessor, and with some money to spend on new players.
 
But that money has been invested in attacking midfielder Ander Herrera and left back Luke Shaw, a 20-year-old phenom who impressed last season with Southampton. It isn’t to say that these are bad signings, but the departures of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, and captain Nemanja Vidic have left an already shaky defense even more vulnerable. Their attack looks strong, so they shouldn’t struggle to score against the lesser clubs, but they’ll struggle to keep the likes of City, Liverpool, and Arsenal out of the net, and that will hurt their finish in the end. But make no mistake, United are a Champions’ League calibre side.
 
Predicted Finish: 4th
 
NEWCASTLE UNITED F.C.
Nickname: The Magpies
Kit Colors: Black/White; Grey
Home: St. James’ Park
 
Newcastle are a unusual outfit. A side comprised mostly by French players or African players from French-speaking countries, the Magpies have had a volatile combination of intensity and class, but a tendency towards inconsistent play has kept them from reaching their full potential, as they lost 19 of their 38 matches last season en route to a 10th place finish. 
 
Looking to improve their inconsistent attack, Alan Pardew has made several additions to his side this summer. After the departure of fullback Matthew Debuchy to Arsenal, defenders Jack Colback and Daryl Janmaat have moved to St. James’ Park, while new attacking midfielders Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Riviere and strikers Ayoze Perez and Siem de Jong will help the Magpies score the goals they need to convert narrow defeats into draws, and turn close matches into wins.
 
They aren’t a top team, not yet, but the signings they’ve made this summer show intent to develop young up-and-comers into star talents who can challenge the top teams for a place in Europe in the coming years.
 
Predicted Finish: 8th
 
QUEEN’S PARK RANGERS F.C.
Nickname: The Hoops
Kit Colors: Blue/White; Red/Black
Home: Loftus Road
 
Rangers make their return to the Premier League after a year in the Championship, having won the playoff final with a last-gasp goal over favourites Derby County. The Hoops had spent the previous two seasons in the top flight, and their squad leaves little doubt why. They’ve got several Premier League regulars in their ranks, and while they have no star power, the likes of Loic Remy, Junior Hoilett and Adel Taarabt all have potential to become household names throughout English football as top attacking options.
 
But it was QPR’s porous defense which doomed them to relegation in 2012-13 and with that in mind, two of the three new additions to the Hoop’s back line are defenders Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker. Ferdinand, the 34-year-old veteran who won several titles with Manchester United, will no doubt serve largely as a mentor and advisor to the young Caulker and the other Rangers defenders as they look to keep opponents off the score sheet and give their club the best opportunity to survive. Should they succeed in tightening the defense, they should survive comfortably, but if they remain a porous unit, they’ll struggle to stay afloat in a league where you either sink or swim.
 
Predicted Finish: 17th
 
SOUTHAMPTON F.C.
Nickname: The Saints
Kit Colors: Red/White; Navy
Home: St. Mary’s Stadium
 
Saints exceeded expectations in 2013-14, sitting in the top five for much of the season in just their second season since promotion in 2012-13. But with time Mauricio Pochettino’s men returned to earth and settled for and eighth place finish, which is still well above their fans’ expectations. 
 
But as is often the case, a mid-table side with standout players often has trouble keeping them, and most of Saints’ side from last season have left for pastures new. Defenders Luke Shaw, Callum Chambers, and Dejan Lovren have all left the club, as have midfielder Adam Lallana and strikers Rickie Lambert and Dani Osvaldo. These big-name sales left Saints fans feeling broken and many pundits have picked them to be sent down.
 
But new manager Ronald Koeman has dipped into the transfer market with the hopes of finding players capable of saving Saints, and he’s done quite well. New ‘keeper Fraser Forster and new defender Ryan Bertrand, both highly underrated players, will look to keep what remains of the Southampton defense in good shape to keep opponents off the sheet, while Dusan Tadic will attempt to fill the shoes vacated by Lallana. But this shouldn’t be as difficult as one might think; last season for FC Twente, Tadic created over 120 goal-scoring opportunities – over fifty more than the next man behind him. Meanwhile, bargain-priced Shane Long replaces Lambert, and when Jay Rodriguez returns from knee injury, these two should help the Saints produce the goals they’ll need to survive. It won’t be a comfortable ordeal and there will be hard moments, but Saints remain a Premiership-quality side.
 
Predicted Finish: 16th
 
STOKE CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Potters
Kit Colors: Red/White; SkyBlue/Navy
Home: The Brittania Stadium
 
In their sixth season in the top flight since their promotion in 2008, the Potters secured their first top-half finish last year when they ended the season ninth. But it was also a season of transformation for Stoke, who had earned a reputation as a side that did everything except play football during their time under Tony Pulis, when they were known more for a hard-tackling, foul-committing side that played simply to disrupt opponents’ strategy and win the game with physical play and expert set piece work. But last season under new manager Mark Hughes, the Potters showed that they can do more than just tackle, clear, and head the ball – they are a legitimate footballing side that can entertain crowds like the best teams in England.
 
While the quality of the squad at Stoke is below that of the elite teams, the Potters are a solid mid-table side with a variety of attacking options with slight and spry striker Peter Odemwingie offering an entirely different skillset of his giant strike partner, the 6-foot 8-inch Peter Crouch. But the two Peters represent what makes Stoke who they are – a unique blend of physical muscle and finesse that can both bully an opponent and create quality scoring chances.
 
New acquisitions reflect this unique combination. Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell represent the physical side of the Stoke way, while highly-rated young attacker Bojan Krkic is the embodiment of style and flair. This combination certainly isn’t typical of a side capable of winning silverware, but it’s effective, certainly enough so to earn the Potters another mid-table finish and perhaps a decent run in one of the domestic cups.
 
Predicted Finish: 11th

Premier League Preview Part II

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By Greg Hudson

EVERTON F.C.

Nickmame: The Toffees
Kit Colors: Blue; Black
Home: Goodison Park
 
Everton impressed last season under Roberto Martinez, and the manager looks to continue his side’s new-found success in 2014-15. Romelu Lukaku, who scored 14 goals for them last term on loan from Chelsea, joins the team on a permanent move this season, while Gareth Barry rejoins his old club from champions Manchester City.
 
Make no mistake, Everton are capable of beating the best. But their young talent still needs time to develop, with players like Ross Barkley, John Stones, and Lukaku still a few years from their peak of performance, while their veterans like Barry, Phil Jagielka, and keeper Tim Howard are past their peak. So don’t expect the Toffees to finish above their Merseyside rivals Liverpool, let alone challenge for the title. But beware, don’t bet against Everton to play spoiler in the title race by taking points from the big fish.
 
Predicted Finish: 7th
 
HULL CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Tigers
Kit Colors: Gold/Black; Black
Home: The KC Stadium
 
The Tigers surprised a few last season with a fearless approach to football, as they characterized their first season of their return to the Premier League by taking games to their opponent, especially at home, where they recorded seven wins and an additional four draws. But their road form was less than stellar, as they lost 13 of their 19 fixtures. But while their goal tally wasn’t exceptional, they found the goals they needed to win games against teams around them in the bottom half of the table, and among their victories was a shock 3-1 triumph over Liverpool at the KC Stadium.
 
To strengthen the squad, manager Steve Bruce brought in some new names, most notably highly-rated young winger Tom Ince from Blackpool on a free transfer and Robert Snodgrass, the standout of a Norwich City team that was relegated at the end of last season. Holding midfielder Jake Livermore, who spent 2013-14 on loan with the Tigers, joined on a permanent deal, while defender Andrew Robertson joins a five-man back line that includes up-and-coming defenders Alex Bruce and James Chester.
 
Don’t expect the Tigers to finish in the top half of the table, but you can certainly expect this stay in the top flight to last longer than their one previous stay in the top flight, which lasted only two seasons.
 
Predicted Finish: 13th
 
LEICESTER CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Foxes
Kit Colors: Blue/Gold; Gold/Black
Home: The King Power Stadium
 
The Foxes make their return to the Premiership in 2014-15 after an 11-season absence since their relegation in 2002-03. Manager Nigel Pearson saw his side to the championship of the League Championship last season, and the Foxes certainly have quality. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of legendary Manchester United ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel, helps lead the way, while defender Wes Morgan wears the armband.
 
But the gulf in class between the Premier League and the Championship is massive, and Pearson has made several additions to his squad in the hopes of bolstering it enough to survive their first season in the Premiership. Matthew Upson and Marc Albrighton, veterans of the top flight, join the side, while striker Leonardo Ulloa will look to contribute the goals the Foxes need to survive.
 
But the simple fact is that while they will play good football on more than few occasions, without making more signings and getting help from the teams around them, the Foxes aren’t likely to produce the results needed to survive the season. But they’re certain to be entertaining as they’re bound to go down fighting.
 
Predicted Finish: 18th
 
LIVERPOOL F.C.
Nickname: The Reds
Kit Colors: Red; Yellow/Red
Home: Anfield
 
Liverpool were both the Premier League’s top entertainers last season, and the league’s biggest surprise. The Reds had finished seventh the season before, but they developed into a fearsome offensive juggernaut over the course of the season, as strikers Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, known simply as SAS, finished the season as the league’s two highest scorers and teen phenoms Raheem Sterling and John Flanagan both became regular fixtures in the starting eleven. But defensive weaknesses let them down in the late stages of the season and they came up two points short of their first league title in 24 years, finishing as runners-up to Manchester City.
 
Manager Brendan Rodgers knew that to become a championship-calibre side Liverpool would need new players, but his hopes for becoming title favourites ended when Suarez left the club in disgrace after biting Italian defender Georgio Chiellini while representing Uruguay in the World Cup. But Rodgers cashed in on his troublesome striker, profiting to the tune of 75 million pounds, and he put that cash to work, adding several new players to the side. Attacking midfielder Adam Lallana and striker Rickie Lambert join the club from Southampton, as does highly-touted defender Dejan Lovren, brought in to help shore up the Reds’ too-often porous defense. Joining him in the back line are fullbacks Alberto Moreno from Sevilla and Javier Manquillo, a loanee from Atletico Madrid. Meanwhile the Reds continue to look for goals by adding young prospect Lazar Markovic and holding midfield up-and-comer Emre Can.
 
If the Reds’ defense can avoid the costly mistakes that plagued them last season, while continuing to find goals from players all across the lineup, they can challenge for the title. But as Tottenham Hotspur proved last season, replacing a superstar with several new additions can take time to produce results. Don’t expect them to win it this season, but expect them to be there right on the heels of the title favorites ready to pounce if they slip up.
 
Predicted Finish: 3rd
 
MANCHESTER CITY F.C.
Nickname: The Citizens
Kit Colors: SkyBlue/Navy; Navy/SkyBlue
Home: The City of Manchester Stadium
 
The Citizens captured their second title in two years last season, and the holders look stronger than ever. Manager Manuel Pellegrini had few moves to make this summer, as there are few ways to realistically improve this squad. Strikers Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, and Alvaro Negredo all scored 20 or more goals across all competitions last season, while their defense was the best in the league, especially at home, where they were beaten just once all season.
 
While they were somewhat fortunate to win the title as Liverpool faltered in the final fixtures of the season, there is no squad as deep or as talented in all departments as City’s. The only department they moved to strengthen was the defense, with fullback Bacary Sagna joining from Arsenal and centre-half Eliaquim Mangala arriving from FC Porto along with teammate Fernando, acquired to fill the hole between the back line and the midfield.
 
There’s no team with better players, and only Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho could claim to be tactically better managers than Pellegrini, so there’s little doubt that the title holders are the odds-on favourites to retain their silverware, but they need to beware: they’re there to be shot at, and they can’t let their approach be changed by their good fortunes last season. That being said, this is a hungry outfit that isn’t likely to be satisfied by anything other than a second title in as many years.
 
Predicted Finish: 1st 

Premier League Preview

TOPIC Barclays Premiership trophy at the JJB Stadium

By Greg Hudson 

Saturday marks the Opening Day of the 2014-15 Barclay’s Premier League season, and the world’s premier league has added some of the world’s premier players to its ranks as the 20 clubs made moves looking to strengthen their squads. But whether a club is fighting for Premier League glory or simply for its Premier League survival, it looks to be an explosive and exciting season in England. The Starting Point’s Greg Hudson takes a look at the 20 clubs and looks at how each one should fare this season.

 
ARSENAL F.C.
Nickname: The Gunners
Kit Colors: Red/White; Blue/Yellow
Home: The Emirates Stadium
 
Arsenal come into this season on the heels of a 4th place finish last campaign, and while they’ll be disappointed to have fallen short of a series title challenge after sitting atop the league for more than half of the season, they’ll take comfort in securing another season of Champions’ League football with their 4th place finish, and claiming their first piece of silverware in nearly a decade by winning the F.A. Cup, and they’ll look to mount a series challenge this term.
 
They have the exciting addition of Alexis Sanchez to assist in that effort, having signed the Chilean forward from Barcelona after he lead his country to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil. This will bolster an attack that at times seemed to lack grit last season. Conversely, Arsenal’s rock-solid defense last term looks to be slightly less impenetrable this season after the departures of fullback Bacary Sagna to Manchester City and captain Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona. This isn’t to say they’ll struggle defensively, but teams may look at Arsenal and go in with more of a belief that they can come out and score goals against the Gunners.
 
Predicted Finish: 5th
 
ASTON VILLA F.C.
Nickname: The Villans
Kit Colors: Claret/Sky; White
Home: Villa Park
 
The Villans were a top-half side just a few years ago, but the almost-mighty have fallen into the clutches of relegation fights each of the past two seasons, with the West Midlands side salvaging a 15th place finish last season, five points above the drop. But while some of their more notable players in the past five seasons are long gone, namely Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, the gap they left has been filled by younger players eager to prove themselves, and this explains their dip in performance.
 
But in 2014-15, look for their younger players like Christian Benteke and Andy Weimann to really step up their play. They’ve both got two full seasons of Premiership football underneath them now, and they’re developing the maturity that fully-fledged footballers need. That being said, they’ve also looked to add experience to the side by adding Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson.
 
But this team is not full of the kind of talent that will lead them to the top of the table, or, in fairness, even the top half of the table. Look for them to settle into a comfortable spot in the bottom half of the table, well clear of the drop zone.
 
Predicted Finish: 12th
 
BURNLEY F.C.
Nickname: The Clarets
Kit Colors: Claret/Blue; Black
Home: Turf Moor
 
The Clarets make their return to top-flight football for the first time in four years, but a successful season in the Championship is no sure sign of success in the Premiership a year later, because the level of competition is so much higher in this league. For many teams, a stay in Premier League often lasts one season, a lesson Crystal Palace took several attempts to learn.
 
Burnley have dipped into the transfer market to add proven Permier-League-calibre players to the squad, and among the signings are Michael Kightly and Matty Taylor, Premiership veterans both. But the blunt truth is that this is not a Premier League team, and they won’t be here for very long.
 
Predicted Finish: 20th
 
CHELSEA F.C.
Nickname: The Blues
Kit Colors: Blue; Yellow/Blue
Home: Stamford Bridge
 
Chelsea were title favourites last season after the return of Jose Mourinho and the addition of several major signings, but they often failed to live up to the potential they have, especially from an attacking perspective. Mourinho’s defense-first mentality limited the action of world-class attackers like Juan Mata, who left in January for Manchester United, but his tactics proved effective, if not infuriating. Their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at Anfield in April was the Reds’ ultimate undoing, and while Chelsea can hardly be adjudged to have played football on that day, when they do come out to play football, there are few teams that do it better.
 
To add to their chances, standout midfielder Cesc Fabregas joined the ranks from Barcelona, and La Liga superstar Diego Costa signed on from Atletico Madrid. Costa will likely prove the more essential to their success, as Chelsea strikers scored just nine goals all season last term.
 
But it was Chelsea’s defense that saw them to their 3rd place finish last season, and that defensive unit has been weakened, somewhat significantly, by the departures of David Luiz and Ashley Cole. So it will be interesting to see how the Blues fare this season with what will almost certainly require a re-working of tactics. But don’t expect it to mean a drop in their finish.
 
Predicted Finish: 2nd
 
CRYSTAL PALACE F.C.
Nickname: The Eagles
Kit Colors: Blue/Red; Yellow
Home: Selhurst Park
 
Palace were last season’s shockers. After tallying just four points by the beginning of November and sitting at the bottom of the table, Tony Pulis was appointed manager and the club’s fortunes reversed. The Eagles not only surprised fans by beating the drop for the first time in the club’s history, but they finished an incredible 11th, gaining wins against high-fliers Chelsea, Everton, and Arsenal, and rallying from 3-0 to take a point from Liverpool in May. 
 
But while Pulis was able to get the most out of his players, his departure from the club in the summer could be construed as a minor cataclysm. But it isn’t as bad as it might seem. Progress cannot be undone, and the confidence and quality in this side suggests they can continue their mid-table success. Their additions of Brede Hangeland and Martin Kelly will only help to shore up a defense that on occasions looked thoroughly amateur. A solid defense and a confident attack spells a good season for the Eagles.
 
Predicted Finish: 10th

2014 Preview: NL Central

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By Greg Hudson
 
Chicago Cubs (66-96, 5th in 2013)
 
The Cubs had a season to forget in 2013, failing to win 70 games and failing crack into the top 5 in any statistical category with one exception: starting pitcher Edwin Jackson led the majors with 18 losses.
 
Frankly, 2014 doesn’t have much brighter prospects for the Cubbies, either, with an almost entirely unchanged lineup featuring only the addition of rookie infielder Mike Olt, while Edwin Jackson will continue taking the hill for a rotation that will add Jason Hammel. The signing of journeyman closer Jose Veras could help them win close games, but only if the lineup can produce enough runs to get him out of the pen in the first place.
 
For the time being, if you want to find the Cubs in the NL Central standings, look towards the bottom.
 
Cincinnati Reds (90-72, 3rd in 2013)
 
A 90-win season in 2013 meant the Reds were headed to the postseason, but their October dreams were cut short after a loss to division-rival Pittsburgh in the wildcard game. 
 
The Cincinnati front office was clearly satisfied with the productivity of the team, however, and the 2014 roster is set to look almost exactly as it did last season, with the only change being the replacement of Shin-Soo Choo with rookie prospect Billy Hamilton. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a sport where constant change is an accepted way of life and continuity is rare, the Reds roster has stayed together and is a few years off from experiencing the decline that has plagued the aging Yankees lineup in the past few seasons. Their entire rotation is under the age of 30, including 24-year-old who impressed with a 7-4 record and 2.92 ERA in 2013. Meanwhile the bullpen is full of experienced hurlers like Jonathon Broxton and Manny Parra, while featuring younger players like 26-year-old closer Aroldis Chapman.
 
The position players have a similar story. The only regular starters over 30 are Brandon Phillips at second and Ryan Ludwick in left, while the big hitters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are only 30 and 26, respectively.
 
They missed out on a long postseason run last year, but look for them to be making a case to play in the NLCS this time around.
 
Milwaukee Brewers (74-88, 4th in 2013)
 
A losing record seems a fair assessment of the Brew Crew in 2013, but perhaps to finish 15 games under .500 was a little unfair. But it’s the product of playing in perhaps the most competitive division in all of baseball, with now three legitimate World Series contenders in the Central in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where a middle-of-the-pack team doesn’t really have a chance to show it.
 
Brewers hitters ranked 16th in batting average (.252) and 14th in on base percentage (.398) last season, while the pitching staff ranked 16th in ERA (3.84) and 14th in WHIP (1.29). It was truly a middle-of-the-pack season at Miller Park.
 
It’s likely that those numbers, and the numbers in the wins column, should be about the same this year too, with perhaps a few improvements in the pitching department with the signing of veteran starter Matt Garza and set-up man Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, who returns to Miller Park after spending much of last year in Baltimore. 
 
But the mediocrity in the lineup remains, despite the addition of Mark Reynolds and his power. The simple fact is that Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez can’t be the only two sources of consistent production if the team wants to reach the .500 mark.
 
Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68, 2nd in 2013)
 
In 2013, all the promises the Pirates have made since the days that Jason Bay was a top rookie came to fruition as the Pirates secured October baseball for the first time since 1992. And it was no small miracle: a mix of experience and youth provided the right combination of speed, power, and consistency to get them to 94 wins despite sub-par hitting stats, thanks in no small part to the elite work of a pitching staff that ranked third in ERA (3.26) and 2nd in opponent batting average (.238).
 
This season looks to be another positive one, with the lineup and bullpen set to remain unchanged as young players like Jose Tabata and Starling Marte continue to develop and mature. The only major change is in the rotation, as the Pirates welcome righty hurler Edinson Volquez to a rotation that dominated opposing hitters in 2013.
 
Look to see them fighting to play in October again, but the Reds will be a tough team to beat if they want to make the playoffs again.
 
St. Louis Cardinals (97-65, 1st in 2013)
 
Last year’s World Series runners up are a veritable juggernaut, and have been since their loss in the 2004 World Series, also to Boston. Cardinals hitters ranked 3rd in runs scored and on base percentage, and 4th in batting average at .269. The pitching department was equally dominant, ranking 5th in ERA and 8th in WHIP, thanks in no small part to young phenom Michael Wacha.
 
Wacha and his friends in the rotation and the bullpen won’t be welcoming any new faces unless struck by the injury bug, but the already strong lineup has been further strengthened by shortstop Jhonny Peralta and catcher Peter Bourjos. Look to see them in the NCLS, for a start.
 
Prediction: 
1st: Cardinals
2nd: Reds *wildcard
3rd: Pirates
4th: Brewers
5th: Cubs

2014 Preview: AL West

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By Greg Hudson

 
The 2013 season saw big changes in the AL West, namely the addition of the Houston Astros to the previously four-team division as part of the restructuring of the league. The newcomers had struggled mightily in their final seasons in the National League and that trend continued in their new division. Meanwhile, the perennial playoff contender Texas Rangers found new competition from the Oakland Athletics, while the star power of Albert Pujols in Los Angeles didn’t produce the desired results. Here’s how it looks for the 2014 season.
 
Houston Astros (51-111, 5th in 2013)
 
The Astros had a truly miserable season in 2013, and there’s little surprise to it. The 2005 World Series runners up have long lost or liquidated their best players and haven’t had the strength in the trade or free agent markets to assemble a team that can compete for anything other than last place. In 2013, Astros hitters ranked 29th in on base percentage at a lowly .299, with the team’s leading hitter Jose Altuve batting just .283. Coupled with a woeful pitching staff ranked dead last in team ERA and WHIP, the surprising stat is that they somehow managed to win 51 games.
 
But while the Astros haven’t added much quality or depth to their roster for this season, they can take heart in the progress of top prospects like pitcher Mark Appel, who could be facing major league hitters by the end of the 2015 season.
 
Los Angeles Angels (78-84, 3rd in 2013)
 
The 2013 hardly went according to script, as far as the Angels are concerned, as a team usually considered to be playoff-caliber failed to reach the .500 mark. But this failure isn’t the sign of a lack of quality, but rather a sign that the other teams in the division are improving, namely the Athletics. After all, the Angel’s have sluggers Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout as part of a lineup that ranked in the top five in batting average and on base percentage, along with a starting rotation featuring Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. But for all the offensive success, pitching remained a weak spot for the Angels in 2013, as the pitching staff ranked 24th in ERA with a 4.23, 26th in opponent batting average at .261, and 27th in WHIP with a 1.38.
 
New signings may help those numbers improve this season, with two new starters joining the rotation: Hector Santiago and youngster Tyler Skaggs, who impressed in limited appearances in Arizona. New setup artist Joe Smith will do his best to make life easier for closer Ernesto Frieri. The already solid lineup has also been padded with a potential .300 hitter in third baseman David Freese, while power hitter Raul Ibanez will likely fill the DH spot.
 
It’s tough to say whether they’ll be a playoff team this season, and it will likely depend on the reliability of the rotation, who certainly underperformed last season. If they can keep up with the likes of Texas and Oakland, they’ve certainly got the talent to make a run for October ball.
 
Oakland Athletics (96-66, 1st in 2013)
 
Oakland was the revelation team of 2013. Despite ranking only 14th in batting average, the A’s put up the fourth most runs in the league last year, thanks in no small part to timely hitting and the power of sluggers like Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Donaldson. A solid pitching rotation starring Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin ranked in the top 10 in most pitching departments, including the third best WHIP in the majors.
 
Considering the talent at play in Oakland, the A’s didn’t need to dip too deep into the market this off-season, but they did bolster their pitching staff with the addition of veteran starter Scott Kazmir, a move which may pay dividends. The bullpen also welcomes setup man Luke Gregerson and closer Jim Johnson. Look to see them throwing several times a week, all season, and well into October.
 
Seattle Mariners (71-91, 4th in 2013)
 
After a fairly anonymous season in 2013, the Mariners made a big move for the 2014 season, landing free agent Robinson Cano in a big-money move that has Seattle fans cheering and the rest of the country scratching its head and the length and value of the contract given to the ex-Yankee.
 
But the addition of Cano, along with DH Corey Hart and outfielder Logan Morrison, doesn’t make up all the ground between the Mariners and teams like the Rangers or Athletics. A poor performance from the pitching staff last season won’t necessarily be helped by the addition of two rookies to the starting rotation this season, despite the efforts of ace Felix Hernandez. And trusty new closer Fernando Rodney won’t have much work to do if his starters can’t give him a lead to work with.
 
They’ve still got some work to do, but things are looking up, at least.
 
Texas Rangers (91-72, 2nd in 2013)
 
The Rangers had their hearts broken by the Rays last season, but they’ve responded to the challenge of the playoff race by strengthening an already strong squad. Sure, the departures of David Murphy and Ian Kinsler hurt, but the addition of slugger Prince Fielder and hurler Tommy Hanson will only add quality to the fans in Arlington.
 
Yu Darvish will look to put his remaining doubters to shame this season, and there’s no doubt that new arrival Shin-Soo Choo will look to replicate his success in Cleveland and Cincinnati in the Lone Star state.
 
If they can play consistent baseball all season, then they stand a chance to take back the division crown from Oakland. But if they fail in that department, it’s likely that the road to the playoffs may again run through Tampa Bay.
 
Prediction:
 
1st: Athletics
2nd: Rangers
3rd: Angels
4th: Mariners
5th: Astros