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
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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

2014 Preview: AL Central

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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

2014 Season Preview : AL East

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By Greg Hudson
 
With the start of a new baseball season just a month away, Major League Baseball is ramping up with spring training and invites for young prospects to get a shot at a big-league roster spot. But the off-season has been full of big moves, big contracts, and big news about major teams and players that will have a big impact this season.
 
To preview the 2014 season, Starting Point Sports is taking a look at each division in the coming days, starting with the American League East.
 
Baltimore Orioles (85-77, 3rd in 2013)
 
The Orioles will be frustrated after failing to make the playoffs in 2013 despite securing a winning record for a second year running, as young players continued to develop into a fearsome lineup that featured Chris “Crush” Davis and Manny Machado at the corner infield positions and Adam Jones and Nick Markakis in the outfield. An underwhelming pitching rotation led by Chris Tillman struggled at times, but a sensational bullpen kept them in the hunt for a wildcard spot until a late surge from the Texas Rangers knocked them out of contention in the final weeks of the season.
 
The off-season acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez should provide more stability to an otherwise unaltered pitching staff. The Birds have also signed veteran outfielder Delmon Young, who may prove valuable as the season progresses and they look to get back in the hunt for October baseball.
 
Boston Red Sox (97-65, 1st in 2013)
 
It was a tale of two seasons in Beantown, as the Sox went from Zeros to Heroes in 2013. After a disappoiting 2012 season that saw the perennial playoff team fall to the basement of the AL East, the Sox were a revelation in 2013, winning the AL East, the American League pennant, and the World Series. They got their largely through their high-powered offense, which led the league in runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and put together a .277 season batting average. Pitching was no less impressive, with the starting rotation providing 95 quality starts and 67 wins. The big weakness in the Sox squad was the bullpen, especially in the closer role, earning only 33 of 57 save opportunities.
 
But the Sox didn’t focus on the bullpen in the offseason, though they did pick up starting pitcher Chris Capuano who will only add to the quality in the rotation. Grady Sizemore, an ex-Indian who hasn’t played in the majors since 2011, was an interesting acquisition. I look forward to seeing whether or not he features at all this season.
 
New York Yankees (85-77, 4th in 2013)
 
The Yankees are a team in transition, and a transition made all the more moving by the announcement that the 2014 season will be Derek Jeter’s final season. The most important player in Yankees pinstripes in the past two decades and the final tie connecting the glory days of the late 1990s to the futile string of seasons in the past decade, he will leave a hole that will be almost impossible to fill.
 
But more concerning for Yankee fans this season will be all the other holes the Yankees have to fill. Suspended third baseman Alex Rodriguez may or may not be missed, but the lack of a quality replacement leaves the Yankees short in terms of power, compounded by the departure of Robinson Cano. Injury-plagued first baseman Mark Texeira will be an unknown quantity in his return this year.
 
The signing of All-Star outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury will more than make up for the departure of Curtis Granderson, but the biggest acquisition was Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, pipped as a future Cy Young winner. But pitchers coming to the majors from Japan have historically been either great successes or great failures, as both Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka can attest. The quality of his season could well be the deciding factor in whether or not the Yanks get back into the hunt for October in an increasingly competitive division.
 
Tampa Bay Rays (92-71, 2nd in 2013)
 
The Rays squeaked into the playoffs last season after beating the Texas Rangers in a special win-or-go-home game to decide the final playoff spot, the first time since 1999 that a team that won 90 games failed to make the playoffs. The Rays dreams fell short in the playoffs, but the Rays will be pleased with the performances of their young up-and-coming stars, namely breakout phenom Wil Myers and lights-out pitcher Chris Archer.
 
The Rays haven’t done much to their roster in the offseason, which speaks to the strength of their drafts in recent years. The team has invited several non-roster players to try out for a big-league spot this year, including 2013 draftee Ryne Stanek, a top pitching prospect, and other highly-rated minor-leaguers Taylor Guerrieri and Oscar Hernandez. The Rays clearly think the future of the team already lies in the organization, and that says a lot about a club. 
 
Toronto Blue Jays (74-88, 5th in 2013)
 
The Blue Jays have been the only AL East team not to contend for a playoff position in the past five seasons. Their 2013 season continued a recent trend of poor pitching and middle-of-the-road hitting that put them within 15 games of a .500 record, thanks to an unusually high run output, despite ranking just 15th in batting average and on-base percentage, thanks in no small part to the speed of players like Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion, and the power of slugger Jose Bautista.
 
The Jays’ biggest weakness continues to be starting pitching, as the organization failed to make any notable signings during the off-season. But 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey will hope that his second season in Toronto will be a comeback year after a thoroughly disappointing season in defense of his Cy Young award. Mark Buerhle will also be hoping to return to the lights-out quality he produced during his days in Chicago. The Jays will need them to pull it off too, if they want to climb out of the basement of baseball’s most competitive division.
 
Prediction: In the end, despite some big moves in and out of the teams in the division, there won’t be that much change in the overall standings. The gulf in quality between the top three teams and the bottom two teams is just too much for either team to overcome. But look for the Orioles to be there in September fighting for the second wildcard spot.
 
1st: Red Sox
2nd: Rays *wildcard
3rd: Orioles *wildcard
4th: Yankees
5th: Blue Jays