10 Best Crafted Teams in Major League Baseball

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIApril 1, 2013

10 Best Crafted Teams in Major League Baseball

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    Major League Baseball may not have a salary cap, but that does not make it easy for teams to craft a competitive team. Just like in the NFL, NBA and NHL, MLB general managers must smartly combine the draft, trades and the free-agent market to construct a team capable of competing for the playoffs.

    Some teams attempt to outslug the competition. Others try the more fundamental—and generally less expensive—approach of using strong pitching and defense to win games. 

    The following 10 teams, however, do the best job of fielding balanced lineups and solid pitching staffs. It is no surprise, then, that the most well constructed teams in MLB are also the ones most likely to contend for the World Series next fall.

10. Tampa Bay Rays

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    The Tampa Bays Rays are definitely built on strong starting pitching and defense. 2012 American League Cy Young award winner David Price is the unquestioned ace of the staff. But the rest the rotation also includes a trio of young players on the rise in Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb.

    The Rays won’t lead the AL in runs scored, but a healthy Evan Longoria will lead an improved offense. Outfielders Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist are versatile hitters, and they could soon be joined by top prospect Wil Myers, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Kansas City Royals

9. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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    The Los Angeles Angels have dominated headlines over the past 15 months because of their offense, but this is a well-balanced team.  

    They first grabbed the spotlight by signing three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols and top free-agent pitcher C.J. Wilson after the 2011 season. The Angels remained squarely on everyone’s radar last season when outfielder Mike Trout had perhaps the greatest rookie season in major league history.

    Los Angeles upped the ante last winter by stealing outfielder Josh Hamilton away from the Texas rangers, giving them perhaps the best lineup in MLB.

    Wilson and ace Jered Weaver give the Angels one of the top pitching duos in the league, and Los Angeles improved an already strong bullpen by signing Ryan Madson as their closer.

    After just missing out on the playoffs in 2012, the Angels enter 2013 as favorites to win the AL West.

8. Toronto Blue Jays

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    The Toronto Blue Jays made a pair of high-profile trades in the offseason, looking to make a run at the AL East title in 2013. If the moves pay off, the Blue Jays will contend for a World Series title for the first time in 20 years.

    Toronto traded several prospects to the New York Mets in a deal that netted them 2012 National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey. Dickey leads a pitching staff that includes Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, two players acquired in another offseason trade with the Miami Marlins.

    That second deal also improved the Blue Jays’ lineup by adding shortstop Jose Reyes and utility man Emilio Bonifacio, who will play second base for Toronto. 

    With right fielder Jose Bautista returning from a wrist injury and first baseman Edwin Encarnacion looking to build on his breakout 2012 campaign, the Blue Jays will push the Rays for AL East supremacy.

7. St. Louis Cardinals

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    The St. Louis Cardinals failed in their quest to defend their 2011 World Series title last postseason, but they are still in a great position to return to the playoffs for the third consecutive year. If St. Louis’ youth movement continues to pay dividends in 2013, however, the Cardinals will find themselves right back in the playoff hunt.

    The Cardinals took a huge risk by letting Pujols leave via free agency after winning the championship. But the offense did not miss a beat in 2012, thanks to the contributions of third baseman David Freese and first baseman Allen Craig, and the continued development of catcher Yadier Molina at the plate.

    St. Louis took another risk last offseason by choosing not re-sign free-agent pitcher Kyle Lohse last winter. The Cardinals feel that top prospect Shelby Miller is prepared to help the rotation this season, joining ace Adam Wainwright and last year’s surprising star Lance Lynn.

    Jason Motte returns in his second year as the full-time closer after notching 42 saves in 2012.

6. San Francisco Giants

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    Fresh off their second World Series title in the last three season, the San Francisco Giants will be pushed hard in an improved NL West division. But by returning all of the major contributors to last year’s championship, the Giants are well prepared for the title defense.

    The offense is led by 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey, who agreed to a nine-year, $167 million contract extension last Friday. He will receive support from World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, right fielder Hunter Pence (in his first full season with San Francisco), and center fielder Angel Pagan.

    Even if two-time NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum continues to struggle, the starting rotation will still be very good. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are both ready to contend for the Cy Young themselves, and the Giants should continue to get solid contributions from veteran Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito.

    Another World Series hero, Sergio Romo, will assume the closer role full time this season and should continue to thrive at the end of games.

5. Atlanta Braves

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    The Atlanta Braves are looking to improve on an early playoff exit in 2012 after trading for one of the game's brightest young stars. 

    The Braves took advantage of the unhappy marriage between right fielder Justin Upton and the Arizona Diamondbacks, trading for the 25-year-old former No. 1 overall pick over the winter. Atlanta also signed his brother B.J. as a free agent, uniting the talented siblings for the first time in their major league careers.

    If Jason Heyward continues to develop into the star the Braves think he can be, Atlanta may well have the best outfield in all of baseball. 

    Tim Hudson continues to be Atlanta’s No. 1 starter, but young hurlers Kris Medlen and Mike Minor are arguably the Braves’ most dangerous weapons. Paul Maholm provides another veteran arm in his first full season in Atlanta, and the Braves should get Brandon Beachy back from Tommy John surgery at some point during the second half.

    Craig Kimbrel is the star of arguably the best bullpen in the majors. After just two seasons in Atlanta, he has emerged as perhaps MLB’s best closer.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Much has been made of the money the Los Angeles Dodgers have spent since being sold to Guggenheim Baseball Management last spring. However, the Dodgers have plenty of homegrown talent to complement their shiny new toys.

    Center fielder Matt Kemp, 2011 Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw and right fielder Andre Ethier will all be major contributors to L.A.’s success during a championship-or-bust campaign. Those three represent the Dodgers’ leadership and have helped the team sport a winning record in four of the last five season.

    As important as Kemp, Kershaw and Ethier are, all eyes will be on the newcomers. 

    Left fielder Carl Crawford will make his Los Angeles debut this season after coming to the Dodgers in a blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox last August. Zack Greinke will join Kershaw to form arguably the best pair of starters in the majors after signing with the Dodgers as a free agent.

    Shortstop Hanley Ramirez (once he returns from thumb surgery), right-hander Josh Beckett, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and closer Brandon League will also be heavily depended upon in their first full season with the Dodgers.

    Kemp, Crawford, Ramirez and starter Chad Billingsley are all coming off of major injuries entering 2013, so health will be a major concern for Los Angeles. But if the Dodgers get just a little bit more lucky in that department than they did in 2012, an extended postseason run should be expected.

3. Detroit Tigers

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    The Detroit Tigers are coming off of a disappointing loss in the World Series, getting swept by the Giants 4-0. But Detroit did not need many changes in the offseason to prepare for a repeat run to the championship series.

    The Tigers signed right fielder Torii Hunter to provide more consistency at the plate and add more veteran leadership in the clubhouse. The return of catcher/designated hitter Victor Martinez—who missed all of last season with a knee injury—will also help in both areas.

    Hunter and Martinez will complement a powerful lineup led by 2012 AL MVP and triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera and first baseman Prince Fielder.

    The rotation is led by 2011 AL Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, who recently signed the richest contract in major league history. The emergence of fellow flamethrower Max Scherzer last year gives Detroit a pair of starters that rivals the Kershaw-Greinke duo in Los Angeles.

    The Tigers will begin the season with a closer-by-committee approach in the bullpen after rookie Bruce Rondon failed to seize the job in spring training. Despite that apparent weakness, Detroit has more than enough to repeat as American League champions.

2. Cincinnati Reds

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    It is hard to identify a weakness on this Cincinnati Reds team, one that, like the Tigers, endured a heartbreaking postseason exit. The Reds were up 2-0 in the National League Division Series before the Giants rebounded to win the last three games—the first two in Cincinnati—to advance to the NLCS.

    With first baseman Joey Votto back to lead the charge, Cincinnati is poised to repeat as NL Central champs and extend its postseason run.  

    Newly acquired center fielder Shin-Soo Choo will get on base more consistently in the leadoff spot, setting the table for Votto and right fielder Jay Bruce to drive in plenty of runs. Second baseman Brandon Phillips remains a potent offensive threat, and third baseman Todd Frazier will be an upgrade over the aging and injury-prone Scott Rolen.  

    Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto are very strong at the front of the Reds’ rotation, while Homer Bailey finally began to live up to the hype in 2012. The bullpen will continue to be a strength, especially since Cincinnati elected to leave Aroldis Chapman in the closers role.

1. Washington Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals led the major leagues with a 98-64 record last season, even after shutting down their ace, Stephen Strasburg, a month before the playoffs. Unfortunately for the rest of MLB, the Nationals should be even better this year.

    In addition to removing Strasburg’s innings-pitched restriction, Washington added veteran starter Dan Haren to bolster the back of its rotation. The Nats also improved their bullpen by signing closer Rafael Soriano away from the New York Yankees.

    As good as the pitching will be, Washington hopes to have an improved offense as well. 

    Like the Reds, the Nationals also solidified their leadoff spot by trading for former Minnesota Twins center fielder Denard Span. However, all eyes will be on last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, Bryce Harper, to see how much better he will be in his second year.

    If Harper and Strasburg continue to develop at their incredible rates, the Nationals could be in for a very special season, one that could end with a championship parade in the nation’s capital.