With a lot of help from this guy, the Los Angeles Angels could be the American League's top team.
The 2013 MLB season saw the Boston Red Sox rise from the AL East cellar to win the World Series and the San Francisco Giants, who were reigning champs, fall out of contention by the All-Star break.
We remind ourselves of those shockers to formulate new bold predictions anticipating the breakout stars and heartbreaking disappointments of 2014.
The likelihoods of these possibilities vary from reasonable to remote. Honestly, we'd be fortunate to nail even 10 of them.
Nonetheless, the following slides will open your mind to just a few of the countless outcomes that the baseball gods could choose this coming year.
In 16 years of Arizona Diamondbacks baseball, Luis Gonzalez and Reggie Sanders have been the only pair of teammates to combine for at 75 home runs in a season (90 HR in 2001).
Don't be shocked if Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo accomplish the same feat in 2014.
They totaled 70 bombs last summer, even though Goldy was intentionally walked 19 times, the most of any National League player. Trumbo, meanwhile, played half his games at the pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium. Their sheer size—6'3", 245 pounds and 6'4", 235 pounds, respectively—and production from previous MLB seasons suggest that those numbers weren't fluky.
Entering his age-28 season, Trumbo's offense shouldn't be significantly affected by his usage in the outfield. With ultra-rangy defenders A.J. Pollock and Gerardo Parra expected to patrol center for the D-Backs, Trumbo won't have many responsibilities in the field anyway.
The Atlanta Braves didn't make an effort to re-sign Brian McCann in free agency, thus creating a lot more opportunities for the remaining catchers on their roster.
But those hoping to see "El Oso Blanco" Evan Gattis in an expanded role could be sorely disappointed. After amassing 382 plate appearances as a rookie, there's some doubt about Gattis surpassing that total in 2014.
Acquiring Ryan Doumit from the Minnesota Twins means that the Braves will carry three catchers on their active roster. And during an appearance on the MLB Network, general manager Frank Wren confirmed that Doumit's presence will occasionally relegate Gattis to pinch-hitting duty.
Fans—and even the team itself—got caught up in the fascinating Gattis narrative, overlooking the fact that his bat deteriorated from June onward (.219/.262/.391, 45 K in 229 PA). That's probably more indicative of his future performance than his April-May excellence was.
Chris Tillman was the lone member of the 2013 Baltimore Orioles to give them 30-plus starts, and that's not necessarily going to change this coming summer.
Fellow right-hander Miguel Gonzalez has yet to prove that he's capable of reaching that total. Wei-Yin Chen did for the O's in 2012, but he underwent knee surgery last October. Scott Feldman departed via free agency, while Jason Hammel has a handful of teams trying to lure him away, according to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports. Although Bud Norris is under team control, his heavy reliance on the fastball-slider combination could eventually convince Baltimore to send him to the bullpen.
Don't expect the Orioles to stabilize this mess with a top-tier starter. Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com says that they won't contend for Masahiro Tanaka, and a reluctance to part with future draft picks rules out Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez.
All of these factors will result in a second straight season of constant rotation turnover. Manager Buck Showalter needed 14 different starters in 2013; he may use even more to get through 2014.
The Boston Red Sox are unlikely to begin their World Series defense with Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks occupying the left side of the infield full time. That homegrown pair has combined for barely a full season's worth of major league experience.
Unfortunately, free agency doesn't offer an ideal fit for Boston's roster.
Former shortstop Stephen Drew is overqualified and expecting a lengthy commitment. Besides, the Red Sox are anxious to receive a compensatory draft pick when he signs with another team.
A relatively quiet offseason has given general manager Ben Cherington some payroll flexibility. By using it to digest most of the $11 million remaining on Jimmy Rollins' contract, he could probably acquire the 35-year-old from the Philadelphia Phillies without relinquishing a top pitching prospect.
At the 2013 non-waiver trade deadline, Rollins told the Philadelphia Daily News' David Murphy that he wouldn't drop his no-trade clause until achieving a few franchise records. He wants another 60 hits to become Philly's all-time leader in that department.
But is that really a higher priority than contending for a championship? Joining the Red Sox would surely give him better odds at that.
“We wish there were a free-agent market for young players," Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein said earlier this offseason, via Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Committing more than $100 million to Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo shows that Epstein will gladly spend on individuals he deems capable of contributing long into the future. The 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka meets that criterion.
The Cubs haven't been behaving like a big-market club during this rebuilding process, but Tanaka's availability will tempt them to open up their wallet. Besides Castro and Rizzo, Jorge Soler and Edwin Jackson are their only payroll obligations beyond 2014.
As presently constituted, Chicago is built to contend in 2016; Tanaka could move that timeline up a year.
The Chicago White Sox roster doesn't make sense as presently constituted.
Jose Dariel Abreu, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko are all first basemen/designated hitters, and they're all painfully slow on the basepaths. When healthy, they're the club's three biggest power threats, yet the only way of squeezing them in the same lineup involves displacing Dunn to an outfield corner, and that's just crazy talk (career minus-13.3 UZR/150 as outfielder).
The front office understandably won't trade Abreu after signing him to a six-year deal in October. Konerko has intangible value as White Sox captain, and by settling for a measly $2.5 million guarantee entering his final MLB season, he could be a terrific bargain.
Dunn, meanwhile, posted very comparable offensive numbers to Mark Trumbo in 2013. His age and salary will prevent Chicago from getting the same kind of prospect haul, but trimming payroll while adding even one controllable player would make an exchange worthwhile.
Several key figures in the Cincinnati Reds organization were strong proponents of moving Aroldis Chapman into the starting rotation last spring. Manager Dusty Baker wasn't one of them, so ultimately, the Cuban phenom stayed put in the closer's role.
However, then-pitching coach Bryan Price held a strong belief that Chapman's stuff would translate to success over a greater workload. He still does, as MLB.com's Mark Sheldon writes that Price would like to use the best weapon on his pitching staff more often.
Although Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com notes that the Reds could still be in the mix to re-sign Bronson Arroyo, there's a stronger possibility that they'll rely on internal options when assembling the rotation. That includes Johnny Cueto, who has spent much of the past three summers on the disabled list, and Tony Cingrani, a 2013 rookie.
Even if Chapman doesn't break camp as a starter, there should be opportunities for him to fill in at some point.
Let's also acknowledge how the All-Star's contract situation influences all of this.
Chapman is a safe bet to decline his $5 million player option for 2015, making him a free agent. Most teams would express interest based off his current track record, but how could anybody resist if he reaches the open market at age 26 with starting experience?
The .320 figure would represent a 100-point improvement for David Murphy following a nightmarish walk year with the Texas Rangers.
The reasons for optimism are discussed in greater detail here, but to summarize, these factors should work in his favor as a member of the 2014 Cleveland Indians:
- Murphy allegedly changed his approach at the plate when the Rangers lost sluggers Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, and it backfired.
- His .227 BABIP was extremely unlucky, a far cry from his career mark.
- The Tribe will often use him when there's a platoon advantage; no more uncomfortable plate appearances against Jason Vargas (1-for-6 against him last year), Drew Smyly (0-for-4) and other lefties.
On the other hand, we're forecasting steep regression for Michael Cuddyer.
Cuddyer paced the National League with a .331 batting average in 2013, but a career-best 27-game hitting streak clearly contributed to that.
He'll play this coming season at age 35 in an NL West division that has seen all of its teams improve their pitching staffs. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are expected to continue adding to their rotations before the winter ends.
Colorado Rockies newcomer Justin Morneau can be counted on to solidify first base more than Todd Helton did the past two years. His presence could mean that Cuddyer spends 1,000 innings in the outfield, which he hasn't been asked to do since 2009. Patrolling so much territory at Coors Field will tire his legs and affect him in the batter's box—the only question being to what degree.
Earned run average is convenient and easily calculable, but it's occasionally very misleading.
Daisuke Matsuzaka finished with the American League's third-best ERA in 2008. Bartolo Colon finished on Anibal Sanchez's coattails for the AL Lead this past summer. In 2014, Rick Porcello could serve as the latest reminder of the stat's limitations.
Porcello isn't of the same caliber as Detroit Tigers teammates Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander or Sanchez. Yet he has an opportunity to trump them all in run allowance.
The 25-year-old guru of grounders finally has a group on infielders capable of converting them into outs.
This will be the first full season that Jose Iglesias serves as Detroit's starting shortstop. As a result of the Prince Fielder trade, the Tigers upgraded their defense at both corner spots, with Nick Castellanos replacing Miguel Cabrera at third and Cabrera taking Prince's spot. In terms of UZR/150, Ian Kinsler has performed almost as well as the departed Omar Infante did at second base from 2011-2013, and he has a significant edge in Defensive Runs Saved.
Jose Altuve represented the Houston Astros in the 2012 Midsummer Classic, but earning a nod in 2014 would be much more impressive.
Back then, the Astros competed in the National League, where there's a weaker crop of second basemen. In the AL, however, he shares a position with Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Omar Infante and Ben Zobrist.
As a leader on the reigning World Series champions, Pedroia should receive the outpouring of fan support needed to start the MLB All-Star Game. In that scenario, Altuve's fate would hinge on the support of fellow players and coaches.
The fun-sized Venezuelan has averaged 34 stolen bases per season since becoming a full-time player. That alone will get him serious consideration from AL skipper John Farrell, who always encourages his teams to behave aggressively on the basepaths.
Salvador Perez didn't quite meet his lofty expectations during the 2013 season.
A midsummer concussion affected his production at the plate, and for whatever reason, his power only showed up during the final five weeks of the summer (5 HR through 402 PA, 8 HR in final 124 PA).
However, this is his opportunity to emerge as an offensive superstar. At age 24, Perez will ride his gorgeous right-handed swing into batting title contention.
If he indeed breaks out, it will be because of a prolonged hitting streak, and that's only realistic if the Kansas City Royals catcher gets some starts at the designated hitter's spot.
General manager Dayton Moore isn't tipping his hand about a Billy Butler trade, reports The Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd, but fill Moore with truth serum, and he'd admit that the team works best with a rotating DH. Don't discount the possibility of a move before Opening Day.
More so than any other American League team, the Los Angeles Angels have the potential to dramatically improve their win total from 2013 to 2014. After finishing this past season with a mediocre 78-84 record, they could make a serious run at the franchise record of 100 victories.
It all starts with Mike Trout, who we must remember is only 22 years old. He developed more plate discipline last season to compensate for some defensive sloppiness en route to repeating as the MLB leader in Wins Above Replacement. Trout will only continue to get better.
Co-star Jered Weaver was deprived of about nine starts due to a fluke elbow injury. Expect him to revert back to being the rotation leader who perennially finished top five in AL Cy Young Award voting from 2010-2012. Albert Pujols' bout with plantar fasciitis affected his availability at age 33, but it also reduced him to a designated hitter when active. We can trust him to bounce back.
Under the magnifying glass, the AL West isn't necessarily the behemoth that it seems to be from afar.
The Oakland Athletics' new infatuation with relief pitching could easily backfire, and Fox Sports insider Ken Rosenthal hears that the Seattle Mariners have exhausted most of their spending money. And the Texas Rangers still have big question marks at catcher, second base and closer.
Last season, only the Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals had five different players with at least 20 home runs.
None of them played in an environment that favors pitchers as severely as Dodger Stadium does. Then again, none of them have seemingly limitless financial resources like the Los Angeles Dodgers do, either.
L.A. absorbed Adrian Gonzalez's monstrous contract via trade, gambled on the once-toxic Hanley Ramirez, generously extended Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp and outbid the world for Yasiel Puig and Alexander Guerrero.
So long as the Dodgers clubhouse isn't infected with the injury bug, five members of that group could account 20 bombs.
Miserable manager Mike Redmond
The Miami Marlins have added to their roster via free agency, but are they actually a better team because of it?
Garrett Jones will replace Logan Morrison. It's a stretch to call him an upgrade, though, considering that the two posted a near-identical OPS last summer. Also, Jones is six years older, more strikeout-prone and just as shaky with the glove.
Two of Miami's other new infielders, Rafael Furcal and Casey McGehee, didn't spend an inning in the major leagues in 2013. Furcal sat out the season with Tommy John surgery, while McGehee feasted on a lower level of competition in Japan.
The Fish's biggest strength used to be the bullpen, as their relievers combined for baseball's fourth-best FIP despite a heavy workload. But Chad Qualls and Ryan Webb have since signed elsewhere.
To clarify this slide title, we can't imagine Wily Peralta capturing the National League Cy Young Award. Rather, we're insisting that he has the potential to finish as one of the top 10-12 pitchers in the Senior Circuit.
Participating sportswriters have five slots to fill on their ballots; Peralta can gain recognition from at least one of them.
The 2013 Milwaukee Brewers plummeted toward irrelevancy rather quickly, and Peralta is largely responsible for that. Struggling with command and pitch efficiency, the highly touted right-hander owned a nauseating 6.08 earned run average through 15 starts (80.0 IP).
But he finished with a flourish, halving his ERA to 3.05 during the final 17 outings with a .229 BAA and 7.32 K/9.
The 24-year-old likes inducing ground balls, and rumor has it that he could spend 2014 with a much-improved right side of the infield. Scooter Gennett will get increased playing time at second base (at Rickie Weeks' expense), while the New York Post's Mike Puma tweets that the Brewers remain in the hunt for slick-fielding first baseman Ike Davis.
In his pursuit of this hardware, the first hurdle that Aaron Hicks needs to overcome is his absence from the active roster.
During his rookie campaign, he posted a dreadful .179/.249/.326 batting line through the first two-plus months before landing on the disabled list with a knee injury. He didn't fare much better upon returning and spent the final third of the season in the minors.
But the Minnesota Twins aren't keen on using Alex Presley in center field again, especially when Hicks is so cheap and talented. He'll presumably get every opportunity to leapfrog Presley on the depth chart in spring training.
In just a half-season with the Twins, the then-24-year-old Hicks recorded nine outfield assists and contributed two Defensive Runs Saved. For comparison's sake, the reigning American Gold Glove winner at his position, Adam Jones, had 11 assists and minus-two DRS.
The New York Mets signed Bartolo Colon as a high-profile stopgap because Matt Harvey is going to miss all of 2014 (Tommy John surgery). They're also waiting for Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero to reach the majors.
Most free-agent All-Stars who place sixth in American League Cy Young Award voting would be surefire bargains at a two-year, $20 million price tag. At age 40, however, Colon is much riskier than other pitchers with similar credentials.
As we've seen recently with former rotation aces like Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, careers can crumble in a hurry. Even if Colon improbably maintains his effectiveness from 2013, the mileage on his right arm (2,642 regular-season and postseason innings) leaves him susceptible to serious injury.
Knowing the Mets' rotten luck in free agency, there's no guarantee that Colon is still with the organization in 2015.
Dollar bills alone cannot plug every hole.
In the New York Yankees' case, 278 million of them might not have been enough.
That's how much the Yankees committed to Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran in an attempt to revamp their lineup.
But perhaps we're overstating the benefits that Ellsbury can gain from Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field, overlooking McCann's shoulder surgery and his second-half struggles last season and overestimating Beltran's ability to play everyday at age 37 through chronic knee pain.
If so, Mark Teixeira's big bounce back from wrist issues—imagine something comparable to his 2012 stats: .248/.341/.494, .835 OPS, 39 HR—could trump their debuts in the Bronx. And in that scenario, the Yankees wouldn't be very competitive.
The Oakland Athletics' collapse back to obscurity could come just as abruptly as their ascension to the top of the AL West did in 2012.
The rest of the division has improved. The A's major changes, meanwhile, could prove counterproductive if Scott Kazmir doesn't use his pitches more efficiently or if high-priced closer Jim Johnson fails to steady himself in high-leverage situations.
Oakland's offense is comprised of many diamonds in the rough that general manager Billy Beane unearthed.
One exception is Yoenis Cespedes, the ultra-athletic Cuban outfielder and reigning Home Run Derby champion. His raw tools and reasonable contract terms would make him an intriguing trade chip for Beane either during or after the 2014 season, even if the A's are in contention.
Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. seldom owns up to his mistakes. If that doesn't change soon, he'll lose his job.
Amaro has made several ill-advised signings to keep the Phillies' likable, once-successful core intact, but Ryan Howard's $125 million contract was easily the most inexplicable.
Two years into it, the free-swinging first baseman is batting just .244/.307/.445 with 25 home runs. There's little hope of him bouncing back to respectability at age 34.
If this season goes as poorly as many project that it will—with Philly battling for the .500 mark rather than a playoff berth—Amaro might bite the bullet and pay Howard tens of millions of dollar to get lost.
The Pittsburgh Pirates revitalized the careers of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano by surrounding them with superb defense and telling them to trust it.
Edinson Volquez doesn't quite rival them in terms of pure stuff, but he's pretty close.
Awful as his results were with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers last season, Volquez had 7.50 K/9. And he's not far removed from whiffing more than a batter per inning with the Cincinnati Reds in 2010.
The Pirates will get a nice return on their $5 million investment in him.
This prediction goes against the grain.
The San Diego Padres have garnered near-universal praise for snagging Josh Johnson on a one-year, $8 million contract. Not only is the salary modest for a former NL ERA leader, but there's a clause that triggers a $4 million club option for 2015 if he can't stay healthy.
So the worst-case scenario entails the right-hander pitching poorly for the Padres without any discernible injury.
Johnson's stuff is still potent, but over the past two seasons, he hasn't shown the same confidence to aim it toward the strike zone (see Zone%). That, coupled with the reduction of Petco Park's outfield dimensions, could make him a bust in San Diego.
Tim Lincecum. Matt Cain. Brian Wilson. Sergio Romo.
The San Francisco Giants farm system has a history of drafting and developing terrific pitchers.
Madison Bumgarner proves that this tradition is alive and well. Spending most of 2013 as a 23-year-old, the filthy lefty posted a 2.77 earned run average (120 ERA+) across 201.1 innings with five double-digit strikeout games.
One more baby step forward in 2014 will put him in the same breath as Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and the rest of the National League's elite.
We've grown so accustomed to seeing big-name free agents fall short of validating their long-term contracts.
And not just over time—they usually disappoint from the get-go.
Albert Pujols and Carl Crawford come to mind. Adam Dunn was indescribably bad upon joining the Chicago White Sox. The list goes on and on.
Robinson Cano received a 10-year, $240 million guarantee from the Seattle Mariners, and it would be an upset if his performance over that span is worth a quarter-billion dollars.
But in 2013, he batted .314/.383/.516 with 27 home runs and a fifth-place finish in AL MVP voting for the New York Yankees despite zero lineup protection. He's not declining (yet).
We shouldn't be stunned when he impresses for the M's in 2014.
Don't get too discouraged by Kolten Wong's .153/.194/.169 batting line last September.
Matt Carpenter (.067/.263/.133) wasn't a whole lot better prior to his standout 2012 season, nor was eventually American League Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia during his first taste of the big leagues (.191/.258/.303).
Wong proved himself to be a gifted and disciplined hitter at all his previous stints in the minors. Although the second baseman's ceiling isn't as high as those of teammate Oscar Taveras or stud pitching prospect Archie Bradley, he has the potential to vault past those other NL candidates with a gaudy batting average—a la Chris Coghlan in 2009.
Mark Ellis' presence could bite into Wong's playing time initially, but the St. Louis Cardinals don't shy away from using homegrown players when their results justify a starting job.
They're going to miss David Price
With their current roster, the Tampa Bay Rays could enter 2014 as mighty challengers to the Boston Red Sox's AL East reign.
But they'd be contradicting themselves by paying David Price the $13-plus million salary that he's projected to earn as an arbitration-eligible player. This franchise has risen to prominence through lopsided stars-for-prospects exchanges, and the Rays are expected to go that route one more time to bolster their farm system for the future.
Aside from the fact that Price is irreplaceable internally, Tampa Bay's chances of contending this season hinge on a lot of questions:
- Can Jose Molina (38 years old) and Ryan Hanigan (33) stay healthy?
- Will Jeremy Hellickson bounce back (5.17 ERA in 174.0 IP in 2013)?
- Will AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers avoid a sophomore slump?
- Can the coaching staff "fix" Heath Bell?
If all of the responses turn out to be noes, it'll be a frustrating year.
Manager Ron Washington is excited about this prediction too.
Heavyset players generally don't age gracefully, but the Texas Rangers should get at least two more prime years from Prince Fielder before his belly brings him down. After all, he hasn't yet reached his 30th birthday.
The one thing that Texas will definitely get from its new first baseman is durability. Fielder hasn't missed a regular-season game since 2010, nor has he ever landed on the disabled list through nine MLB seasons.
With approximately 700 plate appearances to work with, hitter-friendly conditions at Rangers Ballpark and teammates Shin-Soo Choo and Adrian Beltre demanding respect from opposing pitchers, Fielder's career high of 50 home runs is attainable.
They'll obviously need a healthy Jose Reyes
Despite playing home games in such a high-scoring environment—and frequently visiting several others around the AL East—the Toronto Blue Jays ranked just eighth among American League teams in runs last season (712). The year before, they were seventh (716).
Injuries were the No. 1 debilitating factor, especially in 2013.
Newcomers Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes each missed about half the season, and neither were their usual, dynamic selves when in the lineup. Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie each missed a couple months too, and Edwin Encarnacion opted for wrist surgery with several weeks remaining on the schedule.
All those potential impact players are healthy as spring training approaches. Also, considering Toronto's upgrade behind the plate and the weakened pitching staffs of the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees (both division rivals), we can expect a lot of crooked numbers.
Health permitting, Bryce Harper will dominate.
From an offensive perspective, the Washington Nationals have so much in common with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Jayson Werth—their version of Jose Bautista—was on the sidelines too often, as was Wilson Ramos, who, like Brett Lawrie, is on the verge of blossoming into a very productive player. Their best overall hitter, Bryce Harper, persevered through the summer at far less than full strength. And Danny Espinosa was Washington's J.P. Arencibia, a young player who massively underachieved when entrusted with an everyday job.
Unlike Toronto, the Nationals boast a very deep starting rotation. If their lineup improves at all, they'll likely slip into the playoffs.
But if Harper justifies years of praise from agent Scott Boras and Sports Illustrated with MVP-caliber results, the Nats should roll through all their opposition.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.