Each season, there are inevitably a few teams that show vast improvement from the previous year. In 2013, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals. The Baltimore Orioles, Oakland A's and Cincinnati Reds were those teams in 2012.
Who will surprise us in 2014? These three teams have what it takes to rebound in the upcoming season.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels' weakness in 2013 was their pitching, and they didn't make any huge moves to improve that issue. However, they no longer have the burden of Jerome Williams and his 4.57 ERA, and the addition of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs means Joe Blanton (6.04 ERA) won't have to stay in their rotation either.
Also, don't forget, Jered Weaver only started 24 games in 2013; if he can remain healthy for the entire season, that will be a huge boost for the Angels.
But what really needs to improve for the Angels is their offense. What was supposed to be a strength for them ended up being one of the biggest disappointments in the majors in 2013. The supposedly killer middle-of-the-lineup of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo combined for a .246 batting average and 5.2 WAR. (For the sake of comparison, teammate Mike Trout had a 9.2 WAR.)
Trumbo is now gone, though with his .294 OBP in 2013, that's not necessarily a huge loss. Most importantly though, Pujols is completely healthy. He had a partially torn plantar fascia, causing him to miss the final two months of the season, and he also had surgery on his right knee last spring.
But now, according to MLB.com, Pujols' foot is completely healthy. "I feel really happy," Pujols said on the show "Grandes en los Deportes" on Tuesday, per MLB.com. "Last year…it was a really tough year for me physically, in terms of recovering. But now I feel really good, really excellent. With the foot, I feel 99.9 percent healthy."
Pujols might not return to the same form he displayed while in his prime with the St. Louis Cardinals, but a healthy foot should at least help him post better numbers than in 2013.
Hamilton also should look to improve in 2014. For one, his performance steadily improved over the last month of the season. He batted .323 in September and .338 from Aug. 9 to the end of that month. He still finished with a dismal OPS of .739, and his discipline is still an issue (47 walks, 158 strikeouts). But Angels manager Mike Scioscia still has confidence in a rebound season for Hamilton.
"Josh is going to move back to left field and just stay in left field," Scioscia said, via CBS.com. "And I think he'll be more comfortable with that aspect as opposed to switching him to right field."
If Pujols and Hamilton can show improvement, and the pitching rotation's new additions (Santiago and Skaggs) perform better than those whom they're replacing (Williams and Blanton), the Angels could contend for the American League Wild Card in 2014.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants likely won't pass the Dodgers in the NL West, but they have a decent shot at grabbing one of the two Wild Card spots. That's mostly because of the improvement in their pitching this offseason, which ranked 13th in the National League in ERA last season.
Some of that was due to starters underperforming, like Matt Cain, who had his highest ERA since 2006.
But many of their problems are also fixed for 2014. Barry Zito and his 9.56 road ERA are gone, and veteran starter Tim Hudson is in to replace him. Additionally, Ryan Vogelsong, injured for much of the season, is back as the fifth starter, and Tim Lincecum is continuously improving his ability to pitch effectively with his decreased velocity.
With Angel Pagan back, first baseman Brandon Belt likely to perform at a high level for the entire season (.784 OPS in the first half, .915 OPS in the second) and the addition of Michael Morse, the Giants have a shot at making a major improvement in 2014.
The Nationals added Doug Fister, Nate McLouth and Jerry Blevins during the offseason, and each of those acquisitions steadily improves the roster.
Most importantly, Fister more than fills the hole left by Dan Haren's departure. In 2013, Fister had 14 wins and a 3.67 ERA; he was even better in 2012, with an ERA of 3.45. There is, however, one red flag. In 2013, Fister had the third-highest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the majors, but he got away with it because of Comerica Park's cavernous dimensions.
That means his ERA should increase a bit with the Nationals, but he'll still be an effective starter. He'll also be Washington's fourth starter in the rotation (behind Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman), so any type of solid production will be acceptable.
McLouth, meanwhile, adds much-needed depth to the Nationals' outfield. The Nats figure to start Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth, but McLouth should see plenty of time as the fourth guy in line. That's a significant upgrade over Scott Hairston and his .237 OBP last year.
Finally, the addition of Blevins fulfills need for a reliable left-handed relief pitcher. With the A's, Blevins posted a 3.30 ERA in seven seasons, proving to be one of their most consistent relievers; he's a welcome addition to the Nats.
The Nationals also added a new manager, Matt Williams. Speaking on ESPN980's The Drive, via SBNation, Williams certainly feels confident about his new team.
"Definitely have depth in the pitching staff and the front of the rotation is fantastic," Williams said. "We need to find back end of the rotation guys. Tanner Roark has stepped up. Got some guys that are on the verge. So, I think everything looks promising and we're anxious to get started."
Finally, the Nationals have plenty of young talent that could break out in 2014. The biggest name is Harper, but young starter Tanner Roark is also set for a huge season. He was 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 53.2 innings in 2013, and he'll have a chance to replicate his success out of the bullpen next season.
Many people expected the Nationals to be one of the National League's best teams in 2013; they have the pieces in place to reach those expectations in 2014.
All statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
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