Ranking MLB's Top 10 World Series Contenders Heading into February

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterFebruary 1, 2014

Ranking MLB's Top 10 World Series Contenders Heading into February

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    The Red Sox are the reigning champs, but where do they rank among 2014 contenders as spring training nears?
    The Red Sox are the reigning champs, but where do they rank among 2014 contenders as spring training nears?Associated Press

    Taking a temperature reading in the dead of winter is never fun, but with February officially underway and spring training just around the corner, it won't be long before everything starts to thaw and eventually warm up in Major League Baseball.

    Over the coming days and weeks, between big-name free agents still to be had and potential difference-making trades to be made, there's plenty more that can—and will—happen during what has become an extended hot-stove season this year. And it's not like there hasn't been plenty of player movement to this point in the offseason already.

    Better yet, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, who open the regular season in Australia on March 22, are both set to open camp—are you ready?—this coming week. All other clubs will soon follow.

    That in mind, whaddaya say we break out the thermometer a little early this year and run down the top 10 World Series contenders for the 2014 season—along with their key additions and subtractions—at the outset of February?

    After all, this is the shortest month of the year.

The Best of the Rest

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    With loads of young talent, like superstar-in-the-making Gerrit Cole, the Pirates are just outside the top 10.
    With loads of young talent, like superstar-in-the-making Gerrit Cole, the Pirates are just outside the top 10.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    These teams were in the running for a spot among the top 10 contenders, but they didn't quite make it. Then again, perhaps with a move or two over the next few weeks, that could change.

     

    Pittsburgh Pirates

    This franchise's batch of young talent—including reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, home run leader Pedro Alvarez and superstar-to-be Gerrit Cole (pictured)—could be even better in 2014. Even more so if the team's two top prospects, righty Jameson Taillon and outfielder Gregory Polanco, provide a midseason boost. After ending 20 straight seasons of losing, though, let's make them prove it first.

     

    Cincinnati Reds

    All of a sudden, there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Reds, who have made it to October three of the past four years. They lost a huge piece from their lineup (Shin-Soo Choo) that is being replaced by a rookie whose bat is questionable (Billy Hamilton). There's a chance that Homer Bailey—arguably their best starter—could be traded if a long-term deal isn't reached.

     

    Kansas City Royals

    Finally, there were meaningful September games in Kansas City for the first time since the Ronald Reagan administration. Whether there will be an encore, however, depends on whether youngsters like Eric Hosmer, Sal Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Mike Moustakas can improve and team with a stable of solid vets like James Shields, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and newcomer Omar Infante.

     

    San Francisco Giants

    Last season was a 76-86 disaster for a team that had won two of the previous three titles (2010, 2012). But the Giants retain much of their championship core, made a nice rotation addition in Tim Hudson and could be a Brandon Belt breakout from pushing the Dodgers out West. Bounce-back years from one or two of Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum could go a long way.

     

    Los Angeles Angels

    Apparently, even Mike Trout can't do it all by himself. This club has been the most disappointing in the sport over the past two seasons, mainly because its high-priced stars (i.e., Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, Josh Hamilton) have had trouble staying healthy and/or productive into their 30s. If the infusion of some much-needed young pitching (i.e. Tyler Skaggs, Hector Santiago) brings a lift, though, watch out.

     

    Arizona Diamondbacks

    There's a lot on the line in the desert, where MVP runner-up Paul Goldschmidt is surrounded by a bunch of solid players on the diamond. A couple of big trades netted help in slugger Mark Trumbo and closer Addison Reed, but the Diamondbacks are likely to be looking up at the Dodgers this year. Maybe way up.

     

    Cleveland Indians

    After a bevy of moves last offseason, the Indians congealed at just the right time—they went 21-6 in September—to sneak into the postseason for the first time since 2007. Much less transaction action this time around puts a lot of pressure on a rotation that has a few intriguing arms (Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and, especially, Danny Salazar) but plenty of question marks.

10. New York Yankees

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    Which was bigger for the Yankees: acquiring Jacoby Ellsbury or losing Robinson Cano?
    Which was bigger for the Yankees: acquiring Jacoby Ellsbury or losing Robinson Cano?John Minchillo/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    RHP Masahiro Tanaka, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Brian McCann, OF Carlos Beltran, INF Kelly Johnson, LHP Matt Thornton, 2B Brian Roberts

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    2B Robinson Cano, RHP Mariano Rivera, LHP Andy Pettitte, OF Curtis Granderson, 3B Alex Rodriguez, LHP Boone Logan, RHP Phil Hughes, RHP Joba Chamberlain

     

    Contender Status: The Roster Renovation

    Quick, name the only projected starter for the 2014 Yankees who was also an everyday player for them last season. That's right: Brett Gardner. And even he has been involved in trade rumors this winter. Talk about a roster turnover.

    After just about every Yankees star spent some, much or all of 2014 on the disabled list and the team somehow managed to stay in the hunt into late September by piecing together an 85-77 campaign, the Yankees spent big—like half-a-billion-dollars big—to avoid a second straight postseason-less year.

    Problem is, for all the talent that came in, nearly as much went out. Not to mention, New York has some very real concerns, namely health and age. To that first point, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira combined for just 32 games last year; and to the second, of the Yankees' starting nine on Opening Day, not one will be under 30 years old.

    Still, the Yankees have won this way before, using their deep pockets to replenish their 25-man roster, and could do so again.

9. Atlanta Braves

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    Julio Teheran is just one of the many youngsters who make up the core of the consistent Braves.
    Julio Teheran is just one of the many youngsters who make up the core of the consistent Braves.Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    C/OF Ryan Doumit, RHP Freddy Garcia, RHP Gavin Floyd

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    C Brian McCann, RHP Tim Hudson, LHP Paul Maholm, LHP Eric O'Flaherty

     

    Contender Status: The Youth Movement

    Among these 10 top contenders, the Braves have done and spent the least this winter. When Ryan Doumit is a team's biggest get, it's either a matter of not trying or of smacking against a hard-and-fast budget. The Braves fall into the latter category.

    Nonetheless, this is a very strong roster, one that is also very much in transition. The two longest-tenured Braves, Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, are both gone.

    That leaves a core of young talent—both position players (Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons) and pitchers (Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor, Julio Teheran)—that is among the best in the sport right now.

    And yet Atlanta still seems to be ever the bridesmaid, never the bride. The team has made it to October three times in the past four years, but the last playoff series win came in 2001. The problem, then, isn't so much in getting there but advancing.

    With many of these youngsters about to get pricey, it's becoming a now-or-never situation for the Braves.

8. Texas Rangers

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    Strikeout king Yu Darvish will be joined by two more big names in 2014: Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo.
    Strikeout king Yu Darvish will be joined by two more big names in 2014: Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    1B Prince Fielder, OF Shin-Soo Choo, C J.P. Arencibia, OF Michael Choice

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    LHP Derek Holland, 2B Ian Kinsler, OF Nelson Cruz, RHP Joe Nathan, RHP Matt Garza, C A.J. Pierzynski, OF David Murphy, OF Craig Gentry, 1B/DH Lance Berkman, INF Jeff Baker

     

    Contender Status: The Reloaded Lineup

    For years, the Rangers were known for their ability to bash baseballs. After a slight slip in that department for a season, they're looking to get back to bashing.

    From 2010 through 2012, Texas ranked in the top five in runs scored every year, including No. 1 overall in 2012. Then, last season, the Rangers dropped to eighth, and their 730 runs was their lowest total since 1995. The additions of on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo and power-hitting Prince Fielder to the top and middle of the lineup, respectively, should go a long way toward an offensive outburst in Texas.

    On the pitching side, the rotation had been coming together nicely, thanks to MLB strikeout leader Yu Darvish. Injuries, though, have cut down left-handers Derek Holland (who may miss half of 2014) and Matt Harrison, leaving a lot on the arm of fellow southpaw Martin Perez.

    If the rotation can avoid any further ailments and the deep bullpen can replace closer Joe Nathan, the Rangers finally may have found just the right balance between bats and arms.

7. Oakland Athletics

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    Last year, Josh Donaldson took the jump from no-name to underrated star.
    Last year, Josh Donaldson took the jump from no-name to underrated star.Lon Horwedel/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Jim Johnson, RHP Luke Gregerson, OF Craig Gentry, RHP Josh Lindblom, LHP Eric O'Flaherty, LHP Drew Pomeranz

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    RHP Bartolo Colon, RHP Grant Balfour, LHP Brett Anderson, OF Seth Smith, OF Chris Young, LHP Jerry Blevins

     

    Contender Status: The Small-Market Squad

    The Athletics surprised everyone by winning the AL West crown in 2012, and then did it again last year. Along the way, these underdogs have more than proven they are for real.

    A roster that's been filled with interchangeable parts went through all kinds of, well, changing yet again this offseason. In particular, the rotation and bullpen will have quite a different look in 2014, what with All-Stars Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour gone and Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson in their place.

    Savvy manager Bob Melvin will get the best out of his bunch as usual, but the young A's need to be able to depend on someone for stability, if not stardom, going forward. The slugging Yoenis Cespedes, the surprising Josh Donaldson, the steady Jarrod Parker or the smooth Sonny Gray could step into that role.

    That could be just what Oakland needs to get past the first round for the first time since 2006.

6. Detroit Tigers

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    Keeping two-time MVP winner Miguel Cabrera healthy will be key for the Tigers next season.
    Keeping two-time MVP winner Miguel Cabrera healthy will be key for the Tigers next season.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    2B Ian Kinsler, RHP Joe Nathan, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Joba Chamberlain, INF Steve Lombardozzi, LHP Ian Krol

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    1B Prince Fielder, RHP Doug Fister, SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Omar Infante, RHP Joaquin Benoit

     

    Contender Status: The Not-So-Patient Power

    In their continued effort to win now, the Tigers are switching things up a bit.

    This offseason, Detroit has become a lot more athletic, speedy and defensive-oriented, which isn't a bad thing. Then again, under the previous roster construction, this was a team on the brink of winning it all each of the past three seasons.

    The consensus was that Detroit should have received a lot more in return for Doug Fister, one of the more underrated starting pitchers around. The plan, though, is to have lefty Drew Smyly bring a different look to the rotation. That is still this squad's strength, what with Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young winner.

    Shoring up the closer's role—long a problem spot—with Joe Nathan, the active saves leader, is going to help too.

    As for the offense, there's likely to be a drop-off after Prince Fiedler was swapped for Ian Kinsler, Omar Infante's replacement. That trade also puts a lot on the performance of rookie Nick Castellanos, who takes over at third for two-time defending MVP Miguel Cabrera, who'll shift back to first.

    For a club that has been one of the best in baseball in recent seasons, that sure is a lot of moving and shaking. At the moment, however, it looks like the Tigers spent the offseason running in place.

5. Boston Red Sox

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    Phenom Xander Bogaerts hung with the big boys last October, but is he ready to start for the reigning champs?
    Phenom Xander Bogaerts hung with the big boys last October, but is he ready to start for the reigning champs?Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    C A.J. Pierzynski, RHP Edward Mujica, OF Grady Sizemore

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    OF Jacoby Ellsbury, SS Stephen Drew, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia

     

    Contender Status: The Reigning Champs

    The Red Sox haven't done a whole lot since winning it all in October. Of course, they did win it all in October, so it's hard to knock them too much.

    The team stuck with its new approach of not spending an inordinate amount of money on any one player or surrendering a draft pick to sign a free agent. The Red Sox can get away with that method because, well, it worked last year. Further, their farm system has been restocked into one of the game's best, with young players ready to contribute this year.

    The two key names on that front? Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. One of the very top prospects in the sport, the former is expected to take over for Stephen Drew (who remains a free agent), while the latter is in line to replace Jacoby Ellsbury (who left for the rival Yankees).

    And in case you forgot, last year's core players—David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli, Jon Lester, Koji Uehara—are still around to help Boston stay strong. If there's a question here, it's this: Can everything break just right for the Red Sox all over again in 2014?

4. Tampa Bay Rays

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    If the Rays hang onto David Price all season long, chances are they're among the best teams around.
    If the Rays hang onto David Price all season long, chances are they're among the best teams around.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    RHP Grant Balfour, RHP Heath Bell, C Ryan Hanigan

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    RHP Fernando Rodney, RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Alex Torres, INF Kelly Johnson, DH Luke Scott

     

    Contender Status: The Going-For-Brokers

    Yep, that's right: The Rays rank ahead of the Red Sox, meaning they're shaping up to be the AL East preseason favorite. At least right now.

    That could all change if Tampa Bay pulls a fast one and somehow swaps ace David Price, who's been at the center of trade rumors all winter, between now and the start of the season. At this point, though, the Rays appear ready and willing to keep Price—whose $14 million 2014 salary is incredibly steep by Tampa Bay's standards—and go for broke.

    Provided Price stays, he'll front a young, deep rotation that also features fellow lefty Matt Moore as well as right-handers Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson. The back of the bullpen underwent a makeover, with Grant Balfour and Heath Bell adding some veteran presence.

    The only other differences are at catcher, where defensive-minded Ryan Hanigan will team with incumbent Jose Molina, and in right field, where the Rays will benefit from a full season from Rookie of the Year Wil Myers.

    Given the relative splurges to bring in Balfour and keep Price as well as first baseman James Loney, this is the Rays' best shot to get back to the World Series.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, fresh off his second Cy Young Award in three years, leads one of the best in baseball.
    The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, fresh off his second Cy Young Award in three years, leads one of the best in baseball.Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    RHP Dan Haren, 2B Alexander Guerrero, RHP Chris Perez

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    RHP Ricky Nolasco, 2B Mark Ellis, LHP Chris Capuano, RHP Ronald Belisario, INF/OF Skip Schumaker

     

    Contender Status: The Nouveau Riche

    The star-studded Dodgers team that dominated the NL West from midseason on, climbing from last place in late June to first a mere month later, remains largely intact. That's a good thing.

    So too is the fact that the NL West is arguably the worst division in baseball. That should give Los Angeles a leg up on some of the other contenders on this list. Hey, when trying to rank World Series favorites, an easy path to the playoffs can't be ignored.

    There are a few questions, however. Like how do they fit four outfielders into three spots, with Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier all capable of starting every day?

    And will new Cuban import Alexander Guerrero, who's expected to start at second base, be able to adapt immediately to a major market and a team with title hopes, not to mention a whole new country?

    And lastly, what, if anything, might the Dodgers get out of starters Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett after lost 2013 seasons?

    There shouldn't be as many questions about the rest of the rotation, though, thanks to righty Zack Greinke and lefties Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw, who's coming off his second career Cy Young (and signing the largest pitcher contract ever). The back of the bullpen is stocked with current and former closers Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson and Chris Perez.

    Barring injuries or egos getting in the way, it's hard to see how the Dodgers don't get back to October—and then some—this season.

2. Washington Nationals

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    After a disappointing 2013, could this be the year for Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals?
    After a disappointing 2013, could this be the year for Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals?Uncredited/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    RHP Doug Fister, OF Nate McLouth, LHP Jerry Blevins

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    RHP Dan Haren, INF Stephen Lombardozzi, LHP Ian Krol

     

    Contender Status: The Best-Is-Yet-to-Come Club

    Right now, you're thinking, "Gee, the Nationals at No. 2? For a team that finished with just 86 wins and struggled all year long, that seems high."

    For one reason or another, the Nationals—preseason faves a year ago too—never got around to showing just how good they could be until a 26-12 run across August and September. By then, it was too late.

    This club is way too talented and deep to experience the same kind of disappointing injuries and underwhelming performances in 2014 all over again.

    If you're arguing for a case of deja vu here, you're either trying to fool yourself or you're a Braves fan. Why? Because baseball has yet to see the best from Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg. If either one takes that next step everyone's been awaiting, this Washington team could be downright dangerous.

    Not that it's all about those two, by the way. Not when there's also veteran bats like Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth or youngsters like Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos.

    Not when the rotation actually got better with the addition of dependable Doug Fister to Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Strasburg.

    Not when the bullpen, featuring Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, has about as much late-inning firepower as any team.

    Still think this ranking is too high?

1. St. Louis Cardinals

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    With stalwarts Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina leading all that young talent, the Cardinals are the top World Series contender.
    With stalwarts Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina leading all that young talent, the Cardinals are the top World Series contender.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Key Additions (via trades, free agency)

    SS Jhonny Peralta, OF Peter Bourjos, 2B Mark Ellis

     

    Key Subtractions (via trades, free agency, injuries, suspensions, retirements)

    OF Carlos Beltran, 3B David Freese, RHP Edward Mujica

      

    Contender Status: The Player Development Powerhouse

    Don't look now, but the top three teams are all (gasp) from the National League, and the best of the bunch, the St. Louis Cardinals, has been saved for last.

    After an incredibly successful 2013 that ended with a run to the World Series, there wasn't a heck of a lot for this club to address over the offseason. The biggest black hole, shortstop, shouldn't be a problem anymore with Jhonny Peralta displacing Pete Kozma.

    Meanwhile, minor moves addressed other issues. Matt Carpenter takes over at the more familiar hot corner for David Freese, traded for Peter Bourjos to help the outfield defense, and Mark Ellis provides a veteran presence to platoon with rookie Kolten Wong at second base.

    Yes, folks, the Cardinals—veritable player development factory that they are—have yet another young player ready to step into a starting job. Last year alone brought, among others (deep breath): Carpenter, Matt Adams, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and postseason revelation Michael Wacha. All of them will be back—and probably better—in 2014.

    Besides Wong, who projects to be a heady, steady, top-of-the-lineup player, St. Louis has top prospect Oscar Taveras at its disposal, as soon as he shows his middle-of-the-order bat is ready to replace Carlos Beltran's.

    Of course, even with Beltran gone, the Cardinals have their usual suspects of veteran stalwarts too: Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. Between the stars to be and the stars that already are, this club doesn't quit.

    Plenty can change between now and next October, but one thing's for sure: Like the Red Sox showed last year, the best does, in fact, get saved for last.

     

    To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11