As pitchers and catchers report for duty, baseball fans can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Before long, the 2014 Major League Baseball season will begin.
After a long, cold winter, baseball is back.
For most of us, the wait was endless. If you latched onto the hot-stove season, disappointment likely followed.
Sure, Masahiro Tanaka arrived, Alex Rodriguez departed and Prince Fielder and Doug Fister were involved in blockbuster trades. But for die-hard fans, headline-grabbing moves and legacy-altering suspensions can't rival actual baseball. For those ready for the game, it's time to look ahead at how the season could unfold.
With some rosters undecided, free agents still available and trade candidates loitering around many teams, predicting how the regular season will play out is no easy task.
Luckily, we're up for the challenge here at Bleacher Report. Over the next six weeks, these predictions are subject to change. For now, the following is a look at how the 2014 Major League Baseball standings should play out.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
1. Washington Nationals
2. Atlanta Braves*
3. New York Mets
4. Philadelphia Phillies
5. Miami Marlins
To be fair, let's separate this division into three tiers: Washington/Atlanta, New York and Philadelphia/Miami.
At the top, the Nationals and Braves are both poised to be postseason teams in 2014. When the dust settles in the NL East, Washington's outstanding rotation and deep lineup will propel it to a division title and 95 victories. Atlanta, coming off a 96-win campaign, has the firepower to keep up for most of the season but will go through dry spells due to a suspect lower half of the lineup.
In New York, the Mets are improving. In fact, if the team signs one more position player like, say, Stephen Drew, between now and April, it could be a surprise contender. Led by a solid starting rotation—even without Matt Harvey for all or most of the season—and David Wright, it's time for this franchise to crack the 81-win plateau for the first time in six years.
Times have changed in Philadelphia. After winning the division five straight years (2007-11), the Phillies have sunk to 81 and 73 wins, respectively, over the last two seasons. With an aging, unproductive core and rotation question marks behind the brilliant duo of Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, Philadelphia could struggle to win more than 75 games.
If things turn ugly in Philadelphia, the Marlins could surge ahead, leaving the Phillies sunk in the depths of the division. That thought was recently offered by David Schoenfield of ESPN. Last year, despite an 11-game gap between Philadelphia and Miami, the Phillies owned a worse run differential.
*Denotes wild-card berth
1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. New York Yankees
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Toronto Blue Jays
Money can't buy happiness in the American League East.
After spending $503 million on offseason acquisitions, the New York Yankees are the story of this division heading into spring training.
Unfortunately for their fans, it's hard to take an honest look at the roster and peg them for 90-plus wins right now. If Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury, respectively, perform up to Cy Young and MVP standards, a different picture could emerge by October. For now, the team is only slightly better than the group that won 85 games last season.
The Boston Red Sox had a quiet winter but return the nucleus of a team that dominated the regular season and captured a World Series in October. A step back from excellence could occur, but not enough to knock this squad below the 90-win range. In a division without a truly great team, that could be a formula for a return trip to the postseason.
Surprisingly, Tampa Bay held onto David Price this winter. After trading both Matt Garza and James Shields two years before their respective free-agent trips, the Rays didn't pull the trigger on a blockbuster involving their ace. With the 2012 AL Cy Young winner in tow, Joe Maddon has the firepower to contend again.
Talent is present in both Baltimore and Toronto, especially with deep, powerful lineups. If either or both teams sign an impact free-agent starter between now and April, they could crash the top of this division.
With Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey, the Blue Jays are easily the strongest last-place prediction on this list.
In the AL East, any combination is possible.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Chicago Cubs
One year after profiling as the most top-heavy division in baseball and sending three teams to October, the NL Central is on the path to experiencing a down year. With Shin-Soo Choo and A.J. Burnett (as of this moment) no longer with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, respectively, St. Louis' two biggest threats have been weakened.
As usual, the Cardinals profile as the deepest team in this division. Led by Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and a loaded farm system, St. Louis can overcome yearly defections (Carlos Beltran to New York) or significant injuries when camp opens.
Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran recently profiled St. Louis' offseason, highlighting the upgrade at shortstop with the signing of Jhonny Peralta. Not only does he believe the Cardinals are the best team in the NL Central, Corcoran singles them out as the best in the NL, writing:
"The Cardinals did exactly what they needed to do, upgrading shortstop, making room for their young talent and adding depth in the outfield and behind Wong. The result is a St. Louis squad that, with just a week left before pitchers and catchers, projects as the best team in baseball in 2014."
Milwaukee and Chicago are light years behind Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis. While the return of Ryan Braun should be enough to boost the Brewers past the Cubs in 2014, Chicago's farm system has them positioned to challenge for division supremacy much sooner than the team they'll battle for last place this summer.
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Kansas City Royals
3. Cleveland Indians
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Minnesota Twins
Led by the best hitter on the planet, Miguel Cabrera, and the trio of Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez atop the rotation, picking against the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central is a fool's errand. Despite the question marks surrounding Brad Ausmus' debut as manager, the Fielder-Kinsler swap and moving on from the excellent Doug Fister, the Tigers have the least worrisome roster in the division.
After years of talking about competing, the time has arrived for Kansas City. Led by an improving lineup and a possible AL MVP candidate in Eric Hosmer, the Royals will score enough to win in 2014. With a great bullpen, they can hold leads on a nightly basis.
The only reason why they can't catch Detroit atop the division is uncertainty behind James Shields in the rotation. According to MLB Depth Charts, the quartet of Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen and Danny Duffy is projected to follow Shields in the rotation.
Despite a 92-win campaign and postseason berth in 2013, the Indians aren't ready to duplicate their success. Losing Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez to free agency will hurt, moving Carlos Santana to third base could result in growing pains, and Asdrubal Cabrera's role will block prospect Francisco Lindor from making an impact at shortstop.
In 2012, the White Sox challenged Detroit for the division crown. In 2013, they fell to last place and 99 losses. Led by Chris Sale and the acquisitions of Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu and bullpen pieces like Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario, the 2014 White Sox will improve, but not enough to zoom past the .500 mark.
The future is bright in Minnesota. With Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, this franchise could be back as soon as 2015. For now, last place is realistic.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants*
3. San Diego Padres
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
5. Colorado Rockies
If any team in baseball has enough firepower to win 100-plus games in 2014, it's the Los Angeles Dodgers. After winning 92 games and advancing to the NLCS last season, the Dodgers enter spring training with Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Zack Greinke all ready to roll. Last year, not one member of that trio played a full season.
With the best pitcher in the sport, Clayton Kershaw, anchoring the rotation and a lineup similar to what you would see in the All-Star Game, the Dodgers should run away with the NL West.
If Los Angeles does run away and hide in first place, the battle for second place and a possible postseason berth will be hotly contested. While the Giants are far from spectacular, they are solid throughout the roster and good enough to compete on a nightly basis with strong starting pitching. If Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, Hunter Pence and Mike Morse can stay healthy, offense will be a strength for the first time in years.
Get ready to call the San Diego Padres a surprise team by midseason. After acquiring Josh Johnson and Joaquin Benoit, the pitching staff has veterans anchoring the rotation and bullpen. Although the everyday lineup lacks a superstar, full, productive seasons from Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera and Chase Headley could lead to the biggest jump in run production from any NL lineup.
In Arizona, Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo could be a reincarnation of "The Bash Brothers," but it will take more than that for the Diamondbacks to challenge for a postseason spot.
Colorado held onto both of its franchise cornerstones—Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez—but could look to move one if another season spirals out of control at Coors Field.
*Denotes wild-card berth
1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland Athletics*
3. Los Angeles Angels*
4. Seattle Mariners
5. Houston Astros
Baseball's best offense is flying under the radar.
After acquiring both Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, the Rangers are on the path to scoring 900 runs and dominating opposing pitchers on a nightly basis. If their pitching, led by the excellent Yu Darvish, can patch things together until Derek Holland returns from knee surgery, Ron Washington's team will be in position to capture the division in September.
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane sent a message to baseball this winter by stockpiling bullpen arms, signing Scott Kazmir and bolstering his bench: October success or bust.
As always, the plan is fluid in Oakland. If the Athletics struggle, Beane could hit the reset button and trade away veterans. However, with an offense that scored 767 runs last year, a deep, dynamic bullpen and depth for manager Bob Melvin to work with, don't count on a letdown from this team.
Don't let a third-place prediction for the Angels fool you into thinking another disappointing year is on the way. In fact, due to upgrades in the rotation, health from Albert Pujols and another dominant year from Mike Trout, the Angels are a good bet to crash the postseason party for the first time since the 2009 season.
Seattle spent big—over $250 million to land Robinson Cano, Fernando Rodney and Corey Hart—but not wisely enough to offset a roster full of young, unproven commodities. In a different division or league, it's possible that the star power of Cano and Felix Hernandez could will the Mariners into contention. In the AL West, it's only good enough to avoid the cellar.
Last September, in the midst of a 15-game losing streak, Astros manager Bo Porter thought the experience of losing would eventually become a positive for a franchise that has experienced three consecutive 100-loss seasons, per Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required).
"I believe that our players will be better because of what we've been through this year," Porter said. "It should equal more wins than we have this year, but I'm not going to put a number on it."
After trading for Dexter Fowler and signing veteran relievers like Chad Qualls and Matt Albers, it's clear that the Astros are interested in improvement. By midseason, top prospects like George Springer, Jonathan Singleton and Mark Appel could arrive to lift Houston to a 12-game improvement over last year's 51-111 record.
The specter of a 99-loss season would bother most teams, but it's a major improvement in Houston.
*Denotes wild-card berth