Complete 2014 MLB Spring Training Preview, Predictions and Prospect Watch

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2014

Complete 2014 MLB Spring Training Preview, Predictions and Prospect Watch

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    The wait is over, baseball fans, as spring training is officially underway in Arizona and Florida. The last of the pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report by the end of the upcoming weekend, and full-squad workouts will be in full swing by next week.

    It's been another eventful offseason, but there are still a lot of decisions to be made between now and Opening Day for each team. There are also a handful of free agents still looking for new homes that are capable of making a significant impact on the upcoming season.

    What follows is a full preview of MLB spring training, including:

    • An offseason recap
    • Predictions on where the top remaining free agents will land
    • Injury updates for key players
    • A team-by-team preview of the season ahead
    • Top prospects to watch in big league camp
    • Potential breakout players in both leagues
    • A rundown of some of the top position battles to watch

    It won't be long before spring training games get going, and the regular season opens in Australia on March 22, with the full league kicking off its season on March 31. Until then, let this spring training preview tide you over.

AL Offseason Recap

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    Last season, the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics captured their respective division titles, while the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays claimed the two wild-card spots.

    The Red Sox suffered some notable losses this winter in Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew (who is still a free agent) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with their only major additions being A.J. Pierzynski and Edward Mujica.

    The Tigers traded key players Prince Fielder and Doug Fister to free up some payroll room, but they added Ian Kinsler and Joe Nathan and again look like the class of the AL Central.

    The Indians were the surprise team of that group, and they may have a hard time duplicating that success after losing Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in free agency, but the rest of those teams figure to be right in the thick of things once again.

    As for teams that missed out on the playoffs, 2013 marked just the second time since 1994 that the New York Yankees found themselves at home in October. As a result, they got right to work rebuilding the roster, spending a combined $438 million to add Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran this winter.

    A late-season collapse also cost the Texas Rangers a playoff spot, and they've had a busy offseason as well. Slugger Prince Fielder was acquired in a trade with the Tigers, and on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo was signed in free agency. That should once again give the Rangers one of the best offensive attacks in the game.

    The Seattle Mariners may not yet be ready to contend, but they made perhaps the biggest surprise splash of the offseason, signing Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal. They also added Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Fernando Rodney.

    The Kansas City Royals made a run at contention in the second half last season, and despite the loss of Ervin Santana (although he does remain a free agent), they look like they could be even better in 2013 after adding Jason Vargas, Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki.

    On the South Side, the Chicago White Sox continued their rebuilding efforts by adding Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton in trades with the Arizona Diamondbacks while also signing slugger Jose Abreu and relievers Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario.

     

    Other Notable AL Offseason Additions: Jim Johnson and Scott Kazmir (Oakland A's); Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and David Freese (Los Angeles Angels); Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman (Houston Astros); Dioner Navarro (Toronto Blue Jays); David Murphy and John Axford (Cleveland Indians); Ryan Hanigan and Grant Balfour (Tampa Bay Rays); Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes (Minnesota Twins)

NL Offseason Recap

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    The Atlanta BravesSt. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers won division titles in the NL this past season, while a pair of NL Central teams in the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates earned the league's wild-card spots.

    The Cardinals wound up capturing the NL pennant, and they could be even stronger in 2014 after signing Jhonny Peralta to fill a glaring hole at shortstop and also picking up Mark Ellis and Peter Bourjos.

    The Dodgers re-signed Juan Uribe and added Cuban defector Alex Guerrero to play second base. They also added Dan Haren and Paul Maholm to the rotation, while Chris Perez and Jamey Wright were brought in for the bullpen. 

    Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo are gone from the Reds, but Cincinnati does have in-house options in Billy Hamilton and Tony Cingrani to replace them. However, the Reds have not made any major moves this winter.

    The Washington Nationals were perhaps the biggest disappointment in the NL last year, but they may now have the best pitching staff in baseball thanks to the addition of Doug Fister through a trade with Detroit. They also added Nate McLouth and Jerry Blevins and look to have as complete a roster as any in the league.

    Looking to bolster their outfield offense, the New York Mets signed Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, as well as Bartolo Colon and Kyle Farnsworth to aid the pitching staff.

    After a fire sale last offseason, the Miami Marlins have been buyers this offseason, albeit on the secondary market. They signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee, Jeff Baker and Carlos Marmol.

    The San Francisco Giants spent money to keep their own free agents by re-signing Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, Javier Lopez and Ryan Vogelsong. They also added Tim Hudson and Michael Morse, with the latter being a bounce-back candidate in left field who can provide some pop.

    After a .500 finish last season, the Arizona Diamondbacks were also busy, signing Bronson Arroyo and trading for Addison Reed in order to shore up the bullpen. Their biggest move of the offseason, however, may have been acquiring Mark Trumbo to protect Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup.

     

    Other Notable NL Additions: Matt Garza (Milwaukee Brewers); Jason Hammel (Chicago Cubs); Seth Smith, Joaquin Benoit and Josh Johnson (San Diego Padres); A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Roberto Hernandez (Philadelphia Phillies); Justin Morneau, LaTroy Hawkins, Boone Logan and Brett Anderson (Colorado Rockies)

Predictions for Top Free Agents Still Available

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    OF/DH Nelson Cruz (Projected destination: Seattle Mariners)

    Had it not been for his 50-game PED suspension, Cruz may very well have wound up with a deal similar to the four-year, $60 million contract Curtis Granderson got from the Mets this winter.

    Instead, he's still on the market here in the middle of February and will likely have to settle for a shorter deal. The Mariners have been as busy as anyone this winter, and according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the team is all-in to sign Cruz as well.

     

    SS Stephen Drew (Projected destination: New York Mets)

    After Jhonny Peralta signed with the Cardinals in November, the only other legitimate starting shortstop left on the market was Drew.

    He's been hurt as much as anyone by receiving a qualifying offer, though, and as noted by Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, it looks like a reunion with the Red Sox or a discounted deal with the Mets are the only potential options he has left. It could take until the end of spring training, but the Mets' clear need at the position eventually leads to Drew signing with the team.

     

    SP Ubaldo Jimenez (Projected destination: Toronto Blue Jays)

    It's been a quiet offseason for the Blue Jays, despite a disappointing 2013 season that saw them fall well short of expectations.

    Their biggest need is to add another starter to slot alongside R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle at the top of the rotation, and that is why it would behoove them to sign either Jimenez or Ervin Santana. Jimenez could still wind up re-upping with the Indians, but he's my pick as the starter who will join the Blue Jays.

     

    1B/DH Kendrys Morales (Projected destination: Pittsburgh Pirates)

    It's looking more and more like Morales would have been wise to accept the $14.1 million qualifying offer the Mariners made to him at the start of the offseason.

    The 30-year-old is limited defensively, but he had a .785 OPS with 23 home runs and 80 RBI last season. The Pirates have a clear need at first base, though they could settle for signing a platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez. And the two sides have mutual interest, according to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe.

     

    SP Ervin Santana (Projected destination: Baltimore Orioles)

    Outside of trading Jim Johnson to free up some payroll room, the Orioles haven't done much this offseason, and they appear to be falling back in the AL East race as a result.

    Santana had a terrific bounce-back season with the Royals in 2013, but he's been inconsistent throughout his career. That, coupled with draft-pick compensation which would need to be surrendered by his new team, has hurt his market value.

    The Orioles need to do something, though, and adding Santana to a rotation that could certainly use another plus arm would be a nice pickup.

Key Injury Updates Entering Camp

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    SP Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers (Tommy John surgery)

    It's easy to forget just how good Chad Billingsley was, as he went 73-57 with a 3.65 ERA from 2007-12. He made just two starts last season, though, before undergoing Tommy John surgery on April 25, and he's been recovering ever since.

    He began throwing off a mound earlier this week, and he could return by late May, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.

     

    SP Matt Harvey, New York Mets (Tommy John surgery)

    What was a breakout season for Matt Harvey ended abruptly when he was sidelined in late August with what was originally called a UCL sprain and resulted in Tommy John surgery on Oct. 22.

    He is scheduled to start throwing for the first time since the surgery on Feb. 22, according to Dan Martin of the New York Post. In an interview with WFAN radio last week, Harvey said the he is eyeing a September return and is hoping he can get his feet wet before then in order to have a normal offseason next winter (h/t Adam Rubin of ESPN New York).

    "I think for me it would be important to be out there," Harvey said to WFAN. "Whether I throw a couple innings in September or not and then have a normal offseason where I can go in and know I got some hitters out, struck a few guys out, and get back out there."

     

    SP Derek Holland, Texas Rangers (Knee surgery)

    Derek Holland gave the Rangers a solid No. 2 starter behind Yu Darvish last season, going 10-9 with a 3.42 ERA in 213 innings of work, but a freak knee injury this offseason landed him on the sidelines.

    An incident involving his dog ended in microfracture surgery in January to repair torn cartilage behind his left kneecap, according to Matt Snyder of CBS Sports. He's expected to be out until midseason, leaving the Rangers to count upon another injury-returnee in Colby Lewis to fill out the rotation.

     

    SS Derek Jeter, New York Yankees (Ankle surgery)

    Myriad leg and ankle injuries limited Derek Jeter to just 17 games last season, but the Yankees are counting on a healthy Jeter to be their everyday shortstop again this year.

    All signs point to him being healthy for the start of the season, and according to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News, it's been a normal offseason for the 39-year-old.

     

    CF Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers (Ankle surgery)

    After falling just one home run short of a 40/40 season in 2011, Matt Kemp has been limited to just 179 games over the past two seasons while dealing with injuries.

    A left ankle sprain kept him sidelined for most of last summer, and he underwent surgery on it this offseason. According to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, his status for Opening Day is up in the air at this point, and he has no plans of rushing back and risking another injury.

     

    3B Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles (Knee surgery)

    Manny Machado suffered a gruesome knee injury last September when he stepped awkwardly on first base trying to leg out a ground ball.

    He was cleared to begin easing back into baseball activities on Jan. 31, according to Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com. As things stand, he's well ahead of schedule just four months removed from the surgery, and he should be ready to go by Opening Day or shortly thereafter, barring a setback.

     

    1B Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees (Wrist surgery)

    A torn tendon sheath in his right wrist sidelined Mark Teixeira during the World Baseball Classic last spring, and after originally opting for rest and returning for 15 games in June, he re-injured the wrist and underwent surgery on it in July.

    He's still working to get back to 100 percent, but he should be ready to go by Opening Day, as long as it continues to improve, according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com.

     

    SP Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (Abdominal surgery)

    Justin Verlander injured his core doing squats back in December, and what began as discomfort on his left side ended in surgery on his right side.

    He threw off a mound for the first time since the surgery on Monday and expects to make five spring starts in order to be ready to go for the start of the season, according to ESPN.

AL East Preview and Predicted Finish

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    1. Boston Red Sox

    The reigning champions will be counting on Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. to step into everyday roles as rookies, but they should have a dangerous offensive attack once again after leading the MLB in runs last year.

    They also have a veteran rotation, and their bullpen was improved with the addition of Edward Mujica this offseason. All of that points toward the Red Sox having a good chance to repeat as AL East champs.

     

    2. New York Yankees

    After missing the playoffs for just the second time since 1994, the Yankees went all-in this offseason with a massive spending spree. Even with the loss of Robinson Cano, their offense figures to be vastly improved with the additions of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann.

    The team's pitching staff has a lot of question marks, though, starting with Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, but it has the potential to be very good. A return to the postseason seems like a good possibility, as long as the team can avoid injuries.

     

    3. Tampa Bay Rays

    Despite their payroll restrictions, the Rays have managed to make the playoffs four times in the past six seasons. They've stuck to their usual under-the-radar approach this offseason, adding Grant Balfour and Heath Bell to the bullpen and acquiring Ryan Hanigan to be their primary catcher.

    The big story is the move that didn't happen, though, as ace David Price remains with the team after an offseason of trade rumors.

     

    4. Toronto Blue Jays

    The Blue Jays completely overhauled their roster last offseason and entered the year as trendy picks to win the AL East, but for all of their wheeling and dealing, they only managed to improve their win total by one. They've been significantly quieter this winter, with the addition of Dioner Navarro to replace J.P. Arencibia marking the only significant move.

    The pieces are all still there, though, and a healthy rotation behind R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle could go a long way toward turning things around.

     

    5. Baltimore Orioles

    The surprise postseason team of 2012, the Orioles took a step backward last season thanks in large part to a disappointing starting rotation and a less-than-dominant bullpen.

    They've failed to make a significant addition this offseason and look to have fallen even further back as a result. The lineup has serious question marks at second base, left field and DH, while the rotation is unchanged and the bullpen lost Jim Johnson.

AL Central Preview and Predicted Finish

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    1. Detroit Tigers

    It's been a busy offseason for the Tigers, as they parted ways with Prince Fielder and Doug Fister while welcoming Ian Kinsler and Joe Nathan. Victor Martinez will step into the role of protecting AL MVP Miguel Cabrera in the order, while Kinsler gives them a legitimate leadoff hitter.

    Drew Smyly should prove more than capable of stepping into Fister's rotation spot, and the staff should again be among the best in baseball. Top prospect Nick Castellanos looks to have the everyday third base job in hand entering camp, so he'll be one to keep an eye on as well.

     

    2. Kansas City Royals

    The Royals entered the offseason in need of a replacement for Ervin Santana in the rotation and upgrades at second base and in right field. They found all three relatively quickly in Jason Vargas, Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki, respectively, and look poised to build off a solid second half of the 2013 season.

    If their offense can avoid another slow start and the back end of their rotation takes shape, they could make a legitimate push for their first postseason appearance since they won it all in 1985.

     

    3. Cleveland Indians

    The surprise playoff team of 2013, the Indians made their run last season thanks in large part to a starting rotation that exceeded expectation by a wide margin. It's the rotation that could be their undoing this coming season, however, as they no longer have Scott Kazmir nor Ubaldo Jimenez (who could still re-sign with the team).

    The offense is still solid, and big seasons from Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber could certainly help offset the losses in the rotation. They'll have an uphill battle in their quest to return to the playoffs, though.

     

    4. Chicago White Sox

    The White Sox finally began rebuilding last season, trading Jake Peavy and Alex Rios in August, and they've continued their pursuit of young, controllable talent this offseason.

    Jose Abreu was signed to replace Paul Konerko at first base, and he has serious power potential. Former top Diamondbacks' prospects, third baseman Matt Davidson and center fielder Adam Eaton, were also acquired, and both should have everyday jobs on Opening Day.

    The team is still a work in progress, but there should be plenty of reason for excitement on the South Side this coming season, as a move out of the cellar seems very possible.

     

    5. Minnesota Twins 

    After their starting rotation posted an MLB-worst 5.26 ERA last year, the Twins set to work rebuilding their pitching staff this offseason. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes were signed to the two biggest free-agent deals in team history, while Mike Pelfrey was also re-signed.

    They should be better in 2014, but Nolasco is truthfully a No. 3 starter on a good team. The rest of the staff features No. 5 starter types, so don't expect a huge turnaround. The impending arrivals of top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano should give fans reason to watch in 2014 nonetheless.

AL West Preview and Predicted Finish

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    1. Texas Rangers

    After losing the likes of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young last offseason, the Rangers set out to reclaim their place among the most feared lineups in baseball this winter, adding Prince Fielder in a trade and signing Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year deal.

    The starting rotation will need to stay healthy and get solid performances from injury-returnees Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis as well as the injury-prone Alexi Ogando. All the pieces are there for them to unseat the A's atop the AL West, though.

     

    2. Oakland Athletics

    With back-to-back AL West titles under their belt, the A's are not going to take anyone by surprise in 2014. Their roster may lack a superstar talent, and they may have lost their best pitcher in Bartolo Colon in free agency, but they play as well from a team standpoint as anyone in baseball.

    If a couple of their young starters take a step forward and 2013 breakout players like Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss avoid a letdown, they'll be right in the thick of things once again.

     

    3. Los Angeles Angels

    If the Angels missing the postseason in 2012 was disappointing, their 11-win drop-off in 2013 was something else entirely. Rough seasons from big-money stars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton certainly played a role, while the back end of the rotation was a mess once again.

    Dealing Mark Trumbo for controllable left-handers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs this offseason looks like a solid move, and they made some other nice additions in David Freese and Joe Smith as well. Also, Mark Mulder's comeback is among the most intriguing storylines league-wide.

     

    4. Seattle Mariners

    Outside of perhaps the Yankees, no one has been as busy as the Mariners this offseason, and it all started with the 10-year, $240 million deal they gave Robinson Cano. That was followed by the additions of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison at the winter meetings and closer Fernando Rodney last week.

    They may not be done adding pieces either, but in the end they still have some work to do in order to join the ranks of the legitimate contenders. A lot will be riding on rookie starters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, while incumbent guys like Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders will need to prove they belong in the team's long-term plans.

     

    5. Houston Astros

    The Astros have rattled off three straight 100-loss seasons as they continue the rebuilding process, but there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.

    They were more aggressive this offseason than in years past, signing Scott Feldman, Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers to bolster the staff and trading for Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler. Young starters Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer will be looking to build off strong 2013 debuts, while top prospects George Springer and Jonathan Singleton should make their debuts at some point in 2014.

    There's still work to be done, but avoiding another 100-loss season seems doable.

NL East Preview and Predicted Finish

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    1. Washington Nationals

    There may have been no bigger disappointment in 2013 than the Nationals, as they entered the season among the favorites to win it all but found themselves just one game over .500 at the All-Star break. A late-season surge was not enough to land them a playoff spot, either, just a year after they finished with the best record in baseball.

    This offseason they acquired Doug Fister to take over the No. 4 spot in the rotation, added a needed veteran left-hander to the bullpen in Jerry Blevins and signed Nate McLouth to give them some insurance.

    On paper, this is a team without a clear weakness on the roster, and they look poised to make a serious run once again.

     

    2. Atlanta Braves

    The Braves ran away with the NL East title last season, but things likely won't be as easy this time around. That said, they should still be very much in the hunt for a playoff spot thanks to their young, homegrown core.

    If Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton can improveand it's hard to imagine them being any worse than they were in 2013the offense has a chance to be elite. The rotation is young, but the trio of Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran at the top is terrific, and a healthy Brandon Beachy would make them that much better. Look for another MVP-caliber season out of Freddie Freeman as well after he landed a huge extension this offseason.

     

    3. New York Mets

    In desperate need of some outfield production, the Mets signed Curtis Granderson and Chris Young this offseason. There is still a hole at shortstop and a big question mark at first base, but the offense should be improved, especially if catcher Travis d'Arnaud can turn in a big season.

    The pitching staff is no doubt hurt by the fact that Matt Harvey will be out all season due to injury, but it should still be strong from top to bottom thanks to the addition of Bartolo Colon.

    The 2015 season looks like the year they could really make some noise, but a run at a winning record is doable in 2014.

     

    4. Philadelphia Phillies

    Rather than beginning the rebuilding process, the Phillies extended Chase Utley in-season and catcher Carlos Ruiz to kick off the offseason. They also signed 36-year-old Marlon Byrd to man right field and 37-year-old A.J. Burnett to fill out the rotation. They look to be gearing up for a run at a .500 season, as they're likely not capable of much more than that.

    The one-two punch of Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels is still among the best around, but the roster as a whole is an aging group of overpaid stars, and the team's window of contention has clearly closed.

     

    5. Miami Marlins

    Despite what their record suggests, the 2013 season wasn't all bad for the Marlins.

    Their young rotation was actually a legitimate strength, as the staff led by Jose Fernandez looks to have a very bright future. The offense was the main issue, as they averaged an MLB-worst 3.2 runs per game and hit just .231/.293/.335 as a team.

    Offseason additions like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal, Casey McGehee and Jeff Baker should help a bit, but those are not game-changing moves by any means. They're headed in the right direction and have a wealth of young talent, but it could be another long season in 2014.

NL Central Preview and Predicted Finish

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    1. St. Louis Cardinals

    The Cardinals have done a phenomenal job cultivating talent over the past few years, and their projected 25-man roster to open the season features 19 homegrown players. They also won the NL pennant last season and have to be considered the favorites to win it again in 2014.

    Sorting out the starting rotation will be their biggest challenge this spring, but that's a good problem to have. The offense should be even better than last year with the addition of Jhonny Peralta and the impending arrival of top prospect Oscar Taveras.

     

    2. Pittsburgh Pirates

    The Pirates finally broke through in 2013, reaching the playoffs and posting a winning record for the first time since 1992. The best is likely yet to come for this group, too, as they have a terrific young core that will get even better with the arrival of a few more top prospects.

    Losing A.J. Burnett hurts, but full seasons from Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Wandy Rodriguez as well as the arrival of top prospect Jameson Taillon should help offset that.

    Their run to the playoffs last year was no flash in the pan, and they should be right in the middle of the NL playoff picture once again.

     

    3. Cincinnati Reds

    Losing Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo would be major blows to most teams, but the Reds have solid in-house options in Billy Hamilton and Tony Cingrani to step into those spots, respectively. There is still the question of whether Hamilton can get on base enough to use his blazing speed after he posted an uninspiring .308 OBP in Triple-A last season.

    Aside from that, though, the team should again have one of the best rotations in the NL, a plus offense led by Joey Votto and Jay Bruce as well as a dominant bullpen.

     

    4. Milwaukee Brewers

    Much like they did last offseason, the Brewers waited in the wings until late, only to swoop in and sign a solid starting pitcher for below market value. Last year it was Kyle Lohse, this time around it was Matt Garza. If Yovani Gallardo can bounce back, the Brewers will have a very solid solid 1-2-3 in the rotation.

    Their offense was the highest scoring in the NL in 2012, but it fell off significantly in 2013 due to injuries to Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez as well as Ryan Braun's suspension. With everyone back healthy this season, though, and breakout stars Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura looking to build off last year, this is a team that could surprise some people if it stays healthy and pitches up to its potential.

     

    5. Chicago Cubs

    Cubs fans would be wise to enjoy spring training, where the team's top four prospects (Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler) will all be in big league camp showcasing what promises to be a bright future on the North Side. Once the regular season starts, things won't be as fun. They may have the worst lineup in baseball, and the team appears headed for another last-place finish.

    Getting bounce-back seasons from Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jeff Samardzija will be the top priority for new manager Rick Renteria, as the team has an eye on making some noise in 2015.

NL West Preview and Predicted Finish

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    Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

    1. Los Angeles Dodgers

    The NL West will be an interesting division this season, as the four teams below the Dodgers could legitimately finish in any order without it being a huge surprise. The Dodgers remain the cream of the crop, though, and along with the St. Louis Cardinals, have to be considered the favorites in the NL.

    This offseason, they added Dan Haren and Paul Maholm to round out the rotation, bolstered the bullpen and picked up a potential impact bat at second base in Cuban defector Alex Guerrero. Also, full seasons from Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig alone should make the offense that much better.

     

    2. Arizona Diamondbacks

    The Diamondbacks entered the offseason looking for a power bat to protect Paul Goldschmidt, a late-inning relief arm and a frontline starting pitcher. They walked away with Mark Trumbo, Addison Reed and Bronson Arroyo. Whether or not that's enough to land them a playoff spot remains to be seen, but they do look to be an improved team heading into the season.

    If Archie Bradley can step forward and establish himself as a dominant big league starter and Miguel Montero can bounce back in the middle of the lineup, look out for the D'Backs in 2014.

     

    3. San Francisco Giants

    It was a rough season for the Giants in 2013, as their vaunted starting rotation let them down and their below-average offensive attack was unable to pick up the pieces.

    Most of their offseason activity was dedicated to re-signing their own players. They're counting on Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation once again, alongside new addition Tim Hudson, who is coming off a broken ankle.

    The only real addition to the offense was slugger Michael Morse, who could add some pop at a discount if he bounces back from a rough 2013.

     

    4. San Diego Padres

    The Padres showed some flashes last season, and they'll be looking to build on that with a run at a winning year in 2014.

    The starting rotation will be the X-factor, as Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross look to build off strong second-half performances and former stars Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson look for bounce-back seasons.

    If core offensive pieces like Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso can take another step forward and Chase Headley can return to form, this could be the surprise team of 2014.

     

    5. Colorado Rockies

    After a hot start to the 2013 season, the Rockies eventually came back to earth, and they wound up with their second straight last-place finish in the NL West.

    Pitching continues to be the issue, though Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa both had terrific seasons in 2013. They've made a handful of additions to the rotation and bullpen this offseason that should help things.

    Offensively, Justin Morneau was signed to replace the retired Todd Helton, while Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez's health will be key once again.

Top AL Prospects to Watch in Big League Camp

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Guys like Taijuan Walker, Nick Castellanos and Xander Bogaerts all got their feet wet last season and are all expected to make Opening Day rosters in 2014. Here's a look at some top AL prospects who likely won't break camp with their big league club but will give fans a glimpse into the future this spring.

     

    CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

    Buxton is a legitimate five-tool player and was named the Minor League Player of the Year in 2013 after hitting .334/.424/.520 with 49 extra-base hits and 55 steals between Single-A and High-A last season. He is a superstar in the making, and all eyes will be on him this spring. 

    Our own prospect guru Mike Rosenbaum had this to say about Buxton in a recent article:

    With five potentially plus tools and a feel for making in-game adjustments, Buxton has the ceiling of an MVP-caliber player in his prime. Assuming he begins the 2014 season at Double-A New Britain and stays healthy, Buxton has a legitimate chance to finish the year in the major leagues.

     

    3B Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins

    Sano may have the best raw power in the minors right now and is coming off a season in which he posted a .992 OPS with 30 doubles, 35 home runs and 103 RBI while also reaching Double-A as a 20-year-old.

    He still has some swing-and-miss to his game, but he'll likely make his way to Minnesota at some point in 2014.

     

    SP Mark Appel, Houston Astros

    The top pick in last year's draft, after being taken with the No. 8 pick the previous season and opting to go back to Stanford, Mark Appel jumped right into full-season ball after signing last year.

    He finished 3-1 with a 3.79 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 38 innings, and he could open the year in Double-A. Don't be surprised if the 22-year-old makes his big league debut in 2014.

     

    SS Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians

    Known for his glove when the Indians selected him with the No. 8 pick in the 2011 draft, Lindor has progressed offensively much quicker than expected, as he hit .303/.380/.407 and reached Double-A as a 19-year-old last season.

    Asdrubal Cabrera is a free agent at season's end, and the team would love for Lindor to be able to step into his spot.

     

    SS Carlos Correa, Houston Astros

    The top pick in the 2012 draft, Correa was taken because he was expected to sign for less than some of the other top draft candidates, but he's an elite talent nonetheless. He proved that last season when he hit .320/.405/.467 with 33 doubles and 86 RBI in a full season at Single-A.

     

    SS Addison Russell, Oakland Athletics

    Russell has moved through the minors quicker than most high school bats, and he even got a taste of Triple-A for three games at the end of last season.

    He hit .275/.377/.508 with 56 extra-base hits and 21 steals as a 19-year-old at High-A last season, and the team could push him in an effort to prep him as a replacement for Jed Lowrie in 2015.

     

    CF George Springer, Houston Astros

    Springer came within three home runs of recording the first 40/40 season in modern minor league history last season, and he finished the year with a .303/.411/.600 line to go along with 27 doubles, 37 home runs and 45 steals.

    He has the best chance of anyone on this list of making an Opening Day roster, though a midseason call-up seems more likely.

Top NL Prospects to Watch in Big-League Camp

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    Guys like Billy Hamilton, Travis d'Arnaud and Kolten Wong all got their feet wet last season and are all expected to make Opening Day rosters in 2014. Here's a look at some top NL prospects who likely won't break camp with their big league club but will give fans a glimpse into the future this spring.

     

    SP Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks

    Arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball right now, Bradley was nothing short of dominant last season, going 14-5 with a 1.86 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 152 innings of work.

    The team's signing of Bronson Arroyo likely means Bradley will open the season in the minors, but he could be the team's best starter by the end of the year.

     

    RF Oscar Taveras, St. Louis Cardinals

    Were it not for an ankle injury that limited him to just 47 games, Taveras likely would have made his debut last season.

    He was fantastic in 2012, hitting .321/.380/.572 with 67 extra-base hits as a 20-year-old in Double-A, and he could push for an everyday job by midseason.

     

    SS Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

    The No. 9 pick in the 2011 draft, Baez has arguably the best bat speed in all of minor league baseball, and it was on full display last season as he advanced to Double-A.

    He finished the year with 34 doubles, 37 home runs, 111 RBI and 20 steals, and while his plate discipline still needs work (147 strikeouts in 2013), he's a star in the making.

     

    SP Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates

    Taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 drafta year before the team would select Gerrit Cole with the first pick in the draftTaillon has been brought along slowly.

    He showed what he's capable of in a strong showing while pitching for Team Canada against the USA in the World Baseball Classic last year, and after a solid 2013 season, he could wind up in the Pirates rotation by midseason with another impressive performance.

     

    3B Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

    The Arizona Fall League MVP, Bryant has done nothing but hit since being taken with the second pick in last year's draft. He piled up 25 extra-base hits and 32 RBI in 36 games after signing last season, and he'll continued to move quickly through the system as long as his bat continues to impress.

     

    SP Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

    Acquired from the Blue Jays in the R.A. Dickey trade last offseason, Syndergaard looks as though he'll join Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler to form a dynamic trio atop the Mets rotation for years to come.

    He earned the start in the Futures Game last year and finished the season 9-4 with a 3.06 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 117.2 innings.

     

    OF Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates

    Perhaps the least known of any of the prospects mentioned here, Polanco could very well make an impact before anyone else in either league. The toolsy outfielder hit .285/.356/.434 with 44 extra-base hits and 38 steals while reaching Triple-A last season, and he followed that up by winning Dominican Winter League MVP honors.

    He'll push Jose Tabata for the starting right field job this spring, and even if he loses out, it won't be long before he's in Pittsburgh.

Top 5 AL Breakout Candidates

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    CF Dustin Ackley, Seattle Mariners

    Taken immediately after Stephen Strasburg with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, Dustin Ackley looked like a future star when he hit .273/.348/.417 (120 OPS+) over 333 at-bats as a rookie in 2011. He's hit just .236/.304/.333 over the past two seasons, though, and he's also been moved from second base to the outfield.

    He was hitting just .205/.266/.250 through May 26 last season when he was demoted to the minors, and he looked like a different player upon returning a month later. He went on to hit .285/.354/.404 the rest of the way, including .313/.392/.456 over the final two months of the year.

    Now, in what could be a make-or-break year, he looks poised for a big season.

     

    SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

    Though Bogaerts saw just 50 big league plate appearances down the stretch last season, he managed to earn a spot on the team's postseason roster, and he wound up playing his way into the everyday third base job in the World Series.

    In 34 postseason plate appearances, he was 8-for-27 with six walks and nine runs scored. That capped off a season that saw him hit .297/.388/.477 with 23 doubles, 15 home runs and 67 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A.

    As the 21-year-old continues to develop, he could turn into an elite power hitter. A big rookie season in 2013 could be the first step down that path.

     

    SP Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics

    Sonny Gray didn't make his big league debut until July 10, but by the end of the season he was Oakland's best starter. In 12 games (10 starts) during the regular season, he was 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 64 innings of work, and he followed that up by throwing eight innings of four-hit shutout baseball in Game 2 of the ALDS.

    Jarrod Parker and Scott Kazmir will likely open the season ahead of him in the rotation, but it would not be at all surprising to see the 24-year-old assume the role of staff ace by the end of the season.

     

    SP Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

    By all accounts, the 2013 season was a breakout year for Corey Kluber, as he went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA in 26 games (24 starts) in what was his first full season in the majors. Those numbers don't tell the whole story, though, as he may be in for an even better year in 2014.

    If you take away a trio of rough starts in which he allowed 20 earned runs in 14.2 innings of work, the 27-year-old was 11-2 with a 2.92 ERA in his other 23 outings. He also posted a 3.30 FIP and 3.10 xFIP, suggesting that he actually pitched even better than his 3.85 ERA showed last year.

     

    2B Jurickson Profar, Texas Rangers

    After entering the season as the No. 1 prospect in baseball, Jurickson Profar wound up as something of a disappointment in 2013, as he hit just .234/.308/.336 as a rookie. Without a position to call his own, Profar saw just 286 at-bats and spent time at second base, shortstop, third base and left field.

    The offseason trade of Ian Kinsler has opened up the everyday second base job for him in 2014, and the soon-to-be 21-year-old could take a big step forward in the upcoming season.

Top 5 NL Breakout Candidates

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    SP Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres

    Acquired from the Cubs for first baseman Anthony Rizzo prior to the 2012 season, Andrew Cashner turned in a relatively disappointing first season with Padres, going 3-4 with a 4.27 ERA in 33 games (five starts).

    He opened last season in the bullpen but joined the rotation by the end of April, and things took off from there. In 26 starts, he went 10-9 with a 3.04 ERA, and he was particularly dominant down the stretch, going at least seven innings in each of his last seven starts and posting a 1.22 ERA over that span.

    Another step forward in 2014 would make the 27-year-old one of the best pitchers in the National League, and that's a very real possibility.

     

    LF Khris Davis, Milwaukee Brewers

    The Brewers saw enough out of Khris Davis in 136 at-bats last season to open up an everyday spot for him this coming season, as evidenced by the fact that they traded Norichika Aoki to the Royals this winter. Ryan Braun will shift over to right field in 2014, and Davis is expected to be the everyday left fielder.

    Davis' numbers were certainly impressive last season, as he hit .279/.353/.596 with 10 doubles and 11 home runs in his limited playing time, and it will be interesting to see what the 26-year-old can do in an expanded role. Something like 25 home runs and 80 RBI seems reasonable, with the potential for more.

     

    C Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati Reds

    One of the most promising young catchers in the game, Devin Mesoraco has split time with Ryan Hanigan the past two seasons under manager Dusty Baker. However, with Baker gone and Hanigan traded to the Rays, Mesoraco is finally set to step into the everyday catching job as a 25-year-old.

    He hit just .238/.287/.362 last season but flashed his power potential with 13 doubles and nine home runs over 323 at-bats. In his last full season in the minors, he hit .289/.371/.484 with 36 doubles and 15 home runs. Similar numbers at the big league level would make him one of the game's top offensive backstops.

     

    2B Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals

    Once viewed as a potential No. 1 pick in the draft, Anthony Rendon slipped to the Nationals at No. 6 overall in the 2011 draft when concerns over the health of his shoulder popped up. Now it looks like he could wind up being a steal.

    He took over for a struggling Danny Espinosa last June and went on to hit .330/.358/.473 that month. He fell off from there, hitting .265/.329/.396 on the season overall, but he has the hit tools to take a big step forward in his first full season.

     

    SP Zack Wheeler, New York Mets

    A year after Matt Harvey broke into the league with an impressive 10-start debut, the Mets called up another top prospect this past season in right-hander Zack Wheeler, and those two look like they'll front the rotation for the next decade.

    The 23-year-old Wheeler made his debut on June 18, and in 17 starts on the season he was 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. He racked up 420 strikeouts in 391.1 minor league innings and has the stuff to improve on the 7.6 K/9 mark he posted in the majors last year.

    That could mean some solid improvement in his second season in the league, and he has an outside chance at earning the Opening Day starter nod.

Top 5 AL Position Battles

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    Scott Iskowitz/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles: Left Field/Designated Hitter

    Candidates: Tyler Colvin, Nolan Reimold, Henry Urrutia, David Lough, Delmon Young, Francisco Peguero

    It's been a quiet offseason for the Orioles, and with Nate McLouth gone in left field and a hole remaining at the DH position, they have two lineup spots up for grabs this spring.

    Newcomer David Lough looks like the front-runner for the left field job, with two others from this group likely to platoon at DH. Cuban defector Henry Urrutia is the X-factor here, as he hit .347/.406/.506 in the minors before earning a late-season call-up.

     

    Cleveland Indians: No. 5 Starter

    Candidates: Shaun Marcum, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Tyler Cloyd

    The Indians' biggest issue this spring will be replacing Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in the rotation, but they do have a handful of options in camp to choose from.

    The team would love nothing more than for prospect Trevor Bauer to take a step forward and claim the job, but veteran Shaun Marcum could get a long look as well and may earn the spot with a strong spring.

     

    Kansas City Royals: No. 5 Starter

    Candidates: Danny Duffy, Wade Davis, Yordano Ventura, Kyle Zimmer, P.J. Walters, Brad Penny

    The first four spots in the Royals rotation look to be set with James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen penciled in, but the final spot is wide open this spring.

    Danny Duffy went 2-0 with a 1.85 ERA in five starts after returning from Tommy John surgery last season, and he could be the favorite at this point. Top prospects Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer will definitely get a long look, though.

     

    New York Yankees: No. 5 Starter

    Candidates: Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, Manny Banuelos

    I wrote an article on Tuesday afternoon breaking down what a fully healthy Michael Pineda could mean for the Yankees in 2014, and if he can return to his 2011 form, the team's rotation has a chance to be elite.

    As for other options, David Phelps looks like the front-runner for the job if Pineda struggles this spring, while former top prospect Manny Banuelos will be looking to get back on the prospect radar after Tommy John surgery.

     

    Texas Rangers: No. 5 Starter

    Candidates: Colby Lewis, Nicholas Tepesch, Michael Kirkman, Tommy Hanson, Armando Galarraga

    The Rangers rotation looked to be set until Derek Holland was lost until at least midseason following a freak knee injury.

    Now the team is counting on Colby Lewis being healthy, as he's been sidelined since July 2012 with a torn flexor tendon. If he's not healthy, bounce-back candidate Tommy Hanson is an intriguing option along with a handful of in-house choices.

Top 5 NL Position Battles

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    Chicago Cubs: Third Base

    Candidates: Luis Valbuena, Donnie Murphy, Mike Olt, Kris Bryant

    Last season, Cubs third basemen hit a combined .221/.314/.434, though they did manage 30 home runs and 70 RBI. The same platoon of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy is back this season, but they'll have some competition this spring.

    Prospect Mike Olt dealt with vision issues last year, but if he's right, he could claim the job. Last year's No. 2 pick Kris Bryant will be in camp, too, and everyone here is just keeping the seat warm for him.

     

    Colorado Rockies: No. 5 Starter

    Candidates: Jordan Lyles, Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray

    The Rockies improved their starting rotation's ERA from 5.81 in 2012 to 4.57 this past year, as healthy seasons from Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa and a nice performance from Tyler Chatwood made for a significantly improved staff.

    Brett Anderson was acquired this offseason to fill one of the other two spots, but the No. 5 starter job is still a question. Jordan Lyles was acquired from the Astros in the Dexter Fowler trade, and he has a good chance of winning the job, at least until top prospect Eddie Butler proves ready.

     

    Milwaukee Brewers: Second Base

    Candidates: Rickie Weeks, Scooter Gennett

    It was a trying season for Rickie Weeks in 2013, as he hit just .209/.306/.357 over 350 at-bats. Meanwhile, Scooter Gennett was called up down the stretch, and he turned heads with a .324/.356/.479 line in 213 at-bats of his own.

    On the surface, turning things over to Gennett seems like a no-brainer, but Weeks is set to make $11 million this season, and the team will be looking to get some value out of him.

     

    St. Louis Cardinals: Starting Rotation

    Candidates: Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Carlos Martinez

    There's no such thing as too much starting pitching, but the Cardinals are testing that theory entering camp.

    Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller are likely locked into rotation spots, but the other two will come down to Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and injury-returnee Jaime Garcia, with the loser headed to the bullpen. Carlos Martinez is in the mix as well, but he's likely too valuable in a setup role.

    "It's unbelievable our team right now, unbelievable arms," Wacha told Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. "It's going to be a competition throughout spring training."

     

    Washington Nationals: No. 5 Starter

    Candidates: Ross Detwiler, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan

    What was already a terrific rotation got even better when the Nationals essentially stole Doug Fister in a trade with the Detroit Tigers this winter. He joins Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann to form as good a top four as any in baseball.

    The No. 5 starter won't be asked to do too much, and the team has three solid options for the job. Ross Detwiler is the veteran of the group and the likely favorite, but all three have the stuff to crack most rotations.