It's only a matter of days before the 2014 MLB regular season gets underway—feels good to hear, doesn't it?
With spring training wrapping up and many teams' Opening Day rosters taking shape, it's time to take a glance at where MLB's top teams stand heading into the season. Without further ado, here are the top 10 teams at the beginning of 2014:
Just Missed the Cut:
Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians
10. Texas Rangers (2013 Record: 91-72)
Projected 2014 Record: 88-74
One could make the argument that the Rangers have the best lineup in baseball, and there would be plenty of validity to that point. OBP-machine Shin-Soo Choo and the ever-consistent Elvis Andrus will provide plenty of RBI opportunities for the Murderers' Row of hitters behind them (Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios).
But what about the pitching? CBS's Mike Axisa reported that Yu Darvish will probably open the season on the disabled list, which badly exposes a rotation that was already looking questionable. Now, Tanner Scheppers will be the de facto Opening Day starter; that will also happen to be his first ever start in the majors.
Martin Perez and Robbie Ross will follow, and while neither pitcher is exactly a household name around the baseball world, Ross has at least looked very impressive this spring, with a 1.27 ERA across 21.1 innings.
Nevertheless, until Darvish comes back, the offense will have to carry this team—never a good recipe for success in the majors.
9. Oakland Athletics (96-66)
Projected 2014 Record: 90-72
The A's have won the AL West title in each of the last two seasons, but 2014 might be their toughest test yet. With the overall improvement of the rest of the division thanks to the Tigers' and Mariners' key offseason additions, combined with the Angels' potential for a bounce-back season, the A's won't have an easy road back to October by any means.
That doesn't even factor in the starting rotation, which will be tested this year after a pair of key injuries. Starter A.J. Griffin has a muscle strain that could sideline him until May, and Jarrod Parker's Tommy John surgery ensures that he won't pitch for the entire season.
Nevertheless, Oakland still has many of the pieces that helped them win their last few division crowns. 2013 MVP-candidate Josh Donaldson will return to anchor a lefty-heavy lineup that includes No. 3-hitter Jed Lowrie, 30-homer threat Brandon Moss and Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes.
If the rotation can hold out and the collection of questionable arms (Jesse Chavez, Dan Straily, Tommy Milone) can pull through, the A's have the talent to compete in the crowded AL West. But that's a big "if."
8. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68)
Projected 2014 Record: 89-73
Can they do it again?
After breaking the spell of losing seasons in 2013, the Pirates certainly have the tools to once again return to the playoffs. For one, they could feature the best defensive outfield in the game by the All-Star break. We know about Starling Marte (second in UZR among left fielders, per FanGraphs) and Andrew McCutchen, but what about right field?
Outfield prospect Gregory Polanco could fill that role very soon, though he'll likely begin the season in Triple-A. Even so, the Marte-McCutchen-Polanco trio would make the outfield seem very small to opposing hitters.
The rotation also has a chance to rank among the best in the league. Francisco Liriano will look to build on a breakout season in 2013, and Gerrit Cole will have the chance to put together his first full season in the majors. Underrated starter Wandy Rodriguez missed most of the season with a flexor tendon injury, but that didn't stop him from posting his sixth consecutive sub-four ERA.
The Pirates lineup won't scare too many teams, but with a great defense and a rotation that has the potential to be the league's best, Pittsburgh can be successful without a juggernaut offense. Another wild-card berth is in store for the Pirates.
7. New York Yankees (85-77)
Projected 2014 Record: 89-73
Maybe money can buy happiness after all. After some offseason spending of epic proportions, the Yanks are once again in contention, and they'll have some added motivation now that Derek Jeter took it upon himself to announce his retirement following the season.
Joe Girardi's squad is particularly interesting this season because it has the potential to rank among the best in baseball, but also has enough question marks to derail it altogether.
Starting pitching is where it all begins. CC Sabathia will anchor the rotation, per usual, but the left-hander failed to win 15 games for just the second time since 2004 last season. He'll be followed by Hiroki Kuroda, who has rather quietly established himself as one of the more consistent starters in the game.
The real wild cards in the rotation are Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. Tanaka is expected to put up big numbers this year—after all, he's getting paid a gargantuan amount of money to do so. But as with anybody coming to the majors from overseas, you just don't know what you're going to get.
Pineda is similarly questionable heading into the season. The right-hander missed all of 2012 because of surgery to repair a torn labrum, but this spring, he's surrendered just two earned runs in 15 innings. That earned him a spot in the rotation, but after two full years of absence from the majors, Pineda has plenty of questions to answer.
On the offensive side, if Jeter can put it together at the plate, the Yankees solid (but aging) lineup should be just fine. If we've learned anything in the past, taking the Bombers lightly could be a huge mistake.
6. Tampa Bay Rays (92-71)
Projected 2014 Record: 92-70
If there's one team on this list who could be placed higher than their current position, it would have to be the Rays. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Rays are a dark horse candidate to win it all this year.
Evan Longoria and Wil Myers will anchor the middle of the lineup, and with David DeJesus (.353 career OBP) and Ben Zobrist (.354 OBP) providing a formidable 1-2 punch, this lineup will score plenty of runs against the AL East's questionable pitching.
But the Rays really have the edge when it comes to starting pitching.
Both the Yankees and Red Sox have rotations that could fall apart at a moment's notice, while the Rays possess far more stability in that regard. Depth is what really sets the Rays starters apart—the rotation is solid one through five. That includes Jake Odorizzi, the 24-year-old who will begin his first full season as the Rays' No. 5 starter.
After quietly allowing two runs in 17.1 innings to close out the 2013 season, the right-hander is set to dominate over a full season. With much-improved command and a solid all-around repertoire of pitches, Odorizzi is equipped to handle the challenge of pitching in the AL East.
Manager Joe Maddon certainly likes what he sees.
"I thought Odorizzi was really good today," Maddon said Tuesday, via FOX's Andrew Astleford. "I thought he had some really good stuff. He had everything working, actually—some really good curveballs...I thought he was really sharp."
With David Price, breakout candidate Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer rounding out the rotation, it's tough to look past the Rays this season.
5. Boston Red Sox (97-65)
Projected 2014 Record: 93-69
How could the defending champs possibly be so low, you might ask?
For one, the losses of Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew don't help. Offseason addition A.J. Pierzynski is a clear downgrade from Salty, with his .297 OBP in 2013 not looking too great.
Another potential concern is the starting rotation's fragility. Jake Peavy is constantly hurt, as is Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey is a Tommy John-recoveree. Will the starters find a way to stay healthy? We'll find out.
However, a couple factors could push the Sox into a higher future ranking. Most significantly, a big season from Grady Sizemore would do wonders for the club. The former All-Star outfielder will be thrust right into the leadoff spot after missing two full seasons of action, so all eyes will be on him as the regular season gets underway.
At the very least, Sizemore is feeling positive about his performance this spring.
“I feel good. I’m happy with how everything has gone in a short period," Sizemore told ESPN's Gordon Edes. "I didn’t expect to feel this good or this good so soon. I’m happy with that aspect. But we’re all professionals. We all want to be better.’’
Young shortstop Xander Bogaerts is another candidate for a breakout season, especially now that he has some playoff experience to speak of. At the very least, he's an excellent hitter to have batting near the bottom of the lineup.
In short, despite a few red flags, there's no reason to believe the Sox won't make another deep playoff push in 2014. If they can stay healthy, they'll make it out of the AL East for the second consecutive season.
4. Washington Nationals (86-76)
Projected 2014 Record: 95-67
The Nats rotation is seriously scary, and with a much easier road to the playoffs than last year, Washington will be a tough team to stop should they make it out of the NL East.
That's almost a laughable notion, given the East's current condition. The Miami Marlins lineup is in shambles, as is the Atlanta Braves rotation, and the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets shouldn't scare anyone this year either.
With a deadly pitching rotation comprised of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, the Nationals won't make life easy for whoever they face in the playoffs (if they get there). Oh, and that Tanner Roark kid is pretty good too (7-1, 1.51 ERA, 0.91 WHIP last season). We'll learn Saturday whether he or Taylor Jordan will grab the rotation's final spot.
Either way, the Nats are a force to be reckoned with heading into the season.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)
Projected 2014 Record: 94-68
The Dodgers are spending like the Yankees, and it's paid off to the tune of one of the best rosters in the majors. The one-through-five hitters in the lineup are as good as any in the majors when playing to their potentials (Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier), and Matt Kemp is possibly set to join in on the fun before long.
The one thing that could stop the Dodgers is their recent rash of injuries. Clayton Kershaw's inflamed back muscle doesn't appear to be too serious, but it's still a bit concerning that there are so many players on the disabled list (Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Kemp—to name a few).
Even so, with one of the best all-around teams in the league, including a dominant starting rotation that'll be followed by some pretty filthy relief pitchers, this Dodgers team will always be in contention in 2014.
2. Detroit Tigers (93-69)
Projected 2014 Record: 96-66
The Tigers just might possess one of the best rotations in the majors, with arguably the best 1-2-3 bunch between Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. While Scherzer is coming off his Cy Young-winning campaign and Sanchez led the AL in ERA, many eyes will be on Verlander after the right-hander's disappointing performance in 2013.
There's little doubt the former 24-game winner will be back with a vengeance. Verlander's "down year" (13-12, 3.46 ERA, 217 strikeouts) has many people writing him off, but that shouldn't drop him from the ranks of the elite. He's also allowed just seven hits in 13.2 scoreless innings this spring.
The former MVP feels good about his repertoire heading into the season.
"I'm definitely encouraged," Verlander told MLive.com's Chris Iott. "Obviously, there hasn't been a lot of solid contact, so I know that what I'm working on has been beneficial to me. I feel like I've got a good angle on my fastball, and my offspeed stuff's been really good."
Don't think the lineup will suffer either. The Tigers did lose Prince Fielder, but new acquisition Ian Kinsler will inject more life into the top of the lineup, and he'll be followed by Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. All three of those batters eclipsed a .300 batting average last season, and old age is the only indication they'll slow down.
The Tigers barely missed out on the World Series in 2013, and they'll have an excellent shot to make it back there this season.
1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)
Projected 2014 Record: 96-66
The Cardinals return with a largely similar roster to the one that carried them to the World Series in 2013, but with several improvements.
For one, their young talent, most notably sophomore starters Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, now have a season of experience under their belts, and they'll each be fresh for the entire season, injuries permitting.
Aside from owning one of the top rotations in the majors, however, the Cards also possess a stacked lineup from top to bottom.
2013 MVP candidate Matt Carpenter will lead off after posting a .392 OBP in 2013, seventh in the National League. Then, there will be more than enough firepower to bring him home, with Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams constituting the middle of the lineup. Plus, Oscar Taveras is a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate once he makes it out of Triple-A, and the underrated Kolten Wong will likely bat second.
In short, the Cardinals really don't have any notable weaknesses. Their lineup is solid throughout, the pitching trio of Adam Wainwright, Miller and Wacha will make life tough on the NL Central, and Trevor Rosenthal has the stuff to be one of the better closers in the league this year.
For now, the Cardinals are the team to beat.