Spring training brings the promise of warmer weather and finds players, coaches, front office personnel and fans all beginning to fill with excitement and optimism over the upcoming season.
To be sure, all teams are not created equal, and not all excitement and optimism is, either. You won't find Houston Astros fans dreaming about their team making a deep playoff run in 2014, but that doesn't mean there aren't reasons for their optimism and excitement.
Why should fans of all 30 teams be excited about the upcoming season? Let's take a look.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Archie Bradley's Eventual MLB Debut
Between being a non-roster invitee to spring training and the team's signing of veteran starter Bronson Arroyo, there's no chance that Archie Bradley breaks camp with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But the 21-year-old right-hander is an injury away from the major leagues, and if he's half as good as the hype that surrounds him, the D-Backs are going to have a special pitcher on their hands.
"(People) should be excited because he's the top prospect. Everybody can see why he's the top prospect. He's got electric stuff," manager Kirk Gibson told Arizona Sports' Craig Giralou. "At some point in his career you look at him as a dominant No. 1 or No. 2 guy. To watch a guy with that type of ability is always fun."
While he continued to struggle with his command a bit in 2013, issuing just over four walks per nine innings of work, that didn't stand in the way of Bradley pitching a 1.84 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 152 innings of work between High-A and Double-A.
Armed with stuff that good, it's impossible not to get excited about his eventual MLB debut at some point this season—especially if you're a Diamondbacks fan.
The Continued Progression of a Young Core
Even after losing long-time mainstays Brian McCann and Tim Hudson in free agency, the Atlanta Braves return essentially the same team to the field in 2014 that won the NL East a year ago—and the core of that club is just starting to hit their stride.
Only one of the team's nine projected Opening Day starters will be over the age of 29, and that player, 33-year-old second baseman Dan Uggla, has a tenuous hold on the starting gig at best entering camp. It's quite possible that every Brave that takes the field against Milwaukee on Mar. 31 will be 29 or younger.
When you think about just how young some of the team's biggest bats are—Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons are only 24 years old—and how good they were a season ago—that they each still have potential waiting to be tapped into is a scary proposition for the rest of baseball.
Manny Machado's Healing Powers
Limited in what he can do, that Manny Machado took the field at Baltimore's spring training at all has to make Orioles fans ecstatic.
Ahead of where he was expected to be in his recovery from knee surgery, Machado won't be able to play in games until he is cleared by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Los Angeles Dodgers team doctor that operated on him.
While Machado doesn't expect that to happen until mid-March, he's optimistic about his prognosis, as he told The Baltimore Sun's Eduardo A. Encina after his first workout:
“I felt great. It was my first time out there on the field, the first time putting on an Orioles shirt and doing some team activities, but overall, it felt great. I’m just ready to get this show on the road.”
If Machado's timeline is right, he might not be ready for Opening Day, as both he and the team may want to get him in some more nine-inning games before he makes his 2014 regular season debut. But he won't be far behind, and that's something to get excited about in Baltimore.
An Improved Rotation (Finally)
After years of searching, the Orioles finally landed the innings-eating, front-of-the-rotation arm that they desperately needed, agreeing on a four-year, $50 million deal with Ubaldo Jimenez as reported by USA Today's Bob Nightengale.
To label the 30-year-old a savior would be insane, given his track record of inconsistency, but Jimenez knows how to make batters swing and miss while keeping the ball on the ground, two things that will serve him well in Baltimore, especially with a solid defense behind him.
The addition of Jimenez, coupled with the emergence of Chis Tillman, a healthy Wei-Yin Chen and a full season of Bud Norris puts Baltimore's rotation in far better shape than it was a year ago.
A Full Season of Xander
Shortly after celebrating his 21st birthday, Xander Bogaerts was insterted into the Boston's lineup as its starting third baseman—in the middle of the 2013 American League Championship Series—and looked like a seasoned pro.
Now Boston's starting shortstop, replacing free agent Stephen Drew, Bogaerts will heads into spring training not only as the favorite to take home AL Rookie of the Year honors later this year, but as a potential MVP candidate as well.
ESPN's Buster Olney says that Bogaerts could have a "Manny Machado-like impact," while his colleague Keith Law compares him to Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki. (Insider subscription required) Those are pretty hefty comparisons right there, and in 2014, they might not be far off.
If that's not exciting enough for Red Sox fans, consider this: If Bogaerts is that good now, how good is he going to be when he finally reaches the prime years of his career?
Young Talent On the Horizon
Few teams in baseball have as many impact position players working their way through the minor leagues as the rebuilding Chicago Cubs do, and after years of waiting, the Wrigley faithful should see the first wave of talent make their major-league debuts at some point during the 2014 season.
From a trio of highly-touted infielders in Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez and Christian Villanueva to pitcher Aroyds Vizcaino, who could be a factor in the rotation or out of the bullpen, reinforcements are on the way for a Cubs team that hasn't posted a winning record since 2009.
A New Voice to Lead that Talent
Rick Renteria knows that fans and pundits alike are still scratching their collective heads over Chicago's decision to name him the team's new manager, tasked with leading the team out of the NL Central basement and back to the land of contenders.
And he wouldn't have it any other way, as he explained to CSN Chicago's Tony Andracki:
It comes from wanting to prove everybody wrong. Every one of these guys is out to prove everybody wrong. I don't mind being the underdog. You may beat me up, but you're going to know you're in a fight. And one of these days, I'm going to win that fight.
Putting up a fight, showing signs of life—those are all things that Cubs fans would love to see their team do in 2014. Second baseman Darwin Barney believes that the club will do just that under Renteria's leadership:
Baseball players need a positive influence. Everything is negative. Everything is 'This is what you did wrong' or 'You can do better at this.' One-for-4 is still only .250 — it's not exactly what you want.
But somebody that's positive in your ear all day is someone that you can rally behind, because you'll want to treat your teammates well to be more like him. I think he's the right guy for the job.
Even players that aren't expected to make an impact in 2014, like outfield prospect Albert Almora, can't wait for the chance to play for Renteria, who spoke to the team's prospects during a rookie-development program in January:
"After he was done speaking, I was amped up. I was ready to go outside at that very moment and go play in the snow. I was fired up like it was Game 7 of the World Series."
If Renteria can invoke that kind of response after only a few days of getting to know a player, just imagine the kind of impact that he could have on a team over the course of a full season.
An Infusion of Fresh Talent
If you're looking for one of the most underrated general managers in baseball, look no further than the southside of Chicago, where White Sox GM Rick Hahn has done a remarkable job of adding young talent with high ceilings and a chance to make a real impact in 2014.
Outfielder Avisail Garcia, acquired towards the end of last season and first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, signed as a free agent shortly after the 2013 season came to an end, both have big-time power potential and figure to be mainstays in the middle of Chicago's lineup for the next decade.
Middle infielder Leury Garcia and third baseman Matt Davidson both could be long-term answers on the left side of the team's infield, while center fielder Adam Eaton may be Hahn's best addition to the mix thus far.
Eaton has terrific speed, both on the basepaths and in the field, which allows him to cover a ton of ground in center field, where he flashes a solid glove and a cannon for a throwing arm.
At the plate, Eaton shows great discipline and knows how to make solid, consistent contact. In 2012, Eaton led all of minor league baseball in batting average (.375), hits (198) and doubles (47) and was named Pacific Coast League MVP.
A blue-collar player that loves to get dirty, White Sox fans are going to love Eaton—and the impact that he has hitting atop the lineup in 2014.
A Full Season of Billy Hamilton's Speed
Nobody knows if Billy Hamilton will be able to hit for average against MLB pitching, especially if the opposition continues to bust him inside, where his lack of strength has kept him from turning on those offerings, but no player in baseball has a weapon as dangerous as Hamilton does with his speed.
We saw how much of an impact Hamilton could make over a short period of time in 2013, when the speedster was successful on 13-of-14 stolen base attempts while scoring nine runs in only 13 regular season games.
Hitting atop a talented, dangerous Cincinnati lineup, Hamilton could easily find himself leading all of baseball in runs scored and stolen bases by the time his rookie campaign comes to an end.
Trevor Bauer's Revamped Delivery
It's been awhile since anyone had anything good to say about Trevor Bauer, the 23-year-old right-hander that, at one point, was considered among the best pitching prospects in all of baseball.
Whether Bauer did some soul-searching this winter or simply grew up, something clicked for him as he reported to spring training with a new delivery, something that made the entire Indians coaching staff, including manager Terry Francona, stand up and take notice, as the skipper told Paul Hoynes of The Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
It was night and day, night and day. We’re thrilled. Again, we’re not evaluating, but he looked different.
I think we’re really excited. Again, he hasn’t faced a hitter yet, but he looked like a different pitcher. That was nice to see.
It's hard to imagine a new delivery delivering results as bad as what Bauer produced in 2013, when he went 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA and averaged eight walks per nine innings in four big-league starts.
With far more natural talent and upside than the likes of Carlos Carrasco, Shaun Marcum and Josh Tomlin, his competition for the fifth spot in Cleveland's rotation, the premise that Bauer could finally have turned a corner in his development is an exciting development for an Indians team that needs another impact starter.
A Starting Rotation That Could be a Strength?
Colorado's starting rotation has been among the most ineffective in baseball for years, and 2013 was no different, with the group pitching a 4.57 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, the worst numbers of any National League team.
While the core of last year's rotation—Jorge De La Rosa, Tyler Chatwood and Jhoulys Chacin—remains in place, the Rockies went out and added Brett Anderson to the mix, a move that figures to pay dividends as long as the 26-year-old can stay healthy.
His ability to keep the ball on the ground will certainly play well with a solid defense behind him, especially when he takes the mound at Coors Field, where fly balls have a tendency to keep going...and going...and going.
Perhaps the most exciting part of Colorado's starting rotation, however, are a pair of pitchers that don't figure to be a part of the group at all on Opening Day, 22-year-old right-handers Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler.
The pair of youngsters has quickly risen through Colorado's minor league system and both profile as front-of-the-rotation arms, with Butler expected to make his major league debut at some point during the 2014 season.
An Improved Bullpen
While Joaquin Benoit did a remarkable job after being pressed into the closer's role last season, Detroit's bullpen remained one of the more mediocre units in baseball, pitching to a combined 4.01 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.
That figures to change in 2014, with perennial All-Star Joe Nathan taking over in the ninth inning, taking the ball from young flamethrower Bruce Rondon and newly acquired Joba Chamberlain, who reported to camp in fantastic shape and with a chip on his shoulder.
With one move—trading first baseman Prince Fielder to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler—Detroit GM Dave Dombrowksi managed to upgrade his team's defense at three positions.
Top prospect Nick Castellanos may not win any Gold Glove Awards at third base, but he's an upgrade with the glove over Miguel Cabrera, who slides across the diamond to replace Fielder, who had become a defensive liability.
Kinsler is an upgrade over the departed Omar Infante, and he should form a lethal double-play combination with shortstop Jose Iglesias, entering his first full major league season.
A Deeper Lineup
With Kinsler and his career .349 on-base percentage leading things off for Detroit's lineup, the heart of the order figures to come to the plate with a runner on base more often than not, increasing the team's run production.
Former leadoff hitter Austin Jackson may not have the prototypical power that teams typically expect from a No. 5 hitter, but his speed and ability to stretch balls hit down the line or in the outfield gaps, in the middle of the lineup, could pose significant problems for the opposition
The First Wave of Talent Arrives
Still in the thick of their rebuilding process, the Houston Astros will finally begin to see the talent that they've been stockpiling over the past few years begin to impact the major league club as outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jonathan Singleton are ready for prime time.
After a strong showing in eight exhibition games last spring in which he went 4-for-12 with a pair of home runs, seven RBI and six runs scored, Springer went back to the minor leagues and tore things up, hitting a combined .303 with 37 home runs, 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases between Double-A and Triple-A.
While the Astros may not want to start the clock on his service time on Opening Day, the 24-year-old has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues and will be a major factor in Houston in 2014.
Singleton, 22, had a miserable 2013 season, serving a 50-game suspension for his second positive test for marijuana and struggling to produce once he returned to action, hitting a woeful .230 with 11 home runs and 44 RBI in 90 games across three different minor league levels.
But he's got big-time raw power, excellent bat speed and knows how to draw walks. Already on the team's 40-man roster, Singleton could win the first base job in spring training with a strong showing, though it's more likely that he'll head back to Triple-A for some more seasoning before he makes his debut.
With Springer and Singleton soon to arrive, things are beginning to look up in Houston.
No More Gaping Hole at Second Base
After using eight players at second base over the past three years, Kansas City finally found its everyday starter in free agent Omar Infante.
Solid defensively and at the plate, Infante serves as a major upgrade at the one position that the Royals desperately needed one, and his bat will play well hitting second in a talented, dangerous lineup.
An Improved Lineup
Infante wasn't the only addition to the top of Kansas City's lineup this winter as the team traded for one of the more underrated players in the game, outfielder Norichika Aoki.
Able to get on-base consistently and hit for average as a leadoff hitter allows manager Ned Yost to drop Alex Gordon to the fifth spot in the lineup, where his power and penchant for extra-base hits will see Kansas City's run production increase significantly.
An Improved Rotation
While the Angels didn't land a big-name starting pitcher to pair with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson atop the rotation, Los Angeles was able to improve the group by flipping one-dimensional slugger Mark Trumbo for a pair of young, talented southpaws in Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.
Santiago is the more proven of the two, pitching to a 3.30 ERA and 1.37 WHIP over 27 career starts for the Chicago White Sox, while Skaggs has more upside, with the potential to be a solid No. 2 starter in time.
Would fans be more excited if the Halos had landed Matt Garza or Masahiro Tanaka? Of course. But this group is far better than it was a year ago, and that's enough reason for excitement.
Stars Returning to Health
If they had their way, both Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton would forget that 2013 ever happened.
Hobbled by a left-heel injury that eventually ended his season prematurely at the end of July, Pujols is healthy, in terrific shape and has high expectations for himself this season, as he told The Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna:
You're going to see it when I run and move around. I'll let your eyes be the judge. I might steal five or six bags this year.
It was like having a flat tire and a broken rim. This game is tough enough being 100%. Imagine having an injury to deal with. It's hard.
Josh Hamilton wasn't injured, per se, in 2013, but the outfielder wasn't anywhere close to being himself either, as he explained to USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz:
As far as me miss-hitting the ball and it still having a chance to go out, it wasn't there like normal. That's the thing I wanted to get back to.
There were more physical aspects of things. Not that I was hurt, but I wasn't myself, more so than the mental part. I felt like I was searching a lot last year.
Hamilton added 20 pounds of muscle to his frame over the winter, reporting to camp at 240 pounds, his playing weight from his days with the Texas Rangers when he was one of baseball's most dynamic players.
Manager Mike Scioscia took notice of the new, improved Hamilton and is confident that he'll get back to producing like the Josh Hamilton Los Angeles thought it had signed, as he told DiGiovanna:
"No doubt, there's a little different look that he has. I'm very confident we're going to see a different Josh, particularly earlier in the year."
A Healthier—and Incredibly Deep—Starting Rotation
It's been said that you can never have too much pitching, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have taken that theory to heart. The Dodgers have six pitchers capable of taking the ball every fifth day—and only five spots in which to slot them.
Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu made it through the 2013 season unscathed and will occupy two of those five rotation spots. Zack Greinke, who missed time last season due to a suspension and injury, is healthy and will slide into the No. 2 spot between Kershaw and Ryu.
Dan Haren, signed to a one-year, $10 million deal this past winter, figures to be the team's fourth starter, leaving one spot for two veterans, Josh Beckett and Paul Maholm, to battle it out for.
Beckett, who was limited to only eight starts for the Dodgers in 2013 before having to shut things down, eventually undergoing surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, is fully recovered and going through a normal spring training.
I want to be with the Dodgers. I feel like I was treated really good through everything and I'd like to help repay that. I'm going to throw the ball until I blow out, but I'm hoping that I don't blow out for a few more years.
While he won't be ready to go on Opening Day, long-time Dodger Chad Billingsley is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick that he's optimistic about his chances of returning to his previous All-Star form:
"My arm hasn't felt this good in a few years. I feel like I have a whole new arm."
Adding veteran bats like Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia bolstered Miami's lineup around Giancarlo Stanton and could result in a few more wins for the Marlins in 2014, but this season isn't about the team's place in the standings.
It's about the continued development of the team's young core, a group that includes outfielders Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Jake Marisnick (along with Stanton) and nearly the entire starting rotation, including Jacob Turner and Jose Fernandez, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year.
Especially Fernandez, who put up Cy Young-quality numbers on a losing team as a rookie—and spent the winter riding his bike to get in better shape, shedding 25 pounds as The South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Craig Davis noted recently:
Fernandez wasn't just tooling around soaking up sun and fresh air. Riding in a peloton that typically contained at least 50 serious cycling enthusiasts and grew to as many as 200 on some weekend rides, he maintained a frenetic pace for nearly 600 miles a week.
Think about that for a second—Jose Fernandez rode his bike nearly 600 miles a week. Most of us don't walk a tenth of that in a given week, much less ride a bicycle that much. Fernandez explained his thinking behind the exercise program:
On the bike you can do intervals. You go hard and then slow down. It's kind of like an inning, is the way I see it. I'm going really hard for 10, 12 minutes and then I slow down for 5 or 6 minutes. Conditioning-wise, it's amazing. I'm glad that I did it. Let's see how it's going to work out this year. I'm not sure, but I feel really good.
A slimmer, stronger Fernandez? That's a scary proposition for the rest of baseball—and nothing short of phenomenal news for the Marlins.
Yovani Gallardo Is Focused
It goes without saying that, next to Ryan Braun's admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs, the biggest disappointment for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013 was the performance of the team's ace, Yovani Gallardo.
Arrested on a DUI charge shortly after the season began, Gallardo seemed distracted and disconnected for most of the year and it showed in his woeful numbers: a 4.18 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and career-worst 7.2 K/9 ratio.
Now, the 27-year-old is ready to forget all about last season and get back to doing what he does best, he explained to The Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt:
I'm more relaxed, to be honest. I'm ready to go out and have some fun.
To be honest, I wasn't happy at all. I think it's obviously the worst year I've had since coming up to the big leagues. My No. 1 goal is to make each year better. Last year, I went in the opposite direction. I have to get back on track and fix the things I have to fix.
One of the things that he plans on fixing is his arsenal, which was without an effective curveball for much of 2013. That won't be the case this year:
I'm going to try to use it a little bit more. Last year, early in the year, I ran into trouble throwing fastball/slider, the pitches I was throwing. Whenever I did throw a curveball, it was out of the (strike) zone.
The main thing is to try to throw it for strikes more, try to throw a good curveball to get me back even in the count or get ahead in the count with the first pitch. I think it's going to make a huge difference. I was able to do that the first few years when I came up. In '07 I was able to throw it in any count.
A focused, determined Gallardo will be a welcome sight atop an improved rotation that added Matt Garza to the mix this winter.
An Improved Rotation
Not normally known as an aggressive franchise on the free-agent market, general manager Terry Ryan did what needed to be done this winter, moving quickly to sign free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.
While he's miscast as the ace of the staff, Nolasco is a consistent contributor who will keep the Twins in games and eat innings, the kind of pitcher that the team hasn't had in years.
Hughes, whose numbers in 2013 were atrocious, has historically been very good away from his former home, Yankee Stadium, and has a chance to turn things around and begin to live up to his considerable talent at Target Field. Only 27 years old, he still has some upside.
Ideally, the Twins would have added one more veteran starter (I thought Bronson Arroyo was a perfect fit for them), but the improvement that the team will see from it's starting staff, which has been one of baseball's worst for years, is significant enough for Twins fans to get excited about.
Major Improvements in the Outfield
Perhaps no team was under more pressure to make significant improvements this winter than the New York Mets. Faced with a fanbase that was growing impatient and agitated, GM Sandy Alderson didn't disappoint, upgrading the team's decrepit outfield with a pair of free-agent signings.
Take a look at how the team's two newest outfielders, Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, stack up against the ragtag group of mediocrity that the Mets sent out on the field a year ago:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||wRC+||G|
|Mets OF||.235||.304||.381||183 (60)||93||162|
Their stats may be underwhelming, but consider that Granderson was limited by a number of freak injuries, while Young was relegated to part-time duty in Oakland.
Over the course of a full season, a healthy Granderson and Young will be a productive combination, giving the Mets a pair of quality bats that the lineup sorely lacked a year ago.
Ike's New Swing
While the hitch in his swing still exists, Ike Davis spent much of his winter studying film and working to simplify what had become a very complicated, convoluted swing.
Davis told The New York Times' Tim Rohan that he noticed his back leg was coming up, causing his hands to drop. Beginning in November, Davis headed to the batting cages, hellbent on fixing the issue.
Skipper Terry Collins has yet to decide whether Davis or Lucas Duda will get the starting nod at first base, but he couldn't help but notice the work Davis had put in during the offseason when he first saw him taking swings in camp, he told Rohan:
"He’s tried to fix it and he looks better. He really does. I just see a different Ike Davis. Last year he came in as the guy. Now he’s fighting for his life. And I think that changes the way you go about things.”
A new approach at the plate for Davis is worth getting excited about, for we've seen just how productive a hitter he can be when things are going right.
A New Chapter Begins
With shortstop Derek Jeter entering the home stretch of his career, the New York Yankees head into 2014 with an overhauled roster, the best young starting pitcher that the team has had in years and a real shot of returning to the playoffs.
It's impossible not to get excited when you look at the amount of talent that the team added this winter.
Jacoby Ellsbury is a defensive upgrade in center field and gives the Yankees a legitimate leadoff hitter, allowing Jeter to slide back to the second spot in the lineup where he belongs.
Brian McCann is a massive upgrade behind the plate, and his swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium.
Carlos Beltran might not be a defensive whiz in right field, but the switch-hitter knows how to produce runs and rises to the occasion in the playoffs, when the Yankees will need him the most.
Last, but certainly not least, is the arrival of Masahiro Tanaka, the winter's most sought-after free agent. While living up to expectations might be impossible for the 25-year-old right-hander, Tanaka breathes new life into what had become an older, underwhelming rotation.
A Return to Health
Two of the team's biggest bats, Jeter and first baseman Mark Teixeira, essentially missed all of the 2013 season due to injury, producing little offense in 17 and 15 games played, respectively.
Both All-Stars arrived to spring training healthy and Teixeira, especially, expects big things from himself and the team in 2014, as he explained to The New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand:
Look at our lineup; we’re back to being the Yankees again. Last year, we weren’t the Yankees.
I absolutely plan on playing 150-plus games this year. That’s my goal. Every now and then I’ll have a day off, of course. That’s just natural. You get beat up a little bit during the season, but I expect to have a healthy, productive season.
Also returning to health is 25-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda, the centerpiece of the trade that sent former top prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle in 2012. Yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees due to a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery, Pineda is ready to contribute in 2014:
“Yeah, yeah, I’m feeling really good. Everything’s the same (as it was before the surgery). I’m the same Michael Pineda," he told John Harper of The New York Daily News. While he's yet to see him in game action, manager Joe Girardi was encouraged by what he's seen from Pineda so far:
I’m happy with what I saw today. The ball is coming out of his hand really well. I’m anxious to see him pitch in games. I felt the ball was coming out easier. And he’s had some time to clean up some things mechanically.
A healthy, productive Pineda could be the key to just how good New York's starting rotation actually is this season.
An Improved Bullpen
Oakland already had one of baseball's premier bullpens, but the defending AL West champions went out and made the group even better this winter, acquiring closer Jim Johnson from the Baltimore Orioles and setup man Luke Gregerson from the San Diego Padres.
Of the two, it's Gregerson that might actually be the more important addition.
He keeps the ball on the ground, evidenced by a 45.5 percent groundball rate and relies heavily on his slider and sinker to get batters out, using his fastball to set up his secondary pitches.
Owner of a career 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 and 3.29 K/BB, Gregerson will make getting the ball into Johnson's hands that much easier for an A's bullpen that, really, wasn't likely to have issues doing so before his arrival.
A Healthier, More Dangerous Lineup
Three of Philadelphia's key pieces: center fielder Ben Revere, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard were all hobbled by injuries in 2013, with neither Revere nor Howard appearing in more than 90 games.
Now healthy, all three will be counted on to return to their prior levels of production.
For Revere, that means getting on base and causing havoc with his speed, Utley to come through with timely hits and Howard to clean it all up with his powerful swing, though a return to the days when he routinely slugged 40 home runs may be asking too much.
If the trio can stay healthy (and yes, that's a big if), the Phillies lineup will be far superior and more productive than it was a year ago.
A Full Season of Gerrit Cole
Sure, Gerrit Cole's numbers in 2013 paled in comparison to those of fellow rookie starter Jose Fernandez in Miami, but the 22-year-old put together an outstanding debut season, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 17 starts.
That experience will lend itself to Cole having a breakout campaign in 2014, slotted into the second spot in the team's rotation between Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez. It would be surprising if Cole didn't make the first of what figures to be multiple All-Star appearances over the course of his career this year.
Another Year Older
While they may not have the name recognition that their counterparts around the game do, San Diego's roster is stacked with quality players at every position, players that continue to improve as they get more experience against major league opposition.
A pair of youngsters, catcher Yasmani Grandal and shortstop Everth Cabrera, return from injury and serving 50-game PED-related suspensions to bolster an already solid lineup that features first baseman Yonder Alonso, second baseman Jedd Gyorko and third baseman Chase Headley, all under the age of 30.
Throw in former All-Star left fielder Carlos Quentin and underrated center fielder Will Venable, and the Padres have the makings of a potentially dangerous lineup, if they all can stay healthy.
Fat Ichiro Has Left the Building
Just what kind of shape did chronically overweight third baseman Pablo Sandoval show up to spring training in?
Here's The San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman's take on the 27-year-old's physical appearance:
Pablo Sandoval looks as good as I’ve ever seen him. The reports of his good new shape are not exaggerated.
In our first conversation of the spring with Sandoval, he would not reveal how much weight he has lost, but it is considerable.
While some would argue that the only reason Sandoval got himself into shape is because he's entering the final year of his contract with the San Francisco Giants, the third baseman vehemently disputes that theory:
I don’t care about the contract. I care about this team. This year I want to try to win a championship. Guys are going to say what they want. It doesn’t matter. I showed that team that I grew up like a human being, to take my job seriously.
Pressed to take better care of himself by teammates Matt Cain, Hunter Pence and Buster Posey, Sandoval certainly appears to have taken their comments to heart—and he may be poised to put together the best season of his seven-year career, one that has already included two All-Star appearances.
An Improved Offense
Adding a perennial MVP candidate in Robinson Cano to the middle of the lineup is going to make any team's offense drastically better than it was the season before, but Seattle didn't stop with Cano, bringing the oft-injured-but-talented Logan Morrison and Corey Hart to the Emerald City as well this winter.
That trio, along with third baseman Kyle Seager, gives the Mariners as potent a group in the middle of their lineup as the team has had in years.
If that quartet can stay healthy, and those hitting at the top and bottom of the batting order can produce, the Mariners could have one of the better offenses in baseball going forward.
Few teams in baseball had to rely on as many young, inexperienced arms as St. Louis did in 2013, both in the starting rotation and bullpen, and the Cardinals still managed to reach the World Series.
St. Louis has three pitchers on their staff over the age of 30: staff ace Adam Wainwright (32), left-handed specialist Randy Choate (38) and long reliever Angel Castro (31). The average age of the team's starting rotation is 26, with both Michael Wacha (22) and Shelby Miller (23) years from reaching their primes.
The bullpen is only slightly older on average (26.9 years old) but equally as impressive, with closer Trevor Rosenthal (23) and setup man Carlos Martinez (24), like Wacha and Miller, years away from their prime.
Did I mention that Joe Kelly, Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist are all just about to enter the primes of their career?
All of these arms are another year older, wiser, and mature, both physically and mentally. That's a scary proposition for anyone not wearing a Cardinals uniform.
St. Louis' top prospect, outfielder Oscar Taveras, is going to make his presence felt at Busch Stadium at some point this season, the only question is when that will take place.
The way I see it, Taveras will become a fixture in St. Louis beginning on Opening Day.
Taveras, 21, recently did extensive running for the first time since his surgery and had no setbacks, according to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’s been working hard, doing a lot of short movements, explosive movements,” skipper Mike Matheny said of Taveras. “This should lead him to being ready to go.”
Currently, the Cardinals have Allen Craig penciled into the right field spot with Matt Adams taking over for Craig at first base. But Taveras, who can hit for average and power from the left-side of the plate, has considerably more talent than Adams, who isn't nearly as good a player as Craig.
Now that he's healthy, Taveras will put his skills on display for all to see this spring and make Matheny's choice easy; he'll win the starting spot in right field, pushing Craig back to first base and Adams to the bench.
One More Run With David Price
More than the continued development of reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, having David Price lead a deep rotation for another season is reason to get excited in Tampa Bay, for 2014 figures to be the last time that it happens.
A trade involving the 28-year-old southpaw out of Tampa Bay is an unavoidable inevitability, given his status as one of the game's elite talents and Tampa Bay's inability to pay him anywhere close to market value once his contract expires after the 2015 season.
A perennial contender in the AL East, Tampa Bay knows that its window of opportunity with Price leading the way is closing quickly. With a talented roster and plethora of pitching, both in the rotation and the bullpen, Rays fans should be jacked up about making one more run with Price in the mix.
Is This Texas' Best Lineup Yet?
Texas decided that it needed to add left-handed bats this past winter, so GM Jon Daniels went out and got two of the best in Shin-Soo Choo, an on-base machine and Prince Fielder, one of the game's premier power hitters.
While both have their issues in the field and against left-handed pitching—the latter a weakness much of the team's lineup shares—there's no overstating how much of an improvement the pair is over the players that occupied first base and batted leadoff for the Rangers in 2013, as evidenced by the numbers:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||wRC+||WAR|
|Texas 1B||.238||.304||.438||73 (35)||97||0.4|
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||TB|
|Texas Leadoff Hitters||.266||.336||.386||51 (14)||260|
Adding their potent bats to a lineup that already includes Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios should produce some explosive results.
Things Can't Get Any Worse
From the minute Jose Reyes suffered an ankle injury on April 12 that would keep him sidelined for more than two months, anything that could go wrong for the Toronto Blue Jays did go wrong in 2013.
The veteran starters the team bought in to solidify the rotation—Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson—all struggled mightily, and while the team showed signs of life throughout the season, it could never get back on track.
Barring another catastrophic injury, here's simply too much talent on Toronto's roster for things to go as badly in 2014. That doesn't offer much solace to or energize a suffering fanbase, especially after an offseason that saw the team make only one notable move, signing catcher Dioner Navarro.
Adding either Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, the two best starting pitchers left on the free agent market, to bolster the rotation would make it much easier to get excited about the Blue Jays in 2014, but until that happens, believing that the team hit rock bottom last year is all you've got.
The Rich Get Richer: Welcome Doug Fister
Already boasting one of the best starting rotations in baseball, Washington went out and added one of the game's 20 best pitchers to the mix, acquiring Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers for, well, nothing significant.
Since 2012, Fister is tied for the 13th-highest WAR among qualified starting pitchers with Washington's own Gio Gonzalez, pitching to a 3.57 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. A pitcher like that winds up near the front of nearly every other team's rotation—not in the back, as he does in Washington.
Adding Fister's considerable talent to a group that already included Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann almost doesn't seem fair to any team that has to play the Nationals this year.