Optimism is in heavy supply as spring training action gets underway around Major League Baseball. Teams that made the playoffs last season have a plan to get back and a vast majority of those that missed out hope things align perfectly for their own postseason run in 2014.
Ultimately, there are numerous factors that come into play over the course of 162 games. Everything from injuries to unexpected seasons, both good and bad, alter the direction of the season.
All front offices can do is build the best possible roster and hope those variables go in their favor.
With that in mind, let's examine three teams that were forced to watch the playoffs from home last fall, but are in good shape to contend this year. The trio should all make a serious push to break the 90-win barrier, which is what it took to make the postseason in 2013.
New York Yankees
The Yankees won 85 games last season. It's far from a noteworthy result for the storied franchise until you consider how the club did it. It was a makeshift roster that managed to stay within striking distance of a wild-card berth until the final weeks.
Consider that, of the six position players to appear in at least 100 games, three of them were Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Chris Stewart—all subpar offensive options.
Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez all missed extended periods of time.
The pitching staff enjoyed more favorable luck in terms of injuries. That said, it was still forced to endure a down season from ace CC Sabathia and a full campaign with a struggling Phil Hughes in the starting rotation.
So the Yankees went out during the winter and acted like the old-school Bronx Bombers. They added Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, among others, to bolster a roster that had enough depth to win 85 games but came up short of the postseason.
If the 27-time World Series champions get reasonably healthy seasons from Teixeira and Jeter, a bounce-back campaign from Sabathia and those big-name signings live up to their hefty contracts, there's no reason 100 wins shouldn't be within reach.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last season. With a boatload of offensive talent and a one-two punch of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in the rotation, they were viewed as one of the top contenders in the American League.
Instead, they finished below .500 at 78-84 and outside the top five in runs scored.
Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton failed to live up to their usual high standards, which meant much of Mike Trout's amazing work went for naught once he got on base.
The 22-year-old sensation finished his second full season with 33 stolen bases, 27 home runs and an on-base percentage of .432. There are concerns that lingering contract talk could impact his play, but according to ESPN.com, manager Mike Scioscia doesn't think that will be the case:
There's no doubt that there are potential distractions there with what's happening. He hasn't flinched. He's very grounded. He has everything sorted out on his priorities. He just wants to play baseball, and he's doing a great job of it.
It would be a surprise if Trout is anything less than one of the best two or three players in baseball, contract talks or not. The main concerns for the Angels are secondary offensive production and the starters behind Weaver and Wilson.
The reason the Angels are in good shape is because even if Pujols and Hamilton don't bounce all the way back, they should make strides from last season.
They also added David Freese and Raul Ibanez to add more stability to the bottom half of the order.
As for the rotation, it should also get a boost thanks to Hector Santiago (3.56 ERA with the Chicago White Sox last season) and Tyler Skaggs, a promising prospect who should be ready to take the next step after getting his feet wet in the majors over the past two years.
It should all add up to more than 90 wins and a likely postseason berth.
If someone said before last season that a team was going to run away with the National League East, the general assumption would have been that the club in question would be Washington.
The Nationals ended up finishing 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves in what's shaping up to become quite a rivalry in the coming years.
Despite the Braves' strong 2013, the oddsmakers aren't convinced they can do it again. TheSpread.com notes that the Nationals have emerged as Bovada.lv's early favorites to capture the division crown and the automatic playoff berth that comes along with it:
There's no doubting Washington's pitching, especially in the starting rotation. The team's fifth starter is slated to be Ross Detwiler, who had a 4.04 ERA in 13 starts last season. That illustrates how much depth it has behind Stephen Strasburg.
The determining factor in whether the Nationals rebound to win the division will be performance at the plate. The team has a very strong trio in Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. Ian Desmond is also a solid contributor.
Washington will need at least one or two other hitters to step up over the course of the season to reach expectations, though.
Whether it's Adam LaRoche, Denard Span, Wilson Ramos or somebody else, the stars in the middle of the order need help.
Luckily, Washington should have enough talent among its role and depth players to fill that void. LaRoche is a player who runs hot and cold, meaning he will help for stretches, and Ramos should be ready to take another step forward at age 26.
The result should be a much closer battle in the NL East and a playoff berth, whether it be as division champions or a National League Wild Card.
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