Handicapping the Most Likely World Series Matchups for the 2014 MLB Season
Predicting potential head-to-head battles in the World Series has never been more difficult. From smart, forward-thinking front-office minds to revenue sharing to the addition of extra wild cards, more teams than ever before will open the season with an eye on October baseball.
As spring training marches on, narratives will unfold and predictions will begin to take shape across the media landscape.
While the Bleacher Report MLB team can't wait for Opening Day, it's never too early to look ahead to the best month on the calender: October.
Using a formula of over/under win odds, spring training results and gut feeling, a list of potential World Series matchups has emerged, ripe for critique and criticism. If any of these come to fruition—which really should happen—this piece will look prescient.
If an unlisted matchup headlines late-October, well, I'll expect the comment section to remind me over and over again.
As you'll see, the National League is a top-heavy, three-team race for supremacy. In the American League, as many as eight teams look talented enough to reach the World Series.
With Opening Day on the horizon, here's a glimpse at how the 2014 MLB journey could end.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Over/under projections courtesy of Bovoda. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.
1. Detroit Tigers vs. Washington Nationals
In the dugout, experience is overrated.
The most likely 2014 World Series battle features two first-year managers matching wits and loaded rosters.
After years of coming close to glory, it's now-or-never for the Detroit Tigers. Although new manager Brad Ausmus could steer the ship for years to come, the roster is aging by the day and has serious long-term contract concerns to deal with soon, including the impending free agency of Max Scherzer.
In Washington, Matt Williams could be the jolt need to boost the Nationals back to the postseason. If Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper graduate from good-to-great, the sky is the limit for the most complete team in the National League.
2. Detroit Tigers vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
If you like pitching duels, this World Series is for you.
Imagine this: Four of seven games featuring head-to-head battles between Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke vs. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Four of the best dozen pitchers in baseball battling each other in the headlines, but fierce, deep lineups on the field. Beyond the arms, the star power of names like Cabrera, Puig and Kemp would make this must-see television for even the casual fan.
If Los Angeles doesn't trade away one of five starting-caliber outfielders—including top prospect Joc Pederson—the games in Detroit's park, featuring the designated hitter, could actually favor the road team.
3. Detroit Tigers vs. St. Louis Cardinals
In the American League, the pennant is Detroit's to lose. Each of the top-three most likely World Series predictions features the Tigers reaching the pinnacle of October baseball.
If they arrive back to take on the St. Louis Cardinals, a rematch of the 2006 World Series will commence.
This time, however, three baseball pillars from 2006—Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols and Jim Leyland—won't be part of the festivities.
Instead, a changing of the guard will take place on the fields of Busch Stadium and Comerica Park, respectively.
Two former catchers—Ausmus and Mike Matheny—will battle wits in the dugouts, with the guarantee of a young manager emerging as a first-time champion.
Furthermore, as Albert Pujols continues to age, a Tigers trip to the World Series—coupled with a victory—could cement Miguel Cabrera in the pantheon of all-time greats before his inevitable mid-30s decline.
4. Texas Rangers vs. Washington Nationals
Since the start of the 2011 season, the most prolific strikeout artists among starting pitchers have been Texas' Yu Darvish and Washington's Stephen Strasburg.
In this potential World Series, the specter of a Game 7 between two of baseball's most dominant starters is fun to think about months in advance.
Beyond the top-tier aces headlining these teams, two well-balanced rosters could emerge to provide baseball fans with one of the most intriguing World Series battles in recent memory.
From Bryce Harper to Adrian Beltre to Jayson Werth to Shin-Soo Choo, the Nationals and Rangers feature some of baseball's most complete and well-rounded players. If you like games that feature offense, defense and fundamentals, this is as good of a potential World Series as you can find in the landscape of baseball right now.
5. Tampa Bay Rays vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
Small market vs. big market. David vs. Goliath. Brains vs. brawn.
If there's a narrative within reason, sports writers will dig it up for this unique World Series battle between the American League's most creative and well-run organization and the National League's financial behemoth.
Last month, Fangraphs' Wendy Thurm took a look at payroll allocation around Major League Baseball. In her research, Thurm used Opening Day payroll projections. Due to a unique free-agent market that features impact players available in March, the numbers are fluid.
However, not much is likely to change from this extract of Thurm's column: Los Angeles will enter the season with baseball's highest payroll. Tampa Bay will come in the bottom five.
Yet, from a talent perspective, the Rays could certainly hang with—or defeat—the Dodgers in a seven-game series.
6. Oakland Athletics vs. St. Louis Cardinals
If these teams meet with a World Series on the line, expect Major League Baseball to roll out the red carpet and a front-row seat for Tony La Russa.
While the legendary manager of both franchises would likely be torn between Oakland and St. Louis, baseball fans around the country would be treated to a lesson in team building and front office genius.
In St. Louis, the Cardinals farm system churns out game-changing talent on a yearly basis, allowing the mid-market team to retain the right stars (Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina), cast aside a declining icon (Albert Pujols) and allocate resources for ideal free-agent fits (Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Jhonny Peralta).
In Oakland, it's time for Billy Beane to be on the national stage. The long-time executive has been well known since the release of Moneyball, but Oakland's success isn't about on-base percentage or one single metric. Instead, Beane's genius—including a potential 95-win team in 2014 based on platoons, a young, cheap rotation and baseball's deepest bullpen—is about zigging when the rest of the sport zags.
Since 2000, these teams have combined to qualify for the postseason 17 times. In 2014, the Cardinals and Athletics could finally be on a collision course for the World Series.
7. New York Yankees vs. Washington Nationals
Yes, folks. Despite concerns across the infield, disappearing velocity from CC Sabathia, uncertainty surrounding Masahiro Tanaka's move to Major League Baseball and the daunting task of replacing Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, the New York Yankees have a shot to be special in 2014.
To be fair, that shot doesn't guarantee anything. In fact, the 2014 Yankees—despite spending $503 million on talent this offseason—could easily fail to qualify for October baseball.
Yet, if the Yankees do win enough to return to the postseason, watch out. In a short series, the Yankees could be dangerous due to the postseason genius of Carlos Beltran and devastating potential of a Sabathia-Tanaka combination atop the rotation.
With an aging roster, the grind of the 162-game regular season could be more difficult to traverse than the American League postseason.
If Major League Baseball wants the World Series to be a spectacle, picture this late-October moment: Bryce Harper facing Tanaka in a crucial Game 7 at bat, with the 314-foot short porch in right field serving as a template for a boom-or-bust at-bat in the series-deciding game.
8. Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
August 25, 2012: The day that changed these franchises forever.
In Boston, the Red Sox exhumed mistakes of the past, cleared out long-term salary commitments and set the stage for a franchise-changing offseason and World Series run in 2013.
In Los Angeles, the Dodgers showed the baseball world that they were back, ready to supplant the Yankees as the biggest spenders in the sport and poised to win at all costs.
When October of 2014 arrives, a star-studded World Series could feature both teams vying for supremacy and ultimate vindication of the deal and moment that changed the sport.
If the Dodgers win this battle, each of the two full seasons since the trade would have featured these teams as World Series champions.
9. Kansas City Royals vs. St. Louis Cardinals
No, it's not 1985. Don Denkinger isn't umpiring, George Brett and Ozzie Smith won't be the stars headlining this World Series and Astroturf won't be the field surface.
However, nearly 30 years later, the Royals and Cardinals could meet again in the World Series.
While it would be no surprise to see the Cardinals representing the NL in the World Series for the third time in four years, a run from the Royals would shock the baseball world.
Amazingly, Kansas City hasn't qualified for the postseason—let alone with a round or two—since that 1985 World Series. After dominating the American League from 1976-85, the Royals became a laughing stock throughout the '90s and early 2000s.
In 2014, that narrative is set to change. After winning 86 games in 2013, the Royals have a chance to win 90 games and qualify for October as one of two American League wild cards.
With James Shields headlining the rotation, a flame-throwing bullpen closing games and a young, ascending core of offensive talent, the Royals could profile as the AL team contenders like Detroit and Texas fear when October arrives.
That sentiment is shared by current Royals outfield Jarrod Dyson, per Pete Grathoff of The Kansas City Star.
“This year, I know everyone is expecting us to do well,” Dyson said. “We’re expecting us on paper, we’re going to get to the playoffs. That’s how we’re approaching this, we’re going straight to the playoffs and nobody is stopping it."
10. Baltimore Orioles vs. Washington Nationals
Let's call this the Peter Angelos Series.
Off the field, these franchises have been dueling since the idea was hatched to relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C. With territorial rights belonging to Baltimore's curmudgeon of an owner, the Orioles pulled off a coup with local television rights, as Jonah Keri of Grantland detailed last month.
On the field, these teams have transformed from perennial losers to contenders. The Beltway Series—as it's affectionately called in the Maryland area—would capture a region and put some of baseball's best young players on display.
Clearly, the Nationals are the better bet to reach these heights, but don't count out Baltimore from a trip deep into October.
With Buck Showalter in the dugout, one of baseball's most powerful lineups and a pitching staff that could be transformed with midseason additions of Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, the Orioles could join the Nationals on the October scene.
Agree? Disagree? What is the most likely 2014 World Series matchup?