Ranking the 15 Biggest Storylines of the 2014 MLB Season
From Derek Jeter's retirement tour to the implementation of instant replay to figuring out who's going to replace Bud Selig, there are a ton of storylines to keep track of as the 2014 MLB season gets underway.
What follows is a ranking of the 15 biggest storylines of the new campaign. In the process of compiling the list, there were two fundamental questions that I asked myself.
First, will the outcome of the particular narrative have league-wide implications, or will it mainly affect a single team? Second, will the storyline take the entire season to play out, or could it disappear in the opening months of the 2014 season?
With those questions in mind, let's take a look at the 15 biggest storylines of the 2014 MLB season.
15. Storyline: Will the Kansas City Royals Finally Return to Postseason Play?
It's been an exceptionally long time since the Kansas City Royals took part in postseason baseball.
To be precise, the last time the Royals appeared in the playoffs was 1985, when the club beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
However, heading into the 2014 season, Kansas City has been a trendy pick to grab a playoff spot. Much of that optimism is due to the Royals' impressive mixture of steady veterans like James Shields and Billy Butler, and talented rising stars like Yordano Ventura, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez, among others.
I believe the Royals will earn a wild-card berth. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports took it a step further, predicting Kansas City could overtake the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and advance to the World Series.
14. Storyline: Who Is the Real Ryan Braun?
There's no denying that Ryan Braun will be under a lot of pressure in 2014.
After all, the right fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers will be trying to prove to all his doubters that his career slash line of .312/.374/.564 isn't simply the product of chemical enhancements. The reason that this storyline doesn't rank higher on the list is that Braun will have the chance to put it to rest in the opening months of the 2014 campaign.
If Braun gets off to a hot start and lands on the National League All-Star team for the sixth time, this story will go away. Of course, if Braun is hitting .220 in July, the criticism and questioning will only get louder.
13. Storyline: Will the Washington Nationals Disappoint Again in 2014?
Entering the 2013 season, the Washington Nationals were touted as favorites to take home the World Series title.
That, of course, didn't happen as the team failed to even reach postseason play with an 86-76 record. The year prior, the team went 98-64 and won the NL East.
The Nationals were largely done in by an underwhelming first half, which saw the team sitting just a game over .500 at the All-Star break. In 2014, a fast start to the season could quickly put an end to this narrative.
12. Storyline: Will Robinson Cano Regret Leaving New York?
It's difficult to fault Robinson Cano for taking the Seattle Mariners up on the 10-year, $240 million megadeal the sides ultimately reached.
That figure represents a substantially larger sum of money than the New York Yankees' final offer of $170 million over seven years, per Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com.
Still, if the Mariners are in the tank by June and the reloaded Yankees are back on track for October baseball, it's difficult to imagine that Cano won't be seriously reconsidering his big-money move.
11. Storyline: How Will Jose Abreu's Power Potential Translate to MLB?
Back in his native Cuba, Jose Abreu posted some video game numbers.
During the 2011-12 Serie Nacional campaign, the Chicago White Sox's new first baseman hit .394/.542/.837 with 35 home runs in 71 games, per Ben Badler of Baseball America.
The storyline here is whether those numbers will transfer to the major leagues, where he'll be facing off against far more advanced pitching.
There's certainly a chance that this narrative could be resolved in the opening months of the season if the 27-year-old has either a torrid or particularly poor start to his big league career.
However, it's far more likely that this storyline will play out over the course of the entire season, as pitchers adjust to Abreu and the rookie, in turn, adjusts to the league.
10. Storyline: Will Billy Hamilton Reach Base Enough to Utilize His Speed?
Billy Hamilton's incredible skill as a base stealer is well known. Back in 2012, while splitting time between the Cincinnati Reds' High-A and Double-A affiliates, the center fielder stole a minor league record 155 bases.
The big question here is whether the Reds' new leadoff man will reach base consistently enough to make use of that blazing speed.
Last year in Triple-A, Hamilton posted just a .308 OBP. However, this spring the 23-year-old exhibited "strong skills at bunting for hits and the ability to work counts and battle with two strikes," per Mark Sheldon of MLB.com.
Those are encouraging signs for the Reds, as Hamilton's ability to reach base and rack up stolen bases will play a significant role in determining where the club finishes in the standings in a fiercely competitive NL Central.
9. Storyline: Can the Detroit Tigers Finally Take the Final Step?
The Detroit Tigers have enjoyed a ton of success over the past three seasons. The club advanced to the ALCS in 2013 and 2011 and made it to the World Series in 2012.
Since getting dumped out of the playoffs by the Boston Red Sox last fall, general manager Dave Dombrowski has made a lot of changes to the roster. Prince Fielder, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta and Doug Fister are all out, while Ian Kinsler and Joe Nathan are in.
The most important move of all, though, was Dombrowski's decision to install Brad Ausmus as the club's new manager.
As the team's recent track record of success clearly demonstrates, the Tigers are on the verge of winning the Fall Classic. It's possible that the addition of the rookie skipper could be the final piece.
8. Storyline: Can Jose Fernandez Be Even Better in His Second Season?
In 2013, Jose Fernandez had an electric start to his big league career, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and a 9.7 K/9 ratio on his way to earning NL Rookie of the Year honors.
As impressive as those numbers were, the right-hander for the Miami Marlins actually got even better as the season wore on, posting a 7-1 record with a 1.32 ERA and a 11.1 K/9 ratio in 10 starts after the All-Star break. That sensational second-half performance suggests that the Cuban could be even better in 2014.
The 21-year-old understands that it won't be easy to dominate again in 2014, as he explained via Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald: "Obviously, I've got a lot more pressure on me this year. There's expectations. Last year, there were no expectations."
My expectation for Fernandez in 2014 is that he will win the NL Cy Young Award.
7. Storyline: Can the Boston Red Sox Repeat as World Series Champions?
One of the most challenging tasks in all of sports is to repeat as champions.
Although the Boston Red Sox lost key contributors like Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the club still has the talent in place to make another October run.
The Red Sox managed to win back-to-back World Series titles in the past. However, as Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com noted at the outset of spring training, the only time it happened was way back in 1915 and 1916.
6. Storyline: How Effective Will the New Home-Plate Collision Rule Be?
On the surface, the idea of banning home-plate collisions, and by extension keeping players safer, sounds like a great plan.
The problem, however, is that the new rule put in place doesn't actually prohibit home-plate collisions altogether. Instead, it will limit the ability of baserunners to plow over catchers and for catchers, in turn, to block the plate when they don't have the ball.
In the end, there's still a lot of interpretation left up to the judgement of umpires.
As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated puts it, the rule "invites confusion." That doesn't sound good, and it suggests that some tweaking will be in order before MLB finally gets it right.
5. Storyline: Will the Tommy John Trend Continue Throughout the 2014 Season?
Even before the regular season got underway, there was an alarming number of pitchers who saw their seasons wiped out after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The list of pitchers who have gone down includes Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy of the Atlanta Braves, Luke Hochevar of the Kansas City Royals and Jarrod Parker of the Oakland Athletics. Minnesota Twins third base prospect Miguel Sano can also be added to that list.
For Beachy, Medlen and Parker, this marks the second time the pitchers have required the surgery.
4. Storyline: Who Will Replace Bud Selig as MLB Commissioner?
In 2014, Bud Selig is set to enter his 23rd and final season as the commissioner of MLB.
During that time, Selig has implemented interleague play, expanded the playoffs and reigned over the performance-enhancing drug era. It's also been under Selig's watch that the game has grown into a $9 billion business, as Bill Madden of the New York Daily News notes.
However, as Madden also points out, it's still very much up in the air as to just who exactly will take over Selig's job when he retires on Jan. 24, 2015.
Madden describes chief operating officer Rob Manfred as the most likely successor, but the biggest challenge facing Manfred or any other candidate will be to get the required 24 owners to sign off.
For that reason, according to one of Madden's sources, 2014 might not be Selig's last season in charge, after all.
3. Storyline: Can Masahiro Tanaka Become an Ace for the New York Yankees?
In his final outing of the Grapefruit League campaign, Masahiro Tanaka looked downright ace-like.
The $155 million right-hander ripped off 10 strikeouts in six innings of relief work in the New York Yankees' 3-0 win over the Miami Marlins on March 28. Now Tanaka will have to prove that he can deliver that kind of performance in the regular season when the results actually count.
If Tanaka can step up and become an ace for the Yankees, the club will have a significantly better chance of returning to postseason play in 2014.
2. Storyline: Will Derek Jeter's Farewell Tour Match Mariano Rivera's?
Whether you like it or not, the answer to this question is almost certainly "yes."
Last year, Mariano Rivera's retirement tour grew to epic proportions, and there's no reason to think the same won't happen as Derek Jeter embarks on his 20th and final big league season.
While the tour might start out small in the opening months of the season, by the time the stretch drive rolls around, there's no doubt Jeter will be dominating the headlines.
1. Storyline: How Successful Will the New Instant-Replay System Turn out to Be?
The new instant-replay system claims the top spot in the rankings because this rule change has the ability to affect each MLB game.
The implementation of the new instant-replay system should ultimately lead to a drastic reduction in missed calls that alter the outcome of games. However, I can't help but wonder if there won't be some unforeseen technical glitches along the way.
I also suspect there could be some problems because managers are limited in how many plays they are allowed to challenge. Managers can challenge a maximum of two plays and only get the second challenge if they're right the first time. Umpires can review plays in the seventh inning or later if a manager is out of challenges.
Still, I expect the new instant-replay system will need some fine-tuning along the way.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.