The Boston Red Sox were a mess before the 2013 year began, yet they'll enter MLB's Opening Day harnessing grand hopes of defending their championship.
They finished the 2012 season in last place at 69-93, earning Bobby Valentine a quick boot as manager. This was also one year after the team's bullpen beer and chicken sessions were shared with the public, and the offseason signings of Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino were viewed as overpays bound to fail.
Not everything goes according to plan during the 162-game season. The Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays were popular favorites to play meaningful October baseball, but neither loaded squad sniffed the playoffs.
But since everyone starts clean at 0-0, don't be caught off guard if any of them are vying for the World Series crown.
|AL East||Tampa Bay Rays|
|AL Central||Kansas City Royals|
|AL West||Oakland Athletics|
|Wild Card||Detroit Tigers|
|Wild Card||Boston Red Sox|
|AL Champions||Tampa Bay Rays|
|NL East||Washington Nationals|
|NL Central||St. Louis Cardinals|
|NL West||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Wild Card||San Francisco Giants|
|Wild Card||Atlanta Braves|
|NL Champions||Washington Nationals|
Note: All advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.
Kansas City Royals
OK, I see you rolling your eyes at the computer screen right now. Way to go out on a limb with an 86-win team. Fair enough, but baseball fans may be surprised at just how good the Royals are in 2014.
Who will win the American League Central?
On paper, Kansas City's offense doesn't look terrific. Alex Gordon led the power-starved offense with 20 homers while nobody clocked a slugging percentage above .450.
Eric Hosmer turned a corner last season following a dreadful start, hitting .318 with 18 homers after June 1. Only 24 years old, the lefty could morph into an MVP candidate, especially if his squad can dethrone Miguel Cabrera's Detroit Tigers in the American League Central.
Their defensive prowess must get taken into account. FanGraphs gives a team an 87.6 defensive rating with 93 defensive runs saved. The Arizona Diamondbacks rank second with a 49.7 rating, and they hurt their fielding by acquiring slugger Mark Trumbo to play the outfield.
The Royals' real X-factor is Yordano Ventura, a 22-year-old who earned the team's final rotation spot after a dazzling spring training. Armed with a fastball that frequently touches triple digits, Ventura is the key to improving a weak rotation featuring soft-tossers Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie behind sturdy ace James Shields.
After dominating one of his initial spring starts, manager Ned Yost had nothing left to say to The Kansas City Star's Andy McCullough but, “That was pretty darn good, boy." If he can bolster the Royals rotation, its strong defense and bullpen could guide them to 90-plus wins and a deep playoff run.
The league's top title contenders reside in the National League, but the Wild Card spots are wide open for anyone's consumption.
Although three teams represented the NL Central last postseason, the Cincinnati Reds lost on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo to the Texas Rangers while the Pittsburgh Pirates let A.J. Burnett skip town and failed to secure a first baseman.
Those are both significant losses. Choo ranked fourth in on-base percentage behind Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Mike Trout. Burnett's 2.80 fielding independent pitching average (FIP) placed eighth among all starting pitchers.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewer have Ryan Braun returning to the the fold. You may know him as the man who was suspended due to PED use—which he blatantly lied about when previously caught—but he's also a career .312/.374/.564 hitter.
Hey, ethics and morality aren't categories in the standings.
It's not just Braun's return foreboding a better season. His replacement, Khris Davis, notched a .596 slugging percentage during the former MVP's absence. Second baseman Scooter Gennett also dazzled with Milwaukee out of contention, batting .325/.356/.479 through 230 plate appearances.
Braun still may not be the team's best outfielder, as Carlos Gomez collected 24 homers, 40 steals and a .506 slugging percentage while playing Gold Glove defense in center field.
If Yovani Gallardo can bounce back alongside the reliable Kyle Lohse, the underrated Marco Estrada and newcomer Matt Garza, the Brewers are a threat to make this year's play-in game, with the St. Louis Cardinals winning the division.
San Francisco Giants
Where were you guys last year? We missed you.
A usual contending mainstay, the San Francisco Giants bottomed out with a 76-86 record. Despite the down year, a couple fresh faces and rebounds from their usual stars should help reverse that mark.
Instead of relying on Barry Zito, the Giants will turn to another former Oakland Athletic with a little more gas left in the tank. Tim Hudson is no longer an ace, but he posted a 3.46 FIP and 1.19 WHIP last season. He is still perfectly good as a No. 3 or 4 starter.
Matt Cain had made a living performing above his sabermetrics, until he posted a 4.00 ERA last year despite harnessing his usual strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates. After finishing the season strong, his ERA should return closer to his career 3.35 mark. FanGraphs' Mike Podhorzer also expects an improved Cain in 2014:
The bottom line is that this was the exact same Cain he has always been. The only difference is that the luck dragons weren’t too fond of him in the first half, but took a liking to him in the second half. While the condition of his elbow cannot be completely ignored, his skill set remained virtually unchanged. Assuming his home run prevention skills return, then he’ll be back to normal. Though normal meaning an ERA close to his career average, rather than a sub-3.00 mark that had required a hefty amount of good fortune.
On the offensive side, first baseman Brandon Belt hit .326/.390/.525 after the All-Star break, making him a prime breakout candidate this season. Pablo Sandoval lost weight over the offseason, and Michael Morse provides another power bat for an offense that ranked second-to-last behind the Miami Marlins with 107 home runs.
Don't hold your breath expecting another MVP season from Buster Posey or Cy Young campaign from Tim Lincecum, but they can still contribute enough to put San Francisco back into the playoff hunt.