The Glass Eye: MLB Preview Part Two – AL Top 10

Last week, we took a look at the ten teams I predict to be the worst in MLB in 2014. Starting this week, we look at the top 10 in each league, starting with the American League. Frankly, with five playoff slots in each league and the depth of talent in the game now, every team left (especially in the AL) could make a case for contending if a few things go right. We start with a team that made a major splash in free agency, but still needs a few more pieces.

10.) Seattle Mariners

2013 Record: 71-91 (4th in AL West, 24th in MLB)

Key Losses: SS Brendan Ryan, LF Raul Ibanez, DH Kendrys Morales, RF Michael Morse, SP Joe Saunders

Key Additions: 2B Robinson Cano, DH Corey Hart, RF Logan Morrison, RP Fernando Rodney

Outlook: The Mariners landed the biggest free-agent fish this winter when they signed Cano, and he’s a legitimate superstar – but this offense still needs work. Corey Hart COULD be a great addition, but he’s coming off injury (he missed the entire 2013 season) so there’s a lot of uncertainty there. Morrison is average or worse, and both Morales and Ibanez were well above-average for the Mariners in ’13. 3B Kyle Seager is a rising star, and overall the offense should be slightly better than in 2014 if Hart is healthy – but this is still a below-average offense.

This team will win or lose on the strength of its pitching, specifically the rotation. Everyone knows about ‘King’ Felix Hernandez, and fantasy players know that Hishashi Iwakuma is a star in his own right…but the key to the 2014 Mariners are the other three starters: Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, and Tijuan Walker. All are 25 or younger, each has above-average potential…but they are all very unproven as well. The bullpen is average at best, so the pressure will be on the starters to eat innings all season.

Why they could be worse: If the young pitchers flame out, this could be a very ugly season in Seattle. Much depends on at least four starters remaining healthy.

Why they could be better: The young pitchers lift up the average bullpen, Cano has a career year, the other hitters take a step forward and either Oakland or Texas falls short of expectations.

Chances to contend: The division is too tough, and their offense is too thin. They are improved, but still a step or two away from true contention. 76-80 wins for Seattle in 2014, with a 10% chance to contend.

9.) New York Yankees

2013 Record: 85-77 (T-3rd in AL East, T-14th in MLB)

Key Losses: 2B Robinson Cano, RP Mariano Rivera, OF Vernon Wells, OF Curtis Granderson, 3B Alex Rodriguez (suspended), SP Andy Pettitte, SP Phil Hughes

Key Additions: C Brian McCann, CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Carlos Beltran, 3B Kelly Johnson, 2B Brian Roberts, SP Masahiro Tanaka

Outlook: The 2013 Yankees were VERY lucky to win 85 games. Typically, a team that gets outscored by 21 runs finishes with 80 wins or less. In the offseason they lost their best player AND the best closer of all time. I’ll grant you that they made other moves to compensate…but did they actually IMPROVE? I think that’s questionable.

The outfield is improved without a doubt – Gardner, Ellsbury, and Beltran make for one of the best outfields in the league if they can stay healthy – but the infield is a DISASTER. 3B, 2B, and SS are all manned by aging players whose best years are well behind them, and at 1B Mark Teixeira is only marginally better. At DH, Soriano had an AMAZING half season in the Bronx, but what do you trust more – those 260 at-bats, or the 4+ years of mediocrity preceding it (and let’s not forget that he’s 38)? Catcher is much-improved with McCann, but he hasn’t had 500 at-bats in a season since 2008.

Still, I’ll grant that overall, if everyone stays healthy, the offense should be improved. How about the pitching? Sabathia is coming off his worst season, Kuroda is 39, Tanaka is a well-regarded pitcher but he’s completely unproven in the US, and Nova has to show he can hold up for 180-200 good innings. Dave Robertson should do fine at closer, but who will take over for his excellent work as the #1 setup man? I think Tanaka can approach the work that Andy Pettitte did a season ago, and Sabathia might rebound slightly – but Kuroda is due to decline or get hurt and I don’t trust Nova OR the rest of the bullpen. Overall, I think this is a staff in decline.

Why they could be worse: Age and injuries. Every team has to deal with injuries, but older teams are typically more prone to injury and the history of Beltran, Ellsbury, McCann, and Roberts indicates that at least two of them will miss significant time this season. The Yankees have no depth on offense, they cannot afford any major injuries. The division is VERY deep – as was the case last season, every team has a shot at .500 – so there’s no margin for error.

Why they could be better: If they can avoid the injury bug, Beltran and McCann in particular offer tremendous upgrades. If Jeter is even league-average in his final season, that’s also an improvement for New York. Finally, if Tanaka adapts quickly to the AL and Sabathia’s 2013 was an aberration, the pitching could be better in 2014.

Chances to contend: This Yankee team is hard to read because of the amount of turnover, and the age of the team. There’s still a lot of talent here, and all it would take is a little injury luck for this team to be a factor all season. I give the Yanks a 40% chance to contend in September, but I believe they will go the other direction and end up with 78-82 wins.

8.) Cleveland Indians

2013 Record: 92-70 (2nd in AL Central, T-7 in MLB)

Key Losses: SP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Drew Stubbs, SP Scott Kazmir, RP Chris Perez

Key Additions: OF David Murphy, SP Shaun Marcum, RP John Axford

Outlook: After five years of mediocre-to-awful results, the Indians were one of baseball’s biggest surprises in 2013 – but I think they will fall back somewhat this season. The offense was quite good in 2013 and I expect most of those gains to stick – they have stars in 2B Jason Kipnis and C/DH Carlos Santana, and average outfield, and potential at 3B and SS.

The pitching is what worries me – they went from allowing 845 runs in 2012 to only giving up 662 last year, and the loss of Jimenez and Kazmir leaves the rotation very thin and short on experience. Justin Masterson is an above-average starter, and Danny Salazar is an impressive young prospect – but he has to prove himself beyond the 10 starts he got last season. The rest of the rotation is average or worse, and the bullpen is in transition with Axford set to be the new closer. There’s talent here, but not enough to be a top-6 staff in 2014.

Why they could be worse: As with so many teams, the rotation lacks depth and a key injury could really derail the team. In addition, Axford washed out as a closer in Milwaukee – if he does so again, the bullpen could also become a weak point.

Why they could be better: Axford and Salazar have the stuff to dominate – the offense still could take another step forward, as the outfield could be better than it was last season. The division is weak, giving the healthiest non-Detroit team a good shot at a wildcard slot.

Chances to contend: I think the division is out of reach for the Tribe, but they have enough talent to hang around the wildcard race much of the summer – especially if I’m wrong about Kansas City’s improvement. Call it a 45% chance to contend, and 80-84 wins for Cleveland.

7.) Texas Rangers

2013 Record: 91-72 (2nd in AL West, 10th in MLB)

Key Losses: OF Nelson Cruz, 2B Ian Kinsler, OF David Murphy, C AJ Pierzynski, RP Joe Nathan, SP Matt Garza

Key Additions: OF Shin-Soo Choo, 1B Prince Fielder, RP Joakim Soria

Outlook: After consecutive World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011, the window appears to be closing for the Rangers. They lost in the wild-card game in 2012, missed completely in 2013, and face a bevy of questions heading into 2014.

On offense, the Rangers are gambling that Fielder’s startling decline for Detroit last season was an aberration; that young Jurickson Profar can fill in capably for Kinsler; that Geovanny Soto’s good 2013 numbers are an actual rebound, and not just a statistical blip after five seasons of poor play; and that at age 35, Adrian belter can hold off Father Time at least one more season. That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ for a team hoping to contend. There’s definitely talent here – Choo is a great addition to this offense, and Beltre is still a star. I also believe Fielder will rebound in 2014 (I look for him to age poorly thereafter, though). Too many questions, but some of these players will come through and make this an average to above-average offense.

However, the rotation is a different story…Yu Darvish is a bonafide ace, after that it looks messy. Derek Holland is out at least three months with a serious knee injury, Matt Harrison’s comeback from an injury-plagued 2013 season is going slowly this spring (he is having back issues now), and Alexi Ogando has great stuff but hasn’t shown any durability (three DL stints last year). Martin Perez was decent as a rookie, but he doesn’t profile as anything more than a #3 or #4 starter. The bullpen has some dominant pieces in Tanner Scheppers and Neal Cotts, but Soria is coming off two injury-plagued seasons and it’s unknown if he can recapture his former dominance. Overall, this is not a pitching staff I’d trust over the long haul.

Why they could be worse: The rotation never comes together, Fielder’s decline is real, Profar doesn’t live up to the hype, and either Choo or Beltre gets hurt. Worst-case, the team could collapse and lose 90 games.

Why they could be better: The rotation gets healthy, Darvish wins the Cy Young, Fielder and Choo fortify the offense, and the bullpen holds the back end of the rotation up enough to win 90 games and make the playoffs.

Chances to contend: The Rangers are a more-talented version of the Angels – a lot of age and a lot of question marks, but a lot of talent/upside as well. I could see anything between 83 and 92 wins as realistic, and  think they have a 50/50 shot at contending for a wildcard – but there are too many questions for me to rank them in the top five. Call it 81-86 wins for the Rangers.

6.) Boston Red Sox

2013 Record: 97-65 (1st in AL East; T-1st in MLB)

Key Losses: CF Jacoby Ellsbury, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, SS Stephen Drew, SP Ryan Dempster

Key Additions: C AJ Pierzynski

Outlook: The 2013 Red Sox were the best team in baseball, a worst-to-first story and the World Series champs. Unfortunately, they chose to let 1/3 of their offense go, and while the replacements have potential I see a significant drop-off at CF and SS with Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts. In addition, but David Ortiz and AJ Pierzynski are 37, and both could suffer career-ending declines at any point (Pierzynski has been remarkably durable for a catcher, but 37 is REALLY pushing it). Daniel Nava had a great season, but it was totally out of line with his past performance and at age 30, one has to wonder if it was somewhat of a fluke. There’s talent here – Pedroia, Napoli, and Ortiz make a fearsome core, and Shane Victorino also had a nice comeback season in 2013 – but overall I expect the offense to be at least 50-70 runs worse in 2014.

The pitching offers a bit more hope, but only if Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz can stay healthy. With those two plus Lester and Lackey, they have a top-four good enough to win, even if none of them is a true ‘ace’ at this stage. The bullpen is good, but again age is a factor – closer Koji Uehara is 39, and unlikey to repeat his amazing 2013 season (74 innings, 33 hits, 9 walks, 101 K’s, 1.09 ERA – what an AMAZING year!). Look for some drop off in the pitching as well, perhaps not as much as on offense but still noticeable.

Why they could be worse: They let three talented hitters go and are replacing them with two unproven youngsters and a 37 year old catcher. If the young hitters fail – and they certainly did in 2013 – then this team is in serious trouble. Also, the roster as a whole is aging and susceptible to decline and injury woes.

Why they could be better: They won’t be better than 2013, but they could contend for the division if Bradley and Bogaerts are league-average, the pitching holds up, and Ortiz defies Father Time one more year.

Chances to contend: I’m really down on the Sox’ offseason – I understand needing to get younger, but they made no moves to strengthen the offense OR the pitching. They should have re-signed Saltalamacchia, and pursued a starting pitcher. Instead, they are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle two seasons in a row. This is still a good team, but in the AL East, I do not believe they are good enough. 25% chance they win the division, 70% chance they at least contend for a wild card, 84-88 wins for the Sox.

5.) Baltimore Orioles

2013 record: 85-77 (T-3rd in AL East, T-14th in MLB)

Key Losses: 2B Brian Roberts, OF Nate McLouth, SP Scott Feldman, RP Jim Johnson

Key Additions: SP Ubaldo Jimenez, OF Nelson Cruz, RP Ryan Webb

Outlook: Despite a slightly worse record, the Orioles were actually improved in 2013. While they only outscored their opposition by seven runs in 2012, they outscored opponents by 36 runs in 2013. Of course, after going 29-9 in 1-run games in 2012 (completely unsustainable), just about everyone expected the O’s to decline in the won-loss column last year. The good news is that Baltimore has made more solid moves this offseason, and their offense now projects as the best in the division. Nelson Cruz is the biggest upgrade, but consider that Manny Machado was league-average (with 51 doubles!!) at age 20, and that Mat Weiters, Nick Markakis, and Nolan Reimold had career-worst seasons in 2013. All four players can be expected to improve considerably. Now, Chris Davis likely had his career year in ’13 and he almost certainly will not hit 53 homers again, but he still should be among the best first basemen in the league. Second base is a potential problem, but Brian Roberts was already below-average the last few years, and that’s the only true hole in the entire lineup.

The pitching is more of a question mark – the addition of Jimenez is huge, IF he builds off his strong 2013 campaign and doesn’t revert to his 2012 form. The rest of the rotation is average –there are no aces there, but all four guys should provide 180+ innings of average to above-average performance. In a league so short of quality starters, having no obvious ‘holes’ is a big plus. The bullpen is solid as well – Tommy Hunter has made a successful conversion to relief, as has former top prospect Brian Matusz. Darren O’Day and Troy Patton also have shown above-average ability. This won’t be the best staff in the league, but it should be no worse than seventh or eighth and that should be good enough with this offense.

Why they could be worse: The 2013 versions of Markakis and Weiters end up being the start of a decline; Machado never fends off his spring injuries and fails to take the next step; Jimenez’ 2013 was too much to sustain and he reverts to his inconsistent Cleveland days; Davis takes a HUGE step backwards.

Why they could be better: All of the players I mentioned rebound in 2014, Davis hits 40+ homers, Jimenez provides the ace the team has been lacking, the Orioles end up with one of the best offenses in the game and get enough pitching to win 94 games and the division.

Chances to contend: I REALLY like what Baltimore has built the past few years, and I think their window to contend for the division is wide open – especially with Boston and New York looking extremely vulnerable. They need a few breaks, but the core is extremely solid, especially on offense. I think there’s a 90% chance the O’s contend for a playoff slot and a 70% chance they are in the divisional hunt right to the end.  87-92 wins for the O’s.

4.) Kansas City Royals

2013 Record: 86-76 (3rd in AL Central; T-12th in MLB)

Key Losses: SP Ervin Santana, RP Luke Hochevar (injury, gone for the season)

Key Additions: OF Nori Aoki, 2B Omar Infante, SP Jason Vargas

Outlook: The 2013 Royals were much like the 2013 Pirates – great pitching, mediocre offense. The Royals hadn’t allowed fewer than 650 runs since 1994, but they hadn’t scored fewer than 650 since 1995. The pitching will almost certainly take a small step back this season – 601 runs allowed is probably unsustainable, and losing Santana and Hochevar hurts – but I like this team to win 90 games because of their offense.

Last season, the team had HUGE holes at 2B and SS, and struggled to find a good leadoff hitter all season. Infante represents a HUGE upgrade at 2B, and Aoki should provide the spark at the top of the lineup that KC needs. Alcides Escobar will never be a great hitter at SS, but he’s certainly better than the .234 average (and .300 slugging% he put up last year. In addition, 1B Eric Hosmer and C Salvador Perez are already above-average, and both are only 24. Mike Moustakas is 25, Lorenzo Cain and Billy Butler are 28, and the ‘old man’ of the core group, Alex Gordon, is only 30. This is an offense set to take a big leap forward in my opinion, more than enough to overcome slightly worse pitching.

Reasons they could be worse: Escobar continues to be a sinkhole at-bat; this is as good as Hosmer and Cain get (not good enough in the long run); the rotation suffers without Santana; the Indians end up better than I expect; sometimes teams take a step back in the standings after a breakout season.

Reasons they could be better: They are so young and have so much potential on offense – if one or two of their young hitters take another step forward, this could be a VERY good offense in 2014; Vargas is underrated and could be as good as Santana in 2014; KC made moves to improve, while Cleveland and Detroit did not in my opinion.

Chances to contend: As I’m sure you can tell, I really believe in KC this season. I still believe Detroit is the class of the division, but I give the Royals a 90% chance of contending for/winning a playoff spot and 60% chance of keeping pace with the Tigers until the final week. 88-93 wins and the top wildcard for the Royals.

3.) Tampa Bay Rays

2013 Record: 92-71 (2nd in AL East; 9th in MLB)

Key Losses: OF Kelly Johnson, RP Fernando Rodney

Key Additions: RP Heath Bell, RP Grant Balfour

Outlook: Just when you think Tampa’s window might be closing, they reload – especially on the mound. There’s a good chance that ace David Price will be gone by next season, but when you have a quartet of fireballing starters in the rotation, all under the age of 25, you can stomach the loss of an ace a bit more easily. Moore, Cobb, and Archer each started 20+ games last season, and each was well above-average. Jake Odorizzi joins them this season, and while he’s unproven, he was solid in 30 innings with the Rays last season and is a solid gamble as a #5 starter. The bullpen is also loaded, with Grant Balfour likely to outpitch departed closer Rodney this season, and with Joel Peralta and Jake McGee providing a solid lefty/righty setup combination.

Offensively the team is solid across the board with the exception of catcher, where Ryan Hanigan will likely produce substandard offense. The rest of the lineup projects as league-average or better, led by all-star 3B Evan Longoria and up-and-coming Wil Myers. Better yet, none of the hitters is older than 33 (Zobrist). This is not a top-tier offense, but they certainly should be above-average.

Put it all together, and you have the best rotation in the division (maybe in the league), a good bullpen, a solid offense with only one real hole…that adds up to the class of the division, even the rough AL East.

Reasons they could be worse: Young pitchers get hurt. The Rays could withstand one such injury, but two would be a tough blow; Myers could suffer a bit of a ‘sophomore slump’; there’s not a lot of depth on offense, so any major injury would hurt this team.

Reasons they could be better: Myers becomes a star; the young pitchers all stay healthy and effective.

Chances to contend: The Rays are so young and so talented that it’s hard for me to imagine them finishing out of contention. Anything is possible, but I’m calling it 95% chance to contend for/win a playoff slot and 70% to win the division. 91-95 wins for the Rays.

2.) Oakland A’s

2013 record: 96-66 (1st in AL West; T-3rd in MLB)

Key Losses: SP Bartolo Colon, RP Grant Balfour, RP Jerry Blevins, DH Seth Smith

Key Additions: SP Scott Kazmir, RP Jim Johnson, RP Luke Gregerson

Outlook: Oakland looks primed to win their third straight division title – and the strength of the team is their offense. Despite playing in a park extremely friendly to pitchers, they finished third in the AL in runs scored last season, and return the offense virtually intact (John Jaso takes over for Smith at DH). This is an offense that is still very young – aside from Coco Crisp (34), every other starter is between the ages of 25 and 31, right in the prime hitting ages. The best hitters last season were 3B Josh Donaldson and 1B Brandon Moss, while in 2012 Yonis Cepedes and Josh Reddick led the team (look for Cepedes to rebound somewhat in 2014). Overall there’s not one weak link on this offense, they project as average or better at every position. This should be one of the best AL offenses again in 2014.

The pitching endured some offseason turnover, but despite losing Bartolo Colon and his 2.65 ERA, I expect little drop-off in 2014. Sonny Gray showed his prowess during the playoffs, and he will be in the rotation for the whole season after a 10-game cameo in ’13. Parker, Straily, and Griffin are young, talented, experienced (each started 27+ games a season ago), but not overworked (only Griffin topped 200 innings). Adding the rejuvenated Scott Kazmir to the mix provides a lefty complement, although I’m skeptical that he can stay healthy. Swapping Johnson in for Balfour as closer may be a slight downgrade, but Gregerson is an outstanding set-up man and should more than compensate for the loss of Blevins.

This is not a team full of stars, but the A’s simply have no weaknesses. They have a deep lineup, five capable starters, an excellent bullpen, and two years of winning experience. They are set up to rule the division for the next few seasons.

Why they could be worse: Injuries. If their young starters falter, the A’s could struggle to compete. Donaldson could regress a bit, and an injury on offense could hurt also of course, but I don’t see a lot of non-injury downside anywhere on this team.

Why they could be better: In this division, it’s hard to get much better than 95 wins.

Chances to contend:  almost put the A’s at #1 – only the relative strength of their division (and the relative weakness of the Central) stopped me. This is a complete team, perhaps the best overall that GM Billy Beane has ever built, and this could well be the year they make some noise in the postseason. In any case, I think it’s 75% that they win the division and close to 100% that they are in the playoff hunt all season. 92-96 wins for the A’s.

1.) Detroit Tigers

2013 Record: 93-69 (1st in AL Central; 6th in MLB)

Key Losses: 1B Prince Fielder, SP Doug Fister; SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Omar Infante, RP Joaquin Beniot

Key Additions:  2B Ian Kinsler, RP Joe Nathan, RP Ian Krol

Outlook: The Tigers are trying to do a partial rebuild ‘on the fly’ – they are attempting to get younger while still contending, a tough feat to pull off. Peralta was as good as gone as soon as he was suspended last season  – the Tigers traded for new SS Jose Iglesias last summer – and Fister was deemed expendable to allow Drew Smyly to enter the rotation after a successful relief apprenticeship. Losing Fielder and Infante definitely weakens the offense, but the team is betting Kinsler has something left; and moving Fielder strengthened the defense by allowing Cabrera to move back to first base. It also opened a slot for rookie Nick Castellanos at third. Iglesias probably won’t hit much, and LF is a concern (Andy Dirks had a tough season after a stellar 2012). However, the rest of the offense has no obvious holes, and Cabrera is the best pure hitter in the game. They probably won’t be quite as good as in 2013, but they should be very close, especially if Castellanos is the real deal.

The pitching should be in good shape – Scherzer, Sanchez, and Verlander comprise arguably the best ‘top three’ in the game, and Smyly should be a good starter in his own right. Porcello isn’t great, but he’s above average for a #5 starter. The bullpen looks improved with Nathan slotted in as the closer – Albuquerque and Rondon should be effective set-up men. As usual, Detroit should have one of the best pitching staffs in the AL.

Reasons they could be worse: The offense is aging, especially Hunter and Martinez – some decline could start to set in for them; Verlander was off much of last season, and if he takes another step back it would render him average; Scherzer does need to show that his breakout 2013 was not a fluke; Smyly was an outstanding reliever, but there’s still a chance he could fail as a starter.

Reasons they could be better: Smyly becomes a good starter, Verlander bounces back, the bullpen FINALLY has some consistency, and the offense doesn’t miss a beat despite the reshuffled infield.

Chances to contend: The Tigers are overwhelming favorites to win the division, and rightly so – they’ve won three straight division crowns, they have the best rotation and the best hitter in the league, and there’s still a talent gap between them and the rest of the Central. The window may start to close after 2014, but for now the Tigers have a 95% chance to contend for the division title and close to 100% to contend for a playoff berth. 94-97 wins for Detroit.

The Eye is off next week, but we will return for Opening Day with the NL Top Ten!

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

 

 

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