2014 MLB Season Preview

worldseries

As I sit here with snow cascading onto campus, it is hard to imagine that Opening Day is here. Spring Break and brief windows of warmth have teased us, but baseball’s beckoning presence restores optimism and reminds us of the old adage “hope springs eternal,” with better weather, and more importantly baseball, right around the corner.

For many MLB franchises, however, the long winter provides a chance to escape unsuccessful 2013 campaigns and transform their rosters for success in 2014. Several superstars changed allegiances this offseason, with Robinson Cano’s transcontinental voyage from New York to Seattle representing the most expensive move to the tune of 10 years and $240 million. A much shorter trek, however, may be the most significant in shifting the balance of power amongst AL East foes as New York snatched outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury from the defending champions in Boston, while simultaneously inking future battery mates catcher Brian McCann and Japanese import arm Masahiro Tanaka to lucrative long term deals. Elsewhere, Detroit and Texas exchanged brand name batters Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler, while the latter also landed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo in free agency.

Ultimately, however, teams that have the splashiest offseasons do not necessarily have the greatest turnarounds the following season. Teams must remain cognizant of paying for future performance rather than rewarding previous success. Further, the improvement of players already under contract often provides the greatest upgrade for organizations with the volatility in the performance of young players often controlling the fate of their ball clubs. While the ability to predict future long-term results continues to become more scientific, it remains far from exact.

With that said, baseball analytic websites, such as Fangraphs, have built models combining individual player projections with their teams’ roster constructions to arrive at projected win-loss totals and playoff odds for each organization. Such models often rely on utilizing the median results of many simulations that evaluate player future production based on statistical results, aging curves, and in some cases, even body type, to arrive at the most accurate projections possible given current assumptions.

Of course, it ain’t that easy. Even disregarding the differences among varying projection methods, some players will naturally outperform projections, others will underperform, injuries will kill the seasons for some, and teams will get unlucky or lucky from events that are, in theory, supposed to even out over the course of a season. For instance, in close and extra inning games, it would be unwise to project anything other than average results for every team given the games’ volatility, while in reality, teams can experience incredible luck in extra inning contests (like the 2012 Baltimore Orioles going 16-2), launching them into the postseason. Predicting which teams will experience such results, however, remains a difficult process.

In my following projections and expectations of the 2014 baseball season, I will utilize statistical projections (from Fangraphs, ESPN Forecaster, and Baseball Prospectus) as a verifiable base for 2014 results while also incorporating my own subjective analysis to ultimately arrive at my final predictions for the 2014 MLB season. Without further adieu, I present my preview for the 2014 Major League Baseball season.

 yankees

American League East

Projected Standings (Projected Win Totals from Fangraphs, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus) – My Projected Record

1. Boston Red Sox (87, 90, 88) – 90-72

2. Tampa Bay Rays (84, 89, 91) – 89-73 (Wild Card)

3. New York Yankees (83, 85, 83) – 85-77

4. Baltimore Orioles (78, 82, 78) – 80-82

5. Toronto Blue Jays (83, 77, 82) – 79-83

 

In winning the World Series after a disastrous 2012 campaign, the Boston Red Sox were baseball’s best story in 2013. A slew of low-risk short term deals to “good guy” veterans like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, and Koji Uehara, among others, led to a major league-high 97-win season en route to bringing Boston an emotional World Series title in the wake of the Boston Marathon terror attack. As a native, the 2013 success of the Red Sox represents my favorite professional championship of all of the titles I have been fortunate enough to experience within the past dozen years across the four major sports.

Objectively, however, the Red Sox face a difficult path to repeat in 2014. Boston’s success presented General Manager Ben Cherington the ability to exercise exceptional patience on the free agent market, allowing the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew to leave for more lucrative deals than the team sought to pay, while signing veterans A.J. Pierzynski and Grady Sizemore to one-year deals and allowing top prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. to fill the voids left by the incumbents. Bogaerts, MLB.com’s #2 prospect in all of baseball, may even present the Sox with an upgrade at shortstop in his rookie season.

Still, losing Ellsbury (5.8 fWAR in 2013) remains a major blow for Boston, who will rely on the unpredictability of Sizemore and Bradley Jr., two players who have much to prove in 2014. Sizemore, 31, was once a bonafide superstar (posting fWAR values of 5.7, 7.8, 6.2, and 7.2 from 2006-09) before major injuries knocked him out of baseball. He finally appears healthy enough to make his first big league appearance since 2011. Bradley Jr., MLB.com’s #33 overall prospect, has demonstrated great hitting, base running, and defense in his rise through the minors and in Spring Training last year, but has struggled in limited time with the parent club in 2013 and this spring.

To add insult to injury, Ellsbury joins Boston’s archrivals in New York, whose busy offseason saw franchise player Robinson Cano depart to Seattle while welcoming catcher Brian McCann from Atlanta and pitcher Masahiro Tanaka from Japan. Despite the excitement of the pair of new additions in their prime, the Yankees’ roster remains reliant on players on the wrong side of their careers. Fellow new signings Carlos Beltran and Brian Roberts join CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Hiroki Kuroda, and Derek Jeter as brand names whose performances will likely fall short of expectations based on past results. The net exchange should add several more wins to a team that experienced both bad luck (injuries) and good luck (their run differential more closely resembled a squad winning 79 games rather than 85), but New York still has an uphill road to the playoffs.

While the Yankees were characteristically active on the free agent market, the Rays’ aggressiveness represents a breath of fresh air for a squad typically known for its perpetual “reloading” efforts of finding underrated players on the cheap. In addition to retaining first baseman James Loney and midseason acquisition David DeJesus, Tampa Bay brought back familiar face Grant Balfour to install in the ninth inning to replace Fernando Rodney, who moved to Seattle for slightly more money. Most importantly, however, the Rays decided to keep David Price for at least one more season after soliciting trade offers for their ace. Behind Price, Tampa Bay will be relying on a quartet of high upside young arms headlined by lefthander Matt Moore and righthander Alex Cobb, perhaps the most underrated arm in baseball (2.76 ERA, 3.36 FIP in 22 starts in 2013), with Chris Archer and (until Jeremy Hellickson’s return) rookie Jake Odorizzi. I expect Archer in particular to take the proverbial “next step” in his development in 2014.

For the AL East’s other two squads, inactive offseasons should leave fans disappointed. While the Orioles added Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz, I retain a lukewarm outlook on both players this season and beyond. Likewise, the Blue Jays added next to nothing this winter (outside of an average at best backstop in Dioner Navarro), instead relying on a return to form by struggling stars for their team’s success in 2014. Fortunately, Baltimore and Toronto each feature strong lineups with high upside arms waiting in the minors (Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy for the Orioles, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman for the Blue Jays) that could conceivably vault them to the top of the standings under the right circumstances. Ultimately, however, the Red Sox and Rays remain the favorites in large part due to continuity and arguably baseball’s best day-to-day managers in John Farrell and Joe Maddon, but do not be surprised to see any of the other three teams compete for Wild Card positions.

tigers

American League Central

1. Detroit Tigers (87, 91, 86) – 90-72

2. Kansas City Royals (80, 83, 78) – 84-78

3. Cleveland Indians (81, 82, 78) – 81-81

4. Chicago White Sox (74, 72, 75) – 72-90

5. Minnesota Twins (69, 69, 72) – 67-95

 

Despite several questionable moves this winter, the Detroit Tigers remain the heavy favorite to win the AL Central again in 2014. Given his track record of creating winning ball clubs, it would be unwise to be too critical of General Manager Dave Dombrowski, but moving Doug Fister to DC for three lackluster pieces (prospect Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol, utility player Steve Lombardozzi) was the worst move of the offseason. Still, the Tigers retain a trio of aces in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez along with two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera at the heart of the order, but a lack of depth makes their health all the more critical compared to most other ball clubs.

Should Detroit falter, expect Kansas City to make a run for the division title. While I still dislike last year’s trade for James Shields that cost the Royals AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers (and the many years of cost control), Shields remains arguably their most important player given the loss of Ervin Santana to free agency and the likes of mediocre arms Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen eating starts. Kansas City’s potential, however, resides in the promise of a trio of young pitchers, lefthander Danny Duffy and top prospects Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura who should establish themselves as potential future aces by midseason. Likewise, expect third baseman Mike Moustakas to finally breakout in his fourth campaign.

The Indians also remain intriguing and figure to contend for a Wild Card spot with the Royals. Like Kansas City, Cleveland has an underrated lineup, but questions with their starting rotation should hold them back from truly contending. Danny Salazar, however, appears to be a legitimate future ace for the Tribe, but a lack of depth will be detrimental should a starter go down to injury.

Unfortunately for fans of the White Sox and Twins, 2014 figures to be another long season focused on development. I actually loved Chicago’s offseason, with the White Sox acquiring center fielder Adam Eaton and third baseman Matt Davidson from Arizona and first baseman Jose Abreu from Cuba, but outside of ace Chris Sale, the White Sox have significant questions throughout the rest of its staff. For Minnesota, the best-case scenario for the Twins is continued development from young players such as Brian Dozier and Aaron Hicks, while prospects Byron Buxton (the consensus top prospect in all of baseball) and Alex Meyer remain healthy and prepare to be mainstays with the parent club for the entire 2015 campaign.

 cano

American League West

1. Oakland Athletics (84, 87, 85) – 85-77

2. Texas Rangers (85, 87, 82) – 85-77 (Wild Card)

3. Los Angeles Angels (84, 85, 88) – 84-78

4. Seattle Mariners (83, 77, 82) – 77-85

5. Houston Astros (67, 62, 66) – 62-100

 

The AL West arguably grabbed more headlines than any other division this offseason, with Robinson Cano signing with Seattle, Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo arriving in Texas, and Mike Trout’s six-year contract extension with Los Angeles. But my pick for the division is the team the aforementioned trio seeks to dethrone in 2014: the Oakland Athletics. Losing starter Jarrod Parker for the season deals a serious blow, but the team returns virtually their entire lineup while also reloading their bullpen with the acquisitions of closer Jim Johnson and set-up man Luke Gregerson.

If I was a betting man, I would pick the field over Oakland. While I believe the Athletics remain slight favorites given their continuity, the Rangers, Angels, and Mariners could all conceivably win the AL West in 2014 if young pitchers establish themselves as stable forces. With injuries to Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, Texas will be relying significantly on converted reliever Tanner Scheppers to provide quality innings. Likewise, unproven arms Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago, and Tyler Skaggs are set to start over half of the Angels’ contests, while top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will eat significant innings for the Mariners.

Despite signing Cano, the Mariners’ lineup trails their divisional foes. Third baseman Kyle Seager projects as the only other above average starter for the club outside of their $240 million man, but former top prospects Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Logan Morrison could finally break out, as well as youngsters Mike Zunino and Brad Miller.

For Astros fans, prepare for another long year as the franchise’s cohort of promising prospects continues to develop.

nationals

National League East

1. Washington Nationals (88, 91, 89) – 94-68

2. Atlanta Braves (83, 85, 81) – 84-78

3. Philadelphia Phillies (77, 73, 76) – 76-86

4. New York Mets (75, 75, 75) – 75-87

5. Miami Marlins (73, 69, 69) – 71-91

 

After disappointing in 2013, the Washington Nationals appear ready to return to the postseason as a serious World Series contender. Credit must be given to General Manager Mike Rizzo for not overreacting to the team’s struggles and for electing to supplement the team’s core instead of seeking greater changes to return to the postseason. The team made several low-profile additions that dramatically increase the team’s depth for 2014, including the signing of outfielder Nate McLouth, as well as small trades for catcher Jose Lobaton from the Rays and left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins from the Athletics. Ultimately, the offseason was won by their steal of starting pitcher Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers for spare parts. While pitching prospect Robbie Ray has the potential to be a mid-rotation starter, and left-handed reliever Ian Krol and utility player Steve Lombardozzi offer cheap and protected depth, Doug Fister can be a true difference maker in the Nationals’ rotation, becoming the 4th starter the team thought they acquired last year in Dan Haren. Especially with Atlanta losing starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy for the season, the Nationals likely have the best chance of capturing a division title in all of Major League Baseball.

Despite terrible seasons from Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton, the Braves nevertheless won 96 games en route to winning the NL East in 2013. While it remains reasonable to expect improvement from the pair, the losses of Medlen and Beachy compounded by Brian McCann’s departure to New York will result in a significant drop in 2014. Trusting Evan Gattis to catch every day will likewise hurt the pitching staff’s success, especially with many young arms slated for significant innings.

In Philadelphia, General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. continues to stock the roster with players near the end of their careers, signing Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett to fill significant roles for the club while retaining catcher Carlos Ruiz. For Phillies fans, it has to be incredibly frustrating to have an organization with delusional expectations for players past their prime while simultaneously posting one of the highest payrolls in the league. With that said, the team has talent dispersed over the roster, but expecting Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard to perform close to average would be unwise. Furthermore, the Phillies’ farm system offers little excitement, so fans must hope for their club to find the Fountain of Youth to reach the postseason.

For Mets fans, there are reasons to be excited about the club even if it fails to translate to a winning record in 2014. With Zack Wheeler entering his second season and fellow top prospects Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, and Rafael Montero expected to establish themselves this year, look for the franchise to utilize 2014 as an extended audition for a serious postseason push in 2015 when ace Matt Harvey returns from injury.

 cardinals

National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals (87, 92, 88) – 92-70

2. Pittsburgh Pirates (84, 85, 79) – 85-77 (Wild Card)

3. Cincinnati Reds (79, 84, 81) – 84-78 (Wild Card)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (82, 76, 79) – 80-82

5. Chicago Cubs (75, 69, 73) – 71-91

 

As one of, if not the best organizations in baseball, the Cardinals remain one of the favorites to win the World Series after losing in the final series last year to the Red Sox. St. Louis owes significant credit to its scouting and development departments for continuing to produce cost effective quality pieces for the ball club, which gives the organization flexibility to improve during the winter. Due to exceptional depth across the diamond, they were able to ship third baseman David Freese to the Angels to upgrade their outfield with Peter Bourjos, while moving second baseman Matt Carpenter to his natural position at the hot corner and allowing MLB-ready prospect Kolten Wong to man second. Furthermore, the club has one of baseball’s top prospects with outfielder Oscar Taveras nearly ready as insurance and a midseason addition of an impact bat. Likewise, outstanding pitching depth ensures that St. Louis will experience far less volatility given a stable of quality arms ready to step into the rotation should injuries occur.

Elsewhere in the division, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati each figure to remain in the playoff race despite flaws on their rosters. While the Pirates appear weak at first base, they will inevitably receive a jolt to their lineup when top prospect Gregory Polanco arrives midseason. Losing A.J. Burnett, however, will be damaging if Edinson Volquez fails to prove himself as an adequate replacement or prospect Jameson Taillon struggles in his debut.

The Reds, though, face a more difficult challenge to return to the postseason. The club lost outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, an on-base machine, to the Rangers, while entrusting dynamic prospect Billy Hamilton with the center field job. While Hamilton possesses revolutionary game-changing speed (he stole a record 155 bases in the minors in 2012), I remain pessimistic of his ability to handle MLB pitching in 2014. Steamer and ZiPS projections suggest a batting average in the .245 to .265 range with a wOBA at far below average levels of around .280 to .300. Cincinnati’s rotation, however, remains strong and should keep them in the Wild Card hunt.

If you are looking for a sleeper pick for the postseason, the Brewers are an intriguing option. Milwaukee will get former MVP Ryan Braun back from suspension, and fellow young hitters Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, and Jonathan Lucroy form an underrated core. Likewise, the signing of Matt Garza suddenly gives the Brewers a potentially strong rotation. Although a lot has to unfold favorably for Milwaukee, the postseason is not out of reach for this squad.

 dodgers

National League West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (90, 93, 98) – 92-70

2. San Francisco Giants (85, 84, 87) – 84-78

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (81, 80, 78) – 79-83

4. San Diego Padres (81, 78, 82) – 77-85

5. Colorado Rockies (81, 75, 77) – 76-86

 

The Dodgers are loaded with many brand name players in their prime. Thankfully for Los Angeles, their spending spree has led to greater returns than Philadelphia given their playoff run in 2013 and World Series aspirations in 2014. The Dodgers’ greatest strength resides in their depth with four quality outfielders (and no real weaknesses in the lineup once Alexander Guerrero establishes himself at second base), a loaded rotation, and a bullpen with three former closers.

The rest of the division should remain competitive with the four other teams having the potential to play in October. Colorado, projected to finish last, arguably has the best superstar duo in the game with Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, and two top pitching prospects Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler almost ready to contribute. But each of the four teams has enough question marks that could inhibit their chances at legitimately contending. The Giants and Diamondbacks have the most depth, particularly within their starting rotations, which should prove vital as the season progresses.

ws

World Series Prediction: Nationals over Red Sox

Predicting the playoffs remains a ridiculous exercise given the incredible amount of volatility in game-by-game predictions in the game of baseball; after all, the worst teams still win 35-40% of their games, a high percentage compared to other professional sports. While frustrating for pundits like me, it is incredibly exciting, which is what makes the sport so great. While relatively easy to predict the course of a 162-game season, anything can happen in the playoffs. At the end of the day, the best bet is to pick based on gut feelings after identifying the best teams. Although sharing nearly equal odds to advance to the Fall Classic with the Cardinals and Dodgers, I love the Nationals’ chances to bring a World Series title to the District. Of course, that probably means I just gave them the kiss of death. Sorry, Nationals fans.

 troutharper

Awards!

Everybody loves awards, so why not hand some out? Based on a combination of reflecting on individual skill and talent and each player’s opportunity to be put in positions to succeed from their organizations, here are my picks for baseball’s most significant honors.

 

AL MVP – Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

NL MVP – Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

AL Cy Young – Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

NL Cy Young – Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

AL Rookie of the Year – Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

NL Rookie of the Year – Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs

 

My case for Mike Trout has been well documented, and I pray that he will finally be rewarded in 2014 for his historic start to his career. In any event, expect his partner in crime Bryce Harper to vault himself to superstar status this season. With baseball’s two most impressive talents barely old enough to drink, there has never been a better time to be a fan and be excited for the future of the sport. Happy Opening Day!

Data taken from Fangraphs, ESPN Forecaster, Baseball Prospectus
Images courtesy of ESPN, WJLA, Turner, guardianlv.com, creatingcultureworldwide.com, media.bonnint.net

Preston Barclay
Georgetown University Class of 2014

Follow Preston on Twitter: @Preston_Barclay
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