A year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were the talk of baseball. Many fans and so-called experts were projecting a World Series appearance, thanks to a bolstered roster, highlighted by the off-season additions of pitchers Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Melky Cabrera.
So, what now? Well, the Blue Jays' front office, manager John Gibbons, the players and fans can hope the aforementioned players, save for the departed Johnson (now with San Diego), have a healthy 2014, help the team make everyone forget last season’s 74-88 record and contend for a playoff spot.
Could they even rise from last place and win the American League East Division? Hey, the Boston Red Sox did, following up a 69-win season in 2012 under manager Bobby Valentine with 97 wins, a division title and World Series championship playing for ex-Blue Jays skipper John Farrell.
“It does provide you with a fair amount of hope,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn told MLB.com last November, speaking in general terms and not about Toronto. “[The Red Sox] did it on the strength of good pitching and some shrewd moves along the way by the front office and the on-field management, John Farrell and his staff. And a little bit of luck sprinkled in along the way.”
Will that luck spread to the oft-injured Brandon Morrow, unproven Drew Hutchison and whoever the Jays’ final starter is along with Dickey and Buehrle? We’ll know by September, and probably sooner.
Which teams will reign supreme across the American League in 2014? Which of the AL’s other 14 clubs are poised to take the next step or falter this season?
It’s all here as we project the AL division winners along with three teams on the rise and decline. Here's the National League preview.
East: Boston — We’re picking the Red Sox to repeat as division champions, only this time they will fall shy of matching their 97-win season of a year ago, but still fend off Tampa Bay. Boston says bye to outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (now with the division rival Yankees) but returns the nucleus of a roster that won the East by five-and-a-half games over the Rays.
Veteran A.J. Pierzynski replaces Jarrod Saltalamacchia at the catcher position, and highly touted Xander Bogaerts is the full-time shortstop in a lineup that scored more runs than any other team last year. Led by Jon Lester, the starting five pitchers return, along with 38-year-old closer Koji Uehara, who converted 21 of 24 save chances but will be hard-pressed to repeat his 1.09 earned-run average.
Central: Detroit — Coming of a third consecutive division title, the Tigers might run their way to a fourth. Unlike former manager Jim Leyland, expect rookie skipper Brad Ausmus to have Detroit burning up the basepaths, with Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson and perhaps newcomer Ian Kinsler leading the way.
Kinsler was acquired from Texas in a trade that sent Prince Fielder to the Rangers, while rookie Nick Castellanos takes over at third base. Ausmus will be hoping ace pitcher Justin Verlander can return to his 2012 form after a disappointing 2013 campaign and off-season core muscle surgery to lead a strong pitching staff. Detroit also brought in reliever Joba Chamberlain and veteran closer Joe Nathan after the bullpen ranked 24th in the majors in ERA last season and tied for 21st with 39 saves.
West: Texas — This pick might raise some eyebrows, given the Rangers’ questions with their starting pitching. But Oakland, which could push Texas for top spot, also has pitching concerns of their own with Jarrod Parker to miss the season following Tommy John surgery.
The Texas lineup features on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo and the speedy Elvis Andrus at the top and up-and-coming second baseman Jurickson Profar and fleet-footed Leonys Martin at the bottom. In the middle is a powerful 3-4-5 of Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios. Yu Darvish leads a pitching staff that is minus regulars Derek Holland and Matt Harrison to start the season, while Colby Lewis returns from an injury marred 2013. Neftali Feliz is the expected closer, but will he return to pre-injury form?
On the rise
Chicago White Sox — The White Sox may not post 85 wins as they did in 2012, but we’re confident they’ll improve upon last season’s 63-99 mark after general Rick Hahn made two significant additions in Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu and outfielder Adam Eaton. Abreu signed a six-year, $68-million US deal in the off-season and projects to hit for average and power, while Eaton, who was slowed by a sprained ligament in his left elbow last season with Arizona, should score plenty of runs and could make a run at 30 stolen bases.
Chris Sale anchors a pitching staff that includes a healthy John Danks and is filled out by up-and-comer Erik Johnson and former Kansas City flame thrower Felipe Paulino. Nate Jones is expected to take over at closer from Addison Reed, who was traded to Arizona for power-hitting third baseman Matt Davidson.
Kansas City — Coming off their first winning season since 2003, the Royals could raise their win total a little from last year’s 86 if young hitters like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez continue to improve at the plate. Setting the table for those run producers will be two newcomers in leadoff man Norichika Aoki (formerly of Milwaukee) and one-time Detroit infielder Omar Infante, a reliable contact hitter.
Starting pitcher Ervin Santana (now with Atlanta) is the only notable departure from last year’s team that hit the fewest home runs in the American League with 112. There is plenty of hype about fifth starter Yordano Ventura, who reaches 102 miles per hour on the radar gun. And rock-solid closer Greg Holland fronts a bullpen that led the league in earned-run average in 2013.
Los Angeles Angels — The Angels have the talent to improve upon their 2013 record of 78-84. Health will be a big factor, specifically with slugging first baseman Albert Pujols and ace pitcher Jered Weaver. The 34-year-old Pujols, who still has 30-homer, 100-RBI potential, had his 2013 campaign end in late July due to a foot injury. Weaver, who missed the first two months of last season with an elbow injury, still managed 11 wins and a 3.27 earned-run average in 24 starts.
Management would like to see outfielder Josh Hamilton, a career .295 hitter, hit better than .250 as he did last season, and hopes the additions of third baseman David Freese and DH Raul Ibanez offset the power lost by the Mark Trumbo trade that brought pitching prospect Tyler Skaggs from Arizona. Hector Santiago is the other newcomer to a seemingly improved starting rotation.
On the decline
Baltimore — We're expecting the Orioles to finish shy of the 85 wins achieved last season rather than a sharp decline in play. They added former Texas slugger Nelson Cruz to DH and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. But keep in mind that Cruz has never played a full season and is coming off a 50-game drug suspension. Jimenez posted a 3.30 ERA and 194 strikeouts last season but didn’t have an ERA below 4.68 in each of the previous two years.
Beyond Chris Tillman and Jimenez, the starting rotation is a question mark, as is the closer role, where the unproven Tommy Hunter takes over from Jim Johnson. The latter, who was traded to Oakland for second baseman Jemile Weeks in the off-season, saved 50 games in each of his final two seasons in Baltimore.
Cleveland — Like in Baltimore, we don’t believe a huge dropoff is in the offing, but neither is a repeat of 2013 when the Indians won 92 games. First off, there isn’t a lot of experience on the pitching staff as Canadian reliever John Axford is the lone hurler in his 30s. Starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who combined for 23 wins in 2013, left as free agents and outfielder Drew Stubbs is also gone. But 20 homers and 30 steals from second baseman Jason Kipnis, plus 30-plus starts from right-handers Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber would be something to get excited about.
So, too, is the thought of beating the defending Central Division champion Detroit Tigers, who prevailed in 15 of 19 meetings last season. Cleveland was 40-17 against the rest of the division.
Seattle — Well, at least for the first month or so we don’t expect the Mariners to surge up the American League West standings. General manager Jack Zduriencik got many baseball fans in Seattle and elsewhere excited by signing free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano away from the Yankees for $240 million US over 10 years. But then No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma sprained the middle finger on his pitching hand at the start of spring training and top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker followed with shoulder soreness. It could be at least the end of April before they build up sufficient arm strength, putting more pressure on ace Felix Hernandez.
The jury is out on newcomers Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, who must remain healthy if Seattle hopes to climb the standings. Injuries cost Hart the entire 2013 season and Morrison 77 contests.