If you squint you can almost see Spring Training up ahead in the distance. Yes, you have to look past the billowing smoke of your annual Hall of Fame debate wreck, and avoid rubbernecking at the never-ending A-Rod saga, but it’s out there. Aside from a few mid-tier free agents (Stephen Drew, Ervin Santana, Nelson Cruz, etc.) who remain unsigned, most of the major moves of the winter have been concluded. Robinson Cano is a Mariner. Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler traded places. The Yankees reloaded the deck with Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. While Curtis Granderson crossed New York to sign with the Mets and Shin-Shoo Choo inked with the Rangers. Last week the final big domino fell when the Yankees handed Masahiro Tanaka $155 million.
So … let’s talk some actual baseball, shall we? We’re still more than 60 days away from Opening Day, but it’s worth taking a quick peak at a big question for each of the six divisions.
NL East: Was 2013 an aberration for the Nationals?
How many days do you think Washington — a nearly consensus pick to win the National League by pundits in March — spent in first place in 2013? The answer: one, on April 4th. Bryce Harper didn’t have a bad sophomore season, but he was dinged up by nagging injuries. A year later, Harper and Stephen Strasburg should be healthy. The Nationals acquired Doug Fister, giving them arguably the best starting rotation in the National League. Jayson Werth quietly compiled an excellent offensive season (154 OPS+) in 2013 and if that continues and Ryan Zimmerman bounces back, Washington will be the front-runner in the division.
Atlanta, which ran away from the pack early and never looked back in 2013, made more headlines in the off-season for their upcoming move to Cobb County, rather than player personnel. The Braves lost McCann to the Yanks and Tim Hudson to the Giants, nominally replacing them with Ryan Doumit and Gavin Floyd.
They’re an easy punchline, but keep an eye on the Marlins. If they can get anything offensively outside of Giancarlo Stanton, Miami could be dangerous with all the talented young arms stockpiled in its rotation. The Mets added Curtis Granderson, while the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd — both clubs still have big gaps to make up beyond adding an outfielder with some pop.
NL Central: Can this division produce three playoff teams again?
Let’s make the mildly bold prediction and say “No,” about three Central teams in the playoffs repeating itself again in 2014. The Cardinals are better with the additions of Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos, plus the club’s pipeline of young prospects ready to contribute (Oscar Taveras is the latest) never seems to dry up. Oh, then there’s that young pitching staff with Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller along with staff ace Adam Wainwright.
Cincinnati finally parted ways with Dusty Baker, replacing him with first-year manager Bryan Price. The Reds also let Shin-Shoo Choo walk and the Brandon Phillips situation remains unsettled. Call it a hunch, but Cincy might be due a .500-ish season.
Pittsburgh hasn’t done much to build off last year’s playoff appearance (their first since 1993), unless you consider trading for Chris Stewart a big move. The Pirates got some good news this week that A.J. Burnett isn’t going to retire, but odds are he won’t return to PNC Park. If Pittsburgh doesn’t re-sign Burnett, regardless of his lousy NLDS, they’re in some trouble. The Pirates also relied heavily on a strong bullpen in 2013, so Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon et al can’t drop off too much if we want to see a repeat of #Buctober.
Silly new mascot or not, one of these days the Cubs will be better, although that might be closer to 2015. Milwaukee made a solid move signing Matt Garza late in free agency, but still have many questions starting with what to expect from former MVP Ryan Braun coming off his season-ending PED suspension.
NL West: Are the Dodgers going to be a juggernaut from April-October?
It’s been well-documented. The Dodgers were 12 games under .500 on June 21 and then ripped off an amazing stretch that saw them go 32-12 in July and August, running away with the NL West crown. Can they carry that kind of dominance for a full season in 2014? Clayton Kershaw (now super duper rich), Zach Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu form a rotation that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the division. There are still question marks about Matt Kemp’s health, and at third base. Although he made some dumb marijuana headlines in 2013, adding Chris Perez should help Los Angeles’s pen … assuming he doesn’t spend all his free time at a Santa Monica dispensary. The Dodgers’ get a full season of that Puig guy, too. Just a hunch that will be mostly a good thing, unless you own a leather-bound edition of the “unwritten” rules of baseball.
Although the Giants and D’backs made some solid, low-key additions, the Dodgers will probably open with the best preseason odds to win their division of any team in baseball.
AL East: Will this be the toughest, most competitive division in baseball?
A year ago most “experts” slated the Red Sox to finish third or fourth, or maybe even fifth in the division. All Boston did was grow a bunch of beards and win the World Series. Will the power of facial hair be a one-year blip? It’s doubtful since the Red Sox core is very sound. If Clay Buchholz is healthy, Boston will be in good shape.
The aforementioned Yankees reloaded their A-Rod-less lineup, spending over $450 million combined after adding Mashiro Tanaka on Wednesday, but still have some questions in the infield and pitching staff. Tampa still hasn’t traded David Price, so write them off at your own peril. Some projections already have Tampa as the best team in the division and that was before they signed Grant Balfour to replace Fernando Rodney at the back end of the bullpen. Veterans like Ryan Hanigan and David DeJesus are the type of players who, for whatever the reason, thrive following a move to the Trop.
The Jays might be better — think closer to .500 — a year after all the misguided preseason expectations. (Here’s hoping Tomo Ohka makes the club as a knuckleballer.) Baltimore? Well … the 2012 season is looking further-and-further away for the Orioles, whose top move in the winter was trading closer Jimmie Johnson for Jemile Weeks. Plus there’s always the chance Manny Machado isn’t ready for Opening Day after his off-season knee surgery, although the most recent reports have been encouraging.
AL Central: Is the Tigers’ grip on this division slipping?
The Tigers dealt Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, taking a large chunk of power of the heart of the lineup, although some projections still have them with the second-best offense in the American League. Say what you will about Fielder, but the two years he hit behind Miguel Cabrera, Cabrera won the MVP. Detroit also moved Fister to the Nationals for three seemingly spare parts. Earlier in the month Justin Verlander underwent “core muscle repair” surgery and might not be ready for Opening Day, then again he was out with Kate Upton recently. So yeah, it’s not all perfect in Detroit despite three-straight ALCS appearances.
Cleveland looks in position to build off last year’s Wild Card showing with young pitcher Danny Salazar (someone you might want to target late in a fantasy draft). Danny Murphy was a solid pick-up for the outfield and is a massive upgrade over Drew Stubbs.
Minnesota should be appreciably better, with viable arms like Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco getting the ball as opposed to some of the scrubs Ron Gardenhire used last year. Minnesota’s farm is stocked with highly touted guys like Byron Buxton, so the Twins are in good position moving forward.
The Royals, well, the Royals made some Royals-like signings, inking Jason Vargas and Omar Infante to fill holes. Trading for Norichika Aoki could be a coup although he’ll hardly make fans forget that Wil Myers is in Tampa. The White Sox are still far away, but I did like the Adam Eaton acquisition in the three-way swap with the Angels and D’Backs.
AL West: Can the Athletics fend off the Rangers again?
Against type, Oakland spent some money in the offseason, inking Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million contract. They also picked up the tab on Jim Johnson’s final arbitration year from the Orioles. Adding reliever Luke Gregerson from the Padres might be one of those sneaky-smart moves we hear a lot about come October. Josh Donaldson was excellent in 2013, but we don’t know yet if he can sustain an MVP-caliber season until we see it.
The A’s moves pale in comparison to the Rangers high-profile acquisitions of Fielder and Choo, although Texas will be without Derek Holland most of the season after micro fracture surgery, after he tripped playing with his dog. The Angels probably can’t be as bad as they were last year, can they? In the second half Josh Hamilton showed signs of life. Still Anaheim’s pitching both in the rotation and bullpen leave much to be desired.
Seattle? Well at least the Mariners have Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez. Doubt that’s enough to finish higher than third. The Astros slow crawl back from the baseball abyss will continue. Enjoy Scott Feldman every fifth day.