At the start of each baseball season, there are a handful of teams that present themselves at or near the top of the standings—seemingly ready to compete for the postseason.
However, as the weeks go by, everything transforms into a mirage amid the summer heat—with teams wilting and dropping in the standings come July and August. The following five teams can end their seasons with winning records, but each has at least one major flaw that will prevent them from really competing and mounting a title run.
5. San Diego Padres
When your disabled list is as long and extensive as the Padres’ has been in recent times, then it may be a sign of rough times ahead.
Adding to the health woes from last season, Cameron Maybin—slated to be the starter in center field come April—has been lost for the first five weeks of the year with a bicep injury. Chase Headley’s strained right calf has hindered him so far this spring and may keep him out Opening Day.
When he is fully healthy, third baseman Headley leads an infield that has the defensive skills to be among the NL’s best in the near future. San Diego hopes that his second half slump was more a product of a thumb fracture early in 2013 than a lag in his progression.
Shortstop Everth Cabrera is coming of an All-Star appearance and a suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, but his unique skill is on the base paths—as he has led the team over the past two years with a combined total of 81 stolen bases. Jedd Gyorko, at second base, will supply a good portion of the pop. He finished his rookie campaign with 23 home runs.
The pitching should get better as two of the former liabilities—Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard—have departed. Ian Kennedy steps in as the ace, with Andrew Cashner and Josh Johnson showing upside. The Pads, though, just don’t have the horses to keep up with the thoroughbred Dodgers.
In Bud Black’s seven seasons manning the Padres dugout, he has yet to reach the postseason. It’ll ultimately be eight seasons, but not before hanging around in the Wild Card race into the second half of the year.
4. New York Mets
Even with Matt Harvey likely spending all of 2014 in rehab instead of on the mound, the Mets are realistically eying a .500 season—a feat that hasn’t been achieved in Flushing since 2008.
Hope remains abundant thanks to two other young arms. Zack Wheeler (23 years old) made 17 starts in 2013, posting a 3.42 ERA and showing great promise. Noah Syndergaard (obtained in the R.A. Dickey trade) won’t start this season on the major league club, but it’s only a matter of time before this 21-year-old gets his permanent call-up.
The other half of the future Mets battery also has tremendous upside—in the form of Travis d’Arnaud. In the short time he spent in the big leagues last year, he managed just a .202 batting average in 112 plate appearances, and will surely improve upon those numbers.
With all the raw talent coming through the New York pipeline for general manager Sandy Alderson and skipper Terry Collins, there needs to be a veteran leader. No problem there. David Wright gladly accepts the captain role and is the team’s stalwart at third base. He’s also their most consistent offensive player.
Wright gets some help thanks to the signing of Curtis Granderson. He joins Eric Young, Jr., Juan Lagares and fellow newcomer Chris Young as part of a solid defensive outfield.
That said, the rest of the lineup has gaping holes. Shortstop Ruben Tejada and first baseman Ike Davis are on the brink of demotion (or trade) if they don’t live up to expectations.
The Mets have enough young talent—even without Harvey—to show flashes of what they can become. An 82-win season is certainly possible, but the real successes will come in 2015 and beyond.
3. Seattle Mariners
With a city consumed in the mania that was the Seahawks’ Super Bowl run, the baseball team also made some significant news over the winter. For a franchise not known for landing high-priced free agents, the Mariners nabbed the biggest fish in the sea.
Once of the New York Yankees, second baseman Robinson Cano was lured away from the Bronx with a 10-year, $240 million contract. He and new skipper Lloyd McClendon are the two notable new faces in Seattle. Yet, it won’t be enough to improve on a 71-91 mark from last season.
Look for Cano to get plenty of pitches out of the strike zone, as the surrounding hitters in the lineup don’t pose much of a threat. Corey Hart and Dustin Ackley don’t scare anybody.
Opposing hitters, however, do wince at the prospect of facing ace pitcher Felix Hernandez. You can pencil him in for about 15 wins. Not having a grasp on what the rest of the staff can accomplish presents a worrisome thought. Hisashi Iwakuma finished 2013 with 14 victories. However, a finger strain will make him start this year on the mend. Scott Baker, formerly of Minnesota, has thrown a total of 15 innings the last two seasons due to elbow ailments. The bullpen is good enough, but will its main task be protecting leads or preventing larger deficits?
For a front office that has had its share of recent dysfunction, they’ll quickly learn that putting all their eggs in the Cano basket isn’t going to solve their problems.
2. Cleveland Indians
The Indians are the popular pick of most prognosticators to experience a regression back to Earth in 2014. And there’s plenty of reasons why this makes sense.
Gone are the contributions of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, giving them just one pitcher (Justin Masterson) in the rotation that has been a starter for an entire major league season. The pressure is on for the likes of Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister—a combined 58 starts between them. They are highly-touted within the organization, but their likely growing pains could have an impact on the Tribe as a whole.
What appeared to be an unimposing lineup was instead a club—with a deep bench—that manufactured runs instead of bashing the opposition. In all, Cleveland ranked fourth in the American League in terms of runs scored. This, despite no regular having at least a .300 batting average, nor anyone having more than 84 runs batted in (RBI). That was the main impetus on their surprising run to the AL’s second Wild Card spot and a 92-70 record.
In baseball, things have a way of evening out. Coming off a season in which they turned many would-be defeats into victories, logic suggests they won’t carry that rabbit’s foot forever. Terry Francona leads a balanced team, but one that isn’t impressive enough to take the next step forward.
1. Baltimore Orioles
Having migrated down the American League pecking order in 2013, the Orioles have the bats and the manager needed for a revival.
They led the majors in home runs—much due to the proficiency of Chris Davis and his AL-best 53 dingers.
It’s not likely that the Baltimore first baseman is going to maintain the super-human power he displayed over the first half of last season, in which he had 37 homers and 64 extra-base hits by the time the All-Star break arrived. That said, his numbers will remain among the league’s best under the continued motivation of Buck Showalter.
Davis will be complimented by Nelson Cruz—a free agent signing that for the most part has flown under-the-radar. While Cruz’ entrance to the Birds has been quite understated, the return of Manny Machado shouldn’t. What seemed to be a devastating injury suffered in September at Tampa Bay, the Gold Glove-winning third baseman is expected to return early this season, barring any setback. And the team needs him.
With Machado and center fielder Adam Jones covering plenty of ground, Baltimore had the best fielding percentage (.991) out of any club in the majors.
What’s going to hurt the Orioles most is a relatively unimpressive pitching staff—anchored by Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman. If this pair can combine for 30 wins (a tall order), then the odds for a return to the playoffs are good. More importantly, the No. 3-5 starters (likely to be Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez) need to be more efficient. Tommy Hunter remains a question mark at closer, and could cost the team a few much-needed wins.
This article is the third installment in our six-part “MLB Preseason Power Rankings” series. Missed the other two? No problem. Read ‘em (here).