Abundant parity and recent postseason expansion have given more teams the opportunity to have a realistic chance at winning a championship pennant.
The following list features eight clubs that will get to the playoffs in 2014. And each has the World Series in sight—only they’ll just be seeing it on television.
8. San Francisco Giants
Last season’s Giants went from the top of the heap to (almost) the bottom of the barrel. The 2012 World Champions followed that up with an obviously disappointing 76-86 mark (16 games back of the first place Dodgers). Yes, some underachievement was the cause for this dip in success. But the main reason was health—or lack thereof. Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong were just two of the notables that went down for long stretches.
In every season since 1995, at least one team makes the playoffs the year after a losing record. For 2014, that team will be San Francisco.
Somehow he’s still overlooked, but Bruce Bochy may be en route to Cooperstown with his distinguished career as manager—which includes a pair of World Series with the Giants. It’s highly unlikely that a team under his watch will falter yet again.
Bochy has the pleasure of penciling in Buster Posey in the lineup card on a regular basis. The All-Star catcher is the backbone of the club with his leadership and timely hitting. Skewing even younger, Brandon Belt will improve from his 17-home-run campaign. Hunter Pence had 27 round-trippers of his own.
The pitching has a chance to be as solid as it was two years ago. Madison Bumgarner and Cain form a quality one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Beyond them is a great unknown. Tim Hudson arrives, but is coming off a nasty ankle injury. Tim Lincecum can’t seem to regain the form he possessed a few seasons back.
The Giants, though, will prove that 2013 was an aberration with a Wild Card entry. Settling as the second best team in the West is no slight, as they’ll battle—and keep up with the Dodgers—for most of the year.
7. New York Yankees
As has been the case over the past two decades, last season arrived with Yankees fans expecting the next heroic chapter in their glorious history—only to witness a distressing subplot. For just the second time since 1993, the Yankees failed to reach the postseason.
The Mariano Rivera farewell tour didn’t result in more October glory. Now, the Yanks are gearing up for one final season from Derek Jeter.
But even before Jeter announced that 2014 would be his last year in pinstripes, the Bombers spent big bucks on free agents over the winter.
The most calculated risk is right-hander Masahiro Tanaka from Japan. Over the past two seasons, Tanaka won 26 in row. Of course, the Japanese League is not the Major Leagues. And shelling out a seven-year, $155 million contract to a relative unknown is quite the financial risk—even for the wealthiest franchise.
Other newcomers include Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Jacoby Ellsbury—a solid leadoff hitter and defensive standout in center field. Sporting a new look is C.C. Sabathia, who dropped 40 pounds with hopes that it can help him shed the memory of a down year in 2013 in which he went 14-13 with a 4.78 ERA.
Additional weight that has (hopefully) gone away is burden of the Alex Rodriguez saga. With MLB suspending him for the entirety of 2014, the distraction has ceased—for now.
In leading the injury-riddled Yanks to 85 wins, Joe Girardi deservedly got consideration for AL Manager of the Year. Provided their health is better this time around, a more balanced offensive attack will help them exceed that number—even with the departure of Robinson Cano.
Granted, the future remains bleak with so many players being one false move away from the disabled list. It may be a stretch, but the Yankees have one more good run left in them—before the old guard falls apart.
6. Atlanta Braves
Once a model for consistency in the 1990s, the Braves appear to have regained that structure. That was best exemplified by their winning the NL East last season with 96 victories.
By preventing its opponents from scoring too often, Atlanta led the league in fewest runs allowed. The pitching is solid from beginning to end—as closer Craig Kimbrel can shorten the game with his unhittable stuff in the ninth inning.
For starters, the Braves don’t have a standout ace. That really doesn’t matter when the No. 5 man is almost as good as the No. 1. But a tough blow was delivered earlier this month when it was announced that Kris Medlen underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. It’s expected that Ervin Santana, once of the Angels and Royals, will fill up a spot in the rotation.
Another element to the Braves’ ability to limit runs against them was the defense. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons can field with the best of them. However, his offense isn’t up to the level the team would like.
Also struggling at the plate in 2013 was B.J. Upton, who had just nine home runs and 26 RBIs in his first season with the club.
Should another down year befall B.J., his brother Justin is one of several ready to pick up the slack. Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla are more than capable of it, as well. The trio combined for 72 home runs, but Uggla’s strikeout number rose to tie a career high of 171.
It’ll no doubt be a two-team race in the NL East. The one that doesn’t capture the flag in that division can nab a Wild Card spot. An expected Nationals rebound, plus the loss of Medlen, will drop the Braves into a one-game playoff scenario for the right to go to the Division Series.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
For the best baseball town, their fans certainly have had plenty to cheer about as of late. Dating back to the turn of this century, the Cardinals have made 10 appearances in the playoffs—including a pair of World Championships and the National League title in 2013.
What prevented the Cards most from winning another ring was the lack of a bench. The front office addressed that need by picking up Peter Bourjos and Mark Ellis. For a lineup that is balanced all-around, the power is supplied by left fielder Matt Holliday and right fielder Allen Craig. A new shortstop comes in the name of Jhonny Peralta, a definite upgrade from Pete Kozma. Losing Carlos Beltran won’t hurt as much as most believe.
Despite the departure of former World Series MVP David Freese, the Cardinals got better defensively around the infield with Matt Carpenter now taking over at third base. And, of course, it would be foolish to forget the intangibles that catcher Yadier Molina bring on a daily basis.
In a tight race that the NL Central shapes up to be, the difference tends to be pitching. With Adam Wainwright in place as the No. 1 starter, he gives the Redbirds a crucial edge. He’ll be backed up by a pair of hurlers just coming into the fold. Shelby Miller’s rookie campaign ended with an impressive 15-9 record. Michael Wacha was an overnight sensation—nearly no-hitting the Pirates in a must-win Game 4 of the NLDS.
To all those waiting for a decline, don’t hold your breath. Aside from being successful at the major league level, the Cardinals also have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball. The well-oiled machine in St. Louis keeps on ticking.
4. Boston Red Sox
Using the strength exemplified by the people of their city, the Red Sox were the best team in all of baseball—proven by their six-game triumph over the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic.
That makes it three championships in ten years for a team once accustomed to curses. But if you think that a club that includes Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz is ready to rest on its laurels, you are badly mistaken.
The rotation remains relatively unchanged: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy make for a deep group of starters. Koji Uehara had 21 saves last year to go along with a stellar postseason. It’s hard to expect that again from a reliever who will turn 39 in early April.
Aside from relying on experience, the Sox are also counting on some youngsters to take significant roles. Xander Bogaerts got thrown into the fire with 27 at-bats during the 2013 playoffs. He, along with Jackie Bradley, will now have to get used to being an everyday starter in the big leagues. At 25, Will Middlebrooks still has time to improve on a sluggish beginning to his life in the majors. The unproven talents mixed with the established players will no doubt be interesting to watch.
Manager John Ferrell brought a Terry Francona-esqe attitude to the clubhouse, which was sorely missed. The mainstays, combined with the presence of promising prospects, should keep the Red Sox in serious contention once again.
3. Texas Rangers
Now a regular player in the postseason picture, the Rangers have now had to suffer through the heartache of what it’s like to come painfully close to winning it all on multiple occasions.
An individual that knows about recent playoff disappointment is the team’s newest star. Prince Fielder comes to Texas in a deal that sent Ian Kinsler up to Detroit. He played well during his two regular seasons with the Tigers, but struggled mightily beyond that—with batting averages of .071 and .182 in the 2012 World Series and 2013 ALCS, respectively.
Lost in the Fielder transaction this offseason was the signing of Shin-Soo Choo, who is expected to bat leadoff. Those who remain included veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Elvis Andrus. Together, they make up a stellar left side of the infield.
Equally as stellar is Yu Darvish, a Cy Young Award candidate that has improved in each season since coming to the states. Baffling the opposition with his array of pitches, Darvish has struck out nearly 500 batters over the course of his two years in Texas.
With Derek Holland sidelined for the better part of the first half, the stability of the rest of the rotation remains a question. There was no doubt about how good the bullpen was last year, due in part to Joe Nathan. But a relief staff that ranked fourth in ERA and first in save percentage will have to do it without him, as Neftali Feliz will, likely, once again be inserted into the closer role.
Even with Prince, an AL West crown will not be won by Texas. Manager Ron Washington and his Rangers are going to settle for a Wild Card and, ultimately, a loss in the playoffs that has become all too familiar.
2. Oakland A’s
As has been proven on the field and on the silver screen, no executive does more with less than Billy Beane.
However, there has not yet been a Hollywood ending. The A’s have won each of the past two AL West crowns, only to fall to Detroit in Game 5 of the Division Series. Even with a strong group of teams chasing them, Oakland has what it takes to get back to the playoffs. It’s only a matter of how far they can go.
If you have a gaze at their roster, you start to wonder how they won 96 ball games. Then you look at their performance, and it’s hard to find a weak spot.
Using a bevy of players to fill out the lineup, Bob Melvin’s bunch produced the third-highest scoring offense in the AL, the second-most doubles, and featured four players who belted 22 or more home runs (led by Brandon Moss’ 30). With such depth on the roster, injuries won’t hurt them quite as much as they would for other clubs.
The pitching is also balanced. Even with Bartolo Colon and his team-high 18 wins leaving, the A’s can boast multiple young starters. Jarrod Parker (age 25) went 12-8 last season with a 3.97 earned run average (ERA). Sonny Gray, a 24-year-old who made his debut in July, emerged late in the year and is expected to start with regularity.
Jim Johnson arrives from Baltimore, and Oakland hopes he brought his talents, too. He has led the majors in saves in each of the past two seasons.
The casual baseball fan probably can’t name more than one player on this roster. For Beane and his club, they wouldn’t want it any other way. The only trouble is, they’ll have trouble maintain anonymity once they get deeper into October.
1. Washington Nationals
With a NL East title in 2012, expectations were sky-high for 2013. But the Nationals were in sleepwalk mode through the first half of the regular season. They performed in September the way we expected them to be like all year, but they ultimately failed to catch the division champion Atlanta Braves.
Complacency has been replaced by urgency, as the Nationals have a prime opportunity to strike it rich with their wealth of young talent.
A healthy and buff Bryce Harper aims for an injury-free/MVP-like season , while fellow phenom Stephen Strasburg (with 29 wins to his name) continues in his process of maturation as the team’s No. 1 starting pitcher.
Stephen Strasburg on fatherhood and the fight against perfectionism. http://t.co/PVw7qUv0PW
— Adam Kilgore (@AdamKilgoreWP) March 23, 2014
Joining the 25-year-old Strasburg is Doug Fister, who arrived in a trade with the Detroit Tigers. It’s then hard to forget that there’s also lefty Gio Gonzalez and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann—coming off a 19-win season. With their depth, Washington possesses what can be touted as the best rotation in the Majors—proof that you can never have too many quality starting pitchers.
While Harper has already taken leadership role, even at his young age, there is veteran presence with first baseman Adam LaRoche (34 years old) and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (29). One of the few major questions on this team—besides seeing if they can avoid another slow start—is if LaRoche can return to the form he showed in 2012. If not, Zimmerman may take over at first base to give his somewhat erratic arm a break.
A man who got his big break over the winter is rookie manager Matt Williams, who takes over for the retired Davey Johnson. The Nats’ skipper may be different than the one two years ago, but the result will be similar. Washington is far more likely to be raising a pennant than lowering its head is disappointment when October arrives.
This article is the fifth installment in our six-part “MLB Preseason Power Rankings” series. Missed the other four? No problem. Read ‘em (here).