As we climb the rankings of our 2014 MLB preseason power “ladder,” postseason talk still seems a long way away. And for these particular five clubs mentioned in this article, there is a small bit of hope to compete for a World Series pennant. And by small, we mean you can find that hope if you look with a magnifying glass.
Another quality all of these teams have in common is that they are formerly powerful contenders on the downturn. Which ones are slowly recovering and which ones should prepare for a continued freefall? Let’s take a closer look.
5. Philadelphia Phillies
During a five-year period from 2007-11, the Phillies were a near-lock to reach the postseason every season, thanks to core talent featuring Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Roy Halladay. Much of the Phillies of old still remains. And the Phillies of the present appears to be just plain old. With age comes a decrease in durability.
Injuries have plagued Utley and especially Howard—who is not nearly the intimidating presence in the lineup he was five years ago. And Rollins’ biggest issue right now is mending the fences on his strained relationship with manager Ryne Sandberg, which may get him dealt before the regular season even begins.
Sources: There is strong sentiment within PHI organization right now that the team would be better off trading shortstop Jimmy Rollins ASAP.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) March 18, 2014
One thing Sandberg—who signed on as skipper in the middle of last year—should be able to bank on a strong top of the rotation. Cliff Lee has at least a couple good years left in him, while Cole Hamels is trying to recover from a subpar 2013. The retirement of Halladay prompted management to ink A.J. Burnett, who is more than capable of being a No. 3 starter after a revived stint in Pittsburgh.
But the overall lack of depth is what will sink the Phils’ ship. The rest of the pitching staff is mediocre and their bench won’t be able to pick up the slack should the old guard need some rest.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s recent decisions have been centered on acquiring veterans past their prime and holding on to those representing past glory. Loyalty can only go so far—as in fourth place in the NL East.
4. Milwaukee Brewers
Only those that support the Milwaukee Brewers are happy to see Ryan Braun in the fold. The two-faced “slugger” is coming off a season-ending suspension in 2013 that preceded a thumb injury, which hindered his production on the field (nine home runs in 61 games). Even if Braun were to naturally achieve a successful 2014 at the plate, is it enough to generate a winner in Milwaukee again?
Third baseman Aramis Ramirez—at 34 years old—is on the downturn. Whoever starts at first base—whether it is Juan Francisco or Mark Reynolds—possesses solid pop with the bat, but their equal potential to strike out makes them feast-or-famine hitters. Speedy Carlos Gomez and last year’s breakout star Khris Davis should anchor the outfield.
Another youngster who will get playing time is second baseman Scooter Gennett—battling veteran Rickie Weeks for the position. Gennett provides solid defense up the middle for a club that made the most errors in the NL last season (114).
The pitching staff has the ability to push the Brewers into the playoff race, but asking Matt Garza to be the ace is too much. Yovani Gallardo is more suited for that role, while Kyle Lohse’s pension for giving up the long ball (26 in ’13) is troublesome.
3. Colorado Rockies
The post-Todd Helton era has now begun. A long-time first baseman and symbol of baseball in Denver, Helton will be missed by the club not for his recent production, but for his off-the-field leadership. Filling the void, for the most part, will be shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. The 29-year-old and three-time All Star hit .312 with 25 home runs and 82 runs batted in (RBI) over the course of 126 games in 2013.
Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez make up one of the best hitting duos in the majors. As long as they can avoid the injury bug, they will together produce plenty of runs at Coors Field. By missing 49 of the team’s final 73 games, Gonzalez wasn’t able to add to his 26 home runs, 70 RBI and a .302 average. His absence was a major reason why the Rocks plummeted to last place in the West.
Another area of blame is the back end of the rotation. Aside from the performance of the team’s top three starting pitchers–Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rose and Tyler Chatwood–Colorado was barren in the arms race. The chance the collective record for that top three improves from a 38-21 mark in 2013 seems unlikely. Chacin is nursing a shoulder injury and Chatwood is coming off elbow surgery this winter.
Newly-acquired Brett Anderson from Oakland isn’t going to solve the problem. The rest of the team’s offseason moves weren’t enough to improve a bullpen that had an NL-worst 4.23 earned run average (ERA) last year.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
After back-to-back 81-81 campaigns, the D-Backs had better be prepared to see the balance tilt in favor of a heavier total in the loss column.
Yes, general manager Kevin Towers did assert his “win now” mentality by obtaining former Angel Mark Trumbo in a trade–who can provide an extra punch in the lineup to go along with NL home run king Paul Goldschmidt.
But their starting rotation is lacking in depth–not good for a group that is already hurting. Should one pitcher (or more) go down for the long term, to whom does Towers manager Kirk Gibson turn? That’s a question they may need an answer for sooner than later, as reports say that Patrick Corbin may miss all of 2014.
Not to pile on, but newcomer Bronson Arroyo has spent spring training nursing a bad back and Trevor Cahill busted his knee in a game earlier this month.
The tandem of Trumbo and Goldschmidt will be an imposing presence from the right side of the plate, as the two combined for 70 round-trippers in 2013. However, they can whiff as much as they can bash–with more than 320 strikeouts between them.
Despite the abundance of K’s, Arizona’s hitters can still put up runs, but only so many. The depleted pitching staff is going to hold them back–far back–from the Dodgers and Giants in the West.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
In the span of just one year, they went from the offseason champions to the quiet AL East club. Neither will ultimately result in success, unfortunately. All playoff contenders must have strong pitching, and that was definitely lacking in the Blue Jays’ camp.
The trade with the Mets in December 2012 to land R.A. Dickey in exchange for prospects hasn’t totally panned out. The knuckleballer, now 39, was 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA in his first season with Toronto. It was a risky move from the outset, as the veteran was coming off a magic carpet ride of a year that won him the NL Cy Young Award–and it’s a tall order to ask him to duplicate that sustained success.
The rest of the starting pitching staff is below average–finishing 2013 with the second-worst ERA in the AL–a deterrent for victories when facing the strong-hitting teams the AL East has to offer.
What will somewhat offset that is the top of the batting order. Jose Reyes, if healthy, can provide a spark leading off. If he gets on base, rest assured that Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion can drive him in.
Provided they don’t have the same rash of injuries they endured last year, the Jays should improve. The only problem is their competition. The division is loaded–with the World Champions from Boston, consistent Rays, as well as the improving Yankees and Orioles. That said, the Jays are buried with far too much to dig out from.
Put them in the AL Central and they’d easily be a second-place club. Where they are now, in the stacked AL East, Toronto may not be able to find their way out of the basement.
This article is the second installment of our six-part “MLB Preseason Power Rankings” series. Missed the first one? No problem. Read it (here).