Baseball 2014: This Great Game’s Fearless Predictions

Who will reign as the best, worst and most surprising baseball teams for the upcoming 2014 season? Let Eric, Ed and a few Bushers tell you all about it.

By Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio, This Great Game
Posted March 20, 2014

This Great Game Opinion.

Never does hope spring eternal more in the game of baseball than in, well, the spring. The doors to camp swing open and in come the players—tanned, rested and ready for another shot at winning it all. They’re all smiles, claiming to be in the best shape of their life and totally free of pain. And then there’s the truly delusional statements, with almost every major league team boasting that they’re the favorites—never mind how badly they may have stunk the year before.

Then comes Opening Day—and shortly thereafter, reality sets in. The losses pile up. Managers get fired. Pitchers make unexpected visits to Dr. James Andrews’ office. A Biogenesis takes center stage. Pablo Sandoval gives in to the clubhouse buffet.

And that’s where it gets tricky for us, the prognosticators. All things being equal, we have a good idea of who’s expected to win and lose in the regular season. But all things are not equal; some teams’ disabled lists evolve like a bad-ass rap sheet while others remain virtually clean. Obscure prospects come out of nowhere and shine while high-priced megastars fail to live up to their wages. It all upsets the balance of our expectations and makes our predictions quite the challenge.

Fast rewind to the spring of 2013. Remember then? We all had the Washington Nationals, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on our minds as the teams to beat. Yet none of them made the playoffs and two of them didn’t even reach .500. And to those who picked the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A’s and Cleveland Indians to make the playoffs, please raise your hands. You’re all liars.

What follows is our picks for the top, bottom and in between for the 2014 major league season, as we gallantly attempt to overcome the inevitable unpredictability. As an added treat, to the right of our predictions you’ll find some spirited responses from our team of Bushers who think they know their stuff. Let us know what you think; maybe you know something we don’t—and if that’s the case, let us know when we can borrow your time machine.

NL East
NL Central
NL West
AL East
AL Central
AL West
Postseason/Awards: Our picks

NL East: Eric's View

In 2013, the Washington Nationals wilted under the expectations of winning 100 games, the pennant and in some circles the whole enchilada of baseball. A too-little, too-late run at season’s end gave them some momentum for 2014, but can they sustain it? Thanks to reduced divisional competition, they should. A few things first, though: Bryce Harper needs to know where his outfield walls are, Jayson Werth needs to maintain last season’s second-half flourish and former Tigers pitcher Doug Fister needs to bust out and show why he’s been so underrated in the baseball mainstream to round out a rotation that has knockout potential. Now that the talented youngsters (Harper, Stephen Strasburg, et al) are growing up and sagacious Davey Johnson is no longer around to apply Yoda-like wisdom, it’s up to rookie manager Matt Williams to lead this team to the promised land. This recalls fellow former Giant/first-year manager Bob Brenly, who in 2001 took a quality-rich Arizona team all the way; and although a world title may be a little much to ask right now, postseason dreams should easily be realized.

Burdened by one of the worst local TV deals and stationed in a ballpark they suddenly want nothing to do with, the Atlanta Braves waived off the free agent market in favor of building from within, locking up their rising stars (First baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, outfielder Jason Heyward, pitcher Julio Teheran and closer Craig Kimbrel) through the next few years and beyond before substantive revenue is restored with their new suburban ballpark in 2017. While they are defending divisional titlists, the Braves also lost the heart and soul of their clubhouse with the winter departures of catcher Brian McCann and pitcher Tim Hudson. The next vets in line, outfielder B.J. Upton (.184) and second baseman Dan Uggla (.179) are too focused on trying to save their careers, so it’s up to the young cadets to bring it on. Freeman has proven to be the real thing, Simmons may be next and Kimbrel will continue to fire the heat until his arm falls off. Oh, and on the subject of arms falling off, that’s just what appears to have happened this spring with the rotation, which last year was among the majors’ best, with Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor all struggling with pain; Ervin Santana has been brought in as a stop gap. The Braves’ best hope for repeating at the top is to have the Nationals break down again.

Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathon Papelbon believes this: “If I was a gambling man, I’d take us to go all the way.” He must like longshots, because the Phillies are facing 33-1 odds to win the World Series. Give Papelbon credit for cradling the faith, because miracles do happen from time to time. Just not all the time. For the Phillies to successfully shoot the moon, they’re going to have to rely on the same recipe that mixes aging, fragile veterans (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz) and a younger cast (led by outfielder Dominic Brown) asked to improve at an accelerated rate. The Phillies hardly closed the ongoing generation gap by bringing in two quality guys—pitcher A.J. Burnett and outfielder Marlon Byrd—who are in their late 30s, but they might get an unexpected boost from first-year Cuban pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and a healthy Ben Revere, who hit .305 with 22 steals in half-a-year’s work last season before injuries got the better of him. If you want to gamble on the Phillies like Papelbon, go for it—just proceed with extreme caution.

There’s a disclaimer on the Miami Marlins’ web site that states atop the team’s depth chart: “Projected by and not subject to the approval of the Miami Marlins.” It likely won’t get approval from Marlins fans, either. It’s the same ol’ fish tale in Lorialand: Nice ballpark, extremely low payroll and expectations that reek of low tides. The Marlins made moves during the offseason, but the acquisitions are akin to putting a band-aid over a massive gash: New in town is catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia (the man who nearly lost the World Series for Boston), 36-year-old shortstop Rafael Furcal (absent last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery), third baseman Casey McGehee (back after an exile in Japan) and reliever Carlos Marmol, he of the wild pitch. All is not lost in Miami; the Marlins have two potential award winners in sophomore ace Jose Fernandez and über-slugger Giancarlo Stanton, while the outfield harbors budding stars in Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, rushed straight from Double-A ball (where they’ve logged a combined total of just 59 games). It all smacks of throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks; not much of it will.

Like the Marlins, the New York Mets went into the offseason with the mindset of a Wal-Mart shopper, bypassing the big-ticket aisles for the closeout sales. That’s understandable in Miami because Jeffrey Loria always plays it on the cheap, but the New York Mets? Okay, so the Mets did splurge on former Yankee outfielder Curtis Granderson (four years, $60 million), but otherwise spent precious little by taking on one used item (40-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon) while reaching into an island stand like the one that peddles straight-to-cable DVDs and pulling out fading outfielder Chris Young (.200) for $7 million—or $1 million less than what Baltimore paid Nelson Cruz. You look at the Mets and there simply isn’t much to get excited over; beyond perennial All-Star third baseman David Wright, you have a weak outfield, a whiffing first baseman (Ike Davis) on record as a liar for hiding an injury last year, a bland bullpen and a year-long absence of their star pitcher (breakout ace Matt Harvey). Maybe if young pitcher Zack Wheeler and catcher Travis d’Arnaud grow up faster than anticipated, the Mets can bolt from the basement, but just remember: When you shop Wal-Mart, you get Wal-Mart.

Eric's Predicted Finish:
Washington 90-72
Atlanta 84-78
Philadelphia 74-88
Miami 71-91
New York 68-94

NL Central: Eric's View

Let’s face it: It’s hard to suppress the thought of the St. Louis Cardinals—so utterly flush with bright young pitching talent that stunningly earned its stripes in the team’s World Series run last year—getting even better in 2014. There’s no doubt that the Redbirds will be good and likely to figure in the divisional race once more. But there are faults in the default; can the collective arm strength of major league sophomores Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly withstand the 200-plus-inning stress of a full season after showing flashes of brilliance late last year? Can Trevor Rosenthal assume the closer role with authority—and if he can’t, can Jason Motte return to pick up with he left off in 2012? And, really, can the St. Louis offense hit .330 in the clutch again? Despite the loss of Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals smartly reinforced with outfielder Peter Bourjos and infielders Jhonny Peralta and Mark Ellis. Yet so much of what transpired last year was so over the top, it’s hard to see the Cardinals matching the magic even as that youthful staff evolves.

Here’s what’s worse for the Cardinals: If they think the NL Central was tough last year, they’ve seen nothing yet. (Note to Cubs fans: Your team needs not apply to that last statement, as you’ll soon read.)

If anyone looks primed to take tops over the Cardinals, it is the Cincinnati Reds. Yes, they stood pat this offseason and lost the multi-faceted Shin-Soo Choo to free agency, but the remaining roster is solid—and filling Choo’s shoes in the outfield is rookie speedster Billy Hamilton, whose full-time debut is one of the more anticipated in recent times. If he can play everyday and give the Reds anything near the .350 on-base mark he produced in the minors, you can count him to steal a minimum of 100 bases—and notch a minimum of 100 runs with Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce powering his way home on a continual basis. The rotation should be quality five-deep with promising second-year pitcher Tony Cingrani emerging to match Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto, and the bullpen—anchored by flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman—is among the majors’ most respectable. It all comes down to Hamilton: Should he deliver, the Reds will take the division for pilot Bryan Price, making his managerial debut after 13 years as a pitching coach with the Reds, Arizona and Seattle.

After regaining long-lost respectability last season with their first winning campaign (and first playoff appearance) in a generation, the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t be ignored for 2014. Unfortunately for giddy Bucs fans, they also can’t be counted on to improve on last year’s success and overwhelm. Like the Reds, the Pirates made no key additions in the offseason—but there’s no Billy Hamilton waiting in the wings. Worse, the Pirates lost pitcher A.J. Burnett and effective late-season pickups in Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, exposing a lack of depth that could hound this team should reigning stars Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez and second-year ace-in-the-making Gerrit Cole break down or lose the edge. That homegrown foundation will have to pay dividends or regression may be the rule at PNC Park.

Here’s a word for the wise: Don’t pass on the Milwaukee Brewers. Alright, I get that last year was a loss for the Brew Crew with numerous injuries, lack of experience and the saga of Ryan Braun, who went from reigning MVP to disgraced distraction. But that was then; this is now. Braun has atoned and looks refreshed for life after Biogenesis; Matt Garza has arrived to give much-needed depth to a rotation that may further evolve with back-end candidates Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg; and if you thought the Cardinals were flush with youthful intrigue, then visit Miller Park and check out second baseman Scooter Gennett (.324 in 69 games), shortstop Jean Segura (.294, 44 steals) and outfielder Khris Davis, whose power numbers (11 homers in 153 at-bats) could, over a full season, rival someone in Baltimore who sounds phonetically similar. The Brewers are certainly a wild card in many respects, and they could actually hold one in October should the above potential be fulfilled.

Among the many zany pipedreams whipped up in spring training comes the zaniest of them all: Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts publicly believes his team will make the postseason. The cruel Chicago winter has apparently hit Ricketts’ sanity with all the force of a deep Slurpee headache. Wrigley Field is due for a renovation; so is this roster. The Cubs can’t hit, they can’t run, they can’t pitch very well and they can’t close. That doesn’t leave a lot of positives; worse, they’re in a division with four other teams that are all capable of winning the division. Sure, they’re loaded with prospects—but that’s a topic for 2016, not now. Until then, the Bleacher Bummed will have to be content with a morbid roster from which Nate Schierholtz is the team’s clean-up hitter. He, along with first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Starlin Castro and top pitcher Jeff Samardzija, most evolve to keep the Cubs from losing 100 games. It won’t be easy.

Eric's Predicted Finish:
Cincinnati 92-70
St. Louis 90-72
Milwaukee 89-73
Pittsburgh 84-78
Chicago 59-103

NL West: Eric's View

The Los Angeles Dodgers are, in a word, loaded. Fronted by men with Monopoly-like money to burn, the Dodgers’ roster includes four All-Star caliber outfielders, seven players earning at least $15 million this year (and that doesn’t include Cy Young Award ace Clayton Kershaw, whose salary catapults over the $30-mil mark next season) a solid rotation from top to bottom (assuming Josh Beckett doesn’t fall apart again) and a bullpen with not one but four pitchers with proven closing experience. This is the juggernaut the Dodgers’ owners aimed for when they overspent on buying the team from Frank McCourt two years ago, but how far will it take them? Pretty far, it you read the sportsbooks and other prognosticators. It’s hard to disagree. There may be a few weaknesses in the infield and the maturation of young Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig remains a challenge—taking his car keys away is a good start—but overall there’s simply too much talent and experience on this squad to wilt in a division that’s competitive yet badly lacks the depth of what you’ll see at Dodger Stadium. Anything less than a NL West crown (and perhaps beyond) will be considered a major disappointment in the front office, and that could spell bad news for manager Don Mattingly.

If you’re a believer in trends, then you have to go with the San Francisco Giants instead. How? So far this decade, the odd years have been, well, odd (and discouraging to boot) while the even years have resulted in world titles. So we arrive at the doorstep of the 2014 season; will the even steamin’ continue? The Giants’ front line can match up with the Dodgers on any day when healthy—and that’s the trick. In sharp contrast to the Dodgers, the Giants have almost no depth to speak of, which is why it’s crucial they avoid the disabled list—a problem that sank their hopes last season. As if on a dare, the Giants’ two major offseason acquisitions—pitcher Tim Hudson and outfielder Michael Morse—are coming off their own injury-riddled campaigns. Hudson joins a polished rotation (Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong) that knows how to be a champion but, for the most part, is trying to rebound from a sour 2013 performance. On offense, chunky third baseman Pablo Sandoval is bound to have a great year; nothing motivates you to lose 40 pounds more than looming free agency. If the Giants make it to the end of September pain-free—yes, that’s a big, Giant if—then look to add another chapter to the epic and storied Giants-Dodgers rivalry.

The Arizona Diamondbacks will start the 2014 season Down Under with a pair of games in Australia; they’ll likely finish the year down under in the standings. Yes, they’re a scrappy bunch that seethes at the sight of Dodger Blue, retains a MVP-caliber star (first baseman Paul Goldschmidt), offers exciting young options at shortstop (either Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings will get the starting nod) and a working-class hero type in manager Kirk Gibson. But the Snakes failed to make good on the sleeper forecast some had predicted of them last year, and their offseason moves received the meh treatment when they collected starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, in part because nobody else wanted him; slugger Mark Trumbo, whose low average and high strikeout rates will remind many Arizona fans of Mark Reynolds; and closer Addison Reed, whose iffy performance with the White Sox may bring no help to a bullpen whose 29 blown saves last year tied god-awful Houston for the most in the majors. Throw in a sputtering rotation and you’ll see the problem in Arizona: Pitching will not allow this team to advance.

A lot of people seem to be high on the San Diego Padres this year. I agree; those people are high. The Padres did well enough last year to tie the lackluster Giants for third in the NL West despite individual drop-offs, suspensions and a ton of injuries that forced manager Bud Black to produce 145 different lineups. The bug seems to have stuck around this spring with outfielder Cameron Maybin out until at least May. Hopes at Petco Park are that Maybin, third baseman Chase Headley, outfielder Carlos Quentin and catcher Yasmani Grandal will return to stellar form, which in all four cases was fairly brief to begin with; additionally, there are pseudo-fantasies of former aces Josh Johnson and Ian Kennedy fulfilling Comeback Player of the Year expectations, joining budding ace Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross (career record: 9-26) in the rotation. Ex-Detroit reliever Joaquin Benoit has been brought in to set up or close should Huston Street hit a dead end, but it won’t make much difference if the bullpen isn’t handed a lot of leads. The pundits making those stoned-cold raves need to blow away the trippy smoke and realize that the Padres are, at best, average.

It’s an irony that a team called the Colorado Rockies fields the majors’ most brittle lineup. The Rockies have only been able to go as far as star hitters Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez can take them, which in the past few seasons hasn’t been very far due to their constant spree of injuries; additionally, their Opening Day closer (Rafael Betancourt) suffered a career-ending injury and 11 different pitchers were given starting assignments in 2013. So this winter, the Rockies brought in first baseman Justin Morneau and starting pitcher Brett Anderson, both of whom have even longer injury résumés than Tulo and CarGo; outfielder Daniel Stubbs, who has leadoff speed but also a career .239 average and horrendous strikeout rates; and 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, who the team somehow believes can make for a better closer over Rex Brothers, who excelled in Betancourt’s place late last year. For Colorado to make its mark this year, it needs reduced health care bills, another sterling shot in the arm from NL batting titlist Michael Cuddyer, continued evolution from Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado and a young rotation to finally hit top gear. In the end, that’s simply too much to ask.

Eric's Predicted Finish:
Los Angeles 94-68
San Francisco 89-73
Arizona 79-83
San Diego 77-85
Colorado 74-88

AL East: Eric's View

Once upon a time, the House of David was a very popular, very religious and very long-haired baseball team that entertained and preached the faith with a nonstop barnstorming schedule. There’s a new House of David these days in St. Petersburg and it’s called Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays stand up to the Goliaths of the game and work their mastery of financial defiance, overcoming poor revenue and local support worthy of a bland siesta. It’s quite the miracle that the Rays continually win in spite of their low-budget “cult” status—and I'm going to stick with the little prophets to take down the AL East. It won’t be easy, but in a division where every team has a major weakness amid the strengths, the Rays field the best balance. The senior citizen of the talented yet rapidly evolving rotation is 28-year-old ace David Price; All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria may soon share equal star billing in the lineup with reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, and once-and-current Rays closer Grant Balfour rejoins the bullpen after passing one of two team physicals this offseason (the Orioles, perhaps foolishly, demurred). Those who do show up to the Trop have long since been converted to the Rays’ winning ways; the non-believers need to follow, because this team will very likely be ticketed once more for October.

When the Nevada sportsbooks released their odds for the 2014 season this past winter, they picked the New York Yankees to win 83.5 games. In other words, they’re expecting the Yankees to have their worst year since 1992. Part of it is understandable. After all, the Yankees will be without closer extraordinaire Mariano Rivera, who retired. So did Andy Pettitte, who gave the Yankees reliable rotational substance last season. The suspended Alex Rodriguez also won’t be present, though if you ever consider such an absence addition by subtraction for this disruptive cheat, this is that year. But now for the offset. Donning pinstripes for the first time is former Boston outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who gives the Yankees speed and spark at the top; Carlos Beltran, who looks to have plenty of juice left in his 37-year-old bat; and fiery catcher Brian McCann, who has the potential to prod a vulnerable rotation beefed up by the arrival of Masahiro Tanaka, he of that remarkable 24-0 figure last year in Japan. Oh, and there’s the bounceback factor: Look for the return of Derek Jeter (in his swan song), first baseman Mark Teixeira and one-time budding ace Michael Pineda. The Yankees have the potential to win it all, and although this highly retooled roster may be slow to gel, it certainly will produce a sum total greater than 83.5.

It’s not my style to dump a defending world champion into third place, but doesn’t it just seem that the Boston Red Sox had their day and will find it hard to repeat? I do. Make no mistake, the Red Sox are a solid team with a veteran cast—perhaps too veteran, with many of their core players well into their 30s. There is one solid injection of youth at short, where 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts will get a crack at everyday play, but essentially this is the same team as last season, one year older—and less Jacoby Ellsbury (off to Yankeeland) and more A.J. Pierzynski, the 37-year-old catcher who’s had a tendency to wear out his welcome here and there. But the big problem for the Red Sox in 2014—and believe us, I’m being as sensitive as possible here—is that the players molded so positively under distressful circumstances following the Boston Marathon attacks last April, it’s hard to see the Red Sox maintaining that emotional edge on the field. Boston remains the Red Sox’ bleeping city, but the AL East will likely belong to someone bleeping else.

The hangover has begun at Rogers Centre after the Toronto Blue Jays were tightly embraced with enormous expectations last year, in advance of laying a disappointing egg in the standings. All’s quiet on the Canadian front a year later as the Jays cross their fingers and hope that the cast that was to lead them to the World Series last year will rebound and play as they should have all along. That means pitcher R.A. Dickey’s knuckler rediscovering its past glory, a full season of health and productivity from shortstop Jose Reyes and slugger Jose Bautista, and a return to All-Star form for outfielder Melky Cabrera, post-Biogenesis. Even if the Blue Jays can pull all of that off, there’s still the issue of a thin, injury-prone rotation and a new catcher (veteran Dioner Navarro) who may not maintain his sudden re-emergence from last year. So hopefully the aspirin has taken effect and the Blue Jays have reawakened fresh to a new day and the old reality that they’re really nothing more than a .500 team.

Make do and welcome the Baltimore Orioles, the team with the majors’ toughest medical staff. Even for those who wanted to come to the Orioles this offseason, passing the entrance exam was like studying for the SAT; ask Grant Balfour and Tyler Colvin, who failed before catching on elsewhere. (It is rumored that Bronson Arroyo shied away from an Orioles contract offer because of the docs’ supposed tough standards.) At the 11th hour, the Orioles realized they needed someone and brought in pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz, costing the team draft picks in both cases. Both will help, but it’s hard to believe they’ll make up for the loss of one Jim Johnson, who almost single-handedly lifted the Orioles to respectable status the past two years by saving 101 of their hard-fought wins. Whoever succeeds him in Baltimore—reports from spring training have brought up more question marks than you’ll see on the Riddler’s costume—will have a major burden to bear. The Orioles’ strength—and perhaps their salvation, with Johnson now gone—lies in a stellar defense and a lineup where Cruz joins 50-homer guy Chris Davis, All-Star center fielder Adam Jones and third baseman Manny Machado, who hopes to fully recover from a wicked knee injury late last year. Let’s hope he passes the physical.

Eric's Predicted Finish:
Tampa Bay 92-70
New York 90-72
Boston 89-73
Toronto 81-81
Baltimore 78-84

AL Central: Eric's View

Last year, the Detroit Tigers had it all and came just short of winning it all; they had tenacious hitting, excellent starting pitching and a bullpen that unexpectedly surged late in the year. Looking at the 2014 roster, you realize that 2013 offered the Tigers with their best shot. Gone is Prince Fielder, who flamed out in the postseason but otherwise was a productive hitting asset and Great Protectorate for MVP Miguel Cabrera. Gone is Doug Fister, who provided great back-end depth to the rotation. Gone is Omar Infante, who quietly hit .318 at second base. Gone is reliever Joaquin Benoit, the veteran set-up man who more than met the challenge of closing. Gone is veteran manager Jim Leyland to retirement. Gone, also, may be the Tigers’ chances to win their third straight divisional title if the replacements don’t fulfill their end of the bargain. Those would be rookie Nick Castellanos, taking over Fielder’s spot in the lineup; little-tested Drew Smyly, taking over for Fister; Ian Kinsler, the fiery anti-Rangertite, taking over for Infante; fellow former Ranger Joe Nathan, taking over for Benoit; and Brad Ausmus, assuming Leyland’s command with only one coaching gig (managing the Israel WBC team) to vouch for. The Tigers still have Cabrera and one of the best pitching trios around (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez), but the overall makeup of this Detroit roster is a drop-off that invites serious competition.

The majority of that competition will be provided by the Kansas City Royals, whose future is finally now after years of bragging about its coming. Sure, they lack a MVP star or Cy Young Award-littered rotation like the Tigers, but what you see instead in Kansas City is a disciplined young mix with few weaknesses. The Royals attack the ball, run the bases aggressively, defend like few other teams and bring solid pitching depth to keep opponents on their heels. This is the vision the franchise had some five years ago when many of their current everyday players—outfielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez and first baseman Eric Hosmer, to name just a few—were working their way up the organizational totem pole. From the outside, the Royals made cagey moves to bring in outfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante, two players whose soldier-like offensive styles fit in perfectly with the rest of the team. Continued evolution from the homegrown-up’s and balance to a worthy rotation fronted by veteran workhorse James Shields will give the Royals more than a fighting chance to overcome the Tigers and reach their first postseason in nearly 30 years.

So there you have an analysis of the two Big Bad Wolves of the AL Central. Now here’s the Three Little Pigs:

Little Pig #1 is the Cleveland Indians, who surprised quite a few people—most of all, us—by playing winning baseball, forging a late charge and sneaking in as a 2013 wild card. It would stun us if they did it again. They’ve lost starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, both of whom experienced career renaissances that lifted the Tribe’s fortunes last year; what’s left is a rotation that may be long on potential but badly short on experience. Also departed is closer Chris Perez (to Los Angeles, where the weed is easier to come by), replaced by John Axford—whose last turn at the job in Milwaukee ended in disaster. The Indians’ strength lies in solid leadership (Terry Francona, in his second year at Cleveland) and their bats, with potent performances expected from first baseman Nick Swisher, second baseman Jason Kipnis and DH-third sacker Carlos Santana. But even the disgraced Wahoo will have a hard time keeping that big smile on his face after what he sees this year.

Little Pig #2 is the Minnesota Twins, who host the All-Star Game this year with, likely, the minimum one representative on the roster. That guy will probably be Joe Mauer, the focus of one of the team’s more intelligent offseason moves as the injury-prone catcher was asked to move to the relatively safe environs of first base. Even somewhat vested baseball fans would have a hard time naming more than a couple other players on this team—but with patience, they may soon. Unlike the Indians and White Sox, the Twins sense long-term, positive vibe thanks to youngsters like power outfielder Oswaldo Arcia and catcher Josmil Pinto—while the rotation, a source of no-name embarrassment last year, brought in some mild marquee chic with Phil Hughes (from the Yankees) and Ricky Nolasco (from Miami by way of L.A.), but they’re not going to turn this team around overnight; they may not even turn it a fraction of the 180. The Twins are a scrappy bunch that could make unexpectedly modest gains, but you’re probably looking at a roster that will be starry-eyed when the real stars come to Target Field on July 15.

Little Pig #3 is the Chicago White Sox, for whom the Cuban Revolution continues with slugger Jose Abreu joining fellow ex-pats Dayan Viciedo in left field and Alexi Ramirez at short. Abreu’s powerful 6’3”, 255-pound frame is badly needed to add intimidation to a lineup that had none last season. Okay, so Adam Dunn can poke a few out every once in a while, but a .200 average and 200 strikeouts doesn’t scare anyone. And Paul Konerko, in his final year at age 38, is running on fumes. Ace Chris Sale was the only 10-game winner on the club last year, and barely (with 11) thanks to rotten support; beyond Jose Quintana and a possible rookie charge from Erik Johnson, there’s little to get excited about in the rotation. Meanwhile, in the bullpen, the White Sox want to give Nate Jones the closer role. Why? Who knows. He has zero career saves. Chicago badly disappointed last year with 99 losses, and any White Sox fan feeling delusions of grandeur will quickly revert back to the hearty sigh, a drooping of the shoulders and a head-lowering shake that will reveal the full extent of his or her peripheral vision.

Eric's Predicted Finish:
Kansas City 92-70
Detroit 91-71
Cleveland 73-89
Minnesota 71-91
Chicago 69-93

AL West: Eric's View

If the mirror industry had a trade association, it would do well to use Billy Beane and Bob Melvin as its spokespeople. After all, Beane and Melvin—the respective GM and manager of the Oakland A’s—have made excellent use of mirrors to get the job done. How else can a rather ordinary roster overachieve, again and again and again? How, in this star-studded division, do the A’s thrive with frontline names like Eric Sogard, Derek Norris, John Jaso and Dan Straily? Within the deceiving malaise of no-namers you’ll find one of the game’s best bullpens (further strengthened by ex-Baltimore closer Jim Johnson) and an unending ability to seize the moment in the clutch, foiling unsuspecting opponents on an almost daily basis. All-Stars could be made of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who may harbor some MVP-like upside, and outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, both bound to improve after a disappointing 2013. Whether newly arrived starting pitcher Scott Kazmir is an equal to the departed Bartolo Colon remains to be seen, and the rotation in general is its usual young, fragile self, with Jarrod Parker already shelved until 2015 with Tommy John surgery. Uunlike the recent past, there are few reliable reinforcements at the ready, owing to a weakened farm system. But that’s no problem. No other team believes in itself—certainly in this division—as do the A’s; by hook or by crook, these guys find a way to win. After all, they have mirrors on their side.

As long as the Texas Rangers had Nolan Ryan walking the front office hallways, the Boys of the Long, Hot Metroplex Summer had their Mojo. But when Ryan was being shoved out the door late last year, the team shrank and folded in the stretch. He’s gone now (advising the Astros), and the Rangers are without their spiritual guru. In his absence, Texas made noteworthy offseason moves by bringing in first baseman Prince Fielder (traded for a fed-up Ian Kinsler) and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo; add in continued maturation from middle infielders Jurickson Profar and Elvis Andrus and a full season for outfielder Alex Rios, and the Rangers are an irresistibly romantic option to win the AL West. But the pitching staff is volatile thanks to Derek Holland’s dog (the culprit in a domestic fall that will cost Holland three months), a slow-healing Matt Harrison (two starts and out last year due to back issues) and the departure of closer Joe Nathan. Experienced closers in Netfali Feliz and Joakim Soria can fill Nathan’s shoes, but both are coming off long stretches of pain; beyond flashy strikeout ace Yu Darvish, the rotation remains a major concern until Holland and Harrison return—and no, Nolan Ryan isn’t available to step in.

In Anaheim, Mike Trout is the guy. He’s young, filthy talented and ticketed to become the game’s first half-billionaire. He can hit, run, leap and throw. But he can’t pitch, close or play all positions at once. And therein lies the enigma for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; cloning as a science is still in its infancy. Trout did everything he could last year to fulfill the Angels’ lofty expectations, but the rest of the team fell apart to the point that it even made Houston (10-9 against the Angels) look respectable. With the leaves fallen and swept away, a new spring brings new hope for the Angels; don’t expect much. Even should the Angels’ other megastars (outfielder Josh Hamilton and first baseman Albert Pujols) get back on track, the Halos still have massive problems with a rotation that’s nil after proven vets Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson and a bullpen that’s wild and crazy in the worst way. Looking for help from the minors? Forget it; the Angels’ farm system is ranked dead last in many knowledgeable circles. As with Messiahs, players like Trout don’t come in bunches. The Angels have the ability to excel without the clones, but they offer no margin for error.

The Seattle Mariners brought in the fences last year at Safeco Field, but that didn’t keep the offense from posting the AL’s worst batting average. This year, they’ve brought in Robinson Cano, the sure thing (for $240 million, he’d better be) to lift a young, raw lineup from which only one player (third baseman Kyle Seager) hit over .250 in 2013. It’s now or never for guys like first baseman Justin Smoak, outfielder Dustin Ackley and other hot-shot prospects who’ve struggled at the big league level and are counted on by the Mariners to lend major support to Cano. But it’s in the rotation where Seattle could make its move to the league’s upper tier, should highly-praised young cadets Taijuan Walker and James Paxton build upon their brief but promising debuts of a year ago and join ace Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma (should he ever be ready to go this spring) to give the Mariners a solid wall of starting pitching. If they don’t, all of the wintertime noise in Seattle could become yesterday’s distant echo as the same old song of woe plays out at the corner of First Street and Edgar Martinez Drive.

The Houston Astros’ slogan for 2014 is “It’s a Whole New Ballgame.” With the same old results. Job One for the league’s worst team of last year is to win a game quick so there’s no talk of most consecutive defeats over two seasons (they finished last year losing 15 straight). The roster won’t be so young and green to start, as the Astros have brought in grade-B veteran beef with center fielder Dexter Fowler, starting pitcher Scott Feldman and (likely) closer Chad Qualls. They’re standouts on this roster, but on any other team they’re just common players. The bulk of the Astros still consists of inexperienced, in-over-their-heads talent, some of whom are being asked to make their mark a year or two before they should. There is hope on the mound with youngsters Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer ready to dial for a full season after impressing in their debuts late last year. But still, leaving last place is going to be a difficult task in a division where everyone else is making a serious go at the top. For the most part, there’s going to be a familiar look to this whole new ballgame.

Eric's Predicted Finish:
Oakland 88-74
Texas 86-76
Los Angeles of Anaheim 81-81
Seattle 79-93
Houston 63-99

Postseason/Awards Picks: Eric and Ed's View

You want David vs. Goliath? You got it, if Eric's picks count for anything. The high-priced Dodgers are just too deep and talented to give the National League away, and they should outlast and upend the challengers on their way to the World Series, where they’ll have a date with the budget-minded Rays—who will reign in an American League dominated by the little guys, with “small-market” Kansas City and Oakland anticipated to win their divisions as well.

Meanwhile, Ed’s going with a Classic: Dodgers vs. Yankees for all the marbles. And there’s more where we don’t see eye-to-eye; Ed also believes the Phillies, Angels and Orioles—three teams that Eric views as .500 teams at best—are postseason worthy. We’ll see.

Eric's picks:
NL: Washington Nationals (East), Cincinnati Reds (Central), Los Angeles Dodgers (West), St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants (wild card)

NL Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers

AL: Tampa Bay Rays (East), Kansas City Royals (Central), Oakland A’s (West), Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees (wild card)

AL Champion: Tampa Bay Rays

World Series Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers

NL MVP: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta

AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles of Anaheim

NL Cy Young Award: Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco

AL Cy Young Award: David Price, Tampa Bay

NL Rookie of the Year: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati

AL Rookie of the Year: Masahiro Tanaka, New York

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Mark Teixeira, New York

Ed's picks:
NL: Washington Nationals (East), Cincinnati Reds (Central), Los Angeles Dodgers (West), Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies (wild cards)

NL Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers

AL: New York Yankees (East), Detroit Tigers (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West) Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles (wild cards)

AL Champion: New York Yankees

World Series Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers

NL MVP: Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers

AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

NL Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

AL Cy Young Award: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

NL Rookie of the Year: Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates

AL Rookie of the Year: Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Grady Sizemore, Boston Red Sox

Baseball’s Best, Worst and Most Surprising: The 2013 Season in Review A look back at who thrived, survived and professionally died among the 30 major league teams in 2013 as surprises and disappointments reigned.

Fun Facts About Your All-Time Hit Leaders So you think you're smarter than the next trivia buff when it comes to major leaguers at the top of numerous hit lists? Here's 22 questions for you to prove it.

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Roger “Never Ready” Rettig

Roger “Never Ready” Rettig
Over a 12-year career, Rettig pitched for six teams in four leagues.

“I never slept well because my wife was large and snored like an agitated wolverine, so I was sleepy on days I was starting and couldn’t really get going until about the third inning, which is bad for a pitcher and even worse for one with a fastball that couldn’t crease a pair of old dungarees. Of course, I died in 1928 when I got hit by a horse crossing the street. I wasn’t ready for that one either. If I were still alive and walking hitters from Parole, Maryland to Quigleyville, Pennsyslvania,

I’d agree with Eric and pick the Nationals to take the division, a team that has supposedly been ready to win for the past few years without delivering. My surprise pick for 2014 comes out of the NL East, where one of my wild card spots is the Philadelphia Phillies. Like Eric over on the left says, the Phillies have a nice combination of old veterans mixed with some farm-grown young talent. They’ll be ready this season—something I could never seem to do.”

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Bruce “Old Elixir” Ellison

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One time, Ellison pitched 23 scoreless innings drunk on cheap gin and a weak slider.

“My approach to baseball was pretty basic—have a few drinks to loosen up and then throw as hard as I could for as long I could. It worked in my younger years, but when I began to feel some serious wear and tear in my early 30s, I started getting rocked and even bad hitters had career days against me.

So, I developed an amazing slider and rode that pitch for two decades, primarily playing for the old Frogtown Toads, a team in the Pipefitters Federal League. But in the end, the alcohol caught up with me and I had to get out of baseball completely to dry out and clean up. After that I started selling elixirs to unsuspecting people from Tingley, Iowa all the way to Flea City, California and scouted for several teams while on the road.

In the NL Central this season, I’m picking the Cincinnati Reds, because they have great pitching, solid hitting and enough postseason experience to take the division. If losing in the playoffs builds character, the Reds should be the most charismatic team in this great game. My other wild card will go to the Pirates. Now that they’ve tasted some moderate success, it should be the elixir that will get them back to the playoffs.”

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John “Shallow Pockets” Masters

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“I was never afraid to pay for top talent. Give me one good hitter and leave all those fancy fielders with no power down by the train tracks—that was my opinion—‘cause I don’t have no use for them light hitting infielders. The other team owners would whine and cry like babies with bees in their bonnets, saying I stole this player or that player from them in some dishonest trade, but I just laughed, because even on my worst day I was smarter than they were. One time I traded six pure bred greyhounds to Manny Delgado, the owner of the Burnt Water Mosquitoes. Was it my fault they turned out to be rabid? And bit all their star players? Heck, no!

I like the Dodgers in the NL West this year, but the rest of the division will be dogs this season—and not the rabid kind either. None of the other squads in this division helped themselves over the offseason enough to compete against a loaded L.A. team. If I owned one of those other teams, well I would have traded most of them to the lowest bush leagues I could find.”

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Raul “Red Face” Ruiz

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“They called me ‘Red Face’ because one day I allegedly got a serious sunburn while playing on a hot day for the Neversink Ramblers in upstate New York. It was long ago before sunscreen existed, but to be honest I was red in the face for being embarrassed after committing five errors—in two innings! Of all the errors I made in my life, the worst one was my second marriage, but that’s a different story.

When I look back on my baseball career, I can recall all the humiliating moments, replayed again and again in slow motion. One day we were playing the Belchertown Chuggers in Massachusetts and my manager called me a moron in front of 600 fans, who laughed and threw a bunch of shoes at me. Fortunately, I found a pair that fit!

In the AL East this season, there will be one very happy team (the Yankees) and another pleasantly surprising team (the Orioles) while the rest of the group will be as red-faced as me. Why? Because teams like Toronto and Boston are spending good money on players that won’t perform well enough to take them to the postseason. Tampa Bay is loaded with young talent, but I think Eric himself has been languishing in the sun way too long to pick them to win this talent-laden division, let alone get in the World Series.”

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Tom “Outta Line” Shine

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“Being an umpire was never easy. Players from Jackpot, Nevada all the way to Elephant Butte, New Mexico enjoyed heckling me and arguing balls and strikes with me all day long. I was right about 95% of the time, but no one wanted to forget the other 5%, for some reason.

When managers or players went too far going nose to nose with me, I would tell them they’re way outta line, and that’s how I got my less-than amusing nickname. Now, in 2014, replay is being introduced to Major League Baseball, so all that second-guessing and arguing with the men in blue will take on a new form. They say that the human element is a big part of umpiring—which, translated, means lots of mistakes.

Some of these teams from the AL Central this season are going to be making some major mistakes on the field this year and replay—or anything else—isn’t going to help them. The Twins and White Sox will struggle and have subpar seasons, Cleveland will improve and the Royals will show promise. But the Tigers will dominate again, led by top hitting and some of the best pitching in the entire AL.”

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Stanley “The Bland Man” Vanella

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Third baseman
Vanella was exciting in the field—but boring in real life.

“Yes, they say I was boring like vanilla ice cream, but hey, I told ‘em—it all begins with vanilla! Pralines ‘N Cream, Chocolate Chip and even Strawberry—they all started out as Vanilla.

My baseball career was exciting and fun, but I couldn’t hit a curve and had a concrete glove. One day while playing against the Deadhorse Dormice in Alaska, I hit four singles and the local press called it a “unicycle!” I guess I wasn’t enigmatic or flashy enough and that’s why they thought I was a bore, but in actuality I was an interesting guy with lots of hobbies, including bird watching, rock climbing and competitive sleeping.

The AL West should be interesting this season and I know that many experts will pick the A’s to win it, but I like the Angels to win the division and I’m also selecting the Rangers to get a wild card spot. The Halos have too much talent to ignore, unlike the way almost everyone treated me during my baseball career. And Texas is an offensive juggernaut with just enough pitching to get the job done. These picks might not be spicy or enticing, but I never was all that excited….or exciting.”

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Jeff “No Bum” Applebaum

Jeff “No Bum” Applebaum
Applebaum was a great hitting instructor who couldn’t hit his weight.

“Back in my day, we had no playoffs. All we had were championships. Now, ten teams total get into the postseason like a big party where almost everyone gets invited. One year, the Lame Deer Salt Licks in Montana won 98 games, but they finished second to the Muddy Gap Moose and their season ended right there, because that’s the way it was back then. Did the Salt Licks cry and run out into the woods? Heck, no! That’s because there were no playoffs back then, and we liked it that way!

My baseball career was a good example of the old saying, ‘Those who can’t, teach.’ I could not hit a baseball to save my life, but I knew how to tell someone else how to do it, so I coached the best hitters of the game and saved their careers.

In 2014, the teams with little playoff experience will fold like bad origami (Baltimore, Philadelphia and the Angels, for example), while those with a little more postseason exposure will get to the next level (Yankees and Dodgers). Hey, when it came to baseball I was surely no bum, but when I look back at my career I do get a little bummed, because I knew how to hit, but never mastered the art myself.”

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Greg “Good Times” Goodman

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Goodman maneuvered through several bush leagues over 15 mediocre years, and was best known for showing rookies a good time, all the time.

“When it comes to the Fall Classic, some teams are content just to be there while others want to win so bad they can taste it. In my baseball career, I tasted every type of fun you could imagine, but never got to play at the highest level. I introduced wild parties, imbibing, poker games and skirt chasing to all of the rookies on every team I played for and most of them ended up out of baseball, but it wasn’t my fault. All these wide-eyed babes were more than happy to enjoy themselves off the field and I was their tour guide for every debauched step of the way.

In 2014, the season will end with the Los Angeles Dodgers on top of the heap against the New York Yankees, because they have way too much talent not to get it done. It will go six games, with Clayton Kershaw completing two and the bullpen saving the others, while the Bronx Bombers will come up short. Further prediction: There will be good times in Southern California this October when players like Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig start dating rock starlets and hanging out with Justin Bieber.”