A gaze into crystal baseball predicts 2014 fortunes
Team of MLB.com columnists share expectations for new year
Baseball does not successfully lend itself to crystal balls, as any search through our archives for past predictions will no doubt reveal.
Purely guessing what's going to happen in this game is a fool's errand, and reading palms is problematic if the palms in question are covered by batting gloves, catcher's mitts or pine tar.
Ah, but that won't stop MLB.com's team of columnists from dabbling in the fortune-telling field for just a few moments. As we turn the page to 2014, this is a sampling of team achievements, star performances, individual awards, breakout seasons, etc., that we're expecting to see in the new year.
And if none of this comes true, well, we'll just claim the crystal ball had a little too much of that Lena Blackburne mud rubbed on it.
The 2014 season will be characterized, he said, not really knowing, by terrific, dramatic division races.
I would pay particular attention to the National League Central and the American League West as two focal points of this intense competition. This is not said to diminish the possibility of great races in the other four divisions. Far, far from it. But these two divisions are logical starting places when predicting good times for the next baseball season.
The NL Central already was the first division in baseball history to qualify three teams for the postseason. The expanded Wild Card system made this possible, but so did the teams from St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
None of these teams is going to fade quietly out of contention. The Cardinals, in particular, appear to be even better than the team that led the league in victories and won the NL pennant. But the other clubs remain talented. It will be fascinating to see what the Pirates do for an encore after breaking through to end their 20-year drought.
In the AL West, Oakland remains underappreciated, but the A's don't have to care about that after winning the division the past two years. The Athletics' pitching depth can only be envied by the vast majority of clubs, and Oakland does a great job mixing, matching and patching together an effective lineup.
The competition should be fierce.The Rangers have added major mid-lineup power in Prince Fielder, as well as a leadoff hitter in Shin-Soo Choo. The Angels have reasons to hope for bounce-back seasons from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. And now, the Mariners have added considerable pop to their lineup, starting with, but not limited to, the leading free agent of this offseason, Robinson Cano.
As long as we're out on a limb this early, how about the Cardinals and the Tigers in the 2014 World Series? Only 28 clubs would argue with those picks.
If we've learned anything from the first two years of the expanded Wild Card era, it's that the line between contenders and pretenders has blurred considerably. Last year's Red Sox and Indians are a great example of how the right tweaks in personnel and organizational attitude can vault an also-ran into a runner. In fact, every year of the Wild Card era, dating back to 1995, has seen at least one sub-.500 team from one season reach the playoffs the next.
The Mariners, by virtue of the Cano acquisition and all that follows, will be a popular pick to make that kind of leap in 2014. But I also think the Padres, with some nice arms in-house and a potential boost from Josh Johnson, could make some noise in the NL West. Few teams were impacted by injury quite as much as the '13 Padres.
This should be the year in which the Cardinals' Oscar Taveras, the D-backs' Archie Bradley, the White Sox's Jose Abreu and the Mariners' Taijuan Walker become nationally recognized names (the M's, of course, would be wise to let Walker do so in their uniform and not that of the Rays).
This could be the year Mike Trout finally overtakes Miguel Cabrera in the AL MVP vote, particularly with Cabrera coming off groin surgery.
This ought to be the year the Royals finally get over the October hump, lest the ghost of Wil Myers hover over their heads for the next six seasons. As we sit here today, considering how fundamentally different the Tigers are going to be, the AL Central seems a bit more open than it's been in some time. The White Sox and Twins have undoubtedly improved, and the Indians remain a threat. But with James Shields, Billy Butler and Norichika Aoki all nearing free agency, the Royals have a pivotal opportunity in 2014, and I have a hunch they'll seize it.
This will almost assuredly be the year the Rangers are the consensus pick to win the World Series. And as much as I fear being part of that consensus, it's hard to argue with it right now.
Oh, and I really, really, really like the Nationals' chances of reaching the World Series, as well. Just as I did a year ago. But I really mean it this time, I promise.
Umpires will become a focal point of attention like never before in 2014 as expanded instant replay and the banning of collisions at home plate -- both expected to be approved by Major League Baseball's owners in January -- dramatically changes the way the game is governed on the field.
It's not hyperbole to suggest that the sweeping changes in one offseason will be unprecedented.
The old maxim which held that umpires had a good game if they went unnoticed became updated long ago. With almost every game on television and so many cameras providing viewers with multiple angles for replays, the men in blue have been part of the nightly drama for a while now. And, given that, it was inevitable that baseball would eventually harness the technology in an attempt to eliminate mistakes that could alter the outcome of games.
Adding what almost has to be a judgment call on plays at the plate only adds to the attention umpires will receive.
Surely, there will be glitches as the replay system is rolled out and the new collisions rule is implemented. Just as surely, adjustments will be made as time goes on to iron out the kinks.
One side effect will be that fans will have more than ever to debate. Should a manager risk a challenge early in the game, knowing he might need it later? Does the viewer agree with the conclusion of the replay official based in New York?
It will be different. It will, at times, be controversial. But the twin objectives -- player safety and getting it right -- are too important to ignore.
Parity rocks the house in 2014. Twenty teams will be within five games of a playoff berth on Sept. 1. So brace yourselves for surprises. The Angels and Royals will be playing October baseball. The Yankees and Tigers won't. The Red Sox will win the AL East, but the Rays will be back in the postseason for the fifth time in seven seasons. Someone will write that they're the most improbable dynasty in the history of professional sports.
Trout will edge Pujols for the AL MVP. Yes, that Albert Pujols. He's going to have a monstrous bounce-back season, and when baseball's best players are discussed, he'll again be in the conversation.
Joe Maddon will be the AL Manager of the Year, David Price the AL Cy Young Award winner. He'll win it while pitching for the Rays, because general manager Andrew Friedman decided his team couldn't make the postseason without its No. 1 starter.
Over in the NL, the Padres just might be positioned to shock the world. The Cardinals will make the postseason again, and absolutely no one will be surprised. Their second baseman, Kolten Wong, will be the NL Rookie of the Year.
The Nationals will take the NL East back from the Braves. As for those NL Wild Card berths, at least seven teams will be in contention the final week of the regular season. The Reds and Braves will prevail.
Let's pencil in Stephen Strasburg for the NL Cy Young Award and Matt Kemp to be the NL MVP. No, he won't be traded. And when all is said and done, the Cardinals and Angels will give us a tremendously entertaining World Series.
Cardinals in seven.
It's been 28 years since the Kansas City Royals last saw the postseason. They actually won the World Series in 1985. It's been long enough. The Royals returned to being competitive in 2013. Now, they can take the next step back and return to October baseball in '14.
The adjustments have had a year to settle in. Shields, aka Big Game James, is ready to make a statement of his own with free agency pending, and the young bats in the Royals' lineup have had enough time to get over the jitters.
And just think of the storylines if the Pittsburgh Pirates and Royals were to meet in the World Series. Bucs manager Clint Hurdle began his career with Kansas City, its first-round Draft pick back in June 1975, and was the first baseman for the Royals in '80, their first World Series appearance.
Dusty Baker will be back managing by the All-Star break. An owner will want Baker -- a manager with a track record who has shown he knows how to massage egos and create a winner.
Trout has been close but not close enough in AL MVP voting the past two years. He'll get his first in 2014. Meanwhile, in the Senior Circuit, advantage Andrew McCutchen, who becomes the first NL player to claim the MVP Award in back-to-back seasons since Pujols in 2008-09.
Meet Abreu, No. 79 on your program and baseball's man of mystery.
This will be the year that North American fans learn he is one of the best hitters on the planet, to the delight of the White Sox. Their $68 million investment in the Cuban slugger will be money well spent as he picks up an AL Rookie of the Year Award and even some MVP consideration after joining fellow newcomers Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia in making it fun to watch baseball on Chicago's South Side.
After losing 99 games in 2013, the White Sox will matter again, with Chris Sale building off his success the last two season and John Danks bouncing back from shoulder surgery to work 200 solid innings. But Abreu will be the guy who leads the White Sox back, hitting home runs to all fields and proving himself to be a very tough out in addition to a long-ball threat.
Abreu's totals in Cuba's Serie Nacional are the stuff of legends. He wasn't too bad for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic either, going 9-for-25 with three home runs, six runs and nine RBIs in six games. If he can make the jump to the Major Leagues as easily as Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have the past two seasons, the White Sox will have an answer for Cabrera. That's how much of an upside he has.
But let's don't get carried away. Until some of that pitching goes away, the AL Central still belongs to the Tigers, even if the Royals (43-27 after the All-Star break last year) and Indians are positioned to catch them.
The AL will have to go through the Tigers and the Rangers, who with Fielder and Choo could get to the World Series again. The Detroit-Texas survivor is most likely to meet the Dodgers or Cardinals in the World Series, although it would be nice to see the McCutchen's Pirates build off their recent success.
Boston will be strong again, even with Jacoby Ellsbury taking his talents to the South Bronx. The Red Sox have the weaponry to repeat. The Yankees smartly spread the funds allocated for Cano around in areas of need. Nobody replaces Mariano Rivera, but class act Carlos Beltran will look great in pinstripes along with Ellsbury and Brian McCann. Pitching will tell the Bronx tale. Yanks fans dream about a staff like the one peerless manager Maddon maneuvers in Tampa Bay, keeping the Rays in contention on a shoestring. The Orioles and improved Blue Jays will be competitive.
The AL West, like the East, should be a beast in 2014. The Rangers will be back in mash mode, with Fielder bashing in front of Adrian Beltre and Choo setting and clearing the table. Yu Darvish is the whole truth, but closer Joe Nathan might be missed. The upwardly mobile A's are leaning on Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson to replace Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour, and the baseball gods are overdue to smile on GM Billy Beane and Co. in October. Pujols and Hamilton will rebound in support of Trout, and as hard as it was to deal Mark Trumbo to Arizona, lively young arms Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago should improve the Angels significantly along with reliable reliever Joe Smith. Cano makes the Mariners relevant, and their young pitching could be second only to St. Louis' collection of arms. Houston, stockpiling prospects, will be relevant in a year or two.
The ever-improving and maturing Royals are on the move, with Salvador Perez emerging as the new Yadier Molina, but the Tigers remain the class of the AL Central, armed to reach the Fall Classic. They'll meet the Dodgers, fending off the D-backs and Giants in a strong NL West with great pitching, a full season of Puig and comebacking Kemp showing the world he's still Kemp.
The Braves will be tough as usual in the East, but the NL centers again around the Cardinals and Dodgers. They're so deep, so good, it's easy to see them facing off in another NL Championship Series showdown. Peter Bourjos brings game-changing speed to St. Louis, which should hold off the surging Pirates and Reds, and look for Dan Haren to rebound in a brilliant Dodgers rotation led by incomparable Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
AL MVP? Trout, best player in baseball, finally overtakes Cabrera, who will miss the lineup presence of buddy Prince, who gives Texas a big year. NL MVP: Allen Craig. Mr. Clutch can drive in 140 runs if he stays healthy behind Matt Carpenter, Bourjos and Matt Holliday.