If anybody picked the Red Sox to go from the American League East basement in 2012 to winning the World Series in 2013, we must have missed it. If anybody assumed the Pirates would snap their 21-year run of postseason absences or that the Indians would finish one game back of the Tigers and win the AL Wild Card, they must have forgotten to shout it out loud.
Indeed, trying to predict baseball at a time when revenue sharing, youth reliance and the expanded October format have created more competition than ever before is about as fruitful as trying to predict the weather. (And if you were lucky enough to endure yet another one of those oxymoronic "spring snowstorms" over the weekend, you know how fickle the weather can be.)
At last look, Baseball Prospectus' early Playoff Odds Report had 21 teams with at least a 20-percent chance of reaching the playoffs this year. Even more tellingly, only one team -- the Dodgers -- is, via BP's simulations, expected to win more than 87 games.
Consider that a prognostication for parity in 2014. And where there's parity, there's unpredictability.
So just know, going in, that MLB.com's experts make no promises about anything below. But if any of it comes true, we do want to be on record as having shouted it out loud.
Marlon Anderson, MLB.com studio analyst
The lineup they put together this offseason is a perfect fit for their ballpark. The new left-handed bats of Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts are just what they needed and will lead them back to the playoffs. They will outscore opponents at home and ride that momentum on the road. The Red Sox were great last year but didn't add enough for the pieces they lost.
They have the best offense in the division. They have the best starting pitching. They got more athletic with Ian Kinsler at second and Rajai Davis in left field, and with Miggy moving back to first, he'll have a greater chance to stay healthy -- and who knows how good his numbers can be this year? But most of all, they got Joe Nathan. Need I say more?
With injuries to division foes, I think it's time for the Angels to get back on top of this division. With two former MVPs primed for good years and Mike Trout leading the way, I believe it will happen.
Rays: Pitching will lead them into the playoffs again; they'll just barely beat out the Orioles.
Rangers: They'll have to overcome some early injury problems, but with Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder hitting in that ballpark, I think they will find a way.
They won the division easily last year with B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla out more than 80 percent of the time. They won't be that bad again. Their starting pitching will be hurting early, but Ervin Santana will be a boost and Gavin Floyd will help starting in May. But they will win the division because of their head-to-head matchups with the Nationals.
Starting pitching is the best. Bullpen is the best. Defense is the best. Hitting with runners in scoring position, they're the best. Unless Yadier Molina encounters a serious injury and can't lead this staff, they will win this division.
Pitching will carry this team. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu will lead the staff, and the back end of the bullpen will be great with Brian Wilson setting up Kenley Jansen. Also the speed, power and athletic ability of this lineup will be fun to watch all year.
Nationals: They will narrowly miss winning the division but will win the Wild Card game. Then they will be a tough matchup for whomever they play.
Pirates: With MVP Andrew McCutchen still at the top of his game and a pitching staff ready to repeat, the Bucs again will be in the playoffs -- edging the Reds by the skin of their teeth.
Dodgers over Tigers
The Dodgers' starters rebound from last year's playoff and get revenge on the Cardinals. All while the Tigers outduel Yankees to get back to the Fall Classic. Dodgers hitters will get some timely hitting in a back-and-forth series with the Tigers. Then Kershaw will shut down the Tigers' potent offense to win in Game 7.
Mike Bauman, MLB.com national columnist
The Los Angeles Dodgers have become an increasingly popular pick to win everything but a Congressional majority in 2014. This is a completely understandable situation. The Dodgers have amassed a terrific amount of talent, and they have paid for it, unseating the Yankees as the team with the Major Leagues' highest payroll. If the World Series was decided upon name recognition, the Dodgers would win. But if that was the standard, they'd be playing the Yankees in the World Series. And that isn't particularly likely this season.
I have a different NL club in mind as the 2014 World Series champion.
AL division winners: Rays, Tigers, Athletics
AL Wild Cards: Rangers, Red Sox
AL Division Series winners: Rays, Tigers
AL champion: Rays
NL division winners: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers
NL Wild Cards: Giants, Reds
NL Division Series winners: Cardinals, Dodgers
NL champion: Cardinals
World Series winner: Cardinals
The Cardinals are a much quieter operation than the Dodgers, but the Redbirds take life one pitch at a time and grind at-bats in a way everybody talks about but few actually accomplish. Plus, they have what seems to be a limitless supply of hard-throwing pitchers just into their adulthoods who arrive in the big leagues with not only great stuff but veteran composure.
It is difficult not to pick the Nationals to win anything and everything because of the quality of their pitching. They would be a completely logical pick as World Series champions, except for the presence of the Cardinals in the NL. The Braves would have fit as postseason qualifiers, too, but it is difficult to project them into that status now, with 40 percent of their starting rotation out for the season.
Pitching is also what gives the Rays an edge in the ultra-competitive AL East. The A's are still loaded with pitching, but the loss of Jarrod Parker to a second Tommy John surgery makes their path to a third straight division title more difficult. The Tigers have a terrific rotation, too, but they looked a lot better with Jose Iglesias playing shortstop.
Even with the expanded Wild Card format, there are additional clubs that I would like to find room for in these humble predictions. The Royals would be solidly in that category for me. In the good-for-baseball category, there are at least 20 teams that can reasonably be considered for the 10 postseason spots.
Hal Bodley, MLB.com columnist
When the Tampa Bay Rays lost to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, there were loud whispers around baseball that the best is yet to come. That should finally happen in 2014. This could be the best team in Rays history, talented and experienced enough to overcome the Washington Nationals in the World Series.
It's difficult to pick against a team that has a pitching staff of David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson (when he returns from offseason right elbow surgery). Wil Myers, last year's AL Rookie of the Year, should be even better, and the addition of Ryan Hanigan behind the plate strengthens the team. Signing closer Grant Balfour more than makes up for the loss of free-agent righty Fernando Rodney, who signed with Seattle. Yes, the Rays will win the rugged AL East, finishing ahead of Boston, which will earn one of the AL Wild Card spots, along with the Kansas City Royals. The Detroit Tigers, under rookie manager Brad Ausmus and two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, will once again win the AL Central, and Oakland will again claim the the AL West.
The maturing Nationals will take the NL East, the Cardinals the NL Central and the Dodgers the NL West. The NL Wild Card spots will be claimed by the Reds and Giants. The return of right-hander Stephen Strasburg after minor offseason surgery and the expectation that he will reach his full potential tells me Washington will be the best team in the NL. Newcomer Doug Fister will be out for as many as 30 days with a right lateral strain, but even without him in the early going, the Nationals' rotation is still as good as any in the league. The Dodgers could be the spoiler, especially if manager Don Mattingly et al can rein in the amazing Yasiel Puig. That said, Washington should finally make it to the World Series for the first time in several decades, but manager Joe Maddon and the Rays will celebrate their first championship.
Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com columnist
My gut's calling for turnover in all three AL divisions. The Rays, featuring a rotation replete with upside, will bump Boston out of the top spot in the East. The Angels, with a revised rotation supporting an elite offense (in which Albert Pujols will finally provide return on investment), will push past the injury-depleted A's and Rangers and a Mariners team on the rise.
The feel-good story of the season will be the Royals overtaking the Tigers in the AL Central. Since 2001, the Royals and Blue Jays are the only teams not to reach the postseason at least once. I legitimately like the Royals' chances to shore up their side of that equation in what ought to be a three-team race in the Central with the Tigers and Indians. I've yet to see a single prediction that calls for anybody other than Mike Trout for AL MVP, so let me just submit at least one other possibility: Eric Hosmer.
The Tigers and Red Sox, meanwhile, will have to settle for the AL Wild Card spots.
It seems to me the AL is more wide open than the NL, because the three teams with probably the greatest percentage shot of locking up their divisions are the Nationals in the NL East, the Cardinals in the NL Central and the Dodgers in the NL West.
Having said that, the Dodgers do worry me. We've already seen Clayton Kershaw's back tighten up on him, and you wonder how he'll hold up after last year's career-high workload. The Dodgers also have an injury-prone lineup that could compel them to make adjustments as the year evolves. I still think they'll win the West, ultimately, because they have the resources to adjust. But the Giants will give them a real run for their money before landing the top NL Wild Card spot.
The Braves, D-backs, Reds, Pirates and -- my favorite "sleeper" -- the Brewers could be neck-and-neck for the second NL Wild Card. Ultimately, the Braves win out. Bryce Harper, Allen Craig and Hanley Ramirez are on my early NL MVP radar.
The postseason is a total crapshoot, of course. But at the risk of cursing them a second straight season, I'll take the Nats over the Dodgers in the NLCS and the Rays over the Tigers in the AL Championship Series. Then it's Tampa Bay all the way in the Fall Classic, a Maddon-ing proposition.
Danny Graves, MLB.com studio analyst
The AL East will be a close race, but the Yankees will come out on top. I believe their starting rotation is as strong as it has been in recent memory. CC Sabathia had an awesome spring; the addition of Masahiro Tanaka will help, of course; Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova will have double-digit wins; and Michael Pineda appears to be back to the All-Star pitcher he was with Seattle -- and he's their No. 5 starter.
The AL Central will be dominated by Detroit because of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer -- not to mention that Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet.
The winner of the AL West will surprise many: the Angels. Pujols and Josh Hamilton are healthy again, and Trout is the best all-around player in MLB leading this team.
The NL East will be taken by the Nationals, whose starting pitching ranks up there with the best in the game. Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez are a scary 1-2-3 punch. Add Fister when he's healthy, and they have four aces.
The NL Central belongs to the Cardinals. Not only is their starting rotation dominant, they have the most pitching depth as a whole.
At the start of season, the NL West will be a close fight between the Dodgers and Giants, but once Kershaw returns, Los Angeles will run away with this division. thanks to great starting pitching and a very potent offense all around. Still, the Dodgers' bench does scare me a little.
AL: Red Sox over Royals
NL: Reds over Giants
AL champs: Tigers
NL champs: Dodgers
World Series champs: Dodgers
Paul Hagen, MLB.com national reporter
Peering into the future, through tangle of people frolicking around on the field, wiping away the champagne mist, could it be? Yeah, that sure looks like the Nationals celebrating the first World Series championship in the history of a franchise born as the Montreal Expos in 1969.
And, in the opposite dugout, that's the Rays watching for a moment before filing back to the clubhouse. Disappointed, yes, but also proud to have made it back to the World Series despite one of the lower payrolls in baseball.
It says here that there were great races all summer. The Rangers, beset by injuries, started slowly but came on strong to edge the Athletics in the AL West once manager Ron Washington got most of his players back on the field. The Tigers held off the improving Royals and Indians to win the AL Central and advance to the postseason for a fourth straight year.
The NL Central was tight all summer, but the Pirates continued their upward swing by winning the division for the first time since 1992, edging the Cardinals in a race that wasn't decided until the last days of the regular season. The Dodgers weathered Kershaw's early stint on the disabled list to take the NL West.
The defending World Series champion Red Sox met the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game, and the Yanks advanced to the ALDS before losing to Detroit. The Rays topped Texas and then bested the Tigers to go to the Fall Classic for the second time in seven seasons.
Meanwhile, in the NL, the Cardinals beat the Braves in the Wild Card game. The Dodgers, who beat up on the rest of their division on their way to the NL's best record, eliminated the Cardinals in the NLDS. The Nationals got past Pittsburgh in a tight series, then took care of the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.
That set up the first World Series to be played in the District of Columbia since 1933, and the Nationals delivered the first title to the capital since '24.
Richard Justice, MLB.com columnist
The Nationals will fulfill the expectations we had for them a year ago. All they need is good health. Ryan Zimmerman, Harper and Strasburg will have huge seasons, and Matt Williams will be the NL Manager of the Year in his rookie season.
The Cardinals will win the NL Central, led by baseball's deepest pitching staff and most resourceful offense. In the NL West, the Dodgers will survive a tough fight with the Giants to finish on top. Matt Kemp will edge Harper for the NL MVP, and Madison Bumgarner will earn his first NL Cy Young Award. The Giants and Pirates will grab the NL Wild Card berths, but the Reds will be in the mix until the final week of September.
The Rays, Tigers and Angels will be the AL's division winners, with the Red Sox and Yankees grabbing the Wild Card berths. The Rays will ride big seasons from Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, and their starting rotation will be as good as advertised. The Tigers will get MVP-caliber numbers once again from Cabrera and a steady year from their new second baseman, Ian Kinsler.
Verlander will be the AL Cy Young Award winner, Pujols the AL MVP. But Trout nd Cabrera will, as usual, be right in the mix. Hamilton will, like Pujols, have a huge bounce-back season.
The Rays will get by the Yankees in the ALCS, and the Nationals will beat the Dodgers in the NLCS. We've had a string of classic World Series matchups, and this one won't be any different.
How about Price vs. Strasburg in Game 7? Wouldn't that be about as good as it gets? The Rays win on a game-saving diving catch in shallow right field by Zobrist. Balfour does a terrific imitation of the happiest man on earth.
Jeff Nelson, MLB.com studio analyst
The Red Sox will win the AL East again by playing just the way they did last year, getting great all-around performances. The AL East will also produce two Wild Card teams -- the Yankees, thanks to their key offseason additions, and the Rays, led by their strong pitching. The AL Central will be won by the Tigers, who might be the best all-around team in baseball. The AL West will be won by the Angels behind bounce-back years from Pujols and Hamilton.
The Nationals will win the NL East, thanks to the best rotation, No. 1 through 5, in the NL. The Braves will finish a close second but will grab an NL Wild Card spot. In the NL Central, the Cards are back as division winners due to their strong rotation and bullpen. The Dodgers will win the NL West with one of the best offenses in baseball. The Giants are not far behind and will grab the second NL Wild Card berth.
The ALCS will feature the Tigers and the Yankees, whose starting pitching and key hitting will lead New York back to the World Series. The Cards and Dodgers will face off in the NLCS once again, but this time, the Dodgers win with an offense that's too much for the Cards' pitching.
The World Series will pit the Dodgers against the Yankees, and the Yanks will win their 28th championship in Derek Jeter's final season.
Tracy Ringolsby, MLB.com columnist
Tampa Bay has proven that it doesn't take a big spender to be an elite team.
The Rays don't worry about keeping up with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in terms of payroll. The focus is simply on outdoing both in terms of games won.
Chalk one up for the Rays.
The most balanced team in baseball -- and with that extra challenge of knowing that Price, with free agency two winters away, may not return a year from now -- the Rays have what it takes to not only win the AL East and the AL pennant, but also the first World Series in franchise history.
The Royals are primed to be this year's feel-good story, their young offense having aged into a productive unit and their pitching staff built much like Tampa Bay's.
The Royals have what it takes to upset Detroit in the AL Central and open the postseason by taking care of AL West-champion Oakland, but the Rays are a different story.
Their story starts with an ALDS triumph over Detroit, which -- with Verlander and Scherzer -- has a duo of dominant arms from which to choose en route to defeating Boston in the AL Wild Card Game.
The Rays will also write the final chapter for the Pirates, who can build off last year's thrill of ending a two-decade drought to win the NL Central this time around, and even win the NLCS against a Washington team that is the cream of the NL East.
The Nationals will dominate an NL East in which no other team will even finish .500, but the Nats will once again fall just short of the first World Series appearance in franchise history. That, however, comes after they knock off the NL West champion Dodgers in the NLDS.
Phil Rogers, MLB.com columnist
A lot of teams in the Cactus League had better Spring Trainings than the A's. But when I looked around, there wasn't a better team in Arizona.
Losing Parker to Tommy John surgery was a huge blow, one that opened up 200 innings that someone else must fill. There's also the lingering question of whether A.J. Griffin's right elbow injury is the result of a flexor strain, not something serious. The hope is that he'll be back in May, and that's essential. But don't get too caught up on the downside to Bob Melvin's team.
They've still got Sonny Gray, Josh Donaldson and a bullpen that was strong last year but should be better with Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and, when he's ready, Eric O'Flaherty. Despite the loss of Parker, I still like the A's to win the AL West and the pennant, reaching the World Series for the first time since 1990. But they'll have their hands full there to stand up to the best team in Florida over the past month, the Cardinals.
St. Louis is the best team in the Majors this year, with shortstop Jhonny Peralta, second baseman Kolten Wong and center fielder Peter Bourjos improving a lineup that was already the most effective in the NL and a starting rotation so deep that Carlos Martinez remains a shut-down setup man. Fourteen other teams know that to win the NL pennant, they have to go through St. Louis.
That includes the Dodgers, who won't be as all-powerful as some believe. There are questions everywhere you look in their clubhouse. I see them in the playoffs, but as a Wild Card team, behind the Giants. I think the Nationals win the East, with Ervin Santana helping the Braves win a Wild Card spot.
The Tigers, a stronger favorite to win their division than even the Cardinals are to win theirs, will win the AL Central. The Rays are more solid than their high-dollar competition, and they should win the AL East, with the defending World Series champion Red Sox and Royals advancing as the AL's Wild Cards.
At the end of the journey, it'll be Cards over A's in the World Series, to the delight of fans in the new Wrigley Field-replica rooftop behind the left-field bleachers at Busch Stadium.
Steve Sax, MLB.com studio analyst
The NL is rich with pitching. The Nats could have the inside lane depending on injuries to the Cardinals and Dodgers, and sheer exuberance if they start to dominate the East. The Dodgers' pitching depth -- especially in the bullpen -- is too strong. Los Angeles will win the pennant.
In the AL, injuries to Texas and Oakland create better parity for the Angels to reach the postseason. The Orioles are a serious team now and more of a gut feeling for me. The Orioles and Royals have the best defenses in the AL, but the Tigers' pitching will lead them to win the AL pennant.
In the World Series, the Dodgers' depth of pitching may be the difference maker. Los Angeles will beat Detroit in seven.
Lyle Spencer, MLB.com columnist
Call it West Coast bias, but the feeling is strong that this will be a banner year in California. Four of the five teams in the Golden State are legitimate contenders, and the Padres are an exciting sleeper led by the game's most underrated manager, Bud Black.
San Francisco has shown how difficult it is to repeat. Having won it all in 2010 and 2012, they are a threat again in another even-numbered season. The championship pieces are intact, but the beast down south in Los Angeles will repeat in the NL West. The Dodgers have everything, including the resources to add a necessary piece or two at midseason. Kemp is the X-factor.
Oakland's Athletics are two-time defending champions of the AL West but remain widely undervalued. They lost ace Parker for the season, but Gray has all the right stuff to emerge as an elite starter. The underrated Melvin always gets the most out of his roster. Jesse Chavez, pressed into the rotation, could be a breakout starter. The A's have power to support deep pitching. The bullpen might be the game's best.
The Angels have Trout, simply the best. If Pujols and Hamilton stay healthy and deliver, the offense will roll. Keep an eye on leadoff man Kole Calhoun, a dead ringer for a young Lenny Dykstra. Starters Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs are the keys to the Angels' contention. The Princely Rangers remain a force with pitching that is deeper than critics realize.
In the NL Central, the great Molina and the young arms he takes under his wing will keep them a step ahead of the rest. The Pirates should be a Wild Card team again, facing the Giants. The Nationals have the pitching and offense to take the East as the talented Braves cope with pitching issues.
The Red Sox and Yankees are formidable and the Orioles and Rays could surprise, but the Rays are a fashionable pick in the loaded AL East. They pitch, hit, make few mistakes and love what they do, thanks to Maddon. The Tigers' superstars should hold off the young, resurgent Royals in the Central.
AL division winners: Rays, Tigers, Athletics
AL Wild Cards: Angels, Red Sox
AL Division Series winners: Athletics, Tigers
AL champion: Tigers
NL division winners: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers
NL Wild Cards: Giants, Pirates
NL Division Series winners: Cardinals, Dodgers
NL champion: Dodgers
World Series winner: Dodgers