The 2014 MLB season began March 31 in the shadow of an offseason that saw the largest contract ever handed out to a pitcher, the largest ever handed out to a pre-arbitration player, and the largest ever handed out to anyone. The recipients of those three contracts are Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, who happen to be the three best players in baseball. So now that the definitive stars of the game have been paid, are these lavish long-term extensions going to become the exception rather than the rule? Absolutely not. The recent boom in local cable contracts increases the likelihood that these multi-hundred million dollar contracts will continue at the same rate, and be doled out to players less deserving than Kershaw, Trout and Cabrera.
But enough about the uglier parts of baseball, it’s April! It’s the only time of year when the Astros and Marlins are still in contention and every team is relatively injury-free (except for the Braves and Rangers, who seemingly lose a starting pitcher every hour). Below is my breakdown of the contenders (as in teams who could win the World Series, not just make the playoffs) from each division and my playoff predictions (spoiler: reading any MLB preview is a waste of your time because the Red Sox are repeating and that’s all you need to know.)
Boston Red Sox: The defending champs will field a remarkably similar roster to the one that found no equal in 2013. There are fewer regression candidates on this team than on the average World Series winner because Boston’s success relied more on players like John Lackey and Shane Victorino returning to their career averages than having abnormal, career years. The emerging star is Xander Bogaerts, who displayed impeccable plate discipline when he took over the starting third base job in the playoffs. As he shifts over to shortstop this year, he may not be the 30 home run/100 RBI superstar that he has the potential to be, but he will be at the very least a league average starter and an offensive upgrade over Stephen Drew. Boston’s hopes of repeating rely almost entirely on getting two out of the trio of Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz to pitch like aces, which is a more than acceptable expectation given their success last season.
Tampa Bay Rays: This is the last year of the David Price era as he will likely sign elsewhere this offseason, which means Tampa’s window is closing (just kidding, Matt Moore will take his place and the Rays will continue to replace homegrown superstars with younger homegrown superstars). For the first time in his career, Evan Longoria will have a legitimate cleanup hitter (no, Carlos Pena doesn’t count), hitting behind him is second-year right fielder Wil Myers. As long as Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are in Tampa, the Rays will be in every playoff hunt.
Oakland Athletics: The no-name A’s benefit this year from a Rangers’ starting staff depleted by injuries, a Mariners’ lineup that’s still one bat away and an Angels team that can’t get anything right despite having the best player in the world. Josh Donaldson is the A’s best hitter. Sonny Gray is their best star. Just accept that they are going to win 93 games and move on with your life.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers took a step in the right direction by trading away Prince Fielder and his massive contract and ended the offseason by taking dozens of steps backward by giving Miguel Cabrera the most lucrative contract in sports history. No matter how great Cabrera is now (and he’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen not named Barry Bonds) he will not be worth 30 million dollars when he’s 36. For evidence see Pujols, Albert. As for how the team will fare this year, their starting rotation remains dominant and Joe Nathan improves a bullpen that lost them the ALCS last year.
Washington Nationals: Oh, what a beautiful roster. It’s hard to find a definitive hole other than lack of experience. I will expect Bryce Harper to breakout every year until he hits 40 home runs. Plus, shortstop Ian Desmond is already an All-Star and second baseman Anthony Rendon has the bat to finish over .300 every year. The offseason pickup of Doug Fister gives a young rotation a veteran rock who can pitch comfortably in the playoffs. This is a team bereft of question marks.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers have done a spectacular job of transforming into the early 2000’s Yankees who tried to acquire an All-Star for every position. The difference between this team merely making the playoffs and winning the title is the difference between 2013 Zack Greinke and 2012 Zack Greinke. If the former shows up, the Dodgers have the best pair of aces in baseball.
San Francisco Giants: If you have a superstitious bone in your body, you should pick the Giants to win the World Series this year, as they seem to win it all in even years and miss the playoffs in grandiose fashion in odd ones. They’re a Jekyll and Hyde team with pitching streaky enough that they can roll through anyone if they’re hot.
St. Louis Cardinals: Oh, what an even more beautiful roster. The Cardinals rotation is so deep that they neither have room for Carlos Martinez, who would be a Rookie of the Year favorite otherwise, nor Jaime Garcia when he comes back from injury, who has been a top of the rotation lefty in the past. Young right-handers Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller look like aces in the making, which is totally unnecessary given that Adam Wainwright isn’t going anywhere. The offense only got better with the upgrade from Peter Kozma to Jhonny Peralta at shortstop. Having too many power arms is a problem that’s been encountered very few times in MLB history, and my guess is the Cardinals will be able to manage somehow.
In my arbitrary opinion based more on my own baseball-watching preferences than sabermetrics, those are the eight teams who can realistically win the World Series. But who am I kidding? There’s only one: Red Sox over Giants in seven.