It’s almost April, and therefore almost baseball season is almost upon us. Last year, I went into the season with low expectations for my Red Sox, and it turned out to be the most fun baseball season from start to finish that I have ever experienced. The American League is going to be competitive, as usual, and there are plenty of compelling stories to follow over the next six months or so. Here are my (mostly wrong, I imagine) predictions for 2014.
1. Oakland Athletics. One of these years Billy Bean will break through and win a World Series with his Moneyball tactics. Will it be this year? Maybe. They’ve gotten to the playoffs the last two years, but have lost to the Detroit Tigers both times. The A’s are built to succeed in the regular season, which is more important in baseball than it is in basketball or hockey because it’s 162 games and only five teams per league end up making the playoffs.
The A’s have a good young pitcher in Sonny Gray who is looking to take the next step in 2014. Scott Kazmir was a guy like Sonny Gray who took baseball by storm at an early age and is now trying to turn his career around at 30. Their lineup is headlined by Cuban-born slugger Yoenis Cespedes, with former Red Sox players Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp, and Nick Punto in the supporting cast. All of those guys experienced marginal success at best in Boston, but California has treated them better. Cespedes won the Home Run Derby during the All-Star Break festivities last summer and has quickly emerged as one of the best power hitters in baseball.
Time will tell if Oakland can do anything in October, but at this point it’s hard to pick against them in the regular season. If they win the World Series, then Hollywood will have no choice but to make a Moneyball sequel with a Rocky II ending. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels have too much talent to not be competitive. Then again, that’s what baseball fans have been saying for the past two years. They acquired Albert Pujols, and he hasn’t been the same player since leaving St. Louis. Pujols is one of the three active players in Major League Baseball who would be 1st ballot Hall of Famers if they became eligible tomorrow (the others are Derek Jeter and Miguel Cabrera), but they overpaid for the back nine of his career after he took the Cardinals to the World Series three times. They acquired Josh Hamilton, and he’s not the guy he used to be. They overpaid for C.J. Wilson, and he’s not the kind of pitcher that will put them over the top. The free agent acquisitions haven’t exactly panned out, but at least they have Mike Trout.
Mike Trout is a tremendous player beyond his years. If Miguel Cabrera wasn’t having historic season after historic season, Trout would be a two-time American League MVP at the age of 22. Today, the Angels gave him a six year contract extension, and if he continues to play the way he has since 2012, is in for an even bigger payday when he’s 28 and due to hit free agency.
Mike Scioscia is one of the best managers in baseball, but patience may be wearing thin with the Angels’ front office if he cannot guide them to the playoffs. They have all this expensive talent, and two years after signing Albert Pujols, have nothing to show for it. They’re on the clock, and pretty soon they’ll be wasting Mike Trouts prime while funding Pujols’ and Hamilton’s declines.
3. Texas Rangers. The Rangers find themselves a couple years behind in the same cycle the Philadelphia Phillies are stuck in. Their window for winning is closing, they did not win as much as they might have liked, and there isn’t a quick fix that can solve their problems.
The Rangers reached the World Series for the first time in their history in 2010, but lost to the San Francisco Giants, who won their first World Series since moving to San Fran in 1958. In 2011, they got to the World Series again, and came so close (SO CLOSE) to winning it in six games, but the St. Louis Cardinals rallied back in what was the most compelling World Series that didn’t involve the Red Sox or Yankees since I started following baseball in the mid-90s. That was there chance, and they’ve been slowly declining ever since, while the Cardinal team that beat them has been to the NLCS twice and back to the World Series once even without Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa.
This winter, Texas dealt Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder. This trade was a win for the Tigers, in my opinion. Fielder is overweight, overpaid, and a big reason for Detroit’s playoff shortcomings the past two seasons. Seriously, if Prince Fielder was even an average hitter in the ALCS last year, the Tigers beat the Red Sox, and if he did anything at the plate in the 2012 World Series, the Tigers may have beaten the Giants in at least one of those games.
Besides Fielder, the Rangers still have Adrian Beltre, Neftali Feliz, and Elvis Andrus, and they overpaid for Shin-Soo Choo. Yu Darvish, their star Japanese-born pitcher is starting the season on the disabled list, which is not a good sign. Darvish has been a bright spot in the years since 2011, but if he can’t go, the Rangers are in trouble. If the Rangers get off to a slow start, manager Ron Washington may find himself on the hot seat.
4. Seattle Mariners. The greatest thing that ever happened to the Mariners in the 21st Century was when the Astros joined the American League, so that the M’s wouldn’t have to finish last in a four team division anymore. Beyond that, things look pretty bleak. They overpaid Robinson Cano, but I’m not convinced he’s they guy to turn a franchise around. He’s no Ken Griffey Jr.
For some reason, baseball players don’t like Seattle. I don’t know why. It’s a nice city. At the end of last season, manager Eric Wedge turned down a contract extension because he was so sick of working in Seattle. Now, the Mariners hope Cano and Felix Hernandez are enough to attract other players to the city, but after seeing Griffey, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez all leave Seattle for greener pastures, I’ll believe it when I see it. Hernandez is a phenomenal pitcher and it would be great to see him pitch on a team that isn’t terrible for once in his life.
John Buck is a nice pickup and a decent veteran catcher, but that’s not going to make or break a team’s playoff aspirations. Maybe this is the year that they start to compete for the Wild Card with Texas and Anaheim, but then again, this is the Mariners, and every time we expect things from them that regress.
5. Houston Astros. This team is embarrassing. Some AAA teams would have better regular season records if they played a Major League schedule than the Houston Astros. People thought the Astros were bad when they were in the National League, and we were able to see just how much worse they actually were when they joined the American League last year. The Astros are not spending as much as they could be, and they are going to be bad for years if this keeps up. As a result, they will accumulate a mountain of high draft picks that will turn them into a contender once they come of age. This is the very thing that has some NBA officials trying to overhaul how the draft works so that teams have no incentive to tank season after season. It’s not fair to the fans, and they should not be rewarded for being so bad at fielding a Major League roster. I expect this year to be more of the same. Until they convince me otherwise, the Astros are baseball’s worst team and they should be ashamed.