Six teams that could very well compete for postseason berths in 2014 will resume baseball activities on Friday with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to each club's respective spring training home. The Yankees and Rays will prepare for Grapefruit League play while the Giants, Reds, Royals and Athletics get set for the Cactus League slate.
Whenever the Yankees don't make the playoffs, one thing is for sure: massive changes are in store. New York didn't disappoint this offseason, adding Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and a host of others on free-agent contracts. The team will also get Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira back from injury, leaving second base and third base as the only real holes in their lineup, thanks to the departure of Robinson Cano and suspension of Alex Rodriguez. Despite the openings, the Yankees seem destined to improve upon their rather impressive (given the circumstances) 2013 season, in which they finished 85-77.
Despite rampant early speculation, Tampa Bay didn't trade David Price during the offseason, and that improves the team's chances of getting back to the postseason in 2014. The Rays return essentially the same lineup from last year's squad and coped with a couple of key bullpen losses, including closer Fernando Rodney, by adding veterans Grant Balfour and Heath Bell. In addition, the team upgraded at catcher by acquiring Ryan Hanigan, who has a career .359 on-base percentage despite struggling in 2013. The Rays need reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers to keep hitting and a good performance from their young Price-led rotation to keep pace with the Yankees and Red Sox, but that's nothing they haven't done before.
Cincinnati suffered a disappointing Wild Card play-in loss to the Pirates to end its 2013 season and hasn't done much to improve its chances of getting beyond that point in 2014. The team lost Shin-Soo Choo and his .423 on-base percentage, as well as innings-eating starter Bronson Arroyo, to free agency. The Reds have the depth in the rotation -- specifically, 24-year-old Tony Cingrani, who struck out 10.3 batters per nine innings while posting a sub-3.00 ERA in 104⅔ frames in 2013, to make up for Arroyo's departure. However, not many clubs can replace a guy who can get on base as frequently as Choo. Cincinnati appears to be counting on speedy prospect Billy Hamilton, who swiped 13 bases in 13 games last September, to fill the void left by Choo.
Kansas City emerged as a contender in 2013, finishing 86-76 behind a terrific bullpen, decent rotation and passable offense. They lost one of their starters, Ervin Santana, to free agency, but added Jason Vargas and will insert top prospect Yordano Ventura into the rotation. The team made a couple of fairly significant upgrades on offense during the offseason, signing free agents Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante in addition to solidifying their bench by retaining midseason acquisition Justin Maxwell and bringing aboard Danny Valencia. Assuming Vargas can stay healthy, Ventura can make up for any due regression from fellow starter Bruce Chen and Eric Hosmer builds on his gigantic step forward from last season, the Royals will likely be in the thick of things again.
Oakland advanced to the postseason for the second consecutive season with a surprisingly powerful offense and a solid pitching staff. Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss virtually came out of nowhere to put up terrific seasons, and Bartolo Colon defied age by posting a 140 ERA+ in 30 starts. Unfortunately for Oakland, the knock on Billy Beane rang true as the A's were knocked out of their second straight ALDS by the Tigers. The A's offense will remain almost the same as it was a year ago, but the bullpen has undergone a major facelift while the rotation sees the departure of Colon and the arrival of Scott Kazmir, who enjoyed a rebirth in Cleveland in 2013. Jim Johnson should provide similar production at the back-end of the bullpen as Grant Balfour, who signed with the Rays after saving 38 games for Oakland last season. Luke Gregerson, who was acquired in exchange for extra outfielder Seth Smith during the offseason, will provide experience and stability in the late innings, as well.
The 2012 World Series champions were blindsided by significant regression from their rotation and bullpen in 2013, rendering a superb offensive performance meaningless. Brandon Belt finally showed signs of living up to his top prospect billing by posting a team-leading 142 OPS+ while Buster Posey and Hunter Pence proved to be solid middle-of-the-order bats. The pitching staff didn't hold up its end of the deal, though, as only Madison Bumgarner managed a sub-4.00 ERA among the regular starters. San Francisco replaced Barry Zito with Tim Hudson during the offseason, but otherwise left the rotation untouched, perhaps counting on bounce-back seasons from Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Vogelsong. The bullpen remains very much the same as the 2013 group, while the team made one key addition in the lineup, bringing in free agent Michael Morse to man left field.
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