2014 MLB division previews

03/28/2014 1:02 PM

03/28/2014 1:02 PM

Detroit Tigers

• Distractions? What distractions?

A quick recap of some of what’s happened with the Tigers since they were eliminated in the ALCS: manager Jim Leyland retired, first baseman Prince Fielder was dealt to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler, pitcher Justin Verlander had “core muscle” surgery, it was announced shortstop José Iglesias will miss the season (stress fractures in both legs) and Max Scherzer turned down a contract worth more than the Royals’ payroll this season. Whew. Still, the Tigers have baseball’s best rotation and hitter

(Miguel Cabrera, above)

and a winning pedigree that makes them the favorites to win a fourth straight AL Central title.

Cleveland Indians

• Who is going to pitch in?

Starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir were key contributors to Cleveland’s run to a wild card last season, so the Indians need to find replacements for their combined 341 innings and 356 strikeouts. Danny Salazar was a revelation down the stretch last year, and Josh Tomlin has pitched well in his return from injury, but they may not be enough. Inconsistent

John Axford (above)

is the team’s closer, so that could be a problem this summer. The lineup is basically back intact, but the Indians could use much more from center fielder Michael Bourn, who will open the season on the disabled list.

Chicago White Sox

• It can’t get worse, right?

A year ago, Chicago scored the fewest runs in the AL (255 fewer than the Red Sox) and committed the second-most errors (121) on the way to a 99-loss season and a last-place finish in the Central. The addition of outfielder Adam Eaton should improve the defense, and he will be the team’s leadoff hitter. The Sox hope Cuban-born first baseman José Abreu will add some power, but the offense still has holes.

Chris Sale (above)

anchors what could be a solid starting staff that includes former Royal Felipe Paulino. But the team lacks a proven closer.

Minnesota Twins

• Is it 2016 yet?

The Twins lost 96 games a year ago, but help is on the way in the form of three top prospects — outfielder Byron Buxton, third baseman Miguel Sano and pitcher Alex Meyer. The newcomers probably aren’t ready to make an impact this season, but the Twins spent heavily on Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to upgrade their rotation (which had a league-worst 5.26 ERA a year ago) as they build toward 2016. The lineup, meanwhile, offers little beyond

Joe Mauer (above)

, who is switching from catcher to first base this season. It’s hard to see them making as much as a run at .500.

AL East

• Can the Rays hold off their wealthy opponents?

Sure, the Yankees spent money like Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack,” but will the nearly half-billion they dropped get them back to the playoffs? Doubtful. The Orioles also spent big, adding Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez. Those scrappy Red Sox have a payroll in excess of $150 million and the Blue Jays splurged before last season. Still, when it comes to the standings, they’ll likely all be looking up at the Rays, who are expected to be near $80 million in payroll this year, a record for the organization. Tampa Bay has the best pitching in the division, led by lefty David Price, who many thought would be traded in the offseason. The offense has some question marks, but former Royals prospect Wil Myers and Evan Longoria are two big bats in the lineup.

AL West

• How will injuries affect things?

In January, the A’s seemed poised to win a third straight division title, but Jarrod Parker (Tommy John surgery) and A.J. Griffin (elbow tendinitis) were injured, and suddenly they don’t seem like a lock. Texas could push the A’s, but their second baseman and catcher are out three months and ace Yu Darvish will not start the season healthy. So thin in the rotation are the Rangers that the Dallas Morning-News thinks Tanner Scheppers could make his first major-league start on opening day. In Seattle, All-Star pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma will be out for the opener, too. That could open the door for the Angels, who have all-world outfielder Mike Trout and two players motivated to show that their subpar 2013 seasons were a fluke: Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols.

NL East

• Can the Nationals bounce back?

No “World Series or bust” proclamations for the Nationals this year after they fell short of even making the playoffs in 2013. But with a rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, a solid bullpen and a very good lineup, Washington should reclaim the East crown it lost to the Braves a year ago. Bryce Harper is just 21 and coming off consecutive 20-homer seasons. If he can take it to the next level, the Nats should win in a walk. A big reason for that, however, is the Braves’ bad luck in losing starters Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen. Ervin Santana will help fill the void, but the Braves also need to get a lot more offense from Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.

NL Central

• Can anyone stop the Cardinals?

The Pirates pushed the Cardinals during the regular season a year ago (and in their playoff series), and should be in the hunt for the division title again. While Pittsburgh’s rotation can cope with the departure of A.J. Burnett, the offense has some holes. The Pirates were ninth in runs scored in 2013 and did little to improve over the winter. The Reds, who were a wild card a year ago, lost Shin-Soo Choo but brought up the speedy Billy Hamilton. However, he won’t get on base nearly enough to fill the void left by Choo. The Cardinals won the NL pennant but let Carlos Beltran go via free agency. Matt Adams will get a full-time gig at first and Allen Craig will move to right, so they should be OK. There seems to be no shortage of young arms in St. Louis (Wacha, Miller, Martinez, etc.), so the Cardinals are the favorites to win the division again.

NL West

• Who will finish second?

As the season starts, the Dodgers already are 2-0, having swept a pair from the Diamondbacks in Australia. This is akin to Kentucky’s free point against Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament — LA doesn’t need that lead, because it’s going to win the division anyway. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu head the rotation, they have an underrated closer in Kenley Jansen, and the offense boasts Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez. LA isn’t shy about spending money either, so any upgrade is possible. The Giants should take second and be in the running for a wild-card spot.

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