MATTHEW VANTRYON | Asst. Sports Editor
“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone.”
Never have the words of late Major League Baseball commissioner Bartlet Giammati proven more accurate.
After a historically bitter winter, baseball season cannot begin soon enough. The 2014 season should feature many of the same contenders that last year’s had, and many teams improved their stock.
American League East
After defying countless expectations and winning the World Series last year, the Boston Red Sox will look to repeat their success. Their offseason was mostly quiet, with the exception of Jacoby Ellsbury’s departure to the New York Yankees. Still, a lineup with the names Pedroia, Ortiz, Napoli and Pierzynski should be enough to bolster the Red Sox to another division title.
Look for the Tampa Bay Rays to make a strong push for the division and be in the heat of the wild card race come September behind a starting rotation featuring David Price and Matt Moore. Having Evan Longoria in the middle of the lineup does not hurt their chances either.
American League Central
I looked for weaknesses in the Detroit Tigers. I really did, I promise. If anything, age may catch up to them eventually. However, a lineup that features former Texas Ranger Ian Kinsler, veteran Torii Hunter and last year’s AL Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera is a force to be reckoned with. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer could win 20 games each, and Joe Nathan could get 40 saves. The Tigers face the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Minnesota Twins in April. They could have a nine-game lead in the division by May.
American League West
The AL West has the potential to be one of baseball’s more interesting divisions. The Oakland Athletics are looking to three-peat as division champions, and they will look to do it in classic Billy Beane fashion. Their lineup is filled with players that make fans say, “Who?” but that can produce consistently.
The A’s ranked fourth in baseball with a .327 on-base percentage last season and their team earned run average ranked seventh in the league last year.
The Texas Rangers will likely contend for a postseason spot. They made a big splash when they traded for Prince Fielder in the offseason. Starting pitcher Yu Darvish should anchor the rotation, and their lineup should score runs.
The Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners have interesting piece, but do not have the complete rosters it will take to compete.
National League East
Last year, many hailed the Washington Nationals as pennant winners before the season began. They failed to meet expectations but enter this season as division favorites once again. A healthy Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmerman are a powerful 1-2 punch in the pitching rotation, and their lineup is arguably the most potent in baseball from top to the bottom. Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper could each hit 20 home runs and drive in more than 100 runs.
The Atlanta Braves feature a promising lineup, but their starting rotation may struggle.
National League Central
The Central division featured three playoff teams last season. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals each ranked in the top five in ERA.
Spring training injuries to Aroldis Chapman, Matt Latos and Jonathan Broxton could hinder the Reds early in the season.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Pirates’ young stars can maintain their offensive consistency from last season.
The Cardinals appear to be the team to beat. Their rotation will keep them in every game, and their offense that ranked first in the National League last season should continue to cause problems for opposing pitchers.
National League West
The Los Angeles Dodgers signed ace Clayton Kershaw, who led all of MLB with a 1.83 ERA last season, to a seven-year, $215 million contract in January. Kershaw will start the season on the disabled list, but that should be a minor hitch in the Dodgers’ journey to the playoffs.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dan Haren and Zack Greinke will join Kershaw to form the most fearsome foursome of any starting rotation. Their lineup should score plenty of runs, especially once Matt Kemp returns from the disabled list.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants should both compete for a wild-card spot. The West division could mirror last year’s Central division and feature three teams with more than 90 wins.