The numberFire baseball staff will be posting a weekly feature called Burning Questions. The idea is simple: we pose a general question to the numberFire baseball staff, getting contributors to provide an answer and an explanation on the particular subject.
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And now, our answers to the initial burning question: Which MLB teams will surprise and disappoint in 2014?
Surprise Team: Toronto Blue Jays
Dan Weigel's Thoughts:
Disappointing Team: Cincinnati Reds
My surprise team this year is the Toronto Blue Jays. Remember last season when they were the trendy pick to win the division? A year of underperformance and injury led to a last place finish in 2013, but the tools remain in place for the Jays to make a run.
The Jays have two of the games' most prolific sluggers in place with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, a dynamic leadoff hitter in Jose Reyes, and a solid supporting cast headlined by Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, and Melky Cabrera.
The rotation is a bit of a question mark right now, especially after the loss of Josh Johnson. But with Dickey, Morrow, Buehrle, Happ, and either a free agent or any one of a conglomeration of young guys (including top prospect Marcus Stroman), the Jays should be just fine.
This may be true of all teams, but if the Jays can stay healthy and not have down years from key contributors again this season, they should be in the thick of the AL East race.
My bust team for the 2014 season is the Cincinnati Reds. Like the Blue Jays, the Reds haven't added any significant players through trades or free agency. But unlike the Blue Jays, the Reds had productive seasons from all of their key players and still came up short. In an offseason where they have done nothing to improve, they will need a significant amount of good fortune to be serious contenders.
The Reds lost Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo to free agency this offseason and plan to replace them internally. Billy Hamilton is poised to take over in centerfield, and though he is a good defender with speed, he is a poor hitter and will be a poor choice to lead off. This is a significant downgrade but replacing Arroyo with a full season of Tony Cingrani could be an upgrade.
In addition to the loss of Choo, the Reds must overcome a continual decline of some key position players, including second baseman Brandon Phillips and left fielder Ryan Ludwick. Furthermore, shortstop Zack Cozart, third baseman Todd Frazier and catcher Devin Mesoraco are unspectacular and are average regulars at best.
Joey Votto and Jay Bruce must carry this team. In a division featuring both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Reds are likely looking at a third place finish and a playoff berth as the second wild card as the best possible scenario.
Surprise Team: Kansas City Royals
Jim Sanne's Thoughts:
Disappointing Team: Arizona Diamondbacks
My surprise team would be the Kansas City Royals pushing the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central. With young talents like Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, it'll be hard for the lineup not to exhibit some progression from their 86-win season last year.
Alex Gordon took a pretty serious step back last year, but if he can get back to where he was in 2011 and 2012 (WARs of 6.6 and 5.5 respectively), they'll be a tough team to stop not only this year but far into the future. Billy Butler is also due for a bit of a rebound, although that is a relative term because he hasn't had an OBP below .361 since 2008. Danny Valencia looked mildly more competent last year with the O's (.304/.335/.553 in 170 PA's), so he may (shockingly) provide a halfway decent bat off of the bench and help get Moustakas out of the line-up against lefties.
The pitching staff is a bit of a bigger concern. With Ervin Santana gone, that's just added pressure on James Shields, who had a great year in his first in Kansas City. The talent drops off significantly from there in the rotation, but the bullpen should be one of the strengths of this team.
My disappointing team is the Arizona Diamondbacks. Although the team has only won 81 games each of the last two seasons, expectations are high after a flurry of offseason moves. The big one here was acquiring Mark Trumbo, in a move that I hate hate hate hate hated. Trumbo will provide a bit of protection behind Paul Goldschmidt merely because of his serious pop, but that's about all he brings to the table. His high strikeout-rate (27.1 percent) and low OBP (.294) make him a sabermetric nightmare. Goldschmidt is a stud, but I just don't see enough progress around him to think that the D'Backs will be anything but a .500 team yet again.
Surprise Team: Seattle Mariners
Daniel Lindsey's Thoughts:
Disappointing Team: Boston Red Sox
You could have put the Mariners in the best free agent moves last week on the Robinson Cano signing alone, but some additional moves could help the Mariners get off to a good start.
While Logan Morrison has trouble staying on the field, he can service as a left fielder or first baseman for the Mariners. The additions of Morrison and Corey Hart will push Justin Smoak at first base. In addition, if Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller can take the next step, this could be a formidable offense.
While the offense has potential, the rotation is what could carry the Mariners. King Felix is still around and will eat up a lot of innings, but the breakout of Hisashi Iwakuma is a huge plus for the rotation. If he can stay healthy, they will form a great 1-2 punch in the rotation. And if Taijuan Walker lives up to his hype, the Mariners will be in a good position. I don't expect them to win the division of course, but they could easily challenge for a wild card spot if everything goes there way.
I just praised the Red Sox the other week for the depth of their minor league system, but too much youth too soon could be their detriment as well. In the end, they're my disappointing team for 2014.
Expectations will already be high for the team since they just won the World Series. To some, it will be a disappointing season if they don't win it all again. A majority of fans will be happy if they win the division, but that still might not be enough. Red Sox fans should brace themselves for disappointment.
I'm not saying they won't repeat, but it will be very challenging to even win their own division. The Yankees bolstered their roster, the Orioles always seem to hang around and the Rays won't go down without a fight either. The World Series champs could be battling for a wild-card spot. If that's the case, they'll be dealing with at least one of the teams I just mentioned as well as the Royals, Indians, and at least one team from the AL West. Not repeating as champs is one thing, but if they don't even make the playoffs, they could be one of the most disappointing teams in the league this year.
Surprise Team: Washington Nationals
JJ Zachariason's Thoughts:
Disappointing Team: Pittsburgh Pirates
I was going to mention the Angels as my surprise team, but I realized how boring that would be. So instead, I went with another obvious surprise team, the Washington Nationals.
The Nats showed obvious regression in 2013, posting 12 fewer wins than they did during their breakout 2012 season. Even still, they made a run at the end of the season for a wild-card spot, going 18-9 in September. It just wasn’t enough.
The roster is stronger entering 2014 than it was in 2013, especially after snagging Doug Fister from the Tigers. Over the last three seasons, Fister’s posted a top-10 WAR among all starting pitchers in baseball. A move to the National League should only make him better, too.
As a result, the Nats now have four legitimate starting pitchers – four All-Star caliber guys. With the talent in the lineup, especially Bryce Harper having another year of experience under his belt, the Nationals have a great shot at taking over the NL East this year. If injuries go there way, I’d expect it to happen. It's not as though they lost anything substantial over the offseason, either.
My disappointing team is, unfortunately, my favorite one as well. The Pittsburgh Pirates finally got over the hump last season after 21 straight losing seasons, and like the aforementioned Nationals in 2013, the Bucs are more than likely going to fall victim to regression.
Losing Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and A.J. Burnett will hurt, though that’s not the only reason the team may fail to hit 85 wins this year. There’s no true ace in the rotation, a staff that carried them to the postseason in 2013. There’s inexperience in the lineup, too, which includes the top of the lineup. And to top it off, Bill James’ Pythagorean win/loss record last year showed the Pirates winning six fewer games than they actually did.
Will they compete? Yes, but they’ll just need some things to go there way. Key hitters Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez may not see a huge dip in numbers, but youngsters Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer will need to play a role in the lineup. And starting pitcher Gerrit Cole will need to be like the September version of himself.
It's an up-and-coming roster, but one with its fair share of risks entering the season. As of now, especially with their lack of a true first baseman, it's hard to be overly optimistic about the Pirates. A wild-card team? Yeah, maybe. But there's also a good chance that they'll be on the outside looking in this year.