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Hard as it might be to imagine, baseball season is once again upon us. With little less than one month separating baseball’s official return, teams have migrated south towards warm climates for Spring Training. While most every team looks good in the warm weather, and incoming prospects and new-look lineups can make even the most cynical fans optimistic about their team’s chances, we decided to sift through the rubble to find 10 teams worth getting excited about this spring. Every season, there are contenders and pretenders, and every year there are teams that seemingly make the playoffs out of nowhere. Last year, the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates surprised almost everyone with improbable playoff runs, and the Oakland Athletics continue to shock the baseball world by excelling on just a shoestring budget. With 30 teams and only eight playoff spots, it can be difficult to choose which teams to watch for, and which teams to leave behind. The following list has some of the usual suspects, but also a few teams to keep on your radar as the season draws near. So get your peanuts ready, baseball is back. Here are 10 teams you need to watch.
10. Seattle Mariners – Estimated Payroll: $81.2 Million
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The Mariners have yet to sniff the playoffs since 2001. Since that time, a once supportive fan base has grown apathetic and disgruntled. Long overdue for a splash, the Mariners made the biggest ripple in all of baseball this offseason, beating out the New York Yankees for Robinson Cano – baseball’s top free agent. With one of the top talents in the game inked for 10 years on a $240 million contract, the Mariners have provided fans at least a glimmer of hope moving forward. The M’s also added former All-Star slugger Corey Hart and first baseman Logan Morrison, and brought in an entire new coaching staff, led by new skipper Lloyd McClendon
Seattle’s incoming talent will mesh with a very young core of players. After years of futility, the Mariners have stockpiled talented prospects in hopes of contending down the line. With almost all of those former top-tier prospects now in the majors, the future has become the present for Seattle. Formerly heralded prospects like Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will all play major roles in deciding whether the M’s can contend with the powerhouse teams in the AL West. And while it may be a stretch to expect big things from a team loaded with youngsters, the Mariners do have the fixings to be a surprise contender this season. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma provide a formidable one-two punch atop the team’s rotation, while Robinson Cano and Corey Hart should slot in well with the team’s young hitters.
It’s quite possible the Mariners end up in the cellar of the AL West once again this season, but with Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and a mess of promising youngsters, this team could be a surprising one this season. Stay tuned.
9. San Francisco Giants – Estimated Payroll: $154 Million
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For a team that had won the World Series twice in three years, 2013 was an absolute nightmare of a season for the San Francisco Giants, who tied the San Diego Padres for third in the NL West last season behind the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. The odd thing is, the Giants of 2013 were very similar to the 2012 championship team. Maybe players became complacent with a pair of titles under their belts – who knows? One thing is certain; the Giants are bound to improve in 2014.
The Giants made a couple of minor moves this offseason, signing veteran pitcher Tim Hudson and outfielder Mike Morse to short-term deals. Otherwise, the Giants enter 2014 with the same core group of players from 2012. However, the elite pitching from two seasons ago was the same group that vastly underperformed in 2013. A group consisting of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum must return to form in order for the Giants to reach the postseason once again. While some regression is likely from the 2012 bunch, the smart bet is the Giants will improve upon a disastrous 2013 campaign.
8. New York Yankees – Estimated Payroll: $195.5 Million
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Every team hates losing. Save for the 1919 Chicago White Sox, teams generally don’t take kindly to losing. But if there is one team that hates losing more than any other, it’s the New York Yankees. And when the Yankees lose, the Yankees try to fix it with money. In 2013, the Yankees lost more than they had in 21 years. As a result, the team went on a $471 million shopping spree this offseason after failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Coincidentally, the Yankees spent another $441 million that offseason.
First, the Yankees landed themselves one of the top centerfielders in baseball, landing Jacoby Ellsbury – formerly with Boston – to a seven-year, $153 million deal. Next, they spent a combined $130 million to bring in both Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann; two signature moves that will provide further thump in the middle of the team’s lineup. But the Yanks saved the biggest deal for last, inking Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million deal.
New York’s new toys will surely help, but with an aging lineup and a questionable rotation, it is hard to envision the Yankees surging in a talent-laden MLB East. Money will not be the cure-all in New York, but the ride will certainly be entertaining to watch. Add to that a grand finale for longtime star Derek Jeter and an ongoing saga for Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees will find the spotlight this season, playoffs or not.
7. Kansas City Royals – Estimated Payroll: $90.1 Million
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In 2013, the Kansas City Royals did something they haven’t done much of in recent history; they won. For the first time in 10 years, and just the second time in 20 years, the Royals secured a winning record. But don’t expect another 10-year drought coming from this team anytime soon, because this Royals squad is largely comprised of young talent, poised for future success – a byproduct of all those losing seasons. Of the team’s nine starters, only three have even reached the ripe age of 30, with the average age being just north of 27.
Entering his fourth season in the MLB, Eric Hosmer, 24, has proven to be an offensive force to be reckoned with – hitting better than .290 in two of his first three seasons. Salvador Perez, 23, is yet another hidden gem in Kansas City. In parts of three seasons, the Venezuelan catcher has a combined batting average of .301, and was the third best hitting catcher in 2013 behind Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. DH Billy Butler, LF Alex Gordon provide further thump in the middle of the Royals’ lineup, while Norichika Aoki and newly-acquired 2B Omar Infante serve as above average complementary pieces.
The core talent and youth on the Royals is unmatched, but this team still has to prove it can take that next step. The team’s rotation is still questionable behind ace James Shields. The team will likely lose the services of Ervin Santana, who is actively exploring the free agent market, and lacks spark throughout the rest of the rotation. If this team is going anywhere in 2014, it will be on the backs of the team’s young talent and offensive prowess.
6. Washington Nationals – Estimated Payroll: $130.8 Million
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Fresh off a 98-win season two years ago, the Nationals entered last season as the sexy pick to win the World Series. That preseason hype quickly withered away as injuries and inconsistency both at the top of the team’s lineup and on the mound torpedoed a promising season. But with a new season comes newfound promise and expectations. The Nationals enter 2014 with a new manager in Matt Williams, who will takeover an already talented squad with a few key additions that should be enough to give the Nationals an edge over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.
Both cornerstone pieces Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are primed for breakout seasons, as the two have flirted with greatness in their early careers. Strasburg appears to be at full bore after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, while Harper has now fully grown out of the boyish prospect he once was – now sporting a lengthy beard and a hulkish body. In addition to health, the Nationals also secured SP Doug Fister, who will slot in behind Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez. With a young and powerful lineup and perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball, don’t expect another disappointing season in Washington.
5. Texas Rangers – Estimated Payroll: $130.9 Million
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For two straight seasons, the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim entered the coming season loaded to the gills with talent, only to be outdone by the underappreciated Athletics. Last season, the Angels were the big offseason spenders, inking Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal a season after landing Albert Pujols with a door buster 10-year, $254 million contract. This offseason, however, the Rangers were the ones throwing their weight around – maybe even enough to usurp Billy Beane’s A’s.
The Rangers – already possessing a top-10 hitting team last season – went out and landed Prince Fielder this offseason, in exchange for Ian Kinsler. Texas also signed big-name free agent Shin-Soo Choo this offseason to a hefty seven-year, $130 million contract. In a hitters’ park like the Ballpark in Arlington, Fielder and Choo will likely add nearly 70 combined home runs to an already stout offense. With the vacant position at second base, highly touted prospect Jurickson Profar will get his chance to shine. The pitching staff will remain relatively in tact, aside from the No. 5 spot, where pitcher Tommy Hanson will fill in. In any case, this team is one built on scoring runs, not preventing them. With and offense featuring Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, and Alex Rios, expect a lot of runs this year.
4. St. Louis Cardinals – Estimated Payroll: $109 Million
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When I think of St. Louis, I think of two things: baseball and beer. I understand that is a drastic generalization, especially coming from Seattle, which is seen in the national light as a soggy, fish-throwing, coffee-guzzling town just south of Alaska. But honestly, what city better epitomizes the American love affair with baseball then St. Louis? None.
Two out of the last three seasons, the Cardinals have been on baseball’s biggest stage, losing to the Red Sox last year, and winning it all in dramatic fashion in 2011. Out of the last 14 seasons, the Cardinals have finished with a losing record only once – reaching the playoffs 10 times in that span. This season will likely be no different for the city of beer and baseball. The team filled its most glaring hole at shortstop, signing the former Tiger Johnny Peralta to a four-year, $52 million deal. They also let slugger Carlos Beltran walk away in free agency, and upgraded in the outfield by trading local hero David Freese away to the Angels for Peter Bourjos. While the Cardinals offense will likely remain solid, the excitement of this team lies in its pitching rotation. Young arms like Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller will provide electricity behind ace Adam Wainwright.
With a team brimming with promise for another year, this team will likely give St. Louis fans plenty to toast to come October. Better stock up on that Budweiser now.
3. Detroit Tigers – Estimated Payroll: $161.1 Million
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For three straight seasons, the Detroit Tigers have been close enough to taste a world championship, only to fall short each time. After three consecutive trips to the ALCS and a World Series loss in 2012, it seems the window of opportunity for the Tigers is slowly closing. However, with the best hitter in the universe in Miguel Cabrera and arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander, that window is still open enough to get through.
After falling to the Red Sox in the ALCS last season, the Tigers were not content sitting on its laurels this offseason. Detroit kicked off the hot stove action with a surprise move, swapping Prince Fielder with Ian Kinsler in a blockbuster trade. Detroit also traded away Doug Fister to the Nationals, and signed esteemed closer Joe Nathan in free agency. Already having an established core of veteran players like Miguel Cabrera, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, the Tigers will look towards its youth to fill remaining voids. Starting pitcher Drew Smyly should easily slot in behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and will more than make up for the loss of Fister after going a perfect 6-0 in 2013. Another name to watch will be incoming third baseman Nick Castellanos. The 22-year-old prospect enters 2014 with lofty expectations, after being ranked as the clubs’ top hitting prospect. It won’t be easy to fill the shoes of Prince Fielder, but Castellanos should prove to be a valuable addition regardless.
With top to bottom talent and a devastating rotation, expect to see the Tigers in the ALCS for a fourth-straight year. The question now is: can they finally bring home a championship?
2. Boston Red Sox – Estimated Payroll: $152.8 Million
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The reigning world champion Red Sox were surprisingly quiet this offseason after securing a third title in nine seasons, but like the old adage goes: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. And while the Red Sox didn’t drop nearly the same coin as its divisional foe in New York this offseason, they did shore up the first base, catcher, and center field positions by re-signing 1B Mike Napoli, while signing free agents Grady Sizemore and A.J. Pierzynski.
While teams typically profile as either young-and-emerging or established, the Red Sox have seemed to strike an effective blend of both. With a team anchored by familiar names like David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia, and John Lester, and an influx of emerging youngsters like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks, and Daniel Nava, look for the Red Sox to remain among the league’s elite teams in 2014. The may not have won the yearly arms race in the AL East, but the Red Sox look to be front-runners in the competitive – albeit pricey – division.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers – Estimated Payroll: $216.8 Million
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The Dodgers coasted through the offseason relatively under the radar compared to their booming offseason a year ago that brought in Adrian Gonzalaz, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett in a blockbuster deal with the Red Sox. While the roster overturn won’t be as drastic, the boys in blue did what they do best this offseason: spend green. For a second straight season, the Dodgers enter with the second-highest payroll in all of baseball, dwarfed only by the Yankees. With superstars Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalaz, Matt Kemp and Zack Greinke all making more than $20 million a year, the Dodgers inked ace Clayton Kershaw to a record-setting seven-year, $215 million deal in the offseason. If that wasn’t enough, the Dodgers also locked down Cuban defect SS Erisbel Arruebarruena with a five-year, $25 million deal; a move no one can balk at after the success of fellow Cuban Yasiel Puig a season ago.
Like they did in 2013, the Dodgers enter 2014 with the most talented baseball team. What remains to be seen, is if that talent can become a cohesive baseball team, rather than just an overpriced All-Star team. Injuries also plagued the Dodgers in 2013, and with Matt Kemp and Zack Greinke already nursing injuries in Spring Training, they will likely play a key role in the team’s success moving forward. All that aside, look for the Dodgers to become the powerhouse team everyone expected them to be in 2014. It’s just too hard to envision anything else with a rotation that ranked second-best in baseball last season and a lineup without holes. Beware, baseball: the Dodgers are going places this year