The final six. Let the debating begin.
6. Boston Red Sox
How they can get to 90 wins: The Red Sox went 97-65 with a Pythagorean record of 100-62. They could score 56 fewer runs and allow 49 more runs and still project as a 90-win team.
Big offseason moves: Lost CF Jacoby Ellsbury, lost C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, signed C A.J. Pierzynski, re-signed 1B Mike Napoli, signed RP Edward Mujica, lost RP Andrew Bailey, acquired IF Jonathan Herrera from the Rockies for P Franklin Morales, signed OF Grady Sizemore. (SS Stephen Drew is still a free agent.)
Most intriguing player: Xander Bogaerts looked like a polished veteran in the postseason, hitting .296 and drawing six walks in 12 games. He’ll take over as a shortstop as a 21-year-old and has the potential to be star in his rookie season.
Due for a better season: Will Middlebrooks struggled early in the season and was sent back to the minors in June hitting .192. He returned in August and hit .276/.329/.476 the rest of the way. Middlebrooks may never hit for a high average but he should improve on his .227 overall mark and could hit 30 home runs if he plays 150 games.
Due for a worse season: When you win a World Series, a lot goes right, and nothing went more right than for the Sox in 2013 than Koji Uehara. Of course, Uehara became the closer only after injuries to Joel Hanrahan and Bailey. He ended up with one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, with a 1.09 ERA and a sick .130 average against while striking out 101 batters (against just nine walks) in 74 1/3 innings. Uehara has been tough to hit the past three seasons, but .130 is crazy good and he’s never pitched 60-plus innings in consecutive seasons in the majors.
I’m just the messenger: It’s understandable that the Red Sox let Ellsbury walk considering his injury history and the contract the Yankees gave him, especially with Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting to take over in center field. After a big spring training in 2013, Bradley began the season as Boston’s left fielder but was overmatched, particularly on hard stuff inside. He spent most of the season in the minors, and in 107 plate appearances in the majors struck out 31 times.
What to expect in 2014? ZiPS projects Bradley being worth 1.5 WAR, as does the Steamer projection system. Ellsbury was worth 5.8 WAR in 2013, according to Baseball Reference, so the Red Sox are likely facing a 3-4 decrease in wins from center field.
The final word: The Red Sox are definitely a safe bet as far as those things go as they return most of the World Series roster. But they’ll be relying on two rookies in Bogaerts and Bradley and the Uehara/Junichi Tazawa/Craig Breslow bullpen trio to excel once again.
The biggest issue, however, may be whether they’ll get the same production from some of their veterans. David Ortiz will be 38; he has to slow down one of these years. Mike Napoli is 32. Shane Victorino is 33 and played much better in 2013 than in 2012. New catcher Pierzynski has been one of the most durable catchers in major league history -- he’s 19th all time in games caught -- but he’s 37. The rotation depth should cover a lot of potential problems, but there some red flags here.
Projected record: 91-71
5. Los Angeles Dodgers
How they can get to 90 wins: Well, having another 42-8 stretch again will help. The Dodgers runs scored and allowed totals projected to 89 wins (they won 92). They’re a good bet to score more runs, especially with full seasons from Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez.
Big offseason moves: Signed Cuban 2B Alex Guerrero, re-signed RP Brian Wilson, re-signed 3B Juan Uribe, signed SP Dan Haren, signed RP Chris Perez, lost RP Ronald Belisario, lost 2B Mark Ellis, lost IF Nick Punto, lost CF/2B Skip Schumaker, lost SP Ricky Nolasco.
Most intriguing player: Puig. He could be the MVP, he could hit .240. He's the most intriguing player in the game heading into the season.
Due for a better season: Matt Kemp would seem to be the obvious choice, but there are still concerns that his ankle injury that required season-ending surgery will remain an ongoing issue. Josh Beckett made eight starts with a 5.19 ERA. Right now, he’s slated as the No. 5 starter (with Chad Billingsley angling to return from Tommy John surgery), so he could certainly improve if he’s healthy.
Due for a worse season: On a rate basis, Ramirez is unlikely to hit .345/.402/.638 again. But the Dodgers will certainly hope he plays more than 86 games. Uribe, awful in 2011 and 2012, but good in 2013, is a strong regression candidate.
I’m just the messenger: The Dodgers have the best starter in the game Clayton Kershaw. Zack Greinke was a great No. 2. They have Puig and Ramirez and Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier. A team without flaws? Not necessarily.
Kemp, Crawford, Ramirez and Uribe have all battled injuries in recent seasons. Guerrero is an unknown. If Kemp can’t go, Ethier will be stretched defensively in center. Greinke is very good but has also had just one season in his career where he made 30 starts with an ERA under 3.00. Gonzalez is no longer the .900 OPS guy he was for a few seasons. Haren has been up-and-down the past two seasons. Even with their $200 million-plus payroll, this isn’t a team that’s a lock for the playoffs.
The final word: OK, that said, there is clearly big upside here, maybe even 100-win upside if everything pans out. The rotation has the terrific top three with Kershaw, Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, and Haren pitched much better in the second half with the Nationals. Kenley Jansen is a top-flight closer with dominant stuff and the setup crew with Wilson, J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow is deep. Kemp is a wild card. So is Puig. But I’m also inclined to believe Puig is closer to the MVP candidate than the .240 hitter. The Dodgers are the clear favorite in the NL West.
Projected record: 92-70
4. Tampa Bay Rays
How to get to 90 wins: The Rays went 92-71, beating the Rangers in the tiebreaker game to win the wild card, but their Pythagorean record suggests an 87-win team. If they allow the same number of runs they would need to score an additional 30 to project as a 90-win team.
Big offseason moves: Signed RP Grant Balfour, re-signed 1B James Loney, acquired RP Heath Bell from the Diamondbacks, acquired C Ryan Hanigan from the Reds, lost RP Fernando Rodney, acquired IF/OF and RP Brad Boxberger from the Padres for RP Alex Torres, lost RP Fernando Rodney, lost SP Roberto Hernandez, lost OF Kelly Johnson, lost OF Sam Fuld, did not trade SP David Price.
Most intriguing player: Despite all the rumors that the Rays would (or should) trade Price, the hard-throwing left-hander is still here. And why not? The Rays have the ability to win it all and Price is the kind of pitcher you need to do that. He went on the DL last May after nine starts with forearm tightness and a 5.24 ERA. When he came back in July, he was a strike-throwing machine like never before and posted a 2.53 ERA while walking just 13 batters his final 18 starts. Of course, if the Rays fall way back by July, the Price trade rumors will ramp up.
Due for a better year: Right fielder Wil Myers hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs in 88 games to win AL Rookie of the Year. Now he’ll be there a full season. Look for him to double that home run total and slug at least .500.
Due for a worse year: This is why I have the Rays ranked so high. There isn’t an obvious choice here. Pitcher Alex Cobb went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA and maybe he’s not quite a sub-3.00 ERA guy, but maybe he is as his strikeout increased with his changeup developing into a true wipeout pitch. Plus, he made just 22 starts after missing time after getting hit by a line drive.
I’m just the messenger: The Rays basically stood pat on offense over the offseason, and after ranking ninth in the AL runs scored, that does put some pressure on Myers to improve and Evan Longoria to remain healthy. If one of those two goes down for any period of time, they could struggle to score runs. One thing the Rays may try to do is run more. Their stolen bases dipped from 134 to 73, so they lost something that has been a big weapon for them over the years. Trouble is, outside of Desmond Jennings, who is doing to do the running? There just isn’t a lot of team speed here.
The final word: I’m picking the Rays to win the AL East primarily because I believe their run prevention will be the best in the league. They allowed 646 runs after allowing 577 in 2012. I think they’ll be closer to that 577 total.
Look at last year’s rotation. Price missed a little more than a month; Cobb missed 10 starts; Chris Archer didn’t join the rotation until June; Matt Moore has the ability to pitch better and deeper into games; yes, it was just announced that Hellickson will miss six to eight weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his elbow but he wasn’t good last year anyway (5.17 ERA); they gave 24 starts to Hernandez who was mediocre as well (4.89 ERA). They have depth with Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome. The bullpen should be solid. They have the best manager in the game.
Projected record: 93-69
3. Washington Nationals
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 35 more runs, allow 15 fewer.
Big offseason moves: Acquired SP Doug Fister from the Tigers for P Robbie Ray, P Ian Krol and IF Steve Lombardozzi, signed OF Nate McLouth, lost SP Dan Haren, acquired RP Jerry Blevins from the A’s for OF Billy Burns.
Most intriguing player: Remember when Bryce Harper hit .344 with seven home runs in April before crashing into a wall in early May? Now imagine that over six months.
Due for a better season: Anthony Rendon should build on a second rookie season and become one of the best-hitting second basemen in the game.
Due for a worse season: Jayson Werth quietly hit .318/.398/.532 with 25 home runs, ranking third in the NL in slugging percentage and fifth in on-base percentage. He’s turning 35 in May and hadn’t produced at that rate his first two years in Washington so look for a decline.
I’m just the messenger: Yes, I’m falling for the Nationals again even after last year’s disappointing a year, an 86-win season salvaged only by a 34-20 record the final two months. Everybody loved the Fister trade, giving them a great No. 4 starter behind Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg and there are plenty of solid options for the fifth spot. One reason they struggled to score runs last year was the bench was awful, but that’s been improved with the signing of McLouth as a fourth outfielder. But one question remains to be played out: Can they beat the Braves? They went 6-13 against them last year.
The final word: On paper, the Nationals have no obvious weakness, except maybe first baseman Adam LaRoche, coming of a poor .237/.332/.403 season. The rotation should be one of the best in the game, the bullpen is solid, they have power and they have a 21-year-old outfielder who could be an MVP candidate (ZiPS has Harper hitting .279/.363/.523 with 28 home runs, but I’m taking the over). Rookie manager Matt Williams is an unknown factor but I don’t see that as significant negative. This looks like a 90-win team to me.
Projected record: 93-69
2. Detroit Tigers
How they can get to 90 wins: Maybe the question should be how they can get to 100 wins. The 2013 Tigers were a better club than the 2012 World Series team, increasing their run differential from plus-56 to plus-172. That’s a 99-win level (although the Tigers won 93, hurt by a 6-13 record in one-run games).
Big offseason moves: Traded 1B Prince Fielder to the Rangers for 2B Ian Kinsler, traded SP Doug Fister to the Nationals for P Robbie Ray, P Ian Kroll and IF Steve Lombardozzi, signed RP Joe Nathan, lost RP Joaquin Benoit, lost SS Jhonny Peralta, lost 2B Omar Infante, signed OF Rajai Davis, signed RP Joba Chamberlain.
Due for a better season: Rick Porcello posted a career-best strikeout rate and his best ERA (4.32) since his 3.96 mark as a rookie in 2009. With the Tigers’ revamped infield probably improved defensively at all four positions, look for the ground ball specialist to have his best year yet.
Due for a worse season: Max Scherzer had a dream season, going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and holding batters to a .198 average as he won the Cy Young Award. Those are going to be numbers difficult to replicate.
I’m just the messenger: The Fister trade was much-criticized, but the Tigers do have Drew Smyly, a guy I think will be very good, ready to step in. Moving Miguel Cabrera over to first base (and off third) and installing Jose Iglesias at shortstop over Peralta will improve that defense. Davis brings more speed to the team and provides a good platoon partner in left for Andy Dirks.
The most overrated signing of the offseason, however? Nathan. He’s very good, yes, but the whole "The Tigers bullpen was horrible" angle was overblown. The Tigers were 82-6 when leading after eight innings; that’s not great (the average team lost 3.5 games) but not horrible. They lost eight games when leading after seven innings (the average team lost 6.7). Yes, there’s that extra-inning record, but that was a result of the team not hitting as much as the bullpen not pitching well (Cabrera, for example, hit .182 in extra innings and Fielder hit .188).
Yes, there was the brutal playoff loss to the Red Sox, when Jim Leyland overmanaged and Benoit gave up the grand slam. Nathan is a good pitcher but the bullpen has also lost two pitchers (Smyly and Benoit) who went 10-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 143 innings.
The final word: There’s no surprise ranking the Tigers here. When you start off with Cabrera, Scherzer, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez you’re in a very good place. It will be interesting to see how much offense the team loses without Fielder and Peralta; Kinsler has hit just .240/.303/.366 on the road the past two seasons, and Torii Hunter will turn 39 in July and remains a key part of the lineup. Still, you have the best hitter in the game and three Cy Young candidates. The Tigers will win their fourth straight AL Central title.
Projected record: 94-68
1. St. Louis Cardinals
How they can get to 90 wins: They went 97-65 last year, outscoring their opponents by 187 runs. They could score 50 fewer runs and allow 50 more and still project as a 90-win team.
Big offseason moves: Traded 3B David Freese to the Angels for CF Peter Bourjos, signed SS Jhonny Peralta, lost OF Carlos Beltran, signed 2B Mark Ellis, lost RP Edward Mujica, lost RP John Axford, SP Chris Carpenter retired.
Most intriguing player: Michael Wacha was drafted in June of 2012 and by the stretch run of 2013 was shutting down opponents like he was Bob Gibson in 1968. He allowed two hits in seven scoreless innings to beat the Pirates in early September, lost a no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth in his final start of the regular season, took a no-hitter into the eighth against the Pirates in the NLDS, tossed 13 2/3 scoreless against the Dodgers in the NLCS and beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the World Series. He finally tired in Game 6. What does he do for an encore?
Due for a better season: Oscar Taveras played just 47 games in the minors, delaying his anticipated arrival to the big leagues. He may start the season in Triple-A, but look for him to take over right field at some point, with Allen Craig eventually moving back to first base and Matt Adams in a bench role.
Due for a worse season: Rookie relievers Seth Maness (2.32 ERA in 62 innings) and Kevin Siegrist (two runs in 39 2/3 innings) developed into a dynamite set-up duo. Maness gets a lot of grounders with his sinker and Siegrist lights up the radar gun from the left side, but you can’t expect them to be that dominant again.
I’m just the messenger: I don’t have anything negative to say here. The biggest weakness the Cardinals had last year was the bench, which we saw come into play in the World Series when Mike Matheny played Shane Robinson in center field and hit him second in Game 5. They’ve improved the bench by acquiring Bourjos and signing Ellis and Peralta (moving Pete Kozma off as the starting shortstop).
If there’s one concern it’s the Cardinals led the league in runs by hitting .330 with runners in scoring position -- the highest mark going back to 1950. (Only 16 teams since 1950 have hit.300.) Based on their component statistics the Cardinals created about 727 runs, so with the expected decline with RISP they’ll have to generate more offense elsewhere.
The final word: While I don’t see the Cardinals as a 100-win lock, what they have is young talent, depth, defense, starting pitching, an ace in Adam Wainwright and a dynamite bullpen. They have two center fielders in Bourjos and Jon Jay; they have multiple options in right field with Craig, Taveras and Jay; they have two options at first base in Craig and Adams; if rookie Kolten Wong struggles at second they have the veteran Ellis; they have Kozma as Peralta insurance; they have Joe Kelly as a No. 6 starter and Carlos Martinez as a No. 7; they have Trevor Rosenthal throwing 100-mph gas in the ninth inning and former closer Jason Motte returning from injury.
They have solutions for just about everything if something goes wrong and that’s what makes them the best team on paper heading into spring training.
Projected record: 95-67