The Super Bowl is behind us (best Super Bowl ever!) so it's time to officially start thinking of spring training. In fact, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers will report at the end of this week to get an early jump since they have to make the trip to Australia to begin the season on March 22. I'm going to do quick capsule summaries of all 30 teams, a look at how I view each team heading into spring training. I'll rank them from worst to best, six teams a day through Friday.
For each team, I include how much they need to improve in terms of scoring runs and preventing runs to get to 90 wins, using the Pythagorean theory of winning percentage. The numbers I present are just one way to get there, of course, since it's a sliding scale. Ninety wins doesn't guarantee a playoff spot -- the Rangers and Rays tied for the second wild card in the AL with 91 wins last year and the Rays won 90 in 2012 and missed the playoffs -- but it'll put you in the race.
30. Houston Astros
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 130 more runs, allow 193 fewer. The Astros have managed to lose 100-plus games three years in a row … and get worse each season. Needless to say, they remain a long way from being competitive.
Most intriguing player: George Springer. The Astros should finally start seeing the fruits of a farm system Keith Law just rated the best in the majors, starting with Springer, the 11th overall pick in 2011 out of Connecticut who soared up the prospect lists with a monster season in the high minors in which he hit 37 home runs and stole 45 bases. The strikeouts -- 161 in 135 games -- are the big concern, but Springer still hit .303 because he makes such hard contact. He has the range to push Fowler out of center field. He may spend a few weeks in Triple-A to save on his service time, but he’ll be up before long.
Due for a better year: Ummm ... the entire team? The Astros became the first team since the expansion Mets to lose 100 games three seasons in a row. Those Mets actually did it four in a row and five out of six.
Due for a worse year: Jarred Cosart posted a superficially impressive 1.95 ERA in 10 starts even though he walked more batters (35) than he struck out (33). That’s the lowest ERA since World War II for a pitcher who made at least 10 starts and had more walks than strikeouts. The stuff is good with a plus fastball that sits 93 to 96 mph and he generated a high rate of ground balls, which helped limit batters to three home runs in 60 innings. Still, his BABIP ran very low for a ground-ball pitcher (.246), who usually allow more hits than fly ball pitchers. He may be good, but he’s going to have to improve that strikeout-to-walk ratio.
I'm just the messenger: When Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager, the Astros set up a long-term plan that gutted the entire organization and basically started over as an expansion team. It's led to three miserable seasons on the field but has helped the team rebuild its farm system. The Astros will make North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon their third straight No. 1 overall pick this June (assuming Rodon stays healthy) following Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. It wouldn't shock me to see them make it four in a row next June. Here's the issue: Should a team be rewarded for essentially trying not to win at the major league level?
The final word: Hey, at least Astros fans can dream of this lineup in a few years:
LF Delino Deshields Jr.
SS Carlos Correa
CF George Springer
1B Jonathan Singleton
DH Rio Ruiz
2B Jose Altuve
SP Carlos Rodon
SP Mark Appel
SP Mike Foltynewicz
SP Jarred Cosart
SP Vincent Velazquez
CL Lance McCullers Jr.
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 75 more runs, allow 142 fewer. The Phillies were awful last year. They bring back the same aging core. Yes, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are a great 1-2 combo. But doesn't that point to how bad this team is? Lee and Hamels were terrific in 2013, and the Phillies still lost 89 games.
Most intriguing player: Domonic Brown. He finally had his breakout season, hitting .272 with 27 home runs and making the All-Star team. It wasn't a great season, as his defense was below average and he didn't walk a whole lot. At 26, will he improve? He hit 12 home runs in May -- without drawing a single walk. He hit just four home runs in the second half, but also missed time in September with an Achilles' tendon injury. What is he, exactly? We'll find out in 2014.
Due for a better season: Well, that's kind of the problem, isn't it? There isn't an obvious guy you should expect to play better. OK, maybe Ryan Howard plays more than 80 games and hits more than 11 home runs, but even then, how much value does he offer? He hasn't slugged .500 since 2010.
Due for a worse season: Byrd washed out of the majors in 2012, but he hit .291/.336/.511 in 2013 with a career-high 24 home runs last season. But he's 36 and even if the changes he made to his swing helped, he's unlikely to come close to those totals again. Chase Utley is coming off a season in which he had his highest games played, home runs, batting average and slugging percentage since 2009.
I'm just the messenger: With Ruiz, Howard, Byrd, Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies are counting on five regulars in their age-34 seasons or older. Only four teams have had five position players that old bat 400-plus times in a season -- the 1945 White Sox, 1985 Angels and 2002 and 2007 Giants. Hey, it worked for the 2002 Giants, who went to the World Series. But these Phillies don't have Barry Bonds in the middle of the lineup.
The final word: I can see a scenario where the Phillies could win 85-87 games and sneak into the wild-card picture, but a lot has to go right for that to happen. Brown improves, the old guys stay healthy and Howard has a big comeback season, and Gonzalez has a big year as the No. 3 starter. More likely, however, this is an old team that has gone from 102 wins to 81 to 73 to ... well, something lower. The core group of Utley, Rollins and Howard was once a dynamic trio that helped create a glorious era of Phillies baseball. The Phillies doubled down on those guys and bet wrong. This looks like a bad team with two ace pitchers. Don't be surprised if Cliff Lee is in another uniform come Aug. 1.
28. Minnesota Twins
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 125 more runs, allow 133 fewer. The Twins spent an offseason attempting to upgrade a rotation that had the worst ERA in the majors, but consider that the average AL team scored and allowed 702 runs. The Twins were 88 runs below that on offense and 86 runs above that on defense. In other words, they were equally awful on both sides of the ball.
Most intriguing player: Joe Mauer. The All-Star catcher moves to first base to clear room behind the plate for rookie Josmil Pinto. It's the right move for the Twins. As valuable as Mauer is catching, he's of no value when he's not playing, and he hasn't started in even half the games in any of the past three seasons anyway. As a first baseman, the Twins should be able to keep his bat in the lineup for 150-plus games and put that .400 OBP to more use.
Due for a better year: The Twins signed Hughes to a three-year contract and while the $8 million per season isn't outrageous, it was a bit surprising after Hughes went 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA for the Yankees. The feeling is that getting Hughes out of Yankee Stadium will help a pitcher who has been prone to home runs (24 in 145.2 innings in 2013). Others believe Hughes is destined for the bullpen no matter his home park.
Due for a worse year: Reliever Caleb Thielbar allowed just 24 hits in 49 innings while posting a 1.76 ERA -- part of a good Twins bullpen that ranked fifth in the AL in ERA. With closer Glen Perkins having a dominant season, the Twins were 55-1 when leading after the eighth inning. Thielbar (the first major leaguer from South Dakota since Vean Gregg a hundred years ago) is a lefty without big-time stuff who throws a lot of fastballs up in the strike zone, so you have to wonder about a repeat performance. Perkins should be very good again, but it will difficult for the Twins to match that ninth-inning performance.
I'm just the messenger: How bad was Minnesota's rotation in 2013? It struck out just 477 batters -- even Astros starters fanned 666. But that's nothing new for the Twins. They were last in the AL starters' strikeouts in 2012 and next-to-last in 2011. No wonder they've lost 96, 96 and 99 games the past three seasons. Nolasco and Hughes will at least help a little in that regard as the Twins' front office slowly tries to develop a rotation that includes more than finesse strike-throwers. They're still a ways from developing that kind of group -- most of their top prospects are on the hitting side of the ball -- but at least they've grasped the errors of their ways.
The final word: Everyone knows the Twins are waiting for center fielder Byron Buxton and third baseman Miguel Sano to arrive, two players who could be hitting 3-4 in the Twins' lineup in a couple of years. Sano may arrive midseason and Buxton in September. That doesn't make this season unimportant. The Twins will learn a lot about Hughes and Nolasco and whether they can be rotation anchors in 2015 and beyond. They'll learn more about outfielder Oswaldo Arcia, who showed promise as a rookie, and whether Pinto's glove will catch up to his bat. The future looks good even if 2014 doesn't.
27. Chicago Cubs
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 101 more runs, allow 67 fewer.
Most intriguing player: Starlin Castro. Once deemed one of the game's rising stars (remember that Sports Illustrated cover?), Castro hit just .245/.284/.347 in 2013 and reminded Cubs fans more of Mick Kelleher than of a franchise building block. He may have run into a lot of bad luck -- his line drive rate was consistent with his previous seasons -- and he's still just 24. But with prospect Javier Baez soon to be ready, this looms as an important year for Castro and his future with the Cubs.
Due for a better year: Joining Castro in the bad luck department was first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who posted a low .258 average on balls in play despite a solid 20.6 percent line drive rate. Rizzo still managed 65 extra-base hits even though he hit just .233. Look for a big uptick in his triple-slash numbers.
Due for a worse year: Travis Wood was the big surprise, going 9-12 but with a 3.11 ERA while pitching 200 innings. Wood is pretty unique among major league starters: a smallish lefty without an overpowering fastball who pitches up in the zone. But he mixes his 88-90 mph fastball with a cutter that rides in on right-handed batters, plus a changeup and occasional slider, and rarely, a curveball. He's any extreme fly ball pitcher -- only A.J. Griffin and Max Scherzer allowed a higher percentage of fly balls among starters -- which can lead to (A) a lower BABIP (which Wood had) and home runs (which weren't a problem in 2013 as Wood allowed just 18). I believe Wood is for real -- his cutter helps generate a lot of infield popups, for example -- but odds are a few more balls will leave the ballpark this year and the ERA rises.
I'm just the messenger: The Cubs scored their fewest runs per game since 1981 and finished 14th in the NL in runs scored for the second straight season. In Wrigley Field, that's unacceptable. But this continues a long string of bad Cubs offenses. Since winning 90 games in 1998, the Cubs have ranked higher than seventh in the NL in runs just once -- in 2008, when they ranked first and won 97 games. That's also the only season since 1998 the Cubs have reached 90 wins. Luckily, there appears to be help soon on the way with Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora, the team's past three No. 1 picks, plus outfielder Jorge Soler and second baseman Arismendy Alcantara.
The final word: Like the Astros, the Cubs have benefited in building up their farm system by essentially accepting that losing is OK. The Cubs could improve with a more effective bullpen -- they lost 14 games they led heading into the seventh inning and eight they led heading into the eighth -- but I still see a team with holes in the rotation past Wood, Jeff Samardzija (who could get traded) and the mediocre Edwin Jackson and a lineup counting on big improvements from Castro and Rizzo. But wait 'til next year, Cubs fans ... wait 'til next year.
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 169 more runs, allow 44 fewer. I put more emphasis on scoring runs because the White Sox's pitching wasn't that bad -- they allowed 21 more runs than average, but factoring in U.S. Cellular Field, that's a pretty good performance. They need to find runs and lots of them.
Big offseason moves: Signed Cuban 1B Jose Abreu, acquired CF Adam Eaton and 3B Matt Davidson from the Diamondbacks for SP Hector Santiago and RP Addison Reed (Santiago then went to the Angels), re-signed 1B Paul Konerko, signed RPs Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs.
Most intriguing player: Abreu. He has top-of-the-line power potential, but some question his bat speed and whether he'll be tied up on inside pitches. His defense isn't a plus and we'll see what kind of plate discipline he has. One thing is for sure: I can't wait to see if he's the real deal. The White Sox bet $68 million that he is.
Due for a better year: I love the pickup of Eaton, heralded as a rookie of the year favorite heading into 2013, but he injured his elbow in spring training and played just 66 games, hitting .252. He can produce better than that and he'll be a defensive upgrade over Alejandro De Aza in center field. More importantly, he'll add some speed and athleticism to a lineup that desperately needs it.
Due for a worse year: De Aza hit a career-high 17 home runs, but made an even bigger mark when the game was one the line. In "late and close" situations, he hit six home runs and knocked in 23 runs. Only Chris Davis had more RBIs (33) in late and close.
I'm just the messenger: There are some interesting parts here, starting with ace starter Chris Sale (an underrated star) and the new additions like Abreu, Eaton and right fielder Avisail Garcia, acquired last summer for Jake Peavy. But I still see a lineup with big OBP issues: Alex Rios led the team with a .328 OBP in 2013 and he's now on the Rangers. Bringing back Konerko didn't make a lot of sense, even if it's just to platoon with Adam Dunn at DH. Garcia led the team in OPS+ at 106 and that was in 168 plate appearances. The only others who were even league average were Rios and Dunn. Maybe Abreu is a monster and maybe Eaton gets on base, but the White Sox were last in the AL in walks and until they improve in that category the offense won't score enough runs.
The final word: The White Sox have alternated good years with bad years since winning 99 games (and the World Series) in 2005 and 90 in 2006: 72, 89, 79, 88, 79, 85, 63. It took 99 losses in 2013, but the front office finally realized it's time to turn away from an offense that is expecting Konerko and Dunn to be the leaders. The farm system, for years one of the weakest in the majors, is showing a few signs of life, with Erik Johnson expected to join the rotation. Still, this is a team counting heavily on Abreu to be a big star. I could see a .500 season, but will predict something less.
25. Miami Marlins
How they can get to 90 wins: Score 136 more runs, allow 71 fewer.
Most intriguing player: Jose Fernandez. The Marlins surprised everyone by promoting the 20-year-old from Class A to the majors to begin last season, but he proved to be the real deal -- and then some, going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and finishing third in the NL Cy Young vote while beating out Yasiel Puig for rookie honors. He led the majors in lowest batting average allowed by a starter (.182) and gave up just 29 extra-base hits in 28 starts. Baseball gods, keep this kid healthy.
Due for a better year: Giancarlo Stanton. He's still just 24. He just needs to play 150 games, and he'll hit 45 bombs.
Due for a worse year: Fernandez. It will be hard to match or improve on that ERA. Since 1980, only three starters have had more than one season with an ERA below 2.20: Greg Maddux (four), Pedro Martinez (three) and Roger Clemens (three). Now, Fernandez may end being more valuable simply by increasing his innings from 172.2 to something closer to 200 and keeping that ERA in the mid-2s. And if he improves his command just a bit ... wait, maybe he will be better.
I'm just the messenger: Last year it was Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco; this year it's Furcal and McGehee. I realize you need somebody at all eight positions in the field, but why do the Marlins insist on signing these over-the-hill veterans who haven't been any good in years? The last time McGehee was in the majors in 2012 (he played in Japan last year), he hit .217. The year before that he hit .223. He doesn't have a nickname like Human Vacuum Cleaner to suggest his glove carries his bat.
The final word: The Marlins are my deep sleeper, a team that could win 85 games and maybe sneak into the wild-card picture. Young teams can mature in a hurry and the Marlins have two potential top-10-in-the-game players in Fernandez and Stanton, promising outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and a young rotation that could take big steps. Winning 80-plus games probably won't happen this season, as I don't see enough offense from the infield, but it wouldn't shock me.