Monday, March 17, 2014

MLB 2014 preview, part 5: NL Central, AL & NL West

We're wrapping things up all in one tidy package, with the regular season starting this weekend Down Under.

NL Central:

The PITTSBURGH PIRATES ended a 21 year post-season draught, surprising everyone by winning a Wild Card berth, and beating division rival Cincinnati to advance to the Division Series. 

But, inevitably, there are changes. Marlon Byrd, acquired from the Mets in August, left for Philadelphia as a free agent. Starting pitcher AJ Burnett joined him there soon after. After letting another ex-Met, John Buck, leave, the Bucs picked up Chris Stewart from the Yankees to back up Russell Martin. Another late season rental, Justin Morneau, is now in Colorado, and Garrett Jones, whom he was platooning with at first, left for Miami as a free agent. Replacing Burnett in the rotation is Edinson Volquez, who came over from the Dodgers. Aside from all that, the Pirates look like they'll be there at the end again.

After losing the World Series to Boston, the ST. LOUIS CARDINALS saw some pieces leave as well. Boston, in fact, picked up closer Edward Mujica, who will set up for Koji Uehara. David Freese, a World Series hero in 2011, joins Albert Pujols with the Angels. However, St. Louis gets Peter Bourjos from the Angels, and brought in Jhonny Peralta from Detroit and Mark Ellis from the Dodgers to help in the infield. Again, for the most part, the team stands pat, but they've anointed Trevor Rosenthal as their new closer. Be very afraid.

The CINCINNATI REDS bade farewell to Dusty Baker after another quick hook in the playoffs, and promoted pitching coach Bryan Price to the manager's seat. The hype surrounds outfielder Billy Hamilton, he of the minor league stolen base record in 2012. They think that he's the second coming of classic thieves such as Lou Brock, Maury Wills, & Vince Coleman. Shin Soo Choo left for Texas as a free agent, opening a spot for Hamilton.

After losing Prince Fielder after the 2012 season, the MILWAUKEE BREWERS said goodbye to outfielder Corey Hart, who missed most of last year due to injury. Hart chased the money and went to Seattle. Ryan Braun returns from suspension, and the onus is on him to prove he simply made a mistake and can rectify it by playing up to his full potential cleanly. The biggest question, however, is in pitching. After Yovanni Gallardo & Kyle Lohse, you have Matt Garza, who comes over from the Cubs after a disappointing first season in the NL. Aside from that, there are question marks.

Speaking of the CHICAGO CUBS, it's another year and another makeover. Rick Renteria replaces Dale Sveum in the dugout. The Cubs picked up Ryan Kalish (Boston) & Justin Ruggiano (Miami) to shore up the outfield. Emilio Bonifacio, who spent last year in the AL (Toronto & Kansas City), figures to be in the mix in the infield. They're hoping Kalish at least can give Anthony Rizzo some help offensively. Otherwise, it's going to be the same old thing in the Second City.

Projected order of finish:

1. Pittsburgh.
2. St. Louis.
3. Cincinnati.
4. Milwaukee.
5. Chicago.

NL West:

Don Mattingly finally got the LOS ANGELES DODGERS into the playoffs by winning the division. Now, it's on him to do it again, and in this day & age, that ain't easy. They're trying out Dee Gordon at second to replace Mark Ellis (St. Louis), which isn't a good proposition. However, the problem facing the Dodgers is the pitching. Reliever Ronald Belisario is gone (White Sox). So is Chris Capuano (Boston). Dan Haren comes over from Washington to fill a spot in the rotation, and maybe regain his old form. Mike Baxter & Justin Turner left the Mets and could contribute off the bench. Kenley Jansen is designated as the closer, but is recovering from injury. So why pick up Chris Perez from Cleveland? Insurance.

Last year, the COLORADO ROCKIES used the early season cold to their advantage, and looked like world beaters. Then, reality set in. In the off-season, they made a bunch of changes. Outfielder Dexter Fowler was shipped off to Houston in exchange for Brandon Barnes. Ex-Valleycat Jordan Lyles came in the same trade. Todd Helton retired, so Justin Morneau (Pittsburgh) fills the void at first. In the pen, LaTroy Hawkins (Mets) returns to Denver, joined by Boone Logan (Yankees), Franklin Morales (Boston), & Brent Anderson (Oakland). Morneau, at least is reunited with former Minnesota teammate Michael Cuddyer, which could make Cuddyer more of a threat.

In ARIZONA, the DIAMONDBACKS added some punch by picking up Mark Trumbo from the Angels. They also dismissed fading reliever Heath Bell, sending him to Tampa Bay. Addison Reed (White Sox) is the new closer. However, the rotation may have just taken a fatal hit with Patrick Corbin facing Tommy John surgery. Offensively, not much has changed.

The SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS could win again this year. After all, they've won the Series the last two even numbered years. Could be a pattern. They got some rotation help by picking up Tim Hudson (Atlanta), whose season ended early due to injury last year. Mike Morse comes over from Baltimore, returning to the NL, and for the second time, Andres Torres was allowed to leave. Meh.

Someday, the SAN DIEGO PADRES will be back in contention for a full season. This won't be the year. Josh Johnson comes over from Toronto to help in the rotation, but there's little else to believe there's room for change in the standings.

Projected order of finish:

1. Los Angeles.
2. San Francisco.
3. Colorado.
4. Arizona.
5. San Diego.

AL West:

The LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM may seem like they may have to move to Rancho Cucamonga if they disappoint again. This off-season, they sent Peter Bourjos (St. Louis) & Mark Trumbo (Arizona) packing, picking up David Freese from St. Louis, but I don't like the lack of outfield depth. It would appear as if Albert Pujols, bothered by foot injuries the last couple of years, and Josh Hamilton may be on their last legs. Owner Arte Moreno may be regretting doing his best Steinbrenner imitation in terms of spending.

OAKLAND took a hit, losing Jarrod Parker for the year as he will have Tommy John surgery. AJ Griffin will start the season on the disabled list as well, and the void may be too much for the 2-time division champs to overcome. Worse, they let Bartolo Colon go (Mets), and, oh, they could use him now, couldn't they? The ATHLETICS did get Craig Gentry from Texas to provide some outfield assistance, but there's not enough offense to justify a 3rd title.

Locally, people may be interested in the HOUSTON ASTROS mostly to see how well former Valleycats such as Jose Altuve are faring. Pitcher Matt Albers returns to Houston this year, but Jordan Lyles was shipped off to Colorado. Otherwise, Houston still has a problem winning games.

The TEXAS RANGERS welcomed Shin Soo Choo back from the NL (Cincinnati), and picked up JP Arencibia from Toronto to back up Geovany Soto. The big story, of course, is Prince Fielder, who comes over from Detroit to add more offense. Suddenly, the Rangers are contenders again. Or are they?

However, the SEATTLE MARINERS need to remember what has happened the last two years to teams who've stockpiled players and duped themselves and the pundits into thinking they'd be winners (see Miami, Toronto). Robinson Cano (Yankees) took the bad advice of an idiot named Brodie Van Wagenen, with the blessing of Jay-Z, and chased the money. Seattle also picked up Corey Hart (Milwaukee), Logan Morrison (Miami), reliever Fernando Rodney (Tampa Bay), and welcomed back Willie Bloomquist (Arizona). Not exactly Murderer's Row for a new generation, though Rodney will contribute right away, and shoot imaginary arrows into the night. Rodney & Cano, at least, can remind their new mates how they helped their native Dominican Republic win the World Baseball Classic last year.

Projected order of finish:

1. Texas.
2. Seattle.
3. Los Angeles.
3 (tie). Oakland.
5. Houston.

Wild Cards:

NL: San Francisco, St. Louis.
AL: Seattle, Yankees.

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