MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels

Whether you’re ready or utterly unprepared, the 2014 baseball season is effectively upon us. Transport trucks are pointed north, loaded down with equipment and no small amount of hope for the upcoming season. Some teams approach the upcoming campaign ready for a six month assault on the playoffs, confident in their assembled talent. Others look up and down their roster and see potential, if not this season than perhaps in the future. The Astros players also look forward to many nights spent in expensive hotels.

There is no predicting baseball or anything else that involves round balls striking round bats. The good teams will win more games than the bad teams. Predictions are for suckers and you won’t get one out of me. Despite the uncertainty (YCPB!) there are some things I believe to be true. Truer than most, anyway. These Things I Believe about the 2014 baseball season.

Defending the crown

Most rational folks expected the Boston Red Sox to be better last season, but not many outside The Hub expected them to win the World Series. The Red Sox got a lot of things right and must feel fortunate after they received more than their fair share of good breaks. You can’t win 97 games and the World Series without ending up on the happy side of a few coin flips.

After last season’s triumph, the Red Sox are not leaving anything up to chance. Is it luck that Grady Sizemore is finally healthy and starts the season as their center fielder, breaking camp with a big league club for the first time since 2009? Was it luck that landed them Koji Uehara? What kind of luck forced them to cycle through three other closers before finally settling on the master of the splitter?

The Red Sox might not win as many games as last season but they are no flash in the pan. The intelligent design behind the next-generation Sox built them for the long haul. 2013 was just the beginning.

No, THIS is the year Strasburg figures it out

When you throw 97 miles per hour and a darting, sinking change up that clocks in around 90 mph, you get the benefit of the doubt. There is a chance that there is no great leap forward coming for the Nats ace. Heck, he’s already pretty good. Asking for more out of Stephen Strasburg might be construed as greed.

But there is still breathing room between Strasburg’s current baseline of production and the vaulted, cathedral ceiling his talent promises.

After working with James Shields in the off-season and gaining some much needed perspective, Strasburg sits poised and ready to dominate. Just as his Nationals disappointed in 2013, some cracks in Strasburg’s steely facade showed last season. Now is his time to show that he can harness his best in baseball stuff with dose of maturity to become a true ace and the driving force behind Washington’s return to the post-season.

The Athletics falter

There is something insidious about being branded the smartest guy in the room. Even though the Oakland A’s are just baseball people making baseball decisions, it is difficult to shut out the praise chorus lauding your every move before you even make it.

After 2012, some might consider the A’s a fluke. They captured the AL West title from the Texas Rangers on the final day of the season, a triumph often owed to the Rangers collapse as much as a credit to the team that won 94 games. But to come right back and win 96 games the very next, taking the AL West crown going away, that starts to look less like a fluke and more like a great team.

The problem is you can’t outthink elbows. Elbows are not sentient and do not know why they break down, they just do. And the two season-ending injuries suffered by A’s pitchers during Spring Training make an already tough road for the small budgeted club even tougher. Oakland did what they could to cushion these blows, building a formidable bullpen to fight back against short starts and questionable performance from the lower rungs of their depth chart.

Is there another Josh Donaldson waiting in the wings, itching for his chance to burst onto the scene and put up MVP-type numbers? Can the A’s alchemists find the right combination of Brandon Moss and Craig Gentry and Eric Sogard to build another winner? Do they have enough roster spots to paper over the shortcomings of the players they need to produce in a real way?

Maybe they do. If any team could do it, it’s Oakland. My feeling is they bit off more than they can chew this year and keeping so many balls in the air proves impossible for a third straight year.

Making stars and scrubs work

Two perfect antidotes to the A’s “maximum value extraction” team-building model are those on display in both Anaheim and the Bronx. Two teams with huge payrolls but several positional question marks. In Los Angeles, it’s the rotation. In New York, the infield. Concerns about both injury and performance that could undermine the very expensive plans laid forth by their embattled general managers.

Angels fans see a roster teeming with offensive talent counterbalanced with players like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, injured and beleaguered and aging. The Yankees are hoping the suddenly vaunted starting rotation can overcome defensive black holes all the way around the infield, not to mention the same injury-based worries about Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter (to say nothing of second base and Kelly Johnson (??) at third.)

The questions are many but the Angels and Yankees will both prove tough to beat in 2014. The Angels can score runs on anybody and the Yankees bought enviable strength up the middle. Running out these great offenses gives them a chance to win every single day. A few blessings from the health pixies give them an advantage few teams boast.

The Marlins churn

After the salary dump facilitated by the Jose Reyes/Mark Buehrle trade after the 2012 season, it wasn’t going to be easy for the Marlins. Miami’s 2013 offense ended up as one of the most anemic in baseball history, even with Giancarlo Stanton in the mix. After trading away most of their established players for prospects and youth, better days are presumably on the way to the glorious eyesore that Loria built.

Talent development is a fickle beast. Looking at the young players coming up through the Marlins system and those who figure to be prominently involved this summer it becomes very easy to…wonder how this could ever possibly work.

There is Giancarlo Stanton, a sure-fire superstar battling injuries but one whose credentials are not required, and Jose Ferandez, a dynamic talent with Cy Young stuff. And then there are some guys. Christian Yelich? Might be a good guy. Jake Marisnick? Hopes to be a guy. Marcell Ozuna? Guy ceiling. Nathan Eovaldi? Guytential. Jacob Turner? Henderson Alvarez? Placeholder guys.

There are future guys in the lower minor leagues but the Marlins great leap forward might not ever come. So many of their prospects keep fizzling at the big league level, perhaps owing to their sink or swim philosophy of wasting no time in bringing kids up.

Most prospects sink, the Marlins happen to glean this information at the big league level rather than the high minors. With no fans to alienate and nothing to lose, the next great Marlins team may never come. In its place is a revolving door of green kids serving as organizational lottery tickets. Those that succeed are simply cashed in for more lottery tickets.

Bullish as many seem to be on the Marlins ability to exceed modest expectations in 2014, another 100 loss season is not out of the question.

Sleeping Giants

It is tough to win two World Series titles in a three year span and still come off as undeserving champions – twice. The Giants might not get the respect of the Cardinals or Rangers but a wise man once said something about flags flying forever.

The sub-.500 seasons that followed each World Series triumph fuels this fire, but in 2014 the San Francisco Giants look ready to challenge for a playoff berth once again. Bolstering their pitching staff with the perennially underrated Tim Hudson takes pressure off Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum as they hope to discover the form that made them the centerpieces of two World Series challenges.

The Giants have talent. Buster Posey is one of the game’s greats and Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt, Pablo Sandoval are all above-average Major League regulars. They might have discovered their floor in 2013 but the 2014 Giants have all parts to challenge the Dodgers in the NL West and figure prominently into the NL Wild Card chase.

Don’t hate the player…

For three straight years, the Houston Astros fielded sub-big league rosters. The teams have been, frankly, embarrassing to the league and a once-proud franchise. Their long-term goals might be lofty but the present situation in Houston is, in a word, odious.

 

That doesn’t look like it will be much different in 2014 than years past. Getting Dexter Fowler is a nice move and the overhauled minor league system is finally ready to pay dividends. Probably.

The Houston Astros are not doing anything outside the letter of the law, though there is no doubting their acting outside the spirit of the fan/team/TV deal paradigm that forms our ideals of what it means to be a professional sports team. The players aren’t losing games on purpose but the paucity of talent on the big league roster is undeniable.

Maybe 2014 is the year it stops. Perhaps the Astros shift gears and begin aggressively shifting their assets to the big leagues, where they can contribute to rebuilding the legacy of the Astros and the credibility of their place in the league.

In all likelihood, that won’t happen until next season. The sheer volume of high draft picks will float the good ship Astro higher one day, whether they like it or not. Will the Astros fans turn up when that day comes or will this five year run prove irreparable? Either way, this team is a lamb for the slaughter in an increasingly competitive and up-for-grabs AL West. Somebody (read: Texas) will get fat off Houston. Is this the year the other owners decide they’ve heard enough?

The elephant in the mixed metaphor

There was a time when Bryce Harper or Mike Trout was a legitimate debate among baseball fans. At the beginning of the 2012 season, one prospect list placed both behind Matt Moore of the Tampa Bay Rays.

This is a debate that is no longer valid. The party is over and Mike Trout won. He might not be the AL MVP but he has already done things of which Bryce Harper and any other ballplayer can only dream.

As Trout’s swing develops and his approach refines, he could well topple the Nationals’ outfielder in even the one category considered Harper’s domain – pure power. Even as Bryce Harper begins his age-22 season, he can look back on two incredible seasons of his own. Only two players hit more home runs through their age-20 season in the history of the game.

Rk Player HR PA Age OPS
1 Mel Ott 61 1416 17-20 .963
2 Tony Conigliaro 56 1029 19-20 .865
3 Bryce Harper 42 1094 19-20 .834
4 Alex Rodriguez 41 885 18-20 .940
5 Ken Griffey 38 1172 19-20 .805
6 Frank Robinson 38 667 20-20 .936
7 Mickey Mantle 36 1012 19-20 .874
8 Mike Trout 35 774 19-20 .911
9 Al Kaline 32 1246 18-20 .821
10 Ted Williams 31 675 20-20 1.045
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/28/2014.

But even as Harper puts up numbers rarely seen in the game’s history, Mike Trout stands alone. We saw the encore in 2013, what can he do in 2014? Is there room for improvement or does his current level or production remain for the foreseeable future?

Nobody in their right mind expected the kind of follow-up to his 2012 season and (hopefully) nobody expects another season like each of the last two. Which is what makes it so much fun.

Rarely does an athlete (or two, if we drag Harper in Trout’s enormous wake) come along that allows fans to indulge their most far-fetched wishes. Their called “generational” talents for a reason. Here we have two, ready to take over the game of baseball long before they even celebrate their 25th birthdays. Enjoy the ride, it doesn’t come around very often.

And the World Series champion is…

Who could possibly expect to know? One year ago, I stated my belief that the St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in baseball. After posting the best record in baseball and reaching the World Series, I cannot say that belief changed. They are still the best franchise in the game, cheek to cheek with the Boston Red Sox as shining examples of what ingenuity, good baseball sense, and a whole lot of cash can accomplish.

St. Louis’ youth and easier path to the post-season make them the unsexy choice to stand victorious come October. Any number of things could derail them or vault one of a dozen teams ahead of the Cardinals but, until proven otherwise, they’re it. Enjoy the season!