2014 MLB Preview: Which teams will win the divisions?

USA TODAY Sports

The VEB writers got together and predicted which clubs we thought would win their divisions. I tabulated the results, awarding one point for a first-place vote, two for second, etc. The lower the point total, the higher the standings rank. Then we also profiled the division.

AL West

1) Angels (11)
2) A's (12)
3) Rangers (16)
4) Mariners (21)
5) Astros (30)

Joe:

The AL West had only two legitimate contenders last season -- the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers. However, this is likely to change in 2014 with the Los Angeles Angels looking to finally capitalize on the large sums of money they have spent over the last three or four seasons. When healthy, the Angels lineup has the potential to be one of the most potent in baseball. The key portion of that last sentence? When healthy. Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Raul Ibanez, and now David Freese aren't getting any younger; so if you're an Angels fan, you're probably thinking that the time to win is now. Mike Trout can do just about everything on the baseball diamond, but he will need help from the supporting cast to take down the Athletics this year. The VEB writing staff chose the Angels to win the division, but Dan Szymborski's ZiPS has them finishing right at .500 this season. Only time and health will tell.

So, how does the rest of the division line up? The A's should be very competitive again this season despite having the fifth-lowest payroll in baseball. Other than Scott Kazmir, their starting rotation is full of pitchers 26 years of age or younger. How will they hold up over the course of a 162-game season? If the A's track record with young pitchers is any indication, they will be just fine. The Rangers added Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder over the offseason, and they still have the almighty Yu Darvish, but in my opinion, a lot of things would have to go right for the Rangers to be legitimate contenders. This leaves the Mariners and the Astros. The Mariners made a lot of noise this offseason, with the headliner being the signing of $240-million man, Robinson Cano. The front-end of their starting rotation brings nightmares to opposing hitters, but Seattle, as a whole, has too many holes and way too many question marks to be considered a contender this year. To put it bluntly, the Astros will do their best to compete on a daily basis. Jeff Luhnow certainly has the organization moving in the right direction, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see another 100-loss season down in Houston in 2014.

AL Central

1) Tigers (6)
2) Indians, Royals (15)
4) White Sox (25)
5) Twins (29)

Red Baron:

How many of you here are familiar with the concept of sibling rivalry? Well, of course all of you, but don't be so sarcastic; I'm going somewhere with this.

Anyhow, think of the relationship between an older sibling and a younger. Maybe you are one or the other; if so, it should be easy to picture. Think of an older sibling, lording his dominance over the younger members of the family. Say...four of them. One big brother, four younger kids, all kept under the brutal thumb of perhaps history's greatest monster, a twelve year old who thinks Indian Sunburns are the height of hilarity. Now think of the resentment, the building anger, the rivalry. All those younger kids, seething at the treatment they've received, all eager to take their bullying brother down a peg or two.

That, dear friends, is the American League Central. The Detroit Tigers have been the big, bad bully for years now, beating up on all the younger kids, whose only real recourse has been retreating to their rooms and slamming the door or occasionally running to their mothers and telling. But that rivalry that exists in siblings is here in spades, too.

The teams in Central are gunning for the Tigers. The Indians have decided they will no longer accept their namesake sunburns lying down, and their friend Danny Salazar from down the street is pretty tough himself. The Royals swore to themselves that the last purple nurple would be the last purple nurple, so they traded for James Shields and secretly started lifting weights in the garage after school until their farm system is starting to look pretty ripped. The White Sox finally told Kenny Williams he just wasn't helping, so he went home and their new friend Rick Hahn drew up a plan in the dirt out back to kick the Tigers in the balls when they come home from band practice. And the Twins...um, I think the Twins might enjoy getting beaten up. Some kids are just weird.

The bad news for the teams in the AL Central is this: yes, they are well on their ways to being much better teams. The Royals are going to make the playoffs this year as a Wild Card, mark my words. The Indians are probably due for a step back from 2013, unfortunately, but the long-term looks great for Cleveland. Even those other two teams are beginning, slowly, to turn the corner. But for all that, for all the hope and fury they've poured into their payback schemes, the Tigers are still, for the moment, too big and too old and too tough. Detroit just got a bitching Camaro and a handjob from a cheerleader on the way home from school. Next year, maybe things are different. Two years, I think things are almost certainly different. But this year, it's still the Tigers and four kids trying not to get a surprise Wet Willy while they're doing math homework.

AL East

1) Rays, Red Sox (12)
3) Yankees (16)
4) Orioles (21)
5) Blue Jays (29)

Craig:

It is not surprising that the AL East is the most tightly bunch division among the voting for the top three with the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays finishing tied atop the division with 12 points and the New York Yankees close behind with 16. The division boasts the reigning World Series champion, a wild card winner, and a team that spent nearly half a billion dollars in the offseason. The Orioles made the playoffs as recently as 2012 with a lot of the same players and the Blue Jays made big moves after 2012, but those teams are an afterthought in this division. The Red Sox let Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia go, but enter 2014 in good shape with outstanding rookie Xander Bogaerts ready to take over at shortstop and a solid rotation with Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront all above-average starters. Jackie Bradley, Jr. was supposed to take over centerfield, but Grady Sizemore is attempting an amazing comeback bid and appears to have won the job.

Boston's main rival for the division, although admittedly neither was my pick, the Rays enter the 2014 season almost identical to the team that won 92 games last year. With Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, and Ben Zobrist leading the offense and David Price anchoring a young, talented rotation that includes Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer, the Rays should be set up for another run at a playoff spot. The Yankees lost their best player in Robinson Cano, their most expensive player to suspension in Alex Rodriguez, and responded by signing Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Masahiro Tanaka to contracts worth $471 million. Yet somehow, they still have holes. Mark Teixeira is a question mark coming off of an injury, Brian Roberts is set to play second base, and aging Derek Jeter is supposed to return to shortstop, and Kelly Johnson has the third base job by default. Despite those deficiencies, the Yankees offense should improve by default over the group that produced a wRC+ of 85 overall and was 70 or below at catcher, shortstop, third base and right field. The rotation, with a declining CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Masahiro Tanaka, the potential breakout of Ivan Nova, and the potential return of Michael Pineda has a lot of upside.

The Orioles could not find the late inning mastery in 2013 that led them to a playoff spot the previous season. They are likely to repeat the same pattern this season. Despite signing Ubaldo Jimenez, the rotation behind Chris Tillman is not strong. They added Nelson Cruz to the lineup, but it is not clear how much he can really help Chris Davis and Adam Jones. Matt Weiters, J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado are all solid players, but likely not enough to compete with the top three in the division. The Blue Jays are filled with players who have all had their ups and downs at the big league level. Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie have all shown great capabilities at one time or another. If they managed to be injury-free and play up to their better stat lines, the Blue Jays are a team that could surprise. Their pitching staff, with R.A. Dickey, Mark Buerhle, and Brandon Morrow is underwhelming, and even a great offense is likely to struggle to compete in this division, leaving the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees to battle it out for the division and two wild card berths.

NL West

1) Dodgers (6)
4) Padres (25)
5) Rockies (29)

Ben:

The Dodgers are the clear-cut favorites to win this division. Their payroll and talent levels are head and shoulders above their competition. The Dodgers have spent in a way that gives them tremendous depth. They have four outfielders who would start on most MLB clubs in Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig, and Andre Ethier. This allows them to absorb Kemp starting the year on the DL without much issue. Likewise with their starting rotation. The Dodgers currently have Josh Beckett started the year on the DL. No matter, L.A. just slots in Start No. 6 Paul Maholm. All-universe starter Clayton Kershaw is another matter, though. The Dodgers will feel the loss of their multiple Cy Young winner if his back issues continue past April 8, when he is eligible to come off the DL.

The Diamondbacks suffered a spate of pitching injuries during the spring. The always durable Bronson Arroyo is suffering from a barking back. Patrick Corbin, who was set to be the club's opening-day starter, suffered a season-ending UCL injury that required Tommy John surgery. Arizona is reportedly scouting Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija.

The Giants added veteran sinkerballer Tim Hudson this offseason to bolster their starting rotation, but will need to find more offense if they hope to hang with the Dodgers this season. I don't think Michael Morse is the answer to upgrade their lineup.

The Padres are currently in the midst of a rebuild while the Rockies continue to straddle the fence between rebuilding and winning now.

NL Central

1) Cardinals (6)
2) Reds (15)
3) Pirates (17)
4) Brewers (22)
5) Cubs (30)

Aaron:

THE FRONT-RUNNER: The Cardinals. I wasn't surprised to see that this was a unanimous choice among VEB's writers. This was an easy pick for me, and it's hard to find too many needles for the balloon of our collective expectations. This team is not perfect, but heading into 2014, all of the Redbird troubles are little ones. A very good team had a very good offseason, and now the math is simple: The Cardinals were the best team in the NL Central last year, they appear to have improved a little since then, and the next two most competitive teams appear to have slipped a little.

THE COMPETITION: Two players make up the bulk of that slipping. The outstanding A.J. Burnett and Shin-Soo Choo are gone, and neither was replaced by a comparable talent. Replacing Choo with the speedy Billy Hamilton will at least be fun for fans of The Reds, though Choo's OBP will be sorely missed. That's the new concern for the Reds: Who other than Joey Votto and Jay Bruce is going to hit? Giving Homer Bailey a nine-figure contract won't help this team score runs. As opposed to Billy Thrill, I don't think The Pirates fanbase will find Edison Volquez a fun consolation for losing A.J. Burnett. They didn't do anything to change last season's mediocre offense, and they really need Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke or Wandy Rodriguez to be good. On paper, it's tough to argue either of those teams did anything but get worse over the winter. In fact, the biggest free-agent signing this year was Matt Garza coming to The Brewers. Garza isn't going to turn around a team that won just 74 games last year, but Ryan Braun's return coupled with the emergence of Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis, and Jean Segura make this team a threat to contend. If Aramis Ramirez can stay upright, they have a legitimately solid lineup and rotation.

THE CUBS: The Cubs. Given their current roster, it's highly unlikely they approach .500 this year, let alone compete for the division. The bad news for the Cubs is that if I were a fan of theirs, I'd probably spend more time watching minor league games than major this year. But that's also the good news for them: They certainly have a minor league system worth watching. Baez (SS), Bryant (3B), Almora and Soler (OF) are the names to know here. Every one of them has a high ceiling, and Baez' in particular is stratospheric. If you're into customizing your voodoo dolls, it might be a good time to dust off the blue thread.

THE PICK: A team other than the Cardinals could win the division. Any second-tier squad could pull a 2012 Orioles and win an unusual number of close ones. Even without such good fortune, these teams could be better than expected; there are plenty of upside plays on each squad. The Cardinal rotation is young, and the bullpen lacks depth. If Waino or Yadi go down for an extended period, it would be difficult to overcome. And, well, there is always the chance of meteors. But let's not get too hung up on possibilities. Predictions are about probabilities, and this is an easy call: El Birdos are the chalk pick, and it's not close. I'll go with the chalk. Viva!


NL East

1) Nationals (6)
2) Braves (12)
3) Marlins (21)
4) Mets (25)
5) Phillies (26)

Lil' Scooter:

At first glance it appears that the NL East is a two-team race, but if you look a little closer… well, it still does.

The writers unanimously chose the Nationals to win the East, drawn in by the allure of young stars [such as Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg]* and a strong pitching staff, but this may not be as cut and dry as we think. Their baffling trade with Detroit looks less amazing as Doug Fister’s health is already in question and despite being heavily favored in 2013, where unable to play consistently enough to overtake Atlanta.

The second team in this two-team race is the Atlanta Braves, who were also unanimously chosen by the writers to come in second. The Braves, propelled by their fast start and aided by the inconsistent play of the Nationals, found themselves in first place nearly all of last year by a comfortable margin. This looks unlikely to repeat, as the Braves have suffered many setbacks in the form of injuries, particularly to starting pitchers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, leaving them to rely on second year pitcher Julio Tehran, recently acquisitioned free agent Ervin Santana, and… Aaron Harang.

The Marlins, Mets and Phillies are three teams almost interchangeable at the bottom of the heap. Of the three, the Marlins look to be the best as far as pure talent is concerned, [with the likes of NL Rookie of the Year, José Fernandez, and slugger Giancarlo Stanton]*, making them the best pick for third place. The Mets pitching staff looks steady enough to keep them out of the bottom of the cellar with rookie Zach Wheeler and veteran Bartolo Colon, but they just don’t appear to have enough consistent bats to compete this year. And then there is the Phillies. They will have the benefit of a healthy Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to start to season, potentially an emerging star in Dominic Brown, and of course, Cliff Lee, but they are just…so old. They look to be a non-factor in the division in 2014.

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