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.
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!
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.