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Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Ranking the teams: 18 through 13

By David Schoenfield

It's the third part of our pre-spring training series. One thing that's tougher than you probably realize: predicting records. Think about it: Every team looks better on paper. Most of them plugged the obvious holes from 2013 (or attempted to), everybody is essentially healthy and every young player is projected to improve. Try it. Add up wins and losses for every team. You need 2,430 in each column.

Team rankings: Nos. 24-19 »

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25 »

Kansas City Royals
18. Kansas City Royals

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 31 more runs, allow the same. Sounds simple enough, right? Except the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the AL in 2013 with 601 -- the only AL club in the past 20 years to allow fewer was the 2012 Rays with 577. Before that, you have to go back to the 1990 Oakland A's, who allowed 570. So odds are the Royals will allow more runs in 2014, which means they'll probably have to increase their offense by more than 31 runs.

Big offseason moves: Acquired RF Norichika Aoki from the Brewers for P Will Smith, signed SP Jason Vargas, re-signed SP Bruce Chen, signed 2B Omar Infante, acquired 3B Danny Valencia from the Orioles for OF David Lough, will likely lose free agent SP Ervin Santana.

Most intriguing player: Eric Hosmer. Through the first two months of 2013 he was hitting .261 with one home run and the Eric Hosmer bandwagon was as quiet as the Denver Broncos' locker room at halftime of the Super Bowl. Then George Brett gave a few batting tips or something clicked and Hosmer looked more like the rookie of 2011 and he hit .318 with 16 home runs the rest of the way. He's just 24 so there's still hope he'll turn into that 30-homer first baseman.

Due for a better year: Alcides Escobar hit a miserable .234 with an even more miserable .259 OBP, which he backed up with a complete lack of power. He created about 41 runs less than the average hitter -- the worst in the majors. He can't be worse because if he hits that poorly again he'll lose his job.

Due for a worse year: Jeremy Guthrie went 15-12 with a not horrible 4.04 ERA even though he allowed 236 hits in 211.2 innings and surrendered 30 home runs. His strikeout rate (4.7 per nine innings) is right on the edge of being too low for a major league starter.

I'm just the messenger: The Royals ranked last in the AL with 112 home runs and while home runs aren't everything -- the Cardinals led the NL in runs despite ranking 13th in home runs and in 2012 had a very good offense despite finishing last in the NL in home runs -- they are nice to have. Especially in the AL. The offseason additions of Infante and Aoki plugged holes (and Valencia can platoon with Mike Moustakas at third base), but you have to wonder where the power will come from.

The final word: I feel bad picking the Royals where I am because it would be great to finally see them back in the postseason. They also have a lot of things going for them: a terrific bullpen, a young core of hitters that could improve, a solid workhorse starter in James Shields. On the positive side, you also can point to how bad Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza were in their 39 starts, so while losing Santana hurts, they could get better production from the No. 5 spot, whether it's Danny Duffy or Yordano Ventura. But I see a pitching staff that is going to regress, maybe a lot, and an offense that won't have enough firepower. I hope I'm wrong.

Prediction: 79-83

San Diego Padres
17. San Diego Padres

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 61 more runs, allow 99 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Signed SP Josh Johnson, signed RP Joaquin Benoit, traded RP Luke Gregerson to the A's for OF Seth Smith, acquired RP Alex Torres from the Rays.

Most intriguing player: Andrew Cashner. After various ups and downs in his two years since coming over from the Cubs, including an offseason hunting accident, Cashner finally put his explosive fastball/slider combo together in the second half as he posted a 2.14 ERA in 11 starts. A key was an improved changeup -- batters hit .287 against it in the first half but .206 in the second half. With that pitch helping to neutralize left-handed batters, Cashner may take another big leap forward.

Due for a better season: The starting rotation. Gone is Edinson Volquez and his 27 starts and 6.01 ERA. Gone is Clayton Richard and his 7.01 ERA in 11 starts. Gone is Jason Marquis and his 72/68 SO/BB ratio. Yes, Johnson is a gamble, but the most important thing is the depth: Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, Eric Stults, Robbie Erlin and Burch Smith, with prospect Matt Wisler soon to be ready. From depth the Padres are hoping they'll find quality.

Due for a worse season: One reason the Padres could surprise is that there isn't an obvious candidate to have a worse year. Maybe Stults won't reach 200 innings again, but the Padres are full of players who could improve -- Jedd Gyorko, Chase Headley, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal.

I'm just the messenger: The Padres' fourth- and sixth-highest paid players are closer Huston Street and new setup guy Benoit. The Padres are spending 16 percent of their payroll on those two guys. Not that they're bad pitchers, but the Padres have proved year after year that they can build a cheap and effective bullpen in Petco Park. It just seems like a strange way to use their somewhat limited resources.

The final word: It's easy to dismiss the Padres because they lack a big star -- Gyorko led the team with 63 RBIs last season -- but the Padres are an interesting sleeper pick. They'll mix and match with platoons at several positions. If Headley can produce more like 2012, when he led the NL in RBIs (115), and if Johnson can provide 25 good starts (a big if at this point after his injury-riddled season in Toronto last year), don't be shocked if the Padres sneak into a wild-card position.

Prediction: 80-82

Baltimore Orioles
16. Baltimore Orioles

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 33 more runs, allow 21 fewer.

Big offseason moves: Orioles fans are still waiting for one. Acquired OF David Lough from the Royals for 3B Danny Valencia, traded RP Jim Johnson to the A's for 2B Jemile Weeks, signed RP Ryan Webb.

Most intriguing player: Chris Davis. "Crush" had a monster season, leading the AL with 53 home runs, 138 RBIs and 370 total bases. He added 42 doubles (and a triple) to give him 96 extra-base hits, the sixth-most in AL history behind three Babe Ruth seasons, Albert Belle's 1995 explosion and Jimmie Foxx in 1932. Included in those numbers were MLB-leading totals of 11 home runs and 33 RBIs in close and late situations. If the Orioles had made the playoffs, he probably would have walked home with MVP honors.

Due for a better year: What happened to Matt Wieters? He did hit 22 home runs, but his OBP dropped all the way to .287, thanks to a .214/.270/.358 mark from the left side. Wieters' splits have been so pronounced the past three seasons -- his wOBA is .405 from the right side, .291 from the left side -- that he should probably just give up switch-hitting.

Due for a worse year: Davis. He hit .245/.339/.515 in the second half. Was it because he was getting pitched around because of his torrid start? Not really. In the first half, 44.2 percent of pitches he saw were in the strike zone; in the second half, 43.3 percent. In the first half, 33 percent of his fly balls left the park; in the second half, it was a more normal 20.5 percent (he was 24.1 percent in 2012).

I'm just the messenger: Who closes? After trading Johnson and backing out on a deal with Grant Balfour, the Orioles are left without an obvious closer candidate. The sabermetrician in me says it shouldn't matter, but in the case of the Orioles, it may matter, because Darren O'Day and Tommy Hunter, the top two candidates, both struggled mightily against left-handed batters in 2013. Part of their value came from Buck Showalter's ability to match them up. But you don't match up with closers. I can see the ninth inning being just as problematic as last year, when the O's lost nine games they led after eight innings (the most in the majors).

The final word: The biggest issue in projecting the Orioles to win 90 or 92 games is who is going to improve? You can't expect Davis to play better, Adam Jones does what he does, J.J. Hardy does J.J. Hardy things and so on. Maybe Wieters gets on base a little more, maybe Manny Machado improves at the plate. But the rotation is still a bunch of No. 3 and 4 starters, there is power but OBP issues in the lineup and closer could be a problem. I see a .500 team.

Prediction: 81-81

Cleveland Indians
15. Cleveland Indians

How they can get to 90 wins: Well, they're already there. Their 2013 actual record was 92-70, their Pythagorean record 90-72 (a 10-2 record in extra-inning games helped). The Indians were 43 runs above average on offense and 40 runs better than average on defense, so their success was split down the middle (not factoring in park effects and Cleveland played as a pitcher's park in 2013, so the offense was a little more valuable than the pitching/defense).

Big offseason moves: SP Ubaldo Jimenez remains a free agent, lost SP Scott Kazmir, signed OF David Murphy, signed RP John Axford, lost RP Joe Smith, lost RP Chris Perez, traded OF Drew Stubbs to the Rockies for P Josh Outman.

Most intriguing player: Carlos Santana. With Yan Gomes emerging as a defensive force behind the plate (he hit .294/.345/.481 last season), Santana is no longer the starting catcher. He's trying to learn to play third base in winter ball, but could end up as a super utility player at third, first, DH and catcher if he can't handle third on a regular basis.

Due for a better year: The Indians signed former Rangers outfielder David Murphy believing he'll bounce back from hitting .220. Mark Simon examined why that's likely.

Due for a worse year: Ryan Raburn had a huge year off the bench, slugging 16 home runs and driving in 55 runs in 277 plate appearances (he slugged .675 with runners in scoring position). Good luck getting that production again.

I'm just the messenger: The red flag for me in Cleveland's run to the playoffs was that the bullpen was 19th in the majors in ERA and yet went 33-16. A few of those wins came after blown saves, but that's still an impressive W-L record for a mediocre relief corps. The Indians also lost Smith and replaced him with the erratic Axford. While Cody Allen appears ready to step in as the closer, they also need Axford to provide quality innings in the setup role.

The final word: The biggest issue, of course, is replacing the 340 solid innings they received from Jimenez and Kazmir (assuming Jimenez doesn't return). They'll need Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister to start 32 times instead of 24 and somebody to take over the fifth slot in the rotation. Other than Raburn and maybe Gomes, nobody on offense had a career year, but it's also hard to project much improvement (third base was the weakest spot with a combined .218 average). I just have too many concerns about the rotation and the bullpen to see a repeat trip to the playoffs.

Projected record: 82-80

<a href=14. New York Yankees

How they can get to 90 wins: Score 86 more runs, allow 20 fewer. The Yankees won 85 games last season, but their true talent level in 2013 was much lower as they were outscored by 21 runs.

Big offseason moves: Signed SP Masahiro Tanaka, signed CF Jacoby Ellsbury, signed C Brian McCann, signed RF Carlos Beltran, signed IF/OF Kelly Johnson, signed 2B Brian Roberts, re-signed IF Brendan Ryan, RP Mariano Rivera retired, SP Andy Pettitte retired, lost SP Phil Hughes, lost RP Boone Logan, 3B Alex Rodriguez suspended for season.

Most intriguing player: Tanaka signed a seven-year, $155 million contract on top of the $20 million posting fee. At that price, he better be intriguing.

Due for a better season: Not including the injury comebacks of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, how about CC Sabathia? Was his 4.78 ERA the beginning of a decline or just a bad year? He's 33, there's a lot of mileage on that left arm, his average fastball velocity dipped 2.7 mph from 2011 and he allowed a career-high in home runs (28), but you never want to bet against CC.

Due for a worse season: Jacoby Ellsbury's season-by-season WAR totals: 3.0, 2.7, -0.1, 8.1, 1.0, 5.8. Yes, injuries were the factors in 2010 and 2012, but that's the point. You have no idea what to expect. Can you bet on him staying healthy?

I'm just the messenger: Signing all those big free agents plus essentially adding Jeter and Teixeira has created hopes in the Bronx that 2014 will be a repeat of 2009, when they followed a non-playoff year with a World Series title. But no team has won with a 40-year-old shortstop and Teixeira was good, but not great in 2011 and 2012 anyway.

The final word: Hey, the Yankees will at least be far more interesting than last year (no offense to Jayson Nix, Chris Stewart, Vernon Wells or Lyle Overbay). But just how good are the additions? According to Baseball-Reference, McCann was worth 2.2 WAR and Beltran 2.4. Tanaka and Ellsbury should be big upgrades. But will that be enough? Don't forget that they've lost a closer, a starting pitcher who had a good year, the infield is old and they're counting on 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda to give them 200 innings. It all adds up to a wide range of possible outcomes. The team will be better than last year, but they could actually end up winning fewer games. Such is baseball.

Projected record: 84-78

<a href=13. Pittsburgh Pirates

How they can get to 90 wins: The Pirates went 94-68, but outscored their opponents by just 54 runs. Their totals of runs scored and runs allowed suggests a team that should have gone 88-74. Barring the same "lucky" distribution of runs, the Pirates will need to score 18 more runs to win 90 games if they allow the same number of runs -- or 55 more to win 94 games again.

Big offseason moves: SP A.J. Burnett remains a free agent, lost 1B/RF Garrett Jones, lost RF Marlon Byrd and 1B Justin Morneau, signed SP Edinson Volquez.

Most intriguing player: Well, Andrew McCutchen was the NL MVP last season, and is one of the most exciting players in the game and a true franchise cornerstone at the peak of his abilities. And then there's Gerrit Cole, who could blossom into a franchise pitcher after posting a 3.22 ERA as a rookie.

Due for a better season: The Pirates better hope it's Wandy Rodriguez, who made just 12 starts last year before going down with forearm tightness and tendinitis. With the likely departure of Burnett and second-half collapse of Jeff Locke, the rotation has some question marks behind Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton.

Due for a worse season: Mark Melancon had a 1.39 ERA and allowed just one home run in 71 innings, serving as Jason Grilli's setup man and then replacing him as closer when Grilli went down with a right forearm strain in late July. In fact, the entire Pirates bullpen was basically lights out. After ranking fourth in the majors in relief innings, however, will the pen deliver an encore performance?

I'm just the messenger: The Pirates had an Opening Day payroll in 2013 of $66.8 million. Right now, their estimated payroll for 2014 will be about $70 million. Each MLB team will receive an additional $25 million or so in national TV money over 2013 (although Pirates president Frank Coonelly said it's not accurate that teams will receive that amount this season). Pirates' attendance will surely go up after last year's playoff run. Coonelly has also said the Pirates' local TV deal with ROOT sports is in the top half of all MLB teams and that the reported figure of $18 million per year has been "grossly understated." While the decision to not sign Burnett is defensible, it still begs the question of why the Pirates didn't do anything to build on last year's momentum.

The final word: The answer, it seems, is that the Pirates are willing to take a step backward in order to take a step forward. With prospects such as outfielder Gregory Polanco and starter Jameson Taillon perhaps ready to contribute at some point this year and others such as Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham and Alen Hanson coming up behind them, the Pirates have talent on the way, some of it potentially top-line talent. Still, it's just potential at this point. Anyway, I see the Pirates allowing more than 577 runs again -- even given their outstanding defense. The offense lacks the upside to make up the difference.

Projected record: 84-78