Monday, March 31, 2014

Baltimore Beats Boston on Opening Day

Lester pitched well enough to win, but Boston's bats came up short (ESPN)
Boston’s World Series title defense officially got underway this afternoon as the Red Sox lost a close game to the Orioles at Camden Yards.

The Red Sox fell 2-1 to their division rivals despite a strong performance from team ace Jon Lester, who picked up where he left off in the postseason. Lester was sharp, allowing six hits and only one walk while striking out eight in seven innings of work, but he was saddled with the loss as Boston blew several scoring opportunities. Despite recording nine hits, Sox hitters came up empty with men on base (0-for-10 with runners in scoring position) and stranded 12 runners in all. 

Baltimore drew first blood in the bottom of the second when Nelson Cruz, making his Orioles debut, scored on Delmon Young's run-scoring double play. The Sox answered in their half of the fourth when reclamation project Grady Sizemore led off the frame with a home run to right--his first big fly since July 15th, 2011--but that would be the extent of their scoring for the day.

Though Boston forced Baltimore starter Chris Tillman out of the game after throwing 104 pitches through five, they were unable to break through against the Orioles bullpen. Zach Britton kept them at bay long enough for Baltimore to regain the lead on Cruz's seventh inning solo blast. To his credit, Lester recovered to strike out the side and end his day on a high note.

The Sox seemed poised for one of their patented late-inning comebacks after working a pair of walks off Evan Meek in the top of the eighth, but Brian Matusz came to the rescue and induced A.J. Pierzynski to ground out and end the rally. They made one more last-ditch effort in the ninth, putting two on against newly minted Orioles closer Tommy Hunter for David Ortiz, but Big Papi flew out to left. Jackie Bradley, Jr., inserted as a pinch-runner for Mike Napoli the previous inning, was called out on strikes to end the game.

After an off day tomorrow, the series resumes Wednesday night with John Lackey squaring off against Ubaldo Jimenez.

2014 NL East Preview

Strasburg and the Nats are poised to run away with the division
1st Place Washington Nationals
2013 Record: 86-76
2013 Pythagorean: 84-78
2014 Projected: 96-66
The Nats are the clear frontrunners in the NL East this year. Their rotation, comprised of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Doug Fister, is the best in baseball. Washington's lineup is equally formidable, with Wilson Ramos behind the plate, Adam LaRoche at first, Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond up the middle, Ryan Zimmerman manning the hot corner, and an outfield of Bryce Harper, Denard Span and Jayson Werth. Love this team.

2nd Place Atlanta Braves
2013 Record: 96-66
2013 Pythagorean: 98-64
2014 Projected: 90-72
Even with several injuries to their starting rotation, the Braves still have enough pitching and talent to gut out 90 wins in a weak division. The lineup is going to be really good. Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, and Jason Heyward all have the potential to get better, and I don't think Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton are going to be as bad as they were last season. Evan Gattis will have to prove his strong rookie season was legit, though. And don't forget Justin Upton, possibly the most talented position player on the team. Even without Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Tim Hudson, the rotation of Mike Minor, Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, and Ervin Santana should be solid. The Braves boasted baseball's best bullpen and top closer (Craig Kimbrel) last year, and that unit will need to step up in 2014 to help the rotation along until it gets healthier.

3rd Place Philadelphia Phillies
2013 Record: 73-89
2013 Pythagorean: 66-96
2014 Projected: 75-87
The once-proud Phillies have deteriorated into an aging, bloated team that won't be much better than .500 if everything goes their way. Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett form a strong top of the rotation, so starting pitching isn't the problem (when Hamels returns from the DL). The lineup, however, is way too old. Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd,  and Carlos Ruiz are all past their primes, and Ben Revere simply isn't very good. The only player in that lineup who's young and can hit worth a damn is Domonic Brown. Philadelphia's young talent is on the way but won't be ready to contribute much in 2014 when the aging stars invariably get hurt. The bullpen isn't make or break, especially with Jonathan Papelbon losing velocity and effectiveness as he moves deeper into his 30s. Put it all together and it's going to be another losing season for the Phils.

4th Place New York Mets
2013 Record: 74-88
2013 Pythagorean: 74-88
2014 Projected: 72-90
Losing Matt Harvey for the year is a crippling blow to the rotation, though thankfully it looks as though Zack Wheeler is ready to step up in his absence. I say this is the year Bartolo Colon finally falls apart. Dillon Gee and Jonathan Niese are just merely okay. The lineup looks stronger with Curtis Granderson and Chris Young providing upgrades in the outfield, but it remains to be seen how their power will play in Citi Field. Ike Davis could really use a bounce back, but my money's on catcher Travis d'Arnaud taking a big step forward. Eric Young Jr. and Ruben Tejada provide speed, but not much else. Like Philly, New York could get to .500 if things go their way but will probably settle in the 70-75 win range.

5th Place Miami Marlins
2013 Record: 62-100
2013 Pythagorean: 64-98
2014 Projected: 69-93
Miami got better over the offseason, bringing in Jarrod Saltalamacchia  and Garrett Jones to stretch out the lineup behind Giancarlo Stanton. Christian Yelich also seems poised for a breakout, but I wouldn't bank on much from Rafael Furcal or Casey McGehee. Overall the offense still projects to be a weak one, but not as bad as last year's. Jose Fernandez fronts an intriguing but also probably not very good pitching staff, unless Jacob Turner and Henderson Alvarez break out. The Marlins won't be the laughingstocks they were last year, but a winning season is still out of the question.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

2014 AL West Preview

Darvish will help the Rangers overtake Oakland in the AL West (NESN)
1st Place Texas Rangers
2013 Record: 91-72
2013 Pythagorean: 92-71
2014 Projected: 93-69
The Rangers rebuilt their lineup after letting it sag last year (when they tried to replace Josh Hamilton, Michael Young and Mike Napoli with Lance Berkman), adding Shin-Soo Choo to the top of the order and swapping a fading Ian Kinsler out for the still-in-his-prime Prince Fielder. Adding them to Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, Elvis Andrus and Jackson Profar gives the Rangers one of baseball's best offenses in 2014. The pitching staff is iffier because of injuries to Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, but Yu Darvish looks like the AL Cy Young favorite and could have a vintage Pedro Martinez-esque season in store. I believe Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers, though inexperienced, are capable enough to pick up the slack, and Tommy Hanson has some bounce back potential if he can shake off back-to-back poor seasons and recapture the form that made him look like a future ace from 2009 through 2011. The back of the rotation is very questionable, but I think the Rangers will hit enough and Darvish will pitch well enough to help hide their mistakes. When healthy they'll have an incredibly dangerous team and will be in the conversation for World Series favorites.

2nd Place Oakland A's
2013 Record: 96-66
2013 Pythagorean: 96-66
2014 Projected: 90-72
Oakland followed up their surprise 2012 division title by winning the AL West again in 2013, largely by relying on their depth and surprisingly good lineup constructed of fly ball hitters. I don't see them making it three in a row, though. Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Coco Crisp are all due for some major regression, and I seriously doubt that Jed Lowrie will stay healthy again. Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick should be better, but on the whole I think Oakland's offense will fall back to the middle of the pack after ranking third in the American League in runs scored last year. The rotation has already been hit hard by injuries, losing Jarrod Parker for the entire year and A.J. Griffin for the start of the season. That forces the A's to lean heavily on the always unpredictable Scott Kazmir, the merely solid Tommy Milone and young Sonny Gray, who has Cy Young potential but may be overworked in his first full season as a starter. The bullpen is phenomenal, if not baseball's best, and the bench looks deep as well. I'm sure the A's will find a way to plug the leaks because they always seem to find a way, but right now I see too many issues to predict a third straight division flag for Billy Beane's crew.

3rd Place Los Angeles Angels
2013 Record: 78-84
2013 Pythagorean: 81-81
2014 Projected: 84-78
Mike Trout can't possibly get any better, can he? He found a way to improve upon his monster rookie season, showing a keener eye at the plate and cutting down on strikeouts last year. This year he's focused on being more aggressive early in the count, which would allow him to take advantage of first-pitch fastballs every now and then. Don't bet against Trout reaching new heights in 2014. Unfortunately, the other 24 Angels probably aren't good enough to help LA overcome Texas and Oakland. Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols need to bounce back for this team to reach its potential, and neither one is a sure thing. David Freese improves the third base situation, but only if he avoids a repeat of his disappointing 2013. Kyle Calhoun's a popular breakout candidate and could be this year's version of Matt Carpenter or Josh Donaldson. The Angels will score runs, even without Mark Trumbo's big power bat, but the starting rotation once again figures to be their downfall. Jered Weaver isn't the ace he used to be, and C.J. Wilson is merely solid as the number two. Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago don't score anybody and are mediocre at best. The true wildcard in the rotation is southpaw Tyler Skaggs, acquired in the Trumbo trade with Arizona. Just 22 and pitching in a much more friendly environment for hurlers, Skaggs could give the rotation a big boost if he makes good on the promise that made him one of baseball's top prospects as recently as last year. If everything goes right for the Angels then a postseason berth becomes a very real possibility, and they should at least have a winning record, but they just don't enough arms to compete with the division's top dogs.

4th Place Seattle Mariners
2013 Record: 71-91
2013 Pythagorean: 67-95
2014 Projected: 77-85
Robinson Cano can't turn the Mariners into contenders overnight, especially if his performance takes a hit from trading Yankee Stadium for Safeco Field (which, combined with age, probably will). He'll still add a lot of punch to a lineup that desperately needs it after losing Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Morse. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison are intriguing additions but probably won't provide the kind of impact Seattle's hoping for. Breakout seasons from Brad Miller, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley are more likely and would go a long way towards beefing up the Mariners' lineup around Cano, as would another strong season from third baseman Kyle Seager.. The top of the rotation is excellent with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but there's just not enough depth beyond them to vault the M's into contention. Anytime you have Randy Wolf in your starting rotation, you know you're in trouble. I see the Mariners improving over last year, but not enough to enjoy a winning season.

5th Place Houston Astros
2013 Record: 51-111
2013 Pythagorean: 57-105
2014 Projected: 59-103
The rebuilding Astros are going to be terrible once again, but at least they should be better. Most of their starting nine is in their early or mid-20s and is ripe for improvement. Adding major league caliber players such as Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman is a step in the right direction, and they already have a couple All-Star worthy talents in Jose Altuve and Jason Castro. Chris Carter's a solid source of power and on-base percentage, but really needs to cut down on his strikeouts. Speedy shortstop Jonathan Villar has 50 steal potential if he can stay healthy and get on base at a reasonable clip, as he did during last year's debut (.321 OBP). The remade bullpen should be better, too. Best case scenario, a lot of the young talent steps up and Houston only loses 90 games instead of 100.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Trout's Team-Friendly Extension

Trout scored a massive payday that will pay him like the superstar he is (CBS)
Five months after inspiring heated MVP debate and discussion, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are in the news again, this time for the record-breaking contract extensions they signed on the same day.

Cabrera, of course, just signed an eight-year, $248 million deal to follow the two years and $48 million still remaining on his current contract. All told, the $292 million (not including the additional $60 million he could earn in vesting options) lump sum is the most ever committed to one player.

Coming on the heels of that, Trout's six-year, $144.5 million extension not only pales in comparison, but also looks like a veritable bargain. Whereas Cabrera's instantly regrettable contract is a perfect example of the kind of deal teams should never, ever make under any circumstance, Trout's extension is the polar opposite. If a team is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a baseball player, it should at least get the player's prime years in return instead of his entire decline phase. The deals made with Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Josh Hamilton are all albatrosses because they drastically overpay said players for the back end of their careers. These megadeals are much more likely to work out when given to the Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers of the world, young and supremely talented all-around players still years away from reaching their peaks.

Nobody is more deserving of such a deal than Trout, the best young player in baseball history. Since he already signed for a million dollars this year, his new extension kicks in next year and runs through 2020, when he'll be 29--still in his prime and young enough to command a ten year deal of his own that will likely be the largest sports contract ever seen. For now, Trout will have to settle for the most money ever given to a player with just two years of service time.

And it's still not enough--not even close. FanGraphs valued Trout's performance at almost $100 million in the last two seasons alone (when he made about $1 million in player salaries), which means he could be half the player he was in 2012 and 2013 and still be worth every cent. And if he gets better, as most players in their early 20s tend to do, or just keeps playing like the modern-day Willie Mays, then his contract will look even better.

So while I'm sure the Angels regret their most recent nine-figure commitments (to Pujols and Hamilton), they won't regret this one. Trout will be worth the money and then some.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Criticizing Cabrera's Contract

Cabrera just became the most expensive player in baseball history
For over 13 years Alex Rodriguez held the title of highest paid player in baseball. Now, for the first time since the year 2000, someone has surpassed him.

Not surprisingly it is Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in baseball.

With Detroit unable to reach an agreement with last year's AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer earlier this week, the Tigers turned around and inked Cabrera to a new ten-year deal that will pay him $292 million--$17 million more than Rodriguez was guaranteed when he signed his megadeal with the Yankees six years ago. The deal also includes vesting options for the two years after the contract expires, options that would pay him an additional $30 million per season and hike the contract's total value up to $352 million (!).

A quick aside: the Tigers better pray that Cabrera retires or gets traded before those vesting options kick in, as they cover Cabrera's age 41 and 42 seasons. If he lasts into his early 40s he'll probably be pursuing some major milestones such as Barry Bonds's home run record or Hank Aaron's RBI record, but there's just no way he'd have enough on-field value to justify earning $30 million per year (even after accounting for inflation and rising salaries). Owing $30 million per year to a former star on the wrong side of 40 is the kind of dumb decision that cripples a budget and ties a team's hands, especially if that team isn't the Yankees or Dodgers.

As for the contract itself, well, I think Detroit was incredibly dumb to lock him up when he was still two years away from free agency. Just as the Red Sox should have held off on extending David Ortiz, the Tigers could and should have waited until next year to begin serious contract discussion talks. They were fools to make this move now, especially with Cabrera coming off back-to-back MVP seasons that maxed out his earnings potential. Had they just waited another year or two, they probably could have bought out the rest of Cabrera's career for significantly less.

The Tigers are betting that Cabrera can sustain his current level of play for at least a few more years and remain an effective hitter throughout his 30s. But they have to be prepared for the possibility that his days as a superstar are already behind him or are about to come to an end. A lot can happen in two years, especially during a player's early 30s when he typically begins to show signs of decline. Sure, Cabrera looks great and healthy now, just a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday, but in the past we've seen many start to go downhill around that age as their skills diminish and they have trouble staying healthy. Alex Rodriguez was otherworldly at 31, but his OPS has gone down every season since. Albert Pujols, the player with whom Cabrera is most frequently compared, saw his OPS drop more than 100 points between his age 30 and 31 season and hasn't been an elite hitter since. Frank Thomas, another great comp for Cabrera, was a beast up through age 32, then struggled to stay healthy and consistent after that.

It's discouraging, then, that Cabrera struggled with injuries and slumped during the second half last year. His descent appears imminent.

In a lot of ways this deal reminds me of the ill-fated contract extension Philadelphia gave Ryan Howard prior to the 2010 season. The Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million deal that didn't kick in until 2012. Howard was a monster at the time, having totaled no less than 45 home runs and 136 RBI in each of the previous four seasons, but his performance dropped off dramatically during the two intervening years, and by the time his contract kicked in it was already regarded as an albatross. Howard has only gotten worse as age, injuries, and an ability to hit southpaws have made him a very expensive shell of his former self.

Philadelphia's blunder has since become a cautionary tale: don't give a contract extension to a slugging baseman in his 30s, because chances are you're going to regret it. I thought the Tigers had learned a similar lesson from their failed Prince Fielder experiment. Apparently not.

Now Cabrera is a much, much better hitter than either of them, but the same logic still applies. Like Howard and Fielder, Cabrera is a big, slow, first base/DH type with the kind of body that typically doesn't age well and is ripe for regression. All of his value is tied up in his bat, so he won't be able to help Detroit with his legs or glove. If the Tigers are smart (which, based on their head-scratching moves this offseason, they don't appear to be) they'll turn him into a full-time designated hitter as soon as they part ways with Victor Martinez, who's contract is up at the end of the season, and hope Cabrera ages as well as Ortiz and Edgar Martinez.

Because if he doesn't, the Tigers are going to get burned.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 AL Central Preview

Cabrera and the Tigers are the undisputed kings of the AL Central
1st Place Detroit Tigers
2013 Record: 93-69
2013 Pythagorean: 99-63
2014 Projected: 92-70
The Tigers have won the division three years in a row and should have no problem repeating again in 2014. Trading Prince Fielder takes some oomph out of their lineup and I think this is the year that Torii Hunter finally falls apart, but the offense is still dynamite. You have Miguel Cabrera--the best hitter in baseball--surrounded by Austin Jackson, Victor Martinez (who proved he could still hit last year) and now Ian Kinsler, who's in decline but still provides above average offense from the keystone. Shortstop's a problem now that Jose Iglesias is out indefinitely with stress fractures in his shins, and Alex Gonzalez isn't the answer (I hear Stephen Drew is still available...). With Cabrera moving back to first, 22 year-old Nick Castellanos will take over third base duties and has a good shot to win Rookie of the Year honors. Rajai Davis adds a nice dash of speed to an otherwise slow team. The rotation, which features 2011 AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, reigning award winner Max Scherzer and 2013 AL ERA champion Anibal Sanchez, is just as formidable. Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly round out what should be one of the best starting fives in baseball (which would be even better, by the way, had Detroit not practically given Doug Fister away for free). Even with Joe Nathan on board the bullpen still isn't great, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem during the regular season if the rotation pitches up to its potential.

2nd Place Kansas City Royals
2013 Record: 86-76
2013 Pythagorean: 87-75
2014 Projected: 90-72
This is the last year KC has James Shields under contract, and their success is more or less riding on him. Losing Ervin Santana means the rest of the rotation (Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen) is just meh, so Shields needs to pitch like an ace again in order for the Royals to contend. Rookie Yordano Ventura had a great spring training and could be the X-Factor if he hits the ground running. The lineup is significantly improved over last year's with Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante likely to provide big upgrades at right field and second base. Mike Moustakas has been on fire this spring and looks like he's finally ready to break out. He along with Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer still have room to grow, which means Kansas City's offense is teeming with upside. Better things might also be expected of Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, but I wouldn't count on it. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are already established stars and just need to keep doing what they're doing. The bullpen, led by Greg Holland, is one of baseball's best. Put it all together and the Royals are well-positioned to make the playoffs for the first time since George Brett's heyday in 1985. They're still longshots to win the division and will thus have to settle for one of the two wild card spots.

3rd Place Cleveland Indians
2013 Record: 92-70
2013 Pythagorean: 90-72
2014 Projected: 88-74
Terry Francona guided Cleveland to a surprise postseason appearance last year and much of the talent remains to make another push this season. Like Kansas City, Cleveland has a nice, young team that's a little short on star power and starting pitching, but makes up for it with a deep, balanced lineup and stellar bullpen. The lineup has great depth with plus or average players at almost every position. Jason Kipnis has emerged as one of baseball's top second baseman and a legitimate MVP candidate. His double play partner Asdrubal Cabrera is due for a rebound after hitting a career worst .242/.299/.402 last year. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (when he comes off the DL) should also bounce back, though that's less likely with both on the wrong side of 30. Yan Gomez was quietly excellent (133 OPS+) as the team's backstop last year and helps Carlos Santana by allowing him to play mostly first base and DH. David Murphy should be a solid addition to the outfield. The rotation will miss Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, but not so much if Danny Salazar has the breakout campaign that many expect him to have. Justin Masterson can't afford to have a repeat of his disastrous 2012 (4.93 ERA, 1.45 WHIP). Corey Kluber took a big step forward last year and needs to at least stay the same, if not improve again. John Axford makes their already great bullpen even better.

4th Place Minnesota Twins
2013 Record: 66-96
2013 Pythagorean: 63-99
2014 Projected: 71-91
The Twins aren't going to hit at all (except when Joe Mauer's in the batter's box), but at least Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes make their pitching more respectable. Jason Kubel's back after a two-year hiatus and could add some punch if he hits like he did in 2012 (30 homers, 90 RBI, .833 OPS), but will only make things worse if he repeats last year's putrid performance (5, 32, .610). Minnesota could also use a big bounce back from Josh Willingham who, like Kubel, fell apart after a big 2012, but seeing as how he's 35 that's probably not going to happen. Former top prospect Aaron Hicks could be okay, but none of this changes the fact that the Twins are woefully short on bats. The rotation, which also includes Kevin Correia and Pelfrey, should be better, but only marginally so. The bullpen's actually pretty pretty good, and Glen Perkins is one of the better closers in baseball, but it won't be enough to make up for their mediocre starting pitchers. Their best talent (besides Mauer) just isn't major league ready yet.

5th Place Chicago White Sox
2013 Record: 63-99
2013 Pythagorean: 67-95
2014 Projected: 68-94
The White Sox were active this winter after bottoming out with a 99 loss season last year, but I'm not convinced they're going to be much better this year. Jose Abreu adds an intriguing power bat to an otherwise ugly lineup. Adam Dunn and Alexei Ramirez are past their primes. Paul Konerko is at the end of the line. The outfield of Avisail Garcia, Adam Eaton and Alejandro De Aza has no power whatsoever. Even though Chicago plays in a homer-friendly park, it's not going to help the team's light-hitting position players..The starting rotation is completely dependent on Chris Sale having another elite season, so if he gets hurt they're screwed. John Danks desperately needs to bounce back from three straight injury-plagued and ineffective campaigns. Jose Quintana made major strides in his sophomore season and is a great number two or three, but probably won't ever develop into an ace. Erik Johnson needs to get his walks down if he wants to make a positive impact on the rotation. Even without Addison Reed, the bullpen should be better than it was last year, so that's a plus.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 AL East Preview

Led by 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price, Tampa has plenty of  pitching
1st Place Tampa Bay Rays
2013 Record: 92-71
2013 Pythagorean: 87-76
2014 Projected: 93-69
The Rays have so much good starting pitching it's not even funny. The rotation projects to be David Price, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Jake Odorizzi, backed up by Jeremy Hellickson, Erik Bedard and prospect Alex Colome. Nobody can match that. Their new and improved bullpen is just as good, especially with Grant Balfour representing a clear upgrade at closer over Fernando Rodney. Their offense is a bit light, as usual, but full seasons from Wil Myers and David DeJesus should help and they'll hit enough so long as Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings remain healthy and James Loney doesn't start sucking again. With so much depth top-to-bottom, Tampa Bay is well-positioned to win its first World Series this year.

2nd Place Boston Red Sox
2013 Record: 97-65
2013 Pythagorean: 100-62
2014 Projected: 91-71
Everything went right for the World Series champions last year, but they should have enough resources to overcome natural regression and the loss of several key contributors. While the Red Sox got worse in some areas, pitching wasn't one of them. On paper, Boston's pitching depth is on par with Tampa Bay's. The Red Sox rotation consists of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront, with Mass. native Chris Capuano ready to step in when needed. I like their bullpen even better this year now that Edward Mujica is on board. The lineup is due for some regression due to age (David Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli) and inferior/untested replacements for Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew. That said, Boston's offense is still a formidable one, especially if Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. step up this year and Grady Sizemore stays healthy. Red Sox also have an incredibly deep farm system to tap into during the season should they need to call up reinforcements or use prospects as trade chips. Like Tampa Bay, Boston's strength is depth, not star power.

3rd Place New York Yankees
2013 Record: 85-77
2013 Pythagorean: 79-83
2014 Projected: 88-74
Without Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez, New York's infield has the potential to be a train-wreck (minus Brian McCann), but Mark Teixeira's a good bounce back candidate and you can never count Derek Jeter out. Brian Roberts is a lost cause, but Kelly Johnson's lefty power should play well at the Stadium. He could pop 20 homers. McCann might blast 30, and at the very least should top 25 for the first time in his career. The outfield is much improved with Brett Gardner in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and Carlos Beltran in right/sharing DH duties with Alfonso Soriano. The rotation is full of question marks but has the potential to be very good. Masahiro Tanaka looks like an ace, CC Sabathia could rebound, Hiroki Kuroda's been consistently excellent, Ivan Nova is a popular breakout candidate and Michael Pineda's finally healthy. David Phelps is decent enough when he's called upon to start and should wind up being a terrific reliever. The bullpen will miss Mariano Rivera, obviously, but David Robertson's dominant in his own right and should be a more than adequate replacement. The Yankees definitely have enough star power to win the division, but too many question marks, declining players and injury concerns will likely prevent them from doing so.

4th Place Baltimore Orioles
2013 Record: 85-77
2013 Pythagorean: 85-77
2014 Projected: 83-79
Baltimore made some interesting moves at the tail-end of the offseason, signing Ubaldo Jimenez to bolster their thin rotation and stealing Nelson Cruz. I'm not buying Jimenez's crazy stretch run and I think he's really going to struggle in the AL East. Cruz adds power but not much else, and power wasn't something the Orioles needed in the first place (not when they already had Chris Davis, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters). Davis and Manny Machado won't be as good as they were a year ago, and I'm not sure if Nick Markakis can hit for power anymore, but Baltimore's offense still projects to be among the league's best. Their rotation isn't anything special, especially after factoring in regression for Miguel Gonzalez and Chris Tillman. Losing top prospect Dylan Bundy to elbow surgery was a big blow, so they'll need top prospect Kevin Gausman to make an impact instead.  The bullpen's a bit shaky at the back end with Tommy Hunter, a significant step down from Jim Johnson, expected to be the closer, but I like the rest of their relief corps just fine. The Orioles will have no problem scoring runs and play strong defense, but they just don't have enough starting pitching to make a serious run at the division. Therefore, I expect Baltimore to finish around 85 wins again.

5th Place Toronto Blue Jays
2013 Record: 74-88
2013 Pythagorean: 77-85
2014 Projected: 78-84
I want to like the Blue Jays. I really do. They essentially have the same team that everyone thought was going to win the World Series last year (everyone except me, of course), sans Josh Johnson (who, surprise, is already hurt again) and slugging backstop J.P. Arencibia. Their lineup features an impressive array of talent at almost every position: an outfield of Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes at shortstop, breakout candidate Brett Lawrie at third, and Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion splitting first base and DH duties. That team can hit. What they can't do, however, is pitch, and that's going to be their downfall. The rotation really could have used Jimenez or Ervin Santana given that its two best pitchers--R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle--are merely average. J.A. Happ just isn't good, and Brandon Morrow can't stay healthy. Their bullpen features Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos and Brett Cecil--all tremendous--but won't be much use if Toronto's starters can't pitch deep into games and keep the score close. The Blue Jays' lack of starting pitching is crippling enough to submarine what is an otherwise terrific team, and it looks like the front office's go-for-broke trades aren't going to end the franchise's postseason drought dating back to 1993.

Thanks to Grantland's always-excellent Jonah Keri for some help with this one.

Stupid Scherzer

Scherzer was dumb to turn down $24 million per year (CSN)
Reigning AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer reportedly declined Detroit's six-year, $144 million contract extension that would have made him one of the seven most expensive pitchers in baseball. Apparently he thinks he can do better on the open market next winter, when he'll be the most sought-after pitching commodity.

For that to happen, the 29 year-old is going to have to replicate last season's success and prove it was not a fluke. Scherzer had been a good but inconsistent pitcher before that, certainly not an ace, so he needs another strong season to solidify as reputation as an elite starting pitcher.

Nobody expects Scherzer to pitch as well as he did last year, when he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 240 strikeouts in 214.1 innings--all personal bests. FanGraph's projection systems predict his ERA will slide back up into the 3.20-3.40 range, largely because he's due for some batted ball regression after benefiting from a .259 opponents' BABiP last year (easily the lowest of his career and more than 40 points below his career mark). His home run/fly ball rate was also extremely low at 7.6 percent, so he'll likely surrender a few more long balls in 2014.

Even if Scherzer doesn't regress, there's a good likelihood that he gets hurt. Pitchers are notoriously fragile because of the incredible levels of stress pitching puts on their bodies, and if Scherzer gets hurt or needs Tommy John surgery there's no way he'll be able to command $144 million with a damaged goods label affixed to his name.

But when you get down to it, $144 million is too much to turn down. Let's say Scherzer is awesome again and wins the Cy Young--how much more is he really going to be able to demand? Probably an extra $30 million, give or take. But if he blows out his arm, you can guarantee his price tag will fall by much more than that. Holding out and hoping your arm holds out just isn't worth the risk, in my opinion.

Besides, $144 million is a totally fair price. It's the same contract Cole Hamels got and just three million shy of Zack Greinke, who's a good comparison for Scherzer in that he has one monster season on his resume surrounded by several very good seasons. It's well short of Clayton Kershaw (who's in a league of his own because of his dominance at such a young age), Felix Hernandez, teammate Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia, but they were all much more accomplished when they inked their deals. Before last year, Scherzer owned a 3.88 career ERA and had never made an All-Star team, received a Cy Young vote, or completed 200 innings in a season. His most similar pitcher through age 27 was Bobby Jones. If he'd continued pitching like that, you can bet we wouldn't be having this discussion right now. His contract offer would probably be below $100 million.

Scherzer's banking on his ability to be a legitimate ace. I suppose if you're going to bet on anyone, you might as well bet on yourself. But $144 million is a helluva lot to wager, possibly more money than he'll ever see again.