Nick Swisher and the Indians face a tall task in qualifying for the playoffs again. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
In advance of the 2014 MLB season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are debating some of the big questions heading into the year. Yesterday, the question was managers on the hot seat. Today’s topic: Which playoff teams from last season will miss out in 2014?
JAY: For the American League, I'm picking (on) Cleveland. My concern starts with the rotation, where the departures of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir leave Justin Masterson as the only pitcher from among the projected starting five who has spent a full major league season as a starter. That's going to mean big innings jumps for guys like Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, who made a combined 58 starts for the big club. Even if Trevor Bauer puts it together to claim the fifth spot at some point, they're still going to need additional depth, and Carlos Carrasco and what's left of Shaun Marcum don't fill me with optimism. That said, these guys generally at least miss bats, which is more than can be said for the Indians' staffs of a few years ago.
The second thing about them is that, while I love the way Terry Francona takes advantage of platoons and positional flexibility, without a significant addition to the lineup — sorry, David Murphy — I just don't see them finishing in the top four in scoring as they did last year. You can point to the underachievement of guys like Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Murphy and suggest that they'll rebound, but three of those guys are in their thirties, so it's not exactly a lock. Are Yan Gomes and Ryan Raburn going to maintain their levels of production with increased playing time?
Speaking of a winter of complacency, in the National League, I'm going with the Reds, who lost a great leadoff guy in Shin-Soo Choo, a rotation workhorse in Bronson Arroyo and an outstanding pitch framer in Ryan Hanigan and added … Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena? I think the time was right to move on from Dusty Baker, but this team needed a whole lot more than that. Billy Hamilton's going to be fun to watch, but his impact isn't going to match Choo's .423 on-base and .462 slugging percentage. Leftfield, with Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey, cries out for an upgrade that didn't happen, and Brandon Phillips has reached the surly decline phase of his career. I like Tony Cingrani to take over Arroyo's spot in the rotation, but Mat Latos is behind schedule with his knee surgery, and now they're dependent upon Johnny Cueto staying healthy; he's got all of 68 starts over the past three years. Rookie David Holmberg is a cut above somebody like Chien-Ming Wang or Jeff Francis as the next line of defense, but his major league debut was his first appearance above Double-A, and he's got command issues still to iron out.
CLIFF: Cleveland is the obvious choice in the American League. I'm in complete agreement there and will add the fact that they were an 87-win team according to third-order wins last year, seven wins worse than any of the other four AL playoff teams. For the sake of argument, however, I'll throw in the A's as the runner-up pick. The obvious flashpoint is the recent loss of Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery. That puts a lot of pressure on, ironically, Kazmir, who already had had his work cut out for him replacing an outstanding season by Bartolo Colon, and sophomores Sonny Gray, thrust into the role of ace after just 77 major league innings (including the postseason), and Dan Straily, who had a below-average ERA+ last year. Their bullpen looks impressive, I like the addition of Craig Gentry, and there's considerable potential for a rebound if not a breakout from Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and the catching corps. But then there's also a good chance of regression from Josh Donaldson, 34-year-old Coco Crisp, and Brandon Moss, who is now 30. And there's always the chance of an injury to Jed Lowrie, who last year avoided the disabled list for just the first time since 2008. Add in the potential for improvement from the Angels and Rangers, and the A's would seem to be the next-lowest-hanging fruit in the AL.
In the NL, I had a hard time picking from among the Reds, Pirates, and Braves, and since you've gone with the Reds (whom I gave a D- on their Winter Report Card), I'll pick one of the other two. Unfortunately, it's going to be the Pirates, whom I gave an F. This winter, the Pirates failed to upgrade a lineup that scored a mere 3.9 runs per game last year or a rotation that will have to compensate for the loss of A.J. Burnett and is awash in question marks. Francisco Liriano is a good candidate for regression, 23-year-old sophomore Gerrit Cole is expected to be an ace coming off a 53-inning increase, Wandy Rodriguez is coming back from injury, Charlie Morton is expected to have his first 30-start season at the age of 30, and Edinson Volquez is coming off a season in which he had the worst ERA+ of any qualified pitcher in baseball. Beyond that, the Pirates' success last year had a lot to do with an exceptional bullpen performance, the likes of which is ripe for regression. In a division with the Cardinals, who I think are the best team in baseball heading into the season, the Reds, and a Brewers team that should bounce back from a lousy 2013, I think the Pirates are going to have a hard time making it back to the postseason.
Can Francisco Liriano put up another ace-caliber season for Pittsburgh? (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
JAY: I agree that Oakland isn't a bad call for the AL choice, though I did like their pitching depth before Parker was lost for the year. As for the NL, you can certainly make a case for the Braves being on thinner ice with the losses of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy only partially offset by the signing of Ervin Santana, but that division is so weak besides the Nationals that I think they have some leeway. Particularly if they get more out of B.J. Upton — and Justin, for that matter — and Dan Uggla, or cut bait on him.
I also thought about the Pirates, who were even less active than the Reds this winter, as you point out. The separator for me between them and Cincinnati is the potential for their farm system to provide in-house upgrades. I know that neither Gregory Polanco nor Jameson Taillon have much experience above Double-A (as you pointed out here), but both are blue-chip guys who should be up at some point. With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, that's going to make for one hell of an outfield at some point, and if not quite another Cole-level impact, then at least a significant addition to the rotation. As terrible as Volquez was, the Pirates have turned around Burnett and Liriano in the past two years, so it's not out of the question that pitching coach Ray Searage can perform another fix-it job. Cole-Liriano-Morton-Wandy-Locke/Volquez and Taillon in the wings - that's not bad at all, and the bullpen is a beast.
The real knock on the Pirates is that even with their offensive shortcomings last year, they stood still at first base and seem hell-bent on going into the season with a first base platoon of Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo. They'll get a bit back from having Jordy Mercer at shortstop instead of Clint Barmes, but they could have used another upgrade. I still think they have enough to finish ahead of the Reds, though.
CLIFF: On the Braves, it's worth noting that Beachy only made five starts last year, so even if he does miss the season due to a second Tommy John surgery, something which is not yet confirmed, the Braves aren't losing much relative to last year as a result of his injury. They did lose Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, who combined for 45 starts last year, to free agency, but neither had an ERA+ above league average in 2013, and Atlanta has some organizational depth with Alex Wood, David Hale, and Aaron Northcraft. The Braves are still a team in danger of losing ground, but, as you say, their weak division should help keep them afloat.