In February, all 30 teams arrive at spring training with the expectations that they will be celebrating in October.
But, of course, the road to the World Series only has enough room for two. Those with enough stamina and power to trudge through the regular season and playoffs will be ahead of the pack at the finish line. Here are the front-runners.
Los Angeles Dodgers
There is no more entertaining team in baseball than the Dodgers—and their flashy style mirrors the image of the city they play in. But beyond all that glitter, and MLB’s highest payroll, is a very good team lacking in weakness. They got a nice head start on their (hopeful) road to a title, opening up in Sydney, Australia with a two-game sweep of the Diamondbacks—a portent of things to come in the NL West and beyond.
Offense: The entertainment value in the L.A. Dodgers was raised exponentially by the arrival of Yasiel Puig—baseball’s answer to a loose cannon. The Cuban import can go from fantastic to foolish in the blink of an eye. But no one can question his impact. Before his call-up, the Dodgers were 30-42 and 9.5 games out of first place. Afterwards, they were on fire—with Puig being the spark. In his 104 games, he had 122 hits, a .319 average, 19 home runs and 21 doubles. Based on the early returns, he seems to be picking up from last year.
Behind Puig in the lineup will be the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, who cracked the 100-RBI mark for the fourth year in a row, as well as Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp. If the latter two can stay healthy and remain on the field, they would make the Dodger attack that much more imposing.
Pitching: Just as imposing is Clayton Kershaw. The southpaw has won two of the past three Cy Young Awards in the National League—including last year in which he went 16-9 with a minuscule 1.89 earned run average (ERA). As he drives opposing batters crazy, he drives his stock up. The Dodgers are hoping for a return on investment to the whopping seven-year, $180 million contract they sported him this offseason.
Those behind Kershaw cannot be overlooked. Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu combined to go 29-12 with an ERA below 3.00. It’s also quite assuring when the probable No. 4 and 5 starters are capable veterans like Dan Haren and Josh Beckett.
Just as deep is the Dodger bullpen, which has three former All-Star closers. Kenley Jansen recorded 28 saves in 2013 with 111 strikeouts in 76.2 innings and is on his way to becoming one of the best at his position. But should he slip up, there are many that can back him up. Foremost of them is Brian Wilson, who appears to be returning to the dominant form he displayed in San Francisco.
Defense: While Puig may be a loose cannon in his play, he’s also got a cannon for an arm. His fielding could use a little work, but that’s sometimes made up for in his ability to throw. The team as a whole should take some time to focus on correcting their miscues. In 2013, L.A. had the second most errors in the NL.
A.J. Ellis is the exception to that notion. While all the talk is on Yadier Molina being the best defensive catcher in the league, one shouldn’t forget about Ellis. In fact, he led the majors in throwing out opposing runners trying to steal (44 percent).
Manager: Don Mattingly’s third year as Dodgers manager went to both extremes. As much as Puig’s follies on the field probably prompted a constant headache, Mattingly should probably remember that if not for the 23-year-old outfielder, he may have been out of a job. Donnie Baseball was on the firing line on in mid-June when the Dodgers were languishing in last place. Enter Puig, and L.A. was darn near unstoppable—running away with the division crown and coming within one step of the Fall Classic.
Getting rid of Mattingly would have been a regretful decision, as his calm demeanor is ideal for a team that has created so much noise.
The Tigers have had several cracks recently at winning a World Series for the first time since 1984. With a loss to the Boston in last year’s ALCS, they came up short yet again. What made it more painful was the fact that they had a two-games-to-none lead within grasp. Then came the David Ortiz grand slam over the reach of Torii Hunter. And Detroit was doomed by the destiny of the Red Sox, ultimately succumbing in six games.
What followed was an offseason of transition, as two of its identifiable figures departed. However, the Tigers’ biggest star—and the best offensive force in baseball—remains firmly entrenched in the lineup. Bad news for the rest of the American League.
Offense: Is it possible for a player to have a 10-year contract that hovers around $300 million and feel that he’s worth every penny of it? That theory may be applied to Miguel Cabrera, who Thursday inked a mega-deal that would seemingly keep him in Detroit for the remainder of his career. This comes after an incredible two-year stretch in which he has won back-to-back MVP awards, won the AL Triple Crown in 2012, and has driven in 276 runs.
It would be ideal to pitch around the game’s most dangerous hitter. But it’s not that feasible with Hunter and Victor Martinez flanking him in the batting order. The trade of Prince Fielder to Texas means the Tigers lose a bit of pop, but newcomer Ian Kinsler can be a solid leadoff hitter.
Pitching: There may be no better trio heading a rotation than the one possessed by Detroit. Max Scherzer won a league-best 21 games in 2013, en route to the Cy Young. That honor was bestowed upon Justin Verlander in 2011, as well as being considered the best pitcher in the majors. Since then, his performance has dropped off a bit. However, 75 percent of the old Verlander is better than 100 percent of almost any other hurler.
Anibal Sanchez is out of the purgatory of Miami and in the relative paradise of Detroit. In his first full season as a member of the Tigers, Sanchez was 14-8 with a 2.57 ERA—the lowest in the AL. Trading Doug Fister away was a curious move at best, but left-hander Drew Smyly is set to take his place after some stellar outings in relief.
Speaking of relief, the bullpen is one area of concern.
Winning the AL Central shouldn’t be a problem, as the Tigers are a couple notches better than the Royals and Indians. However, a shaky bullpen could come back to bite them in the playoffs.
Defense: A big blow was struck this spring when it was announced that shortstop Jose Iglesias will miss at least half of this season with a leg injury. Acquired last summer in a trade with the Red Sox, Iglesias showed tremendous range and a wondrous glove. If you saw his acrobatic play against the White Sox, you’ll see why he’s going to be missed.
Cabrera’s move over to first base prevents him from being a defensive liability at third. That makes room for prospect Nick Castellanos to take over at the hot corner. However, he’s not that much better in the field, either.
Manager: Just like Matt Williams has a great opportunity for a solid start as manager with the potent Nationals, Brad Ausmus can revel in the plum gig he has as the first-year skipper for Detroit.
The retirement of Jim Leyland prompted the hiring of Ausmus, a former catcher known for his baseball smarts. He has every opportunity to follow Bruce Bochy, Mike Matheny, Joe Girardi, and Mike Scioscia as ex-backstops who have enjoyed managerial success.
And the World Series winner is…
Both teams have outstanding rotations—especially with their front three starters. But the Dodgers get the edge in the bullpen. In addition, L.A. has the rest of the league beat on the simplest category of all—talent. Provided injuries don’t significantly get in the way, the Dodgers can beat you in the most ways possible. In 2014, it’ll be Tinseltown over Motown.
This article is the sixth and final installment in our six-part “MLB Preseason Power Rankings” series. Missed the other five? No problem. Read ’em (here).