Cabrera_

Nothing was the same in the middle ground point of the American League last year….well sort of. The Tigers did win the division for the third consecutive year, but they were not pushed by their usual rivals in the Chicago White Sox. Instead, it was a mixture of a coming of age revival in Kansas City, as well as a rebuilt and recharged Indians club that made the division quite interesting for the first time in a while.

2013 Finish

1. Detroit Tigers (93-69)

2. Cleveland Indians (92-70)

3. Kansas City Royals (86-76)

4. Minnesota Twins (66-96)

5. Chicago White Sox (63-99)

Looking ahead at this year, and there is perhaps no division with more clubs in “win now” mode than the Central. The Royals are at a boiling point coming off of their progressive 2013 campaign, with their young studs at a complete maturity point and their rotation anchor, that they traded the farm for just last season, likely in his last year in town. Likewise, the Indians have taken a few losses from last year’s surprise Wild Card-winning club, but are still laden with young talent and a manager in Terry Francona that proved he still has the innate ability to get production out of players they failed to see in themselves. Even the bottom feeders in the division have made strides to get back into the mix. The Twins moved their all-universe catcher in Joe Mauer to first base to get more from him more often, while the White Sox had an understated, but clear overhaul on their roster to attempt to reverse the free fall they spun into last summer.

Even the champs have refused to stay pat. While the Central has been the Tigers’ lair, they saw fit to make some stunning changes, shipping out a franchise cornerstone in Prince Fielder after only two years, and moving on All-Star pitcher Doug Fister, all in the name finding some sort of edge that is more than just being a regular division champion, but fizzling out before becoming much more. Will the winter of change be enough to shake things up in the AL Central? Or will it be more of the same when the summer dust settles?

All-Division Team

1. Austin Jackson—Tigers, Center Field

2. Torii Hunter—Tigers, Right Field

3. Jason Kipnis—Indians, Second Base

4. Miguel Cabrera—Tigers, First Base

5. Victor Martinez—Tigers, Designated Hitter

6. Alex Gordon—Royals, Left Field

7. Salvador Perez—Royals, Catcher

8. Trevor Plouffe—Twins, Third Base

9. Astrubal Cabrera—Indians, Shortstop

Mauer's move from behind the plate is the only thing that keeps him from his division's dream team. He has only hit beneath .315 once in the past six years, including finishing 2nd in the AL batting race a year ago.

Mauer’s move from behind the plate is the only thing that keeps him from the division dream team. He has only hit beneath .315 once in the past six years, including finishing 2nd in the AL batting race a year ago.

Starting Pitcher: Justin Verlander—Tigers

Starting Pitcher: Max Scherzer—Tigers

Starting Pitcher: James Shields—Royals

Starting Pitcher: Chris Sale—White Sox

Right Handed Reliever: Aaron Crow—Royals

Lefty Handed Reliever: Tim Collins—Royals

Closer: Greg Holland—Royals

Cleveland's decision to build around the multi-talented Kipnis was a good one. The fourth-year second baseman leads sneaky balanced team with a pennant chase under its belt now.

Cleveland’s decision to build around the multi-talented Kipnis was a good one. The fourth-year second baseman leads sneaky balanced team with a pennant chase under its belt now.

Lineup

1. Tigers

2. Royals

3. Indians

4. White Sox

5. Twins

Just taking a look back up at the all-division lineup tells you all you need to know about the potency of the Tigers lineup. Even without Fielder, their 1-6 of Ian Kinsler, Hunter, Cabrera, Martinez, Jackson and Alex Avila is just a gauntlet. However the Royals have a relentless balance of speed and line drive hitters, built around the ability to score in bunches. Likewise, the Indians have a lineup that could be more potent this year than last, as their core continues to develop.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Tigers

2. Royals

3. Indians

4. White Sox

5. Twins

Cabrera is the best hitter alive, and has won the previous three AL batting titles and previous two MVPs. Simply put, he’s better than the heart of a few teams lineups himself. However, KC could see an upswing in production from the heart of its lineup with the decision to move Gordon back into it, just as the White Sox should be more potent with the addition of Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu.

Table Setters

1. Tigers

2. Royals

3. Indians

4. White Sox

5. Twins

The place that the Tigers get most noticeably better is at the top of their lineup, by adding a bonafide speed/contact/power threat in Kinsler to join the ageless Hunter. But the addition of Norichika Aoki (.356 on-base %) in Kansas City, along with former Tiger Omar Infante (.345 OBP) gives the Royals a hellacious duo to lead off games as well.

Depth

1. Indians

2. White Sox

3. Tigers

4. Royals

5. Twins

Cleveland won with an everyman approach last season, and they return a team that is capable of pulling out all stops for contributions. With Mike Aviles and Ryan Rayburn as versatile weapons at his disposal, Francona can compete even at less than 100% roster availability. An increase in MLB-ready youth as made the White Sox deeper, with players such as Dayan Viciedo and Matt Davidson waiting in the wings, and experienced utility man Jeff Keppinger back in a more suiting support role.

The trio of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez give Detroit three All-Star starters that passed 200 strikeouts last summer.

The trio of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez give Detroit three All-Star starters that passed 200 strikeouts last summer, all before reaching the promise of Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly.

Rotation

1. Tigers

2. Royals

3. Indians

4. White Sox

5. Twins

Detroit boasts the AL’s best rotation, with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander (winners of the 2 of the last 3 AL Cy Youngs) headlining, and the underrated Anibal Sanchez (the 2013 AL ERA champ) coming out behind them. The Twins still have a ways to go, but added a headliner in Ricky Nolasco and solid rebuild project in Phil Hughes to help resurrect the Majors worst starting five from a year ago.

1-2 Punch

1. Tigers

2. Royals

3. White Sox

4. Indians

5. Twins

There is no better 1-2 combo in the game than Scherzer and Verlander, who have combined to win 67 games over the past two seasons. James Shields is perhaps the most indispensable member of any rotation that is slated to be in the pennant race this year, as his presence likely guarantees the Royals stay in the division and/or wild card race or if he is shipped out to help another contenders chances. In Chicago, it is tough (if not impossible) to name a better under 25-or-younger hurler than Chris Sale.

Holland ascended to the ninth inning elite a year ago, closing out 47 games while holding batters to a .170 clip against him.

Holland ascended to the ninth inning elite a year ago, closing out 47 games while holding batters to a .170 clip against him.

Bullpen

1. Royals

2. Tigers

3. Twins

4. Indians

5. White Sox

Spearheaded by Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Kelvin Herrera, the Royal pen led the AL in relief ERA by nearly half a run at 2.55 and had the lowest average against at .217. It is one of the premier units in all of the game, even with Luke Hochevar lost for the year. The Tigers’ Achilles heel has been locking down games late, but they spent top dollar on Joe Nathan (43 saves, 1.39 ERA) to end those concerns. Glen Perkins is one of the more underrated closers in the game, closing out 52 of the Twins tough earned wins over the past two years.

Defense

1. Royals

2. Indians

3. White Sox

4. Tigers

5. Twins

By a team defense measuring metric, the superb Royals defense saved 93 total runs last year. With Gold Glovers in Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez leading the way, the Royals cover their spacious home in Kaufmann Field exceptionally well. The addition of Adam Eaton to Alejandro De Aza in Chicago gives the Sox two very athletic outfielders to accompany an equally capable middle infield of Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez.

Manager

1. Terry Francona—Indians

2. Ron Gardenhire—Twins

3. Robin Ventura—White Sox

4. Brad Ausmus—Tigers

5. Ned Yost—Royals

Francona proved his worth as one of the game’s best game managers and motivators last year, pulling the Indians into the postseason in his first year in Rock City and becoming the AL Manager of the Year in the process. Ventura and Gardenhire are held in high regard, despite the lacks of talent they have at their command. Ausmus will be asked to fill in some sizable shoes in replacing the retired Jim Leyland.

Finances

1. Tigers

2. White Sox

3. Indians

4. Royals

5. Twins

The Tigers have shown the willingness to spend the extra dollar to add what is needed to win, and they may have to do so sooner than later to address their suddenly empty shortstop position. Conversely, the Royals and Indians are a pair of franchises that are all in financially entering the season, and finding that extra piece late in the year would take some maneuvering.

Abreu is a major part of both the immediate and impending scene with on the South Side. He has plus power and the chance to be built around in the cleanup spot.

Abreu is a major part of both the immediate and impending scene with on the South Side. He has plus power and the chance to be built around in the cleanup spot.

Impact Additions

1. Joe Nathan (Tigers via free agency)

2. Jose Dariel Abreu (White Sox via free agency)

3. Ian Kinsler (Tigers via trade)

4. Omar Infante (Royals via free agency)

5. Norichika Aoki (Royals via trade)

The Royals made a series of moves in the offseason to add quality depth, at reasonable costs. The outcome was Infante, Aoki, Jason Vargas and Danny Valencia. Going in the completely different direction, the White Sox made a leap of faith in giving $60+ million to Abreu to add some needed life to a shiftless lineup.

Leap Forward

1. Danny Salazar—Indians

2. Drew Smyly—Tigers

3. Jose Quintana—White Sox

4. Adam Eaton—White Sox

5. Kyle Gibson—Twins

Salazar played so well down the stretch he was chosen to pitch the AL Wild Card game after only 10 games. The club believes in him enough that it was comfortable with letting Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez leave this winter. A similar belief in Smyly allowed the Tigers to move on from Doug Fister and his impending contract negotiations.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Jose Dariel Abreu—White Sox

2. Nick Castellanos—Tigers

3. Yordano Ventura—Royals

4. Matt Davidson—White Sox

5. Erik Johnson—White Sox

No longer is Castellanos log jammed behind an out of position Cabrera at third base, and he will enter the season as a favorite to push for AL Rookie of the Year. The White Sox youth movement is based around acquiring a handful of quick to play rookies such as Abreu and Davidson, who they will put into the mix immediately this year.

PREDICTIONS

1. Detroit Tigers

2. Kansas City Royals

3. Cleveland Indians

4. Chicago White Sox

5. Minnesota Twins

The AL Central has long been a class struggle of a mix: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat and the impoverished all very clearly separated. But if things play out the way they could this year, it could be a mostly competitive division. The White Sox are better, as are the Royals. It doesn’t seem like it, but the Twins are slowly pulling it together and have one of the game’s best managers to oversee it. The Indians have more fight than any other team, and while some pieces are gone, they are far from has beens.

Then there are the Tigers, and they are….well different than they have been before. But that is a good thing, because what was in place, while good enough to win the division every year, had peaked and needed to be adjusted. They made some stunning moves, but stayed strong where they already were and got more versatile in the process—all while keeping the game’s best hitter and two of its premiere pitchers in two.

But the Royals should not be underestimated. In many ways, they resemble the Pirates of last year in they got a taste of the race, return an improved mix of vets and matured talents and have talent on par with both of the teams that finished ahead of them the previous year. In the end, the Tigers are still the class of the division and will push for the league’s best record as they always do, but the Royals will push them all summer and break into the postseason for the first time in a generation.

For more on the year as it approaches in the Central, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

2013-Braves-atlanta-braves-35376349-650-440

A funny thing happened in the NL East last year: outside of the Marlins heading up the rear, nothing of that was supposed to happen actually came to pass. This is no knock against the Braves, who dominated the division from its outset and held on for their first division title since 2005, but coming into the season, the division was all but gifted to its incumbent champions, the Washington Nationals.

2013 Finish

1. Atlanta Braves (96-66)

2. Washington Nationals (86-76)

3. New York Mets (78-88)

4. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89)

5. Miami Marlins (62-100)

However, things never quite jived for one reason or another for the Nats, and they languished off in the distance (that was often of the double digit variety) in second place for most of the year. Behind them, the Mets and Phillies traded jabs, with New York playing a stronger than expected effort behind the rise of Matt Harvey and the return to form of Chase Utley and rise of Domonic Brown helping to push the Phils.

However over the season’s final month, something clicked in DC, the Nationals came back to life and finished with the second best September record in the National League, which still kept them 10 games in the rear of Atlanta, but put both the division and the league on notice: they are still a force to be reckoned with. Will that carry over into the new season, or will the Braves hold their previously sizable ground atop the East? Or will the rebuilding Phillies or Mets pull the surprise of the season and ascend up the hill themselves? Let’s see how the East looks to shake out.

All-Division Lineup

1. Bryce HarperNationals, Left Field

2. Chase UtleyPhillies, Second Base

3. David WrightMets, Third Base

4. Giancarlo StantonMarlins, Right Field

5. Freddie FreemanBraves, First Base

6. Ian DesmondNationals, Shortstop

7. Carlos RuizPhillies, Catcher

8. Denard SpanNationals, Centerfield

Fernandez took the NL by storm in his rookie year, finishing second in ERA (2.18) while surrendering the fewest hits per game as well (5.3).

Fernandez took the NL by storm in his rookie year, finishing second in ERA (2.18) while surrendering the fewest hits per game as well (5.3).

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee—Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Stephen Strasberg—Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez—Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Jose Fernandez—Marlins

Right Handed Reliever: Tyler Clippard—Nationals

Lefty Handed Reliever: Luis Avilan—Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel—Braves

The Mets stand to benefit nicely from surrounding David  Wright with some protection. Namely Granderson, who had back-to-back 40 home runs years in 2011-12.

The Mets stand to benefit nicely from surrounding David Wright with some protection. Namely Granderson, who had back-to-back 40 home runs years in 2011-12.

Lineup

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Phillies

4. Mets

5. Marlins

Top to bottom, there’s no holes in the Nationals lineup, and all that it takes is even a portion of them showing up in shifts throughout the year to make them a respectable club. But when working in concert, there may not be a better NL lineup card than theirs 1-8. The Braves and Phillies did a lot last year in finding players such as Jason Heyward and Domonic Brown to step up in spots where they did not have a better option, and in roles where neither had succeeded before.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Mets

4. Phillies

5. Marlins

Whichever combination of Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche or Jayson Werth they decide to go with, it is a formidable 3-4-5 combination. Atlanta will build around Freeman, whom can operate just as easily out of the third or fourth spot. Curtis Granderson will get more pitches for Wright in New York, while a full season of Stanton in Miami could produce some of the most awe inspiring numbers in the game.

Table Setters

1. Nationals

2. Braves

3. Mets

4. Phillies

5. Marlins

There are dynamically different top of the lineup orientations in the division. Span and Desmond are instant offense to start the game in DC, while Eric Young led the National League in stolen bases last year for the Mets with 46. In Philly, the hope is that Ben Revere can stay healthy and produce the .305 average he did in 88 games over a full season.

Depth

1. Nationals

2. Marlins

3. Phillies

4. Mets

5. Braves

With Scott Hairston, Nate McLouth, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon to use at will, the Nationals once again have the best bench in baseball, with multiple starter quality players in the wings. The Phillies very well could be drawing on their bench for everyday contributions from John Mayberry, Kevin Frandsen and Darin Ruf if their past health issues (likely) arise again.

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Rotation

1. Nationals

2. Phillies

3. Braves

4. Mets

5. Marlins

The DC core of Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann gets even more impressive with the addition of Doug Fister, and is on the short list of baseball’s best collections. The Braves have a young and deep rotation without an absolute #1, but offer an arm with a chance to win every day. The Mets have an underrated group of arms that allowed them to compete more often than they should have a year ago.

1-2 Punch

1. Phillies

2. Nationals

3. Braves

4. Marlins

5. Mets

IF, and only if, Cole Hamels is healthy, him and Lee are probably the second best 1-2 combo in the NL, outside of Los Angeles. This is saying quite a bit, considering any combo of Zimmermann, Strasburg and Gonzalez is right on their heels. The Mets and Braves are facing seasons with their aces Harvey and Kris Medlen, respectively, mending from Tommy John surgery.

Bullpen

1. Braves

2. Nationals

3. Phillies

4. Marlins

5. Mets

Craig Kimbrel, Luis Avilian, Drew Carpenter and Jonny Venters are a dominant group that goes against the grain of the starting staff usually setting the tone for a pitching staff’s success. In Atlanta, the pen is the reason for this. Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano give the Nats three arms with ninth inning experience to use at will.

Defense

1. Braves

2. Mets

3. Marlins

4. Nationals

5. Phillies

Atlanta’s Simmons is perhaps the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith range-wise, and brings an arm that is said to be able to pump it up to 98 mph as well. Heyward, Freeman and both Uptons are plus defenders as well that make it easy to work off the mound in Atlanta. Conversely, the Phillies age shows up most startlingly when they are asked to take the field.

In his first full year leading the Phillies, Sandberg will have to find a balance between the win-now age of the club and the realities of their limitations.

In his first full year leading the Phillies, Sandberg will have to find a balance between the win-now age of the club and the realities of their limitations.

Manager

1. Fredi Gonzalez—Braves

2. Terry Collins—Mets

3. Matt Williams—Nationals

4. Ryne Sandberg—Phillies

5. Mike Redmond—Marlins

Gonzalez deserves a lot of credit for keeping Atlanta moving ahead with such a massive lead last season, but it was Terry Collins who did the best job of all skippers in the division. He squeezed every bit of talent he could out of the Mets roster and could absolutely be the reason for any premature success they have as they restructure this season.

Finances

1. Phillies

2. Nationals

3. Braves

4. Mets

5. Marlins

The Phillies have the funds and Ruben Amaro has the gumption to use them, although he often doesn’t do so in the most measured manner. The Nationals and Braves also have the type of finances that can be used to add a piece on the run as needed, such as Atlanta did in acquiring Ervin Santana in the wake of the Medlen injury.

Impact Additions

1. Doug Fister (Nationals via trade)

2. A.J. Burnett (Phillies via free agency)

3. Curtis Granderson (Mets via free agency)

4. Ervin Santana (Braves via free agency)

5. Marlon Byrd (Phillies via free agency)

Granderson was a strong addition for the Mets who have struggled to produce regular offense for years now. Burnett and Santana were necessary acquisitions for their respective clubs, who found themselves under equipped with two solid fits to boost their suddenly slim rotations.

Leap Forward

1. Bryce Harper—Nationals

2. Wilson Ramos—Nationals

3. Alex Wood—Braves

4. Zack Wheeler—Mets

5. Adeiny Hechavarria—Marlins

It may seem strange to see Harper on this list considering he is a two-time All-Star already, but he is likely on the verge of a major jump ahead to the 30/30 club range of contributiors. Wood will be asked to carry much more responsibility in the Braves staff, which he is equipped to handle. Hechavarria showed a better offensive prowess than expected, driving in 42 runs for the Marlins, and is young enough to work on his low average.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez—Phillies

2. Travis d’Arnaud—Mets

3. Noah Syndergaard–Mets

4. Jake Marisnick—Marlins

5. Christian Bethancourt—Braves

The Phillies gambled big ($12 million deal) on Gonzalez being ready to be an instant contributor at the Major League level, and he’s quickly become an essential part of any potential success they have. D’Arnaud has been at the center of two trades for former Cy Young candidates, and now has the opportunity to show why as the everyday Mets backstop out of the gate.

PREDICTIONS

1. Washington Nationals

2. Atlanta Braves

3. New York Mets

4. Philadelphia Phillies

5. Miami Marlins

Maybe it is an exercise in not learning from the past, but the Nationals are just too exceptional of a group to bet against still. They have as deep of a starting pitching group as possible and as strong of an everyday lineup as a non-DH roster can hold. Add in the growth of its young stars and a deep bench capable of contributing on an everyday basis, and it should be their division to take. The only potholes that stand are if, as always, health works on their side and rookie manager Matt Williams can adapt well to his new role.

Yet, this is not to slight the Braves in any way. Despite another year of Tommy John surgeries haunting their staff, they still have as good of a team as they did a year ago. They will have to lick the wounds of both rebounding from those injuries and comeback strong from dropping a very winnable Division Series. But the talent is there still and a chance to grow together is exact what they will need if they want to defend their title.

Otherwise, the Mets and Phillies find themselves in comparable places again, where they are looking to figure out how to make the most of what they have, despite being a clear cut behind the two pacesetters in the division. Meanwhile in Miami, they made a lot of moves to add experience to their roster, but not enough to do much more than a 5-8 game uptick in the standings.

In the end, the Nationals have what it takes to win a competitive battle with Atlanta, in a division that will likely produce only one postseason participant.

For more on the season to come and what’s coming of it, follow me in real-time on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

2013 World Series Game 6: St. Louis Cardinals v. Boston Red Sox

I have said it for the last decade at least, and maintain it to this day: there is no division in professional sports that is better than the American League East. When a 74 win team finishes in last place in a division, it means that the internal gauntlet is about as severe as it can get. In its current incarnation, it has dominated the postseason landscape of the junior circuit since the Wild Card era came into play, and for the 18 years since the four-team (and now five) team playoff alignment began, it has produced 15 Wild Card candidates. And in that same span, 11 AL East clubs have gone to the Fall Classic, and eight have gone on to win it, including last year’s Boston Red Sox

2013 Finish

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

So all things considered, it should be no surprise that picking through the East is akin to picking a favorite in the League as a whole. And the competition never dies down between the five clubs either, as this winter the one-up game was in full effect to catch up to the Champs. The Orioles slow played their hand before making a couple of late winter pickups as they look to breakthrough the glass ceiling that has hovered above them in the division, while the Blue Jays have been mostly quiet, choosing instead to call last year a spade and carry the same potent, yet oft-injured ammo into this spring.

The Rays and Red Sox took similar routes, resigning their own and putting faith in youngsters to replace the few lost parts they sustained. And the Yankees…well the Yankees spent nearly half a billion dollars to make sure that fourth place is not an option again. Regardless of how each team’s route plays out, one thing is for certain, one of the five clubs will inevitably be a big player in the much larger picture eight months from now—as long as they can survive themselves first.

All-Division Lineup

1. Jose ReyesShortstop, Blue Jays

2. Dustin PedroiaSecond Base, Red Sox

3. Evan LongoriaThird Base, Rays

4. David OrtizDesignated Hitter, Red Sox

5. Chris DavisFirst Base, Orioles

6. Jose BautistaRight Field, Blue Jays

7. Adam JonesCenter Field, Orioles

8. Brian McCannCatcher, Yankees

9. Brett GardnerLeft Field, Yankees

 

Starting Pitcher: David Price—Rays

Starting Pitcher: Jon Lester—Red Sox

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia—Yankees

Starting Pitcher: Clay Buchholz—Red Sox

Right Handed Reliever: Joel Peralta—Rays

Lefty Handed Reliever: Jake McGee—Rays

Closer: Koji Uehara—Red Sox

Derek_Jeter_ST

Jeter finds himself amid a fresh collection of well compensated talent for his final go around, but even at the end, the team will need him on hand if it is to maximize its potential.

Lineup

1. Yankees

2. Red Sox

3. Rays

4. Orioles

5. Blue Jays

 

The Yankees spent top dollar to overhaul their lineup, which was basically Cano and pray for rain last year, and their mission was successful. They will bring out five new starters of a high enough quality that solid comebacks from Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira would merely be bonuses. The Sox return the majority of the core that produced some of the timeliest hitting any October has witnessed in years, while the Orioles have an impressive power core of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Orioles

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Blue Jays

5. Rays

The addition of Cruz providing protection behind Davis…who is the ultimate protection for Adam Jones makes the middle of the Orioles’ lineup as bad of a grind as the AL will run out this year. In Boston, Dustin Pedroia (193 2013 hits) is the perfect on-base threat to put in front of the duo of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, who combined for 53 homers a year ago. In Toronto, if Jose Bautista is healthy again, there’s a chance that he could combine with Edwin Encarnacion for 80 homers this summer.

Table Setters

1. Red Sox

2. Yankees

3. Rays

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

Shane Victorino (21 steals, .294 average) and Daniel Nava (.385 on-base%, 5th best in AL) could wreak havoc yet again to start things off for the Sox, while down in Tampa, the combo of David Dejesus and Ben Zobrist have a chance to set up the table nicely for Evan Longoria and Wil Myers to both chase 100 RBI.

Depth

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

Strength is always in the numbers for the Rays, and Joe Maddon uses his full roster better than anybody else in the game. The Jays have four starting-caliber outfielders, and the duo of Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina is a very strong backstop duo. With Jonny Gomes, David Ross and Mike Carp in the mix, the Sox are not far behind however. The option to rotate Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran in the Bronx is a necessary depth move for the aging, yet talented Yankee outfield as well.

After an injury hindered first half, Price went 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and a .236 average against in the second half.

After an injury hindered first half, Price went 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and a .236 average against in the second half.

Rotation

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Orioles

5. Blue Jays

Tampa keeps churning out more and more arms without ceasing it seems. David Price is the headline, but Matt Moore won 17 games in his second year and both Alex Cobb and Chris Archer have plenty of immediate promise. The Yankees are putting a lot of faith in a few commodities with much to prove in CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka, while the Blue Jays have to hope R.A. Dickey can once again led an underdog staff as he did two years ago.

1-2 Punch

1. Red Sox

2. Yankees

3. Rays

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

This is a tight call to that narrowly goes in the Sox favor, due to the big game experience of Jon Lester and John Lackey. Hiroki Kuroda has silently been the most consistent arm in the Yankee arsenal the past two seasons, and Price (30-13 record the past two years) by himself makes the Rays a favorite in most head-to-head matchups he takes the ball in.

Bullpen

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Blue Jays

4. Yankees

5. Orioles

There’s no true powerhouse pen in the division, but the return of Grant Balfour to a Tampa group that features plus arms in Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and former closers in Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo is hard to deny. It would be impossible for Koji Uehara to have a better year than he did last time around, but his presence assures that Boston must be beat early. The Blue Jays have an underrated late inning group, while how (and if) David Robertson can transition to the ninth is beyond simply crucial for the Yankees.

Machado_13

Machado led all AL defenders in dWAR last year, with a 4.3 games above replacement level wtih the glove. All while being 20 years old and playing out of position.

Defense

1. Orioles

2. Rays

3. Red Sox

4. Blue Jays

5. Yankees

Baltimore has FIVE current or immediately past holders of Gold Gloves in their everyday lineup, and their defensive abilities allow for their pitchers to not have to be as sharp as other rotations in the league. The Rays are no slouches either, with Longoria, Escobar, Loney and their entire outfield having plus range. In Boston, Pedroia and Victorino are the best gloves at their respective positions in the AL.

Manager

1. Joe Maddon—Rays

2. Buck Showalter—Orioles

3. Joe Girardi—Yankees

4. John Farrell—Red Sox

5. John Gibbons—Blue Jays

There’s nobody better at motivating and knowing his players than Maddon is, and it allows him to continuing pull more out of his rosters than their on-paper talent shows. Showalter’s veteran savvy is the best in the league, and Joe Girardi is regularly underappreciated due to the talent at his command.

Finances

1. Yankees

2. Red Sox

3. Blue Jays

4. Orioles

5. Rays

The Yankees can spend at will, and despite the rumors that they want to be luxury tax conscious, in the end, the wins will always take priority over the cost of chasing them. The Blue Jays look for the value deal, but have the dollars to add what they need to stay in the race if they get close to it.

Impact Additions

1. Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees via Free Agency)

2. Carlos Beltran (Yankees via Free Agency)

3. Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees via Free Agency)

4. Brian McCann (Yankees via Free Agency)

5. Ubaldo Jimenez (Orioles via Free Agency)

Yankees, Yankees and more Yankees here, with each playing a major role in the team’s immediate success. Outside of NY, the Orioles played their free agent hand slow, but played it well in adding a new staff ace in Jimenez and All-Star caliber outfielder in Nelson Cruz. The Sox addition of Edward Mujica gives them another experienced presence that has succeeded in every role in the pen previously.

B_Lawrie

The whole package is there with Lawrie, but its going to take health and maturity meeting up to help him make the leap to fill out his sizable potential at age 24.

Leap Forward

1. Wil Myers—Rays

2. Alex Cobb—Rays

3. Brett Lawrie—Blue Jays

4. Chris Archer—Rays

5. Will Middlebrooks—Red Sox

Myer is an odd candidate to think will have a major jump forward considering he is coming off of a Rookie of the Year debut, but considering he did so in barely a half of a season, what he could do over a full year could be in the 30 home run/40 double rate. Lawrie has been on the verge for the past two years, but he is an elite defender and has all the tools at the plate to contribute anywhere from 2-5.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Xander Bogaerts—Red Sox

2. Kevin Gausman—Orioles

3. Johnathan Schoop—Orioles

4. Jake Odorizzi—Rays

5. Allen Webster—Red Sox

Bogaerts is that rare mix of both talent and acumen that makes a young player immediately acclimated to the Majors. He proved this by moving to third base and playing a big part of the Sox run through October. Gausman has a plus arm, but just needs to find a place to showcase it in the rotation. His organization make in Schoop should get a fair chance to get the second base job in Baltimore at some point this summer.

PREDICTIONS

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

It is never an easy road, and it surely will not be again. A year ago, the Red Sox pulled up from the cellar to the ultimate penthouse by using an overhauled roster, the motivation of a new manager, a recovering city as a rally point and a team that lived for, and thrived in, the moment. But this year, they are targeted by a group of teams that made very smart adjustments, in addition to the various chips on their shoulders.

The Rays are as talented as they have been in years, and whereas finding runs was a problem last season, it should be the least of their concerns this year. Coupled with a strong pitching staff, the only thing that could get in their way this year is if their young starting staff doesn’t hold up over a full year as well as it did in limited time in 2013. On their heels are the Yankees, who have more than enough firepower, and could have the best offense in all of baseball. However, their pitching staff being a success would be slightly an upset of sorts, as they enter the season needing all of their arms to either overachieve, overcome or live up to some lofty expectations—and in some cases, some of each element.

The Orioles and Jays seem to be a step behind each of these teams now, but also have rosters that could would make it no shock at all if they crack into the upper reaches of the division. The O’s need Manny Machado to be healthy and for their pitching staff as a whole to be a bit better than they profile. Meanwhile, the Jays just need to stay healthy and put up tons of runs, because they will need them if this is the pitching staff they tackle most of the year with.

Yet in the end, the balance of the Red Sox and the shared chemistry they have now makes them a very formidable club. They have the veterans in their primes along with the youngsters that have room to grow while playing major parts, yet not have the weight of carrying the club on their shoulders. I see the Sox winning the East again, albeit in a close race, with the Rays being in one of the Wild Card spots and the Yankees perhaps joining them.

Come back to the Cheap Seats over the next two weeks for each divisional breakdown and preview, and for more info from here in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

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This week, I will begin my annual preview of each division around Major League Baseball. And before I move on to this year, let’s take a look back at last year’s predictions, including how they panned out, what went right and what went wrong with the logic that went into them.

National League West—Preview Prediction

1. San Francisco Giants

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

4. Colorado Rockies

5. San Diego Padres

NL West—2013 Outcome

1. Dodgers (92-70)

2. Diamondbacks (81-81)

3. Giants (76-86)

4. San Diego (74-86)

5. Colorado (74-88)

The logic on choosing the Giants was based in a carryover of the chemistry that the mostly intact world champions were bringing back. They resigned Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, while their strong pitching staff stayed intact. However, in the end the Dodgers additions of Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke and Hanley Ramirez, along with a mostly healthy Carl Crawford made the difference. The combinations of rampant injuries in San Francisco, along with the Diamondbacks playing strong ball as well made all of the difference.

National League East—Preview Prediction

1. Washington Nationals

2. Atlanta Braves

3. Philadelphia Phillies

4. New York Mets

5. Miami Marlins

NL East Preview—2013 Outcome

1. Braves (96-66)

2. Nationals (86-76)

3. Mets (74-88)

4. Phillies (73-89)

5. Marlins (62-100)

I wasn’t alone in this one at least, because the Nationals seemed to be the most complete team in the league and were coming off of a very strong season. But it never came together for them for one reason or another, and when combined with the Braves playing very consistent baseball (at one point opening up a 15 game lead), they were never in it until the end of the season. The Mets and Phillies traded blows in the middle, but ultimate treaded water out in a contest of interchangeable seasons.

National League Central—Preview Prediction

1. Cincinnati Reds

2. St. Louis Cardinals

3. Milwaukee Brewers

4. Pittsburgh Pirates

5. Chicago Cubs

NL Central —2013 Outcome

1. Cardinals (97-65)

2. Pirates (94-68)

3. Reds (90-72)

4. Brewers (74-88)

5. Cubs (66-96)

The Central was a knuckle to knuckle fight throughout the entire season and ultimately produced the team that tied for the best record in baseball (Cardinals), along with the two Wild Card clubs as well in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Where I went wrong was considering the Pirates to be the team that ended 2012 in a downward spiral, as opposed to the one that had started that previous season—which was the one they played like completely through 2013. The Reds pitching staff was not as strong as I anticipated, and the rookie immediate impact in St. Louis was greater than I thought, and made the difference for them. The Brewers fell out of the picture when the rash of injuries they sustained and the loss of Ryan Braun.

American League West—Preview Prediction

1. Los Angeles Angels

2. Oakland A’s

3. Texas Rangers

4. Seattle Mariners

5. Houston Astros

AL West—2013 Outcome

1. A’s (96-66)

2. Rangers (91-72)

3. Angels (78-84)

4. Mariners (71-91)

5. Astros (51-111)

The pick was made on the assumption that a) the Angels 2012 effort had been a fluke, and b) that the addition of Josh Hamilton and another year of Mike Trout would take them to the postseason. Yet again, it was the A’s that held their ground in the West. The Rangers pitching played better baseball, and the Mariners fit into the mix between the predictably bad Astros.

American League Central—Preview Prediction

1. Detroit Tigers

2. Kansas City Royals

3. Indians

4. White Sox

5. Twins

AL Central—2013 Outcome

1. Tigers (93-69)

2. Indians (92-70)

3. Royals (86-76)

4. Twins (66-96)

5. White Sox (63-99)

The easiest division to choose held its serve for the most part. The Tigers took the division (albeit not as easily as I thought they may), while the Royals and Indians played much better baseball than they had the season prior. The White Sox however had a much more severe downturn than I saw coming, which was more the reason why the Twins didn’t find the cellar once again than them playing any better.

American League East—Preview Prediction

1. Baltimore Orioles

2. Toronto Blue Jays

3. New York Yankees

4. Tampa Bay Rays

5. Boston Red Sox

AL East—2013 Outcome

1. Red Sox (97-65)

2. Rays (92-71)

3. Orioles (85-77)

4. Yankees (85-77)

5. Blue Jays (74-88)

And finally, my greatest failure of the winter: the AL East. Admittedly, it was the closest of all the divisional choices, with the Rays, who despite being predicted to finish in fourth place were only 2.5 prediction points (the average place of the ranks of each category previewed) back of first place.

However, also admittedly, I was all in on the Orioles taking the next step as well after their showing in 2012. Add in the additions that the Blue Jays made and the terrible shipwreck the Red Sox 2012 ended as and it seemed that it could be legit. But the Red Sox pulled off a preview bottom-to-real life top outcome and ended up being the best team in baseball and the World Series champs.

And that is why the greatest crap shoot of all is a season preview on an outcome that’s eight months removed—and I’ll be rolling the dice again starting tomorrow.

Jhonny Peralta

It was not a jaw dropping off-season in particular for any National League team this season. While their American League counterparts went to war on the free agent battlefield, the NL clubs played it slower, instead choosing in many cases to make the subtle move over the splashy one. As a result, headed into spring it does not appear that this year’s races will be much different than the one’s that just concluded last September.

However, that would a complete error in judgement to assume, because the tortoise is just as adept as the hare in many cases. There flat out were not many teams that needed to have huge offseasons to get much better. The majority of the senior circuit is made up of balanced, well adjusted rosters that have what they need to succeed in place already, it is just about being consistent on a day to day basis. The elite competitors, it is about either eliminating their few blaring weaknesses or setting up their future to stay intact. For the middle tier, the name of the game was making the smart move to get in firing range of the upper class, because as last year showed, the race is never over until it is completely over. And for the few bottom rung teams, it is about honoring the process of the rebuild, and not falling straight on their face trying to get the job done too quick.

With the exceptions of a few clubs, each team achieved these measures by the standards of what was expected coming into the winter. And while a good winter far from guarantees anything much more than good sentiment headed into Opening Day, it does give a read on intent and where a team is looking to land. And in the air tight 2014 NL, every advantage helps out.

Here’s how the 15 NL clubs made out (to date) headed into the new year…

1.) St. Louis Cardinals: A few years ago, if one was to say the Cardinals are going to lose Chris Carpenter, David Freese, Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran all in one offseason, it would seem asinine to think they had a successful winter in any way. However, not only did all of those things happen—they were actually encouraged.

They did not have many needs to fill, but they addressed all of them and did so both aggressively and concisely. By moving the out of place Freese to Anaheim, they received the rangy Peter Bourjos to man centerfield and improve a limited defensive outfield. Adding Jhonny Peralta at shortstop may be the single-largest upgrade any team makes from 2013 to ’14 offensively, as he replaces Pete Kozma who was rated the worst offensive regular in either league last season. Considering these are the National League Champions, this was the ultimate “final touch” effort made good on.
2.) Washington Nationals: The steal of the offseason may be the Nats grab on Doug Fister, who was moved out as part of the Tigers payroll restructuring effort, and only at the cost of reliever Ian Krol and utility man Steve Lombardozzi. The addition of Nate McLouth gives the Nats the deepest outfield group in the NL, quietly even more than the Dodgers.
3.) Philadelphia Phillies: They stuck to their usual method of pulling in veterans with big contracts, but they also addressed many of their most frustrating gaps as well, by bringing in Marlon Byrd to be an offsetting right handed bat and AJ Burnett to be the needed middle of the rotation arm that had been lacking the previous two years with the downturn of the now retired Roy Halladay.
Carlos Ruiz was retained as well and the gamble taken on young Cuban power throwing righty Miguel Gonzalez could be the move that pulls them back up with the likes of Atlanta and Washington if all goes as right as it possibly can.
4.) San Francisco Giants: They continued their ways of retaining their own guys over making massive splashes in the free agent market by giving substantial extensions to Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum, as well as retaining Javier Lopez and Ryan Vogelsong. However, they still made room to add Michael Morse and Tim Hudson to round out a roster that is only one underachieving summer removed from a World Series title.
5.) Arizona Diamondbacks: They wanted to make a big splash by landing the likes of a Masahiro Tanaka to pull their rotation to the next level, but they still made out well via a series of smaller moves. They mortgaged a few of their top prospects to land Mark Trumbo and Addison Reed, but both should play a solid part in pushing them completely into the postseason competitive mix.

The Braves committed $228 million to four of its best in-home grown talents, with the bulk sum going to its All-Star first baseman Freeman

The Braves committed $228 million to four of its best in-home grown talents, with the bulk sum going to its All-Star first baseman Freeman

6.) Atlanta Braves: They added nothing from outside of the organization, but in the last few weeks made it an offseason could help to define the future course of the franchise, securing Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran and Jason Heyward through their arbitration years. Sometimes, less is more, especially down the road.
7.) Milwaukee Brewers: For the second straight year, they played the slow hand on the free agent pitching market and came out with a nice deck. They addressed one of their prime needs in landing Matt Garza to solidify a rotation that was nearly constantly in flux a year ago. It remains to be seen however if Mark Reynolds can add the type of power they need to replace the departed Corey Hart at first.
8.) Los Angeles Dodgers: The big move of the offseason was the Clayton Kershaw extension, which was clearly the top priority for the team, but otherwise it was a winter based on potential in LA. IF Juan Uribe and Alexander Guerrero pan out, it was a successful winter, just like IF Brian Wilson and Chris Perez can find their vintage form over the course of a full season they made may have constructed a powerful bullpen group. To be continued all around.
9.) New York Mets: They had a one foot in, one foot out type of winter. On one hand, they made a headline signing in Curtis Granderson, but then were tentative in pursuing Stephen Drew, who would be an instant improvement on their entire roster. Bartolo Colon is good bookmark for their young rotation while Matt Harvey rehabs in 2014 however.
10.) Miami Marlins: It is always hard to read what the Marlin’s intentions truly are, but by all accounts, it looks like they don’t want to be a blantantly terrible as they were a year ago. Jarrod Saltalammachia, Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones and Jeff Baker are all solid veteran adds that should make the team relatively more competitive—or at least enough to show Giancarlo Stanton they are “trying”…for now.
11.) San Diego Padres: Questionable winter for the Pads, trading one of their best arms in Luke Gregorson for a platoon outfielder in Seth Smith, only to in turn spend major money on essentially the same type of pitcher in Joaquin Benoit to pitch the eighth. Josh Johnson is a coin flip signing, that if he stays healthy is great, but that rarely happens.
12.) Colorado Rockies: It was a hurricane of a winter in Colorado, but it is still uncertain if all the bluster made a difference. They added Justin Morneau and Brett Anderson, two of the most undependable, upside reputation carrying assets in baseball, to boost their lineup and staff respectively. All while dealing one of their most consistent sure bets, Dexter Fowler, for little in return. It feels like Colorado just ran really, really fast on the treadmill this winter.
13.) Pittsburgh Pirates: Tough to say they took a step back, but without a doubt it feels like they should have done more, especially after being one of the most aggressive teams in the game at the trade deadline last season. In the end, they lose A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones, and only add in return a resigned Clint Barmes. Hard to say that’s a quality winter for a team that is firmly on the edge of breaking through—or topping off.
14.) Chicago Cubs: The deliberate rebuild continues, and they used the winter to patch up their rotation with the additions of Jason Hammel and Jason McDonald, while truly improving their bullpen with Jose Veras and Wesley Wright. But it feels like it is time for Theo and company to make a legit move add some credibility to the only team that is clearly on the outside looking in in the NL Central.
15.) Cincinnati Reds: I’m not sure what the goal was here, unless it was to just write off 2013 as a mulligan and go at it again. At any rate, the losses of Shin-Soo Choo, Bronson Arroyo and Ryan Hanigan resonate much louder than the additions of Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena. Perhaps the full-on investment in Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips was a much heavier cross to carry than they even realized, because they seem frozen from a personnel movement standpoint—and will soon owe Homer Bailey an answer on his future as well.

The AL grades will come down later in the week (because the picture is still painting itself over there), but until follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. For more content, head to The Sports Fan Journal and I70 Baseball.

Albert_Pujols

In no other sport do “magic numbers” mean more than in baseball. And while if the validity of such automatic qualifier numbers is still current, or needs to be revised for today’s game is another debate completely, there are still round numbers that prove excellence has been met for a long enough time to take note.

Each new summer brings a chance for a new chance for certain career mile-markers to be met each summer. This summer is no exception, as a few standout marks will be met. On the heels of his recent announcement to retire following the season, Derek Jeter will put the finishing touches on his legacy, which will see him move through the top 10 all-time in hits—and potential reach an awe inspiring cap.

Likewise, Albert Pujols will begin to touch some of the hallowed marks that his effort has long forecasted, as will Miguel Cabrera. More surprisingly however, is what the summer could represent for Adrian Beltre, who is on the cusp of several numbers that will begin to create a completely different connotation for his body of work.

Here are the major career milestones that stand to be met in the 2014 MLB campaign.

HITS

3,500 Hits

3,316—Derek Jeter is 184 hits short of becoming the sixth player ever to reach 3,500 hits. He is 199 hits away from moving ahead of Tris Speaker for fifth place all-time (3,514).

2,500 Hits

2,426—Adrian Beltre will easily surpass the 2,500 level and enters an important year towards making a decisive push towards getting aligned for a shot at 3,000 in his late prime at age 35.

2,000 Hits

1,996—Miguel Cabrera is four hits (or a game and a half for him) away.

1,993—Raul Ibanez is seven hits short of the mark at age 41.

HOME RUNS

500 Home Runs

492—Albert Pujols has hit a home run one per every 14.9 per at-bats in his career, and enters the season eight shy. Not that there was any doubt about his legacy, but this is the first in a line of major posts to be met by the three-time MVP.

450 Home Runs

440—Adam Dunn is ten way, and has hit one per every 14.7 at-bats in his career. It is not certain if he’ll continue after 2014, but he would be safely in range of 500 if he plays through 2015.

438—Paul Konerko is 12 short, and has homered once per every 18.9 at-bats in his career, but will be in a part-time role.

431—David Ortiz is 19 short, and has not had a season with less than 20 in a year since 2001.

400 Home Runs

376—Adrian Beltre, and he has averaged 32 per season over the past four years.

365—Miguel Cabrera is 35 away and has hit not had season total below 44 since 2011.

RUNS BATTED IN

1,500 RBI

1,498—Albert Pujols will meet the mark easily.

1,000 RBI

966—Matt Holliday should meet the mark by the All-Star Break at the latest.

963—Ryan Howard (health abiding) should move past the 1,000 mark. He’s never had a season with fewer than 43 RBI.

500 DOUBLES

495—Adrian Beltre will easily surpass the next milestone in his signature hit in the first month of the year.

200 WINS

189—Bartolo Colon is 11 shy of hitting the 200 mark, due to his late career resurgence in Oakland.

186—Mark Buehrle enters the year 14 victories short of the level. However, if history speaks for the future, he’ll have to wait until next summer—he has won 13 in four of the past five years, and has not topped 13 since 2008.

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2,500 STRIKEOUTS

2,389—CC Sabathia will become the ninth left-hander ever to surpass 2,500 strikeouts this summer, joining Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, Mickey Lolich, Frank Tanana, Chuck Finley, Tom Glavine, Warren Spahn and Jerry Koosman.

SAVES

350 Saves

341—Joe Nathan enters the year nine saves shy of becoming the ninth player to ever accumulate 350, and has a shot to reach as high as seventh all-time this summer.

300 Saves

286—Jonathan Papelbon stands to shoot up past the middle-tier of closers historically and into near elite standing this year. With his standard 30+ saves he not only passes 300, but to pass into the top 10 next year.

286—Jose Valverde he was signed by the Mets last week to provide bullpen depth, so there’s no clear road to 300, but if he somehow ends up in the role due to an injury to Bobby Parnell he could meet it.

 

For the moments as they inevitably happen in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. For more content, head to I70 Baseball and The Sports Fan Journal.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh Pirates

There is no job in the game with a more concise, to the point job description than being a relief pitcher: get out there and get the job done, quickly. While this happens in far more than just the ninth inning, more often than not, eventually the most prevailing non-starters will find their way to the game’s final frame to deploy their craft.

Some are built for it, some aren’t, but while the save stat can often be misleading on a pitcher’s effectiveness; it does in many cases show who has the confidence of their club to weigh the team’s day-to-day success squarely on their shoulders.

It is a new day for the race for the head of the table in the world of elite relievers, as the unapproachable greatest closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera, has finished his final game. Yet while the standard setter is gone, the cupboard is far from bare, as there are an impressive and menacing group of late game arms vying for elite status either in or around the game’s most important inning.

Because to reach the upper rungs of this group, simply means you are among the most indispensable players in the game today—here are the top guns setting the new standard today.

10. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: Only a few blow the eye test out of the water quicker than the new closer in St. Louis does. He had 29 holds and ran up 103 strikeouts as a rookie, before assuming the ninth inning in the postseason—and establishing a strangle hold on the role going ahead. In two career scoreless postseasons, over 20 innings he has surrendered only six hits against 33 strikeouts.

9. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies: Steady and effective, the fiery and sometimes boastful Papelbon has the attitude that seals the deal—and is bred from his type of results. He has only finished one of his eight full seasons south of 30 saves, but is coming off a career-high seven blown save effort. But his track record indicates that’s an exception over a rule.

8. David Robertson, Yankees: It is no small task replacing the greatest closer of all-time, but Robertson has performed up to the task. As a setup man, he had a 1.91 ERA over the past three seasons and since 2010, is 325 strikeouts are nearly 30 more than any American League reliever.

Balfour_Rays

7. Grant Balfour, Rays: If he continues at the level he has been at over the past three years, the Orioles may have made the error of the offseason backing out of their pact with him. Since leaving Tampa in 2011, he has run up 64 saves and 41 holds, and has failed to convert only 5 of his last 83 save situations.

6. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers: An important part of the Dodger ship righting itself was giving Jansen the ball back to in the ninth, and he took the role in an impressive fashion. He struck out 111 in 78 innings, in route to 28 saves and a 1.88 ERA.

5. Greg Holland, Royals: The overpowering Holland made the most of his chance to anchor the superb Royals bullpen, leading all AL relievers with 103 strikeouts, amid a miniscule 1.21 ERA. He closed out 47 games, while only failing on three save attempts, settling a Royals record high in the process.

4. Joe Nathan, Tigers: He re-affirmed his slightly hidden status as one of the great closers of all-time with a vintage effort in Arlington. Two years removed from elbow surgery, he turned in 43 saves on a 1.38 ERA, including closing out a memorable All-Star Game. With his next save, he will break a tie with Rollie Fingers for tenth all-time.

3. Koji Uehara, Red Sox: A long-dominant setup man, Uehara moved to the ninth halfway through the year and began to author one of the greatest relief seasons in MLB history. After June 1, he surrendered one earned run for the remainder of the season, finishing with a 1.09 ERA and 101 strikeouts. At one point, he retired 37 straight batters—good for 12.1 perfect innings.

Cincinnati Reds v Arizona Diamondbacks

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds: When he is on his game, he is the most intimidating and unhittable pitcher in the game. Armed with a fastball that lives over 100 mph on most days, and a slider that appears as if it is going to run straight through the batter, before dying at the last second, batters have survived to a .154 average against him to start his career. Over the last two years, he has struck out 50 more batters than innings pitched.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves: He has been the game’s premier closer since day one of assuming the role. Over his three year career, he has led the NL in saves each season, and done so in an undeniably dominant fashion. For his career, he has averaged 15.1 strikeouts per nine innings (381 K’s in 227 innings) and has converted 139 out of 154 career chances. He’s a two pitch pitcher that can choose which one he wants to win with on any given day. And at only age 25, he’s set a curve that should be his for a long while.

Just A Bit Outside: Sergio Romo, Glen Perkins, Jim Johnson

Thanks for following this year’s ‘Top 10, Today’ countdown. Head over to I-70 Baseball to recap the rundown over the next few days, via a slideshow format and recap. For in the moment analysis, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.