Top 10 lineups in the majors
December, 26, 2013
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
Kendrys Morales is still looking for work, and so is Nelson Cruz. But with almost all of the best hitters in place, we present the first in a series of our annual top 10 team rankings: the best lineups.
As one executive noted: "When you start looking at the projected lineups for 2014, there are not many dominant lineups. Most clubs have a couple of spots that have young players, or players returning from injuries. So almost all have a couple of questions."
Absolutely true. Here is how I rank the top 10 lineups.
1. Texas Rangers
The Rangers’ front office saw the flaws in their batting order, the lack of left-handed power, and have aggressively reached for repairs. But it’s not as if the Texas offense was a black hole in 2013: The Rangers finished eighth out of 30 teams in runs, and now they’ve added two left-handed hitters who ranked among the top 30 in the majors in OBP, in Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. There is notable risk in the long term in Fielder and Choo, given the Rangers’ seven-year investments in each, but in 2014, Texas could run out a lineup that looks like this:
LF Shin-Soo Choo
SS Elvis Andrus
1B Prince Fielder
3B Adrian Beltre
RF Alex Rios
DH Mitch Moreland (for now)
2B Jurickson Profar
C Geovany Soto/J.P. Arencibia
CF Leonys Martin
The question mark should be attached to Moreland because it is possible that Nelson Cruz could return on a team-friendly deal -- but only on a team-friendly deal, like Adam LaRoche’s modest two-year contract with the Washington Nationals last winter. Otherwise, the Rangers will be content to let Cruz go elsewhere.
2. Boston Red Sox
Boston was the only team to score more than 800 runs last year, and they led the majors in that category by a margin of 57 runs. Xander Bogaerts may quickly evolve into an upper-echelon hitter, and the Red Sox retained Mike Napoli and signed A.J. Pierzynski. But they do appear to be vulnerable to some regression for a couple of reasons:
1. Jacoby Ellsbury is gone from the top of the lineup, and while Jackie Bradley Jr. appears to have the skill set to eventually become a good leadoff hitter, he’s no sure-thing replacement for a player who finished 13th in the majors in WAR in 2013, per FanGraphs.
2. David Ortiz, the most important hitter in the lineup, is 38 years old. That might not mean anything next season, and maybe it won’t mean anything in 2015. But the only perfect record in major league history belongs to Father Time, who is undefeated; eventually, Ortiz’s skills will be affected by age and injury. The Red Sox's hope is that happens later, rather than sooner.
3. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers have had three straight years of near-misses, reaching the AL Championship Series in 2011 and 2013 and playing in the World Series in 2012, and a lot of that is due to the explosiveness of their lineup -- starting with Miguel Cabrera, the back-to-back winner of the AL MVP Award.
This could be the year he reaches 400 homers (he needs 35 more), and he needs just five more hits for 2,000. Prince Fielder put up good numbers in his two years with the Tigers, as well, but now his production is gone -- yet Detroit might have a more functional lineup, with more speed and more depth, if the Tigers get positive answers to at least some of their major questions:
A) Was Ian Kinsler’s offensive slide in 2014 the beginning of the end, or was it just an aberration?
B) Can Austin Jackson, who will be 27 this season, get back to being an above-average offensive player, after seeing his OPS drop by more than 100 points?
C) Will Victor Martinez stay healthy, because he will be charged with the responsibility of protecting Cabrera in the lineup?
D) How smoothly can Nick Castellanos transition into the big leagues, as he assumes third base? His minor league performance suggests he could be a steady contributor, if not a dynamic force.
4. St. Louis Cardinals
No team has been better at making changes on the run without losing anything. Adam Wainwright went down and the Cardinals still won the 2011 World Series. Chris Carpenter didn’t throw an inning in 2013 and a bunch of talented young guys stepped in.
Now the Cardinals are looking at turnover with half of their every-day lineup after leading the NL in runs in 2013, with Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Pete Kozma and (perhaps) Jon Jay out. But St. Louis could be just as good: Matt Adams assumes an every-day job at first base, Allen Craig moves to the outfield, Kolten Wong and Mark Ellis figure to share time at second base (with Matt Carpenter moving to third), and Jhonny Peralta moving in at shortstop.
5. Los Angeles Angels
You start with the game’s best player, Mike Trout, and go from there -- and the safe money is that the Angels will get more out of Albert Pujols than the 391 plate appearances they did last year, and that Josh Hamilton won’t be quite so bad for quite as long as he was in 2013.
In spite of all of the Angels’ offensive dysfunction, they finished seventh in runs scored, which brings us back to where we started: They have Mike Trout, getting on base 300 times, scoring more than 100 runs, compiling 75 to 85 extra-base hits, stealing 30-plus bases. And nobody else does that.
6. Oakland Athletics
The Athletics’ barometer comes down to this: When they’re playing well, they are really good at two things -- they draw walks, and they hit homers.
Oakland ranking (walks/homers)
The last two seasons, they’ve drawn walks and they’ve hit homers, and they’ve won back-to-back AL West titles, while finishing first in runs scored among all 30 teams in the second half of 2012 and ranking fourth in runs for the 2013 season. There’s no reason to think they won’t have a good offense again this year: Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick appear to be candidates for bounce-back seasons, and Oakland loves Craig Gentry for the damage he does against lefties.
7. Cleveland Indians
If you’re looking for a team as a sleeper for a breakout offensively, I’ll take the Indians, who were already really good last year, finishing tied for fifth in runs.
Think about what didn’t go well for them last season: Michael Bourn (.676 OPS) and Nick Swisher (.764) really didn’t hit the way they have in the past; they had only one hitter with more than 20 homers; Yan Gomes didn’t establish himself as the every-day catcher until the second half of 2013; Asdrubal Cabrera had a terrible year, with a .700 OPS; and Lonnie Chisenhall wasn’t able to establish himself as a third baseman, and Cleveland finished 26th in OPS at the position; Carlos Santana is trying out third base in winter ball, and may or may not be an option there. David Murphy takes over in right field for Drew Stubbs, and between him and Ryan Raburn, the Indians should get better production out of the position.
Will the Indians be as dynamic as the Rangers or Red Sox? Probably not. But they seem to have the personnel to get better.
8. Colorado Rockies
Yes, their best players seemingly suffer a whole lot of injuries, with both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez missing a significant number of games, and their search for the Mile High Holy Grail of Success continues. But year after year, the conditions and their ballpark help them generate strong offensive production (and not-so-sterling pitching numbers).
Justin Morneau is set to take over from Todd Helton at first base, and in theory, Gonzalez will shift to center field now that Dexter Fowler is gone -- although you wonder whether those plans will change. The Rockies didn’t have a 30-homer hitter in 2013, but they had four guys with 20 or more homers, and Tulowitzki and Gonzalez seem capable of more and better -- if they can stay on the field. Gonzalez has missed 114 games over the last three seasons, and Tulowitzki has become something like the Derrick Rose of shortstops: He’s played in more than 143 games once in the last six years.
9. Kansas City Royals
Their window to win is right now, and GM Dayton Moore augmented his lineup in two troublesome spots. He paid top-of-the-market dollars to sign Omar Infante to fill in at second base and traded for Norichika Aoki to be the leadoff man, which allows Ned Yost to move Alex Gordon to somewhere in the middle of the lineup.
This could be a dynamic lineup, with power and speed and depth, but so much of the Royals’ season will depend on the development of their best young players -- like the 24-year-old Eric Hosmer, who had a very good second half in 2013, and third baseman Mike Moustakas, who enters an extremely important year in his career after posting an OPS of .651 last season. Salvador Perez has a unique ability to square up a ball, but needs patience; last year, he had 41 extra-base hits, 21 walks and just 63 strikeouts in 526 plate appearances. This is a big year too for Billy Butler, one of baseball’s last full-time DHs; he hit into a league-high 28 double plays last season, while his slugging percentage dropped about 100 points.
My guess is that the improved depth of the lineup helps all of them, and the Royals become a strong offensive team. But that’s hardly a sure thing.
10. New York Yankees
The Yankees finished out of the top 10 in runs scored for the first time since 1991, as Joe Girardi pieced together a collection of misfit toys -- journeymen and castoffs and unproven young players -- around Robinson Cano.
Now Cano is gone, but the Yankees would seem to have a good chance for an offensive recovery because the depth may be better, with the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann (whose left-handed swing is perfect for Yankee Stadium), Carlos Beltran, (who will aim to collect his 400th career homer and 2,500th career hit over the next couple of seasons). Mark Teixeira is set to be back at first base, Derek Jeter is penciled in -- lightly -- at shortstop, and the Yankees’ hope is that Kelly Johnson gives them some production at third or second. But again, the Yankees’ collective age will make them more vulnerable to injury, and Girardi may be looking for pixie dust again.
Honorable mentions: Tampa Bay, which will field as deep a lineup as any in Andrew Friedman’s time as GM; Atlanta, loaded with young players who continue to evolve; Arizona, because Paul Goldschmidt is already among the game’s best hitters; Washington, which could field an excellent lineup if Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth stay healthy enough to remain in it.
Around the league
• Presumably, all 30 teams will go through the motions of indicating a willingness to pay the $20 million posting fee to bid on Masahiro Tanaka -- because to not do so would be like not running out a groundball and demonstrating at least minimal effort. After that, however, it’ll come down to desperation.
How desperate are the Cubs for a starting pitcher who can lead them into the future? How desperate are the Yankees for young pitching talent? How much do the Dodgers want the marketable Tanaka to become part of what would be the most marketable, must-see rotation in baseball? How much are the Rangers really ready to pay for him? Are the Diamondbacks desperate enough to win in 2014 that they would be willing to have a pitching making a $20 million-25 million salary? Are the Mariners desperate to follow up on the Robinson Cano signing and make themselves legitimate? Are the Red Sox desperate to position themselves for a possible back-to-back situation?
The Yankees know the risks of splurging on Japanese aces, writes Jay Schreiber.
The Yankees must go all-in or they will lose, writes Mark Feinsand. The pursuit of Tanaka begins today.
Here’s how the Rangers could get him, from Evan Grant.
The Diamondbacks probably should pursue Tanaka, writes Nick Piecoro.
The Dodgers haven’t committed yet, writes Dylan Hernandez.
It’s interesting that Tanaka is being represented by Casey Close, who heads the agency that also represents Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Rays claimed Jerry Sands off waivers the other day.
2. The Dodgers made some signings official.
• The Phillies are pinning their hopes on a prospect.
• The Cardinals are thriving because of the vision of Bill DeWitt, writes Bernie Miklasz.
• Drew Stubbs could be a great addition to the Rockies’ lineup, writes Patrick Saunders.
• The Red Sox lineup is wounded in subtraction.
• There is sad news about longtime Indians broadcaster Mike Hegan.
• Leonys Martin filed a lawsuit against his former agents.
• A trailer for a Pirates-related movie has arrived.
• Clark Spencer asked: Now that Logan Morrison is gone, should the Marlins re-retire No. 5? The answer is yes, of course, because it’s the decent thing to do, and here's hoping they get a nudge from the commissioner’s office in this matter.
• The voting process for the Hall of Fame is at a crossroads, writes Richard Griffin.
• Steve Simmons won’t be voting for steroid users.
And today will be better than yesterday.