Top 10 teams: Cardinals the envy of baseball
Tigers, Red Sox, Dodgers also rank among the best entering Spring Training
Which is the best team in baseball?
Talk about a loaded question with an ever-evolving answer.
Even if you can come to a satisfied conclusion that a 162-game season followed by a multi-layered, month-long postseason ought to do a decent job of determining the "best team" (and not everybody makes that conclusion, as evidenced last week by Michael Young calling the Rangers the "flat-out" better team in the 2011 World Series and Jayson Werth calling the Nationals the "best team in baseball" at the end of the '13 regular season), the flurry of player movement that accompanies the offseason has a way of recalibrating the requirements.
"Best" is a moving target.
All week, I've attempted to pick out the bests in each major category -- starting rotation, lineup, defense and bullpen. And now, to wrap up the week of top 10s, I'm taking all of that into account and coming up with what can best be described as early power rankings -- the teams best positioned for 2014, in terms of talent and depth -- as we head into Spring Training.
The season itself will put these so-called "bests" to the test. And even when it's over, we might still have an argument about what the best team really was.
Look, I've got to level with you: I don't love this Yankees team. And I've spoken with a few executives who don't exactly love them, either. They spent about a half-billion dollars this winter without re-signing their best player (Robinson Cano), their lineup is all too dependent on healthy seasons by Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, soon-to-be-36-year-old Carlos Beltran and soon-to-be-40-year-old Derek Jeter (decent-sized risks, all), their second- and third-base situations are shaky and their bullpen is going to be quite a bit different without Mariano Rivera.
But one trend you might have noticed is that the Yankees tend to make the playoffs more often than not, and I don't put it past them to take on more salary in-season if the right situation presents itself.
More important, I'm not going to be one of those people who counts out the Yanks and affords a $200 million behemoth of a ballclub the opportunity to label itself an "underdog," because that's just ridiculous. I'm sure the Yankees will be right in the thick of things all season, and it will all come down to whether they're healthy enough for the stretch run.
Last year, it was Chipper Jones retiring. This year, it's McCann cashing in with the Yanks and Tim Hudson heading west to San Francisco.
The Braves have lost several of their cornerstones, but they remain an elite club because of their ongoing ability to piece together strong starting staffs (it would be awfully helpful if Brandon Beachy, post-surgery, can return to his 2012 form), a bullish bullpen and a lineup that can mash.
They need the Legend of Evan Gattis to write another chapter, and they need Justin Upton to be the monster he was at the beginning of 2013 and not the middling player he was mid-summer. B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla can't possibly be as bad as they were last year, can they? They certainly can't be any worse.
This is an imperfect team that's run into some arbitration-aided financial limitations, but Atlanta will still be a major factor in the National League East.
The A's reside in an increasingly difficult division with a complex and prolonged ballpark battle hanging over their heads and limiting their budget. But they mix, they match and they maximize, and their back-to-back American League West titles are as impressive as anything accomplished in the Major Leagues in the past decade.
Can they sustain it in 2014? It certainly seems so, because their underrated lineup, which outperforms expectations in their behemoth of a ballpark, has room for improvement, if Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick more closely approximate their 2012 production. Their bullpen, with ground-ball machine Jim Johnson closing, could be improved on what was already reliable relief. And their starting staff should be steady, with Sonny Gray emerging as an ace in the making.
The margin for error is always slim for a lower-revenue club, but the A's have again put themselves in a good position to contend for another division crown.
The David Price situation is gut-wrenching for a team built to win now but entirely cognizant of the question about whether he fits into its long-term financial picture (spoiler alert: he doesn't).
But with Price in tow for now, the Rays can make as good an argument as any that they can take the top spot in the AL East. Price fronts a rotation that, with Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Chris Archer all on the rise, figures to be really, really good. With Grant Balfour on board for the ninth, the Rays' reputation for building a quality bullpen should remain intact. And with Wil Myers and Evan Longoria in the middle, the Rays might have their most dangerous lineup since they first surged into the playoffs in 2008.
Price's future will continue to hang over their heads, but if this is his last season with Tampa Bay, he's got enough talent surrounding him to make it a special one.
Werth's comments last week come across as a loser's lament, but it's no secret a Nats team described by many to be a World Series contender played its best ball down the stretch. From Aug. 1 through season's end, Washington scored the fifth-most runs per game and had the fourth-best staff ERA.
What does that mean going forward? Well, absolutely nothing, frankly. But many of the reasons so many of us liked the Nats a year ago -- a deep lineup, a couple of capable closer types, and best of all, a rotation that may very well be the best in the game -- still apply, and the addition of Doug Fister to the starting staff and the beefing up of the bench makes the outlook all the more encouraging.
Much is dependent on Bryce Harper's health, Stephen Strasburg's ability to accumulate 200 innings and the ease of Matt Williams' transition to the managerial role. But if you liked the Nats a year ago, you still have ample reason to like them now. And yes, I do like them a little bit better than the Braves.
In locking arms with Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo, Texas has taken on two contracts that could prove calamitous in the long run.
But in the short term? Well, those two guys rank in the top 10 in baseball in on-base percentage over the past three seasons, and Fielder's power stroke is going to take quite a liking to Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Rangers ought to generate runs aplenty.
The health of the rotation is an open question and a pivotal one, especially with Derek Holland likely out for at least half the season. But if Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz make successful returns from injuries, the Yu Darvish-led pitching staff will be a strength.
I don't know if this Rangers team is better than the ones that reached the World Series in 2010 and '11, but I do know general manager Jon Daniels and Co. were unsatisfied with the disappointing finishes the past two years and aggressively patched holes to create what will be a popular Series pick.
The slogan for 2014 is "Live. Breathe. Blue." But green has quite a bit to do with the Dodgers, too. Beginning with the Hanley Ramirez acquisition and the blockbuster trade with the Red Sox in the summer of 2012, the Dodgers have been doling out the dollars in bold fashion, and it's given them a club loaded with star-level talent -- a club that can and should contend for a World Series ring.
Dan Haren is a worthwhile gamble for an all-world rotation headed by $30 million-man Clayton Kershaw, and the bullpen is overloaded with possibilities. Questions about whether the lineup, which will surely benefit from a full season of Yasiel Puig, can stay healthy are what prevented me from putting them in the top 10 in that category.
But perhaps the biggest reason to believe in the Dodgers rests in their ability to adjust in-season, because by now we well know that they're willing to take on major salary when it comes to plugging holes.
3. RED SOX
What happened last year -- seven somewhat low-key free-agent signings panning out at least as well or in many cases better than hoped -- was one of those "somebody up there likes us" alignments of the stars that rarely happens. And it's no secret that in abstaining from long-term contracts, retaining Draft picks and protecting their payroll flexibility, the Red Sox have put an awful lot of faith and trust in youngsters like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts to carry things forward.
But you have to respect their pitching depth, particularly if Clay Buchholz is healthy, and their offense should remain among the best in the game. The Red Sox also boast a well-regarded, deep farm system that could allow them to make an impact acquisition, should a need arise.
Remember what I said earlier about "recalibrating the requirements"? Foolish or not, I'm ranking the Red Sox just behind two of the teams they ousted in October. Life's tough.
The Fielder signing two years ago was the Tigers' announcement that they mean business when it comes to bringing home a World Series ring. The Fielder trade this winter was an acknowledgment that baseball teams, like businesses, must evolve to stay alive.
Not that there was anything fundamentally flawed with the Tigers of 2012-13, but the moves GM Dave Dombrowski has made this offseason might make them better suited to the October environment. They'll be markedly better defensively now that Miguel Cabrera will return to first base and Jose Iglesias will be at shortstop for a full season, and they'll have more speed and agility on the bases now that Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis are aboard.
Couple all that with the addition of closer Joe Nathan and the return of a stout rotation (one that remains elite, even without Fister), and the Tigers are a safe bet to reach the postseason, with a very realistic chance of advancing thanks to improvement in the game's finer points.
The St. Louis organization ought to be the envy of nearly every other. The stash of pitchers the Cards have drafted and nurtured is unlike any other, and that kind of homegrown talent -- from Michael Wacha to Shelby Miller to Carlos Martinez to Trevor Rosenthal -- is the most reliable backbone in building a true contender in today's climate.
The Cards couple that with a lineup that, while dramatically different from the one they fielded in 2013, is nonetheless a potential powerhouse among NL clubs, with Jhonny Peralta taking over at short, Allen Craig presumably healthy, Matt Adams becoming a regular and the possibility that top prospect Oscar Taveras makes an impact this year. They've also dramatically improved themselves defensively.
Survival is directly dependent on depth. The storylines or outlooks we're talking about today will be totally different a few months from now. The Cardinals have, time and again, proven themselves adaptable to the many challenges posed by the grind of a 162-game season, and they continue to churn out talent through their pipeline. I'm not sitting here promising they're going to win a World Series, but I do know they've given themselves at least as good a shot as anybody else, and that's all you can reasonably ask for at this point in the calendar.
Honorable mention: If I had to pick the next five, I'd go with this ... 11. Reds: Don't have a great deal of faith in the Billy Hamilton experiment at leadoff, but I still love their pitching staff. ... 12. Pirates: As with the Reds, an uninspiring winter, but a full season of Gerrit Cole and a midseason injection of Gregory Polanco could boost them to the playoffs yet again. ... 13. Giants: I firmly expect a bounceback year for the rotation in particular and for the Giants at large. ... 14. Angels: Loved the Mark Trumbo trade that netted them some much-needed upside in the rotation in the form of Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton should be better. ... 15. Indians and Royals (tie): As far as I'm concerned, it's a pick-'em for second-best team in the AL Central. The Indians have a really good offense that could be even better, and the Royals have several tantalizing players who have not yet reached their potential. Both have rotation questions.