Friday, September 27, 2013
These teams won't miss playoffs in 2014
By Jim Bowden
Jordan Zimmermann emerged as Washington's ace, which bodes well for 2014.
With the introduction of a second wild-card team in 2012, teams are in the postseason hunt later and longer than ever. Three teams in particular were expected to contend for a playoff berth but fell short for various reasons. What sets them apart is their potential to reach the postseason in 2014.
So let’s examine what went wrong for these three teams this year and why they should eclipse their 2013 performances in 2014.
Despite the flashy, big-name acquisitions of the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nationals followed a different path last offseason. After all, they already were bubbling with talent at nearly every position. They had a few needs -- a leadoff hitter and center fielder, as well as fortifying the bullpen. With some modest acquisitions, they seemingly found those final pieces for another run at a World Series title. However, by the end of 2013, both the Dodgers and Braves had won their divisions while the Nationals, despite a late-season surge, fell short of the postseason.
Why they fell short: After winning 98 games in 2012, some might say the Nationals were due for a letdown of some sort. In Davey Johnson’s final season as skipper, that letdown came in the first half from a combination of injuries and slumps.
Denard Span improved the defense in center field, but he hardly was the leadoff hitter the Nationals expected. He had difficulty adjusting to National League pitching and posted a meager .320 on-base percentage before the break. Pitchers Drew Storen and Dan Haren also struggled mightily in the first half.
And consider the injuries: Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder was never 100 percent, leading to multiple throwing errors; after suffering a wrist injury, Danny Espinosa disintegrated at second base, hitting just .158 before losing his job to rookie Anthony Rendon; catcher Wilson Ramos nursed injuries in the first half; Bryce Harper battled knee and hip injuries; and Ross Detwiler dealt with back issues.
Why they’ll succeed in 2014: With general manager Mike Rizzo signed to a long-term contract, the club has stability and continuity. He’ll bring in a new long-term manager, and with a core of healthy players -- including Zimmerman and Harper -- there’s every reason to believe the Nationals’ first half in 2014 will be vastly improved.
A few bright spots included the development of rookie Tanner Roark, who went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 0.96 WHIP after being called up, limiting opponents to a .213 average. Jordan Zimmermann asserted himself as the staff ace with a 19-9 record and 3.25 ERA, and the Nationals' starting rotation is deep with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. With an improved bench and some added bullpen depth this offseason, this team will contend for the NL pennant.
Kansas City Royals
There was plenty of pressure on Royals GM Dayton Moore last offseason when he decided to bet the farm (system) and trade away prized prospect Wil Myers to rebuild his starting rotation. The assumption was that the Royals offense could buoy new starting pitchers James Shields and Ervin Santana.
Why they fell short: As it turned out, it was the pitching that buoyed an inconsistent offense. Power outages were the main culprits, as the Royals ranked 11th in the American League in runs scored, 12th in OPS and last in home runs. Both Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas experienced down years while Jeff Francoeur was a disaster in right field and released. Likewise, second base remained unresolved with five players failing to fill the void.
Why they will succeed in 2014: The pitching staff led the AL in ERA for most of the season, and the bullpen was easily the best in the AL. All the relievers will return in 2014. Thus, solidifying the starting rotation would go a long way to preserve Moore’s work last offseason and justify trading Myers. That could mean re-signing Santana, or at least giving him a qualifying offer to make sure the Royals are compensated with a draft pick if he signs elsewhere.
With the pitching in place, upgrading the offense should not be difficult even with undervalued free agents, just as the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s have been able to do the past few years. Adding an impact middle-of-the-order right-handed bat would be the primary concern, preferably in right field. Solving second base also must be a priority. Eric Hosmer looked like the All-Star everyone expected him to be in the second half, and much of the Royals' success will depend on him carrying that performance throughout the season.
With 43 comeback victories this year, the young Royals built some much-needed confidence and swagger. They proved to themselves they can win, but more importantly, they also proved it to Royals fans, who now believe in this team and will support it in 2014. But the pressure remains on Moore -- and manager Ned Yost -- to win in order to keep their jobs.
With the emergence of several key rookies and surprising performances from some nondescript players, the Orioles made the postseason in 2012. They followed that up with a solid 2013 campaign with much of the same personnel but fell short. It looked like their 2014 playoff hopes could already be in jeopardy when Manny Machado went down with a knee injury earlier this week, but it appears he will be fine for spring training.
Why they fell short: One of the major keys to the Orioles’ success in 2012 centered on their ability to win close games. In 2012, they were first in the AL in one-run games. In 2013, they were last. Many of those 2012 one-run wins were due to Jim Johnson, who emerged as a shutdown closer and saved 51 games, blowing just three opportunities. In 2013, Johnson blew nine saves.
Perhaps more damaging was their lack of a genuine No. 1 starter. Orioles starting pitchers finished 12th in the AL in ERA (4.52) and 11th in WHIP (1.35). Chris Tillman certainly developed into a solid No. 2, winning 16 games, but the rest of the rotation was composed of midrotation guys. AL teams advancing to the postseason all had higher quality pitching than them. Rookie Dylan Bundy could have been that No. 1, but his elbow injury prevented him from giving the Orioles the boost the Pirates were able to get from their top pitching prospect, rookie Gerrit Cole.
Why they will succeed in 2014: It will first depend on improving the pitching. That means rookie Kevin Gausman must develop command of his pitches and Bundy returns to health. One of them must develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter next season. And they must add an ace via free agency or trade.
With the emergence of Chris Davis, the Orioles led the league in home runs, but not enough three-run home runs. Improving their team OBP (.312) will be critical to take advantage of their overall power. If rookie Jonathan Schoop can emerge just as Machado did, he could solidify an already extraordinary defense and powerful lineup to make a deep run into October next year or at the very least earn a wild-card berth.