By Marc Normandin
In just about a month, it will be a new baseball season, and that means it's also time for new baseball lineups. We're here to help you get acquainted (or reacquainted) with the best of the best of those lineups, as time and a flurry of off-season moves has served to rearrange the batting orders we knew into something new, and more importantly, something we can rank.
Let's look at the top six lineups in the game as of right this moment. Things can certainly change, should there be injuries, trades, or someone finally, mercifully signs free agents Stephen Drew or Kendrys Morales, but as of the time these words were written, these are the six lineups that should dominate MLB in 2014.
6. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers lost Prince Fielder in a trade with the Rangers, and while that deal brought back Ian Kinsler, he's arguably no better at the plate than their previous second baseman, Omar Infante. Between that and losing shortstop Jhonny Peralta to free agency, the Tigers have slipped back in the lineup rankings a bit, but are still loaded offensively overall.
For one, the Tigers have Miguel Cabrera, who led the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS+ despite playing with myriad injuries during the season's last month-plus. He's an absolute monster at the plate who has outhit everyone over the last five seasons (170 OPS+ compared to the next-closest, Joey Votto's 162 mark) and has widened that gap even further over the last three campaigns (177 against David Ortiz's 161). Flanking Cabrera is Victor Martinez, whose bat reawakened to the tune of .341/.396/.494 over his last 103 games, and Kinsler, who is still an above-average bat, if not quite what he was at his peak. The Tigers also have Austin Jackson in the leadoff spot, the seemingly ageless Torii Hunter in the middle of the lineup, and prospect Nick Castellanos ready to show off a bat that could very well have more power in the majors than it ever had in the minors, where his environments have held him down.
It's not a perfect lineup by any means, not with Jose Iglesias and Andy Dirks in it, but it's still good enough to merit consideration in this spot.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are one of the few National League lineups that can stack up against their AL brethren in spite of the presence of a pitcher. More amazingly, though, is that the Cardinals can still do that after losing Carlos Beltran to free agency and trading David Freese to the Angels. Depth has long been the Cardinals' strong suit, however, and they simply shifted around the versatile pieces they already had while introducing some new ones from the farm.
Yadier Molina (.319/.359/.477 in 2013), Matt Holliday (.300/.389/.490), Allen Craig (.315/.373/.457) and Matt Carpenter (.318/.392/.481) are a fearsome foursome in the middle of the Cards' lineup, and reason enough to help St. Louis score plenty of runs. This group is surrounded by other capable talents, though, which vaults them at least to this spot: should a few things go their way, they might be even better than this ranking suggests.
Rookie Kolten Wong, taking over at second base, has a wide range of possibilities for his first full season. Should he make consistent solid contact as he has in the minors while drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts, he could surprise and be an integral part of the lineup out of the gate. Free agent Peralta has had an up-and-down career, but if he's still on the upswing after a strong 2013, the Cardinals will see a tremendous improvement in production from shortstop, where the light-hitting Pete Kozma spent much of last year. A full season of Matt Adams that looks like his shortened 2013 would give the Cardinals yet another significant bat in the middle of their lineup: the part-time 24-year-old slugged over .500 just last summer, and now slots in at first base, with Craig moving to right.
If Wong, Peralta and Adams all perform to or above expectations, ranking the Cardinals fifth right now is doing them a disservice. You can't guarantee that all three players will work out, but it is the Cardinals we're talking about, so they probably will... and top prospect outfielder Oscar Taveras looms on the farm, ready for a mid-season promotion.
4. Los Angeles Angels
It's easy to dismiss the Angels after 2013 thanks to a poor season, but the one thing they can do well -- and consistently -- is hit. Their pitcher-friendly home park hides this as much as their unwatchable pitching did, but one look at the lineup quickly reminds you what they're capable of.
In a year in which the high-priced Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were a combination of hurt and bad, the Angels still finished tied for third in the American League -- and third in the majors -- in OPS+. While you can't guarantee a full recovery for Pujols to return to the elite production of his St. Louis days, if he manages to get his slugging back over .500 now that he's finally had his plantar fasciitis taken care of, he's going to be hugely useful.
Trading Mark Trumbo for pitching, on the surface, might seem like it weakened the lineup, since he hit a team-leading 34 homers and had 66 extra-base hits overall last year. The Angels made a couple of smart moves to counter that loss, though, by acquiring Freese and Raul Ibanez. Freese hasn't produced his value in the same way as the power-hitting Trumbo, but the more patient third baseman has a career OPS+ of 115 to Trumbo's 114, and with both separated by just a point over the last three seasons as well. As for Ibanez, he's 42 years old and difficult to project, but also just hit 29 homers in 124 games in another pitcher's park in Seattle. As far as power replacements for Trumbo go, Ibanez isn't a bad attempt, especially not in concert with the Freese acquisition.
Oh, and there's some guy named Mike Trout in the lineup. He's pretty good.
3. Texas Rangers
The Rangers finally managed to push Mitch Moreland's limp bat off of first base by acquiring Fielder from the Tigers, and while they lost Kinsler in the process, they've replaced him with Jurickson Profar, who just one year ago was a special shorstop prospect. Elvis Andrus is seemingly the weak link in the lineup, but he also batted .307/.353/.405 over the season's final two months, and might just be an average or better bat at the position. Leonys Martin is a year older, and Alex Rios is in town for the entire season now, instead of just a portion of it.
In addition, the Rangers traded up by letting Nelson Cruz walk and investing in Shin-Soo Choo, who hit .285/.423/.462 last year for the Reds. Getting that kind of on-base percentage into the lineup is a rare opportunity the Rangers couldn't pass up, and it's a significant part of why they're bumped up all the way to third in these rankings, especially in concert with Fielder's career .389 on-base percentage and .396 mark over the last three seasons. Adrian Beltre is going to have plenty of new friends to drive in.
There are still some questions, chiefly about Profar, who did not impress in his debut but is also all of 21, as well as the similarly youthful Martin out in center. Texas added enough muscle and patience to the fold to give those questions time to answer themselves, though.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers could easily have baseball's best lineup in 2014. The problem is that they just as easily could miss out on this list altogether due to potential injuries or ineffectiveness from a huge portion of their lineup. That risk has them in the two spot, but it's no insult: this lineup is absolutely stacked, and if things come together for them, they are going to crush many, many baseballs.
Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig is back, and likely atop the Dodgers' lineup. In theory, he'll be joined in the outfield by Matt Kemp, who is an MVP candidate when healthy, and Carl Crawford, who might not be what his contract says he is, but can still swing a bat. If any of those three go down with injury, they'll be replaced by Andre Ethier, who, despite an inability to hit southpaws, owns a 123 OPS+ over the last three years, as well as a .283/.359/.436 line. Ethier will play plenty even if those three outfielders stay healthy, but given their track records, they won't.
The middle of the lineup also features first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who finished third in last year's stacked order in OPS+, as well as shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who only played in 86 games but tore the Senior Circuit asunder in that time with a .345/.402/.638 showing. Expecting a repeat performance is asking too much, but if "all" Hanley does is match up against his three-year averages of .275/.345/.470, the Dodgers will have one of the top-hitting shortstops in the game.
Cuban free agent signing Alexander Guerrero is a significant question at second base, as he doesn't have the reputation of your standard high-priced international free agent: his projections, which range from below-average to adequate, reflect that. Between Guerrero, Uribe, the inconsistent A.J. Ellis, and the health questions of Kemp and Crawford, it's difficult to put the Dodgers in the top spot. As said, though, if these things sort themselves out, the Dodgers are going to hit as well as anyone, if not better.
1. Boston Red Sox
The one lineup standing in the Dodgers' way is that of the defending champion Red Sox. You already know all about the ageless David Ortiz, but there's plenty more here from the most patient club in the game. Dustin Pedroia's power could very well return in 2014 now that the torn UCL in his thumb has been surgically repaired, but even if it doesn't, a repeat of last year would be fine, given it was one of his better campaigns. Mike Napoli is back to smash balls over the Monster in left, and Shane Victorino will once again patrol right field after a rebound season saw him bat .294/.351/.451 for the Sox.
Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes will once again make up the left field platoon, where Nava's .385 on-base percentage ranked fifth in the AL in 2013. While Jarrod Saltalamacchia has moved on to the Marlins, he's been replaced by A.J. Pierzynski, who is just as capable of an average or better season at the plate for a backstop.
The wild cards in the Boston lineup are prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr., as well as third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Bogaerts is the game's consensus second-best prospect behind only Minnesota's Byron Buxton, and is ready for the majors right now, something he showed last October during all three rounds of Boston's playoff run. While it's unclear exactly what he'll bat in his first full season, with his patience and mature approach, the 21-year-old could hit well above the shortstop average, as Drew did last year, keeping the Sox from creating a hole in their lineup. Bradley Jr. is not going to replicate Jacoby Ellsbury's lost production, but he projects to be something like a .275/.345/.415 hitter in the majors, and that would be more than enough for the bottom of the Boston order. As for Middlebrooks, he hit .276/.329/.476 in the two months following his recall to the majors, and has bashed 32 homers in 660 big-league plate appearances. The on-base percentage might never be there, but if he keep the strikeouts to a manageable rate and keep hitting with opposite field power, he'll be an asset to the Sox and their top lineup rank.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.