Top 10 lineups: Rangers, Red Sox rank above all others
Runs may be harder to come by, but these teams should lead the way offensively
I remember a conversation with a manager several years back in which he told me you have to get 800 runs out of your offense to be, in his eyes, a legitimate playoff team.
Do you know how many teams crossed that threshold in 2013?
Exactly one: Your World Series-champion Boston Red Sox.
Clearly, the scoring environment in Major League Baseball has regressed a great deal in a short time. Last season, the average number of runs per game was at its lowest point since 1992, the overall batting average was the lowest since 1972, and the strikeout rate reached an all-time high.
So when we rank the top 10 lineups in baseball -- as I'll attempt to do here, as part of a weeklong series that began Monday with the top 10 rotations -- we're grading on a curve. Every team has at least one hole or question mark in its lineup, and the term "offensive juggernaut" has a much different statistical meaning today than it did a decade ago.
But if anybody is going to crack 800 runs in 2014, these 10 teams appear to have the best shot at it.
Tropicana Field has a tangible impact on their offensive production, but this might be the deepest lineup the Rays have possessed since becoming a contender in 2008. They lost the lefty-killing Delmon Young, but a full season from Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and David DeJesus should help the Rays get more production from their rotating designated hitter spot, which was one of the least productive in the league last year.
Ben Zobrist, Myers and Evan Longoria make for an elite Nos. 2-4 arrangement, and the Rays will be all the better if first baseman James Loney can maintain his first-half contributions from 2013 over a full season.
The Nats were a tremendous disappointment at the plate last season, crippling a season of high hopes. But what we saw in the second half, during which they ranked sixth in baseball in runs per game, is more telling of the true potential for this club -- assuming, of course, that Bryce Harper (who has said he plans to be "as big as a house" this year) doesn't hurt himself running into outfield walls.
Jayson Werth had a monster second half befitting his monster salary, Denard Span finally settled into his new surroundings by year's end and Ryan Zimmerman was his old, productive self once he got more comfortable with the state of his shoulder. The Nats should be better in '14.
8. BLUE JAYS
They had a top-10 offense last season, and that was with Jose Bautista missing the last month of the season, Jose Reyes playing fewer than 100 games, Melky Cabrera proving to be a bust and Brett Lawrie falling far short of his potential, etc.
There is no better power combo in the game right now than Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (they rank second and fifth, respectively, in homers over the past three seasons), and Colby Rasmus (.840 OPS, 22 homers, 66 RBIs) finally emerged as one of the most productive center fielders in baseball. If Reyes, Lawrie and Cabrera give them even just a little bit better production from the left side of the field, which should not be a tall order, the Blue Jays could have a top-five offense.
The Tribe tied for fifth in the Majors in runs last season, and it did so without anybody batting .300 or driving in 100 runs or logging anything higher than an .832 OPS. Only Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis significantly exceeded the league-average output at their positions.
Like the A's, the Indians benefited from a highly effective bench, and manager Terry Francona will continue to use it to the best of his ability in 2014. But the real upside for the Indians rests in the possibility -- maybe even likelihood -- of Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher more closely approximating their career norms (especially Cabrera, who is in a contract year). Santana might also have more power in the tank now that he's gotten away from the grind of everyday catching.
The defending National League champs are going to look quite a bit different this season -- Carlos Beltran is gone, Jhonny Peralta is at short, Allen Craig is in the outfield alongside Peter Bourjos, Matt Carpenter is at third, Mark Ellis and Kolten Wong are sharing second. Their team-wide .330 batting average with runners in scoring position -- the highest such mark in at least four decades -- is bound to be unrepeatable.
But don't expect run production to be a problem for the Cards. Craig has established himself as a special player ready to carry a lineup, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina remain among the most productive players at their particular positions and it's tantalizing to think about what Matt Adams (17 homers, 51 RBIs in 108 games) can do in an everyday role.
Different, no doubt, with Prince Fielder gone. But any lineup with Miguel Cabrera in the middle is still awfully strong.
It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, Cabrera's offseason surgery has on his ability in the early going, and his age-31 season will be a good test of his MVP-caliber staying power (Albert Pujols' age-31 season doubled as his last in St. Louis and the first in which his numbers regressed). But it's difficult to bet against the best hitter in the game. Victor Martinez appears up to the task of protecting Cabrera, and bounceback seasons from Ian Kinsler and Austin Jackson would help the Tigers achieve the speed-and-power balance they seek. Maybe the Tigers won't be as explosive as they were, but the runs will still come steadily.
Will the Angels get the Pujols of 2005, '08 or '09 and the Josh Hamilton of 2010? In a word, no.
But I'm willing to wager they'll get versions of them that more closely approximates their career standard than what we saw in 2013, when Hamilton's slugging percentage dipped to .432 and Pujols turned in a career-low .767 OPS. And if those guys offer even a semblance of their former selves, the Angels are in a better position to take advantage of Mike Trout and the ridiculous assortment of extra-base hits, walks, steals and runs he is capable of delivering. The Angels scored the seventh-most runs in the game last season even with Hamilton enduring an awful adjustment and Pujols hobbling. If David Freese and Raul Ibanez can provide some power, this group could easily rise up these rankings.
It's just about impossible to lock the A's into anything resembling a "regular" lineup, because skipper Bob Melvin is a master at taking in the data and maximizing his many platoons. But in putting guys in the best possible matchups, whether it be related to the opposing pitcher's handedness or style, the A's have compiled some of the finest offensive numbers in the game.
Dating back to the midway point of 2012, they are second only to the Red Sox in runs per game, and they've done it while playing in a pitcher-friendly home park. They ranked third in home runs and third in walks last season, with Josh Donaldson's output of 24 homers, 93 RBIs and an .883 OPS a revelation. If the A's get bounceback performances from Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, look out.
2. RED SOX
The Red Sox will likely see some regression from their 2013 total of 853 runs, because the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury from the leadoff spot is a big one, no matter how much potential Jackie Bradley Jr. possesses (Grady Sizemore is worthwhile, albeit iffy, insurance, in that regard). Boston is definitely going to need Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts to step up on the left side of the infield.
But as long as David Ortiz keeps defeating Father Time, Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino stay steady and Mike Napoli, Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes continue to maximize their roles, the regression should not be steep, and Boston should maintain an elite offense.
It's important to remember that while the Rangers recognized the need for changes to their lineup after last season's disappointing finish, they were far from an abomination, ranking eighth in the Majors in runs scored. Granted, some of that is attributable to their favorable home-park conditions, but now general manager Jon Daniels has assembled a club even more capable of taking advantage of those conditions.
Rangers Ballpark will be a good place for the left-handed-hitting Fielder to build off what was, for him, a subpar showing in 2013, and he and Shin-Soo Choo are both elite in terms of their ability to get on base. The Rangers will have a dynamic Nos. 1-4 with Choo, Elvis Andrus, Fielder and Adrian Beltre. The Fielder and Choo contracts have the potential to look abysmal on the back end, but for now they give the Rangers arguably the best lineup in the game.
Honorable mention: The Yankees finished out of the top 10 in runs scored for the first time in 22 years, and they've obviously made marked changes for the better. But they'll still be subject to a lot of the age-related scrutiny that hounded them a year ago. … The Orioles had a top-five offense last season, but they've got three holes in their lineup that were only marginally addressed. … The Braves have one of the NL's more dynamic lineups. … The Mariners will finally see more life out of their once-stagnant lineup with Robinson Cano aboard. … The D-backs ranked in the middle of the pack in runs scored despite being fairly one-dimensional with only Paul Goldschmidt and Aaron Hill performing significantly better than league average (and Hill missing half the season). Mark Trumbo's presence could elevate Arizona to another level. … The Rockies will probably rank in the top 10 in runs scored again. Yes, a good deal of that is a product of their home park, and Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez have to prove they can stay healthy.