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Lessons learned from 2013 may lead to a successful 2014 campaign

Jacob Turner & Rob Brantley
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

What’s been learned in the past must be applied in the present in order to have a successful future.

In baseball, the good players know this rule and have applied it to successful, establishing seasons. Take a look at the AL West for example. The early demise Scott Kazmir came in the AL West with the Los Angeles Angels. Once he figured out his mechanical flaws, he made a comeback last season with the Cleveland Indians. Now he’s the ace of the Oakland Athletics.

“I stopped using my legs,” Kazmir told me last spring. “I stopped driving off my backside and being able to direct the ball and have power right when I go with it. As a result to that, I started throwing all over the place just by throwing everything upper body, everything started going side to side.”

Tyler Skaggs had as rocky of a rookie season as Geno Smith did in the NFL. Now he begins the season in the Angels’ starting rotation, his favorite team growing up.

“The ups and downs of last year made me a stronger pitcher and a stronger competitor,” Skaggs said. “You learn a lot more from failing than winning.”

The rebuilding process of the Houston Astros continues but they have an anchor in third baseman Matt Dominguez. Dominguez was once a prized prospect in the Florida Marlins organization. Once they became the Miami Marlins, Dominguez was traded to Houston for Carlos Lee.

A newfound Jedi-like plate approach has led to Dominguez using the force to hit 21 home runs and 77 RBI in his first full season.

"Once you start thinking mechanics when you’re in the batters box, you’re screwed," Dominguez said. "Just get one good thought in your head and have a good approach and get a good pitch to hit and hope things will take care of itself."

In the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays seem most poised to win the division this season. They are the most balanced team in the division and have the least amount of potential to implode from injuries. They kept their Cy Young caliber ace and brought back Grant Balfour to be their closer. Balfour was supposed to sign with the Baltimore Orioles but a failed physical killed the process.

Keep in mind that despite being 36 years old, Balfour has 1085.2 professional innings (both MLB and MiLB) under his belt. That’s 90 lest than his successor Jim Johnson (1120 IP) despite being about six years older. Also his Australian background – as explained to me last year by fellow countryman Peter Moylan – also allows him to stay youthful in, by baseball standards, an advance age.

“We don’t throw as much as you guys so when it gets to the point where we come over [to America],” Moylan said. “We throw half as much as you guys. So I feel like our arms haven’t been through as much. Kids in high school, kids in travel-ball teams over here, they throw every day. I didn’t throw every day until I was signed and that was when I was 17 years old.”

A lot of debuts will be going down on Opening Day for the teams of the AL Central. The Detroit Tigers will be giving Nick Castellanos his shot in the hot corner. Castellanos is the Tigers’ top hitting prospect and was a legend in high school, winning two state championships with two different schools in South Florida.

Speaking of the hot corner, the Indians will be starting the season with Carlos Santana at third base. For the past three years, Santana has been their power source in catcher, first base and DH; essentially going the Pablo Sandoval route.

And in Chicago, the While Sox will be trotting out their new first baseman, Jose Abreu from Cuba. He will be making his MLB debut on Opening Day, and a fellow AL Central player knows what he’ll be feeling on that day.

“My heart was racing 100 miles an hour,” Tigers outfielder JD Martinez said while describing the emotions he felt his Major League debut with the Astros. “Everything seemed so big. It was the first time I ever caught a ball with stands in the stadium as a background. Usually you have the sky as a background. It was so weird. I felt so tiny on the field.”

As far of the National League is concerned, it seems like business as usual. The Los Angeles, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves seem to be poised for the division crown. But it’s not that easy.

The Braves lost two of their two starters along with their ace Tim Hudson leaving to the San Francisco Giants, who could be making a run on the NL West similar to 2010 and 2012. The Cardinals have to worry about every team in the NL Central not named the Chicago Cubs.

The dark horse of the NL Central is the Milwaukee Brewers, who has a solid starting rotation that can compete with the Cardinals and a lineup that can potentially get 20 homers from each of their starters. Ryan Braun is returning from his performance enhancing drug suspension, but it’s the beginning of the Scooter Gennett era.

“It was a dream come true,” Gennett said on becoming a Major League starter. “Working all my life to make it to the big leagues and actually doing it was a feeling that I will never forget! Dreams can come true as long as you set realistic goals in the process.”

The NL East should be called the dark horse division. Three of the underdog teams have the potential to contend for the postseason. The New York Mets signed Curtis Granderson (a 40HR threat when healthy) and Bartolo Colon (one win shy of 20 last season) to help boost the youth movement. Their captain, David Wright, plans to be along for the whole ride, unlike last season when multiple injuries including a strained hamstring strains nearly derailed his season.

"This offseason I really tried to focus more on strengthening [the hamstring] to make sure it's a one time thing and not a reoccurring injury,” Wright said. “So for me, a lot of my offseason was dedicated to trying to strengthen my legs and to gain some flexibility."

After spending his entire career working to be all he can be physically, Wright has joined the yoga trend adopted by so many Major League stars. Rays start third baseman Evan Longoria has been practicing yoga since his rookie year.

"You can never be too flexible,” Wright said. “There's so much twisting and turning and rotation stuff in this game that the more flexible you are, the better.

"It's a lot of stretching. I think that's something that maybe I've incorporated more as I've gotten a little older than I did when I was younger. It's something that I wish I would've done earlier."

And then there’s the Miami Marlins. Has anyone ever seen a 100-loss team with as much playoff potential as the Marlins?

While going through one of their worst campaigns, the Marlins have secretly developed a pitching staff that recorded their best ERA in franchise history.

Jose Fernandez will go in as a contender for the Cy Young Award. Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi will look to improve on last year by incorporating the changeup to their arsenal.

"It’s kind of always been a pitch that I probably haven't thrown as much as I should have," Turner said. "It's probably the hardest pitch for a hitter to see because you get the same arm slot and you get the same arm speed. So it's something that playing off my sinker can be really successful."

Their biggest downfall last year has been their hitting. They hope that the emergence of Christain Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, along with the additions of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones, as well as a healthy and motivated Giancarlo Stanton solves the problem.

With the lessons that they learned in 2013, the Marlins, Brewers and Angels will likely make their return to the postseason while the Rays and Athletics get over the hump and face each other in the ALCS.