It's time, my friends. Baseball is back, and this season is as wide open as any in recent memory. The Yankees are old and beaten up, the Red Sox are rebuilding, the Dodgers have become the Yankees and the Blue Jays were the clear winners of the offseason. It's topsy-turvy in the wild wild world of baseball in 2013, and I'm going to try to nail down just what the hell is going on. The AL Central seems to be the only division where there is a clear, bona-fide favorite (Detroit), whereas the AL East features 5 teams that can be reasonably expected to contend. The NL has potential powerhouses in Los Angeles, Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco, but also has a crop of middling teams that could steal the show.
So how did I come to the conclusions you'll see below? I value depth, especially pitching depth, more than anything. Teams built around a few stars tend to be dangerously thin in other areas, and one or two injuries can derail a season and expose weaknesses (I'm looking at you, 2011 Red Sox and 2012 Angels). This article will have some differences from my power rankings because this is a season projection, not a talent and roster evaluation. The Angels and Dodgers have amazing teams on paper, but as we all know, they do not play games on paper. There will be disappointments and teams that woefully underperform, and there will be a team in contention at the All-Star Break that has no place being there. Remember the Mets last year? Of course you don't.
Without further bloviating, here are my 2013 predictions, division by division, starting in the National League.
1. Washington Nationals (Div. Champ)
They are balanced, young, and playing for a manager who is almost certainly headed for retirement after the season. Their pitching is nearly immaculate when healthy, and their offense is underrated and will provide just enough pop to carry them back to October.
2. Atlanta Braves (Wild Card 1)
A team that went from pitching-reliant to an offensively minded team. If Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward continue to progress, and the Upton brothers live up to their billing as 4-tool stars, they'll find themselves back in the postseason, although probably still in that pesky one game playoff scenario.
What in the name of Tim Lincecum is happening to Roy Halladay? His fastball is dying a quick death and the once fearsome big 3 is now Lee, Hamels and a very worrisome Doc Halladay. This team has done next to nothing to improve their depth and build for the future, and if Ryan Howard can't return to 2009 form....boy this could get ugly.
David Wright was recently named the captain of the Mets, and deservedly so. If he wasn't bugged by injuries over the past 3 years he'd be in the conversation for best player in baseball. It's a shame he has to be captain of this sinking ship, especially during his prime years. It'll be a long long year for the pitching challenged, newly frugal Mets.
Go ahead, go on Google and find an article written about the Marlins by Sports Illustrated or ESPN. Directly below the headline that reads something along the lines of "Fraudulent Franchise" you'll find a scathing analysis of a depleted and woefully weak lineup that is intentionally awful.
1. Cincinnati Reds (Div. Champ)
They won 95 games last year with only half of a Joey Votto. If he stays healthy this year, this team is good enough and deep enough to win 100 games. My only concern is Dusty Baker, perhaps the most overrated manager in baseball history. His decisions boggle the mind at times, and contributed to the team's collapse against the Giants in the NLDS last season.
If there was more starting pitching to compliment the National League's best lineup, then I might have to reconsider my call here. But the loss of Carpenter and the loss of Lohse almost ensures a drop off in pitching quality that cannot be negated by the potent lineup put together in the nation's best baseball town. They can still contend for a playoff spot, but it'll be an uphill battle.
For my money, Ryan Braun is the best player in the game. The other 24 men that join him on the Opening Day roster......let's just say they leave a lot to be desired. The starting rotation for the Brew Crew is the worst I've seen in years from a team that expects to hang around in the playoff hunt. Unless they make a few pitching moves mid-season, this is going to be Rockies East.
It's a tough call between the Bucs and the Cubs for the Central cellar. The Buccos have Andrew McCutchen, however, which makes the decision a little easier. Another MVP caliber campaign from the star centerfielder could propel the Pirates above .500 for the first time since approximately 230 B.C. but again the pitching is weak and thin. Another disappointing season on the Allegheny.
5. Chicago Cubs
The loveable losers will be a powerhouse within 5 years. What's another 5 years to a team that hasn't won the big one since Teddy Roosevelt was president? Theo Epstein has a long term plan, but a few more lean years where the team accrues draft picks will catapult them back into relevance.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (Div. Champ)
They have it all. A dangerous pitching staff and a beyond potent offense. Unlimited funds. A TV mega-deal that all but assures that they will be relevant for a decade. If Greinke can find his form, this team will run away with the West and leave the defending champs gasping for air.
2. San Francisco Giants (Wild Card 2)
We all know the cast of characters. Cain is elite, Bumgarner is a force, Vogelsong is sneaky good. Posey is a superstar. What else do they have, though? Tim Lincecum, statistically, was the 3rd worst player in the entire league last year. Barry Zito is an ineffective, overpaid 5th starter, and the offense is aging and anemic. Their elite top-3 starters will keep them in the race, but the magic of 2010 and 2012 will run out in October this time.
My pick to surprise in 2013. They may not make it all the way to October, but they have talent and depth at every position. A pitching resurgence from the 2011 NL West champs could spell doom for the big spending Dodgers and Giants, and if Kennedy, Cahill, McCarthy and Co. can stay on the mound and not on the DL, look out.
This is quite possibly the most mediocre roster ever assembled. They have no glaring weaknesses and no apparent strengths. They do feature an extremely young roster, which bodes well for their 2014-15 chances but makes their 4th place (or worse) finish in 2013 all but certain.
I'll try to stay positive here. They have 2 of the top 15 players in baseball in Tulo and CarGo, and they have an offense that can put up big numbers. Their choice to break with the status quo and hire an inexperienced but well respected coach in Walt Weiss could pay immediate dividends (see Ventura, Robin). Notice how I didn't mention pitching? Theirs is the worst possibly in the history of modern baseball. Records will fall, my friends. And not good ones.
1. Toronto Blue Jays (Div. Champ)
They made easily the biggest splash of the offseason, trading for roughly three-quarters of Miami-Dade County and signing reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. They added 3 excellent starters to their staff, and the return of Morrow to their rotation means they’ll be possibly the best and deepest rotation north of Tampa Bay. The difference between the Jays and their small-balling rivals in Tampa is the lineup, loaded from 1-9. The AL East will be turned on its head for the first time in decades.
2. Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card 2)
The antithesis of Colorado and Milwaukee, the Rays offer the best pitching rotation and the best bullpen in the league and counter it with an anemic offense that is reliant on Evan Longoria and nothing else. If there’s one thing Joe Maddon can do, though, it’s scrap by with a weak lineup. He parlayed great young pitching into a 2008 World Series appearance and the first of four shocking playoff berths. Expect more of the same from baseball’s best manager.
The Bombers haven’t finished third or worse in the East since 1994, and have had 19 consecutive winning seasons. With injuries piling up, the luxury tax beckoning and the roster aging quickly, both of those streaks are likely to end. Unless they make major additions at the deadline, and I mean MAJOR additions, they’ll miss October baseball for the first time since the Millard Fillmore administration.
Remember when the Red Sox and Yankees were seen as the only two teams in the AL East? Yeah, it’s a different baseball world nowadays. This team has the pieces to win the division, but is thin everywhere. A single injury, especially to a starting pitcher, could put this team back in the cellar. Bobby V is gone, but the same frail roster is in place. Keep those fingers crossed, Sox nation.
How can a team that won more than 90 games last year go to the cellar without losing any meaningful players? Regression. The scariest word to a baseball fan. This team outperformed at an insane level last year, and won nearly every one run game they played in. If they aren’t as lucky this year, and their run differential is the same as last year, they could lose 90 games. It’s alright, though, Baltimore. You recently won a fairly important game in another sport.
1. Detroit Tigers (Div. Champ)
They’re the only sure-fire division winner. If they can’t take the title they’ll be branded the biggest bust in the league. They have an improved roster, and they should win more games than they did in their championship campaign last year, and barring a severe injury to Verlander, Cabrera or Fielder, they’ll run away with the division. Or so the script goes.
They ended the season on possibly the worst run in their franchise’s history. They couldn’t sell tickets, couldn’t score runs and couldn’t pitch. How do they move from the cellar back to the top? Hiring Terry Francona is a great start. Signing Swisher and Bourn helps. Overhauling their staff is the final step in the great escape, but that will take more than one season. Things are looking up for a city that’s desperate for some good news.
They came so close to shocking the Tigers last season, but dwindled down the stretch so badly they ended up below .500. They feature an untouchable ace in Chris Sale, and a sneaky good back end of the rotation, but their record-breaking inability to get on base will again catch up to them down the stretch. They’re still dangerous, but unless Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko party like it’s 2005, it could get ugly.
The Pirates of the AL, they seemingly haven’t been relevant in a generation. Seriously. The last time they won a division crown was 1985. They made moves in the offseason that suggest they’re ready to contend now. The only problem is that they still have an atrocious staff behind James Shields, and they play in a park that lets fly balls carry for miles. They could finish with anywhere from 65-85 wins, but even if it all comes together, they still aren’t ready to tangle with the Motor City powerhouse.
Pause if you’ve read this before: they are great offensively and horrendous on the mound. They feature frail superstars, a solid batting order 1-9, and a great fan base. But what separates them from the Rays and A’s in the small-market hierarchy is their inability to develop young pitchers. Another dismal showing in the Twin Cities.
1. Los Angeles Angels (Div. Champ)
Three of the league’s top 5 hitters find themselves in the everyday lineup for the Angels, which may be the most potent 1-9 in the league. They could break run scoring records. If their pitching holds up, which is a huge if, then they just might meet expectations. Watch out for incessant heel-nipping from Oakland and Texas all year.
2. Oakland Athletics(Wild Card 1)
Some people see them as a one-hit wonder. I do not. The league’s deepest team features 5 starting-caliber outfielders, a stellar rotation, a deep and hard-throwing pen, and an underrated infield. Not to mention the best management and front office in the league, as voted on by their peers. If Cespedes reaches his true potential, and the rookies from last year avoid the sophomore slump, the West is theirs.
The least-improved team of the offseason, the Texans unloaded a major portion of their lineup and feature a weaker overall squad from top to bottom. They’ll still win games, Ron Washington has shown he knows how to do that, but they can’t hang with the sudden powerhouses in LA and Oakland. Oh what a difference a year makes.
The sports journalism industry’s consensus "sleeper" pick. Why? I’m having trouble seeing what, outside of King Felix, is so appealing. They moved the fences in at Safeco, signed some decent power hitters and the exhumed corpse of Raul Ibanez. They still are buried in a division that features three teams far better at pitching and hitting baseballs than they are. Why the optimism? I just don’t see it.
The idea is to lose on purpose to accrue countless high draft picks and then parlay a TV mega-deal into a rocket-quick trip back to relevancy. And by rocket-quick, I mean slow, boring and fairly unethical. Ask some non-AL West teams how they feel about a team that is actually trying to lose games. Or ask Peter Gammons, who skewered the ‘Stros in an ESPN bit last week. Whatever number of losses you come up with for them, add 20 more and you’re getting closer.
How do I go through these predictions without being biased? I can’t. You all know I bleed green and I hate the Giants more than the plague. But I’ll attempt to give a reasonable explanation for each series, just as I gave a reasonable (albeit snarky) reason for my division picks above. Here we go. National League First
Giants over Braves
The luckiest team in sports gets inexplicably hit with the proverbial lucky stick one last time, as the team scores one run on a double play ball and somehow wins 1-0.
Nationals over Giants in 4
Reds over Dodgers in 3
The Dodgers will not have to deal with what the Lakers are going through right now. At least not until the postseason, when Latos and Cueto team with Chapman to dismantle the mighty Dodgers in a sweep.
Nationals over Reds in 7
This series will be the first in a long line of huge postseason meetings between the two NL powerhouses over the coming seasons. 4/7ths of the series will be started by Strasburg and Gio, which proves to be too much for Votto and Co.
Athletics over Rays
In a meeting between my favorite franchise in sports and a franchise I very much respect and laud for their style, the A’s (and their continuing love affair with the walk-off) send the Rays into the offseason.
Athletics over Tigers in 4
For the second time in two seasons, the A’s face the Tigers in the ALDS. This time, Verlander struggles in Game 1 and the Motor City Kitties can’t find a way to get him another start.
Blue Jays over Angels in 5
I wasn’t sold on all the Blue Jay hype until I took a look at their roster, top to bottom. Dickey, Buehrle, Johnson, and Morrow prove to be too much for a weak Angel rotation that limps into the playoffs with Weaver as the only viable starter.
Athletics over Blue Jays in 5
Because seeing the A’s clinch the pennant on TV just isn’t the same as seeing it in person, the A’s win in 5. Anderson, Parker and Milone prove to be the second coming of Mulder, Hudson, and Zito…..except with the whole winning in the playoffs thing actually happening this time.
Nationals over Athletics in 7
Because if I picked us to win, I’d be really jinxing it. I’ve already put my expectations unreasonably high, but I feel it’s warranted. We have amazing depth, and barring a slew of season-ending injuries, I think we’ll make it to October. That being said, the Nats look to me like the team of destiny. Do you know who the manager of the 1986 Mets was? Davey Johnson. How many wins did the 1985 Mets have? 98. Same as the 2012 Nats. This is Davey’s final season. I like their chances.
Tell me what you think! Let’s go Oakland! Happy Opening Week everyone!!