After an elongated Spring Training the 2013 regular season is upon us. The official first game is tonight between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros. (Although I very much like the Sunday Night opener, it loses a bit when it does not feature the defending World Champion as used to be the case.) This year will be the first one with the Astros in the American League and the new schedule format that sees interleague play throughout the year. As with last year my preview is written division-by-division.
Although the division has been one of the stronger ones in baseball for the last few years, but I think this year it will actually be the weakest in the American League. None of the teams look particularly convincing on paper. The A’s won last year on the last day of the season with a very young pitching staff providing the impetus down the stretch. They beat the Rangers on the last day of the season to avoid playing in the Wild Card Game. The Rangers played instead and lost at home. The Angels were expected to do much more than limp to third place as they ultimately did and the Mariners respectably for much of the season, but had a mountain to climb and finished last. But this year the Rangers are weaker and the Angels have marginally improved on paper, but there’s reason to think it might not pan out.
The Oakland A’s have a similar team this year, but actually replicating what they achieved last year will be difficult. They probably aver-achieved last year and although they certainly still have a talented team, there are very few who can replicate the kind of form from year to year. They’re well-placed for the future, but I expect they will be in the mid-to-high eighties in terms of wins this year. The Texas Rangers have added AJ Pierzynski behind the plate and Joakim Soria in the bullpen, but overall look a weaker team than they did last year. The loss of Josh Hamilton will hurt. They have enough though that I think they will finish the year at the top of the division. The Los Angeles Angels are the favourite of many after adding Josh Hamilton over the winter, but they lost Zack Greinke and after their rotation never really clicked last year I don’t think they have the pitching to back up their big-name bats and that is even if Hamilton and Albert Pujols live up to their billing. I’m not at all convinced that they will, however, as Pujols already looks past his best and Hamilton’s numbers will no longer be skewed by playing in a thimble in Arlington. Failures in the Angles batting will open the door for the Seattle Mariners. They had a good finish to the season last year and played respectably overall, but they did not do enough to even get out of last place. They still have ‘King Felix’ this year and some good if not dazzling players and should vie with the Angels for third place. It would be a surprise if they did more, but they are well placed to pull off a surprise. The Houston Astros are the newcomers to the division and they arrive after losing more than a hundred games in back-to-back years. It’s hard to see how they’ll have much an improvement this year and I would be shocked if they avoided last place. Division prediction:
Last year the Tigers were supposed to romp to victory, but instead left it to quite late and were fairly fortunate that the White Sox collapsed flat in the last fortnight of the season. None of the other teams mounted a coherent challenge. The Royals finished third after a season marred by injury and losing streaks, the Indians went into free fall in the second half for a fourth place finish and the Twins had another nightmare season and could not quite catch the Indians at the death. This year the Tigers are strong favourites again, but all of the other teams have fairly significant unknowns and could realistically finish in almost any order.
The Detroit Tigers have actually improved from last year with the return of Victor Martinez and the addition of Torii Hunter to boost the hitting and defence and they still have a terrifyingly strong rotation. If they perform as they should (no guarantee, as we saw last year) they will be very, very hard to catch. Meantime, the Chicago White Sox are relying on much the same team from last year to deliver much the same results. But they were a surprise team last year and for decent reason; although they have a solid team it does not look like one which should be contending. In effect, the White Sox are gambling a season on last year not having some element of fluke to it. I think this gamble will fail for the most part and although they will play okay they will find themselves overtaken. More on the Kansas City Royals below, but they finally have all the pieces to win a spot in the top half of the table. Whether they can put them together this year remains to be seen. The Cleveland Indians changed their team quite extensively in the close season and appear to have boosted their lineup and defence. But their pitching rotation still contains few demons and although it may not take much to push them back toward the top of the division, they were there for the first half of last year after all, they don’t look like they have the pitching to do it. They might have enough to jump to third place. The Minnesota Twins still have many of the players that kept them at or near the top of the division for much of the noughties, but there is no suggestion that they will be able to put together a substantially better season this year than they did last year. Given the improvement to most of the other teams, I think it will be very difficult for the Twins to avoid last place. Division prediction:
Last year the Orioles were one of the surprise teams in baseball as they so nearly knocked the Yankees off the top of the division and then had a go at knocking them out of the ALDS too. Both efforts sadly failed. The Rays hung around until the end of the season, but never made a real push whilst the Blue Jays played well without being threatening. The real shock was the Red Sox, who collapsed utterly both on and off the field and an ugly sacking of their manager. This year the division looks wide open with five teams who have at least something to their credit. Perhaps more interesting is whoever will come last out of the bunch.
This year the New York Yankees will continue to furnish evidence that there is no god by not going the 0-162 that they so richly deserve. But they are starting to come apart at the seams a bit and I think they will fail to defend their crown and that mid-table mediocrity beckons. Unlike some other teams, I think the Baltimore Orioles do have a chance to reprise their success. Whilst they were a surprise in 2012, they weren’t a shock; they showed flashes of what they all the way back in 2010 and they have quite a strong roster still. I expect to see them back in contention and very possibly topping the table. The Tampa Bay Rays have not done much in the way of improvement for the immediate future, though they picked up some very good talent from the Royals over the winter that should help them in the long term. They are a good enough side that they should not unduly struggle, n the present, but the strength of the division means they may find themselves in the bottom half. The Toronto Blue Jays are the team who have really set down a marker. They were already a decent side and after a blockbuster trade with the Marlins and the signing of RA Dickey they look like an excellent one. At least on paper. If they don’t at least contend it will be a disappointment for them, but it might take some time for the team to really get going as a unit. I think second place may be the safest bet. The Boston Red Sox are hoping that last year was just a fluke and that with a new manager they can climb back up the table. I don’t think it will be that simple, however, and although they are now well behind the pack and may still finish at the bottom. Division prediction:
Last year the NL West race was the focal point of a fair amount of controversy after Melky Cabrera was caught using steroids halfway through the season. Fortunately for the sport, the Giants showed for the rest of the season that they were not a one-man team and comfortably outplayed the Dodgers even without Cabrera. The Diamondbacks made a vague push, but ended up well out of the race and with only a .500 finish. The Padres scuffled along to a fourth-place finish, whilst the Rockies made headlines by completely revamping their pitching staff to essentially an all-reliever staff halfway through the year. They still ended the year in last place and barely avoided a hundred losses. This year looks like it will be the Giants and Dodgers again battling it out.
The San Francisco Giants have made precious few adjustments to the team that won the World Series last year and it is pretty easy to see why. They were a strong all-round team then and they remain so now. The only question mark is the depth of their pitching; the back end of the rotation did unexpectedly well for them last year and they need that to happen again. The Los Angeles Dodgers already had the National League Cy Young Award winner in Clayton Kershaw and they’ve added a former AL winner in Zack Greinke. It’s a formidable top two and there is a bit there to back them up too. They should not have to worry too much about their offensive production either and it should be a very close fight for the division. The Arizona Diamondbacks still give off the impression of a .500 team, which is exactly what they managed last year. The addition of Martin Prado will be a boost, but there is nothing really spectacular about the side. The San Diego Padres biggest asset is still their manager, Bud Black. They have a tiny payroll, the smallest in the majors last year, and performed at a level above that last year. But they will need that to continue, because they have made no major improvements over the winter. The Colorado Rockies need to sort out their pitching before they will be able to do much, but they can do that they do have some strong hitting. I think they will improve, but the Padres will have to play worse for the Rockies to have a shot at fourth place. Division prediction:
Last year the Reds ran away with the NL Central, winning with nine games to spare over the Cardinals. The Brewers could not mount a coherent challenge to the second spot and the Pirates stayed in the running until very late in the season before suffering another spectacular collapse. At the foot of the table both the Cubs and Astros lost a hundred games. This year the Astros are gone, having been shifted to the AL West, but apart from that it looks like the same set of teams challenging for the title.
The Cincinnati Reds were comfortably the best team in the NL Central last year and there is no reason to suspect they will not be again. They still have the same group of players who took them to within one game of the NLCS last year and they have added Shin-Soo Choo to still further bolster their offence. They will take some catching on their own merits and at the same time the St Louis Cardinals have lost some of the pitching that made them so threatening in the last two years. They are still a good side, but it’s taken some last ditch efforts to get them into the postseason twice, they may not have enough now. Some of the Cardinals’ pitching has actually gone to the Milwaukee Brewers in the form of Kyle Lohse. That was the main close season move for Milwaukee, although they also inexplicably brought Yuniesky Betancourt back. The Brewers also lost some pitching over the winter though and I expect they will be in a battle for second place. If the Pittsburgh Pirates can avoid another great collapse they may push for a playoff spot, but in each of the last two years they have failed to maintain their success over an entire year. They’ve added a bit of experience with Russell Martin behind the plate and with the rest of the team also another year older and more experienced they might be able to keep it together this year. I don’t think they will challenge for the top of the division, but there is definitely an opening for them to knock off one or both of the Cardinals or Brewers. I expect it will be very close between those three teams. The Chicago Cubs look like they are probably destined for a last place finish now that they no longer have the cushion of the Astros beneath them. There are some good players on the team, but they have not been able to turn that into wins in either of the past two years and the division is not an easy one. Divsion prediction:
Last year the division belonged entirely to the Nationals who brought playoff baseball back to Washington DC and with time to spare. The Braves had quite a good season, right up until they lost the Wild Card Game whilst the Phillies failed to make a late run. The Mets had some standout pitching performances, but little else and the Marlins never really showed up. This year it looks like it will be the Nationals, Braves and Phillies competing again, though the Nats are probably favourites to repeat.
The Washington Nationals still have a lot of very good young players. Whilst they may not be able to perform the way they did last year, the Nats built up to their recent success and nothing about it looked like a fluke. They go into 2013 still with a good lineup and a good pitching rotation. The Atlanta Braves, in their quest to overcome a Cardinal shaped stumbling block, have added another Upton to the outfield to go along with Jason Heyward. They may find themselves a bit over-reliant on Kris Medlen in the rotation, however. Tim Hudson is starting to get a bit shaky and they need someone solid to support him. If Medlen pitches the way he did to end 2012 it won’t be a problem, but otherwise they look short on pitching. It was something of a surprise when the Philadelphia Phillies did so poorly last year. They still have a very powerful lineup and decent pitching to go with it. I think they can manage second place, especially if the Braves slip up, but no more. But they never really put anything together. I expect they will do better this year, but it may not be enough to get back to firm contention. The New York Mets will be hosting the All-Star Game this year, but that may be the high point of their season. They lost RA Dickey in the close season and don’t really have any replacement. Theirs is a fairly weak side, but they should be saved from the cellar by the Miami Marlins. The Marlins struck their colours months before the season even started; they sold the players they had bought just a year before, abandoning with unseemly haste their attempt at contention. However one feels about the logic of this move, it means that they will do very well to avoid last place this year. Division prediction:
The Wild Cards are hard to predict as they don’t necessarily go to the two best divisions in each league. It’s one of the great flaws of the unbalanced schedule that Wild Card teams are measured against teams from other divisions whilst still competing with teams from their own. Some will end up with a much easier schedule than others and the balance of the divisions is as important as the strength of the team overall.
In the American League, the most likely divisions to produce the Wild Card are probably once again the West and the East. Even if the West is not terribly strong, it looks top-heavy and the second place team might be able to take a lot of wins off the Astros. The East does look like a strong division and even if it will be harder to win games in the division, it will probably not be harder than in the Central (which is also fairly evenly matched and probably a bit bottom-heavy) and the team in the East will have a better chance in games outside the division.
In the National League, I expect one of the Wild Cards to come from the West. It looks like a close battle with the Giants and Dodgers miles ahead of the pack, which would almost certainly mean the loser was a Wild Card. The other I think will come from the East where even if it is more of a three-team battle looks like it will have a couple of weak teams giving wins to the top of the division. The Central looks a more open battle, especially for second place, and if the wins will likely be too spread around for a Wild Card berth.
Were all that to happen, the Division Series would then be something like: Tigers v A’s/Blue Jays, Orioles v Rangers, Dodgers v Giants/Phillies, Nationals v Reds. From that, I divine Orioles v Blue Jays and Dodgers v Nationals in the Championship Series and then Orioles v Dodgers in the World Series. Dodgers to win in five. But that, even more than the rest, is guesswork.
For the Royals specifically, they made a concerted effort in the close season to at least get into the top half of the table this year. They have a much stronger rotation now than they did at this time last year and actually a stronger lineup too with Salvador Perez getting to play a full season. The trick will probably to get the fairly inexperienced lineup to fire consistently. Although the Royals are unlikely to actually compete for the title even if all goes well, a .500 record is probably the minimum expectation after all the investment of the close season. I think they will finish 86-76, which will probably be good enough for second place, maybe third if one of the Indians or White Sox do particularly well.