We've previewed all six divisions. We've reached Opening Day. Time to unveil our predictions for the 2013 season:
Blue Jays 88-74
Red Sox 82-80
Losing James Shields, B.J. Upton, and Wade Davis would seem to bode ill for a team that fell short of the playoffs last year. The Rays have been through this before. They've bid good-bye to Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, Carlos Pena (the good version and the bad), and many others. They were also a better team in 2012 than they looked, with a run differential that suggested 96 wins. They got derailed by a 21-27 record in one-run games, and were 5-7 in extra innings, despite carrying a monster bullpen, headlined by the team's latest reclamation project; thank the league's worst late-inning offensive numbers for those stats and expect position regression on that front this year. That bullpen might not be quite as dominant this year, and they'll miss Shields's very good, very copious innings. But the Rays have topped expectations for the past half-decade, running the bases better than anyone and catching the ball better than anyone. They platoon like mad, shift more than anyone, and make the most out of every player on the roster. The Durham Bulls will soon plunk Wil Myers, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and other talents onto the major league roster, upgrading an already solid and versatile team.
Tampa Bay will need every bit of those little advantages in a division that figures to be more tightly packed than any other. The Jays have the best collection of Opening Day talent but also considerable injury and performance risk, with Jose Bautista coming off prolonged DL time last year, Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes a year removed from significant injuries, Mark Buehrle a question mark coming to the AL East at age 34, Melky Cabrera an unknown (though also a cheap pickup), Brandon Morrow searching for just his second 30-start season, and the bullpen a great mystery. Both the Yankees and Red Sox are better than the doom-and-gloomers claim, with the Yanks riding their pitching and the Sox benefiting from a batch of midlevel signings over the offseason, likely positive regression from Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz, and maybe a little Jackie Bradley Jr. magic. The Orioles' young nucleus has room for improvement, but their off-the-charts 2012 performances in one-run and extra-innings games do not. In a division where any team truly could finish first, or last, we'll give the slimmest of edges to the Rays but with everyone else a decent bet to contend deep into the season, too.
White Sox 77-85
This is a better Tigers team than the one that went to the World Series last year. Victor Martinez is back, and Torii Hunter has arrived, replacing sub-replacement level performances by Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch. They have starting pitching depth — Drew Smyly is as good a sixth starter as any in baseball — and young upside standing by on the farm in Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia. If they need anything at the deadline, they have a hyperaggressive owner in Mike Ilitch, who has already spent unlimited amounts of Crazy Bread on Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and others, and a GM in Dave Dombrowski who has made many shrewd deals over the years. The bullpen is unsettled for now with Bruce Rondon sent to Triple-A, but playing matchups in the ninth inning could prove an effective strategy and if not, Rafael Betancourt, Steve Cishek, and any number of other solid short relievers will be there for the taking.
The Indians should be vastly improved, but when you're coming off a season with an expected record of 62-100,1 you have a loooong way to go to become a contender. Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds will add power to what could be a strong lineup. But the bigger news, given the team's lack of starting-pitching talent, were the additions of Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs, who now give Cleveland a three–center fielder outfield that should help the team address its major run-prevention issues. The Royals went straight to the source to fix their run-prevention problems, overhauling one of the worst starting rotations in the game. James Shields was a strong pickup, but you should be skeptical of the rest; expect breakouts from two of the Royals' cavalcade of twentysomething hitters, at least. The White Sox made few changes over the winter, with new GM Rick Hahn ready to take stock of what he has and likely work on upgrading a weak farm system. The Twins made a bunch of deals in the offseason in an effort to rebuild their broken pitching staff; it'll take years before we know how those moves work out, and the big club could be awful until then.
We can't just glance at the Rangers' roster from last season, subtract Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, and Michael Young2 from last year's 93 wins, and cherry-pick a 2013 projection. Texas did add useful veterans in Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski, for one thing, and could blend Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt into the lineup before too long. But there'll be dozens of other, smaller factors that determine the Rangers' success this year, from how their runs scored and allowed are distributed to how their pitching and defense blend together. It's that last factor that gives Texas a slight edge over the team that figures to mount the toughest challenge, the Angels. Alexi Ogando is back in the rotation, looking to reprise the near-four-win season3 he put up when he last manned that role in 2011. His addition gives the Rangers one of the best quartets of starters in the game. Colby Lewis is due back in a couple months, while Martin Perez, Joakim Soria, and Neftali Feliz figure to provide further reinforcements as the year goes on. Combine those additions with the eventual arrivals of Profar and Olt and whatever the Rangers get at the deadline, and Texas is a stealthy bet to post the best second-half record in the majors and to squeak out an AL West crown.
Watching Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and newly arrived Josh Hamilton take batting practice before a Cactus League game was already riveting — the shows they'll put on during games that matter will be, at times, breathtaking. Too bad the pitching staff is so thin. Zack Greinke and Dan Haren (and the horrendous Ervin Santana) are gone, with the pedestrian Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas and scragged-armed Tommy Hanson expected to provide 95 starts in their stead. A post–Tommy John Ryan Madson doesn't really address last year's bullpen woes, either. The A's aren't going to crash and burn after last year's shocking division title, but they're not going to get big performances from nearly every prospect and cast-off they plug into the lineup again, either, leaving them as playoff contenders but something less than an elite team. The Mariners' offense improves with external additions (Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales) and internal improvement (Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and possibly Justin Smoak), but the rotation is a mess after King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma, as fans wait for the arrival of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen. Everyone else in the division is thrilled to see the Astros come aboard; if those other four teams go over their projections, Houston's total rebuilding project will be a big reason for that jump.
If the Nats have any weaknesses, they're sure as hell well hidden. The starting rotation's big three get the headlines, but the bottom two — a past-prime but still useful Dan Haren and the underrated Ross Detwiler — match up with anyone. The back of the bullpen was unsettled last season — so Washington added Rafael Soriano, allowing Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard to form what figures to be an excellent setup crew. Need more speed and defense? Replace the one-dimensional Mike Morse with Denard Span. The lineup has capable lefty and righty hitters, speed, an emerging superstar in Bryce Harper, even a middle infield capable of 50 homers.
The Braves have baseball's best meme, as well as a full year of Kris Medlen in the rotation, plus dynamic young talents with upside in Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, and others. They're also going to miss Michael Bourn, Chipper Jones, and (if his injury lingers) Brian McCann more than you'd think. The Phillies will finally inject some new blood into their lineup, with both Domonic Brown's bat and Ben Revere's glove offering upside for a team whose biggest stars are almost all past their prime. The difference between a vintage Roy Halladay season and an injury-plagued down year could be the difference between fringe wild-card contention and a .500ish season in Philly. The Mets' starting rotation will be fun to watch, especially when Zack Wheeler arrives. The rest of the team, not so much. Big-time pitching prospect Jose Fernandez getting thrust into the Opening Day rotation could turn into one of the most compelling moves of the year for the Marlins (or any other team). Placido Polanco batting cleanup also not so much.
There may come a point this season when the Reds wish they had hypothetical great starting pitcher Aroldis Chapman over real-life mediocrities Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake. But we probably won't see that moment during the regular season, not with Joey Votto's knee healed, a full season of Todd Frazier and a potential breakout for Jay Bruce likely to add power, and Shin-Soo Choo adding badly needed on-base ability to the top of the lineup. The outfield defense will be a weakness and, well that might be it. There'll be a Ryan Dempster type or three on the trade market come July if Arroyo and Leake aren't cutting it, and Billy Hamilton standing by to provide ludicrous speed if the outfield configuration is not working, or if the Reds simply want to channel the spirit of Herb Washington.4
The Cardinals, curiously, didn't try to upgrade their vacant middle infield over the winter. Matt Carpenter is an interesting experiment, but his defense might give back the benefit of his strong on-base skills. At short, Pete Kozma isn't the answer. If St. Louis is going to return to the playoffs in a National League with so many teams capable of winning 85-plus, they'll need the kids — Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, maybe even Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong — to come up big. The Pirates have a chance to break their streak of 20 straight losing seasons, even if the playoffs are a long shot. Positive contributions from young corner outfielders Starling Marte and Travis Snider, and anything of value from their nos. 4 and 5 starters could make the difference. If the reports of MLB's obsessive quest to get Ryan Braun suspended are accurate, you wonder if the Brewers might be in for a rough season. Alex Gonzalez is their Opening Day first baseman, the young starters behind Yovani Gallardo might be primed for regression, and the bullpen is still not very good. The Kyle Lohse pickup at least offers a bit of a buffer. Kind of wish I had a Cubs at 65 million–to-1 World Series betting slip right now. The starting rotation could be downright good once Matt Garza is back, and Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro practically scream breakout. At the very least, this team will be much tougher to push around in 2013.
Teams like the A's and Rays get so much of the credit for their analytical tendencies, but the Giants quietly use technology better than most other clubs to get the most out of the talent they have, especially on the defensive side. This winter's stand-pat approach might prove costly if Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro don't repeat and Tim Lincecum continues his decline as a starting pitcher. But the Giants figure to do the little things well again. They'll get help from a Brandon Belt breakout and one of those every-other-year Pablo Sandoval mashfests (Sandoval hit only nine more homers in the regular season than he did in Game 1 of the World Series) to make it back to October to defend their crown.
Just be ready for a thrill ride and a division that is a near toss-up among its top three. The Dodgers might've been the pick if everyone on this $215 million roster were 100 percent. But Zack Greinke is a question mark, as is Carl Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez will miss at least two months, with the lamentable trio of Luis Cruz, Nick Punto, and Juan Uribe set to cover the left side of the infield for far longer than any wannabe contender would like. Still, even with a top-heavy roster that might not reach 90 wins, there is enough here for a wild-card run, at least. The Diamondbacks actually were the pick until spring news hit that Adam Eaton would miss two months and that Tyler Skaggs looked awful and was struggling to break 90 with his fastball. The thing about the Diamondbacks is they were likely to win a bunch more games in 2013 than they did last year, even if they'd done nothing. At 15-27, they were tied with the Cubs for the worst record in the majors last year in one-run games. Some of that was due to a few ill-timed bullpen meltdowns. But mostly, it was the result of lousy hitting in close, late situations. GM Kevin Towers saw that as a fundamental flaw for the Diamondbacks offense and thus made major changes, but really, it was probably just a fluke, given how great Arizona was in those late pressure spots a year earlier. This'll be a good team, with a legitimate shot at the playoffs depending on how Eaton, Skaggs, Patrick Corbin, and some other young guys fare. A starting rotation of Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge de la Rosa, Juan Nicasio, Jeff Francis, and Jon Garland might not look like much, but it'll be a big upgrade over the dregs the Rockies trotted out last year. With a very capable lineup at full health, this will be a respectable team that could very well beat the projection above by a few games. The Padres rotation is a disaster, racked by injuries and with most of the best young arms still a couple years away from making a big impact. Jedd Gyorko's arrival and an age-26 breakout for Cameron Maybin could lift San Diego's offense, but Petco's pitcher-friendly confines won't save this weak pitching staff from getting beaten more often than not.
We'll repeat the same caveat every year: The playoffs are a crapshoot. The 83-win Cardinals of 2006, the two-time wild card and World Series–winning Marlins, and multiple other teams prove that the best regular-season club often falls short in October. But hey, we've got some tea leaves lying around. Let's try to read 'em:
American League East champion: RAYS
American League Central champion: TIGERS
American League West champion: RANGERS
American League wild cards: BLUE JAYS, ANGELS
American League champion: TIGERS
National League East champion: NATIONALS
National League Central champion: REDS
National League West champion: GIANTS
National League wild cards: DODGERS, BRAVES
National League champion: REDS
World Series champion: REDS
American League MVP: MIGUEL CABRERA
A slightly less controversial pick this time, as Cabrera puts up gigantic offensive numbers again, while Mike Trout pulls back a bit after a Mantle-esque rookie season. Evan Longoria is going to get a lot of votes if he stays healthy for 150-plus games, too.
American League Cy Young: JUSTIN VERLANDER
Expect another tight race with multiple worthy candidates, only with Verlander getting much better run support than the ugly 3.8 runs a game he got last year, enough to sway several voters who still place too much emphasis on wins. If Yu Darvish pitched at Safeco instead of Arlington, or voters better understood park effects, he might be my pick.
American League Rookie of the Year: AARON HICKS
It's all about playing time, and Hicks is going to get a lot of it, breaking camp as the Twins' leadoff hitter. This might've been a great battle between Jurickson Profar and Wil Myers, but neither is expected to play more than 110 games in the majors this year, and even that estimate might be aggressive.
National League MVP: JOEY VOTTO
"I chose not to make outs anymore." Does Joey Votto know that the rest of the world can't actually control such a thing? The best player on the NL Central's best team reclaims his hardware.
National League Cy Young: STEPHEN STRASBURG
The shackles are off and video-game numbers are coming. Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Adam Wainwright, Gio Gonzalez, and Cole Hamels should be in the mix, too. We'll call a big year for Mat Latos as well.
National League Rookie of the Year: JEDD GYORKO
He'll hit for power, and those awards-friendly RBIs will start to pile up once on-base hound Chase Headley returns. Shelby Miller, Adam Eaton, Julio Teheran, Oscar Taveras, and a bunch of others could put up big numbers, too.