Sure, snow was falling in Washington, D.C., only a few hours before I submitted this post; nonetheless, the regular season in North America got underway earlier this evening in San Diego, where the Padres were hosting the 2–0 Dodgers on ESPN.
So what should we expect from the 30 clubs in the months to come?
American League East
Tampa Bay, Boston, New York, Toronto, Baltimore
WHAT TO FANCY: The Rays get one more season out of David Price and he won’t disappoint. Every baseball fan in New England is excited about shortstop phenom Xander Bogaerts. Masahiro Tanaka ought to put up excellent peripherals in the Bronx, and even Michael Piñeda looks poised for a solid season. Colby Rasmus quietly slugged over .500 in Toronto last season and there’s no reason why he can’t repeat that feat. At one year and $8 million, Nelson Cruz was an absolute bargain pickup for the Orioles.
WHAT TO FEAR: Now that Tampa Bay re-signed James Loney, he needs to show that he can replicate last season’s .339 wOBA. Even if Bogaerts excels, don’t expect this year’s Red Sox lineup to equal the performance of the 2013 version. (Every starter last season, save third baseman Will Middlebrooks, either met or exceeded career norms.) No Yankee taking the field tomorrow will be under 30 years old. The Jays pitching looks to be better but two of its starters are returning from major injuries. Manny Machado’s injured knee remains a concern for the Orioles.
BOTTOM LINE: The division remains reasonably competitive from top to bottom, but the Rays have the fewest holes and finish with 95 wins, just ahead of the Sox, who pick up a wild-card berth.
Detroit, Kansas City, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota
WHAT TO FANCY: Prince Fielder doesn’t get dealt away and Miguel Cabrera moves back to first base if the Tigers don’t think Nick Castellanos is the third baseman of the future. While salivating over Yordano Ventura’s 101-mph fastball, don’t forget that the offseason trade for Aoki and the signing of free agent Omar Infante might prove to be among the best Royals transactions since they stole Amos Otis from the Mets . . . after the 1969 season. Speaking of acquisitions, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn deserves major props for picking up Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks and for signing Cuban power-hitting first baseman Jose Abreu. Having Carlos Santana man third base at Progressive Field is a risky move but with considerable upside. With their two top prospects out with injuries, Twins fans can take heart that the 2015 season is only a year away.
WHAT TO FEAR: Playing half of his games in Comerica Park will take its toll on Ian Kinsler’s offense. At what point does Kansas City give up on Mike Moustakas and his career .296 OBP? There is little depth on the South Side. Danny Salazar may have Cy Young potential, but Cleveland asks way too much of him and the talented but erratic Trevor Bauer. With their two top prospects out with injuries, Twins fans can be depressed that the 2015 season is a full year away.
BOTTOM LINE: The Tigers fend off a charge from the Royals, while a young White Sox team takes a sizeable step forward.
Los Angeles, Oakland, Texas, Seattle, Houston
WHAT TO FANCY: Albert Pujols is no longer Albert Pujols, but his good health entering the season means that a .900 OPS is a reasonable expectation. Now with the Rangers, Fielder will slug 45 home runs this season . . . at home. (I kid. Kind of.) In Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson, the A’s may have the best — and criminally underrated – left side of the infield in the majors. When signing the mega-deal with Seattle, Robinson Cano was well aware that Safeco Field is no longer considered a pitcher’s paradise. Top Astros prospect George Springer will get called up well before the All-Star break, reminding Astros fans that there is a flicker of light at the end of the long tunnel.
WHAT TO FEAR: Josh Hamilton is no longer Josh Hamilton and, unless he can stop his frequent swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, bad things will continue to happen. Aside from more raw sewage seeping into the O.Co Colisuem clubhouses, there’s this: a healthy portion of Oakland’s 94 starts in 2013 that went to Bartolo Colon (now with the Mets) and A. J. Griffin (injured and out indefinitely) and Jarrod Parker (injured and out for the season), who need to be replaced. The injury bug plagues the Rangers as well, with four-fifths of their rotation on the shelf to start the season. If Cano’s career in the Pacific Northwest gets off to a slow start, when do the boo birds make their presence known? With all of its division rivals perched near, at, or above .500, what are the odds that Houston doesn’t lose over 100 games for the fourth consecutive season?
BOTTOM LINE: Albert and the Halos pitching staff remain reasonably healthy, leading the Angels to a division title. The A’s capture the second wild card.
National League East
Washington, Atlanta, New York, Miami, Philadelphia
WHAT TO FANCY: This is the year that Bryce Harper earns his superstar status with a near-.600 SLG. Any offensive improvement for defensive stalwart Andrelton Simmons, however marginal, will be a boon for the Braves. A healthy Jenrry Mejia in Queens this season may post peripherals that are ace-like. Surely, Giancarlo Stanton can’t have two disappointing seasons in a row? If the Phillies do finish behind the Fish, there’s a better than 50–50 chance ownership will look for a new general manager, granting legions of Phillies fans their No. 1 wish.
WHAT TO FEAR: With all due respect to Adam LaRoche and his career year in 2012, the sooner Ryan Zimmerman moves to first base and Anthony Rendon shifts to third, the better. With two-fifths of their rotation on the shelf this season, Braves fans have reason to worry if Ervin Santana is deemed the ace of the staff. Even if offseason additions Curtis Granderson and Colon perform well for the Mets, at most they’re merely replacing the 2013 production of departed Marlon Byrd and injured Matt Harvey. Casey McGehee and Rafael Furcal are the Marlins’ starting third baseman and second baseman, respectively. (Nuff said.) Other than Cliff Lee and perhaps A. J. Burnett, is there anyone on the Phillies roster who’s a decent bet for a solid season? Even Cole Hamels is a question mark, given the concerns about his sore shoulder.
BOTTOM LINE: What was supposed to happen in 2013 will happen this season. The Nationals run away with the division, but the Braves do just enough to qualify for a wild-card spot.
St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee
WHAT TO FANCY: Youngsters Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha have thrilled fans at Busch Stadium with their electric stuff, but Adam Wainwright still anchors the Cardinals rotation. When prospect Gregory Polanco receives the inevitable call-up later this spring, the Pirates will boast the most athletic outfield in the bigs. Speedster Billy Hamilton may steal over 100 bases for Cincinnati, provided he can reach first base safely more than 30 percent of the time. With his vision problems reportedly a thing of the past, the Cubs’ Mike Olt may finally live up to the hype that surrounded him while in the Rangers organization. The Brewers won’t be giving Yuniesky Betancourt (now plying his trade in Japan) playing time at first base this season.
WHAT TO FEAR: St. Louis has few holes, but losing David Freese to a trade and Carlos Beltran to free agency drains some of the power from the lineup. While Pittsburgh will benefit from a full season of Gerrit Cole on the mound, Burnett’s departure hurts while Francisco Liriano will have a difficult time replicating last year’s sparkling numbers. Injuries have ravaged the Reds’ top bullpen arms. The Cubs may sport one of the most talent-rich farm systems, but for a third season in a row there’s little depth at the big-league level. This year’s first-base tandem of Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds may lead more than a few Milwaukee fans to long for the good ol’ Yunieksy days.
BOTTOM LINE: If any MLB franchise reaches the three-digit win total, it will be the Cards, who enjoy both a formidable roster and weak division rivals.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, Colorado
WHAT TO FANCY: Boasting MLB’s highest payroll ($216+ million) doesn’t mean the Dodgers are free of worries, but there’s enough talent to win the division and go deep into the postseason. Three of San Francisco’s four infielders are in their prime, and the fourth, second baseman Marco Scutaro, remains an above-average threat at the plate. Counting on success from the Padres’ Opening Day starter Andrew Cashner looks increasingly like a good bet. Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo ought to hit more than enough long balls in Chase Field to keep the fans in the left-field seats happy. Carlos Gonzalez (center field) and Troy Tulowitzki (shortstop) are the best offensive threats at their positions.
WHAT TO FEAR
You’d think LA riches could haves bought a little more talent to start the season than a Dee Gordon–Justin Turner platoon at second base. The Giants’ starting rotation looks considerably more mortal than the ones that won rings in 2010 and 2012, although the addition of Tim Hudson helps. Counting on an injury-free season from Josh Johnson is a mug’s game, yet the Padres are the latest team to roll the dice. CarGo and Tulo are injury-prone; if they don’t play full seasons, a 100-loss season in Denver is a real possibility.
BOTTOM LINE: Thanks to a weak division, the Dodgers should coast to their second consecutive title. The Giants get just enough quality pitching to earn the other wild card.
* * *
AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Tampa Bay over Boston
NL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
St. Louis over Washington
St. Louis over Tampa Bay
* * *
As for the hardware:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Robinson Cano (AL), Bryce Harper (NL)
CY YOUNG AWARD
David Price (AL), Adam Wainwright (NL)
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Xander Bogaerts (AL), Mike Olt (NL)
Your comments, thoughtful or otherwise, are always appreciated.