The 2013 baseball season, which opens on April Fools’ Day, promises to make a fool of all prognosticators. Nothing new in this. How could one imagine the Fall Classic when spring has barely sprung? To make things even a little more eyebrow-raising, there are a couple of new wrinkles (on the old forehead) this time around. One, interleague play will start early in the season. Two, the Houston Astros, solidly a National League (NL) franchise, will find a home in the ultra-tough American League (AL) West. It will be a long, hot summer in Houston: I (Evander) can guess “we have a problem” with a certain confidence. The leagues now have an even number of clubs. Whether an Astros-Rangers rivalry will develop right away is hard to imagine…or not to imagine.
What about the Yankees? Winners of a cosmic 27 championships: The team that everyone loves or loves to hate. The Yanks also feature more middle-aged men than a twenty-fifth high-school reunion. Mariano Rivera, coming off a devastating knee injury, was born in the 1960s—the last player left standing from the Woodstock Nation era. Will Robinson Cano spit the bit (in those endearing, enduring 1970s words from the late George Steinbrenner) as he did in the playoffs against the Detroit Tigers? (Over the final weeks, he was batting an astonishing, soft-pitch beer-league .600 into the postseason.) Already on the DL one finds Phil Hughes, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez. “Tex Message” and/or (more probably) A-Rod might be lost for the year. And the beat goes on.
Continuing with the AL East, conventional wisdom has it as the strongest in Major League Baseball. Eighty-six wins may be enough to get into the playoffs. I don’t expect any team to run away, and the Red Sox may surprise: phenom Jackie Bradley Jr. helps make that Bosox outfield. Although the Baltimore Orioles were an amazing 16-2 (sixteen consecutive wins after the two losses) in extra-inning games, and compiled a record of 29-9 in one-run games, plus were 74-0 (!) in games they led after seven innings—all unimaginable to repeat—the Boys from Birdland are my choice for this division, there being no such thing as the law of averages. I like Matt Wieters; I like Manny Machado; I like Nick Markakis; and Jim Johnson will be out to prove last season was no fluke in the closer role. Though still tightly wound as a woodpecker, Buck Showalter is one of the best managers, working with a record-setting number of players, called up and sent down, last season. We’ll see if Showalter can again play Miracle Worker. (Still “for the birds,” the Blue Jays, hiding behind open doors if not under their open-retractable roof, by—again those dirty words—conventional wisdom would make the most noise with the largest number of significant additions during this long Canadian winter. I believe many of these will have a hard time playing 81 games on the Rogers Centre carpet.)
The AL Central is a little-less difficult to piece together. The Tigers are far and away the cream of the Central. I suspect they will make less of an adventure of this season than they did last. The quality showed in the sweep of the Yankees to arrive at the World Series. The team features the best pitcher in baseball (Justin Verlander, re-signed for chump change: an $180-million extension, basically to 2020); reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera (the last Triple Crown was won in 1967, the one before 1966, and prior to that 1956 by Mickey Mantle, in what to my memory [I cannot locate the source at present] Bill James has essentially described, mathematically, as the greatest impact season by any slugger ever); boxcar-sized Prince Fielder; and a wonderful manager in Jim Leyland. Unsuspected by many: the Minnesota Twins, led by equally great manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twinkies still have the M&M (Mauer and Morneau) Boys, and maybe better starting pitching beyond seemingly always-troubled Carl Pavano.
The only sure thing in the AL West is the addition patsies, the Astros. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Oakland Athletics, the Rangers should all beat up on the Stros. I am going with the Angels. Having wooed Josh Hamilton from Texas, the Angels lineup also features Mike Trout, who had the greatest everyday-player rookie season I can recall in forty years (Fred Lynn) and possibly longer ago than that. If not for Miguel Cabrera, Trout would have added an MVP to his Rookie of the Year hardware. Top-of-the-line slugger Albert Pujols came around after a less-than-spectacular debut under the klieg lights of Hollywood. It is difficult to discount the Rangers or the always-cunning and surprising Oakland Athletics, a club I tagged for first place a season before they were ready for that finish. The Seattle Mariners are offensively challenged, even with Jesus Montero (who was traded from the Yankees for apparently damaged-goods Michael Pineda) but have what might be the second-best pitcher in baseball, King Felix. Perhaps they will be better than they are on paper. But as Martin and I say in Right Off the Bat (not a startling observation among the many we do make in our book) in a different context, only one person (or team) could be first in anything, and that looks to be the team in Anaheim.
The NL East belongs to the Washington Nationals. The Mets, still financially reeling from the Madoff scandal and doing all the things a small-market team would, have lost R. A. Dickey to free agency and Johan Santana to possibly career-ending arm woes. Owner of the only no-hitter in franchise history, Santana was clearly overused in 2012. David Wright injured his ribs in the World Baseball Cup and will miss opening day after signing on for a cool $138 million: the one big-market investment the club decided to make. Rib injuries are notoriously pesky. The Nats have genius-manager Davey Johnson at the wheel, and are stacked with talent: fireballer Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond, Bryce Harper, et al. The Atlanta Braves will be in it. The rapidly aging Philadelphia Phillies should rebound, barring injuries. The Miami Marlins are an unknown entity. They may surprise even after the fire sale. I like their funky, 2012-era, Caribbean-exotic-inspired stadium a lot.
For the Central, there seems the one question: Cardinals or Reds? Cincinnati is taking a gamble with Aroldis Chapman in the rotation—a notion abandoned just as the season hatched. He is the hardest thrower in major-league baseball if measured by a single pitch. (Verlander ratchets it up in the eighth inning, which makes him a special case.) The Reds, the venerable franchise, have locked up key players and are the defending division champs. St. Louis has depth in the pen along with the intangibles of history and that mighty fan base—which survived the departure of Pujols. I always like the Milwaukee Brewers: the steroids-tainted Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Norichika Aoki, Aramis Ramirez, and the Andrew McCutchen-led Pittsburgh Pirates will eventually finish above .500, living up to their ballpark, PNC, even already at the age of twelve by received accounts perhaps the most stunning and “pure” of all in Major League Baseball—not that Wrigley Field takes “a backseat” to any venue. But Theo Epstein probably will not be raising a championship flag to his pennant-challenged franchise in 13. I see the Cardinals by a nose.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have surpassed the Yankees in payroll. Like New York and Chicago, two teams compete for fans and dollars in L.A. The Dodgers finished second in the West last season. Mr. Sensational, Matt Kemp, ought to be back for the whole campaign following a Mr. Toad-like 2012, and is joined in an All-Star outfield by Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford—who should regain his form having been a bust in Boston. Adrian Gonzalez is almost right up there with his cross-Freeway rival, Albert Pujols, Don Mattingly is now a seasoned manager, Clayton Kershaw is Mr. K for all the obvious reasons. However, my pick is the San Francisco Giants. The chemistry on the Giants is near-perfect: Sandoval, Scutaro, Posey, Lincecum, Wilson (The Beard!). Buster Poesy was just inked to a cool nine-year-$167-million deal. It is difficult to vote against the Champs. San Diego and Arizona ought to improve. The Rockies play in the stadium that least favors the home team, and it is difficult to see a good finish with the Dodgers and Giants on top.
Wild Card picks: Yankees, Rangers, Reds, Dodgers.