Baseball’s Opening Day is here and the timing couldn’t be better.
My NCAA Tournament bracket is busted and I have no dog in the fight to root for (SIU, UNC) or against (Duke, Steve Alford coached team). The NFL’s offseason has come to a lull, to the point where it’s news that the Raiders are trading for a back-up quarterback. The Blackhawks are carrying the torch for Chicago’s sports scene, while the Bulls are grinding along as they await the return of Derrick Rose or some sort of pixie dust that can transform one of the league’s worst offenses.
No matter how it goes down from here on out, baseball season — in Chicago and outside the city — should be interesting. MLB is about to undergo a renaissance led by quite the youth movement. Gone are the days of aging vets hanging on into their late 30s and early 40s, thanks in part to the miracles of modern medicine. Now, we’re about to hit an era led by a youth movement featuring a mix of established stars and up-and-comers who are about 25 or younger. I’ll try to highlight as many as I can in the following preview.
The favorite: The Los Angeles Angels were a popular choice to win the AL West last year and will likely be your favorite analyst’s choice to win it this year, too. The Angels won 89 games last year, which would have been enough to win the AL Central and probably negate most of the Miguel Cabrera/winning team/MVP narrative we read most of the offseason. They’ll likely be around that number again as they’ll attempt to rally around high-priced, yet, aging stars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, budding superstar Mike Trout and ace righty Jered Weaver.
The darkhorse: How do you follow up the Moneyball sequel? Who know? All I know is that the thrifty Oakland Athletics won the AL West in 2012 after losing 88 games in 2011. The A’s teamed young starting pitching with the ultimate home field advantage of playing 81 games at the Oakland Coliseum (50-31 at home) to overtake the Texas Rangers. Oakland will be an underdog again as it faces the same problems it faced last year as it will probably contend with two other 90-win teams with an offense that might not score enough runs.
Who to watch: Can Mike Trout avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? Trout lost out on MVP, largely because voters put a lot of stock into Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown season. By that logic alone, Trout should have won MVP because no player in MLB history had done what he did — as a rookie or as a long-time vet by hitting .306 with 30 HR, 83 RBI, 129 R, 49 SB … all while missing the entire month of April. He led the AL in runs, steals, OPS+ (171) & WAR. I’m curious to see if he can do it again.
The favorite: I guess Detroit can have nice things, considering its football and basketball teams suck the joy of life out of the city. Truth be told, the Tigers are one of baseball’s most fun teams to watch. Their offense is led by rotund sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, while the pitching staff is anchored by flame-throwers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, not to mention the crafty righty Doug Fister and the underrated Anibal Sanchez. As long as Detroit can avoid another slow start, the division will be theirs for the taking.
The darkhorse: Is this the year for the Royals? “Meh.” But lots of people love them. They’ll be able to hit the ball around the yard with the likes of Billy Butler carrying the weight of the offense. James Shields should solidify the starting rotation. The darkhorse might ride on bounce back years from Eric Hosmer & Mike Moustakas.
What to watch: Can the White Sox repeat what they did for most of last summer? I have my doubts about the White Sox, and we’ll get into that in longform either today or tomorrow. Most of my concern comes with the fact that this team has too many guys who make too many outs. Tyler Flowers, Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez don’t get on base enough and if that continues, they’ll have to play other worldy defense to make up for it. Dayan Viciedo, for all his power, still doesn’t draw enough walks and has been streaky in his time with the bigs. But if the White Sox’s arms can stay healthy, they’ve got a puncher’s chance at a playoff spot.
The favorite: If Evan Longoria can stay healthy, the Tampa Bay Rays will be the team to beat in 2013. TB is so pitching rich, it was able to jettison two quality starters and still have enough to give former Cub prospect Chris Archer some additional minor league seasoning. The Rays still have Joe Maddon pushing all the buttons and Andrew Friedman pulling all the strings behind the curtain, so they’ll be fine, even with budget restrictions.
The darkhorse: The Boston Red Sox underachieved last year, mainly because of injuries, but also because Bobby Valentine is a dope who was in over his head managing the Red Sox. I’m curious to see what Mike Napoli can do in 81 games at Fenway, considering his sample size is .306/.397/.710/1.107 in 19 games.
What to watch: I’ve got a personal rooting interest in the AL East with “Papa” Luis Rivera coaching third base for the Blue Jays this year. So, don’t mind me if I become very pro-Blue Jay in the next few years. Here’s hoping we can get a family member into the postseason … and maybe a promotion to a manager’s gig?
The favorite: Sources say Dodgers GM Ned Coletti spent this offseason bumping “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wu-Tang Clan and “Make It Rain” by Fat Joe during the team’s spending spree of 2012. Zack Greinke capped off a busy financial year for the Dodgers, who took on boatloads of cash while acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez and others. The pitching rich LA squad should compete for a title if Matt Kemp can replicate his 2011 year.
The darkhorse: Sincerest thank yous go out to the San Francisco Giants for putting an end to the #12in12 hashtag last October. SF is considered a darkhorse in my world mostly because GM Brian Sabean basically said “Let’s get the gang back together one more time!” this offseason and made minimal moves to improve the squad. Still, Matt Cain & Madison Bumgarner anchor the staff and Buster Posey carries the offense and that will be good enough for another 90-win campaign.
What to watch: Are the Diamondbacks crazy geniuses or just plain crazy? Arizona has jettisoned some really talented players in the offseason in the attempt to get scrappier and grindier than ever before. Experts say this team is a reflection of its manager, Kirk Gibson. I’d probably disagree, as I doubt there are 25 Kirk Gibson’s in that locker room. And we’ll just leave it at that.
The favorite: Credit Walt Jocketty for Dusty proofing this ball club. Sure, the memories of last year’s choke job still are still fresh. But the Reds are reloaded and primed to win the division again. Mat Latos proved that his pitching prowess wasn’t all in tossing the rawhide at Petco and I doubt Johnny Cueto’s year was a fluke. Oh, then there’s Aroldis Chapman throwing 103 MPH heaters out of the pen. Oh. And Joey Votto, who had more walks than strikeouts last year, comes back healthy, too.
The darkhorse: Grumble grumble grumble Cardinals grumble grumble something about pixie dust grumble grumble grumble. (Seriously though, the Cardinals won’t go away. Pretty sure we all learned that lesson the hard way, didn’t we? Thanks for nothing, Washington. STL is expected to be good. They lose out on Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter (good riddance), but gain a full year of Shelby Miller. The weak spot of the Cards might be their middle infield, where Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso man shortstop and second, respectively. Can Matt Carpenter play a good enough defensive 2B or will he need his offense to make up for any defensive deficiencies? “We’ll see.”
What to watch for: We’ll get into the Cubs in long form in the same post we get into the White Sox with. And that will likely come either later today or tomorrow. (Hint: Probably tomorrow.) But this Cubs team is interesting. If Theo’s group can get some baseball magic of its own, it could be around .500, especially now that it has actual major league pitchers throwing instead of the rag tag group of untested minor league remains left behind by Jim Hendry. However, if the Cubs are that competitive this year, I fully expect President Theo Epstein to give GM Jed Hoyer the green light #LoseTodayToWinTomorrow #TheSequel to unload overachievers in an attempt to restock for the future.
The favorite: Stephen Strasburg. Bryce Harper. Ryan Zimmerman. And that’s just the beginning. The Nats should win this division and should be favorites to win the World Series. They’re loaded and the prime example of what happens when you allow #LoseTodayToWinTomorrow to build and stock your system with young, talented pieces.
The darkhorse: If the Phillies can create some offense, they’ll contend for a Wild Card spot. Can Ryan Howard and Chase Utley turn back the clock? Can Cliff Lee & Cole Hamels get enough games to Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth to make a run at this? We’ll see.
What to watch for: The Braves are playing without Chipper Jones for the first time since 1994. To replace what they’ve lost in Jones, the team brought in B.J. and Justin Upton to team with Jason Hayward in what might be baseball’s best outfield. More than that, the OF trio gives us an all-black outfield. There’s no secret that the number of African American baseball players has dwindled significantly in the last decade as most of the elite athletes tend to choose football and basketball over baseball. Here’s hoping that Hayward and the Uptons can influence the next great generation of black ball players.
AL: Angels, Tigers, Rays, Rangers (wild) & Athletics (wild)
NL: Dodgers, Reds, Nationals, Braves (wild) & Giants (wild)
ALCS: Tigers over Rays
NLCS: Nationals over Reds
World Series: Nationals over Tigers
MVP: Mike Trout, Joey Votto
Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg
Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers (TB), Julio Teheran (ATL)
Manager of the Year: Mike Sciocia (LAA), Bruce Bochy (SF)