Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals picked to win it all
As much as it pains me to say it, the best team in the National League East Division is no longer my beloved Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, the Fightin' Phils no longer have the best starting pitching rotation either. Just two years removed from Philly winning a franchise record 102 games behind their "Four Aces" rotation, a Washington Nationals team that finished below .500 that same year has passed them on both counts.
The Nationals are my pick to not only win the NL East, but to capture the National League Pennant as well as win the franchise' first-ever World Series crown. There are a number of reasons for that pick, which I will get into in a bit. But don't count those aging Phillies out either. They may no longer be favorites, but they are most certainly at the very least a Wildcard playoff contender.
Let's begin, however, with the American League. A year ago in the AL, I chose as my division winners the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, and Texas Rangers, and said the Wildcards would come from among the Red Sox, Rays, and the Angels. Not too bad, as the Yanks and Tigers did indeed win their divisions, and the Rangers made the playoffs.
What I never saw coming the the AL in 2012, you never saw coming either - the Orioles and the Athletics. The O's took a Wildcard, and the A's won the AL West, and neither teams was predicted by many to even have a .500 season in them. The Rays and Angels did each have strong seasons, falling just short of the playoffs, but the Red Sox collapsed completely.
At this point, I am a little bit worried about what I see coming in 2013 for the American League. Worried, because it seems pretty clear to me what should happen. I'm calling the Divisional winners as the Toronto Blue Jays (east), Detroit Tigers (central), and Los Angeles Angels (west), and the Wildcards as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers.
No disrespect to either the A's or the Orioles, but I just do not see their runs continuing, though both teams have enough talent to finish above .500 and make life miserable again for the front-runners. But I believe the overall talent of the other clubs will be enough over 162 games.
In particular, I think the Detroit Tigers should once again be the favorites to return to the World Series by successfully defending their Central division crown and A.L. Pennant. With Justin Verlander fronting a rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, and a potential breakout from Rick Porcello, the Detroit rotation is in the top 3 of the league.
A year ago the Tigers offense was almost exclusively made up of the dynamic 1-2 punch of MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and his cleanup protector, Prince Fielder. This year the Tigers add veteran outfielder Torii Hunter and returning DH Victor Martinez, making them deeper and more dangerous.
The Blue Jays made the biggest off-season splash, and it rightly puts the pressure on them to take an Eastern crown. Last year's NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey fronts a rotation that includes talented Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson. The offense has Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera, and one of the game's best youngsters in 3rd baseman Brett Lawrie.
For the 2nd straight off-season, the Angels signed the biggest name offensive player available. Now Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo, and 2012 Rookie of the Year Mike Trout are joined by Josh Hamilton. The Halos rotation needs top guy Jered Weaver to stay healthy and productive, and could use a bounce-back by C.J. Wilson. They have a strong, deep bullpen that could help any rotation issues.
The wheels fell off a year ago for the Red Sox. They may be about to fall off for their main rivals, the Yankees, in 2013. A pair of darhorse teams reside in the Central, where both the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians have renewed spirit and improved rosters. Yet to be seen is just how much better those clubs will really be on the field.
Now on to the National League, where 4 of the last 5 World Series winners have come out of, and where the winner should again come from this season. My personal crystal ball is not as clear here as it seemed to feel with the AL clubs, and so it will take some sorting out to pick the winners.
In the West division, the San Francisco Giants have won 2 of the last 3 World Series crowns, have the NL MVP in catcher Buster Posey, and return an imposing rotation fronted by Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, and Ryan Vogelsong. They have a deep, veteran bullpen. The offense again leaves much to be desired on paper, but Posey has proven run producers around him in Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have spent a ton of money since taking on new ownership last year that features former Lakers icon Magic Johnson. They brought in the top arm on the FA market in righty Zack Greinke to go with ace lefty Clayton Kershaw. But this is also a team with a number of high-priced players that have been either physically or emotionally fragile in the past. If they want the Division crown, they have to prove they are better than the Giants on the field.
In the Central division, the Reds and Cardinals again appear the class of the race. Shin-Soo Choo should further deepen the batting order which already included MVP candidate 1st baseman Joey Votto, veteran 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips, slugger Jay Bruce, and young left-side infielders Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart. The rotation is sneaky good with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, and Homer Bailey.
Perhaps the biggest decision in the entire National League will be made in the next week or so, as the Reds decide what to do with fireballing Cuban Aroldis Chapman. It says here he should be the closer, where he would simply dominate. But if they feel he can hold up in the rotation, that may be best, and there is bullpen depth to make up for his loss there.
The Cardinals are always good, and will be again. With Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, David Freese, and Allen Craig at the dish, and Adam Wainwright fronting a rotation that should be bolstered soon by the arrival of top prospect Shelby Miller, they may be just a little short to actually beat out Cincy.
The NL East could be one of the most fascinating in the game in 2013 among the top 3 teams, with my call being the Washington Nationals to successfully defend their Division crown, and with the Phillies and Braves to battle for 2nd place and for a Wildcard spot in the playoffs.
The Nationals have the top rotation in all of baseball in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler. They have solid veteran run producers in Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam LaRoche. And they have the NL Rookie of the Year, one of the best young talents the game has ever seen, in left fielder Bryce Harper. They are strong up the middle with center fielder Denard Span, shortstop Ian Kinsler, and 2nd baseman Danny Espinosa.
Another factor that cannot be overlooked with the Nationals is that this is likely manager Davey Johnson's final year at the helm in their dugout. One of the best in the business, he will definitely be motivated to go out on top. And this is a team that is built to win. They have depth and flexibility with their backup players and in their bullpen, rotation, and minor leagues.
The Atlanta Braves are advertised as having one of the best outfields in all of baseball after the big off-season splash of adding the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin. They will play center and left, with Jason Heyward in right. Two strong youngsters in 1st baseman Freddie Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, slugging 2nd baseman Dan Uggla, and all-star catcher Brian McCann give the Braves a lot of weapons if healthy and productive.
On the mound, Atlanta leans on veteran Tim Hudson to front a talented group of kids including Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy and Julio Teheran. Veteran Paul Maholm has also done well since coming in trade. Their bullpen is as talented, led by the games top closer in young Craig Kimbrell. He is set-up by a variety of tough left-right combos including Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, and Jordan Walden.
I am picking the Divisional winners as the Washington Nationals, San Francisco Giants, and Cincinnati Reds. My Wildcard picks are the Braves and the team whose post-season hopes I simply am not yet ready to completely let go of: my hometown Philadelphia Phillies.
Why do I think the Phils' can return to the playoffs? It starts with what remains a strong rotation. Cole Hamels is now the ace, being paid like it, and getting the Opening Day nod. Cliff Lee has a terrible win-loss record last year and all-star caliber stats in every other way. Roy Halladay is one of the greatest pitchers of the last decade. I have confidence that he will find a way to overcome his struggles and remain effective. Kyle Kendrick has gotten better and better, and is a prime breakout candidate.
The lineup was crippled a year ago by the loss of the big right-side infield combo of 1st baseman Ryan Howard and 2nd baseman Chase Utley effectively missing the entire first half of the season. Once they returned and began clicking, the Phils made a run to finish at the .500 mark. Both men look healthy this spring, and those will be a pair of huge bats in the lineup from Day 1.
A pair of newcomers, veteran Michael Young and young Ben Revere bring talent to the 3rd base and center field spots. Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz (after serving an April suspension) return with leadership and productive abilities. But perhaps the biggest revelation in the lineup could be right fielder Domonic Brown, who this spring seems to finally be living up to his hype and promise. With Howard, Utley, Young, and Brown making a difference, the Phils lineup is much stronger than a year ago.
The Phillies have one of the game's top 1-2 bullpen punches now in closer Jonathan Papelbon and primary setup man Mike Adams. With Antonio Bastardo, Chad Durbin, and a cast of big, strong, young arms supporting them, the Phillies bullpen should prove to be a strength this time around for manager Charlie Manuel.
So there you have it, my crystal ball for the teams of Major League Baseball in 2013: Toronto, Detroit, and LA to win the AL Division races, Texas and Tampa Bay to take the Wildcards there. Washington, Cincinnati, and San Francisco to win the NL Divsion races, with Atlanta and the Phillies to take the Wildcards in the senior circuit. And the Washington Nationals to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.