The East May Be Least

This is the year the Yankees crash and burn.

Remember when MLB’s best teams were in the East? The times they are a’ changin’. Don’t believe the hype about the Nationals and the Blue Jays; for the first time in many years, there really is no favorite in either league, and any of a number of teams could conceivably win the division. In fact, things will be so competitive that it’s possible that, as teams beat up on each other, no wild card winner will come from the East. One more thing—Yankees’ haters are going to get their wish; I think the Boys from the Bronx are going to finish dead last in the AL East in 2013.

National League East: The Nationals are the consensus pick in the NL East, and several analysts pick them to go to the Series and win the whole enchilada. The pitching is deep—any combination of Detweiler, Haren, and Duke are fighting for a place in the rotation—but there are also question marks. Is Gonzalez a steroid fraud? Can Strasburg go more than a 140 innings and stay healthy? Can Jordan Zimmerman be an ace if he has to be? Count me among the doubters of the Nat’s lineup, though I like Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond a lot. Harper has to prove to me he’s the NL’s Mike Trout, Span is just an average player, Werth is maddeningly inconsistent, and I’d shocked if LaRoche comes close to duplicating his 2012 numbers. This team could win; it could tank—badly.

If they do, the Braves have hope, though its staff of Beachy, Medlin, Teheran, Maholm, and Hudson is what the term “yeoman-like” was invented to describe. The Braves can only hope that 37-year-old Hudson is ace for one more year. They are also hoping the B.J. and Justin Upton finally play up to their scouting reports—they never have!—otherwise, they join Jason Heyward in an outfield that can star in Slackers II. McCann is a gem, but there are holes at shortstop, Uggla may be out of gas, and Freeman needs to hit for a higher average. This is a team full of possibility that I think will win the division, but I’d not bet the farm on them.

While everyone has been debating the geriatric nature of the Yankees, the Phillies were the team that grew old fast. This year the outfield will be young, but is anyone impressed by Revere, Delmon Young, and perpetual prospect Domonic Brown? (What do the Phils see in Brown? It’s eluded me.) Then you have guys in their twilight years (Utley, new pickup Michael Young) and several who look older than they are: Howard (33), Rollins (34). Still, unless they break down completely, a 1-3 staff of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels is awesome, and Papelbon gets it done as closer. But the Phils are too fragile to endure the long season.

As for the Mets, New York fans need to understand it’s going to take some time to undo the team's fallout from the Madoff-induced financial meltdown. It was smart to unload 38-year-old Dickey at the top of his market value, and the Mets should probably do the same with other high-priced assets (Wright, Santana, Buck, Marcum) because none of them will be there when the rebuilding is over. The Marlins? Screw them and owner Jeff Loria. I hope the franchise fails, Loria goes bankrupt, and weeds grow from the abandoned stadium. The Fish are owned by a jerk, play in a city where no one cares, and are a collection of nobodies, guys that are too old, those that are no good, and those who won’t be there by trade deadline. (Sayonara, Giancarlo Stanton.)

American League East:  I would love to see a revival of baseball in Toronto, but I’m baffled why analysts have conceded the AL East to the Jays. The team’s big moves were to bring in guys who led the Marlins to a last-place finish–in the inferior NL East. Scouts once lusted for Josh Johnson, but he was 8-14 last year and was banished to the bullpen. Buehrle, the only player they picked up other than Melky Cabrera that has actually played in the AL, was just 13-13 last year. How will R. A. Dickey fare in the AL? For all the hype, Romero--despite his recent demotion to the minors--and Morrow might still end up as the team’s aces. The lineup can be fearsome—Batista, Rajal Davis, Rasmus, Lind, Encarnacion—but they need Lawrie to be healthy to anchor the hot corner. (You do not want Bautista there!) Jose Reyes? Okay, but let’s see how he does in the AL. Melky? Is there any reason not to think his numbers are chemically enhanced? I put him in the pee-in-the-cup three times a day category. The Jays should be better, but they can be beaten, and I don’t think they will win the AL East.

For all the Jays transactions and budget-prompted trade decisions, the Rays still have superior pitching: Price, Cobb, Hellickson, Moore, Niemann. Hate the bullpen–Farnsworth and Rodney make it more of a sty—but they probably won’t be needed all that much. I’d pick the Rays in a heartbeat if they hadn’t traded Shields. (Wil [sic] Myers had better be very good.)  The question is always whether the Rays can score; as we saw last year, when Longoria gets hurt, the Rays lose. The team finally has an MLB shortstop (Escobar) but the lineup is still guys who start that ought to be utility players. Relocation is the thing standing between the Rays and a World Series ring. (Rumor holds that Montreal may be in the offing!)

Are the Orioles back? Maybe, but gears have to click in an exact sequence for 2012 to have been more than “lucky.” The good? Potentially MLB’s best outfield: Adam Jones, McLouth, Markakis. Two emerging studs: Machado and Wieters. The question marks? Health (Roberts, Markakis). A staff—Arieta, Chen, Hammel, Matusz, Tillman—that’s pretty good, but not real good. Look for the O’s to slip back.

The Red Sox might be better, but only if Lester and Buchholz pitch their reputations, and Lackey recovers his LA groove. Color me a doubter of Dempster or Harnahan adjusting easily to the AL. Health is a big concern—Napoli, Middlebrooks, Ortiz—and the outfield is a guy who can’t wait to get out of town (Ellsbury) and those who evoke a big meh! (Gomes, Victorino, Nava). If Jupiter aligns with Mars, the Sox might surprise. That could happen, though it’s just as likely that the trade van pulls up outside Fenway at the end of July. And, of yeah, John Farrell as the managerial answer? Based on what record? 

The Sox should be better than the Yankees. The year everyone has predicted for the past five has arrived: the Yankees are too old. A-Rod’s atrocious contract handcuffed New York and will continue to do so until GM Brian Cashman figures out how to unload it. You will go to see the Yankees this year to pay tribute to Mo Rivera, the greatest closer in MLB history, to see Jeter’s inside-out swing, and to witness the probable last hurrahs of Ichiro, Kuroda, and Pettitte. Granderson, Jeter, A-Rod, and Teixeira are already on the disabled list, and Sabathia just came off. Pineda has yet to throw a single inning for NY. Youkilis, Wells, and Hafner? Ho hum. Welcome to the Bronx basement. Bet Cashman wishes he had traded with the Dodgers last summer. Codicil: If Hal Steinbrenner relents on the pledge to reduce the Yankees’ budget, New York will reload at the trade deadline and the Yankees will make one last run for nostalgia's sake.


NL East: Braves, Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Marlins

AL East: Rays, Jays, Red Sox (hunch), Orioles, Yankees


Central Time: MLB Preview

Psst--For people on the coasts, there is MLB in the purple states as well. Also Ohio! 

On paper, both the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers are head and shoulders above their competition. But we still have to play 162 games to prove that thesis. Both leagues also have two teams that are doing what they should be doing: dumping high-priced roster holders, stockpiling young talent, and rebuilding. Neither the Chicago Cubs nor the Minnesota Twins will go to the playoffs this year, but they won’t be as bad as last year either; no one should approach them as if they were patsies.

National League Central:   Latos, Cueto, Bailey, Leake (and maybe Chapman) aren’t an overwhelming staff, but they’re better than anyone else’s in the division. The Reds should win with that staff because a lineup featuring Votto, Bruce, Ludwick, Phillips, Frazier, and Choo is going to masticate lesser staffs. The Cards might have given the Reds a ride to the roses, but then the talented Chris Carpenter went down with what is probably a career-ending injury. (The same may be true of Furcal.) Once the Cards get past Wainwright, what follows—Westbrook, Lynn--is serviceable, but not imposing. The staff is so thin that Garcia will probably start, which isn’t good. Holliday, Freeze, Craig, Beltran, and Jay anchor a lineup that’s like the staff­—a few studs and some plow horses.

The sexy pick is the Pirates¸ to which I reply: Let’s try being merely respectable before we start dreaming big. Walker and McCutchen are the real thing; Barnes and Garrett Jones are useful. Color me unimpressed by the Russ Martin pickup; he and Burnett should prove combustible. Morton, Marte, and Tabata? Put up, or ship out. The Pirates are banking a lot on cast-offs such as Liriano, Burnett, Melanchon, and Wandy Rodriguez. Such hopes seldom end well.

The Brewers can drag out guys that can hurt you: Hart, Aramis Ramirez, Weeks, Braun…. They can also go a week without making contact. And if MLB doesn’t make Ryan Braun pee in a cup twice a day, it’s simply not serious about its drug policy. Mat Gamel looks like Mr. Hype Goes on a Holiday (to AAA).  Matt Lucroy is on the cusp of being the best catcher in the NL, but when the ace of staff he will handle is Gallardo, he’s going to see a lot of base runners. The Cubs have some young players who will be fun to watch develop, especially Castro and Rizzo. Solid vets such as DeJesus and Hairston will help, and GM Theo Epstein was right to hold onto Matt Garza. (Why he overpaid Edwin Jackson is another matter….) Alfonso Soriano should get a monthly lease.

American League Central:  When you have one of the league’s best pitchers (Verlander), the MVP/Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera), and went to the World Series the year before, that’s a pretty nice base. The Tigers should easily roar to the AL Central title this year. This team is deep and dangerous. What pitcher wants to face Cabrera, Fielder, Victor Martinez, Avila, Hunter, Infante, and Austin Jackson? Or hit against Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, and Scherzer? Unless this team self-destructs, only the # 2 spot is up for grabs.

The White Sox can pitch Danks, Floyd, and Sale (if healthy), but then who? Dunn, Konerko, Vicrede, and Rios can knock down fences, but often it’s from the backswing of a swish rather than contact. This looks to be a team that can compete, but not win. That’s also what I think about the Indians. It would help if Jimenez, Masterson, and McAllister induced more than comments about how great their stuff “looks.” The lineup has two fine players—Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera—playing around workman-like players: Swisher, Bourn, Brantley, Stubbs, Reynolds. The Indians look good enough to be just slightly better than mediocre.

The Royals are the AL equivalent of the Pirates, and I’m taking the same “prove it” stance. Give GM Dayton Moore credit for fleecing the Rays. He got two topnotch starters (Shields and Wade Davis) for a “can’t miss” outfield prospect. (One wonders how so many of them manage to do so!) Add Chen, Hochevar, and Guthrie and that’s not bad. There’s also Ervin Santana, but he’s such a head case that I’d not count on him. The lineup also has potential: Gordon, Butler, Hosmer, Moustakas, Francoeur….  But until I see ERAs decline and on-base-percentages rise dramatically, I remain a Royals skeptic.  As for the Twins, any team with Mauer and Morneau is worth watching. But a staff on which the only guys of whom you've ever heard are named Correia, Pelfry, and Duensing, not much can be expected.

NL Central Predictions: Reds, Cards, Pirates, Brewers, Cubs

AL Central Predictions: Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Indians, Twins. (You can probably flip flop anyone you wish for 2, 3, 4.)  


How the West Will Be Won: MLB Preview

When it's all said and done, I still think the Giants' chemistry will trump the Dodgers' money. The same phenomenon could happen in the AL West. 

The Western divisions of both the National League and American League and where one finds some very good teams and some grotesquely awful ones. Both divisions are also  up for grabs than most pundits would have you believe.

National League West:  The Dodgers have become the new Yankees, apparently without noting that for all the dough they've spent in New York, championships have been elusive. On paper the Dodgers are formidable. There’s Matt Kemp, plus so much pitching that Capuano and/or Lilly are likely to be dealt. But let me point out that the team also includes fragile personalities such as Ethier, Greinke, Harang, Beckett, Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez, the latter the only infielder who will impress with his defense. Manager Don Mattingly has the kind of team that will either go to the World Series or get him fired by All-Star break. I’m betting the latter. The Giants are reigning champs and have something the boys from LA lack: chemistry. They also have a pitching staff that’s as good as any, and stand-up players such as Posey, Scutaro, Pagan, and Sandoval. Until someone beats them, the Giants remain the best of the West.

The Diamondbacks have the arms to compete, if everyone steps up (especially Kennedy, Cahill, and mystery man Brandon McCarthy). The everyday lineup won’t stun anyone, but it contains grinders who can be troublesome. If a few teams underachieve, the D-Backs could grab a Wild Card. The Rockies, on the other hand, seem to be very short on pitching behind De La Rosa and Francis. It has some good lumber—Carlos Gonzalez, Cudyer, and the wonderful Troy Tulowitzki—but unless young arms come on faster than projected, their hopes are as thin as the Denver air. As for the Padres, there is Quentin, the enigmatic Volquez, Headley, and prayers. Not enough, which is why Headley is on everyone’s most-likely-to-be-traded list.

American League West: The Angels are the other West Coast free-spending bully; they also have the same set of question marks as the Dodgers. On paper, Pujols, Hamilton, Trout, Trumbo, and Kendrick are frightening. The staff is more solid than formidable, but it’s deep. The big fear—and a legitimate one—is that the Angels could be this year’s version of the 2010 Red Sox—big names and small deliveries. If Hamilton yields to his demons, Pujols doesn’t figure out AL pitching better, and Trout hits more like he did last September than last June, the Angels could swoon. I remain a Jared Weaver skeptic, by the way, but the Angels will benefit from diminished competition.

The Angels should win, simply because they've raided so much of the Rangers’ roster that Texas will find itself short of both big arms and big bats. Who’s the ace of the staff? Holland? Hanson? Feliz? Can Oganda start? And Lance Berkman will not replace Hamilton’s production. Who knows what to make of the Athletics? Once again Oakland will field mostly no-names with good sabermetrics numbers. If history is any guide, the A’s won’t be good this year—those surges such as the one in 2012 are generally followed by sinks. On the other hand, given the Astros' entry into the division, the A's might have a legitimate shot. Every year I say the Mariners will surprise, and every year they impress only with their constant mediocrity. I wonder why General Manager Jack Zduriencik still has a job.  His latest bonehead move is trading a decent pitcher (Vargas) to the rival Angels for a player who wasn't going to make their lineup (Morales). This team is Felix Hernandez, the over-the-hill gang (Ibanez, Bay) and the never-will-be boys (Montero, Morse, Saunders). But they won’t finish last. If the Astros don’t lose at least 100 games this year—their first in the AL--Bo Porter should be manager of the year, no questions asked!   


NL: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Colorado, San Diego

AL:  Los Angeles (with little confidence), Oakland (a hunch), Texas, Seattle, Houston