By Mike Ivcic
Snow is on the ground in much of the country, which can only mean one thing – baseball season is close! All Al Gore jokes aside, the 2013 MLB season does start this Sunday night with an inter-Texas battle between the Astros and Rangers, so it’s time to fire up the season preview machine and get going. We’re going division by division, with two-a-day on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, all leading up to the playoff and World Series predictions that will appear in the first installment of the 26 weekly columns known as “The Tenth Inning” on Monday, the true opening day.
For this year’s preview, we’ll break down each team by their three most important players (not necessarily best, just most important – and we’ll explain each as we go) plus the team’s single biggest question mark, capped off by a random shot-in-the-dark at the win-loss record for the upcoming season.
Note: This time last season, we correctly predicted 7/10 playoff teams (missed the Orioles, A’s, and Braves) and pegged the Giants to win the NL pennant. But those pesky Angels…
American League East
1) Tampa Bay Rays
Three most important players: David Price, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist
Without James Shields, it’s incumbent upon Price to become the unquestioned leader of the Rays pitching staff. With Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Jeff Niemann behind him, he’ll definitely have support, but every team needs a bona fide number one starter, and there’s no more doubt about who that is in Tampa. Meanwhile the lineup will certainly need players like Sean Rodriguez, Desmond Jennings, James Loney, Luke Scott, and Yunel Escobar to step up, but the loss of B.J. Upton forces Zobrist into the primary support role for Longoria. If those two can put together 150+ games of their career average years or better, this will definitely be a playoff team.
Biggest question mark: Depth
It’s true that this is not your older brother’s Tampa Bay Rays – I’d argue this is the most consistent franchise in all of baseball since they burst into the playoff fold in 2008. There are plenty of players on the roster with name recognition, but after losing Carl Crawford, Shields, and Upton in the last three years, the “star” power has actually been reduced. That means another injury to Longoria like last year that keeps him out for an extended period of time will be more difficult to replace. Take Price, Longoria, Zobrist, or closer Fernando Rodney off this team and they could go first to last, especially in this division.
2) Toronto Blue Jays
Three most important players: Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, Josh Johnson
Let’s start with the easy one – all of the offseason additions mean squat if Bautista can’t anchor the heart of that lineup. But if he can, he’ll have a lot more fun hitting with Reyes on base ahead of him â if Reyes is happy. Remember, this is a guy who limited his options to New York and Miami a season ago because getting back to his home in the Dominican Republic was important to him. I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure nonstop flights from Toronto to the D.R. are somewhat limited. Maybe his demeanor will be offset by playing on turf, which should help his base stealing, but I’m just not sold that Reyes is a winner. Johnson needs to regain his 2011 form for the Jays-Marlins trade to really be a steal for Toronto, as Mark Buehrle is no more than a number 3 starter at this point in his career and the Jays don’t have anyone ready to take that number 2 slot behind R.A. Dickey if Johnson falters.
Biggest question mark: Melky Cabrera
This one should be fairly self-explanatory. Who is Cabrera – the guy who hit .260 batting eighth with the Yankees or the guy who hit .330 and was All-Star Game MVP with the Giants? Minus the steroids, I’m inclined to believe that he’s more that former than the latter, which leaves the Jays outfield somewhat thin behind Bautista. How he plays the first month of the year will be critical to Toronto’s overall success.
3) New York Yankees
Three most important players: Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, Mariano Rivera
You’ll notice the absence of baseball’s highest-paid player on this list, and instead see his replacement, Youkilis. If he can get even close to his pre-fried chicken and beer form, he’ll be a big asset to this group, another winner who brings heart and effort every single day. Match that with Jeter and Cano and it’ll make up for losing similar players like Nick Swisher and Russell Martin. Speaking of Jeter, having him back before the end of April is an absolute must – there’s simply no replacing him. The last name is definitely a nod of respect, but also an acknowledgement of the Yankees lack of depth in the bullpen. Without Rivera shutting the door for one more season like he has every year since 1997, this is a relatively thin bullpen, so Mo needs to be Mo for all of 2013 to prevent the Yankees from blowing games, a critical need given the strength of this division.
Biggest question mark: Injuries and age
Oh boy, where to start? How about the current disabled list, which features Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtin Granderson – or in Steinbrenner terms, about $90 million. The Yankees were already old before they decided to be thrifty this offseason, and adding Vernon Wells doesn’t make this team any younger. Ichiro, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda – these are not young players. It’s legitimately possible that this is the beginning of the end of the Yankee dynasty.
4) Baltimore Orioles
Three most important players: Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson, Matt Wieters
I pick the Orioles here because a simple roster comparison puts this group in exactly this spot in the division. They had a lot of players have an incredible 2012 and came through in the Wild Card playoff game against the free-falling Rangers, but this really is a fourth-place group. If Markakis can stay healthy and regain his power, however, he may be able to replace some of the expected drop off from other players. If he can’t, it’ll be up to Wieters to once again carry the load offensively, which is a very difficult task to accomplish from the catcher position (just ask Mike Piazza). The Orioles also have to hope that Johnson has short-term memory loss after the series with the Yankees, though it should help not seeing Raul Ibanez walking up to the plate. Johnson’s not a typical closer, but a duplicate season from the Baltimore reliever could also push the O’s further up this list.
Biggest question mark: Starting rotation
The running joke was that Baltimore didn’t have an ace last year, which was funny until game five of the ALDS when they saw Sabathia come trotting out of the Yankees bullpen after warm-ups and realized they were toast. It’s apparently still going to be “ace-by-committee” for Baltimore this year, so they’ll need each of their five starters to at least repeat if not improve their 2012 performance to return to the postseason.
5) Boston Red Sox
Three most important players: Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez
(Whoops, wrong roster. Let’s try this again…)
Three most important players: Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury
For the Red Sox, it’s quite simple â minus the plethora of star-power that’s filled this roster in years past, Boston really needs their remaining stars to actually be stars. That means Lester and Buchholz have to be what Theo Epstein envisioned them being when he drafted them: aces. If Daniel Bard can finish the transition to the rotation, that gives the Sox a legitimate top-four rotation with Ryan Dempster, assuming all things go well. That would at least keep Boston in most games. Then it’ll be up to a crew of cast-offs and second-tier players like Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Mike Carp to provide some lineup support for Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and of course David Ortiz. It all starts with Ellsbury, though, who needs to be the catalyst at the top of the order and put pressure on opposing defenses. Another year of development from Will Middlebrooks and Ryan Lavarnway wouldn’t hurt either.
Biggest question mark: Consistency
Terry Francona was fired because despite a boatload of talent, the Sox couldn’t pull away in 2012 and blew the AL East to the Yankees and the Wild Card to the Rays. Bobby Valentine was fired because despite a boatload of talent, the Sox couldn’t figure out how to win three or four games in a row – trust me when I say that all of Bobby V’s antics would have been tolerated if the team’s 2013 record was 93-69 (wild card tie with Texas and Baltimore) instead of 69-93 (12th worst in the AL, better than only Cleveland and Minnesota). So perhaps the revolving door of the last six months will help, perhaps it won’t. But it’s certainly the biggest question.
National League East
1) Washington Nationals
Three most important players: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman
Yes, I went with all starting pitchers, because they are that important to this team. The lineup is good – they strike out a bit too much for my liking but no team is perfect – but it’s too hard to actually pick one player that’s “most important” from that group. Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Spahn… they all need to play well because they’re so interdependent upon each other for success. Without the trio listed above, though, this team could finish fourth even with that lineup. It’s imperative that these three be the dominant forces they’re capable of being in order for Washington to be successful in both the regular season and the postseason. If they are, this is almost assuredly a 100-win team, especially with the duo of Rafael Soriano and Drew Storen in the back of the bullpen.
Biggest question mark: Handling expectations
Look at all the names listed above, remove Werth and Soriano from that list, and you’ll see a grand total of no one that’s actually had to defend past success. Most of these guys are young, lifelong Nationals players that never made the playoffs until last year, and even LaRoche was exiled from Atlanta to Pittsburgh once the Braves started to decline, so walking into a season expecting to be the best team is a completely new scenario for just about everyone here. And yes, this is the best question mark I could find on the team I think is better than everyone else.
2) Atlanta Braves
Three most important players: Jason Heyward, Tim Hudson, Brian McCann
Braves fans are about to find out exactly how Red Sox fans felt from about 1999-2004, namely what it’s like to simultaneously be the second-best team in the entire league and in within the division itself. Let’s just assume that Justin and B.J. Upton are going to enjoy playing on the same team and each have pretty good years. That means it’ll be up to Heyward to be the support between the two in the batting order and McCann to be the power behind them – which is already off to a shaky start with the Braves catcher beginning the year on the DL. And we would be remiss in mentioning the DL without including Hudson, who has outlasted Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, and Jo-Jo Reyes â all guys brought up through the Braves system after Hudson signed with Atlanta â and is left as the only real “name” in the rotation. Kris Medlan’s undefeated streak aside, it’s Hudson’s rotation to lead, which means he has to make at least 30 starts for the Braves to feel comfortable about their postseason chances.
Biggest question mark: Starting pitching
I alluded to it above, but this rotation is beginning to look more and more like “Hudson, Medlan, pray for rain.” Not good when the Braves are battling the Nationals and Phillies starting pitching staffs. The bullpen is still loaded with the trio of Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters, and Craig Kimbrel, so protecting leads probably shouldn’t be an issue, but getting those guys the ball with a lead? That may be a different story.
3) Philadelphia Phillies
Three most important players: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard
When an organization has had as much sustained success as the Phillies, it’s hard to remember a time when the team wasn’t good. As a Mets fan living in Philadelphia, I don’t have that problem – it was 2006, back when Rollins, Utley, and Howard were just entering their prime. Now that trio is exiting their respective primes, and the Phillies have done a poor job replacing that talent with the next generation of players ready to take over. Thus, it’ll be up to those three to once again lead this formerly dynamic Philly offense and start scaring opposing pitchers again. Ben Revere, Michael Young, and Carlos Ruiz are nice complimentary pieces that will definitely help carry the load, but there’s simply not enough depth to cover for even one of the big three that fails to produce at a career-average level.
Biggest question mark: Starting rotation not named Cole Hamels
I argued that re-signing Hamels was a mistake that would cripple the Phillies for a while, but that was before Roy Halladay’s right arm turned into lo mein, Cliff Lee won a whopping six games (or roughly $3.5 million per win), and Vance Worley was dealt away for Revere. Now the Phillies are banking on a rebound year from both Lee (likely) and Halladay (unlikely) and the continued presence of Kyle Kendrick as a legitimate mid-rotation pitcher (maybe?). For a team with an aging offense, this was supposed to be the strong, stable part of the team – which is why it’s entirely possible this team finishes fourth and not third.
4) New York Mets
Three most important players: David Wright, Lucas Duda, Matt Harvey
I’ll go in reverse order here, and it’s almost unfair to include the 24-year-old rookie on this list – it says a lot more about the Mets organization than it does about Harvey. Still, with Johan Santana sidelined until at least May (more below) and Dickey gone to Toronto, this could very quickly turn into a Harvey-led rotation. He showed flashes of brilliance in his handful of starts last year, but he’ll need to take the next couple steps quickly if the Mets want to contend this year. Likewise with Duda, who is capable of hitting .320 with 35 homers or .190 with 6 homers. It’s likely he’s somewhere in between, but he’s the biggest unknown quantity in the Mets lineup. That leaves us with “Captain America,” who showed during the World Baseball Classic exactly why he deserved every dime the Mets gave him in the offseason. When healthy and in the right frame of mind, Wright is still one of the ten best players in the game, but the past couple years he’s tried to carry the whole club on his back, an impossible task for any baseball player. If he settles down, plays to his strengths, and lets his teammates do some lifting too, this could easily be a .500 or better baseball team.
Biggest question mark: Everywhere that isn’t third base
Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy are both recovering from injuries and Ike Davis spent all of last year with hay fever – and those three infielders are the most known quantities on this club. The bullpen is still filled with retreads and leftovers, and Grantland’s Jonah Keri aptly pointed out, the two highest-paid outfielders on the Mets payroll this season are Jason Bay and Bobby Bonillia. And did I mention Santana’s injured – again? He has supposedly been making good progress and is right on track for a mid-May return, but I think it’s safe to say that the no-hitter Johan threw on June 1, 2012 will go down as the best highlight in his six years with the Mets.
5) Miami Marlins
Three most important players: Giancarlo Stanton, â¦ ummâ¦ ummâ¦ yeah, Giancarlo Stanton
Ok, so Ricky Nolasco and Steve Chisek are important, too. So are veteran role players like Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre, Jon Rauch, and Greg Dobbs. Plus, the development of pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Nate Eovaldi, and Jacob Turner will be crucial to establishing any semblance of a solid starting rotation, while Rob Brantley and Angel Hechvarria will both be expected to contribute this season as 23-year-olds. And yet the main guy through all of this is Stanton, the bona fide stud who, while still only 23 and making a mere $480,000 this season, will be expected to carry this entire franchise on a nightly basis. If I’m Stanton, the Marlins could but a $40 million/year contract in front of me and I wouldn’t sign it, just to escape the cesspool that has become this franchise. It’s a sad, pathetic way to treat a fanbase – or what’s left of it.
Biggest question mark: Stanton
Insomuch as to say this – how long before he walks into Jeffrey Loria’s office, sits down, and either just starts crying uncontrollably or outlining all of the ways he’s planned to dismember and torture the Marlins owner. I’m going with the latter, and the over/under on this is May 1.
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