Well, that really sucked. It was seriously not fun spending the entire winter absorbing gut-punch after gut-punch from Mother Nature while trying to purge the haunting image from my brain of Torii Hunter’s disembodied legs still hovering over the Red Sox’ bullpen wall while that fucking cop stands jubilant, arms raised in sickening triumph. Dazed and staggering, I’m finally emerging from the haze, trying to make sense of a perplexing and frustrating off-season. I can’t decide was is more confounding: that damn Polar Vortex, the Tigers’ decision making, why ground hasn’t broken on the Wrigley Renovation, or the rash of devastating pitching injuries that have plagued Spring Training. Bur it’s finally time to give winter the finger, sort it all out, and make my 2014 predictions (thank god).
AL East Champions: Tampa Bay Rays
For a franchise that had found pride in how the universe seemed against them for the better part of the past century, the Boston Red Sox have certainly had just about everything go their way the last decade. How they won the ALCS batting just .202 against the Tigers will have me scratching my bald head forever, but their luck runs out this year. Why? To paraphrase Good Will Hunting, “Cus fuck them, that’s why” (I don’t sound bitter, do I?). As for their Evil Empire counterparts, the Yankees spent half a billion dollars this off-season on free agents and Japanese import, Masahiro Tanaka, but that wont even buy them a Wild Card berth — they’re just too old. Baltimore will make another valiant, but futile effort this year and the Blue Jays will continue to toil fruitlessly in the Great White North as they did last year despite all their flashy moves. That leaves my perennial pick to win the division, the Tampa Bay Rays. Call me biased if you want. I do happen to work for the company that owns their Double-A affiliate, the Montgomery Biscuits, and happen to have named and designed the logo for the exhibition game they played yesterday, Rays At Riverwalk. I’ll let Lou Piniella tell you all about it:
All personal biasses aside, the Rays simply have better pitching than the rest of the division. Re-signing former Cy Young winner, David Price, was key. He anchors a staff of young flamethrowers (and former Biscuits) including Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer that are second to none. As I said repeatedly (and I’m sure annoyingly) at our fantasy draft last weekend, “remember the name Chris Archer.” Maybe it’s because Archer is my favorite animated show on TV right now or maybe it’s his 98 mph fastball, but I think he’s poised for a breakout year. Also poised for a huge year is outfielder Will Myers. Behind that starting starting staff, bolstered by a solid bullpen and stars like Even Longoria, the Rays should have more than enough to take the division title.
AL Central Champions: Kansas City Royals
It absolutely kills me to do this, but I’m NOT picking the Tigers to win the AL Central for the first time is what seems like forever despite the consensus of national pundits handing them the division. GM Dave Dombroski’s moves have been confusing and even seemingly desperate at times. I supported the blockbuster trade of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler to add defense, some grit, and to unshackle them from Prince’s 9-year deal that would act as an anchor in coming years. But then why sign Miguel Cabrera to the same type of massive deal that set the baseball world ablaze when they didn’t have to? Why trade Doug Fister so early in the off-season for so little when waiting for their leverage to increase this spring could’ve made the return much better (like a solid shortstop)? And why publicly embarrass their ace #1A and reigning Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer like a jilted girlfriend when contract talks broke down? But beyond all that needless melodrama, when I take an objective look at Monday’s Opening Day roster versus that of a year ago, it’s impossible to say this team is better. Their lack of depth was exposed when Jose Iglesias‘s shin splints hamstrung the plans to rebuild the team around defense. Can a 37-year old journeyman shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, hold everything together? Can a completely overhauled bullpen anchored by a 39-year old closer, Joe Nathan, be effective? So many questions. Then pile that all up on the shoulders of rookie manager, Brad Ausmus to deal with and I fear the Tigers have made one big shit sandwich that fans are going to have to take a bite out of this year.
But poised to step into the void at the top of the division are the Kansas City Royals. They’ve been on the rise for years now, developing their own players and adding talent via trades and free agency and have become a thorn in the Tigers’ side for a few years now. Their roster is replete with breakout candidates like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Yordano Ventura. With James Shields as their ace, a top-tier defense, and a lights-out bullpen, the Royals will take the throne atop the AL Central.
Cleveland is bound to regress after an overachieving season under Terry Francona’s tutelage after losing 40% of their rotation. The White Sox made some interesting moves trading for Adam Eaton and spending a buttload of money to sign Cuban defector, Jose Abreu, but their pitching is shaky at best behind Chris Sale. The Twins signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes to give them something that almost resembles a major league staff. But that’s like getting home and realizing you just bought a Samsoi phone and a Magnetbox TV when you thought you were spending a lot of money on something legit.
AL West Champions: Los Angeles Angels
After a brutal spring of injuries, the AL West has looks like a Civil War battlefield strewn with mangled arms and legs as the A’s have lost half their rotation while the Rangers have lost half their damn roster. So by default, and little effort of their own, the Angels have stepped into the favorite’s role despite the Mariners adding Robinson Cano with another ridiculous contract. I do think Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton will have better years (can’t be much worse, can they?) and Mike Trout will establish himself as the best player in the game. Plus, with the 1-2 punch of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson on the mound, LA will have enough to get the job done in the worst division in baseball which has the Triple-A Houston Astros.
AL Wild Cards: Boston Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers
Despite all my badmouthing, the Sox and Tigers still have the talent to reach the one-game playoff, but not much else.
NL East Champions: Washington Nationals
It’s hard to pinpoint what happened to the Nationals last year, but it almost looked like they felt they could just show up and repeat their 2012 success. They won’t make that same mistake this year. The rotation is elite with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann (all still under 28 year old), and Bryce Harper will be a potential MVP candidate. I think I would’ve picked the Atlanta Braves to win the division if they hadn’t lost not one, but two of their top pitchers, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to devastating elbow injuries. Miami has a surprisingly impressive arsenal in their rotation led by 2013 NL ROY, José Fernández so I won’t be shocked if the Marlins finish ahead of the Mets (who still don’t have a clue) and the Phillies (who still think it’s 2008).
NL Central Champions: St. Louis Cardinals
The only thing that pains me more than not picking the Tigers to win their division is admitting the Cardinals are the best organization in baseball. Their major league talent is only rivaled by their minor league depth. Much to my dismay, GM John Mozeliak has built a formidable baseball machine that will continue to produce winners for years to come. They will be able to fend off runs by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to take the division again. The Pirates were a cool story last year led by NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and making the playoffs for the first time in a couple decades, but they won’t have enough to topple St. Louis. The Reds have a better chance to succeed now that chronic underachiever, Dusty Baker and his trusty wristbands have unceremoniously exited stage left, but only enough to finish third. The only interesting story surrounding the Cubs this winter was the Wrigley Renovation project (or lack thereof), but that’s not even all that interesting. Wrigley’s 100th season will come and go much like most of the previous 99 without much fanfare. The question is will the Cubs avoid losing 100 games? Or will promising offensive prospects like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Mike Olt come up to make an impact of some degree? Probably not this year, but as all Cubs fans have grown far too accustomed to, there’s always next year…
NL West Champions: Los Angeles Dodgers
My childhood hero, Magic Johnson and a bunch of investment bankers bought the Dodgers and are trying to buy a World Series. Not sure that’s going to happen, but at least they’ll get the NL West title for the second year in a row for their money. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I’m not gong let the news that Clayton Kershaw just want on the DL as I’m typing this dissuade me from picking them again. $2 billion and change can buy a lot of depth and that’s what Magic & Co. have done on both sides of the ball. Behind Kershaw are Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, and Paul Maholm making this what might be the deepest rotation in the game. Their lineup featuring Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and the polarizing and spectacular Yasiel Puig will be among the most dynamic in the league.
The Giants might be the only competition in the division that may have a similarly — but not equally — deep rotation, but where is the offense going to come from? The 2013 Giants were a far cry from what they were in 2012 despite the roster being virtually identical. Perhaps the lack of Melky’s Malted Melk Balls being passed around the locker room could explain how Marco Scutaro went form relative obscurity as s .270 slap hitter then, after being traded to SF at age 36 for the second half of 2012, he becomes the most-feared .360 hitter in the game only to slide back to anonymity again in 2013. Something still smells fishy around the Embarcadero besides the sea lions at Pier 39.
NL Wild Cards: Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves
The Braves always find a way to scrape & claw their way to the playoffs — this year won’t be any different.
World Series: Tampa Bay Rays over Washington Nationals in 6
I thought I’d have the Dodgers in the World Series, but then I realized the playoffs are such a tiny sample size that every play is so magnified that now I’m positive Yasiel Puig will do something spectacularly insane to cost them the NLCS like miss the cutoff man by throwing the ball completely out of the stadium or get thrown out at home on a single. So I’m putting the Nats in the Fall Classic to take on the mad genius, Joe Maddon and the Rays where Will Myers will carry Tampa to their first title in 6 games.
AL MVP: Mike Trout, LAA
AL Cy Young: David Price, TB
NL MVP: Bryce Harper, WAS
NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, WAS