LA turns up heat on MLB

Opening Day for baseball is this Sunday. In just a little more than 48 hours from when this article will be published, the Texas Rangers will be taking on their new divisional foe, the Houston Astros, on ESPN. I’ll give you a second to take that in and compose yourself. It’s okay, between the NCAA tournament and the playoff races in the NBA and NHL, it can be easy to let baseball sneak up. No worries, though. If you stick with this article, you can at least be equipped with a working knowledge heading into the season. Here, for your convenience, is a brief division-by-division breakdown:

 

AL EAST

The most vaunted and contested division in baseball isn’t likely to disappoint this season. The names at the top, however, may change. The Red Sox and Yankees have been atop the division for almost a decade now, but this year may prove differently. The Red Sox are coming off of a last place finish in 2012, and have made too few of moves in the offseason to inspire confidence in a turn around. The Yankees’ roster is old, though that is not particularly unusual. What is unusual is the uncanny string of injuries that have ravaged the Yankees’ roster, to the point where they are considering putting Vernon Wells in the Opening Day lineup. The division is more likely to run through Toronto and Tampa Bay this year. Tampa Bay’s lineup is extremely weak after their top five, but they still boast one of the best starting staffs in the game, led by 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. Toronto was the team most talked about during the offseason, and with good reason. They managed to add a Cy Young award winner to their staff in R.A. Dickey, an ace-caliber starter in Josh Johnson and a former batting-champion at shortstop in Jose Reyes, along with several other Marlins’ castoffs who could prove useful with a change of scenery. The Blue Jays have surrounded power bats, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, with plenty of talent. The Orioles are also coming off a surprise season in which they made the playoffs, albeit sporting a weak run differential that made the whole run unsustainable, and can’t be ignored as potential contenders either.

 

AL CENTRAL

Last year the Tigers were able to make it into the World Series despite winning only 88 games, a total that would have left them sitting at home in October if they were in any other American League division. This year it appears likely there will be much more of the same, as there is not a clear threat to the Tigers within the division. The White Sox have done little over the off-season to indicate the ability to push beyond the Tigers. Ditto for the Royals, who can only hope the addition of James Shields and another year of experience for their young lineup can propel them. The Twins and Indians pitching situations are so desolate they will be employing Kevin Correia and Scott Kazmir, respectively. With a staff led by former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and a lineup that sees Victor Martinez returning to slide behind 2013 MVP Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the Tigers will cruise to first place. Nothing to see here.

 

AL WEST

The 2012 AL West teams all have a reason to celebrate heading into the season: they get to beat on the Astros. The Angels, Rangers and Athletics will have a new, seriously inferior team to pound on, while the Mariners get a buffer from the division’s cellar. The division is likely to run through the Angels, who have, for the second straight offseason, signed the best player on the market this winter in Josh Hamilton. They now have a core that consists of baseball savior Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Hamilton and Mark Trumbo, with ace Jered Weaver leading the pitching staff. This is the year that the Angels overtake the Rangers, who will be experiencing a bit of a transition year as they adjust to life without Hamilton and integrate their new talents. The Athletics have added a productive shortstop and outfielder in Jed Lowrie and Chris Young, respectively, to a team that shocked most of baseball by taking the division last year; they’re a team that could repeat as champions or just as easily finish at the bottom with the Astros.

 

NL EAST

There are really only two teams worth talking about in the NL East: the Braves and the Nationals. The Mets are a complete mess, sporting what could possibly end up being one of the least productive outfields in baseball history. The Marlins just depleted their roster through what feels like the 100th fire sale in the team’s short history. The Phillies lack the talent outside the big three starters in their rotation to move beyond the middle of the pack. The race will run exclusively through Washington and Atlanta. The Braves have added the Upton brothers to join with rising star Jason Heyward. They have pitching concerns, but should be able to mash their way through the division race. The Nationals have the two brightest stars in the game this side of Mike Trout in right fielder Bryce Harper and pitcher Steven Strasburg. Around these two they have built a roster that is easily among the deepest in Major League Baseball. They will be a fun team to watch, especially when matched up with the Braves.

 

NL Central

The AL West’s gain is the NL Central’s loss, as the five remaining teams no longer have the easy wins to be grabbed from matchups with the Astros. The Reds won the division last year, and are the favorites to do the same in 2013. They have a solid pitching staff, led by Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, and will be getting perpetual MVP candidate Joey Votto back full time after missing him for 51 games last year. The Cardinals should challenge the Reds, with a solid lineup led by Carlos Beltran and Matt Holiday, along with a pitching staff that will benefit from ace Adam Wainwright’s return, who is another year removed from Tommy John Surgery. The Pirates are still expected to struggle, though there is slightly more hope than usual, as Andrew McCutchen continues to push himself into consideration as one of the best hitters in the game. The Cubs will continue on their slow and steady rebuilding project and shouldn’t be expected to compete just yet. The Brewers have plenty of talent in Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, but have too many question marks throughout the rest of their roster to be considered serious contenders.

 

NL WEST

The NL West holds the defending World Series champion Giants and, with Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Matt Cain all returning as strong as ever, there is little indication that the division won’t run through them in 2013. The Dodgers, under new, Magic Johnson-led ownership, have spent their way into relevancy. Now the question is whether or not their large, risky contracts will pay off. They have plenty of talent with Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp in the lineup and a rotation led by a supreme one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke, but it remains to be seen whether or not the group can come together to challenge the Giants. The Diamondbacks decided to spend the offseason building toward a more ‘gritty’ team, an utterly ridiculous sentiment they will soon learn invariably also means less talented, when they watch from home as the ‘not-gritty-enough’ Justin Upton leads the Braves through the playoffs. The Padres have a solid, young roster that could possibly surprise a lot of people and push for playoff contention, but will have a lot of hurdles to overcome to do so. The Rockies are the same Rockies we’ve always known: enough hitting to win a slugfest, but not enough pitching to compete for a spot at the top of the division.