Archive for March, 2013

St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants - Game Six

The National League West was a free for all a year ago, as it was a division without a dominant team. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who pulled off a last-to-first coup to win the West in 2011, couldn’t recapture that same spark. The Los Angeles Dodgers made the most aggressive trade deadline push in history, acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford from the Red Sox in an attempt to make a late charge for the division. The San Diego Padres turned in another strong second half behind the MVP-level upturn by Chase Headley, while the Colorado Rockies looked for creative ways to manage a bad pitching staff and a wounded lineup. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants caught a spark inspired by the perfection of Matt Cain and the outstanding, batting championship/MVP-winning Stan Musial Most Valuable Player” href=”https://cheapseatsplease.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/the-cheap-seats-2012-nl-stan-musial-most-valuable-player/”>return of Buster Posey. A spark that ended with a Giants sweep of the World Series, and winning their second championship in three seasons.

2012 Finish

1.                   Giants (94-68)
2.                   Dodgers (86-76)
3.                   Diamondbacks (81-81)
4.                   Padres (76-86)
5.                   Rockies (64-98)

Fast forward a year later, and much has changed in the West mostly. Gone is Justin Upton from the D’Backs and back to the Rockies is Troy Tulowitzki. The Padres have continued their Motley Crew mix of young potential and select veterans, looking to maximize their potential. The Dodgers have continued their no ceilings approach to spending, fronting the big bill to add a second top tier arm in Zack Greinke to their rotation. And meanwhile, amid all of this change, set the defending champion Giants: returning intact and healthy. Is this the season that they make everyone believers? That the most slept on success in baseball gets it’s due by holding back the big bank monsters to their south, as well as the rest of the pack in one of the most balanced divisions in baseball? It’s never easy to stay on top, whether they see you coming or not.

All Division Team

Catcher: Buster Posey-Giants

First Base: Adrian Gonzalez-Dodgers

Second Base: Aaron Hill-Diamondbacks

Third Base: Chase Headley-Padres

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki-Rockies

Left Field: Carlos Gonzalez-Rockies

Center Field: Matt Kemp-Dodgers

Right Field: Andre Ethier-Dodgers

Clayton_Kershaw

No other NL pitcher has approached Kershaw the previous two years: a 35-14 record, 477 strikeouts and a MLB-best 2.40 ERA.

Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw-Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Matt Cain-Giants

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke-Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Ian Kennedy-Diamondbacks

Righty Relief: Luke Gregersen-Padres

Lefty Relief: Jeremy Affeldt-Giants

Closer: JJ Putz-Diamondbacks

Top 10

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
  2. Matt Kemp, Dodgers
  3. Buster Posey, Giants
  4. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
  5. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
  6. Matt Cain, Giants
  7. Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers
  8. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
  9. Chase Headley, Padres
  10. Pablo Sandoval, Giants

Lineup

  1. Dodgers
  2. Rockies
  3. Giants
  4. Diamondbacks
  5. Padres

LA has put together (potentially) a powerhouse of an everyday lineup. But injuries are already taking a toll on its early offering, with Carl Crawford still touch and go in his attempt to make his Dodger debut, and Hanley Ramirez out for two months with a broken wrist. Colorado will always kill the ball at home, but health (especially Tulowitzki’s) and road performance limit their full output. Even with these challenges, Colorado as a team finished third in the NL in hits.

The return of Tulowitzki to the join Gonzalez puts potentially two-All Stars back-to-back in the Rockie lineup

The return of Tulowitzki to the join Gonzalez puts potentially two-All Stars back-to-back in the Rockie lineup

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Dodgers (Gonzalez/Kemp/Ramirez)
  2. Giants (Posey/Sandoval/Pence)
  3. Rockies (Gonzalez/Tulowitzki/Cuddyer)
  4. Diamondbacks (Montero/Kubel/Prado)
  5. Padres (Headley/QuentinAlonso)

The potential of Kemp and Gonzalez is staggering; both have had career-high seasons of 39 and 40 homers, respectively, and could be an gauntlet to work through for opposing pitchers. Sandoval really came into his own in the fall last season, and Posey crushed lefties to the tone of an even average a year ago. The last time CarGo and Tulo hit back-to-back for a full season in 2011, they put up a combined 56 home runs, 197 RBI and 173 runs scored.

Table Setters

  1. Giants (Pagan/Scutaro)
  2. Rockies (Fowler/Rutledge)
  3. Dodgers (Crawford/Ellis)
  4. Diamondbacks (Prado/Parra)
  5. Padres (Cabrera/Gyorko)

The strength of the Giants is being able to work timely, extra base hitting. Scutaro put up a .362 average once reaching the Bay a year ago, and Pagan led the NL with 15 triples. Dexter Fowler had a career-high .300 last season for the Rocks, while Crawford has long been one of the most dangerous players on the basepaths in baseball. He has averaged 50 steals per 162 games for his career.

Bench

  1. Diamondbacks
  2. Rockies
  3. Dodgers
  4. Giants
  5. Padres

When completely healthy, Arizona has constructed a very diverse team, which has plenty of capable contributors off the bench, such as Eric Chavez and Willie Bloomquist. The Dodgers have quietly assembled a very capable supporting cast in-between its headline signings, with Skip Schumaker, Aaron Miles and Tony Gwynn, Jr.

Kennedy (36 wins since 2011) anchors a deep Diamondbacks rotation that is needed to hang in the West.

Kennedy (36 wins since 2011) anchors a deep Diamondbacks rotation that is needed to hang in the West.

Rotation

  1. Giants
  2. Dodgers
  3. Diamondbacks
  4. Padres
  5. Rockies

The long-standing strength of the Giants attack is starting pitching. Led by Matt Cain, the Giants had big game effort after big game effort from Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito and Madison Bumgartner in-route to winning out last season. Quietly, Arizona has assembled a deep starting five behind former 20-game winner Ian Kennedy. Brandon McCarthy and NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Wade Miley are part of a very solid group.

1-2 Punch

  1. Dodgers (Kershaw/Greinke)
  2. Giants (Cain/Bumgarner)
  3. Diamondbacks (Kennedy/McCarthy)
  4. Padres (Volquez/Richards)
  5. Rockies (De La Rosa/Chacin)

If you’ve got one Cy Young winner, why not add another if you can? That’s exact what the Dodgers paid $158 million to do when they put 2009 AL winner with 2011’s NL winner, adding Greinke to Kershaw atop their rotation. Bumgartner has increased his win total each season, reaching 16 in year three.

Bullpen

  1. Giants
  2. Dodgers
  3. Padres
  4. Diamondbacks
  5. Rockies

Despite losing closer Brian Wilson, the Giant bullpen continued to be a late game roadblock. Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla combined for 39 saves, while Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and George Kontos all round out a great effort. The Padres have a very underrated bullpen collection; Huston Street saved 23 games on 1.85 ERA, and was one of four pitchers to average better than nine strikeouts per nine innings.

Defense

Although it was Headley's bat that made the loudest impact, he landed his first Gold Glove in rise of 2012.

Although it was Headley’s bat that made the loudest impact, he landed his first Gold Glove in rise of 2012.

Giants

  1. Padres
  2. Diamondbacks
  3. Rockies
  4. Dodgers

There is not one subpar defender on the field for the Giants, who just as much depend on pitching, also depend on strong defense to secure their victories. Posey, Scutaro, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Angel Pagan are all plus defenders. Conversely, for the Dodgers, a lack of range behind their pitching staff could cause for some prolonged woes in maximizing their potential.

Speed

  1. Padres
  2. Rockies
  3. Giants
  4. Dodgers
  5. Diamondbacks

The Padres have a huge ballpark, and have added the type of speed to capitalize on it. Cabrera lead the NL is steals with 46 a year ago, while Cameron Maybin and Will Venable both topped 20 as well. If health is their ally, the Dodgers have a chance to have an impressive speed trio in Kemp, Crawford and Ramirez, all of which have swiped at least 40 bases before in their careers.

Manager

  1. Bruce Bochy, Giants
  2. Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks
  3. Bud Black, Padres
  4. Don Mattingly, Dodgers
  5. Walt Weiss, Rockies

Black is quietly putting together a very strong coaching resume, with two World Series titles in the past four years; a stretch he hasn’t won less than 86 games during. Gibson won the NL Manager of the Year as a rookie in 2011, something that Walt Weiss will be pressed to do with the pitching hungry Rockies as a debuting manager this year.

Finances

  1. Dodgers
  2. Giants
  3. Diamondbacks
  4. Rockies
  5. Padres

The Dodgers seem to have no ceilings in what they can put out to build the roster of their dreams. The combination of a new management team seeking to make its mark, as well as a $6 billion television deal gives them the capabilities to do as they please. The Giants have the ability to impact the market with the dollar, as Cain’s $127 million extension reflects, but being able to keep up with LA from a spending projects as difficult task for them and the rest of baseball.

Impact Additions

  1. Zack Greinke (Dodgers from Angels)
  2. Martin Prado (D’Backs from Braves)
  3. Cody Ross (Diamondbacks from Red Sox)
  4. Brandon McCarthy (Diamondbacks from Athletics)
  5. Hyunjin Ryu (Dodgers from Japan)

The headline deal was of course Greinke, and rightfully so, but the Diamondbacks were the team that made the most adjustments. Prado came over as the key piece in the Justin Upton to Atlanta deal, while Cody Ross was handed $26 million to solidify the outfield. Brandon McCarthy, who sported a 3.29 ERA in his two years in Oakland is potentially the steal of the winter if he can recapture his form after returning from the brain surgery due to the line drive that ended his 2012.

The addition of Greinke gave the Dodgers an arm that's struck out 200 and pitched 200 innings 3 of the last 4 years.

The addition of Greinke gave the Dodgers an arm that’s struck out 200 and pitched 200 innings 3 of the last 4 years, and devastating duo along with Kershaw.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Tim Lincecum, Giants
  2. Sergio Romo, Giants
  3. Jorge De La Rosa, Rockies
  4. Brandon Crawford, Giants
  5. Luis Cruz, Dodgers

To have two players as accomplished as Lincecum and Romo at the top of this list seems odd, but in their own particular ways they have much to accomplish this season. Lincecum is looking to prove that he can continue to be effective, despite a diminished arsenal. Romo, who became a late inning sensation in the postseason, is looking to prove he can hold the role in a more permanent fashion (18 saves in 19 overall 2012 chances).

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Jedd Gyorko (Infielder-Padres, MLB)
  2. Yaisel Puig (Outfilder-Dodgers, AAA)
  3. Tyler Skaggs (Pitcher-Diamondbacks, AAA)
  4. Nolan Arenado (Third base-Rockies, AAA)
  5. Zach Lee (Pitcher-Dodgers, AA)

Gyorko has hit everywhere he’s been, from the minors (.311 at Double/Triple A in 2012, 3 Spring MLB homers), and has hit his way into the everyday mix in San Diego as well. He will start the season at third base until Headley returns from injury, but will likely move to second base once he’s back. Yaisel Puig and Nolan Arenado have proven to have big bats that are forcing some tough decisions about keeping them in the minors for much longer by their respective clubs.

2013 PREDICTIONS

  1. Giants
  2. Dodgers
  3. Diamondbacks
  4. Rockies
  5. Padres

The West will be a very competitive division. Despite their undeniable success in recent years, the Giants are not the type of team that is an outright dominant club. Mostly because it isn’t an offense that scores in bulk; rather they are a timely one that wins close games. The Diamondbacks have the potential to factor into the wild card picture, if not the division, but a few things will have to go in their favor, starting with some consistency in health. They have strong pitching, and a balanced lineup. Balance is not in favor of the Rockies, who still have a mismatched pitching staff, but could fare better than a year ago with the return of Tulowitzki. The Padres have a steadily improving everyday lineup, but are still young in many areas and don’t have the firepower to keep up with the rest of the clubs in the division.

In the end, the question comes down to either the Dodgers or the Giants. While LA has constructed a formidable club in a short amount of time, there are still shortcomings in the club. Every area of the team is facing injury issues, Matt Kemp has to prove his hamstring woes are behind him, and injuries to Greinke, Ramirez, Crawford and Chad Billingsley have already plagued the team this spring. The Giants great strength is chemistry, and this is a battle tested group that knows how to rely on each other. Until the Dodgers can get fully healthy all at once and learn to play together, that’s a distinct advantage that the Giants have, and combined with the major difference making presence of Posey and a supremely deep pitching staff, the champs keep the edge and should win the West for a third time in four years.

There’s one more preview to go and to get the details on this, that and everything in between as baseball is primed to reset itself in real time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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Strasburg

The National League East was the most diverse division in all of baseball a year ago. It was home of the a Cy Young winner on a fourth place team, a former middle reliever that inspired a 23-game winning streak as a starter, the greatest teenage season in baseball history, the farewell of Chipper Jones, two different coming of age stores (that went in two different directions), as well as the most expensive collapse in all of baseball. Yes, the NL East was the scene of five very different stories that left the division looking unlike anything that could have been expected.

The newly minted Miami Marlins entered the year with all the expectations that a complete franchise facelift brings. However, by half way point of the first half, they’d begun to fold already, trading their long-time franchise player and languishing at the bottom of the division. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the long-time division champs watched their age and injury come together in the worst possible way. Behind David Wright and RA Dickey, the Mets showed some promise, and the Braves continued to be the absolute best second place team imaginable. A place they inhabited because the Washington Nationals rose to power, and never gave it up.

2012 FINISH (*Wild Card winner)

  1. Washington Nationals (98-64)
  2. Atlanta Braves (94-68)*
  3. Philadelphia Phillies (81-81)
  4. New York Mets (74-88)
  5. Miami Marlins (69-93)

Fast forward to now, and things seem a bit more set than they did last summer. Behind a powerhouse lineup and pitching staff, the Nationals have gone from building to win-now status. But the Braves have had as aggressive of an offseason as they’ve had in years to make sure the DC rise isn’t unchallenged. The Phillies, on the other hand, have been in that same “win now” mode for three years, face perhaps the last season where they have a chance to do it. And new eras are coming into play with the Mets and Marlins, and pulling themselves up in a top heavy division will be a challenge of multiple types. But in a division with two teams easily able to represent the NL in October, is the upset even possible?

All Division Team

Catcher: Brian McCann, Braves

First Base: Adam LaRoche, Nationals

Second Base: Chase Utley, Phillies

Third Base: David Wright, Mets

Shortstop: Ian Desmond, Nationals

Left Field: Bryce Harper, Nationals

Center Field: BJ Upton, Braves

Right Field: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

Stanton's prodigous power -to-age ratio is the reason he's the last man standing in Miami.

Stanton’s prodigous power -to-age ratio (40 home run per year average at 23 years old) is the reason he’s the last man standing in Miami.

Starting Pitcher: Stephen Strasberg, Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez, Nationals

Starting Pitcher: Cole Hamels, Phillies

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies

Righty Relief: Tyler Clippard, Nationals

Lefty Relief: Jonny Venters, Braves

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

Top 10

  1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
  2. David Wright, Mets
  3. Stephen Strasberg, Nationals
  4. Cole Hamels, Phillies
  5. Cliff Lee, Phillies
  6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
  7. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
  8. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
  9. Bryce Harper, Nationals
  10. Justin Upton, Braves

Lineup

  1. Nationals
  2. Braves
  3. Phillies
  4. Mets
  5. Marlins

Top to bottom, there’s very few NL lineups that can swing with the Nationals. As you’ll see below, there’s no area they are weak in, but the strength is truly in the numbers. They finished in the top five in runs, total bases, team batting average and home runs in the NL. The Phillies haven’t been able to perform at maximum capacity for the past two years, but Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will both enter the season healthy for the first time in that span as well. Atlanta could very well carry six players that top 20 home runs, but could also lead the NL in strikeouts by a wide margin as well.

Wright carried a heavy load in the Mets lineup well a year ago, topping 40 doubles and driving in 93 runs.

Wright carried a heavy load in the Mets lineup well a year ago, topping 40 doubles and driving in 93 runs.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Nationals (Harper/Zimmerman/LaRoche)
  2. Braves (Upton/Freeman/Upton)
  3. Phillies (Utley/Howard/Young)
  4. Mets (Wright/Davis/Duda)
  5. Marlins (Stanton/Brantly/Ruggiano)

The emergence of the Adam LaRoche (33 HRs/100 RBI) pushed the Nationals lineup to a new level last year. With Zimmerman and Harper, the Nats have a chance to get 75 homers from the middle of their lineup alone. The Braves revamped the team with the addition of the Uptons, and Freddie Freeman’s continue growth will make the heart of the ATL attack formidable for years to come.

Table Setters

  1. Nationals (Span/Werth)
  2. Braves (Simmons/Heyward)
  3. Phillies (Rollins/Revere)
  4. Marlins (Pierre/Polanco)
  5. Mets (Tejada/Murphy)

Denard Span is the table setter Washington has been after for the last few years, and when coupled with the do it all Harper, the Nats will jump on pitchers early and often. Ben Revere is the type of regular on-base threat the Phillies need. His .294 average was a 27 point increase from 2011. Juan Pierre is still a steady hitter at age 35 and his consistent effort will be helpful in the sparse Marlin lineup.

Bench

  1. Nationals
  2. Braves
  3. Phillies
  4. Marlins
  5. Mets

The Nationals have the best bench in baseball. Wilson Ramos, Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi start in a lot of other places. The mix of Delmon Young, Lee Mayberry and Freddy Galvis is a promising support group for Charlie Manuel in Philly, as long as they aren’t stretched too thin by being forced into the starting lineup too often due to injury.

Rotation

  1. Nationals
  2. Phillies
  3. Braves
  4. Mets
  5. Marlins

The best rotation in the NL got better when Dan Haren joined Strasburg, Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler in DC. This group won a combined (…) games in 2012. Not to be outdone, the Phillies boast two legitimate aces in Lee and Hamels, but the health of Roy Halladay continues to be questionable. The Mets staff is still without Johan Santana, but has several quality young arms in Dillion Gee, Matt Harvey and Jonathan Niese.

1-2 Punch

  1. Nationals (Strasberg/Gonzalez)
  2. Phillies (Hamels/Lee)
  3. Braves (Hudson/Medlen)
  4. Mets (Santana/Niese)
  5. Marlins (Nolasco/LeBlanc)

Strasberg and Gonzalez could become the first teammates to both win 20 games in a season since 2002. In Atlanta, Kris Medlen was unbelievable down the stretch last season, with the Braves winning 23 of his starts, consecutively. Paired with the always reliable Tim Hudson, they have the firepower to match up with the more hallowed top of the line in-division arms.

With O'Flaherty, Kimbrel and Venters waiting in the wings, if the Braves aren't beat by the seventh, it's probably not happening.

With O’Flaherty, Kimbrel and Venters waiting in the wings, if the Braves aren’t beat by the seventh, it’s probably not happening.

Bullpen

  1. Braves
  2. Nationals
  3. Phillies
  4. Marlins
  5. Mets

There’s no better bullpen in baseball than Atlanta’s. The late inning gauntlet includes the often untouchable trio of Johnny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel, and added former All-Star Jordan Walden as well. The Nationals added Rafael Soriano to Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard to form a formidable late game trio of their own. Mike Adams, who has posted an ERA under 2.00 four of the last five years, was added bridge the gap to Jonathan Papelbon.

Defense

  1. Braves
  2. Nationals
  3. Mets
  4. Marlins
  5. Phillies

The addition of both Upton brothers to an outfield with Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward makes the Atlanta outfield the best in the game. The Mets infield is strong unit, led by Wright and Ruben Tejada, while Giancarlo Stanton’s bat gets the headlines, but his athleticism and arm both round him out as a one of the best overall players in the game as well.

Speed

  1. Braves
  2. Nationals
  3. Phillies
  4. Marlins
  5. Mets

Once again, it all starts with the outfield in the A. While Michael Bourn is gone, the Braves will get even quicker with the combined efforts of the Uptons (49 steals a year ago), as well as Andrelton Simmons. Revere adds 40 steal speed to the Philly attack, and Span has twice hit 10 triples in a season, as well as topped 20 steals.

Manuel has averaged 90 wins in his eight years in Philly, and his handling could be the x-factor in the Philly year.

Manuel has averaged 90 wins in his eight years in Philly, and his handling could be the x-factor in the Philly year.

Manager

  1. Davey Johnson, Nationals
  2. Charlie Manuel, Phillies
  3. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
  4. Terry Collins, Mets
  5. Mike Redmond, Marlins

It is Johnson’s last go around in DC (he’s retiring after the season), and the 2012 NL Manager of the Year has the tools at his disposal to make it a memorable departure. Collins has kept the Mets surprisingly afloat the last few years despite the constant turmoil surrounding the Mets the last two years. Rookie manager Redmond will be tasked with a tough task pulling along the stripped down Marlins in his debut year.

Finances

  1. Phillies
  2. Braves
  3. Nationals
  4. Marlins
  5. Mets

The Phillies have the funds to make their usual aggressive additions if they find themselves in the chase late in the season. Despite having three four players due $20 million this season, GM Ruben Amaro has the green light to spend if needed. On the flipside, the Marlins and Mets are two of the biggest financial disasters in sports, despite the substantial $138 million commitment made to Wright this winter.

Impact Additions

  1. Justin Upton (Braves via D’Backs)
  2. BJ Upton (Braves via Rays)
  3. Dan Haren (Nationals via Angels)
  4. Rafael Soriano (Nationals via Yankees)
  5. Ben Revere (Phillies via Twins)

After years of being floated in Arizona, the Justin Upton finally was moved to a place where he can freely play with no rumors hanging off his every move. The Braves re-invented themselves by signing him and his older brother BJ. Meanwhile, the Nationals made several “finishing touch” type moves, highlighted picking up a potential steal in Haren, a 4-time All-Star workhorse who’s averaged 14 wins a season.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Bryce Harper, Nationals
  2. Matt Harvey, Mets
  3. Ike Davis, Mets
  4. Julio Teheran, Braves
  5. Ross Detwiler, Nationals

Harper is the easy call, but considering what could be on deck is one of the most exciting things to look forward to in the season. He hit 22 homers and stole 18 bases a year ago, and has a legitimate shot to become the youngest member of the 30 homer/30 steal club this time around. Harvey was at times completely overpowering as a rookie, averaging 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings over 10 starts.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Zach Wheeler (Pitcher-Mets, AAA)
  2. Travis D’Arnaud (Catcher-Mets, AAA)
  3. Anthony Rendon (Third Base-Nationals, AA)
  4. Andrelton Simmons (Shortstop-Braves, MLB)
  5. Adeiny Hechavarria (Shortstop-Marlins, MLB)

The future looks good for the Mets, and it’s most promising of its entire stockpile of young arms. Wheeler has a triple digit fastball, and the stuff to go along with it. Pairing him with D’Arnaud, the former top prospect of the Blue Jays and main return piece for RA Dickey, ensure the Mets will return to relevancy soon enough.

2013 PREDICTIONS

  1. Nationals
  2. Braves
  3. Phillies
  4. Mets
  5. Marlins

Last season was the story of anybody having a chance out in the East, this time around will not be more of the same. The Nationals and Braves are both returning very strong team’s that didn’t lose much over the winter, yet made some substantial additions. On the other hand, the Phillies who have a solid core, made some additions as well, but simply can’t keep up with the younger and more well rounded Nationals and Braves. But they are a veteran laden club with more winning experience than any other team ahead of them and a very good manager, if any team in the NL is capable of spring a surprise heist of a Wild Card spot, it’s them.

The Mets are growing, and have made several moves that have put young talent in their system and Major League staff, but after Wright and Davis, there’s nothing else in their lineup and the East is the wrong division not be able to hit in. The Marlins, after their “everything not named Giancarlo must go” dump are more of a factor in the push for the number spot in the Draft than the division.

So this brings it all back to the same two postseason reps from a year ago. The Braves are getting better in a hurry, and with their entire core under 30, their best days are yet to come. A return to the playoffs should be expected, and not just a one and done this year either. But the Nationals better days are here now. The difference comes down the arms: the Braves have a very good pitching staff; the Nationals have a devastating staff, which has four Cy Young capable starters and three relievers with 30 save capability. Add on the prime of Zimmerman, LaRoche and Werth with the rise of Harper and Ian Desmond all happening at once, and the Nationals aren’t just the best in the East. They’re among the two or three best period.

For more on the upcoming MLB campaign along the East coast in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics

The American League West was the scene of a hijacking last year. Despite the Los Angeles Angels making the coup of all coups in landing Albert Pujols and the Texas Rangers once again returning as the powerhouse of the division, intact mostly from the year before, it was another Billy Beane crafted Oakland A’s team that prevailed in the end. After an August/September surge that saw them rise constantly through the standings, on the season’s final day the A’s took the division from the Rangers in game number 162. All in all, it was an incredibly balanced division; the last place Mariners would have finished third in American League Central. It was home to one of the greatest debut years in baseball history from Mike Trout, and hosted the top three finishers for Rookie of the Year, as well as a historic start for a particular (now former) Texas Rangers slugger.

2012 Finish

  1. A’s (94-68)
  2. Rangers (93-69)
  3. Angels (89-73)
  4. Mariners (75-87)

Moving forward a year later, and the scene has continued to shift. The Angels made the surprise splash of the offseason again, signing Josh Hamilton away from the aforementioned Rangers and pairing him with Pujols and Trout in a real-life Fantasy League lineup. The Athletics continued to add strartegic pieces to their core, to prove that last season was anything but a fluke. The Mariners were silently aggressive all winter, by adding a couple of much needed sluggers, while making Felix Hernandez the highest paid pitcher in baseball, all in an effort to continue to pull up their bootstraps from the bottom. Also, the Houston Astros swapped over leagues to join the American League, evening out the long four-team division. In the midst of all of this, where does this leave the Rangers? They have stayed steady in the league’s elite despite some critical losses over the last few years, but have they finally lost enough to lose their edge? Time to find out.

All Division Team

Catcher: AJ Pierzynski-Rangers

First Base: Albert Pujols-Angels

Second Base: Ian Kinsler-Rangers

Third Base: Adrian Beltre-Rangers

Shortstop: Elvis Andrus-Rangers

Left Field: Mike Trout-Angels

Center Field: Coco Crisp-A’s

Right Field: Josh Hamilton-Angels

Designated Hitter: Mark Trumbo-Angels

Felix Hernandez

Hernandez finished in the top 5 for the AL Cy Young for the third time in four years in 2012, with 3 years to go until he’s even 30.

Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez-Mariners

Starting Pitcher: Jered Weaver-Angels

Starting Pitcher: Yu Darvish-Rangers

Starting Pitcher: Brett Anderson-A’s

Righty Relief: Ryan Cook-A’s

Lefty Relief: Sean Burnett-Angels

Closer: Joe Nathan-Rangers

Top 10

  1. Mike Trout, Angels
  2. Albert Pujols, Angels
  3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
  4. Josh Hamilton, Angels
  5. Jered Weaver, Angels
  6. Adrian Beltre, Rangers
  7. Elvis Andrus, Rangers
  8. Ian Kinsler, Rangers
  9. Nelson Cruz, Rangers
  10. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s

Lineup

  1. Angels
  2. Rangers
  3. A’s
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

The top of the Angels lineup gets the headlines, but a core including Trumbo, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar doesn’t give many breaks either. The strength of the A’s is in numbers: Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Cespedes all topped 20 homers a year ago. The Rangers are hoping Pierzynski can have a similar follow up to his 27-home run breakout effort a year ago with the White Sox.

Adrian-Beltre

Beltre has averaged 34 home runs and 33 doubles a season, with a .310 average against only 68 strikeouts on average as well.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Angels (Pujols/Hamilton/Trumbo)
  2. Rangers (Beltre/Cruz/Berkman)
  3. A’s (Cespedes/Moss/Reddick)
  4. Mariners (Seager/Morse/Morales)
  5. Astros (Pena/Carter/Castro)

Putting Josh Hamilton behind Pujols permanently is terrifying. It puts a total of four MVP seasons, and 73 2012 homers in the middle of the order. Add on Trumbo to the backend, and that power number surges past 100. Beltre has been a juggernaut in his two Texas seasons, smacking 36 homers in route to a top 5 MVP finish a year ago. The Mariners addition of Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales finally puts a pair of formidable bats in their lineup again.

Table Setters

  1. Rangers (Kinsler/Andrus)
  2. Angels (Trout/Aybar)
  3. Astros (Altuve/Wallace)
  4. A’s (Crisp/Lowrie)
  5. Mariners (Ackley/Gutierrez)

Trout is the most versatile offensive player in the game, and his impact out the leadoff spot is just the same as it would be hitting in the middle of the lineup. He hit 27 doubles and 8 triples in addition to leading the AL with 53 steals. Jose Altuve is the lone bright spot in the downtrodden Astros lineup, who topped 160 hits and 30 steals in his second season.

Bench

  1. A’s
  2. Angels
  3. Mariners
  4. Rangers
  5. Astros

Depth is the A’s greatest weapon, and the fact they can rotate in two former All-Stars in Chris Young and Daric Barton is just a small sign of how deep they truly are. Tag in Jemile Weeks, Seth Smith and Derek Norris, and the Oakland roster is one full of starter-caliber players.

J-Parker

Parker was one of three rookie hurlers to post either at least 13 wins or win percentage over .600% in Oakland a year ago.

Rotation

  1. A’s
  2. Rangers
  3. Angels
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

It was pitching that launched Oakland along its improbable run up the standings last season. Behind group effort of Dan Straily, AJ Griffin, Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker and the return of Brett Anderson, they formed one of the best young rotations in baseball. The Angels added Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton in an attempt to balance out their thin staff from a year ago, and replace Zack Greinke.

1-2 Punch

  1. Angels (Weaver/Wilson)
  2. Rangers (Darvish/Holland)
  3. A’s (Anderson/Parker)
  4. Mariners (Hernandez/Iwakuma)
  5. Astros (Norris/Harrell)

King Felix has been holding up what seems like the Mariners entire universe for years now. He posted his fourth consecutive 200 strikeout year in 2012. Jered Weaver posted his first no-hitter and 20 win season last season, while CJ Wilson struggled down the stretch but still is among the best southpaws in baseball. Darvish came in second in the AL Rookie of the Year vote a year ago, and along with Holland stands to be one the young arms with a chance to make the biggest leap forward this season.

Bullpen

  1. A’s
  2. Angels
  3. Rangers
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

The backend of the A’s pitching staff is what completes them as the best collection of arms in either league, overall. Both Cook and Grant Balfour took on closing duties last year, and were just as effective in the setup role with Sean Doolittle as well. If Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria return to their previous form for the Angels and Rangers, respectively, it could change the entire direction of both teams’ seasons.

Defense

  1. Mariners
  2. Angels
  3. Rangers
  4. A’s
  5. Astros

Between Brendan Ryan, Franklin Gutierrez and Dustin Ackley, the M’s can go get it in the field. They had the best team fielding percentage in the AL a year ago, and are a huge reason why they have been able to stay somewhat afloat despite having an anemic offense. In Trout and Peter Bourjos, the Angels easily could have two Gold Glove outfielders for a long time. The Andrus/Kinsler middle infield combo in Texas is the best in the AL, and Beltre is the best defensive infielder in baseball.

St. Louis Cardinals v Houston Astros

Altuve is a diverse threat for the Astros, who led the team in nine different categories a year ago in his second season, and also made his All-Star debut.

Speed

  1. A’s
  2. Angels
  3. Mariners
  4. Rangers
  5. Astros

Between Crisp, Cespedes, Weeks and Young, the A’s can kill it around the bases. From both steals to the extra base, they are very capable of getting the extra base that is needed to survive in their spacious home ballpark. Not too far behind are Angels, who could very well see Trout and Aybar alone top 80 steals this season.

Manager

  1. Mike Scioscia, Angels
  2. Bob Melvin, A’s
  3. Ron Washington, Rangers
  4. Eric Wedge, Mariners
  5. Bo Porter, Astros

Bob Melvin did a masterful job of pulling the most out of the talent of his club a year ago. The AL Manager of the Year won the West, and finished a game away from the ALCS. Mike Scioscia is the longest tenured manager in the MLB, and for good reason.

Finances

  1. Angels
  2. Rangers
  3. Mariners
  4. Astros
  5. A’s

The Rangers have the money to improve their roster at any time, yet they are strategic about how they do so. Despite missing out on both Greinke and Hamilton this offseason, the money they haven’t spent yet may be their most valuable commodity throughout the season. The Mariners made a big statement ($175M to Felix), while the Astros made a big commitment to starting over (dropping team payroll to under $20 million…$5M less than Felix will pull down himself).

Josh Hamilton

The Angels made waves by handing Hamilton $123 million; both boost their lineup, and sink their long-time in-division rivals hopes some.

Impact Additions

  1. Josh Hamilton (Angels from Rangers)
  2. Ryan Madson (Angels from Phillies)
  3. Kendrys Morales (Mariners from Angels)
  4. Michael Morse (Mariners from Nationals)
  5. Lance Berkman (Rangers from Cardinals)

The Angels struck a devastating blow in snatching Hamilton away from their division rivals in Texas. There may be just as much value in paying him $125 million over the next five years to keep him away from Texas as there is to having him in their lineup. The Rangers are hoping for Berkman to have a similar renaissance this season as he did two years in St. Louis to help replace Hamilton and Michael Young’s departed impact.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Brett Anderson, A’s
  2. Jarrod Parker, A’s
  3. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s
  4. AJ Griffin, A’s
  5. Yu Darvish, Rangers

Notice a trend? The A’s honestly had the season that would be more likely this year, last summer, so what could come this year is truly special. Cespedes’ roof is still far away from him, while Parker and Griffin have the stuff to be top notch pitchers for years to come. Anderson is skilled the level of being an instant Cy Young contender if he can stay on the hill and off the DL.

J-Profar

Profar is the future in Texas, but finding room for the 20 year old now is proving to be a difficult task due to the All-Star presences on board.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Jurickson Profar (Shortstop, Rangers-AAA)
  2. Mike Zunino (Catcher, Mariners-AAA)
  3. Taijuan Walker (Pitcher, Mariners-AA)
  4. Danny Hultzen (Pitcher, Mariners-AAA)
  5. Mike Olt-Rangers (Third Baseman, Rangers-AAA)

Profar is a Jeter-like talent that can impact the game in every way possible. His instincts are off the charts to be any age, but at only 20 years old, it’s a truly remarkable thing to see already. He’s good enough to force a trade of Elvis Andrus to make room for him this season. The group of Mariners prospects is impressive, but they are content with developing their young arms, and only Zunino could have a real impact on 2012’s MLB team.

2013 PREDICTIONS

  1. ANGELS
  2. A’S
  3. RANGERS
  4. MARINERS
  5. ASTROS

The West went through plenty of stages last season, and this one could prove to be no different. The Oakland A’s got as hot as they had since their hallowed 20-game win streak 10 years ago. But they did it with a solid core, and most importantly, good pitching. The will still be a potent player in the race this year, as will the Rangers. Texas has lost a lot, but keeps as balanced of a team as possible. In the same way that the St. Louis Cardinals stepped up their production after losing their franchise player, Texas has the same potential to do so with their mixture of veteran and maturing prospects. Both teams will be at the very top of the division, with most likely no more than five games separating them from the top by September.

Outside of the three elite teams, Seattle has made improvements to their club, and will be more equipped to support their very solid pitching staff, but does not have quite enough firepower to last out the entire year. However, a strong push through to make some noise is possible. As for the Astros, a third straight year at the top of the Draft in June 2014 is basically assured.

But all business will carry through Anaheim, a team that learned from its past sins. While they made another big splash signing in Hamilton, the attention to detail to the rest of their roster didn’t escape GM Jerry Dipoto this winter. They were among the worst at finishing games via the bullpen last year, and were plagued by a shallow starting staff as well. The additions of Madson, Sean Burnett, Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas aren’t headline grabbers, but they are substantial upgrades to the foundation of the club. In the end, that’s the difference that sells it; in the West it’s all about the details. It’s what won it for the A’s last year, and now the Angels have taken that strength and added it to a rarely matched top-talent collection. This is their year.

 

 

For more on the run up to Spring Training and the rest of the upcoming year in real time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Justin+Verlander+Miguel+Cabrera+Kansas+City+jOMIn3GJU5Zl

The American League Central went a little differently than expected last year. Yeah, the bad teams were that and the good teams were that, but it took a lot longer road to figure it. The Chicago White Sox were legit for much of the season, behind an MVP-caliber early effort from Paul Konerko, Chris Sale’s emergence and bounce back campaigns from Alex Rios and Adam Dunn. In a division that was supposed to clearly belong to the Detroit Tigers, it seemed like a coup was on deck.

That was until Miguel Cabrera went into overdrive. The Tigers third baseman went on a second-half tear, and finished up the season by pulling his club to not only a division title, but to the World Series, and secured a first in 45 years Triple Crown for himself as well.

2012 Finish

1.                   Tigers (88-74)
2.                   White Sox (85-77)
3.                   Royals (72-90)
4.                   Indians (68-94)
5.                   Twins (66-96)

A year later, and the Tigers are perhaps better equipped than they left off, but it is not the same AL Central either. The Royals made a big, gamblers splash in the offseason, and are rounding into shape as legit competitors. Meanwhile the Cleveland Indians were a surprise aggressor on the open market, and have handed new manager Terry Francona a lot of weapons to utilize. For the first time in years, former MVP Justin Morneau is back to join Joe Mauer at the core of the Twins attack, and the White Sox are still in the fray as well. The Tigers had to fight their way to top last season, and if a similar bumpy road comes in front of them this time around, will a third consecutive division title be there for the taking this year?

All Division Team

Catcher: Joe Mauer-Twins

First Base: Prince Fielder-Tigers

Second Base: Jason Kipnis-Indians

Third Base: Miguel Cabrera-Tigers

Shortstop: Alcides Escobar-Royals

Left Field: Alex Gordon-Royals

Center Field: Austin Jackson-Tigers

Right Field: Josh Willingham-Twins

Designated Hitter: Billy Butler-Royals

In regaining his health, Mauer regained his bat as well. His .416 on-base percentage led the AL.

In regaining his health, Mauer regained his bat as well. His .416 on-base percentage led the AL.

Starting Pitcher: Justin Verlander-Tigers

Starting Pitcher: James Shields-Royals

Starting Pitcher: Chris Sale-White Sox

Starting Pitcher: Jake Peavy-White Sox

Righty Relief: Vinnie Pestano-Indians

Lefty Relief: Tim Collins-Royals

Closer: Chris Perez-Indians

Top 10

  1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
  2. Justin Verlander, Tigers
  3. Prince Fielder, Tigers
  4. Joe Mauer, Twins
  5. Alex Gordon, Royals
  6. James Shields, Royals
  7. Paul Konerko, White Sox
  8. Billy Butler, Royals
  9. Chris Sale, White Sox
  10. Austin Jackson, Tigers

Lineup

  1. Tigers
  2. Royals
  3. Indians
  4. White Sox
  5. Twins

The Tigers already could do serious damage with Cabrera and Fielder coming in behind Austin Jackson. Yet now the rich will get richer with Victor Martinez back from injury and Torii Hunter taking swings from the two spot, the Tigers 1-5 everyday lineup is ridiculous. Don’t sleep on the Royals either, with Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar all primed for breakthrough seasons.

Dunn and Konerko combined for 67 homers at the heart of the White Sox lineup.

Dunn and Konerko combined for 67 homers at the heart of the White Sox lineup.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Tigers (Cabrera/Fielder/Martinez)
  2. White Sox (Konerko/Dunn/Rios)
  3. Twins (Mauer/Willingham/Morneau)
  4. Royals (Butler/Perez/Moustakas)
  5. Indians (Kipnis/Swisher/Santana)

There may not be a better 3-4-5 in baseball, depending on how well Martinez rehabs. However, the rest of the division is in good shape in the midst of their orders as well. The Indians are the relative worst in the division, with Nick Swisher, who hit 24 home runs last season, at the core of it. The entire fortune of the Twins rests on what Mauer, Willingham and Morneau are capable of pulling off each day.

Table Setters

  1. Tigers (Jackson/Hunter)
  2. Royals (Gordon/Escobar)
  3. Indians (Bourn/Cabrera)
  4. White Sox (De Aza/Keppinger)
  5. Twins (Mastroianni/Carroll)

Once again, the Tigers rule. Jackson was a terror last season, hitting double digits in doubles, triples and home runs, and topped 100 runs scored for second time in three years. By adding Bourn, the Indians add the most dynamic stolen base threat in baseball over the past five years. Alejandro De Aza is coming into his own as well, getting on-base at .329% clip.

Bench

  1. Indians
  2. Tigers
  3. Royals
  4. White Sox
  5. Twins

Quintin Berry is capable of producing anywhere in the Detroit outfield, and Ramon Santiago is capable at every position in the infield. In Cleveland, Terry Francona will be able to split time in multiple areas, with a very diverse bench of Mike Aviles, Ryan Rayburn and Lou Marson.

Rotation

  1. Tigers
  2. White Sox
  3. Royals
  4. Indians
  5. Twins

Justin Verlander, winning of 41 games since 2011, is a great start, but Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and the resigning of Anibal Sanchez gives them a glutton on riches. A bounce back effort from John Danks would go a long way towards giving the Sox one of the better AL rotations. The addition of James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis has completely revamped the Royals attack as a team.

The durable Shields was brought in to be both an example and stabilizer atop the Royals rotation.

The durable Shields was brought in to be both an example and stabilizer atop the Royals rotation.

1-2 Punch

  1. Tigers (Verlander/Scherzer)
  2. White Sox (Sale/Peavy)
  3. Royals (Shields/Guthrie)
  4. Indians (Masterson/Jimenez)
  5. Twins (Worley/Correia)

While there’s no question who’s the top dog in the D, Sale and Peavy are both capable of anchoring a very competitive club, as they proved last season in combining for 28 Chicago W’s. The Twins see a lot of potential in Vance Worley, as he inherited the top spot in their rotation from the second he was acquired. The Indians have a ton of potential, which has struggled to move past being only that in the inconsistent Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson

Bullpen

  1. Royals
  2. Indians
  3. Tigers
  4. Twins
  5. White Sox

One of the quietest, dominant units in baseball is the KC pen. They have 4 hurlers in Greg Holland, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera that can throw pure smoke. They are very versatile, and can be deployed in a variety of situations. Vinnie Pestano finished second in the AL in holds last season for Cleveland, while Glen Perkins limited left-handed hitters to a .192 average in Minnesota.

Defense

  1. Royals
  2. White Sox
  3. Indians
  4. Twins
  5. Tigers

The biggest Achilles for the Tigers is the fact their defensive often makes their potent lineup and pitching staff work too hard for wins. That’s not a problem that the Royals, as Gordon and Francouer are arguably the best defensive corner outfielders in baseball, while Escober, Hosmer, Moustakas and Getz are the best defensive infield in the game. The White Sox 70 errors were the fewest in MLB as a team.

Bourn pushes both the Indians extra base (42 steals) and defensive potential (2 Gold Gloves) to a new level.

Bourn pushes both the Indians extra base (42 steals) and defensive potential (2 Gold Gloves) to a new level.

Speed

  1. Royals
  2. Indians
  3. White Sox
  4. Tigers
  5. Twins

There’s not a bad runner on the team in KC, save for Billy Butler, but he’s not paid for that gig. In Cleveland, Bourn and Stubbs are fast enough to play a two-man outfield if needed (I’m sure of it). Between Alex Rios, Alexei Ramirez, DeWayne Wise and DeAza combined for 81 steals a year ago, and the best team defensive percentage .

Manager

  1. Jim Leyland, Tigers
  2. Ron Gardenhire, Twins
  3. Terry Francona, Indians
  4. Robin Ventura, White Sox
  5. Ned Yost, Royals

Leyland and Francona have a combined four World Series wins, and are two of the greatest motivators in the game…albeit in very different fashions. Ventura jumped from college baseball analyst to an 85-win MLB rookie manager last year. Also, there’s a reason why there’s no talk of trouble around Gardenhire despite two consecutive 90-loss seasons; it’s scary to think how bad it could be WITHOUT him.

Finances

  1. Tigers
  2. White Sox
  3. Indians
  4. Royals
  5. Twins

The Tigers played it cool for the most part on the market, outside of keeping their club intact for another run. They’ll need to hold funds back for the always needed in-season addition mid pennant chase most likely, especially with their current bullpen condition. The Indians had a surprisingly aggressive spending run this offseason, which could see them as sellers if it doesn’t payout by mid-summer.

Impact Additions

  1. James Shields (Royals from Rays)
  2. Michael Bourn (Indians from Braves)
  3. Nick Swisher (Indians from Yankees)
  4. Torii Hunter (Tigers from Angels)
  5. Wade Davis (Royals via trade)

The Royals made the ballsy move of the winter in trading everybody’s top prospect in Wil Myers to the Rays for Shields and Davis. It is a huge “win now” move from a franchise that hasn’t been in a position to do that in some time. The Indians core was rebuilt starting with Swisher, and later Bourn. Add in Trevor Bauer and Mark Reynolds, and it was an interesting winter in AL Ohio.

The continued growth and experience of Hosmer and Perez is at the heart of the Royals rise this summer.

The continued growth and experience of Hosmer and Perez is at the heart of the Royals rise this summer.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Salvador Perez,Royals
  2. Eric Hosmer, Royals
  3. Jason Kipnis, Indians
  4. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
  5. Greg Holland, Royals

The time is finally here for the Royals window of competition to open. A key component will be Perez rising up to the elite producers at catcher this summer. He’s hit .311 in first 115 games, and should rise over 20 homers as well. If Hosmer can rebound from his down sophomore effort, the everyday lineup will have a lot more punch. Kipnis has a chance to ascend into the upper tier of second basemen in baseball this season.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Trevor Bauer (Pitcher, Indians-MLB)
  2. Bruce Rondon (Pitcher, Tigers-MLB)
  3. Nick Castellanos (Third Base, Tigers-AAA)
  4. Aaron Hicks (Center Field, Twins-MLB)
  5. Francisco Lindor (Shortstop, Indians-A)

The biggest question mark for any serious competitor may be the Tigers’ closer situation. Rondon blew through the minors, and has been in the mix for the final frame in the Majors as well. If he takes on the role this year, he could be in the mix for AL Rookie of the Year. Hicks has blown up on the scene this spring and looks ready to step in and live up to his former Top 10 prospect potential.

2013 PREDICTIONS

  1. Tigers
  2. Royals
  3. Indians
  4. White Sox
  5. Twins

The Central is a division in transition…in the middle. Kansas City has improved each of the last three seasons, and is primed to make a major leap to league-wide respectability. This is due in part to the focus of management to add impact players to their maturing core, as well as a very balanced development of young talent both developed and acquired over the past few years. A run into the Wild Card picture should be expected, and a surge similar to last year’s Oakland Athletics should shock nobody.

Behind them, the margin between the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians is close. Where Cleveland is strong at the plate, Chicago is tough one the mound. The margin of difference could come down to the better equipped system of the Indians vs. the barren Sox farm. The Indians have the pieces to add to their push from within, while the Sox do not. Cleveland’s lack of pitching will keep them from truly pushing the Tigers, but a rise 10 game improvement or should be in the cards.

The Twins are in the midst of a long and drawn out rebuilding phase that has finally hit its bottom floor, and is ready to look up again. An influx of youngsters around their lineup should make things exciting occasionally, but frustrating more often than not. Another 90-loss year is on deck.

That just leaves the Tigers in the end, and the question is more not where they’ll finish in the first 162, but if they finally have the legs to win the last four of the last series of the season. They are a study in extremes: huge bats/terrible defense, great starters/questionable bullpen end. These are the type of issues that separate a club from the other elite teams in the league in the end, not so much the division. They will win the Central by more games than any other divisional champ, and could produce both an MVP, Cy Young winner, Comeback Player of the Year and maybe even a Rookie of the Year. Those would-be accolades aside, the difference is in the details for Leyland’s club. And it will take the full stretch of games to see if this “win now” club gets over itself, to rise above everyone else.

Robinson-Cano

The status quo was shattered in the American League East a year ago. After years of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays fighting for supremacy, the Baltimore Orioles burst out of the cellar and took the fight to them all. By the end of the summer, the Orioles had fought their way to the playoffs for the first time since 1997, while the rest of the division was uncharacteristically met with very uncertain winters ahead of them.

The Yankees won the division, but were faced with a bumpy offseason fueled by an ugly sweep out of the American League Championship Series, new steroid allegations around Alex Rodriguez and uncertain rehabs from both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. The Red Sox rebuild went into overdrive, with a new manager and a second restructuring the team in three years. The Rays were once again faced with cautious moves to rebuild from within, and the Blue Jays only had the most aggressive offseason in recent memory.

2012 FINISH (*Wild Card winner)

1. New York Yankees (95-67)

2. Baltimore Orioles (93-69)*

3. Tampa Bay Rays (90-72)

4. Boston Red Sox (73-89)

5. Toronto Blue Jays (69-93)

The scene that emerges from this all is what should be the most competitive division in baseball. It will be a division that features both Cy Young winners from last summer (David Price and R.A. Dickey), as well as some of the biggest prospects in the game, for each team. It will be a battle that sorts out if the cardiac Orioles can channel that same magic again from its maturing core of young stars, or if the all-in Blue Jays, at all costs winter will pay out. Meanwhile, can the Yankees push a bit more out of its roster that’s reached three of the last four ALCS?

All Division Team

Catcher: Matt Wieters, Orioles

First Base: Mark Teixeira, Yankees

Second Base: Robinson Cano, Yankees

Third Base: Evan Longoria, Rays

Shortstop: Jose Reyes, Blue Jays

Left Field: Brett Gardner, Yankees

Center Field: Adam Jones, Orioles

Right Field: Jose Bautista, Blue Jays

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox

Price went 20-5 and struck out 205 in route to his first Cy Young last year.

Price went 20-5 and struck out 205 in route to his first Cy Young.

Starting Pitcher: David Price, Rays

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia, Yankees

Starting Pitcher: RA Dickey, Blue Jays

Starting Pitcher: Josh Johnson, Blue Jays

Righty Relief: David Robertson, Yankees

Lefty Relief: Darren Oliver, Blue Jays

Closer: Mariano Rivera, Yankees

Top 10

  1. Robinson Cano, Yankees
  2. David Price, Rays
  3. Evan Longoria, Rays
  4. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
  5. CC Sabathia, Yankees
  6. Jose Reyes, Blue Jays
  7. Adam Jones, Orioles
  8. Mark Teixeira, Yankees
  9. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  10. Curtis Granderson, Yankees

Lineup

  1. Blue Jays
  2. Yankees
  3. Orioles
  4. Red Sox
  5. Rays

The margin is close, but the Jays will take the edge over the Yankees due to both the questionable health of the Yankees in the immediate and long-term. The maturation of Brett Lawrie and the return to health of Jose Bautista makes T-Dot a gauntlet to get through. The Orioles will be greatly improved if both Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis are healthy at once, and the Rays will be a threat as well if Wil Myers makes his expected debut impact at some point.

Jones hit a career-best 32 home runs and drove in 82 for the surging O's in 2012.

Jones hit a career-best 32 home runs and drove in 82 for the surging O’s.

Heart of the Lineup

  1. Yankees (Cano/Teixeira/Granderson)
  2. Blue Jays (Bautista/Encarnacion/Rasmus)
  3. Orioles (Jones/Wieters/Davis)
  4. Rays (Zobrist/Longoria/Joyce)
  5. Red Sox (Ortiz/Napoli/Victorino)

There’s still no break going through the heart of the Yankee order. Cano, Granderson and Tex hit a total of 100 home runs and drove in 284 runs a year ago. Mike Napoli is a dead pull hitting terror that could own the Green Monster in Fenway. The support he provides alone makes the Sox far more dangerous. Chris Davis somehow hit a very quiet 33 home runs a year ago, and Adam Jones is just scratching his surface.

Table Setters

  1. Red Sox (Ellsbury/Pedroia)
  2. Blue Jays (Reyes/Cabrera)
  3. Yankees (Ichiro/Jeter)
  4. Rays (Jennings/Escobar)
  5. Orioles (McLouth/Hardy)

Health is always a reasonable concern, but the potential impact of Ellsbury and Pedroia atop the Boston order is devastating. Both could be good for 20 homers and at least 20 steals. However, in theory, both Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes are former batting champs, and that’s a tremendous duo of base runners to put on in front of the big Toronto bats. Desmond Jennings has a chance to make an in-prime Carl Crawford like impact in Tampa this year.

Bench

  1. Orioles
  2. Rays
  3. Blue Jays
  4. Red Sox
  5. Yankees

The Orioles killed teams with the numbers game a year ago, and still have the AL’s deepest positional roster. Nate McLouth, Wilson Betemit, Danny Valencia and Reimold offer a ridiculous amount of versatility that Buck Showalter will use frequently. The Rays will have a rotational option of Kelly Johnson, Sean Rodriguez and Luke Scott available to fit into their very balanced approach as well.

Rotation

  1. Rays
  2. Blue Jays
  3. Yankees
  4. Orioles
  5. Red Sox

David Price is far from on his own without James Shields. By the summer’s end, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb will have much bigger names than they enter with. The Jays biggest focus was to add starting pitching and the additions of a brand new one through three to their rotation in Dickey, Johnson and Buerhle represents the most significant change to any staff in baseball. A healthy return of John Lackey could make the Red Sox very dangerous as well.

Dickey is the fourth reigning Cy Young winner to be traded after winning the honor (Cone, Martinez, Clemens).

Dickey is the fourth reigning Cy Young winner to be traded after winning the honor (Cone, Martinez, Clemens).

1-2 Punch

  1. Blue Jays (Dickey/Johnson)
  2. Rays (Price/Hellickson)
  3. Yankees (Sabathia/Kuroda)
  4. Red Sox (Lester/Dempster)
  5. Orioles (Hammel/Chen)

Hiroki Kuroda has been one of the most underrated hurlers in baseball over the last two years. He finished eighth in the AL in ERA last year, and finally gave the Yanks a viable #2 behind Sabathia. Speaking of ERA, in Price and Hellickson, the Rays anchor their rotation with two of the top six best in the category a year ago. Price’s 2.56 was tops in the league, while Hellickson came in sixth at 3.10.

Bullpen

  1. Orioles
  2. Red Sox
  3. Rays
  4. Yankees
  5. Blue Jays

The Orioles 29-9 record in one run games was anchored by a nearly impenetrable bullpen. Jim Johnson saved 51 of 54 games, and overall the secondary arms had five ERA’s under 3.00 and three winners of five or more games. The Red Sox have a potentially overwhelming pen, with both Joel Hanahran and Andrew Bailey being former All-Star closers. The Rays Fernando Rodney will look to follow up his breakthrough season, which with finished him 5th in the Cy Young vote.

Defense

  1. Orioles
  2. Rays
  3. Yankees
  4. Red Sox
  5. Blue Jays

JJ Hardy, Wieters, Jones and Markakis are all owners of Gold Gloves for the O’s, and Manny Machado is a third baseman playing with shortstop range. The Rays aren’t far behind, with Longoria, Loney, Escobar and Zobrist comprising a formidable unit behind their strong pitching staff.

Speed

  1. Blue Jays
  2. Orioles
  3. Red Sox
  4. Rays
  5. Yankees

With Rajai Davis, Reyes, Lawrie, Rasmus and Bonafacio all on the bases for the Jays, they won’t be afraid to push for the extra base. Both Reyes and Bonaficio could push for 40+ steals, hitting back-to-back in the lineup. The Yankees have become the ultimate station to station lineup in baseball, although the return of Brett Gardner (96 steals from 2010-11) will finally provide them with a legit stolen base threat again.

Manager

  1. Joe Maddon,
  2. Buck Showalter
  3. Joe Girardi
  4. John Farrell
  5. John Gibbons

While Showalter deservedly won the AL Manager of the Year for the 24 game improvement his Orioles took on a year ago, but Maddon is still tops. He’s kept the Rays in the mix of the division every year despite a nearly annual major loss to his limited budget roster. John Farrell was traded for from the Blue Jays to steady the rebuilding effort for the Red Sox.

Farrell returns to Boston, where he was pitching coach from 2007-10, to straighten out a house in ruins.

Farrell returns to Boston, where he was pitching coach from 2007-10, to straighten out a house in ruins.

Finances

  1. Yankees
  2. Red Sox
  3. Orioles
  4. Blue Jays
  5. Rays

The Yankees are kings of baseball’s financial hill, but they are in both a push to cut payroll to avoid a pending luxury tax and to have the funds need to keep Cano in pinstripes after this season. Boston has been strategic in rebuilding their roster, while the Jays took on $146 million in salary with their trade with the Marlins.

Impact Additions

  1. RA Dickey (Blue Jays from Mets)
  2. Jose Reyes (Blue Jays from Marlins)
  3. Josh Johnson (Blue Jays from Marlins)
  4. Joel Hanahran (Red Sox from Pirates)
  5. Mike Napoli (Red Sox from Rangers)

Notice a trend? The core of the changes to the division as a whole really is due to the Jays aggressive restructuring of their roster. They sacrificed both prospects and payroll to reinvent themselves with two deals to land Dickey and the majority of the Marlins core a year ago. Boston also will open with five new everyday players and five new pitchers as well.

Leap Forward Candidates

  1. Matt Moore, Rays
  2. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
  3. Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox
  4. Manny Machado, Orioles
  5. Desmond Jennings, Rays

Once again, the Rays have another function youth movement on the verge of carrying them ahead. Moore and Hellickson are the future of the team’s greatest asset, it’s pitching. The Orioles brought up Machado the third overall pick in the 2010 draft just before his 20th birthday, and he responded by hitting .262 with seven homers in his first 51 games.

Rookies/Prospects to Watch

  1. Dylan Bundy (Pitcher, Orioles—AAA)
  2. Wil Myers (Right field, Rays—AAA)
  3. Xander Bogearts (Shortstop, Red Sox—AA)
  4. Gary Sanchez (Catcher, Yankees—AA)
  5. Chris Archer (Pitcher, Rays—AAA)

Prospect list in the AL East looks like a who’s who of everybody’s Top 100 list. Bundy, Myers and Bogearts are Top 5 prospects in the game that could make impacts on the MLB level this year. Bundy began the season in Single-A, but reached the Majors by September of last year. Myers was the center of one of the biggest trades of the offseason, and profiles to be a major part of the Tampa effort by mid-summer.

2013 PREDICTIONS

  1. Orioles
  2. Blue Jays
  3. Yankees
  4. Rays
  5. Red Sox

There’s a lot of reason to believe that last year was a fluke for the Orioles. If you look at their amazing results in close games, as well as the comet-like rise they took last season, it would seem that there would have to be some return to reality this year. But that’s the glass half empty approach, and there’s more to it than that. The O’s have a roster that hasn’t peaked, and has a chance to be even healthier this season. Adding experience to the resolve and talent they showed last year will make them a more formidable group this year.

Make no mistake, this doesn’t mean the Blue Jays efforts were a failure. They will be a much improved team on all fronts, and will make a push for October. However, they are still a club of peaks and valleys. For as strong as their rotation should be, the bullpen still is far from a certain proposition. And defensively, they could be very limited in support behind the staff. The “out hit em” approach is possible, but we’ve seen that not work many other places.

Overall, this was a division that had a whopping three teams win 90 games a year ago, and there’s good reason to believe it does that again. it’s going to be a very strong division, which should end up with a separation from first to last of as few as five games. Don’t count the Yankees out, as they have a lot of offensive to lean on, and they will get healthier as the year goes on. The Red Sox aren’t a prototypical last place team either, but somebody has to end up there. And as for the Rays: they’re a sleeper pick to flip this entire scenario around. If you can pitch, you always have a chance, and they can do that. The division will send two teams to the postseason as usual, and the fight for who it will be could take all summer to sort out.

For more on the previews and the men that are bringing them to reality, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

Justin Verlander

A couple of weeks ago, I broke the Top 100 Players in Baseball coming into 2013. As to be expected, it cause several levels of debate, from the way that such a decision was arrived at, all the way down to the results in the end. As the course of it went along, the players were ranked as a large pool, not by position, and in the end, some players landed interesting places.

But what is does this say about the strength of each position in game? If you go back and take it apart to assess “who’s the best (fill in blank position) in baseball, what does my Top 100 say about that. Well to save the time on that, I’ve done it for you. Today we’ll rank the Top 5 players by position, as well as breakdown what the game looks like at each spot both today, and moving forward.

To refresh on the entire list, head to The Sports Fan Journal, where the full Five Part Series is listed here.

 

Catcher

13. Buster Posey

15. Yadier Molina

38. Joe Mauer

81. Matt Wieters

92. Brian McCann

Catcher was tough at the top, with the margin between Posey and Molina nearly requiring a daily check of the box score to decide who’s better on that day. Overall, only six catchers made the list, with Miguel Montero being the only one missing here.

First Base

8. Joey Votto

9. Albert Pujols

23. Prince Fielder

33. Adrian Gonzalez

39. Mark Teixeira

Votto and Pujols are another pair that can trade off by the day, but overall the entire first base position could be in a different place by next year. Fielder, Gonzalez and Teixeira all had career-low efforts in some of their signature categories last season, which an upswing could pull each of them back to the top 25.

dustin-pedroia

Second Base

5. Robinson Cano

36. Brandon Phillips

47. Dustin Pedroia

58. Ian Kinsler

98. Chase Utley

It’s Cano, and then everybody else. Robby is on the verge of pushing for the best in the game period, but everybody else isn’t so bad overall; but they pale in comparison. The 31 slot difference between Cano and Phillips is easily the largest of any other everyday position.

Third Base

1. Miguel Cabrera

16. Evan Longoria

18. David Wright

22. Adrian Beltre

42. Ryan Zimmerman

Quiet as kept, the current group of third baseman around the league could be the most impressive group of any era in baseball history. This group has multiple MVP-caliber competitors as well as the last two World Series MVPs in Pablo Sandoval and David Freese as well.

Shortstop

24. Troy Tulowitzki

28. Jose Reyes

53. Elvis Andrus

56. Starlin Castro

59. Hanley Ramirez

Shortstop as a whole is a position that’s steady across the board, but is in transition some. Andrus, Castro and Ian Desmond are emerging, and prospect Jurickson Profar could easily force his way into the mix. But Tulowitzki remains the best due to a mixture of potential, and few legit challengers to his class thus far.

Carlos_Gonzalez white classic

Left Field

3. Ryan Braun

4. Mike Trout

19. Carlos Gonzalez

29. Matt Holliday

45. Bryce Harper

With Trout moving over to the left corner, the position has taken a swing upward. The Harper/Trout era will now pit them against each other from the same position, so for comparison’s sake, this is a story that just keeps getting better.

Center Field

7. Matt Kemp

10. Andrew McCutchen

35. Adam Jones

41. Curtis Granderson

61. Jacoby Ellsbury

What fantastically deep group there is roaming the middle of the outfield there is in the game today. Kemp, McCutchen, Jones and Ellsbury have each been major players in each of the last two MVP races. It’s a deep position as well, with Michael Bourn, Austin Jackson and Shin-Soo Choo all representing the diversity that comprises the spot now.

Right Field

12. Josh Hamilton

20. Jose Bautista

32. Giancarlo Stanton

54. Jason Heyward

62. Jay Bruce

No position may have more raw power than right field right now. Stanton is a 50 home run season waiting to happen, and Bautista has already passed the mark. Heyward and Bruce are as well-rounded players as imaginable on the corner, and neither is close to their 30th birthday.

Starting Pitcher

2. Justin Verlander

5. Clayton Kershaw

11. Felix Hernandez

14. David Price

21. Stephen Strasberg

Picking the top 5 pitchers in baseball is a task at best. Especially in the current era of wide spread dominance, staying on top is truly an impressive feat, which Verlander has pulled off in 2011-12. Strasberg appears after giving a glimpse of what could be in only 159 innings last year, but a case could be made for no less than 10 other arms to crack into the top 5 with no real arguments.

Relief Pitcher

17. Craig Kimbrel

37. Mariano Rivera

55. Jonathan Papelbon

78. Fernando Rodney

86. Jim Johnson

Considering that Aroldis Chapman will move to the starting rotation, Kimbrel’s position as the best ninth inning guy in the game is virtually untouched. Rivera and Papelbon have consistency on their side, but an emerging group of closers featuring Johnson, Jason Motte and Sergio Romo are all closing in on overall elite league status as well.

 

That’s what it is for now for the year in looking at the players, but coming up next week it’s time to look at the teams, with the third annual CSP divisional previews. Until then, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan for up the second info on everything I’m up to.

Los Angeles Dodgers Photo Day

It’s tough to do an intro to the very best of the game and just why they are, so I won’t bother. The credentials on the best of the top 100 players in baseball are below and speak for themselves. But just to quantify why they are who they are, this is a rundown of just what they have accomplished along the way:

  • 10 Players
  • Nine MVP/Cy Young Awards
  • 40 All-Star appearances
  • Five World Series Championships
  • And $134,000,000 coming their way this season

All things considered, they’re worth it. It is a level where 30 home run seasons are answered with “What’s wrong with him?” instead of congratulations for the effort. Where if they give up a home run from the mound, there’s legitimate shock. It’s also a place where there’s constantly someone else pushing you, where an injury or simple down year (by their standards) gets them seen as having a “bad” season. Dominance is what it takes to get to this level, but answering expectations, repeatedly, is what it takes to stay here.

Here’s the 10 best in the world at doing just that. For now at least …

 

10. Andrew McCutchen-Center Field-Pittsburgh Pirates: The Cutch nearly became not just the undisputed man in Pittsburgh a year ago, but nearly all of baseball. His tear through the first half landed him a starting All-Star gig and firm placement in the MVP race. While the Pirates faded in the second half, he still led the National League in hits with 194 and set other career highs in home runs (31), RBI (96) and average (.327), while also topping 20 stolen bases for the fourth consecutive year.

9. Albert Pujols-First Base-Los Angeles Angels: He had a down year in 2012, hitting “only” .285. But for the unmatched historic standard he set for himself in his first decade in the game (posting averages of 40 homers, 121 RBI and hitting .323), it’s understandable why  a career-low 30 home runs is frowned at. He’ll pass 500 home runs and 1,500 RBI in his upcoming 12th season and remains the most devastating first-base bat of all-time.

8. Joey Votto-First Base-Cincinnati Reds: For as good as Pujols still is, Votto’s all-around game has edged him to top of the first base heap. He hit 44 doubles before being curbed by a knee injury in July, which landed him 24 off of setting a new record, despite missing two months. He’s a line-drive hitting terror with a .313 career average and has led the NL in on-base percentage for the past three seasons. As testament to his steady approach, he has only popped out 10 times in his career.

7. Matt Kemp-Center Field-Los Angeles Dodgers: If not for a hamstring injury that sent him to the disabled list for the first time in his career, Kemp was set up for another tear through the summer. He launched 12 homers in April alone before the injury and still rebounded to hit a respectable 23 on the year despite missing 50 games. Consider that to be a glimpse of what could have been for the man one year removed from 39-homer/40-steal 2011…..

 

To see the rest of where this year’s CSP Top 100 Players ends at, head over to The Sports Fan Journal now: http://www.thesportsfanjournal.com/sports/baseball/the-2013-top-100-players-in-baseball-the-top-10/#sthash.qpLfExvj.dpuf

 

And for more in real-time, as well as the world on the World Baseball Classic, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.