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Here's our baseball preview: AL, NL predictions and more

Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds

Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds Credit: Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds is the predicted NL MVP. (Getty Images)

American League Preview

WEST
1. Los Angeles Angels

Their lineup, which already counts last year’s rookie sensation Mike Trout and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols among its most-feared hitters, added Josh Hamilton in the offseason. Good luck, AL West pitchers. It’s debatable whether they’re better off with Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas in the rotation instead of Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana this season, but Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson make for a great one-two punch. This is the team to beat in the American League.

2. Oakland Athletics
The surprise division winners from last season suffered few stinging losses during the offseason and return a young core of starting pitchers, led by Jarrod Parker and Brett Anderson. Yoenis Cespedes proved worthy of their investment last offseason by producing 23 homers and 82 RBIs. As much as their 94-win season came out of the blue, the A’s have a great chance of earning another postseason berth on the strength of their pitching.

3. Texas Rangers
Losing Hamilton and power-hitting catcher Mike Napoli set the lineup back a bit. Adrian Beltre is now their best hitter. He’s good, but their pitching, led by Yu Darvish, isn’t good enough overall to make up for what they lost in offensive firepower. The anticipated arrival of young hitters Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt will give them a boost later this season as they compete for a playoff spot.

4. Seattle Mariners
The presence of ace Felix Hernandez is the only reason the Mariners are relevant at all. Aging outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay join the club from the Yankees and Mets, respectively, but beyond that, this is largely the same team that lost 87 games last season. They figure to improve by a few wins in 2013, however, thanks to the American League arrival of the ...

5. Houston Astros
... who went 55-107 in the NL Central last year. As bad as they were, they should be worse now that they will face designated hitters regularly. Many have questioned whether the 1962 Mets record for futility (40-120) will fall, and it certainly might. Chris Carter, acquired from Oakland in the offseason, could have some nice power numbers, but otherwise this is a pitiful ballclub.

CENTRAL
1. Detroit Tigers

The 2012 AL pennant winners are largely intact from last season. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder remain the best one-two (or more appropriately, three-four) punch in baseball, and ace Justin Verlander is pitching for a new contract after the season. Though they only won 88 games last year, expect the Tigers to run away with the division this year thanks to a more settled roster and the return of Victor Martinez, who missed 2012 with multiple knee injuries.

2. Cleveland Indians
The division’s busiest team during the offseason added outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, first baseman Mark Reynolds and pitchers Brett Myers and Trevor Bauer. Now under the leadership of Terry Francona, their 2013 fate will hinge on how well this team adapts after all the offseason shuffling. Ubaldo Jimenez must put his disappointing 2012 (9-17, 5.40 ERA) behind him, or their pitching staff will keep this team out of the playoff picture.

3. Chicago White Sox
Their lineup isn’t getting any younger, but a solid pitching staff keeps the White Sox relevant in the division picture. Starters Chris Sale and Jake Peavy are among the top five arms in the AL Central, and Addison Reed gives them a reliable closer. Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn provide pop in the middle of the order, but this isn’t a scary lineup by any means. That said, Chicago certainly could finish ahead of the Indians.

4. Kansas City Royals
Offseason trades converted their starting rotation from a minus to a plus. James Shields is a legitimate front-line starter, something this team has lacked since Zack Greinke left almost three years ago. The lineup features solid young talent (Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler), and is a dark horse in the wild card race.

5. Minnesota Twins
Has there ever been a worse team that features two former league MVPs, one of which (Joe Mauer) is still in his prime? Mauer and Justin Morneau are the only recognizable names to most in this lineup, although Josh Willingham is coming off a good season. Don’t expect much from the Twins for a few years.

EAST
1. Toronto Blue Jays

Remember a few months ago when this team finished with 73 wins? Forget that. In its place is a team that added 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio. When paired with power hitters Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion plus pitcher Brandon Morrow, they form a stacked lineup and a formidable rotation that figure to be factors deep into October. They’re the turnaround team of 2013.

2. Tampa Bay Rays
If any team is going to prevent Toronto from taking control in the East, it’s the Rays. Although the departures of B.J. Upton and James Shields could hurt, the Rays have the depth to recover with ace David Price and young outfielders Desmond Jennings and, eventually, Wil Myers. They won 90 games a year ago even as star Evan Longoria missed more than half the season with a partially torn hamstring. With him healthy, a wild-card berth and 90-plus victories are realistic expectations.

3. New York Yankees
At full strength, they can compete in the division race. But half of the Yankees’ position players are expected to miss Opening Day and, in most cases, far more than that. The pitching staff, led by CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, has the ability to carry this team through the early-goings, but it’s a lot to ask when Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay are playing every day for a sizable chunk of the season.

4. Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles won’t be sneaking up on anyone the way they did last year. They also won’t win as many close games, which makes a repeat of their 93-win season unlikely. Losing Mark Reynolds to free agency hurts because they don’t have a ton of power in their lineup, and with few sure things in their rotation, the O’s outlook is cloudy. There’s room to move up and down in the standings for this group.

5. Boston Red Sox
In a different division they’d win more games, but the AL East is a shark tank. Adding Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew in the offseason was smart, but the pitching staff remains suspect even with free agent acquisition Ryan Dempster. Like the Orioles, the Red Sox could move up in the AL’s most balanced division.

Predictions

MVP: Albert Pujols, Angels
He’s had a year to adjust to the AL, and actually played very well after his early struggles (.307, 22 HRs, 77 RBIs from June to October). The first baseman will also play 16 games against his familiar foes from the NL Central, the woeful Astros. Many are writing him off, but it’s too soon for that.
Dark Horse: Jose Reyes, Blue Jays

CY YOUNG: Jered Weaver, Angels
He’s been on the cusp of picking up this award each of the last three years, and with the type of run support he figures to receive, he should be able to win 20 games again and post another stellar ERA (2.81 ERA last season).
Dark Horse: Chris Sale, White Sox

TOP ROOKIE: Wil Myers, Rays
Perhaps the main reason Tampa Bay didn’t mind B.J. Upton’s departure is this young outfielder. Acquired from the Royals in the James Shields trade, he projects as a power-hitting, middle of the order righthanded hitter, and should be a force once he’s brought up to the majors.

Dark Horse: Jurickson Profar, Rangers
Top manager: John Gibbons, Blue Jays
First manager fired: Ned Yost, Royals
Best surprise: Chris Carter, Astros
Biggest disappointment: Felix Hernandez, Mariners

Playoff Picks

Wild Card
Rays over Athletics

ALDS
Angels over Rays
Tigers over Blue Jays

ALCS
Angels over Tigers

***

National League Preview

WEST
1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Losing Hanley Ramirez until May hurts, but they should be able to beat out the rival Giants for the division crown as long as everyone else remains healthy. Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier will drive in a ton of runs with or without Ramirez, making young ace Clayton Kershaw’s job easier. Following him in the rotation are Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett, who are all good enough to keep the Dodgers going deep into the playoffs.

2. San Francisco Giants
Look for the defending World Series champions to come out of the gate strong and return to the postseason after they didn’t lose anyone who was key to their championship run during the offseason. Starting pitching remains the trademark of this club, with Matt Cain now the unquestioned ace of a group that also includes Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum. Oh yeah, and they have reigning NL MVP Buster Posey. A third World Series title in four years is possible.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks
They finished third last year, and they’ll probably do the same again even after a bevy of offseason moves that saw young players Justin Upton and Trevor Bauer shipped out and veterans Martin Prado and Brandon McCarthy brought into the fold. Paul Goldschmidt’s powerful bat becomes the lineup’s greatest asset, while the pitching staff is highlighted by starters Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Wade Miley.

4. Colorado Rockies
Playing without Troy Tulowitzki, the game’s best shortstop, for three quarters of the season took its toll on the Rockies, who won just 64 games last year. He returns healthy to start 2013, and that alone should improve this team dramatically. He and Carlos Gonzalez will knock their fair share of pitchers out of the park at Coors Field. Opponents will probably do the same to their own weak pitchers, and they’ll do it more often.

5. San Diego Padres
With their best hitter, Chase Headley, expected to miss a month, trouble is escalating quickly for San Diego. Without Headley, it will be up to young Yonder Alonso to realize his potential in a hurry if the Padres have any hope of being competitive. For a team that plays in a pitchers park (PETCO Park), their staff isn’t very fearsome. This is a 60-plus win team.

CENTRAL
1. Cincinnati Reds

The 97-win Reds of a year ago added outfielder Shin-Soo Choo into the fold and, presumably, won’t lose star Joey Votto for two months again. Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier also possess the type of hitting to make a difference in ballgames. The rotation is stacked with Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, the three best, and hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman is among the best closers in baseball. One hundred victories and a championship are certainly a realistic goal for this well-rounded machine.

2. St. Louis Cardinals
There’s no counting out the Cards, who have defied the odds the past two seasons with a World Series championship in 2011 and an NLCS run last October. They lost starter Kyle Lohse as a free agent, but rookie Shelby Miller could be a Rookie of the Year candidate at the back of the rotation. Their first five hitters, with Matt Holliday in the three hole, will put runs on the board to support pitchers Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. They’ll contend for a playoff spot for sure and could always make a run at the pennant.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates
They won 79 games a year ago behind star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and added solid talent with acquisitions such as catcher Russell Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano. A.J. Burnett was a disappointment in New York, but he’s a good NL pitcher and his 2012 numbers (16-10, 3.51 ERA) as the team’s ace were no fluke. This will be the year the Pirates finally finish above .500 for the first time since 1992.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
Former MVP Ryan Braun has support surrounding him with Aramis Ramirez and Rickie Weeks in the lineup, but this division will be as tough as ever now that the lowly Houston Astros are gone. Yovani Gallardo won’t be the only pitcher of note now that they added Kyle Lohse a week ago, but Lohse is unlikely to repeat his 16-3 record and 2.86 ERA.

5. Chicago Cubs
With the Astros in the AL, the NL basement belongs to the Cubs. They’re in rebuilding mode again, and probably should have moved Alfonso Soriano last year while he was playing well. Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are the future at Wrigley Field, and Castro is already among the best at his position, but they’re a 100-loss team for sure.

EAST
1. Washington Nationals

The Nats finally arrived as a legitimate contender last season when they had the best record in baseball. Following an offseason in which they upgraded their bullpen (closer Rafael Soriano) and starting rotation (Dan Haren), the first 100-win season in franchise history is within their reach. Now 20 years old, Bryce Harper should follow his incredible rookie campaign with some scary numbers as the Nationals eye their first postseason series win since 1981, when they were the Montreal Expos.

2. Atlanta Braves
After adding the Upton brothers, Justin and B.J., during the winter to play alongside Jason Heyward, the Braves now boast perhaps the most impressive young outfield in baseball. That said, the pitching remains strong with the emergence of Kris Medlen last season and the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel, locking down the ninth inning. When they get Brandon Beachy back near the end of the year, this team will be even more dangerous for the playoffs.

3. Philadelphia Phillies
A late-season run salvaged a .500 season for the Phillies, but the trouble is this team is getting old fast and should be looking to rebuild its lineup. Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley likely have done their best work of their respective careers already. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are still ace-level pitchers, but Roy Halladay may be on the decline. Their playoff window is closing fast.

4. New York Mets
This team remains in rebuilding mode, but this should be the year their young core is finally playing together at Citi Field. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud and starter Zack Wheeler will make their major league debuts sometime this season barring setbacks, possibly as soon as May or June. They still have David Wright and Ike Davis, but not much else. With no R.A. Dickey this year, they’ll lose 90 games.

5. Miami Marlins
After an offseason spent eradicating any trace of last winter’s spending spree, this team is barely recognizable from the group that took the field for Opening Day 2012. Only prodigious power-hitting outfielder Giancarlo Stanton gives fans reason to watch this club. Even with superior talent last year, they managed just 69 wins. One hundred losses sounds like a virtual guarantee.


Predictions

MVP: Joey Votto, Reds
He has 30-homer power and gets on base more than anyone in the game. He’s the unquestioned best player on one of the best teams in the league, and he’s won the award before. There’s a reason he led the NL in free passes last year (18) in just 111 games; pitcher’s don’t want to face him.

Dark Horse: Justin Upton, Braves

CY YOUNG: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
No longer held to the silly innings limit that kept him from pitching in the playoffs, the Washington ace looked like a threat to win this award last season (15-6, 3.16 ERA, 197 Ks in 159.1 IP). Now, he’ll finish what he started.
Dark Horse: Mat Latos, Reds

TOP ROOKIE: Jedd Gyorko, Padres
Although he was a third baseman in the minors, he’ll shift to second thanks to the presence of Chase Headley. He automatically becomes one of the most powerful hitters at the position (30 HRs, 100 RBIs mostly in Triple-A last year) and will put up solid numbers despite playing in a pitchers’ park.

Dark Horse: Zack Wheeler, Mets
Top manager: Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
First manager fired: Charlie Manuel, Phillies
Best surprise: Delmon Young, Phillies
Biggest disappointment: Zack Greinke, Dodgers

Playoff Picks 

Wild Card
Braves over Giants

NLDS
Dodgers over Braves
Nationals over Reds

NLCS
Nationals over Dodgers

World Series
Angels over Nationals
 

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