The weather might not scream “baseball” right now, but a brand new season is literally just around the corner. On Sunday night, the Houston Astros will make their American League debut when they host their division rivals, the Texas Rangers, at Minute Maid Park. Optimism may be alive and well throughout the league, but many questions remain as we prepare for Opening Night. My colleague Kristian Jack (@KristianJack) and I tackle the 20 biggest questions of the upcoming 2013 MLB season.
Without question, the Jays were the most active team this offseason. Will they finally win the AL East?
KJ: With the Yankees in trouble and the Red Sox in transition, the Jays may well have been a contender even without one of the two major moves they made this offseason but with R.A. Dickey and the truck the Marlins drove over the border they are favorites to win the division for a reason. I do not think they’ll be as great as some people but I think they will end up winning the division, yes.
LD: Since 1994, every team in the East has won the division at least once – well everyone except the Jays. They don’t have many holes in their lineup or rotation and with the Yankees and Red Sox seemingly on the decline, the division is very much up for grabs. It won’t be easy (the Rays present the most formidable challenge), but the Jays should take care of business.
What needs to happen for them to have a successful season?
KJ: Jose Bautista’s wrist and Josh Johnson’s arm are two body parts that will play a huge part in whether they win the division or not. Wrist injuries are the hardest to bounce back from in the game. I have no doubt in Bautista’s talent and eye at the plate but the strength of that wrist could be the difference between 25 and 45 homers. Everyone’s talking about Dickey, Morrow, Romero but Johnson’s the key for me. He could be great, in what I expect to be his only year in Toronto. His control is excellent and I think he may turn out to be their ace.
LD: The pitching staff (especially the starting rotation) needs to do what it’s capable of doing. Last season the Jays had only one starter win 10 or more games (Brandon Morrow) but with R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in the mix, that shouldn’t be the case in 2013. As for the bats, the Jays go as Jose Bautista goes and he’ll need to bounce back after undergoing season-ending wrist surgery.
An unsuccessful season?
KJ: Baseball has a beautiful way of humbling teams quickly. Expectations are very high on the Jays and if they play .500 ball for the first two months – which many playoff teams of the past have done – the city could turn on them fast. As long as Bautista’s wrist and Johnson’s arm are ok, I wouldn’t worry if the team is hovering around .500 through May but many people will.
LD: Staying healthy is crucial. Despite their depth, a major injury to one of their premier pitchers or hitters could be disastrous for the Jays. But if the rotation falters (Dickey had a 22-28 record with a 7.55 ERA while pitching in the AL from 2001-2009) and the bats go silent (primarily Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion), it could be a long season in Toronto.
How many games will the Jays end up winning?
Are they legitimate World Series contenders?
KJ: I do not understand why they are 7/1 favorites with the bookies but any team that is seen as the best on paper in their division should be considered contenders. We’ve seen too many examples lately of what teams can accomplish in the post season. You just have to get in.
LD: Absolutely – but big offseason spending doesn’t always translate into wins. Many of these players have never played with one another before and it will be interesting to see how they coexist and respond to having a bulls-eye on their back. A lot of things have to go right for the Jays to make the World Series, but they do have the talent to be right in the mix.
Between Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, the Yankees have been ravaged by injuries. How much will that impact them early on?
KJ: This is going to be a great story to follow. It can go one of two ways. Either the New York media and vocal fan base quickly wake up to the realization that the team isn’t very good, which subsequently lowers expectations or (which few are predicting) the team performs much better. Look, clearly they are not the Yankees of the past but Granderson and Jeter will be back for sure by May, add them to a team with Cano, Gardner, Sabathia, Rivera and this is not a AAA team that many are making them out to be. They are weaker but so is the division. The Red Sox spent a bunch of money on good players but no stars, the Rays lost Shields and Upton and the Orioles and Jays are far from the finished articles so there are wins there for this team.
LD: It will have a gigantic impact. These aren’t role players who are injured but some of the key pieces in the organization. How can you possibly replace all of those bats (and no, Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay aren’t the answer)? The Yankees have a knack for coming through when everyone counts them out, but their backs are definitely wedged right against the wall – and unlike ever before.
How many games will they end up winning?
Both the Dodgers and Angels made major roster moves this offseason becoming immediate favourites in their respective divisions. But which LA based team has the better chance of winning the World Series?
KJ: Dodgers. With Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke they have two pitchers on a different level to anything the Angels can throw out there. And I know they have Jered Weaver. Having Kershaw there is perfect for Greinke, a player who can get lost in the shadows of the other stars on that club. This Dodgers team is also not done while I get the feeling the Angels are close to maxing out on what they want to spend. Trout, Pujols & Hamilton make it an incredible line-up but there rotation isn’t that good at all and will get battered IF they make the playoffs. They’ll wish they gave Greinke Hamilton’s money come next winter.
LD: The Angels may have the firepower advantage (Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton) but the Dodgers have the better pitching staff, especially the starting rotation led by Clayton Kershaw and newly acquired Zack Greinke. Both teams are World Series contenders, but when it comes to October baseball, pitching wins championships and that’s where the Dodgers have the upper hand.
Last season, a pair of rookies – Mike Trout and Bryce Harper – took the league by storm. Will either suffer a sophomore slump?
KJ: Have to admit I am not a huge fan of that phrase. I think there is some merit to it but we are going to hear this year that Trout is suffering from it just because he is simply not going to produce another season close to what he did last season. He may never do that again the rest of his career and you know what? That is ok. It was one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the game (think about that) and this year he will be a good baseball player again but just not one like we saw in 2012. As for Harper, the sky is the limit. I think he’ll have a far better season this year than last, there is so much to admire about his game and overall baseball maturity (which gets lost in some lazy journalistic pieces) and I think he will get serious consideration for MVP in 2013.
LD: Unlikely. After hitting .326 with 30 homers, 83 RBI and 49 stolen bases, it wouldn’t be a shock if Trout finished with lower numbers in 2013 – the bar has been set that high. And if he stumbles at any point, the spotlight could be suffocating. Harper on the other hand experienced a slump in his rookie campaign (hit just .171 in 18 games immediately following the All-Star Break) but powered through. These weren’t your typical rookies to begin with so it’s difficult to imagine them suffering a major setback.
The Nationals and Braves have separated themselves from the pack in the NL East. Is the battle for the division crown just a two team race?
KJ: Absolutely. Both teams will win 94+ games again. The Marlins could lose to the Buffalo Bisons (providing Giancarlo Stanton gets walked four times), the Mets have some nice young arms but are two years from contending and I think the Phillies are in massive trouble. A lot has been made of the games Chase Utley and Ryan Howard missed last season but did you see what they did when they did play? Howard hit .219 with nearly 300 AB’s while Utley hit a career low .256 in just over 300 AB’s. Add that to the most overrated player in the game, Jimmy Rollins, and I think they fall out of it early. Don’t be surprised to see Cliff Lee and even Roy Halladay (if he allows it) dealt as GM Ruben Amaro is not one to sit around doing nothing.
LD: The biggest wild card in the NL East is the Phillies. They still have some arms (Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) as well as some bats (Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley) but age and health continue to work against them. If Philly’s offence performs like it did a year ago, the team will have little chance of keeping up with both the Nationals and Braves, by far the class of the division.
It’s been 20 years since the Pirates finished with a winning record. Will the streak finally come to an end in 2013?
KJ: I sure hope so. I have been to the beautiful PNC Park numerous times and that is one fantastic baseball town. They all wear the gear, the kids are really into it and they are begging for a winning team. On August 7th, 2012 they were 62-46 and in real contention for the Wild Card before collapsing for the second season in a row, going 17-37 down the stretch. Clint Hurdle will have learned a lot about his players in that time and I think they are ready to be better and compete, so yes.
LD: After sitting as many as 16 games over .500 last season, it looked like the losing was finally over in Pittsburgh. But then the Pirates went on an epic collapse and finished with 79 wins. This is a team right on the cusp and there may be plenty of uncertainties (especially on the mound) but led by NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates will finally get over the hump.
In a season full of surprises, a couple of small market teams – the A’s and Orioles – qualified for the playoffs a year ago. Can they contend again or was that just a fluke?
KJ: First of all it was absolutely wonderful to see these teams do what they did last season. Seeing their ballparks full late in September was what sport is about, the unscripted drama, teams doing something no one imagined. That being said, both teams did very little to get better this offseason and I think that may have frustrated some of the senior players on those teams. They deserved a bit more talent. I like both managers but I think both fall short but stay in contention for a while.
LD: A lot of things went right for these teams last year. The Orioles were 29-9 in one-run games and won 16 straight extra-inning contests while the A’s had 14 walk-off victories and got big performances from a handful of rookies (Yoenis Cespedes, Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker). Luck could be on their side again in 2013, but it’s hard to see either making the playoffs this time around.
The Giants enter the season as reigning World Series champs. What are their chances of repeating?
KJ: Very slim. I have nothing but respect for their manager, Bruce Bochy, and their entire upper management staff. How they draft, develop players and recruit is fantastic but I just don’t see them winning it all this year. They have two magnificent starters in Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner but offensively questions remain and it is so difficult to repeat in Major League Baseball. Only the Yankees and Blue Jays have done it in the last 33 seasons.
LD: Winning back-to-back titles is no easy feat (the Yankees were the last to do so when they won three straight from 1998-2000), but the Giants have the personnel to do it. They return this year with their championship roster largely intact, a group who knows how to win. Sure there are concerns (will the old Tim Lincecum resurface?) but the strength of this team is it’s experience and pitching staff – two things that come in handy in October.
With the Astros moving to the AL this season, interleague games will now be played year round. Do you like the new format?
KJ: I don’t mind it at all. It is far from perfect because there remains a real imbalance in the schedule and division battles could be decided by teams you end up playing. However, what often gets forgotten in these arguments is the fans. Fans – and by which I mean actual fans who will travel to watch their teams – love to see their team in different cities. Media members will sarcastically rip a Marlins-Twins series in June but for a Braves fan like myself, for example, I no longer just have to travel to Pittsburgh (5hrs away) to see them as I can go to Detroit and Toronto this season.
LD: There are some positives like the fact both leagues (and individual divisions) now have an even number of teams. But unlike the old system, this season each squad will play 20 interleague games (bad news for teams like the Jays who struggled against the NL) and there is always the question of the role of the DH. It will be interesting to see how the new format plays out in its first year.
Who will win AL and NL MVP?
KJ: Big players in big markets, Robinson Cano and Matt Kemp.
LD: Going with a couple of players coming off injury-plagued seasons – Evan Longoria and Joey Votto.
Who will win the AL and NL Cy Young?
KJ: I am going for a pair of dynamic lefties, Chris Sale in the AL and Clayton Kershaw in the NL.
LD: Justin Verlander is always in the Cy Young conversation while Matt Cain will build off last year’s fantastic campaign.
Who will win the AL and NL Rookie of Year?
KJ: Jurickson Profar in the AL (Texas need to get him on the team now) & Braves pitcher Julio Teheran in the NL.
LD: Dylan Bundy should make an impact once he gets called up and thanks to some injuries, it looks like Jedd Gyorko will begin the season at third base with the Padres.
Who are your six division winners?
KJ: Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers in AL and Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds and LA Dodgers in NL
LD: Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, LA Angels in AL and Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants in NL
Who are your four wild card teams?
KJ: Kansas City Royals over New York Yankees in AL, Atlanta Braves over Pittsburgh Pirates in NL
LD: Tampa Bay Rays over Texas Rangers in AL, Atlanta Braves over LA Dodgers in NL
What is your World Series prediction?
KJ: Braves over the Tigers in 6. Yes please.
LD: In a match-up featuring two teams with unfinished business from a year ago, the Reds will beat the Tigers in 6 to win their first World Series since 1990.