It’s tough to go against the consensus that the Dodgers are the pick as the 2014 world champion. In fact, they are so good that they already have a one-game lead and not one pitch has even been thrown yet here in the good old USA. And they can even stretch that lead to 1-1/2 games if they win the Sunday night opener. Is it too early to start running their magic number to clinch in the newspapers? Well, the Dodgers are good, and my choice to win the NL West. But I really like the vibe in Cincinnati created by the hiring of former pitching coach Bryan Price as manager, and he has a lot to work with. My upset special in the National League is that the Cardinal Way won’t be good enough to reach the post season.
I’m going the same direction in the American League, leaving the World Series champion Red Sox out of the post-season picture. Just as I believe that Price is just right for the Reds, I see veteran manager Joe Maddon using his experience to guide the pitching-rich Rays past a tough AL East and into the World Series. My most risky picks in the AL are having the Angels top the A’s for the AL West crown, and then seeing the Yankees and Tigers edge out Oakland for the wild card.
To summarize, in the American League I’ve got the Angels (West), Royals (Central) and Rays (East) winning their divisions. The wild-card teams will be the Tigers and Yankees. In the National League I’ve got the Dodgers (West), Reds (Central) and Nationals winning their divisions. The wild-card teams will be the Giants and Pirates.
Bonus predictions: Of the two new significant rule changes this season, replay reviews will be a big hit, and the home-plate collision provision will be confusing and dangerous.
The best part of the replay rule is that the fans at the parks will be able to see the various camera angles of the disputed play as the call is being reviewed. And because the camera work is so sharp these days, it makes no sense to not overturn a call that everyone agrees is wrong. Of course, there are still limited challenges in the first six innings, so there will still be those moments when a wrong will not be made right.
I’m not sure if the players are even clear on the collision rule. Catchers can still block the plate if they have the ball, but players are being given the sense that they can’t run into the catcher. This seems to put catchers in control, because they don’t have to worry as much about getting clobbered. Yet, indecision by base runners speeding into home about where their lane is supposed to be could cause some last-second awkward slides and possible injuries.
So, off we go on the 162-game grind (160-game grind for the Dodgers-D-Backs). Here is a division by division look.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
1. Dodgers: The Australian Cup winners are more of a group of independent contractors than a team, with no real leaders. But so much talent, and they won 42 of 50 in that second-half streak last year. The long-delayed re-signing of manager Don Mattingly at least avoided us having to refer to the Dodgers as the Lame Duck Dynasty. Dodger baseball should be exciting, but will it be overshadowed by Mattingly’s daily father-to-son talks with his “un-puig-dictable” right fielder? 2. Giants: Tim Lincecum is the key. No. 1-2 starters Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain will be fine. If Lincecum can avoid high pitch counts forcing early exits, he can conserve the bullpen so it is rested for Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong, who might not be innings-eaters About three hours after I wrote this, Lincecum took one off the knee in an exhibition game. He apparently is OK, but it shows how quick fortunes can change and why picking winners and losers now is a bit risky. 3. Rockies: They have four legitimate big league starters in their rotation. If they and offensive stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy, Colorado could be a wild-card contender. 4. Padres: Similar strategy as Giants, in that they play in an expansive park which can frustrate opposing batters. Strong rotation, but bullpen needs help. 5. Diamondbacks: They’re already a game out of first, having flown for 28 hours to lose two games in Sydney. Bad omen. Lost No. 1 starter Patrick Corbin for the season.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Reds: Exciting leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton and Brandon Phillips set the table for the sluggers. Injured key starter Mat Latos is probably out for first month. Closer Aroldis Chapman out for at least a month after taking a line drive off his forehead. So as long as Reds stay in hunt without them, both should return for the long haul. Love Dusty Baker, but Price will make team jell better and get the most out of the good talent. 2. Pirates: They did nearly knock off Cardinals in post season last year. Andrew McCutcheon is a star. Nice rotation and bullpen, and a belief, under manager Clint Hurdle, that the years of losing are over. 3. Cardinals: About the only argument against them is a hangover from that hard-fought post-season, and maybe just the odds that they can’t be in running for a World Series shot every season. Ask the Giants. 4. Brewers: Slugger Ryan Braun thinks the Brewers could be very competitive, but then, how do we know he’s telling the truth? Braun, trying to put the PED scandal behind him, is the key to an already strong offense. Questions about the rotation will likely prevent the Brewers from rising into contention. 5. Cubs: Holy Cow! They’re becoming unlovable. Even attendance is down at the Wrigley Field shrine. It’s a team rebuilding without a blueprint. Weak bullpen won’t be carried by rotation, and offense can’t manufacture runs.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
1. Nationals: Last year’s dropoff seems to be a fluke. Dynamite rotation, strong bullpen. Young Bryce Harper could really jettison into star status this season. World Series contender has been handed to Matt Williams. Will the rookie manager be able to guide it through the ups and downs of a baseball season? 2. Phillies: It’s only a rumor that the dugout bench was replaced with rocking chairs. Phils have some aging players, but they can still play, and the incentive is that this season might represent last chance for one big run. 3. Braves. Lost two starters for season to surgery. Lost standout catcher/hitter Brian McCann and reliable starter Tim Hudson to free agency. They have a great closer, but will they have leads to save? Braves had their big shot at post-season success last year, and let it get away. 4. Marlins: Lost 100 games last year, so only way is up. Rookie of the year pitcher Jose Fernandez helps outlook, and lineup is somewhat improved. 5. Mets: Marginal lineup could negate some promising pitching. With All-Star game starter Matt Harvey lost to injury, young Zack Wheeler might be key to boosting the rotation.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
1. Angels: There is general agreement that Mike Trout is the best player in the league if not the game. At some point, that has to translate into wins. If his slugging comrades Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton revive themselves and their bats, the 1-2-3 punch will be the most feared in baseball, with ex-Cardinals hero David Freese contributing to a solid lineup. Starters C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are a nice 1-2 combo, though the rest of the rotation needs to step up. The bullpen should be improved. 2. A’s: It is hard to pick against the A’s, whose management is so clever that the low-budget club is no longer a surprise if they make a post-season run. In fact, it is now expected that they will compete with all the big money clubs. But it’s difficult not to think that season-ending to surgery to their ace Jarrod Parker and ailments suffered by two other starters might be an early sign of the challenges ahead in 2014. 3. Rangers: Did the club have a bobble head voodoo doll giveaway this spring? Injuries have hit a number of players, including no. 1 starter Yu Darvish. Lots of questions about rest of rotation. 4. Mariners: Club, following 71-91 season, made statement that they are looking for instant turnaround with $240 million signing of the Yankees’ Robinson Cano. Question: More than Cano is needed to move up a couple notches, but is there any money left? 5. Astros: Bottom line is they don’t match up with rest of AL West, their main foes this season. Their no. 1 goal to turning things around: cut down on the strikeout total and increase the walks total.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
1. Royals: James Shields leads the rotation and Greg Holland leads the bullpen, and their supporting cast could be very strong. The 1-2 leadoff tandem of Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante is one of the best in baseball, and the players who performed well in 2013 are expected to improve in 2014. Royals management has shown a willingness to bring on new talent to fill holes. 2. Tigers: Miguel Cabrera’s zillion-dollar contract won’t matter, since he can’t do much more than he already has delivered. Club still has plenty of talent, The team, however, is likely to miss the steady hand of veteran manager Jim Leyland, and rookie skipper Brad Ausmus might have more of challenge fitting in. 3. White Sox: It looks like a two-team race in the AL Central, with the White Sox, Indians and Twins as also-rans. Cuban star Jose Abreu should give White Sox offense a lift, and the pitching has promise led by starter Chris Sale. Still many question marks about no. 3,4,5 in the rotation as well as the bullpen. 4. Indians: They made the wild-card last year with a 21-6 September. Can’t bank on that again. Lineup has potential, but team won’t get close to post season without more pitching help. 5. Twins: Lost 96 in 2013, and things aren’t looking any better. Bullpen might be improved, but it won’t matter if the relief corps is overworked because of inadequate starting pitching.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
1. Rays: Similar to the recent A’s teams in that the small-market club doesn’t look formidable until the game is over and it somehow beat you. Consistent, reliable pitching although Heath Bell as closer raises red flag. Time to fix that if he doesn’t click early. Strong rotation led by David Price. Offense will depend largely on 1-2 bats of Evan Longoria and rookie of the year Will Myers. The steady hand of manager Joe Maddon to guide the Rays through the treacherous AL West is a big plus. 2. Yankees: Can’t tell the players without a scorecard. C Brian McCann, OF-DH Carlos Beltran, OF Jacoby Ellsbury from the hated Red Sox, and Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka are new acquisitions, and each could have a major impact. Rotation could be steady, especially if Tanaka lives up to billing. All eyes are on David Robertson, who takes over for closer legend Mariano Rivera. Fantasy finish would have Derek Jeter’s last game be in the World Series. 3. Red Sox: The Brotherhood of Beards. The bombing aftermath. So much emotion went into 2013 for the Red Sox, culminating in a tense, draining World Series championship. It might be asking too much to rev it all up again this year. Everything went right last year, such as reliever Koji Uehara’s ridiculous 1.09 ERA and 101 Ks in 74 innings. And they will miss Ellsbury. 4. Orioles: If chicks dig the long, ball, they will be wild about the O’s. Chris Davis hit 53 homers, an out-of-this world number in the supposed post-PED era. On defense, the Orioles gave up a major league high of 212. Club lost its closer, and rotation has some holes. But the shortcomings can be improved upon, and Orioles should be OK scoring runs. So there is still a path for the Orioles to maneuver their way toward contention in this tough division. 5. Blue Jays: Injuries hurt in 2013, and a healthier team could certainly make the outlook more positive. Rotation caused bullpen to get overworked, and defense didn’t help.