Matt Kemp looks to lead a new and improved Dodgers team to a division title.
With a little under two months until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, I'm starting to get a little excited—or maybe it's just Christmas.
Regardless, the thought of heated division races in September have me shaking in anticipation for the new Major League Baseball season.
With an already eventful offseason, many teams are showing their commitment to winning by bringing in prized free agents and trading for players they feel will improve their team.
The division races aren't decided in free agency, however, so let's take a look at my very early predictions for every division winner and each division's projected rankings at the end of next season.
Jose Reyes will lead a formidable Blue Jays lineup in 2013.
Yes, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.
For years, Toronto has tried to build a team for the long-term, drafting great prospects and trying to groom them into MLB superstars. It seems they have abandoned that old-fashioned approach to winning.
The Jays have spent the last month obliterating their reputation as a low-budget, low-profile team.
They completed one of the biggest trades in recent memory, snagging Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio from the Marlins in the most recent of a series of Miami fire-sales. They also made one of the biggest free-agent splashes of the offseason, signing the National League Cy Young Winner, R.A. Dickey.
Toronto did a great job addressing its glaring needs in the offseason, as its pitching was its Achilles heel. The team posted the 26th-worst ERA in the majors last season.
Buehrle won a World Series with the White Sox in 2005, and he has also pitched a no-hitter and a perfect game. His performance in big games—regular season or postseason—is nowhere close to a cause for concern.
Josh Johnson, aside from injury, has been one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the league since he broke into the majors in 2005, posting a career ERA of 3.15.
Toronto’s needs were not solely in the bullpen, however, and it made strides to improve its offense as well.
Jose Reyes gives the Jays an explosive veteran presence at the top of the lineup, blazing speed on the basepaths and Gold Glove-caliber fielding—something not seen in Canada since Roberto Alomar.
Emilio Bonifacio is widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the Majors, and his services as a utility player will go largely unnoticed outside of Toronto. His contributions, however, will not be minor. He is an above-average fielder in both the outfield and all infield positions excluding first base, and he will be all over the field throughout the season for the Jays.
Melky Cabrera is an underrated signing as well. He bolted San Francisco after putting up careers numbers while being aided by PEDs, but he is still a serviceable outfielder who improves Toronto’s lineup.
The Blue Jays’ revamped roster looks poised to breeze through the regular season to the playoffs, but they face a tougher task than most in Major League Baseball.
The Jays play in the toughest division in baseball. The Red Sox are struggling to return to their winning ways, but playing Boston should never be taken lightly. The Tampa Bay Rays are constantly looked over, but they feature one of baseball's best pitching staffs.
And with perennial championship contenders in the New York Yankees and the up-and-coming Baltimore Orioles lurking in their division ranks, the AL East crown is a tall mountain to climb for a Jays franchise that is not used to contending.
The talent brought across the border, however, is not young talent, and I think they can sneak out of the regular season with a single-digit division lead.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
2. New York Yankees (Wild Card)
3. Baltimore Orioles
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Boston Red Sox
Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera looks to lead his Tigers back to the World Series.
The reigning American League champions will continue their success in 2013.
Not often can a team boast back-to-back MVP winners on the same team. Fewer still can lay claim to having both a Triple Crown winner and a Cy Young winner on the same roster. And only nine times in the history of MLB has a team had a pitcher and a position player win back-to-back MVP awards.
Justin Verlander is without a doubt the most dominant pitcher in baseball today. His WAR (7.5) last season was a full point higher than the second-place finisher David Price (6.4). He has led the league in strikeouts three out of the last four years, and he finished fifth in the only season he wasn’t the leader (2010).
Verlander has also been a workhorse for the Tigers, leading the league in innings each of the last four years, excluding 2010, when he finished fifth again.
As the best pitcher in the game, Verlander anchors a pitching staff that would be mediocre without him.
Reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera is, like Verlander, one of the most dominant players at his position. He is undoubtedly the best third baseman in the game, and his numbers prove it.
Miguel won the Triple Crown last season, the first since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, posting a .330 average with 44 home runs and 139 RBI. The guy was absolutely en fuego, but none of it would have been possible without one of last year’s biggest free-agent signings protecting him in the lineup.
Prince Fielder is a classic power-hitting first baseman, and his added power threat in the Tigers’ lineup last season opened up a world of seeing pitches that Cabrera had never experienced before. Fielder’s bat is formidable, and pitchers have a tough time deciding which one to pitch to.
There isn’t really a right decision, though. They’re both gonna crush it.
That kind of historic talent on the Tigers’ roster will prove to be too much for the AL Central. Consistency isn’t the forte of most of the Central’s teams, and Detroit should breeze through to a first-round playoff matchup in the Motor City.
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Cleveland Indians
5. Minnesota Twins
Free-agent signee Josh Hamilton joins an already impressive Angels offense.
The Angels have one of the more potentially exciting lineups in recent memory.
The Angels spent the last offseason courting Albert Pujols, eventually signing him to a 10-year, $240 million deal last December. Securing the player many think will end up being the greatest hitter of all time wasn’t enough, however.
After a disappointing 2012 campaign that ended with the Angels watching the playoffs from home, the club in Anaheim could still walk away with outstanding offensive accomplishments.
They finished first in batting average and fourth overall in runs, anchored by the incredible play of Mike Trout, the solid offensive performance of Mark Trumbo and the run-of-the-mill numbers of Albert Pujols.
Still, they felt like that wasn’t enough.
They signed the crown jewel offensive free agent in Josh Hamilton, and they look to improve on their already impressive numbers from last season.
The Angels lost out on Zack Greinke in free agency, but their pitching should be solid without him, and with a lineup like they have, there should be no problems outscoring opponents.
The rest of the West is going to have a down year, with the Astros and Mariners still not ready to contend, the A’s still a season or two away from really challenging the top of the division and the Rangers poised for a setback after losing their best player to a division rival.
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Oakland Athletics (Wild Card)
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Texas Rangers
5. Houston Astros
Craig Kimbrel leads an outstanding Atlanta pitching staff.
The Nationals surprised everyone last season with an impressive run through the NL East competition and into the playoffs for the first time since they made it in 1981 as the Montreal Expos.
The Nats are young and will be even better this season—I just see the Braves being better.
The back end of Atlanta’s bullpen is unrivaled in the Majors, with Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel mowing down batters at the end of games.
Kimbrel could be the first closer to win the Cy Young since Eric Gagne did so in 2003, and his presence at the end of games gives the starters and the offense the confidence to play loose and relaxed throughout a game.
Atlanta’s rotation is one of the best in the NL as well. Kris Medlen had a ridiculous second half of the season last year, at one point winning 13 games in a row. At 27 years old, he stands to improve this coming season.
Tim Hudson is the reliable veteran presence in the rotation and the undoubted leader of that bullpen. He’s not a bad pitcher either, winning 16 games last year with a 3.62 ERA.
Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Brandon Beachy and a gang of Braves prospects who seem to constantly make an impact at the Major League level will help compose yet another top National League pitching staff for the Braves.
The Braves will obviously miss Michael Bourn, arguably the best leadoff hitter in the game, but they think they have found an adequate replacement in center field in B.J. Upton.
Upton’s consistency at the top of the lineup will be the key for Atlanta this season, as he was prone to lapses in concentration during his time in St. Pete. But if he can play up to his potential and never take a game off mentally, he should free up opportunities for Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman, who will follow him up.
Atlanta will face an intense division race with the Nationals and possibly the bounce-back Phillies, but their outstanding pitching will carry their average offense into the playoffs.
1. Atlanta Braves
2. Washington Nationals (Wild Card)
3. Philadelphia Phillies
4. Miami Marlins
5. New York Mets
Joey Votto and the Reds should cruise through NL Central competition.
I almost picked the Cubs here for shock value, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
The Reds don’t throw big names and huge personalities at you, but Dusty Baker’s club always finds ways to win.
Joey Votto will lead the respectable Reds offense that features many solid options at the plate. Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and the newly-acquired Shin-Soo Choo should all put up impressive numbers for an offense that needs improvement from last year after it finished 21st in runs scored.
The strength of the Reds’ roster, however, is their pitching. Aroldis Chapman will headline an impressive pitching staff who will look to match its fourth-best ERA and league-leading saves numbers from a year ago.
Chapman is making the move to the starting rotation after lighting up opposing batters as the closer last year, and this move will define the Reds’ season.
The explosive right-hander will overcome doubts about his power arm not being able to handle the grueling workload of a starting pitcher in the Majors, and he will anchor another fantastic pitching staff in Cincinnati.
The Reds will find formidable opposition from the Cardinals in St. Louis, as Mike Matheny will have his team ready to return to the NLCS, where they lost to the eventual champion Giants last season.
With the Cards the only real threat to the division crown, though—as Pittsburgh still struggles to maintain success through 162 games and Chicago and Milwaukee still far from contending—the Reds will ride their pitching through to the postseason.
1. Cincinnati Reds
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Chicago Cubs
MVP candidate Matt Kemp headlines a potent Dodgers offensive attack.
The offseason rock stars have finally done enough to overtake the Giants.
The Dodgers spent this offseason pushing hard for prized pitching free agent Zack Greinke, and they eventually succeeded, signing him to a six-year, $147 million contract—the largest in history for a right-handed pitcher.
Adding Greinke and Korean left-hander Ryu Hyun-Jin to a pitching staff which features former Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and which ranked third in ERA last season should scare NL West adversaries.
The Dodgers’ offensive weapons are no chumps, either. Hanley Ramirez is a unique combination of power and speed, and he could put up MVP-type numbers if he could invest 100 percent mentally.
Center fielder Matt Kemp was the early favorite for the NL MVP before injuries derailed his fantastic season. Andre Ethier is a staple in right field for the Dodgers, putting up solid numbers every season.
And if Carl Crawford can come back and perform anywhere near his production for the Rays, the Dodgers could have the best outfield in baseball.
Adrian Gonzalez could also be another huge piece of the puzzle for the Dodgers at first base. Although Gonzalez hit .299 last year with 18 home runs and 109 RBI, those numbers are considered pedestrian for him. If he can return to the level of production he saw in San Diego and Boston, opposing pitchers don’t stand a chance.
All of the talent on this roster screams division title, but it won’t be that easy. The San Francisco Giants have won two out of the last three World Series, and even though they lack the superstar talent of the Dodgers aside from last year’s MVP Buster Posey, they always seem to find a way to be in the playoff mix down the stretch.
With the recent acquisitions, though, I don’t see any way the Dodgers aren’t in the playoffs next season. They’re just too talented.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. San Francisco Giants (Wild Card)
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. Colorado Rockies
5. San Diego Padres