Identifying the Legitimate World Series Contenders for 2013
Though spring training has literally just begun, it is never too early to look ahead to what the MLB landscape may look like this coming postseason.
Looking at what each team did this past season and how they added to their clubs in the offseason, I see eight teams ranking as legitimate World Series contenders entering the season, with a handful of other teams having a significant chance if a number of things break in their favor.
Outside Shot: New York Yankees
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Weary of the luxury tax, the Yankees were not their usual free-spending selves this offseason and instead filled out their lineup with some lower-cost, one-year deals.
Re-signing Hiroki Kuroda, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Ichiro Suzuki rank as the Yankees' biggest offseason moves, while they also signed Kevin Youkilis to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez and Travis Hafner to serve as the primary DH.
I wouldn't bet against the Yankees, but after a rough exit from the postseason last year and with an aging roster and little improvement from last season, they appear to be the third-best team in the AL East at their peak.
Outside Shot: Oakland Athletics
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The A's surprised everyone last season with a fantastic second-half push that ended with the AL West crown, and they won't take anyone by surprise this time around.
Aside from losing Brandon McCarthy and Jonny Gomes in free agency, the A's return essentially the same team from last year. They'll once again count on a combination of second-tier veterans and inexperienced youngsters.
Getting Brett Anderson back for a full season to front the staff is big, and shoring up the infield with the additions of Hiroyuki Nakajima and Jed Lowrie should help the offense.
Still, their starting rotation is incredibly young, and one has to wonder if guys like Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick can repeat their production from a year ago. But it's hard not to think there's something special about this group after last season.
Outside Shot: Texas Rangers
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It was a tough offseason for the Rangers, as they parted ways with Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, Ryan Dempster, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, among others.
They then failed to land any of their major offseason targets, as they went after Zack Greinke, James Shields and Justin Upton and even attempted to re-sign Josh Hamilton, all to no avail.
That said, they still have a solid core of players with Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler leading the offense and Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison anchoring the staff. If prospects Jurickson Profar, Mike Olt and Martin Perez can make a significant impact, they could still contend for the playoffs and more.
Outside Shot: Philadelphia Phillies
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An 81-81 season was certainly a disappointment in Philadelphia last season, and the 2013 season may be the Phillies' last real shot at a title before they begin overhauling the roster.
That said, they still boast a trio of starters as good as any in baseball with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
Their offense will presumably have a healthy Ryan Howard and Chase Utley leading the run-production charge, and if they can stay healthy and guys like Jimmy Rollins, Ben Revere and Michael Young can make a positive impact, they should have a much more formidable offense than last season.
It will be all about staying healthy and having their superstar core play up to their capabilities, but the pieces are still there for the Phillies to make a title push.
Outside Shot: Tampa Bay Rays
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The Rays mortgaged some of their pitching depth to land an young impact bat in Wil Myers, as they shipped James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals.
If Myers can make an impact by midseason and fellow new additions James Loney, Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson provide improved production at their respective positions, the team has a real shot.
Evan Longoria's health and how the rotation makes up for the loss of Shields are key factors as well, but if everything breaks right, they could be right in the thick of things.
Legitimate Contenders: St. Louis Cardinals
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The Cardinals were dealt a blow when Chris Carpenter was sidelined indefinitely, but if there is any team that has proven capable of overcoming injury-related adversity over the past few seasons, it's the Cardinals.
Along with Carpenter, the team will be without Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman. But with the emergence of Allen Craig in the lineup as an MVP candidate and the trio of Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly capable of stepping into the rotation and performing at a high level, the team should be just fine.
They have the best all-around catcher in the game in Yadier Molina, a bona fide ace in Adam Wainwright, a premier run producer in Matt Holliday and a bevy of complementary parts that should once again put them right in the thick of things come October.
Legitimate Contenders: Los Angeles Dodgers
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The Dodgers are an entirely different team than they were entering the trade deadline last season, and the new, free-spending ownership group appears ready to do whatever it takes to bring a title to Los Angeles.
After acquiring Hanley Ramirez at the deadline, the team pulled off a blockbuster deal with the Red Sox to land Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford.
Those four will be joined by the best available arm on the free-agent market in Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million deal to fill the need for a front-line starter behind Clayton Kershaw in the rotation.
Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu was also signed to bolster the rotation, and Brandon League was brought back to be the team's closer. The team is overflowing with superstar talent. Now they just need to come together as a group and live up to their immense potential.
Legitimate Contenders: Los Angeles Angels
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After adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in mega-deals last offseason, the Angels continued their free-spending ways this offseason in signing slugger Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal.
He was far from the only addition though, as the starting rotation has been completely overhauled, for better or worse, behind ace Jered Weaver and Wilson.
Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton replace Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. If nothing else, that group should eat innings. The bullpen gets a facelift as well with the additions of Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett.
After a disappointing season last year, the Angels will look to live up to lofty expectations this time around.
Legitimate Contenders: Atlanta Braves
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Losing veteran leader and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones to retirement can't be understated, but the Braves are still in a great position entering the 2013 season.
In signing B.J. Upton and trading for his brother Justin, the team now boasts perhaps the best outfield in all of baseball with those two playing alongside superstar-in-the-making Jason Heyward.
If Kris Medlen can continue to pitch like he did in the second half last season and Brandon Beachy can bounce back well from Tommy John surgery, the rotation should be formidable, and their bullpen will once again be one of the best in all of baseball.
They may not even be the best team in their division, but the Braves should be able to run away with a wild-card spot. Once they reach the postseason, their pitching could carry them.
Legitimate Contenders: Toronto Blue Jays
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The Blue Jays have clearly gone all-in on winning this season, trading five of their top prospects this winter in a pair of blockbuster deals that landed them R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio.
That cast of new faces will join the two-headed monster of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, a budding superstar in third baseman Brett Lawrie and a pair of potential front-line arms in Brandon Morrow and Rickey Romero, among others.
All the pieces are there for contention. They just need to come together as a group under John Gibbons and avoid the injury bug that bit them hard last season.
Legitimate Contenders: Cincinnati Reds
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The Reds' biggest need entering the offseason was to find a center fielder with good on-base skills to serve as a table-setter atop the lineup. They found their man in Shin-Soo Choo, and his .381 career on-base percentage will be a welcome addition atop the lineup.
The team also re-signed Ryan Ludwick to play left field and brought back Jonathan Broxton to close, as they'll transition flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman to the rotation.
Provided that transition goes well, the team should once again have a solid staff led by Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and emerging star Homer Bailey.
They'll be backed by an offense that features the likes of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, and with a complete roster top-to-bottom, the Reds have to be considered favorites in the NL Central once again.
Legitimate Contenders: Washington Nationals
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After leading all of baseball with 98 wins last season, the Nationals entered the offseason already boasting one of the best rosters in all of baseball.
And they've only gotten better, filling their biggest need when they acquired Denard Span from the Twins. He gives them their long sought-after center fielder and leadoff hitter.
They also signed Dan Haren to replace Edwin Jackson in the rotation and signed Rafael Soriano to close, and with Stephen Strasburg off the leash and Bryce Harper only getting better moving forward, the Nationals may be the team to beat in the NL.
Legitimate Contenders: Detroit Tigers
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It took a late-season push for the Tigers to even make the postseason last year. While they could certainly suffer a similar battle this season, on paper it looks like they should run away with the division crown.
The slugging duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder may be the best in baseball, and they'll get plenty of help from emerging star Austin Jackson, free-agent addition Torii Hunter and a fully recovered Victor Martinez.
That offense, coupled with a pitching rotation that features perhaps the game's best pitcher in Justin Verlander and three more front-line guys in Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, makes them a dangerous team come October.
If the bullpen can sort itself out and everyone can play to their potential, an AL pennant repeat seems very possible.
Legitimate Contenders: San Francisco Giants
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Losing Brian Wilson, who was injured the majority of the season, and Melky Cabrera, who was suspended for the team's stretch run and the postseason, are the only changes to the Giants roster heading into 2013.
Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Jeremy Affeldt were re-signed to multi-year deals to keep the World Series-winning core in place. There is no reason they can't make a serious run at their third title in four years.
If Tim Lincecum can return to form, their fantastic pitching staff will be even better. And with a full season of Hunter Pence serving as a third run producer alongside Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, the offense should be better as well.