What makes a fresh baseball season so beautiful? Maybe it's that moment when you first open the newspaper and see the standings, to find every team tied at zero. It's the only time during the season where every team has an equal chance to succeed. Even the Astros, however briefly, take comfort in not yet being mathematically eliminated.
Or it could be the weather, that warm spring air that we've all come to associate with a new season starting. It's that scent of the trees blooming mixed with the familiar smell of ballpark nachos that wafts into the bleachers.
But there's something else in the air, too. What do they call it?
Oh! That's what it is—hope.
That's the best thing about April: the possibilities. For perennial basement-dwelling teams, it's the prospect of a fresh slate and the thought that maybe, just maybe, we'll turn things around this year.
It's the rookies who made the cut out of training camp for the first time, out on the field to prove themselves every night as they strive to define themselves as big leaguers. Or it's the grizzled veterans at the tail ends of careers, determined to have one more strong year before they hang it up.
The NL West is an enigma this year. It features strong teams on paper, but none without their respective questions.
The defending world champion Giants are the same patented band of misfits. So much has to go right in order for them to succeed that they hardly seem like favorites.
The Dodgers intend on making a splash this year, storming into the conversation after surpassing the Yankees for the highest payroll in the game. With that Yankee-sized payroll come Yankee-sized expectations—anything less than a championship will be considered a failure. Can the Dodgers live up to the hype?
A revamped Arizona team is out to prove that they belong in the race. The Rockies have a handful of players back from injuries and are ready for a fresh start. And the Padres are relying on a youth movement and one of the most underrated offenses in the game to get them to the top.
The following predictions are as much speculation as anything—just one casual fan's thoughts based on things he observes. They're not meant to be set in stone.
We all know what the swings of the season are like. An unexpected contender will emerge from obscurity and make the playoffs. Expected 100-win teams will plummet and start eyeing next year's early draft picks.
And that's really why we're all fans of the game. Because now and always, whether you're a Yankees fan with ingrained championship expectations, or a Pirates fan just holding out hope for a winning season, we all have a chance.
Projected Lineup: CF Dexter Fowler, 1B Jordan Pacheco, LF Carlos Gonzalez, SS Troy Tulowitzki, RF Michael Cuddyer, C Wilin Rosario, 3B Chris Nelson, 2B DJ LeMahieu
The Rockies were a team without a direction last season. The low point was the terribly ill-conceived "four-man rotation" experiment.
Granted, injuries to key players like Troy Tulowitzki derailed any chances last year's squad might have had at contention, but you can't attribute a 98-loss season to just an injury or two. If you finish five games back, you can say "Tulo could've gotten us there." But last year's Rockies finished 30 games back.
That means some core changes need to be made.
So it should come as no surprise that general manager Dan O'Dowd, in an effort to overhaul his team, build a contender and win back a long-suffering Denver fanbase, did nothing this winter.
They seem to be relying on a surge from their young talent to boost them back into contention, a revelation that has many Rockies faithful saying "Well, crap."
The first thing the Rockies need to get sorted out is their rotation. Fourteen different pitchers started games last year for Colorado, which borders on ridiculous.
A big help in getting them back on track should be the return of Jorge De La Rosa, who can pitch like an ace when he's healthy. And when it's 2009. Really, since we haven't seen a full season from him in four years, we don't know what to expect.
However, a pitcher who could end up being an unexpected surprise is Jeff Francis. Lucky to even have a major league contract offer this winter, Francis has done nothing but pitch like a consummate pro this spring. Through five starts against various levels of talent, he has achieved a 1.96 ERA with only two walks allowed in 18.1 innings.
What does Francis' spring performance mean for the season? Nothing definitively, but if you go by the trends we've seen, they all point to Francis blowing his 85-mph fastball by hitters throughout the league.
But the biggest thing to look forward to will be watching Todd Helton play out his presumed final season. He's one of the smartest hitters in the game, and he's not a guy who would carry on if he knew he wasn't playing at his optimal level. He wants to finish strong.
While his final at-bat may occur during a meaningless September game, well after the Rockies have been eliminated from contention, the ovation he gets that night in Denver will be something incredible. And the first iconic Rockies player will certainly be deserving.
I guess what I'm saying is, if we're going to talk about the Rockies this year, let's talk about Helton's Hall of Fame credentials. It's a conversation a lot more enjoyable than, "Which minor leaguer gets to be our starting pitcher tonight?" Don't you think?
Projected Finish: 69-93, Fifth place
Projected Lineup: 2B Skip Schumaker, RF Andre Ethier, CF Matt Kemp, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, LF Carl Crawford, SS Hanley Ramirez, 3B Luis Cruz, C A.J. Ellis
The Dodgers' ownership group has decided to throw every dollar they have into fielding big-name players, in an attempt to prove that you don't have to be the Yankees to buy championships.
The problem is that in doing so, they failed to address several gaping holes in the roster. If your roof has a leak, you need to fix the leak before you go add a new five-car garage.
These problems begin on the left side of the infield. It looks like Luis Cruz and Dee Gordon will be manning third base and shortstop on Opening Day. Cruz will get a few base hits, but Dee only batted .228 last year and lacks any home run power. In fact, three pitchers on the Dodgers' roster have more career homers than Gordon.
Hanley Ramirez will be back in the mix once he comes back from thumb surgery, but he has been a largely ineffective hitter since the 2010 season, his average hovering around .250 with a ton of strikeouts.
He has also lost a couple steps at short. This may be related to the fact that his amount of jewelry has gone up exponentially over the past few years. There's a reason Mr. T would take his chains off when he went into the ring.
But it's the new rotation that everyone is hailing as the greatest since the Hershiser/Valenzuela days, which amuses me somewhat.
The young staff looks great on paper, but if you think they'll all make it through the season in one piece, you clearly haven't seen this show before. Chad Billingsley, for instance, has opted not to undergo Tommy John surgery because he insists that his partially torn elbow ligament "feels fine".
In the end, it will become apparent that the Dodgers have grown too big for their own good. They added some exceptional players—Zack Greinke, for instance—who will live up to the hype and put up some career numbers.
But for every Zack Greinke, there's an underperforming superstar whose price tag prevents the team from investing in a viable backup. By the time August rolls around, half these guys will be injured and the other half will be benched for lack of production, leaving the team with a bunch of rookies and Juan Uribe on the field.
The key ingredient for so many championship teams is what the Dodgers are missing: the bench guys who can spell an aging superstar when they hit a slump. But the Dodgers...well, let's just say they're going for the million without any lifelines.
Projected Finish: 75-87, Fourth place
Projected Lineup: CF Adam Eaton, 2B Aaron Hill, 3B Martin Prado, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, LF Jason Kubel, C Miguel Montero, RF Cody Ross, SS Cliff Pennington
The Diamondbacks, apparently, are rebuilding.
This comes as a shock, I'm sure, to many fans in Arizona and beyond, since the team was quite in contention last year. They may have finished at .500, but the team's run differential of plus-46 only had them a couple projected wins behind the division champion Giants (plus-69). This means that the D'Backs could've easily been in the race this year, and with a few tweaks, they could've pulled off a division title.
But then they traded everyone away.
Young pitching prospect Trevor Bauer, as well as key lineup cogs Justin Upton, Chris Young and Chris Johnson, have all been shipped to new homes in exchange for players who won't contribute at the major league level for several years. This leaves the D'backs with a shoddy, cobbled-together squad of misfits, and probably not the kind that has a Cinderella story ending.
But there are a few bright spots that are worth mentioning.
New kid Adam Eaton should play center field and just might end up being one of the premier leadoff hitters in the game. During his brief call-up last year, he posted an impressive .386 OBP from the leadoff spot. He'll prove to be an excellent table-setter with his knack for drawing walks and frustrating opposing pitchers.
Regrettably, Eaton will be shrugged off by most fans who think this is the same Adam Eaton who bounced around the majors a few years ago doing a horrible impersonation of an effective pitcher. It'll be like when Ryan Braun came up and won Rookie of the Year, and everyone was confused because they thought he was this guy.
Wow, can you imagine what it must be like to be the retired ex-pitcher Ryan Braun today, having to explain that to everyone? "Yeah, I used to play in the majors. No, I'm not the Hebrew Hammer..."
The rotation is strong, founded on guys who don't walk anybody. In fact, the D'backs pitching staff finished 2012 with the second fewest walks allowed in baseball, behind only Philadelphia.
Wade Miley is the heart of that pitching corps. The hard-throwing lefty burst onto the scene last season and was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award. He was overpowering and efficient, only allowing 37 walks in 194.2 innings.
His performance tailed off a little in September, but you can hardly fault him for that as he had a massive workload—the dude logged 194 innings in his first full year in the big leagues. Look for him to be fresh and come out of the gates with a bang this year.
The D'backs also feature one of the best bullpens in baseball.
Setup man David Hernandez is essentially a closer who just happens to work in the eighth inning. Josh Collmenter can pitch quality innings and keep a lineup off-balance. Brad Ziegler induces double plays as well as anyone in baseball. Heath Bell, despite his disastrous 2012, actually finished the season quite strong with a 1.50 ERA in September. J.J. Putz continues to prove that he deserves the closer role, with 32 more saves under his belt last year.
And you're less likely to draw a walk from one of them than you are to think of an AC/DC song that isn't used by one of them as entrance music.
So there's no denying that Arizona has a few pieces in place, but serious playoff contention is probably still out of their reach. Whatever master plan the front office has hatched, one thing was clear this winter: It involves looking to the future.
Projected Finish: 79-83, Third place
Projected Lineup: SS Everth Cabrera, 2B Logan Forsythe, 3B Chase Headley, 1B Yonder Alonso, LF Carlos Quentin, C Yasmani Grandal, RF Kyle Blanks, CF Cameron Maybin
The game plan for the Padres last year was to stock up on guys who could hit the ball far. Very far. Like, almost all the way to the warning track.
The problem with that was there was always an outfielder there to catch the ball. This greatly impeded the Padres' drive for success in 2012, which is why in 2013 they've decided to move the fences in.
This move will benefit no one more than first baseman Yonder Alonso, who should easily be a 20-home run threat, but was limited to just nine last year due largely to the confines of Petco. He still managed to put together a decent year, hitting well to the opposite field and thriving mostly on gap-shot doubles.
But when he'd get under the ball, it would go to die in an outfielder's glove. Only four percent of his fly balls left the park last year, almost half the league average of 7.6 percent. This means that with the outfield fences normalized, specifically the ones on his pull side in right and right-center, his home run total should soar.
Other beneficiaries of the new park dimensions will be Chase Headley (of his 31 homers last year, only 13 were at home) and Jedd Gyorko, a dangerous power-hitting infielder who has yet to receive his major league call-up.
It's probably good for Gyorko that he won't ever know what the dark days of Petco were like, because he's coming off a 30-home run season in the minors and will be coming up with all the confidence of a guy who knows he can rake. Look for the Padres to insert him in the middle of the lineup sometime this year and have that trend continue.
Come September, the Padres will be very much in contention, and they'll have a power-packed lineup in place that'll be something very different from the norm in San Diego. I'm going to go ahead and coin the term "Pounding Fathers" to help usher in this new era of slugging. You heard it here first—I'm counting on my loyal readers as witnesses for when ESPN refuses to send me my royalty checks.
A powerful offense is only as strong as the pitching that keeps leads intact. And the Padres' young set of arms might end up turning some heads this year.
Edinson Volquez will be a good asset to have in the fold, since he knows how to pitch in a hitters' ballpark. The Padres are counting on him to help advise the youngsters on the importance of keeping the ball on the ground, which he knows very well from his days in Cincinnati—okay, not that well, judging from his ERA.
The Friars are going to have to make some magic happen with their pitching if they want to win this division, but it's definitely within their reach. Volquez will have to return to All-Star form, Clayton Richard needs to keep his momentum going from his strong 2012 and several youngsters will have to emerge and help carry the torch if the Padres want to sniff their first postseason in the Bud Black era.
Projected Finish: 84-78, Second place
Projected Lineup: 2B Marco Scutaro, 1B Brandon Belt, 3B Pablo Sandoval, C Buster Posey, RF Hunter Pence, CF Angel Pagan, LF Gregor Blanco, SS Brandon Crawford
The defending world champions enter this year with a "don't fix what ain't broken" attitude, retaining all the main pieces from the Series-winning team.
This includes the starting rotation, which could be together for the last time. Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito are both free agents after the season, so this is one last potential year of glory for the core group from their two championships.
One more and we can call them a "dynasty." Until then, they're just "a team that was kind of good for a while." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.
The Giants weren't the best team in baseball in 2012. They were among the best, but if you don't believe that a few bounces went their way last year, you just weren't watching.
And that goes beyond Hunter Pence's broken bat double in the NLCS where he made contact three times on one swing, or Angel Pagan's World Series double that caromed off the third base bag. They seemed to be riding a string of luck for the entire season, which contributed to their always timely success. How many times did they seem to score just enough for Sergio Romo to shut the door and preserve a one-run lead?
It will be difficult for this team to repeat last year's performance simply because they're battling the law of averages, which points towards the Giants falling back down to earth.
The Giants' key to success will be their offense. Last year, they hit the fewest home runs of any team in baseball. Somehow they found other creative ways to drive in just enough runs to pull out victories, but put them against an offensive powerhouse team like Detroit, and the Giants won't stand a chance. (Wait...)
When you don't have a 40-homer guy in your lineup, you need four guys who can hit 20. The Giants have four guys who should be hitting 20'
Buster Posey, a no-brainer, needs to be the anchor of the lineup and continue to put up MVP-caliber numbers.
Pablo Sandoval, whose production dipped a bit last year, needs to return to form. He also has run out of hamate bones to injure, so hopefully that will keep him in the lineup for the whole season.
Hunter Pence, who is playing for a big payday after the season, needs to show that he can produce up to his standards. A pitcher-friendly ballpark is no excuse for a .219 average. I can see how there might be an adjustment period as he tries to find his line drive swing again, but once he gets that down, the homers should follow.
If all else fails, he can always invest in more of those bats that break on contact.
Brandon Belt should be coming into his own this year. Down the stretch last year, he really turned around what was looking to be a very disappointing sophomore campaign by hitting .329 with a .390 OBP from the start of August. He will be turning 25 in April, which is normally when a player will start to find that power stroke. Notable comparisons are Tony Perez and David Ortiz, neither of whom found their power until age 25.
NL West, I hope you're reading, because this is the year the "Baby Giraffe" breaks out of his cage.
Projected Finish: 86-76, First place