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, can 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 the start of a new season. 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. Something it's hard to put a finger on. 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.
Going into last season, the NL Central had lost two of its star sluggers in Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and the new landscape was expected to usher in an era in which pitching and defense would dominate. It did exactly that.
The Reds and Cardinals responded with two strong, well-balanced teams that ended up making the playoffs by manufacturing runs and playing excellent defense. Neither team sported a lone superstar who overshadowed the rest. The teams that did—the Pirates with Andrew McCutchen or the Brewers with Ryan Braun—were left out in the cold.
Should we expect the coming season to be any different?
This winter yielded no major free agent acquisitions for any NL Central team, but several have quick-developing youth movements in place. Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo is set to prove that he's a bona fide ace, Pittsburgh's Starling Marte and Jose Tabata are poised for breakout years, and the Cubs' young infielders Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and Anthony Rizzo are one of the smoothest-fielding groups in the league.
Whatever the outcome, it will be a season of pure, gritty, National League-style baseball in the Central. And man, will it be fun to watch.
The following predictions are as much speculation as anything, just one casual fan's thoughts based on a few things he's observed. 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.