What makes a fresh baseball season so beautiful? Maybe it's that moment when you first open the newspaper and see the standings and 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. 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.
The National League East has always been about pitching. From the Atlanta Braves' fourteen straight titles, to the Phillies' recent reign, to last year's Washington Nationals, great pitching is what ruled the division.
But the stars of yesterday are fading. Johan Santana is out for the season with an injury. The Phillies' core group, so dominant for so many years, is getting older and looking quite mortal. R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle have fled the country to play for some team in Canada.
A new wave of young arms now hopes to rekindle the fire and carry on the tradition of leading their teams to a division title. Who will be the next ace from the East who goes on to become a postseason hero? Stephen Strasburg might be a good bet, who for the first time has no constraints to his playing time. Or Kris Medlen, who has been lights out since the Braves inserted him into the rotation, and at the rate he's going, he may never lose another game. The Mets' young Matt Harvey also has plans to return his team to prominence.
With so much up-and-coming young talent, the race in the East should prove to be exciting for many years to come.
The following predictions are as much speculation as anything, just one casual fan's thoughts based on things he may have 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.
Projected Lineup: LF Juan Pierre, 2B Donovan Solano, RF Giancarlo Stanton, CF Justin Ruggiano, 1B Logan Morrison, 3B Placido Polanco, C Rob Brantly, SS Adeiny Hechavarria
It looks as though the Marlins have checked out on this season before it's begun, counting on the Heat to win enough games in 2013 for the both of them combined. There have even been talks about signing LeBron James to play the outfield after the NBA season is over.
Ah, that would be funny if it weren't for the sad realization that it would actually improve the team.
The 2013 season for the Fish will essentially be the Giancarlo Stanton show, as he plays out an MVP-caliber season with no supporting cast.
They have no pitching: Ricky Nolasco is slated to start on opening day, and he is backed up by a group of kids just barely old enough to get into bars. These, of course, are the minor leaguers who were the return from the fire sale the Marlins held this Winter. So essentially, the plan was to pluck a bunch of 21- and 22-year-old kids from around the country, move them to South Beach and ask them to maintain enough focus to lead a major league team? Sounds like a recipe for failure. Or a movie that features Jonah Hill as the immature but endearing sidekick.
They have no hitting: The team's best option for a power threat to hit behind Stanton seems to be center fielder Justin Ruggiano. He hit a career-high 13 homers last year after being called up from Triple-A, but don't expect him to hit many more than that. He's getting older, on the wrong side of 30 now, and has never surpassed twenty dingers in a season during his professional career.
They have no bench: Players likely to round out the 25-man roster include Jeff Mathis, who will be playing to improve his career batting average to a mark over .200. He's currently sitting at .198 with his career winding down, but he's been on a steady upswing: last year he tore up the American League and posted a career-best mark of .218. Let's hope he has one more good year in him.
Mathis is joined on the bench by the likes of Chone Figgins, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Greg Dobbs, so it doesn't get much better.
So the Marlins' season this year will provide nothing more than disappointment and maybe a few interesting bets in Vegas. I'm sure there are bookies out there taking bets on the spread between Giancarlo Stanton's OPS and the next highest OPS on the team.
Projected Finish: 64-98, Fifth place
Projected Lineup: CF Ben Revere, 3B Michael Young, 2B Chase Utley, 1B Ryan Howard, RF Delmon Young, SS Jimmy Rollins, C Carlos Ruiz, LF Domonic Brown
Wasn't this the pitching staff that everyone was proclaiming would be the "greatest of all time"? Now, I'ma let you finish, Phillies, but when you start talking about the greatest of all time, you're talking about dynasties. The '69-'71 Orioles. The Braves of the mid-nineties. In essence, rotations that were great for more than a year.
Well, Roy Halladay lost some velocity and became mortal. His fastball has lost 2 mph over the past two years, and somehow, hitters just aren't quaking with fear over his "91 on a good day." Cliff Lee started giving up home runs left and right. And Vance Worley pitched such a disappointing 2012 season that the organization felt he was more fit to be the ace of the Minnesota Twins.
So that leaves Cole Hamels as the only real effective pitcher the Phillies have left. Thankfully, he has accepted his role of savior and done a very good job of giving the team a chance every time he's on the mound.
But can the offense take advantage of those opportunities?
Credit the Phillies' front office for attempting to rekindle a stagnant offense by bringing in a few new bats. Ben Revere gives the team a legitimate leadoff hitter for the first time in years. Not to discredit J-Roll, but he's not the same stolen base threat he once was—and that's when he even gets to first, which these days is pretty rare. Revere could easily hit .300 and provide plenty of RBI opportunities for the power guys who hit after him.
Michael Young gives the Phillies another solid hitter, even though he may have lost a step at third defensively. He will be a welcome addition to a position that has been sort of a revolving door for the team.
It adds up to a pretty formidable squad when you throw those two into a lineup that includes Domonic Brown, who has just put up video game numbers this Spring, and Ryan Howard, who enters the year looking the best he's ever looked (both performance-wise, as well as physically—looks like he's gotten off the Meatball Pepperoni, and is back to eating the Veggie Delite).
It looks like we'll see glimpses this year of what the Phillies used to be, but they lack the completeness to really achieve sustainable success.
Projected Finish: 75-87, Fourth place
Projected Lineup: SS Ruben Tejada, 2B Daniel Murphy, 3B David Wright, 1B Ike Davis, RF Marlon Byrd, LF Lucas Duda, C Travis d'Arnaud, CF Collin Cowgill
Patience is wearing thin for Mets fans. It's been seven years since they've sniffed the postseason and five years since this supposed "rebuilding" plan was enacted to get them back there. Years of disappointment have come and gone. New York faithful will cringe to think of a healthy Carlos Beltran resurrecting his career in St. Louis, or Angel Pagan leading his team to a World Championship, thinking "why not us?"
All of your waiting will pay off soon, guys. Just bear with me for about one more year.
The many years of darkness and rebuilding will soon be coming to fruition. Quietly, the Mets have secured a very solid foundation of prospects. Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, and Travis d'Arnaud are the names you're going to be hearing in conjunction with a new dynastic Mets era. And they have the potential to be crazy good. It's not very often that you see three prospects with this much talent, all projecting to blossom at around the same time.
But that time isn't quite here yet. Looking strictly at 2012, the Mets' outcome looks pretty bleak.
With Johan Santana out for the season, Jon Niese appears to be the Opening Day starter. He's a quality pitcher whose strikeout and walk rates are very good, but he had a bit of a problem with the long ball last year, which kept him from achieving "ace"-type numbers. It's possible that his luck will change, but Niese also has to make a few adjustments himself.
Matt Harvey joins Niese as the first real installment of the Mets' new youth movement. He came up to the majors last July, and showed that he has great stuff. He overpowered hitters during his stint to the tune of 10.6 strikeouts per 9 innings. However, he also made it apparent that he still has work to do. He seemed to struggle with his off-speed pitches at times, getting hit hard when batters made contact. This Spring, he has worked on developing his changeup in the hopes of finding an effective complement to what might be one of the best fastballs in the game. The kid's potential is limitless, but he won't become the complete player he is projected to be until at least next season.
From an offensive point of view, the Mets have a few glaring holes. Now, I know that Citi Field is expansive, but GM Sandy Alderson must not have a very good vantage point from where his office sits, because he seems to have forgotten that he has an outfield.
The Mets will be cobbling together three starters between the talents of Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Marlon Byrd, Lucas Duda, Collin Cowgill and Jordany Valdespin. The only one from that group that has any sort of potential for a breakout year is Duda, and you'd be harder pressed to call him a "prospect" than you would to call Nicki Minaj a "singer."
The key to success for this offense will be finding some legitimate protection for David Wright. Maybe that will happen when Travis d'Arnaud breaks into the big leagues and finds his power stroke, but until then, Mets fans have no choice but to play the waiting game.
Projected Finish: 78-84, Third place
Projected Lineup: CF Denard Span, LF Bryce Harper, 3B Ryan Zimmerman, 1B Adam LaRoche, SS Ian Desmond, RF Jayson Werth, 2B Steve Lombardozzi, C Kurt Suzuki
Nattitude was in full swing last year, as the Nationals soared to achieve baseball's best record and the first playoff appearance for a Washington team since 1933.
A couple of rough starts and a shaky bullpen put the dream on hold for Nats' faithful, but they were able to rest assured that with such a talented core group of young players, they'd be in the playoff mix for many more years to come.
Let's start with the obvious. Stephen Strasburg will be back and free from all the media distraction over his innings cap. There has been no mention of any restrictions for Strasburg's playing time for 2013, so it's looking like they'll be letting him loose. This means that he'll be in commission through September, in the playoffs, and if he's real lucky and does all his chores, GM Mike Rizzo might even let him pitch into the eighth inning.
Strasburg will once again anchor the Nationals' staff, and probably continue to put up near-godlike numbers. His strikeout rate of 11.1 per nine innings was unbelievable last year, and right-handed hitters barely stood a chance, only hitting .185 against him.
He is followed by Gio Gonzalez, who will almost certainly regress from his 21-win season, as he continues to have problems with his control that will render his rate of success unsustainable.
Jordan Zimmermann, who probably makes roll call at practice very confusing, was a nice surprise last year as he finished with a 2.94 ERA, seventh best in the League.
Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren round out what should be a very solid rotation.
They've upgraded their bullpen by bringing on Rafael Soriano, who will be a very welcome addition and will turn a mediocre bullpen into one of the best in baseball. He is expected to take over the closer role from Drew Storen, pushing Storen to the eighth inning and rendering any late-inning comebacks by opposing teams damn near impossible.
Storen, by the way, has gotten better every year since he arrived in the majors and in 2012 allowed less than a baserunner per inning. If he continues to progress at this rate, he'll be nearly unhittable this year.
The lineup has addressed a void as well by adding a true leadoff hitter in Denard Span. The leadoff spot was a jumble for the Nats in 2012, where over the course of the year they tried all sorts of hitters who were unfit for the role, from Ian Desmond, who has too much power to lead off, to Jayson Werth, who can't run, to Steve Lombardozzi, who fails to do the most basic thing involved with the job—getting on base. With Span on board, it will enable Davey Johnson to move the other guys to places where they better fit.
That's not to say that Jayson Werth exactly "fits in" anywhere. Have you seen that beard?
Projected Finish: 88-74, Second place
Projected Lineup: SS Andrelton Simmons, RF Jason Heyward, LF Justin Upton, 1B Freddie Freeman, CF B.J. Upton, C Brian McCann, 2B Dan Uggla, 3B Chris Johnson
This year's Braves could be the best thing to happen in Atlanta since Kim from "Real Housewives" got her own spin-off.
As we all remember, and as most fans in Atlanta would rather soon forget, the Braves threw away an otherwise impressive 94-win 2012 season by losing to the Cardinals in the first-ever one-game Wildcard playoff. Because of this abrupt ending, and because a lot of the team's accolades over the course of the year were overshadowed by the number of custom-engraved snowboards Chipper Jones received as parting gifts, people don't realize how good these guys were, and how much better still they can be in 2013.
Kris Medlen has earned the role of the ace with his performance in the second half last year. He got the ball at the end of July and didn't relinquish it, going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA as a starter. It was easily one of the best Tommy John surgery comebacks of all time.
My only question is, what happened in that operating room?
Medlen was never anything special before last year, never on anyone's list of top prospects or even mentioned in the same breath as Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman or other Braves' young stars.
So what kind of magic did they pump into this kid's elbow? Maybe his tendons healed a little too tightly, giving him a superpower like the kid in "Rookie of the Year" had. I just hope he doesn't lose that ability in the middle of a critical game and have to resort to the "hidden ball trick."
Either way, the onus is on Medlen to now go out and prove that last season wasn't a fluke. Should he manage that, he has a very good supporting cast behind him.
Mike Minor struggled a bit last season, but pulled it together in the second half: After the All-Star break, his improvement was very much apparent in his ERA (2.16), walks allowed (only 16 in 87.1 innings) and much-improved success against right-handed batters, who only hit .196 against him. Whatever clicked for him, let's hope it continues into 2013.
But we need to talk about the new lineup. Having gone this far into the article without mentioning the lineup is like spending a weekend in Vegas and just going to the strip for a quick lunch on Sunday.
Andrelton Simmons will be key in his ability to get on base. He's not your prototypical leadoff hitter in that he doesn't walk as much as he should, instead, often hacking at balls outside of the zone. However, he is a contact machine and occasionally will swing at a bad pitch and hit a dribbler through the infielders. In Simmons' case, it may be pertinent to revise the old saying and remark that "a hit's as good as a walk."
Jason Heyward is another free swinger atop the Braves' lineup. While many stat heads have criticized him for his plate discipline, his walk rate having decreased for a second straight season, I think it's great that he's aggressive at the plate. Moving to the #2 spot in the order will really complement his style of play as well, as it gives manager Fredi Gonzalez many options for running plays. This will help the Braves a lot in close games, when so often getting that runner the extra ninety feet is everything.
The two guys the offense really hinges on, however, are the Upton brothers. They will get most of the RBI opportunities, and the question is whether their power will hold up. Justin saw a decline in that department with his slugging percentage dropping to .430, his lowest since his rookie season. The Braves will be counting on him for at least 25 homers and would be happy to get 20 out of B.J.
The issue with B.J. isn't his power—that's very much in tact—it's his batting average. B.J. hasn't hit above .250 since 2008, and it'll be kind of a sticking point for the Braves if he doesn't improve quickly. They have no need for another power hitter who can't hit his weight—they already have Dan Uggla.
The key to a winning team goes beyond any one player's individual stats and is more about how the team plays together. If the Uptons, Heyward and Simmons can play off of each other, recognize and react in key game situations and generally play as a cohesive unit, they'll be unstoppable.
So essentially, it's the same old story with the Braves. If the offense is good enough, the pitching will be more than enough to carry them.
Projected Finish: 97-65, First place