Both the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals will be better than people think in 2013
Some things are certain about the 2013 MLB Season.
The Reds and Tigers will be good. The Astros and Marlins will be bad. Well, the Astros did beat the Rangers on the season's opening night, but they'll still be bad.
There are still about 20-25 teams in the league that could finish anywhere from last to second or from first to fourth in their divisions. Some of these teams have received far more love across preseason predictions than others, often due to how many familiar names they added during the offseason
However, improving a ball club is not about the quality or quantity of players a team adds as much as it is about if the additions fit what the team needed. If the current players on the team will benefit from the additions and if the guys on the team can improve from one season to the next.
Here is a look at seven teams around the MLB who either look stronger then they've received credit for or had offseasons that amounted to more smoke blowing than team building.
Almost every preseason prediction you'll look at has the Toronto Blue Jays as American League East favorites. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is coming off their fourth 90-plus win season in five years.
Even after trading James Shields and Wade Davis, the Rays have a solid rotation. David Price is a top-five pitcher in all of baseball, while Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore are above-average mid-rotation guys.
The bullpen is elite, with Joel Peralta, Jake McGee and all-world closer Fernando Rodney making every night a six-inning game. Even so, pitching is the relative weakness of this team.
That's because the Rays have a great leadoff man in Desmond Jennings, a dominant third hitter in Evan Longoria and an above-average hitter at nearly every position. They also have speed on the bases.
Still, the Rays' biggest strength is their MLB-best defense. There isn't a position on the field that Tampa Bay fills with a weak defender, and players such as Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria, James Loney, Jose Molina, Matt Joyce and Desmond Jennings are all elite defensive players.
When combining a team that is good to stellar in all areas with a manager like Joe Maddon, you have something very special.
Prediction: 93-69, first in AL East
While the Toronto Blue Jays did certainly add several good to great players during the offseason, they also won 73 games last year.
So while Toronto got better, the question is if they improved enough to win 90-plus games in baseball's toughest division.
The Jays added four new starters to their lineup: Jose Reyes, Maicer Izturis, Emilio Bonifacio and Melky Cabrera. While Reyes is an elite shortstop, the other three acquisitions may be marginal. Cabrera has had two consecutive great years, but his PED suspension last season leaves question marks. Bonifacio and Izturis add speed, but whether the team's offense is going to significantly improve is unclear.
The Jays significantly improved their rotation, adding NL Cy Young-winner R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. All three have been elite, and if they are this season the Jays will win 100 games.
However, the red flags are plentiful. Dickey has had an ERA of over 5.00 in all but one of his six American League seasons before 2012, (it was 4.62 in 2009) and will be facing daunting lineups in the AL East. Josh Johnson was once an all-world pitcher, but injuries have derailed him.
Still, those three new pitchers, along with Brendan Morrow and a strong bullpen will give the Rays a very good shot in the 2013 postseason.
But to call them the class of a division with three teams who won 90-plus games last season is pushing it.
Prediction: 89-73, 2nd in AL East
The consensus among MLB predictions seems to be that the Detroit Tigers will win the AL Central, with the Cleveland Indians rising to second place.
Now, the Indians did improve: They added four nice position players in Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds. However, Swisher never hit better than .262 before playing at the new Yankee Stadium, and Reynolds hasn't hit better than .221 in three years.
Bourn and Stubbs will add a ton of speed to this club, but both are changing leagues and the adjustment could be tough. As is, both are much more valuable defensively than at the plate.
The Indians lineup will be decent regardless, as these four will join Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera to form a solid offense.
Pitching, on the other hand, will continue to haunt this team.
The bullpen is weaker after losing Tony Sipp and Esmil Rogers. Closer Chris Perez is one of the game's best, but is currently battling injury problems.
As for the rotation, Justin Masterson is not an ace. Ubaldo Jimenez isn't the upper-rotation guy he once was, and Scott Kazmir has done nothing in five years. If Zach McCallister and Brett Myers can put together solid seasons, the team can push 80 wins, but if not, another 90-loss season is likely.
Prediction: 74-88, 4th in AL Central
The Indians had a louder offseason, but the Kansas City Royals are the AL Central's most improved team.
Kansas City had one of the better young offenses in baseball last season, and that group returns intact and ready to take the next step.
Billy Butler and Alex Gordon are disciplined and dangerous all-around hitters in the middle of the Royals' lineup, while Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez all have star potential that they appear ready to realize.
The pitching staff was the weakness of last year's team, but unlike Cleveland, the Royals have dramatically improved in this area.
James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Wade Davis are all superior arms to any that were on Kansas City's Opening Day roster last season. All four have upper-rotation stuff and could combine to form one of the league's better rotations this year.
The bullpen looks great. Greg Holland, Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera are tough middle- to late-inning guys, while the additions of Luke Hochevar and Bruce Chen to the group could be enormous. The best relievers are often converted starters, and if Hochevar and Chen resurrect their careers in relief roles, the Royals will have one of the most devastating pens in the league.
Prediction: 86-76, 2nd in AL Central
The National League West is a tough division to call for most people. This is fair, but not because it's impossible to choose between the Dodgers and the Giants exclusively.
Not only do the Diamondbacks belong in this conversation, but they are the class of the division.
Arizona doesn't have an elite offense by any means, but they've got the bats to get it done. Paul Goldschmidt and Jason Kubel are the leaders offensively, while Miguel Montero and Aaron Hill are elite bats at their positions.
The addition of Martin Prado should counteract the loss of Justin Upton, and the addition of Cliff Pennington will shore up an already-solid defense.
While Arizona doesn't have a true ace, they have the two most important things when looking at a 2013 MLB rotation: youth and depth. All five of their starters are in their 20s, and Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy and Wade Miley all have ace potential.
The bullpen is even better. JJ Putz is one of the top closers in all of baseball, while David Hernandez, Brad Ziegler, Heath Bell and Tony Sipp form arguably the strongest group of middle relievers in the National League.
The Diamondbacks won 94 games two years ago and had a pythagorean record of 86-76 last season. With so much youth, key additions in every phase of the game and a great manager in Kirk Gibson, the Diamondbacks will be a force in 2013.
Prediction: 93-69, 1st in NL West
Let's get one thing straight: The Dodgers have the talent on their roster to win 100 games and dominate throughout the playoffs on their way to a 2013 World Series victory.
Predicting such a thing to happen, however, requires some massive leaps of faith.
For one, predicting the Dodgers to make the playoffs would mean overlooking either or both the severely underrated Diamondbacks and the defending champion San Francisco Giants.
Secondly, it would require faith that a bunch of stars who couldn't win together last season would start to do so this year.
Of course, a healthy Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford could change things, but only Kemp is healthy and Hanley Ramirez is now hurt. As stacked as the lineup might be in theory, all Los Angeles really has right now is Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Andre Either. That is a deadly group for sure, but nothing San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Arizona's pitching staffs can't handle.
The rotation could also be phenomenal. Clayton Kershaw is among the best in the world, while Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett and Hyun-Jin Ryu all have all-star potential. But Greinke is battling injuries, Beckett is slowing down and Ryu has not pitched in the major leagues.
The Dodgers have a solid bullpen, although neither Brandon League nor Kenley Jansen has established themselves as a surefire closer.
Los Angeles has as much talent as any team in baseball, but health, chemistry and a tough division all stand between them and greatness.
Prediction: 89-73, 3rd in NL West
Mark my words: The Pirates will win 80 games for the first time since losing Barry Bonds this season.
Pittsburgh is coming off a 79-win season, the team's best since 1997. As sad as that is, there is reason for real optimism entering the 2013 season in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates feature one of the more powerful infields in the game, with Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez each smacking over 30 HR last season and Neil Walker and Russell Martin providing elite pop for their positions.
All are, of course, complementary players, as Andrew McCutchen is not only the heart of the offense and defense, but is one of the best players in all of baseball.
The rotation is solid at the top, with AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald giving the Pirates three reliable arms. Jonathan Sanchez returns to the National League this season, and will either help the Pirates to a winning season with a big year or keep them around .500 with a small one.
Jason Grilli is tough at the closer spot, while Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Justin Wilson should all do enough to keep the Pirates in games and preserve wins.
The playoffs are still at least one season away, but Pittsburgh has the big bats and front-of-the-rotation arms in place to turn some heads in 2013.
Prediction: 83-79, 3rd in NL Central