MLB Preview: First Pitch

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The Baltimore Orioles beat the Philadelphia Phillies 15- 4 during Spring Training in Sarasota, FL.

Nik Popli, Sports Correspondent

It’s that time again for all you baseball fans! The thrill of going to the ballpark and watching baseball returns on March 22, when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks face off in Sydney, Australia. While it may only be 30 degrees outside over here, it’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming 2014 baseball season. In just a few months we’ll know if Masahiro Tanaka is really worth the 175 million bucks the Yanks are paying him over the next seven years, and whether or not all of the blockbuster offseason trades will pay off.

AL East: This division is easily one of the better ones in the league.

1st Place: New York Yankees

The Yankees went absolutely crazy (again) this offseason, signing some of the best available players, including Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann. This guy named Masahiro Tanaka previously pitched in Japan, and in 2013 was regarded as Japan’s best pitcher having an impressive 24-0 record accompanied by a low 1.27 ERA last year. Now with the Yankees, Tanaka is making over $22 million per year, and looks to be one of America’s best and most important key players. Ellsbury and Beltran are also among their top signings, as both are top outfielders in the league, and will definitely improve the Yankees outfield. Brian McCann is an upgrade over all of the other catchers the Yankees have experienced recently. Due to these signings, I think the Yankees have gathered enough talent to push themselves into the playoff hunt once again (even if A-Rod is suspended). But I still do not think they’ll make it very far in the playoffs. The Yankees have shown in previous years that spending a lot of money in the offseason does not always result in an immediate World Series. However, the Yankees’ captain, shortstop, and future Hall of Famer, Derek Jeter, is retiring after this year, meaning that this will be an emotional, yet exciting ride for the Yankees.

2nd Place: Boston Red Sox

Last year, the Boston Red Sox won the East division and ended up winning the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals, taking the title of “World Champions” to the city of Boston. Will they do it again? In my opinion, the answer is no. I admit that I doubted the Red Sox last year, and they came away as the best team, but this year, it’s not the same. After winning the World Series last year, the Red Sox lost key outfielder, Jacoby Ellsbury (to the Yankees) and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (to the Marlins). Because of these roster moves, I think the Red Sox will regress a bit, but could find themselves still in the wild card hunt, as they did add A.J. Pierzynski and Grady Sizemore.

3rd Place: Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays finished in second place of the East division last year and got the wild card spot. I don’t think they’ll get that again, but they will definitely be close. They have superb hitting and an even better pitching rotation, led by star David Price. They did not make many exciting moves in the offseason, other than swapping closer Fernando Rodney for Grant Balfour (which was overall an amazing move). I think the Rays’ best hitter will be Evan Longoria, followed by Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist. You can expect them to be in playoff contention throughout the year.

4th Place: Baltimore Orioles

I cannot believe that while the O’s have so much talent, they may not make the playoffs. The Orioles sort of revamped their hitting and pitching over the offseason, adding pitcher Ubaldo Jiminez and designated hitter/outfielder, Nelson Cruz. The Orioles pretty much have the best hitting in all of the MLB, or at least close to it, but the only thing holding them back is their pitching (starters and bullpen). Getting Ubaldo Jiminez was a good move for the Orioles, but they could have done better. Jiminez enters Baltimore as the #1 pitcher in the Orioles rotation, which is not that impressive. The rest of the rotation includes Charles Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, and Wei-Yin Chen. Their star hitters include Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters.

5th Place: Toronto Blue Jays

Does this even make sense? In 2013, the Blue Jays were on top of most World Series prediction lists (including mine), but somehow finished in last place with 78 wins. For a last place team, that’s still pretty impressive (most last place teams finish with around 60 wins). During the 2012-2013 offseason, the Blue Jays added Jose Reyes (top 3 shortstop who previously played for the Marlins), R.A. Dickey (2012 NL Cy Young winner with the Mets), and Mark Buehrle (in 2009, he made MLB history by having the 18th perfect game while playing for the White Sox). Not to mention, the Jays already had all-stars José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación. However, Dickey is obviously not the same knuckleball pitcher he was with the Mets, as he greatly regressed last year, and Buehrle hasn’t been the same since his time with the White Sox. Even though I had the Blue Jays winning the East in 2013, I’ve learned from last year that adding a bunch of players does not make a team suddenly great. They also made no big transactions during this offseason (except for cutting pitcher Josh Johnson), so they shouldn’t have a much better record than last year.

AL Central: This has been the Tigers division since 2011…they own the AL Central.

1st Place: Detroit Tigers

What a surprise (NOT)! Led by Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Mark Scherzer, and Justin Verlander, the Detroit Tigers are World Series favorites by many. Miguel Cabrera has been the best player in all of baseball for the last 2 years, winning the AL MVP both times and receiving the Triple Crown Award in 2012. This team may be considered one of the more well- rounded teams in the league. They made baseball headlines early in the offseason by trading their superstar first baseman, Prince Fielder, to the Texas Rangers for superstar second baseman, Ian Kinsler. This was an unexpected move, but Prince Fielder did not meet expectations last year, even though he still hit .279 with 25 HR. After swapping Fielder for Kinsler, the Tigers traded pitcher Doug Fister to the Wahington Nationals for Steve Lombardozzi (who was then traded to the Baltimore Orioles during Spring Training) and prospects. The Tigers will easily win this division and make the playoffs with a top seed.

2nd Place: Kansas City Royals

Kansas City exceeded most expectations last year by finishing with 86 wins, and they’ll finish with a slightly better record this year (because they are more experienced now). I think they have above average hitting and decent pitching, but losing Ervin Santana might hurt them slightly. Closer Greg Holland and starting pitcher James Shields are good, though, as well as hitters Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and Norichika Aoki. Also, the Royals recently named the 22 year old Dominican pitcher, Yordano Ventura, as the #5 starter in the rotation. This move was great because Ventura will likely have a breakout season with the Royals, as he throws the ball over 100 mph and has a wicked changeup.  Expect them to finish in 2nd place closely behind the Tigers.

3rd Place: Cleveland Indians

They made the playoffs last year as a wild card, but can they do it again? After all, they did lose starting pitcher Ubaldo Jiminez in the offseason. I think they’ll fall short of the playoffs; Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana won’t be able to lead Cleveland to the playoffs again. I could be wrong though, as they somehow finished with an impressive and surprising 92 wins last year.

4th Place: Chicago White Sox

Residents of Chicago always have the Cubs to root for, right? (No). Chris Sale and Jose Abreu are their only good players. Don’t expect them to finish anywhere near a .500 record. Maybe 70 wins?

5th Place: Minnesota Twins

The Twins have a superstar player in Joe Mauer and a great closer in Glen Perkins, but the rest of the team is wimpy. It’s really unfortunate that Glen Perkins has to play for the Twins, because he won’t get many save opportunities with a team that will finish with less than 65 wins.

AL West: I feel bad for the Astros. The 4 other teams in the division are way better.

1st Place: Texas Rangers

Swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder was a good move. They have amazing hitting, but their pitching is always sketchy. However, they do have the second best (arguably the best) pitcher in the league, Yu Darvish, who will probably get over 200 strikeouts this year. I think they’ll make the playoffs as the 1st  or 2nd seed and excel in the playoffs, possibly playing in the World Series.

2nd Place: Oakland Athletics

Let’s face it. The A’s won the West division for the last two years, but does anyone really think they have better hitting and pitching than the Rangers and Angels? I do not think that their roster has more talent than the Rangers, but somehow they always prove me wrong. With #1 pitcher Jarrod Parker now out for the season due to Tommy John Surgery (suffered in Spring Training), Sonny Gray will look to be the Opening Day starter for Oakland. He’s pretty good, but it’s going to be hard for the Athletics to win the division. They could pull away with a wild card spot though.

3rd Place: Los Angeles Angels

The Angels completely failed last year after signing sluggers Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. They have an above average pitching staff and a top hitting team, but last year, Hamilton slumped miserably and Pujols suffered a season ending injury. I don’t think the Angels will become much better this year, but they’ll definitely have a small improvement from last year’s record.

4th Place: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are trying so hard to fit in with teams like the Rangers, Yankees, and Tigers in the American League. Bringing the best second baseman, Robinson Cano, to Seattle was one of the biggest signings in all of baseball this winter. So many teams were competing for this one player (including the Yankees and Dodgers), but shockingly, the Mariners come out on top. After getting Cano, the Mariners decided to bring closer Fernando Rodney to the bullpen. Now with an improved team, the Mariners will finish better than last year, but still not enough to push them into the playoffs. Unless they trade for some better outfielders, they do not have a chance against the Rangers in this division.

5th Place: Houston Astros

I sense some improvement in this young squad. Adding Dexter Fowler and Scott Feldman were the only big changes to the Astros roster, but are still not enough to make this team good. They’ll have over 50 wins for sure though.

NL East: The rivalry, part 2: Nats vs. Braves.

1st Place: Washington Nationals

The Nationals will improve from last year, for sure. It’s another year for the Nats, with a new manager and the best pitching rotation in the entire league with an above average bullpen. Washington’s hitters aren’t the best, but Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Ian Desmond are definitely players to watch this season. In fact, Bryce Harper has a decent chance at NL MVP this year! During the offseason, the Nationals traded for starting pitcher Doug Fister and signed outfielder Nate Mclouth. For this, I think the Nationals will win the division with close to 100 wins (maybe 96?), and Stephen Strasburg will have a career year, helping them survive in the playoffs and possibly the World Series.

2nd Place: Atlanta Braves

Braves starting pitcher Kris Medlen will miss the entire 2014 season due to an elbow injury that will require him to get his second Tommy John Surgery since 2010. Well that stinks. The Braves may have actually had a chance to compete for the best record in the National League, but it will be extremely hard for them to do this after such a devastating loss. The Braves have some very good hitters, but their pitching has gotten worse after losing Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, and likely Brandon Beachy. Upon hearing that Medlen would miss the season, the Braves went out and signed the best available free agent pitcher, Ervin Santana this past week. They might be able to get away with a wild card spot this year, if they’re lucky.

3rd Place: Philadelphia Phillies

Most of this team is all old news. The Phillies roster has so many players above 30 years old, that it’s highly unlikely that this team will be able to get over 75 wins. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are the only real good players on this team. Too bad they’re both pitchers.

4th Place: New York Mets

Signing Curtis Granderson was a big move for the Mets, but without superstar pitcher Matt Harvey (who received Tommy John Surgery and will miss most of the season), it will be tough for the Mets to get higher than 4th place. The Mets also signed the A’s former pitcher Bartolo Colon (who is now 40 years old!), but that will not be enough to help out the Mets.

5th Place: Miami Marlins

The Marlins are NOT going to do as bad as they did last year. The Marlins young team now has more experience, and star pitcher Jose Fernandez could be a future Cy Young winner. Along with Fernandez, the Marlins have Giancarlo Stanton, who is one of the best outfielders in the game. With an improved catcher and shortstop, the Marlins could even find themselves in 3rd place for once. There is still hope for the Marlins!

NL Central: Everyone here is good, except for the Cubs, of course.

1st Place: St. Louis Cardinals

This season, the Cardinals have the potential to finish with over 100 wins. Their pitching staff is superb (maybe even the best, along with the Nationals), and their hitting is also very skilled. However, during the offseason, they lost star outfielder Carlos Beltran and third baseman, David Freese. I think the Cardinals will finish with at least 99 wins this year, and will make it to at least the championship round of the playoffs.

2nd Place: Pittsburgh Pirates

I don’t think the Pirates are that good, but last year they finished with 94 wins. Andrew McCutchen is the best player in the National League, but other than him, their hitting isn’t that great. It’s their pitching that makes them so good, though. They have an extremely talented and young pitching rotation that will probably help them get around 90 wins this year, but I don’t think that will give them a ticket into the playoffs.

3rd Place: Cincinnati Reds

The Reds are getting older and their players are losing skill. Johnny Cueto used to be a top pitcher, but is declining due to injuries. Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce are still very good players though, and will definitely contribute to helping the Reds get around 85-92 wins.

4th Place: Milwaukee Brewers

Ryan Braun missed last year due to a PED suspension, and the Brewers were able to get 74 wins. Now with Braun for the entire season, the Brewers may be able to get around 80 wins.

5th Place: Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are not good. I don’t know what else to say. They’ve got an inconsistent pitching staff (starters and bullpen), and only a few good hitters. The Cubs are one of the most unbalanced teams in the league. Expect them to get around 60 wins.

NL West: It’s obvious who’s winning this division.

1st Place: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers have spent so much money reforming their team in the past years that they’ve accumulated one of the most feared teams in the league. Their hitting is one of the best, and their pitching is also at the top. Clayton Kershaw leads the Dodgers pitching rotation (and the entire league in every statistic for that matter!). The Dodgers are so good that they’ll get around 95-100 wins this year. Watch out for Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, and Kenley Jansen this year.

2nd Place: San Francisco Giants

Last year, they failed, but after adding Tim Hudson and Michael Morse, I think they’ve filled some of their holes. Their pitching still isn’t as good as it was a couple of years ago, but the Giants still have one of the top teams in the league. Expect them to finish with around 80-90 wins.

3rd Place: Arizona Diamondbacks

The D-Backs still don’t have very good pitching, but their hitting is very good. After adding Mark Trumbo, I think the D-Backs can compete with the Giants and Dodgers this year. Paul Goldschmidt is arguably the best infielder in all of baseball. Expect them to get 80-90 wins in 2nd or 3rd place.

4th Place: San Diego Padres

The Padres don’t have that good of a team, and they’ll probably get around 70 wins this year. They are not a playoff team yet.

5th Place: Colorado Rockies

The Rockies have great hitting, but of course they do…they play in Denver, America’s most hitter friendly ballpark. For this reason, their pitching is horrible. Hitters thrive in Denver, but pitchers usually do badly. Expect them to finish with around 70 wins, competing with the Padres for 4th place.

 

Nik’s Pick for the World Series:

Texas Rangers vs. Washington Nationals – Nationals WIN.

It will all come down between the Rangers vs. Tigers in the AL and the Nationals vs. Cardinals in the NL. I think the Rangers and Nationals will come on top, though, and play each other in the World Series, with the Nats pulling off a tightly contested match.