Thursday, April 18, 2013

2013 MLB Thoughts and Predictions

Although I’ve had baseball on my mind since February, my thoughts on players and predictions for the upcoming Major League Baseball season had yet to begin until recent days; in particular, after my fantasy baseball league draft and after reading some and articles and lineup/rotation projections.

It would have been nice to have thought more about these things prior to my fantasy draft or mere days before Opening Day. But it is what it is. Nonetheless, as the season commences, I would like to present my MLB 2013 Preseason Thoughts and Predictions:

First off, the American League:
Rays P David Price

From East to West, I give you …

2013 AL East Champs – Tampa Bay Rays (86-76)

This division is up for grabs, but … Pitching wins out and the Rays have the best.

Evan Longoria has an excellent season, stabilizing a solid Tampa lineup and David Price anchors a well-balanced staff. The Rays are going to win tons of 3-2, 4-3 games this year, en route to an 86-76 record and the AL East crown.

Note: Ace pitcher David Price (20-5 with 2.56 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 2012) heads a Rays pitching staff that ranked first in the majors with a team ERA of 3.19 last season. 

Runner up – Toronto Blue Jays (84-78 - 2 GB)

Blue Jays P R.A. Dickey
Canada’s Best has amped up its talent (and payroll) significantly this offseason, but I’m not ready to drink its Blue postseason Kool-Aid just yet. Toronto will slug. Toronto will pitch. But the team’s overall game (including defense, runs allowed and so forth) comes up short in terms of the team’s first playoff appearance since 1993.

NOTE: Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey won the National League Cy Young award with the Mets last year, posting a 20-6 record with 230 K's and a 2.73 ERA. Can the 10-year veteran with a 3.98 career ERA replicate his phenomenal 2012 success this season?

Third place – Baltimore Orioles (82-80 - 4 GB)

Baltimore became one of baseball’s darlings last season. Led by manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles maximized its talent to a 93-69 record and its first playoff appearance since 1997.
Orioles C Matt Wieters

Don’t expect it to happen again.

Pitching prospect Chris Tillman finds his form near the top of Baltimore’s rotation this season, while Adam Jones continues to evolve as one of baseball’s top emerging centerfielders. But the Buck stops there. The O’s have a talented squad that has its franchise on the rise again. It just doesn’t quite have enough juice to get back to the playoffs this year.

Note: A big key to the Orioles new-found success is catcher Matt Wieters. The 26-year-old can handle himself at the plate, posting career-highs in home runs (26) and RBI (83) last season. But his impact being the plate is irreplaceable. There's a reason one of baseball's most maligned pitching staffs in the 2000's has become legitimate again. Following four straight seasons with a team ERA over 5.00, Baltimore cracked the 4.00-range in 2010 (Wieters' rookie season) and finished last season at 3.90 - the first time the franchise recorded a team ERA under 4.00 since 1997.

Red Sox 3B Will Middlebrooks
Fourth place – Boston Red Sox (79-83 - 8 GB)

Can you believe the Red Sox finished in the AL East cellar last year with a 69-93 record? It’s hard to fathom for a team that dominated the division the past decade. That’s how bad its got in Boston.

This year’s team will win more than 69 games. Among other areas, the return of a healthy Jacoby Elsbury and the arrivals of Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli helps its cause. Still, finishing at the .500 mark would be a more reasonable goal for Bo-Sox this year than a playoff appearance.

Note: Hitting behind Elsbury, Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and Napoli this season will be 24-year-old third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Boston's fifth-round draft pick in 2007, Middlebrooks made a splash with the Beantown faithful in an otherwise rough season last year. In 267 at-bats, the rookie infielder batted .288 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI. What type of an impact can Middlebrooks make this year? With a suspect pitching staff, the Red Sox could use all the offense it can get this year.

Yankees 2B Robinson Cano
Fifth place – New York Yankees (77-85 - 9 GB)

Can you say it? “The Yankees finish its season in last place.” It’s kind of a hard phrase to roll off one’s tongue, isn’t it? But this is the year of bleak possibilities for the Pinstripes.

New York managed to win more games than all of its American League counterparts last season. But age and injuries have quickly caught up to them. It showed in its 4-0 ALCS sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers last season. And thanks to a handful of unfortunate offseason occurrences (unfortunate in the eyes of Yankees fans, at least), the team’s prospects spiral violently downward this season.

Sorry, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. You might be wishing to you changed your mind on retirement.

Note: Robinson Cano has entered a league of his own, in terms of Major League second basemen. Over his past four seasons, Cano has had a batting average above .300 with at least 25 homers every year. Along with the statistical success, the 30-year-old slugger has made three All-Star appearances, and won three Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. With all the injuries the Yankees have suffered in the offseason, the weight of the team's offensive success will rely heavily on Cano. Too heavily. Replacing Mark Teixera, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Cranderson (at least to begin the season) will be Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix and Brett Gardner.

AL Central Champs – Detroit Tigers (104-58)

Detroit will win a hundred games this year ... at least.

Closer, shmoser. The Tigers very likely may be the only team entering 2013 with out a designated closer. Does that matter? … No.

Tigers RF Torii Hunter
Cy Young and MVP winner Justin Verlander tows a talented Tigers pitching roster. Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera anchors an outstanding Motown lineup. Veteran Torii Hunter adds leadership and defense. Victor Martinez (.330 BA, 103 RBI in 2011) returns from an knee injury. It all adds up to an October to remember for the 2013 Tigers.

Note: Hunter adds another quality bat to Detroit's already potent lineup. Moreover, he brings much-needed defensive prowess (something Detroit has lacked), playoff experience and several intangibles to the Tigers clubhouse. In 14 Major League seasons, Hunter has won nine Gold Gloves, a Sliver Slugger, four All-Star appearances. Hunter has been to the postseason six times. This year he hopes to make his seventh trip and finish it off with his first World Series ring.

Runner-up – Kansas City Royals (82-80 - 22 GB)

The Kansas City Royals have been a bottom dweller in the AL Central for far too long. Of the five teams in its division, the Royals have finished in either fourth or fifth place for 14 of its past 17 seasons. The team has not made the playoffs since 1985 ... Ugh.
Royals 3B Mike Moustakas

The bright spot is that the team finished third last year and has a roster full of talent capable of leading them to the unfortunately unfamiliar turf of the postseason once again.

First baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, designated hitter Billy Butler and outfielder Alex Gordon lead a strong, youthful Royals offense. On the mound, the Royals have added two quality veterans - James Shields and Ervin Santana - capable of being front-of-the-rotation pitchers.

Note: Moustakas - Kansas City's 1st round pick of the 2007 draft (the second overall pick) - made his highly anticipated arrival in 2011. In 2012, the agile 6-foot, 220-pound slugger has shown All-Star potential both at the plate and handling the hot corner. He made highlight after highlight with his play at third base and showed a progression of power at the plate (20 HR, 73 RBI in 563 AB last season; 5 HR, 30 RBI in 338 AB in 2011).

White Sox SP Chris Sale
Third place – Chicago White Sox (80-82 - 24 GB)

The arrival of Chris Sale and revival of Jake Peavy led Chicago to an 85-77 record last season - finishing three games behind Detroit in the division race. With many of the same pieces, expectations should be similar this season. But I don't see it.

One of the main reasons the White Sox will decline this year is the departure of A.J. Piersynski. The catcher was more than just a catcher, he was the team's identity. He embodied a toughness that will be sorely missed in Chicago.

Outside of Sale, an aging team that overachieved last year shows its flaws this season.

Note: Sale is bound to be a bright spot for the 2013 Sox. The 24-year-old lefty was a highly promising prospect in 2010, when he struck out 32 batters in his 23.1-inning cup of coffee. Last season, Sale was a bona fide Cy Young contender - posting a 17-8 record with 192 K's, a 3.05 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. The rising Sox ace is sure to have for another spectacular season this summer.

Fourth place – Minnesota Twins (74 -88 - 30 GB)

Twins 1B Justin Morneau
Minnesota, Minnesota, where have you gone? The Target Field arrival has not exactly gone as planned for the Twins. The AL Central champs of 2002, ’03, ’04, ’09 and ’10 have suddenly suffered through a pair of fifth-place finishes in consecutive seasons. Let’s rephrase that. A pair of abysmal, fifth-place finishes the past couple seasons; finishing in the AL cellar in both years with a combined 129-195 record.

The team’s hope for 2013 resides on a renaissance of stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, as well as a successful rookie campaign from centerfielder Aaron Hicks. With minimal offseason improvements, baseball’s 28th-placed 2012 pitching staff is destined to finished near the bottom once again.

Note: Minnesota’s offense could make the team competitive enough to give the team a fighting chance of finishing near .500 this season – or at least at finishing in fourth instead of fifth place in its division. Morneau, the Twins’ AL MVP of 2006, made significant improvement last season following a damaged 2011 after a serious head injury incurred in 2010. If the lanky left-handed slugger can reach 30 home runs again and replicate success comparable to his four-year run of 100-plus RBI seasons from ’06-‘09, Twins fans will have renewed hope the for their once-vaunted power hitter who’s still only 31 years of age.

Fifth place – Cleveland Indians (72-90 - 32 GB)

Not 2011’s 80-82 season, rather the three fourth-place division finishes of 2009-2012 are indicative of the current state of the Cleveland Indians. Not even two-time World Series champion Terry Francona can transform a weak lineup and rotation into a formidable AL Central force. The 13-year manager has inherited a project of mediocre veterans and young talent who appear to be mediocre as well.
Indians C/1B Carlos Santana

Francona’s lone strength remains from last season - his bullpen. Led by Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith, the Indians pose a problem for opposing offenses in late innings. However, it may be a challenge to reach those innings with a lead to protect. A speedy outfield – composed of Michael Brantley and additions Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs – will provide Francona with a second asset of speed. But the team’s lack of power and starting pitching will be its downfall.

Note: Catcher/first baseman Carlos Santana will be a key piece of Cleveland’s present and future success. Santana has yet to live up to his potential at the professional level; but the team still has high hopes for its 26-year-old prospect that posted back-to-back-to-back .290-plus BA, 90-plus RBI seasons in the minors from 2008-2010.

AL West Champs – Los Angeles Angels (95-77)

Angels CF Mike Trout
The Angels’ bid to buy a championship could come to fruition this season. The team that spent $240 million for Albert Pujols in 2011 swiped its division rival’s star, Texas’ Josh Hamilton, with a $125 million contract this offseason. Oh, and lets toss in the game’s most highly coveted player, Mike Trout, and underrated up-and-coming slugger, Mark Trumbo, into it’s super-powered lineup too.

Los Angeles’ pitching corps is led one of baseball’s best, in Jered Weaver (a combined 2.73 ERA with 573 strikeouts from 2010-2012). Complementing Weaver in the Angels’ rotation is another Rangers-export, C.J. Wilson, followed by newcomers Joe Blanton, Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson. As a whole, the team has an above-average staff that – supported by an All-Star lineup – should bring L.A. a lot of success this season.

Note: The baseball world can’t help but anticipate how 21-year-old phenom Trout will fare as an encore to his sensational rookie season. The true five-tool star provided stellar defense, while swiping 49 bases, hitting 30 homers, scoring 129 runs and posting 83 RBI in five months in 2012. What’s in store for 2013? Can Trout replicate that success, enter superstar status and lead L.A. to the promise land in only his second Major League season?

Runner-up – Oakland Athletics (88-74 - 7 GB)  (wc)

Despite the superior talent of the Angels, the 2012 AL West crown was claimed by the Oakland Athletics. Baseball fans – and experts – wondered how this could happen.

A's RF Josh Redick
It was Moneyball all over again. The 2012 Athletics second-lowest MLB payroll ($55,372,500) was nearly a whole third less than Los Angeles (who boasted a $154,485,166 – fourth-highest in the majors). Yet general manager Billy Beane and team manager Bob Melvin molded a roster full of virtual no-names to a 94-68 record.

That said, Oakland still hasn’t earned the notoriety or respect the 89-win Angels of last season. Still, much like Trout on an individual level, baseball purists and experts can’t help but wonder about the A’s team success this season. Can this year’s team replicate its miraculous 2012 this go-around?

Note: Part of the reason for Oakland’s success last season was outfielder Josh Redick. Signed for a thrift store price of $485,000 in 2012, the A’s cashed in its bargain for a value of 32 home runs and 85 RBI in a team-high 611 at-bats. With a .242 batting average, however, there’s plenty of room for improvement for the third-year player. Reddick’s beard has certainly grown entering season No. 2 with the A’s (see photo). Can his production continue to grow as well?

Third place – Texas Rangers (87-75 - 9 GB) (wc)
After back-to-back World Series appearances coming up short, has Texas’ window to win it all passed? It’s hard to say. Despite the loss of team star and one of baseball’s best hitters, Josh Hamilton, the Rangers lineup of 2013 still packs plenty of power. And with a talented pitching staff as well, Texas most definitely is capable of competing with the Angels and A’s.

The 2013 Rangers won't have enough guns to win the west this season. But the team will earn a wildcard and make its fourth consecutive postseason.
Rangers SP Yu Darvish

Note: Texas’ 2013 playoff hopes hinge largely on Japanese import Yu Darvish. The 6-foot-5 flamethrower has what it take to become a true ace for the Rangers. And that is the role the Rangers’ expect him to take. Darvish experienced a lot of success last season (his first in Major Leagues) – posting a 3.90 ERA with 16 wins and 221 strikeouts. Look for that to continue in 2013.

Fourth place – Seattle Mariners (82-80 - 13 GB)

The 2013 Seattle Mariners – much like its other three AL West counterparts from last season – will benefit from the arrival of the Houston Astros this season. New additions Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales could help as well.

Mariners SP Felix Hernandez
Expect the Mariners to improve upon its 75 wins from last season. But don’t expect the postseason just yet.

Note: With an improved offense, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez stands of good chance of winning more ballgames this year than his 2012 total of 13. Could the dominant Venezuela native post a ridiculously stunning fourth season in his past five with an ERA under 2.50? Yes. Will he pick up his second Cy Young award? Sadly, no. Awards like that usually require team success; and while having an improved offense, the Mariners lack the complementary pitchers to help King Felix lead them to the playoffs.
Astros MGR Bo Porter

Fifth place – Houston Astros (56-96 - 32 GB)

This team won 55 games last season. This year? I’ll give ‘em 56.

Note: First-year manager Bo Porter has a lot of work to do; a lot of work to do. With no MLB managerial experience and coaching experience limited to third base, it will be interesting to see what the 40-year-old can bring to Houston.

2013 NL East Champs – Washington Nationals (96-66)

Nationals SP Stephen Strasburg
The Nationals have high expectations in 2013, and they should reach them. Stephen Strasburg is healthy and ready to dominate. His pitching compadres (i.e. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman) are ready too. Surrounded by supreme talent on the mound and in the batter’s box, Strasburg is poised to lead the Nationals to its first ever World Series. It will be tough, though, as the team’s rival to the south, Atlanta, boasts a pretty good ballclub too.

Note: In 2010, Strasburg – one of baseball’s most highly anticipated pitching prospects ever – had his rookie year cut short by an elbow injury. Pitch count. Pitch count. Pitch count. That was all that had been talked about with Strasburg since then; actually, before then too, as the Nationals’ were initially cautious with their 22-year-old phenom … Now, after successfully mowing down 197 batters in 159.1 innings last season, it’s time to throw out the pitch count for Washington’s healthy, 24-year-old, No.1 overall pick of the 2009 MLB draft. If the Nationals young ace continues his ascension, then the summer of 2013 could very well be Strasburg season in the nation’s capital.

Runner-up – Atlanta Braves (95-67 - 2 GB) (wc)

Atlanta and Washington should be the best divisional race in baseball this year. As well stocked as the Nationals are, the Braves are right with them.

Last season, an already excellent pitching staff was aided by the unexpected emergence of Kris Medlen. The collegiate shortstop drafted to be a reliever became a full-fledged starter and savior of Atlanta’s playoff chase in the second half of last season. Making his first 2012 start on July 31, Medlen notched a win against Miami and cruised on to win all nine of his decisions in 12 games started. The 27-year-old finished his season 10-1 with a spectacular 1.57 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 138.0 innings pitched.
Braves LF Justin Upton and CF B.J. Upton

Medlen begins 2013 as the team’s second starter, joining Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm in heading a talented rotation. Coupled with offseason signings of All-Star brothers Justin and B.J. Upton, the Braves most definitely will be a contender to win the East, and perhaps even the World Series, this season.

Note: The Upton brothers will not be the first siblings to roam the outfielder with one another in Major League history. But they could be the best. Make no mistake; this is not Chris and Tony Gwynn or Vladimir and Wilton Guerrero. Justin and B.J. are supremely talented players who, although have not always performed as such, are still All-Star caliber players in the prime of their careers. Could their union in Atlanta be the boost both the brothers – and the Braves – need to lead them to a championship?

Third place – Philadelphia Phillies (82-80 - 14 GB)

Much like the Yankees in the A.L., injuries and age may be catching up with the Phillies.

Phillies 1B Ryan Howard
Former league MVP Ryan Howard tore his Achilles tendon in the 2011 postseason and returned to a 2012 season where he hit just .219 with 25 extra-base hits in 260 at-bats. The slugger had six straight seasons over 100 RBI from 2006-2011.

Five-time All-Star Chase Utley has fallen on hard times with nagging knee problems in recent years, battling his way to a .256 BA and 11 home runs last season  - a far cry from four consecutive 100-RBI seasons (2005-2008).

And on the mound, no one can figure out exactly what’s become of Roy Halladay. A two-time Cy Young winner and one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers, Halladay tossed four straight seasons of more than 200 innings with and ERA at 2.79 or below. Last season, the Phillies ace experienced some shoulder soreness and struggled to post a 4.49 ERA in 156.1 innings. Halladay’s not over the hill yet. But, at age 35, perhaps father time has suddenly caught up to him.

Note: Howard's six consecutive seasons of more than 100 RBI included league-leading totals of 149, 146 and 141 in 2006, 2008 and 2009. In order for the 2013 Phillies to make the playoffs, the team will need its 33-year-old slugger – once face of the franchise – to produce for them once again.

Fourth place – New York Mets  (78-84 - 18 GB)

New York suffered a tough break with two-time Cy Young award winner Johan Santana. In 2008, the team signed Santana for $137.5 million for six years. Five years later, Santana’s impact has been hampered severely by injuries. And now the once-dominant left-hander’s career may be over, as Santana will miss 2013 with his second shoulder surgery in three seasons.  

Mets 3B David Wright
The Mets do have hope, though. Mr. Met of the 2000’s, third baseman David Wright, is present and as good as ever. On the mound, New York features 26-year-old Jonathon Niese. The team’s 7th round pick in 2005 was 13-9 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.17 WHIP last season.

Note: In the offseason, Wright became the Mets highest paid player in franchise history. The 30-year-old agreed to extend his Mets career eight years for a cool $138 million. It will be nearly impossible for the Mets to compete with the Nationals or Braves this season; but Wright certainly embodies the blend of skills and traits desired in a team captain that can lead them to a prosperous future.
Fifth place – Miami Marlins (66 -96 - 29 GB)

The Marlins projected cleanup hitter this season is Placido Polanco (6,858 career at-bats, 103 home runs) … Yep, that’s all you need to know.

Marlins RF Giancarlo Stanton
Note: Miami does, thankfully, have at least one hitter who can supply more power than Polanco – Giancarlo Stanton, who’s hit 71 HRs through his first two MLB seasons. However, with a lack of talent in front of Stanton, instead of cleanup the team has elected to bat him third – perhaps to ensure he gets to bat in the first inning. It doesn’t matter. Miami has a lack of talent that rivals that of Houston and San Diego this season. All Marlins fans can be hopeful of is watching their star slugger continue to pelt the team's vacant outfield stands with his thunderous clouts.

NL Central Champs – Cincinnati Reds (86-76)

Reds 1B Joey Votto
After a 2-0 divisional series lead against San Francisco last postseason turned into embarrassing 3-2 exit, Cincinnati is hungry. The team has nearly its entire 2012 roster intact for 2013 and is the clear favorite to win its division yet again.

Note: Reds first baseman Joey Votto will be a huge key to the team’s success this season. After outstanding, breakout seasons in 2010 and 2011, Votto’s 2012 was marred by a knee injury. The 2010 NL MVP missed eight weeks with the injury, returned on Sept. 5 and did not hit a home run for the team’s remaining 25 regular season games and the five extra games against San Francisco … The 29-year-old has a clean bill of health entering 2013. The Reds have a championship-caliber roster and hope Votto can be the leader that to take them there.
Cardinals C Yadier Molina

Runner-up - St. Louis Cardinals (83-79 - 3 GB)

St. Louis and Cincinnati have had quite the heated rivalry in recent years. Expect that trend to continue this season.

The Cardinals boast a talented lineup of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese. Led by ace pitcher Adam Wainwright, the team’s pitching staff is very formidable as well.

Note: Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has quietly become a model of consistency and a leader for St. Louis. Besides becoming one of the game’s top defensive catchers, Molina has improved steadily as an offensive force in recent years. The 30-year-old Puerto Rico native has made four consecutive All-Star game appearances. Molina posted career-highs in batting average (.305) and home runs (14) in 2011, only to top those totals at .315 and 22, respectively, in 2012.

Third place – Milwaukee Brewers (82-78 - 6 GB)

Any conversation about the Milwaukee Brewers in recent years starts and ends with Ryan Braun. In 2007, Braun won Rookie of the Year - when he batted .324 with 34 HRs and 97 RBI. From 2008-2012, Braun has been an All-Star every season; including an NL MVP award in 2011.

Brewers CF Carlos Gomez
The problem is that Braun can only do so much. The Brewers pitching staff has been below average in recent years and probably will be so again this season.

Note: Complementing Braun in leading Milwaukee to a winning season last year was Carlos Gomez. The Brewers centerfielder posted career highs in home runs (19) and stolen bases (37). Gomez brings with him high energy and a whole of speed. If the Brewers are going to make the playoffs this year, a big season from Gomez will be a key factor.

Fourth place – Pittsburgh Pirates (78-84 - 10 GB)

The Pittsburgh Pirates teased its fans last season, owning a record of 60-44 on August 1. But the team became the Pitiful Pirates once again, going 19-39 down the stretch to finish its 20th consecutive losing season.

Optimism has run dry in Steel City once again.

Pirates CF Andrew McCutchen

Note: Andrew McCutchen is one player worth spending a ticket for at PNC Park. The 26-year-old has made positive strides in each of the first four years of his career. McCutchen batted a respectable .286 with 12 HRs and 22 SBs in his rookie season of 2009. Last year, he was one of baseball’s best overall players - batting .327 with 31 HRs and 96 RBI, along with 22 SBs.

Fifth place – Chicago Cubs (72-90 - 16 GB)

Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo
Ah, the Lovable Losers. The beginning of a season always brings hope. Too bad the Cubs' will be lost by mid-April. No matter. Cubs fans still have the Cozy Confines to have a few beers in and root for their beloved Cubbies, win or lose.

Note: Any shot of success for Chicago this season rests on the broad shoulders of its 23-year-old first baseman, Anthony Rizzo. The 6-foot-3 lefty wields a strong stick – 49 HRs in 613 ABs over the past two seasons in AAA ball (between the Cubs and Padres). Can the prospect pan out in the pros?

NL West Champs – Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71)

Dodgers SP Zack Greinke
The Dodgers are about as stacked as any other club in baseball. Magic Johnson took ownership and spent lots and lots of money – immediately. Well, technically it was Johnson and longtime baseball executive Stan Kasten. It’s just more fun to say “Magic.”

The pairing headed a purchasing group that paid a pretty penny to buy the team for $2.15 million last spring. Since then, they’ve brought in a handful of All-Star talent; including Adrien Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez and Zach Greinke. Add these players to Silver Slugger, Gold Glove centerfielder Matt Kemp and 2011 NL Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw and you’ve got a tremendously tough team that can go cleat-to-cleat with anyone.

Note: Much like baseball’s other L.A. team, the Dodgers are obviously looking to buy themselves a championship. But as evidenced by the Angels of 2012 and several Yankees teams in recent years, money can’t buy you rings (World Series rings, anyways). A key player to 2013 Dodgers success will be Zack Greinke. The 29-year-old right-hander has been an upper-level pitcher the past few seasons. But if Greinke can recapture the dominant 2009 form he had with the Royals, watch out! A one-two punch of Kershaw and Greinke could mean curtains for any of its contenders.
Runner-up – San Francisco Giants (85-77 - 4 GB) (wc)

San Francisco may not quite have the star talent of L.A. offensively. But it definitely matches its archrival’s arms, and then some.
Giants SP Tim Lincecum

Look for Big Time Timmy Jim (a.k.a. Tim Lincecum) to rebound from a rough 2012 and help lead the Giants back to the playoffs.

Note: Following four consecutive All-Star seasons with an ERA in the 2.00s, Lincecum took a huge step back in 2012. The two-time Cy Young award winner was awful – posting a stunningly sky-high 5.37 ERA. Yet the Giants still managed to win it all last season … With the high-priced, newly remodeled Dodgers to contend with, San Fran will need The Freak to return to his dominant self this season. 

Third place – Arizona Diamondbacks (83-75 - 1 GB)

After winning 94 games in 2011, the Diamondbacks took a step back in winning 81 games last year. The team has a quality pitching staff and quality batting lineup. But it’s hard to say it’s much higher than average.

Arizona lost star right fielder Justin Upton in the offseason. While Upton did not have the best of years last season, he still possesses a nice bat and will be missed this season.

Diamondbacks 1B Paul Goldschmidt
The D-Backs still have some good bats, though, and a lot of good arms (led by Ian Kennedy and Trevor Cahill). So expect them to give a lot of teams fits this year; especially at home, where the team really bring out the sticks. But in the end, the club just does not have enough to get by L.A. and Frisco.

Note:  Arizona's 25-year-old first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt - who signed a five year, $35 million contract this offseason - will be relied upon for the Diamondbacks to have a successful season. Goldschmidt's new deal with the Snakes follows a 2012 rookie season where he hit .286 with 29 HRs and 82 RBI. 

Fourth place – Colorado Rockies (75-87 - 13 GB)

The 2013 Colorado Rockies will have enough offense to go toe-to-toe with its N.L. Counterparts. But it definitely will not have the pitching (again).

Rockies C Willin Rosario
Colorado finished last year with a team ERA of 5.22 – dead last in the majors, by far. One would figure a team could only go up from there. But even if it does, the Rockies still have a lot of work to do.

Note: Rockies catcher Willin Rosario could be an X-factor in making Colorado competitive this season. Rosario quietly came upon the scene last year with a fantastic offensive season. The 24-year-old Dominican batted .270 with 28 home runs and 71 RBI in 396 at-bats last season (that’s a HR / 14.1 AB ratio). Colorado hopes Rosario can replicate those numbers this year. Beyond that, the team's also hopeful Rosario can improve defensively and conquer an even greater challenge - helping the Rockies improve its very poor pitching staff.
Padres RP Huston Street

Fifth place – San Diego Padres (68-94 - 20 GB)

San Diego has as large deficiency of talent. Huston Street's revival was a bright spot last season. He might very well be again this season - until he's traded to a contender, that is.

Notes: Street, the Padres' token All-Star representative in 2012, posted 23 saves with a 1.85 ERA and 0.72 WHIP last season. The oft-injured, deadly-when-healthy closer could be auditioning for a postseason roster this season; just don't expect that spot to be in San Diego.