Rather than writing my standard comprehensive preview (I suppose I’m a little late), I thought I’d take a different tact in predicting this year’s baseball season. Following are all 30 MLB teams, ranked in order of increasing likelihood that they win the 2013 World Series.
30. Houston Astros. Tough break moving to the AL West. If they were still in the NL Central, I’d probably rank them… well… last.
29. Florida Marlins. Maybe if Giancarlo Stanton goes all Mike Trout this year… they won’t finish last.
28. Minnesota Twins. It helps playing in the AL Central, but this team has no pitching. Not much hitting either.
27. San Diego Padres. I thought the Padres were a sleeper last year, with Chase Headley and Cameron Maybin due for big seasons. I was right about Headley, less right about Maybin, and way off about the pitching. When Edinson Volquez and Clayton Richard are your top two starters, you’re not going to succeed in any park.
26. New York Mets. The Mets might be better than a few teams ahead of them, particularly of Jon Niese and Ike Davis take steps forward and David Wright repeats his 2012, but they’re not going to beat the Nationals and Braves.
25. Colorado Rockies. No Rockies pitcher threw as many as 115 innings last year. They’ll return to a standard five-man rotation this year, but that doesn’t mean they’ll prevent runs. Troy Tulowitzki might be the best player in the game. I wonder if he’s regretting signing with this team throughout and beyond his prime.
24. Seattle Mariners. Michael Morse, Jesus Montero, and Kendrys Morales might hit some home runs with the fences moved in, and King Felix can pitch in any environment, but a reconfigured field won’t make a great team out of this roster.
23. Cleveland Indians. They picked up a lot of veteran talent in the offseason, but Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds don’t make you a great team, especially when Justin Masterson is your best starter.
22. Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates keep making moves toward respectability, but they might still be a last-place team. Even if Andrew McCutchen follows through on his MVP promise from last year and Wandy Rodriguez pitches like an ace, I don’t see a .500 record in their near future.
21. Chicago Cubs. The Cubs lost 101 games last year, but are they really that bad? Anthony Rizzo quietly created 16 runs above average last year and could break out this year. Starlin Castro seems ready to hit .320. Alfonso Soriano’s contract masks the fact that he’s been productive of late, earning 3.6 fWAR last year. And a rotation headed by Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, and Matt Garza doesn’t feel like a last place rotation.
20. Milwaukee Brewers. Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez should keep on hitting, but will that be enough? They finished over .500 last year with a solid year from Jonathan Lucroy and a surprising campaign from Norichika Aoki. They added Kyle Lohse, but subtracted even more by signing Yuniesky Betancourt. I don’t see them improving.
19. Baltimore Orioles. Still not buying it. Even if Chris Davis is for real and Matt Wieters really breaks out this year, Adam Jones has a half season of great baseball on his resume and Brian Roberts is 35 and four years removed from his last 2-win season. This team will give at-bats to Nate McLouth and fielding chances to Nolan Reimold. Their best pitcher is Jason Hammel and their bullpen isn’t going to lock down 90 percent of their one-run games this year. They’re not terrible, but I don’t think they’re a .500 team in the AL East.
18. Kansas City Royals. After so many years of losing, Kansas City’s bumbling front office may have sold the future, shipping Wil Myers and other prospects to Tampa for James Shields and Wade Davis. But if you squint just the right way at the 2013 roster, you might see something there. Alex Gordon has been worth 12.4 fWAR over the last two seasons. Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler can hit, and Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez are two of the best defensive players in the game. The rotation isn’t great, but Shields, Davis, and Jeremy Guthrie can win some games in the AL Central, can’t they?
17. Philadelphia Phillies. This team seems to have completely lost its ability to score runs, with its entire infield over 34 (and one of them Michael Young). As the offense has declined in recent years, the saving grace has been the continued excellence of the pitching. While Cole Hamels has become the team’s ace and Cliff Lee is still excellent, Roy Halladay had a 4.49 ERA last year, and after a terrible spring, gave up five runs in three and a third innings in his first start this year. Mike Adams joins Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, but Charlie Manuel could find a way to lose close games with Kimbrel and Rivera in his pen.
16. Oakland A’s. The A’s are loaded with just-good-enough-for-the-Coliseum pitchers, led by Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone. But these guys have to pitch on the road too, and there aren’t any Verlanders or Hernandezes around. Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and especially Brandon Moss might struggle to replicate their 2012 offensive numbers. Chris Young, Jed Lowrie, and John Jaso might all be improvements, but there’s a lot of regression to make up for. This team could be better than average again, but I don’t see them finishing ahead of Texas and California again.
15. Chicago White Sox. Meh. Chris Sale will be awesome again, but will Jake Peavy? Does Paul Konerko have anything left? Will Adam Dunn’s 30 homers justify his 200 strikeouts? This is a thoroughly average team. They’re ahead of the A’s and Phillies here only because there’s only one team to beat in their division.
14. Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks quietly assembled a good rotation over the past few years, led by Ian Kennedy, Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley, and Trevor Cahill. Justin Upton is gone, but Miguel Montero, Martin Prado, and Gerrardo Parra should all be three-win players this year on a team that could contend if the two NL West teams above them are hit by injuries.
13. Boston Red Sox. This team has the best chance to lose 90 games of anyone in the top half, but they also have the talent to win 90. A lot rides on the arms of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Ryan Dempster, as we can be reasonably sure this team will be among the better offensive teams in the league. If the rotation is even passable, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, Koji Uehara, and Junichi Tazawa should hold a lot of leads in the late innings.
12. New York Yankees. This team looks positively moribund right now, and it’s possible that they’ll delight 80 percent of the world by losing 85 games, but Robinson Cano was the second best player in the AL last year and the pitching is solid. If Hiroki Kuroda repeats his 2012, Andy Pettitte continues to pitch like a living being, and David Robertson reverts to 2011 form, this might be the best overall pitching staff in the AL. If Granderson and Teixeira come back healthy and Brett Gardiner assumes his rightful spot in center field, this team could win enough games in the summer to make a run.
11. St. Louis Cardinals. Never count out the Cardinals. Last year, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina joined Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday as forces in the middle of the lineup, and I don’t see either of them going away. The pitching isn’t great after Adam Wainwright, but Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn are serviceable, particularly given the run support they project to get, and it seems like every pitcher wearing a Cardinals uniform for the first time defies expectations.
10. Tampa Bay Rays. I don’t know what to make of this team. David Price is almost as good as his reputation, Matt Moore could become a #1 starter this year, Jeremy Hellickson keeps defying his FIP, and the team has enough rotation depth to withstand an injury or two. But will they hit? Beyond Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, the lineup is full of question marks, with James Loney and Shelley Duncan playing traditional power positions. And with class acts like Luke Scott and Yunel Escobar in the fold, will the clubhouse chemistry match that of the great Rays teams from a few years ago?
9. Toronto Blue Jays. The trendy pick to win it all had a marvelous offseason, pickpocketing the NL East bottom feeders by nabbing Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and RA Dickey, and Jose Reyes. The latter three and Brandon Morrow could strike out a lot of guys (or just limit walks, in Buehrle’s case), but none is a guarantee. Dickey’s never pitched well in the NL, Buehrle is 34 and has seen his FIP rise each of the last two seasons, and Johnson and Morrow have long injury histories. Edwin Encarnacion could crush the ball again or regress to pre-2012 form, and Jose Bautista and Reyes need to stay healthy as well if the Jays are going to win the East.
8. Los Angeles Angels. A lineup with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton is imposing, and those three are the primary reason I rank the Angels this high. But Hamilton’s strikeout rate has been on the rise for three years, climbing over 25% last year. Pujols is still imposing in the batter’s box, but his wOBAs since 2008 have been .459, .447. .419, .384, and .360. What’s next in that sequence? Trout may be the best player in baseball again this year and still be worth three fewer wins than he was worth in 2012. Furthermore, Greinke is gone, CJ Wilson walked over four hitters per nine last year, and Jered Weaver’s strikeout rate has dipped by almost three batters per nine over the last two seasons. There’s a ton of talent here, but a lot of risk too.
7. Los Angeles Dodgers. A couple hundred million dollars can buy a lot of washed-up detritus, but it can also pitch Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke twice every five days. If Adrian Gonzalez hits like it’s 2009, Matt Kemp plays like it’s 2011, and Hyun-Jin Ryu is the real deal, this is the best team in the National League West. If Greinke gets hurt, Josh Beckett pitches like it’s 2012, and Don Mattingly saves Kenley Jansen for three-run leads in the ninth, this might be a .500 team.
6. San Francisco Giants. I’m not sold on the Giants, who made no real moves to improve their team in the offseason. But I’ve learned not to doubt them. Matt Cain gets outs, FIP be damned. If Madison Bumgarner has the season this year I expected him to have last year, it won’t matter much if Tim Lincecum is done. Buster Posey has been among the best players in baseball (and won a championship) in both of his healthy seasons, and Kung Fu Panda and Angel Pagan are two-way stars. Pence is bad, Scutaro is old, and I still don’t believe in Vogelsong, but if this team can scrape together enough wins to get to October, why can’t they win three out of four titles?
5. Atlanta Braves. There’s a good chance the Braves will have to use the Wild Card to get to the Series, but they’re a dangerous playoff team. There are a few question marks in the rotation, but Tim Hudson is steady and Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor offer a lot of upside. Jayson Heyward and the Upton brothers (ok, at least Justin) will rake in the outfield. And Craig Kimbrel might strike out every batter he faces this year, which is a plus in October.
4. Texas Rangers. I tried not to be influenced by early season results, but I might have been here. Lance Berkman should replace most of Josh Hamilton’s production, AJ Pierzynski won’t be a huge drop-off from Mike Napoli, and the rotation is as strong as ever, particularly if Yu Darvish is a Cy Young contender and Alexi Ogando takes a step forward. Will this be the season they finally finish off a lesser National League team?
3. Cincinnati Reds. They don’t get to play the Astros 18 times a year anymore, but aside from St. Louis, there’s not much competition in the NL Central. Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey emerged as a strong rotation last year, and Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips are a solid heart of the order. Aroldis Chapman will add value in whatever role he plays, and if Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier build on excellent rookie seasons, this team could be dangerous.
2. Washington Nationals. This team is loaded. Dan Haren joins the Strasburg/Gonzalez/Zimmermann triumvirate in the rotation. Rafael Soriano joins Storen/Clippard/Stammen in the bullpen. Bryce Harper could be the best ouftielder in the NL and the Espinosa/Desmond/Zimmerman infield can field and hit.
1. Detroit Tigers. Does this mean I think the Tigers are the best team in baseball? Not necessarily. They still have some holes in their lineup, and I’m not impressed with their bullpen. It means that they’re the most likely team to make the playoffs, as they stand out from their division more than any other team. And as we’ve seen the last several years, winning in the playoffs takes a little talent, a little luck, and a lot of good timing. The Tigers have perhaps the best four-man rotation in baseball (Verlander/Scherzer/Fister/Sanchez), a very good top of the order (Jackson/Hunter/Cabrera/Fielder/Martinez), and an excellent chance to have a pulse come October.
As a bonus, here are the most likely players to win the postseason awards:
NL Cy Young:
5. Cliff Lee
4. Zack Greinke
3. Cole Hamels
2. Clayton Kershaw
1. Stephen Strasburg
AL Cy Young:
5. David Price
4. Chris Sale
3. Felix Hernandez
2. Yu Darvish
1. Justin Verlander
10. Yadier Molina
9. Justin Upton
8. Ryan Braun
7. Troy Tulowitzki
6. Giancarlo Stanton
5. Buster Posey
4. Andrew McCutchen
3. Jayson Heyward
2. Bryce Harper
1. Joey Votto
10. Jose Reyes
9. Matt Wieters
8. Yoenis Cespedes
7. Jose Bautista
6. Dustin Pedroia
5. Adrian Beltre
4. Robinson Cano
3. Miguel Cabrera
2. Evan Longoria
1. Mike Trout