The 2013 Major League Baseball Season gets officially under way today (the season doesn’t start until the first pitch in Cincinnati because that’s just how things work) and Getting Blanked is, to say the least, excited.
Predictions are a fool’s errand. Baseball and life have their ways of getting in the way of just about everybody’s best laid plans. The echoes of previously misguided predictions haunt the predictor forever. Nobody predicted the Orioles would make the playoffs last year, which means any prediction which doesn’t tap the Orioles as a playoff-bound club in 2013 receives a whole lot of “didn’t you pick them to finish last in 2012, idiot?”
In the twitter age of instant punditry, there is no worse feeling than making a somewhat bold or declarative statement and seeing a few eager trolls banging away on the “favorite” button, stashing that proclamation away for safe-keeping and posterity.
To mark the occasion and heavily hedge our bets, let me roll out a season preview full of sub-predictions. Not predictions as much as statements: nine baseballish things that we believe in enough to put in writing. Feel free to file under “what was he thinking?” for reference in six months.
- Jason Heyward Takes His Seat At The Elite Table
Jason Heyward represents quite the condundrum for armchair analysts. After his star turn as a rookie, Heyward struggled through injury and ineffecitiveness in his follow-up season, making swing changes and not looking like the 20-year old who turned heads in 2010.
Last season, many BARVES fans did not know what to expect from Heyward. As passionaite fans, they worried about his effort level and compared him, often unfavorably, to Prodigal Son Jeff Francouer. The Braves themselves didn’t seem sure of what to make of Heyward, often hitting him as low as sixth in the batting order and generally not getting the best from their stud right fielder.
Heyward, of course, exploded in 2012 with a serious power surge to go with his spectacular play in right field. While the legendary patience he displayed in his rookie campaign slipped to league-average, Heyward hit for power and posted a 6 fWAR season, hitting 27 home runs and stealing 21 bases in the process.
What freed him up for the breakout? Was it the Braves measured approached or did Heyward’s talent show how squandered he was for much of his early career?
The BARVES are squandering Heyward no more. Despite bringing in the brothers Upton to man their outfield, this is now Heyward’s team. The 23-year old now occupies the locker previously held by longtime Braves linchpin Chipper Jones. He will hit second to start the season, an ideal place for a hitter with his power/patience combination.
This might well be the season we see Jason Heyward put both of those considerable attributes to good use. The power and production of 2012 with the patience that made him a record-setting on base machine during his rookie campaign. Hitting in a more balanced lineup on a very good team, Heyward should figure into the MVP conversation come the fall. Of all the additions the BARVES made this winter, unleashing the new face of their franchise will end up being the best one of all.
- Company in the Cellar
The Houston Astros are baseball’s convinent whipping boy. They slashed their payroll and gutted the team of anyone making any real money, famously bringing the overall salary payout to below that of Alex Rodriguez. The Astros will pay pre-arbitration players nearly an equal amount to arb and free agent players. An unprecedented move.
The Astros are in the middle of a very significant rebuild. The pre-arb players in their mix are not exactly the Mike Trouts and Manny Machado‘s of the world. Those type players are coming to Houston, but this is the low end of their ebb. The Astros are going to be very bad and lose a lot of baseball games.
The Astros are getting more attention for their looming 100 loss season but they are not alone. There are plenty of spectacularly bad teams in baseball this year. The Miami Marlins gutted their team of any and all high earners, leaving poor Giancarlo Stanton (himself gazing toward his first arbitration reward this winter) to fend for himself. The Marlins lineup is pathetic, with Placido Polanco hitting cleanup at times and Juan freaking Pierre leading off. These Marlins will lose a lot of games in their own right.
The Colorado Rockies don’t get enough credit for being a laughing stock. This is an organization which makes one head-scratching decision after another, most of which stem from their inability to develop quality pitching to combat the soul-destroying effects of Coors Field.
The Rockies have Troy Tulowitzki, they have Carlos Gonzalez, and they have Dexter Fowler. Their rotation is in shambles and their division is getting more competetive by the day. Don’t sleep on the Rockies, they’re potential for awfulness is high (or low, as it were.)
That’s it. That’s the joke.
It appears they are turning things around on the prospect front, eschewing their “pitch to contact” mantra in favor of the radical idea to draft and develop pitchers who are good. But those pitchers and Byron Buxton won’t save Joe Mauer in 2013. 100 losses remain a distinct possibility.
- The AL West Will End Up a Complete Catastrophe
To say the AL West is wide open is a little misleading. The Angels added Josh Hamilton and still employ Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. Yet the Angels seem vulnerable, thanks to an iffy pitching staff beyond ace Jered Weaver and the lingering effects of Scioscialism. Might this be the year the Angels tune out their legendary manager, running his powerful lineup into too many outs? What are Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton, and C.J. Wilson actually going to produce for this team?
The Rangers looked like world beaters through much of 2012. Many people, myself included, got caught up in the balanced lineup and strong defense and began making “best team since _______” style statements. Then the wheels came off, as the Rangers folded and lost the AL West crown to the upstart A’s on the final day of the season, eventually losing the Wild Card play-in game to the Baltimore Orioles.
Between Ron Washington‘s mystifying decision making and murmurs of a growing rift in the front office, there more question about the Rangers around the diamond. Their pitching, like the Angels, is far from a sure thing. Replacing Josh Hamilton won’t be easy, even if he did all but disappear in the second half of the season (relatively.) Nobody is making “best team since ______” statements about the 2013 Texas Rangers, a team with plenty to prove.
Figure out the Oakland Athletics, I dare you. Most teams which unexpectedly pick up wins in one season tend to give them back in the next. Whatever pixie dust worked on the A’s in 2012 surely wore off, right? Right?
The aforementioned Astros are muddy these waters completely. If they’re as bad as many people expect, the Angels and Rangers should get fat picking off cheap wins from this undermanned side. But then again, what if the Astros and their cabal of geniuses are right and Houston isn’t nearly as bad as everyone expects? What about the Mariners, who made an about-face after years of run prevention emphasis by bringing in as many one dimensional sluggers as they could get their hands on?
The smart money is on one of the Wild Cards teams coming out of the AL West, given the apparent disparity in talent. Yet the good teams aren’t without their warts and the bad teams aren’t without their redeeming features. The AL West will be a lot of things, dull is not one of them.
- The Nats Pillars of Greatness
Remember when the Rays first became competitive and the common refrain was to flippantly dismiss them as a team benefiting from repeatedly picking very early in the first round of the amateur draft? As they last few years have shown, that wasn’t exactly the case.
The Washington Nationals, the noveau-riche NL East powerhouse, are sort of exactly that. They were so bad for so long they had the first overall pick in two consecutive seasons. The Nats had the good fortune to be bad at the right time, as their reward for miserable season after miserable season was Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.
The Nats won the NL East in 2012 for many reasons, their pitching staff’s unusual health chief among them. The Nats received unexpectedly production form 19-year old Bryce Harper, acquitting himself incredibly well for such an inexperienced player. Stephen Strasburg emerged from the Tommy John wilderness to look the part of one of baseball’s best pitchers, though the Nats insistence on the Kid Glove Treatment prevented him from truly making a mark.
Players tend not to develop in a linear fashion. Bryce Harper won’t be X% better in 2013 just because he’s a year older, and Stephen Strasburg has been a finished product for so long you have to squint to find an area in which he stands to improve.
Neither Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are normal baseball players. They are they types of talent that don’t come along every year. The are spotted a mile away and their ascendance to the upper echelons of the game’s elite seem as but assured. Two such preternaturally talented players stand to become two of the very best players in the game. Right now.
Both Harper and Strasburg excite us with their ability and their drive to improve. The Nats took steps to bolster their roster in many facets for the 2013 follow-up to their first DC playoff berth, but these two young players will decide their franchise fortunes for a long, long time – starting today.
- The Dodgers Throw Good Money After Bad
For all their big spending ways, the Dodgers fail to excite me. Sure, they improved in a very real way in a very short period of time. But this team built to win now seems…uninspiring. You and I both know how good a player Carl Crawford was, but does that mean we can expect Carl Crawford to ever be that good player again?
The same holds true for Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez. Of these three players, Hanley seems like the most likely to rediscover his old form as one of the game’s best players but the question marks around the diamond are real. Andre Ethier? If you insist. Josh Beckett? Power pitchers have a hard time getting away with mistakes when the power isn’t quite what it was.
The Dodgers plan is sound: spare no expense in bringing as much talent as you can find and throw it on the field together. Assume that talent will rise as it should and you have yourself quite the team. But I’m unconvinced. The annoying Diamondbacks and borderline inexplicable defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants (!!!) look like better teams on paper.
The Dodgers will have to wait for another opportunity to throw more of their paper around to plug whichever holes open up in their roster in 2013.
- RIP Service Time Concerns
It doesn’t take a genius to understand why teams game the service time of their top prospects. For many teams, that extra year of control can represent the savings of millions of dollars and a whole lot of trade value.
But the ongoing trend to lock players up to long-term, TEAM X FOR LIFE style contracts seems to have minimized these concerns. Besides, isn’t huge escalating arbitration rewards the very best kind of problem to have?
The Red Sox caught a lot of flack for adding young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to their Opening Day roster, starting his service clock somewhat prematurely. All the Sox needed to do was keep Bradley in the minors for a few weeks to stave off free agency for one year, six years from now mind you.
Promising as Bradley might be, what are the chances he doesn’t struggle at all during his first few seasons? Are we to believe Bradley, unlike so many inexperienced players, will not make use of any of his minor league options from this point forward?
More importantly, if Bradley is such a can’t miss stud who is in the show for the rest of his career, isn’t the production he provides during these pre-arbitration years worth something?
The more teams lock up their own starts, steering well clear of the ugly mess that is free agency, the less emphasis we will see placed on service time. Heavily budgeted teams like Rays still need to play this game but the game is so awash in cash right now, coughing up a few extra dollars for a very good player doesn’t seem like a battle worth fighting.
- The American League East – First Team to 88 Wins Takes It
Count out the aging Yankees. Disregard the transitioning Red Sox. Write off the fluky Orioles. Question the impact of the Blue Jays remake. Mock the Rays. Do each and every one of these things at your peril, because the American League East will not be for the meek in 2013.
Are the Jays the best team on paper? You can make that case. Are the Yankees the worst? They just might be. Either way, there isn’t a really bad team in this division. These teams could all end up with 85 wins, fighting and clawing each other back to the pack while the Tigers clinch their division title on the Fourth of July.
Write the names of the five AL East teams on a scrap of paper, put them in a hat and draw them out one by one. Do it five times, noting the order in which they were drawn. Look at each of these five random scenarios and honestly tell yourself you cannot envision the final ALE standings looking that way. Buckle up.
- The Nerds Keep Making Inroads
Given the fanfare surrounding the increasing devotion to number crunching and analysis in baseball, it is easy to forget most other sports still don’t operate this way. The NBA is in the midst of their own statistical revolution, where analysts and front office types “clash” with hardened basketball men who know the game inside and out.
Baseball has been fighting this battle much longer, so the ripples are more visible across the game. More importantly, teams are figuring how to get buy in from their “uniformed personnel” when it comes to implementing new processes and ways of looking at things.
It doesn’t take much and nobody is trying to reinvent the wheel. Something simple the the Cleveland Indians posting a scoreboard in their Cactus League clubhouse, tracking which of their pitchers throws the highest percentage of strikes in 1-1 counts. A simple way to get players to reevaluate they approach the game without being intrusive.
Little things on the team level combined with big things on the individual level. Teams investing humongous dollars into players based on what they do, not how many games they “win”. The Mariners made Felix Hernandez the richest pitcher in the game (ever so briefly) despite winning more than 14 games only once. By incentivizing individual performance independent of factors beyond the player’s control, front offices continue to reshape the game, probably for the better.
- The World Series Champion Will Be…
I have no godly idea. The Nats are the best team, the Tigers have the surest path to the crapshoot that is playoff baseball. The Giants are still the Giants, the Cardinals stand poised to lap the field in terms of talent acquisition. The Blue Jays are sexy, the Braves are talented. The Rays are confounding. Honestly, who knows?
Gun to head: the St. Louis Cardinals will emerge as the best organization in baseball and will, once again, have the hardware to prove it. Now don’t hold me to this. Baseball is back, more than anything, enjoy!