Tag Archives: Predictions

San Francisco 49ers Draft Preview

49ersAbout a month ago, just before free agency began, I examined the potential moves of the San Francisco 49ers and projected the impact they might have on the NFL draft.  Well, the draft kicks off this Thursday and, for better or worse, the Niners have been quite active in free agency since my initial blog post.  Let’s take a look at how those additions and subtractions should impact the team’s draft needs. 

First, a list of the 49ers’ most significant transactions:


  • Anquan Boldin – WR
  • Glenn Dorsey – DL
  • Nnamdi Asomugha – CB
  • Phil Dawson – K
  • Craig Dahl – S
  • Dan Skuta – LB/ST
  • Colt McCoy – QB
  • Cameron Morrah – TE


  • Dashon Goldson – S
  • Alex Smith – QB
  • Isaac Sopoaga – DL
  • Randy Moss – WR
  • Delanie Walker – TE
  • David Akers – K
  • Ricky Jean Francois – DL
  • Tedd Ginn – WR/KR

It’s also important to know precisely which draft picks we’re discussing so here are the 49ers’ thirteen selections:

  • 1st Round – 31st overall
  • 2nd – 34th (from Kansas City)
  • 2nd – 61st
  • 3rd – 74th (from Carolina)
  • 3rd – 93rd
  • 4th – 128th
  • 4th – 131st (compensatory)
  • 5th – 157th (from Indianapolis)
  • 6th- 173rd (from Philadelphia via Cleveland)
  • 6th – 180th (from Miami)
  • 7th – 237th
  • 7th – 246th (compensatory)
  • 7th – 252nd (compensatory)

Let us acknowledge right now that with such a large cache of picks, the 49ers are in prime position to trade up for players they love or trade down when they see an opportunity to stockpile picks (Note: compensatory picks may not be traded so of the Niners’ thirteen, only ten are tradeable).  Indeed, I fully expect them to be among the most active wheelers and dealers over the three-day-long draft-a-palooza.  Nevertheless, I’m not in the business of projecting trades: just as with draft picks, making specific predictions about possible trades is a fool’s errand.  My goal here is merely to tell you which positions I believe the Niners will prioritize over others and why.  Positions are listed from most important to least.  Let’s begin.

Safety – Several players have moved on from San Francisco, but safety remains the only position on the team without a bona fide starter.  All-Pro Dashon Goldson signed a lucrative deal with Tampa Bay and the 49ers’ only response thus far has been the signing of former St. Louis Rams’ starter Craig Dahl.  Can Dahl start for the 49ers?  Sure.  But I’ve watched every San Francisco – St. Louis game over the last four years and not once did I hear Dahl’s name called.  That’s not to say he’s a bad player, just that the 49ers probably don’t envision him as a full-timer.  Indeed, people more knowledgeable than me say Dahl was signed because he can backup both the free and strong safety positions while also playing special teams.  CJ Spillman and Trenton Robinson are the only other potential replacements for Goldson presently on the roster so unless the Niners know something about those guys the rest of us don’t, they’re still looking for someone to start alongside Donte Whitner.  If the 49ers don’t select a safety with one of their first three picks, I will be shocked.  They could pick another one later in the draft as well.

Defensive Line – The signing of Glenn Dorsey fills the hole left by Isaac Sopoaga’s departure and the extension for Ian Williams likely signals that he will take some of Ricky Jean-Francois’ snaps, so the Niners certainly won’t feel desperate to draft a defensive lineman.  However, with Justin Smith a free agent following the upcoming season and the line wearing down from overuse and injuries at the end of 2012, the team really does need to work on its depth up front.  Given the talent along the D-line in this year’s draft, I believe the 49ers will address their issues there by drafting either a pass rushing end or nose tackle in the first/second round, and adding at least one more later on.

Tight End – Losing Delanie Walker hurts.  Though he was technically a backup tight end, he played a very un-backup-like 57% of the offensive snaps meaning the 49ers will need a player better than your average second stringer to replace him.  On the other hand, the trade for WR Anquan Boldin gives the Niners a player who can take some of Walker’s downfield blocking assignments and vastly improve upon his pass catching, thereby offering the team a bit of breathing room in their talent search.  I still believe the Niners will draft a backup tight end, but I don’t believe they will do it with either of their first two picks.  They will pick a TE, but it won’t happen before their pick at the end of the second round and I suspect it will happen in the third or fourth round.

Wide Receiver – This is the wild card position in the 49ers’ draft.  With Boldin and Michael Crabtree as their starters, the Niners have one of the better one-two punches in the league at wideout.  However their depth is suspect: both Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are coming off serious knee injuries (Williams could be back to start the season; Manningham might return mid-season if he returns at all), 2012 #1 pick A.J. Jenkins caught ZERO passes as a rookie, and free agent signees Marlon Moore and Ricardo Lockette are unknowns at this point.  Moreover, Boldin, Williams, and Manningham all become free agents in 2014.  As such, while the Niners don’t necessarily need a starter for 2013, they absolutely need someone who can contribute  next season and potentially start further down the road…and the ability to return kicks and/or punts wouldn’t hurt.  Though I don’t think it’s likely, if the right player slips down the board I could see the 49ers using their first round pick (again) on a receiver.  It’s more likely, though, that that they take one in the third or fourth round.

(Backup) Quarterback – Colt McCoy has twenty-one career starts (with Cleveland) which  probably makes him the backup by default.  Then again, Scott Tolzien knows the Niners’ playbook and they like him enough enough to have kept him around as their third string QB for the last two seasons.  Will the presence of either prevent the Niners from drafting another quarterback to compete for the backup role?  That depends on just how much the team actually likes McCoy and Tolzien.  I don’t know what the front office thinks, but considering the 49ers like to use training camp competitions to flush out the best talent, I think Baalke and Harbaugh will add one more QB when all is said and done.  They might just wait until Sunday to sign an undrafted free agent, but I could see them drafting one in the fourth round or later.

Offensive Line – The 49ers had the best offensive line in football last year and with every starter returning and healthy, this is not a position of need.  Additionally, the Niners spent a fourth round pick on Joe Looney (G) last year and a fifth rounder on Daniel Kilgore (G) the year before so they have young backups waiting in the wings.  Some have speculated that with center Jonathan Goodwin in the last year of his contract at age 34, the Niners will look for a replacement in this draft; they might, but I suspect they are grooming either Kilgore or Looney for that role.  No, if the 49ers draft an offensive lineman this year, I’m reasonably sure that they will go after a tackle to backup Joe Staley and Anthony Davis since last year’s backup – Leonard Davis – was not re-signed.  Look for the team to draft one in the 4th round or later.

Cornerback – All of the Niners’ starters return healthy and Nnamdi Asomugha has been added to the fold, making this a stable position group.  However, while Asomugha, Tarell Brown, Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, and Carlos Rogers are all decent enough, none is irreplaceable, especially in an era when 4000+ yard passers are a dime a dozen.  It is also worth noting that corners often double as return men, an area where the Niners need help following the departure of Ted Ginn.  With that in mind, the 49ers could easily select a CB at any point in the draft to shore up their secondary.

Linebacker – As at offensive line, this group ranks as the best in the NFL, and it’s not even close.  The team could, however, use a backup to help with their depth since Larry Grant is still un-signed (and suspended by the league for four games), Parys Haralson is coming off an injury as is last year’s fifth round pick, Darius Fleming; and new 49er Dan Skuta was signed as a special teams ace, not as an every down linebacker.  The team could select one in the fourth round or later.

Running Back – If Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James are all healthy, then the Niners have one of the deeper and more dynamic groups of running backs in the league.  However Hunter is coming off a knee injury, Frank Gore turns 30 this year – an age where RBs typically begin to see their production decline, and fourth stringer Anthony Dixon made the squad mostly for his special teams contributions.  It is not imperative that the Niners take a back this year, but with Hunter and James on the small side, looking for a bigger RB who can run inside and potentially replicate Gore’s production would make sense.  The 49ers might not draft a RB at all, but if they do it will happen no earlier than the third round.

Kicker – In my preview, I thought the Niners would go cheap at kicker and draft one in the fifth or sixth round.  With the signing of Phil Dawson they could still pursue an undrafted free agent to see if they can find (cheap) lightning in a bottle, but using a draft pick on a kicker now seems highly unlikely.

If you enjoy making player-specific predictions, I’d love to see them in the comments.


American League Predictions 2013

With my National League Predictions already in the books, I figured I’d go the obvious route and post an American League version.  Unlike in the NL where there appears to be a top strata of teams and then everyone else, the AL looks more wide open.  There’s a reason I waited this long to do the AL: the more I looked at the teams, the more uncertain I felt about my picks.  Sure, there are some pretty good teams, but all of them have noticeable flaws.  And while the remaining teams appear sufficiently average (exceptions: Houston and Minnesota who will be horrible), the more I examined them the more I started to see faint glimmers of hope leading me to believe that, given the right circumstances and a bit of luck, most of them at least have a chance.  After all, teams that finished below .500 the previous season have made a habit of crashing the playoffs lately – Baltimore and Oakland last year, Arizona and Milwaukee in 2011, Cincinnati in 2010, Colorado in 2009, and Tampa Bay and the White Sox in 2008.  So while my picks here are fairly conventional, I think the flaws at the top and the glimmers in the middle make it more likely the next “surprise” team will emerge from the American League.


As in my previous entry, I will examine each division and tell you which team(s) I think will make the playoffs, highlight a lesser known hitter and pitcher in each division to keep an eye on, and then give you my picks for the major awards and the World Series at the end.  Got it?  Then let’s play ball!

AL WEST: Oakland A’s (Division Champs); Texas Rangers (Wild Card); Los Angeles Angels (Wild Card) – Before talking about the good teams, it’s imperative that we talk about one particularly bad team that is new to this division as well as the American League.  The Houston Astros lost 107 games in 2012 while playing in the NL Central, a division that had another 100+ loss team in the Cubs and the perpetually sub-.500 Pirates.  The Astros now reside in a more difficult division while also slashing their payroll from $60 million to $21 million.  To put that in perspective, there are eight PLAYERS who make more individually than the entire Houston TEAM.  When you take a squad that set a franchise record for losses in each of the last two seasons and pare $40M from its already low payroll, you’re setting the stage for an epically awful season (120 losses by the 1962 Mets is the number to watch).  Conversely, playing nineteen games apiece against Houston gives the A’s, Angels, and Rangers a decided advantage in the playoff race over teams in the other divisions.

Offense will not be a problem for these three teams.  With Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and now Josh Hamilton in the middle of their lineup, we know the Angels can hit.  The Rangers won’t hit quite as well as they did due to the loss of Hamilton, but they will still score plenty of runs.  Even the A’s, despite question marks at 2nd and 3rd base, should score about as frequently as they did last year with the additions of the underrated John Jaso, Jed Lowrie, and Chris Young.  The real separation in this race comes on the mound where Oakland is simply better and deeper than the Angels and Rangers.  Brett Anderson, now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, and a corps of improving, young pitchers will keep the score down and let the excellent role players in the bullpen finish things up.  In Texas, Yu Darvish could easily prove himself a bona fide ace and I think Alexi Ogando will surprise people, but 18-game winner Matt Harrison already has back problems and the 4th and 5th starters are shaky at best; throw in an average bullpen and you can see that Texas won’t win many games on pitching alone.  The worst situation is in Los Angeles where the Angels replaced starters Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana with the questionable Tommy Hanson and retreads Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas, then signed the oft-injured and still disabled Ryan Madson as the closer for an already muddled bullpen.  The Angels’ offense is strong enough to outscore the opposition, but their mediocre pitching will give them headaches all season.  Bottom line: the old adage that pitching wins titles holds true as Oakland pulls off a semi-surprising repeat as AL West champs.  (LAST SECOND NOTE: The more I think about the Angels, the less confident I feel.  I just know I’m going to regret picking them as the wild card – I should have gone with Toronto or Kansas City.)

Pitcher to watch:  Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers – The 26-year old from Osaka had a good rookie campaign, winning 16 games, striking out 221 batters (5th most in the AL), sporting a 3.90 ERA, and finishing 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting.  He did, however have one big problem: walks – 89 of them to be exact.  Seeing as Darvish did not have this problem during his five impressive seasons in Japan, there’s reason to believe the uptick may stem from his adjustment to the majors since he settled down in September and October to walk only seven batters in 43.1 innings.  If that high walk rate proves to be a one year aberration, then Darvish could easily challenge for the AL Cy Young award.

Hitter to watch: Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Oakland A’s – Hitting .292 with 23 homers, 82 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, and an .861 OPS in your rookie season is impressive enough, but when you consider that Cespedes missed thirty games and couldn’t hit breaking balls at the beginning of 2012, you realize how much better he can get.  Of course, while Cespedes is an excellent all-around player, it’s his power that really stands out.  When Oakland fans saw him hit this 460 foot bomb on a chilly night last April, they knew he was special: anyone who has visited the Coliseum on a cold, blustery evening knows how rare ANY home run is in those conditions; to clang one off the second deck in the left-centerfield alley is damn near impossible, and yet that’s exactly what Cespedes did in just his third major league game.  Need more proof of his power?  Watch this video where he hits one out with the donut still on his bat.  With a healthy season, Cespedes could hit 40+ homers and make a run at the 30-30 club.

AL CENTRAL: Detroit Tigers (Division Champs) – Out of 56 preseason predictions at CBS, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated, every single “expert” picked Detroit.  It’s easy to see why: the defending AL champs have arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander, two of the best hitters in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, an already good starting rotation that should improve with a full season from Anibal Sanchez, a strong lineup around their big guys which should improve with the return of Victor Martinez, and a manager – Jim Leyland – who knows how to navigate the postseason.  All of this is 100% true and why I picked them myself, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Detroit’s Achille’s Heel: their bullpen.  The Tigers’ relievers pulled themselves together during the playoffs just long enough to win the pennant, but they were also the reason Detroit only won 88 games in the regular season.  This year, their former closer now toils in the minors along with his supposed successor who failed to impress in spring training, thereby leaving their major league brethren in a state of uncertainty that threatens the stability of the team.  I have no doubt that the Tigers will eventually trade for a closer because their eighty-three year old owner desperately wants to win right now, but the longer they wait to fix the problem, the longer they leave the door open for an upstart to take their place.

One of those upstarts could be the Kansas City Royals.  I’m not picking them for the wild card because, um, well, because of habit I guess, but the potential is there.  With Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez, the Royals have a surprisingly deep and versatile lineup that could emerge as one of the better offenses in the league.  KC also has several young fireballers in the bullpen who should keep other teams at bay in the late innings.  The team’s problem lies in its middling starting staff – the addition of James Shields helps but the rest of the rotation leaves a lot to be desired.  Nevertheless, Kansas City looks like an improved squad and could challenge for a wild card spot; if not, they should at least finish above .500 for the first time in a decade.

Pitcher to watch: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox – In his first season as a starter, Sale went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA and 192 strikeouts.  All-in-all a very successful season for the former first round pick.  Many, however, are concerned by the 24-year old’s innings pitched increase from 71 IP in 2011 to 192 in 2012, a 121 inning jump.  Such a large bump is indeed a concern with young pitchers, but the White Sox training staff has done a good job of keeping its hurlers healthy, including such notable injury-magnets as Francisco Liriano and Jake Peavy, so I’d give Sale a better chance than most to stay on the mound.  Assuming he does, there’s every reason to believe he can repeat as an All-Star in 2013.

Hitter to watch: Billy Butler, DH/1B, Kansas City Royals – The Royals’ 27-year old has quietly turned into the best DH in the game.  For years he managed to hit right around .300, but could never quite find the power stroke everyone expected.  That all changed last year when some of his annual 40+ doubles turned into home runs – he finished the season with 29 as well as a career-high 107 RBIs.  With an improving lineup to protect him, Butler should start to earn recognition as one of the better hitters in the game.

AL EAST: Tampa Bay Rays (Division Champs) – The year was 1993: only football had wild card teams, Barry Bonds’ cap size was still a normal 7 1/4, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would not exist for another five years.  More importantly: that was the last time neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox played in the post-season.  Following years of profligate spending, New York and Boston are finally entering a down cycle providing a golden opportunity for the Rays to take control of the division.  They will.  The name of the game in Tampa is pitching and defense.  2012 Cy Young winner David Price is the ace of the staff followed by up-and-comers Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, with Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) as adequate, if unspectacular fourth and fifth starters.  Down in the pen, the Rays continue their tradition of taking castoffs from other teams and turning them into excellent role players.  On defense, they combine sure-handed fielders with advanced metrics and one of the best managers in the game – Joe Maddon – to prevent as many runs as possible.  That pitching/defense mix allowed 51 fewer runs than the next best AL team (Oakland) in 2012 for a Major League best 3.19 ERA – all the more impressive for an AL team that sees a designated hitter every night.  On offense, the Rays are nothing special.  Evan Longoria has MVP potential and Ben Zobrist is underrated, but this team is built to do just enough at the plate to give the pitching and defense a chance.  But with the rest of the division either regressing (Baltimore, New York), rebuilding (Boston), or falling short (Toronto), Tampa has more than enough talent to make the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six years.

A few more words on the other teams in the East since they are all decent enough to make a playoff push:

  • Baltimore – They were one of last year’s biggest surprises, winning 93 games and a wild card berth.  They also went 29-9 in one-run games, the best record in such contests in 122 years.  Unfortunately for the Os, repeating that feat is as difficult as those 122 years would indicate so their record will slip as they lose some of the tight contests they won last season.  The offensive trio of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Matt Wieters will carry this squad at times, but their starting rotation is sub-par and will keep them from sustained success.
  • Boston – The fallout from fried chicken and beer, toxic team chemistry, and a full season’s worth of Bobby Valentine led the Red Sox to their worst record in 47 years.  Nevertheless, this team is more talented than their 69-win debacle suggests.  They’re not likely to make the playoffs, but if players like Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino can regain some of their mojo and young players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks step up, Boston could make some noise.
  • New York – Injuries have really taken a toll on this team as they began the season with five starters on the disabled list.  Though Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter will eventually return, this simply isn’t the same powerful lineup we’ve seen in New York over the last eighteen years.  And while CC Sabathia is still pitching strong, you have to wonder how much longer the Yankees can rely on 37-year old Hiroki Kuroda and soon-to-be 41-year old Andy Pettitte (Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova were never reliable in the first place).  That said, the Yankees are not devoid of talent, they’re merely losing it slowly to age and injuries, so they could contend – it’s just unlikely.
  • Toronto – The Blue Jays played the offseason aggressively, acquiring Mark Buehrle, 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Melky Cabrera in the hope that they would quickly improve a 73-win team.  Even though the Jays should finish closer to 90 wins than 70, my gut tells me that their starting pitchers aren’t as good as they think and the bullpen is still a disorganized mess.   They could rectify this with an in-season move or three, but it probably won’t be enough to catch the Rays or a wild card spot.

Pitcher to watch: Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays – Heading into 2012, Moore was the top pitching prospect in baseball after blowing through the minors and a stellar performance in game one of the 2011 ALDS.  With Rookie of the Year hype ringing in his ears, he disappointed with an 11-11 record and 3.81 ERA.  Upon further examination, however, we see that his first half struggles (4.42 EA) abated and he closed strong with a 3.01 ERA, fewer walks, and a strikeout an inning over his last 14 starts.   Now finally comfortable in the majors, Moore is poised to join the ranks of the pitching elite.

Hitter to watch: Adam Jones, CF, Baltimore Orioles – One of the big reasons for Baltimore’s 2012 resurgence was Jones.  He spent the previous four seasons slowly refining his hitting skills and it finally came together last year with a .287 average, 32 home runs, 16 steals, and an .839 OPS.  Simply put – Jones is one of the top all-around outfielders in the game and, at age 27, still has room to grow.


AL MVP: Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays

AL Cy Young: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

AL Manager of the Year: Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals

AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays


Wild Card: Texas over Los Angeles

ALDS: Detroit over Texas; Tampa Bay over Oakland

ALCS: Tampa Bay over Detroit

World Series: Washington over Tampa Bay

National League Predictions 2013

Nostradamus was a charlatan.  Miss Cleo‘s third eye was blind.  Punxsutawney Phil is just a fat, frightened, little rodent (though he’s a surprisingly good driver for a quadruped).  Me?  I haven’t correctly predicted anything since I foretold the soup of the day at Coco’s back in November of ’95 (it was clam chowder).  I am generally skeptical of all prognostications unless they come from Nate Silver, and even he couldn’t predict who would play in the most recent Super Bowl.  So why would I bother predicting the results of the newly minted 2013 baseball season?  Because making stupid predictions about sports is as much of a national pastime as ogling celebrities, eating too much fast food, and – you know – baseball.  Also: it’s fun.crystal baseball

Here’s the quick and dirty: I will examine each division and tell you which team(s) I think will make the playoffs, highlight a lesser known hitter and pitcher in each division to keep an eye on, and then give you my picks for the major awards and the World Series at the end.

NL WEST: San Francisco Giants (Division Champs); LA dodgers (Wild Card) – No, that lower-case ‘d’ in dodgers is not a mistake: as a longtime Giants’ fan, I refuse to give our hated rivals to the south the honor of capitalization.  As such, you can take this prediction with a big ole’ grain of salt, but I swear I’m being (mostly) objective when I say the Giants are a bit better than the dodgers.  The dodgers won 86 games last year and, much as I hate to admit it, a full-season’s worth of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, whatever they get from the currently injured Hanley Ramirez, and the additions of Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu to the rotation make them a better team.  Unfortunately for Los Angeles, declining skills, injuries, poor team chemistry, and a mediocre manager will mitigate those improvements and keep them from surpassing the Giants atop the standings.  The World Series champs should take the division crown because their pitching staff remains excellent from one through twelve, their lineup is slightly stronger with Brandon Belt assured of regular playing time plus full seasons from Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro, they have a stout defense, and Tim Lincecum simply can’t be as awful as he was last season (I will repeat this as much as possible in the hope that the presence of those words in the ether makes it so).  Arizona could give both teams a run for their money, but the Diamondbacks’ pitching still lags behind their rivals’.

Pitcher to watch: Madison Bumgarner, SF – He’s not entirely unknown, but given the pedigrees in this division – Cy Youngs for Lincecum, Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw (to say nothing of Barry Zito) – and Matt Cain’s perfect game and All-Star start, Bumgarner gets a bit overshadowed.  Only 23 years old, he strikes guys out, doesn’t issue a lot of walks, keeps hitters off balance with his angular delivery, and he already has 37 career wins plus two huge victories in the World Series.  The lanky lefty could easily join the division’s Cy Young club this season.

Hitter to watch: Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, AZ – Goldschmidt very quietly broke out in Arizona last year with 20 home runs, an .850 OPS, and an unexpected 18 stolen bases.  If he can convert a few of his 43 doubles into homers, he may very well be an All-Star.

NL CENTRAL: Cincinnati Reds (Division Champs) – Even without 2010 MVP Joey Votto who missed 51 games, the Reds still managed to win 97 in 2012.  With Votto healthy, Johnny Cueto and Mat “Yeah, there’s only one T” Latos anchoring the rotation, and Aroldis Chapman leading one of the top bullpens in the league, there should be little dropoff in the Queen City.  The loss of the woeful Houston Astros to the American League might take a small bite from their win total, but the truth of the matter is that the Cardinals are the Reds’ closest divisional competition and St. Louis has an unproven starting rotation after Adam Wainwright, several light hitters in their infield, and a great catcher – Yadier Molina – who is unlikely to repeat his amazing 2012 performance at the plate.  I will be very surprised if anyone challenges Cincinnati for the division title this year.

Pitcher to watch: Jeff Samardzija, Chi – The Cubs’ big righty didn’t even move out of the bullpen until last May so his ascendance was something of a surprise even in the Windy City.  Samardzija always had great stuff, but he struggled with his control.  Not so in 2012 when he cut his walk rate and struck out more than a batter an inning using one of the best split-fingered fastballs in the game.  With a spot in the rotation assured for 2013, look for Samardzija to emerge as one of the top 15 pitchers in baseball and the best player for an otherwise mediocre Chicago team.

Hitter to watch: Allen Craig, 1B, StL – Craig clearly has talent as the 22 homers, 92 RBIs, .307 average, and .876 OPS last year would indicate.  The problem is he can’t stay healthy enough to put together a full season having made four trips to the DL since 2010 (he played in just 119 games last year).  At 29 years old with his injury history, he may never play 162 games in a season, but if he can get to 140 he’ll rank among the top hitters in the National League.

NL EAST: Washington Nationals (Division Champs); Atlanta Braves (Wild Card) – Put simply, Washington is the deepest and most complete team in the National League.  They won 98 games last season and stand a good chance of reaching that number again after making several smart tweaks to their roster: the underrated Denard Span is now the Nats leadoff hitter and centerfielder, Rafael Soriano takes over as the closer, and Dan Haren rounds out an already strong pitching staff as the Nats’ fourth starter.  Throw in another year of development for young stars Bryce Harper (20) and Stephen Strasburg (24) plus the removal of his controversial innings pitched-cap and Washington is poised for a deep run into October.  The only thing that could derail them is a spate of injuries…or perhaps the Atlanta Braves?  Everything would have to break right for Atlanta to overtake the Nationals, but the possibility exists.  Young guns Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and Julio Teheran have the potential to take the Braves’ pitching to the next level.  On offense, the newly acquired Upton brothers give the team serious power throughout the lineup – with those two as well as Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and maybe even Dan Uggla, the Braves could have five players with 25+ home runs…of course they might also set a team record for most strikeouts, but at least the fans will get plenty of souvenirs.  Ultimately, Atlanta will finish behind the Nats due to pitching: Washington’s best starters are in the prime of their careers while they guys in Atlanta are still building towards theirs; and the Nationals’ bullpen is deeper, Craig Kimbrel notwithstanding.

Pitcher to watch: Kris Medlen, Atl – Medlen showed great promise back in 2010 before tearing a ligament in his elbow and undergoing the dreaded Tommy John surgery.  The Braves brought him back slowly in the bullpen last season, only moving him into the starting rotation on July 31st.  From that point on he was as unhittable as anyone in the majors – a perfect 9-0 record, a miniscule 0.97 ERA, and 84 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings against only 10 walks – earning himself NL Pitcher of the Month honors for both August and September.  Now fully recovered from his injury, he’s a sleeper pick for the Cy Young Award.

Hitter to watch: Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Mia – In the history of Major League baseball, only ten players have hit 100 home runs before they turned 24: five of them are in the Hall of Fame (Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, and Frank Robinson), another soon will be (Ken Griffey Jr.), and the rest are Tony Conigliaro, Andruw Jones, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez.  Stanton will join that select group with just seven HRs this season.  The 23 year old slugger hit 37 last year, good for second most in the NL despite playing only 123 games due to a knee injury.  The Marlins may not be worth watching these days, but you should at least check out their highlights every now and then just to see Stanton, you know, break a scoreboard or two.


NL MVP: Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati Reds

NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals

NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants

NL Rookie of the Year: Kyuji Fujikawa, RP, Chicago Cubs


Wild Card: Los Angeles over Atlanta

NLDS: San Francisco over Cincinnati; Washington over Los Angeles

NLCS: Washington over San Francisco