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.
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