Weekly Hit Ground Ball: MLB 2013 rankings

The Houston Astros and Texas Rangers got the 2013 MLB season underway last night (well, the early hours of this morning for us in the U.K).

As MLB Opening Day aligns neatly with the Easter Monday Bank Holiday, there’s no better time to launch my new MLB rankings feature for 2013.

So-called ‘power rankings’ are very popular in North American sports and whilst I’ve never quite taken to the ‘power’ part of the name, the lists make for a good discussion topic. I’ll therefore be updating my own MLB rankings over the course of the season, probably on a monthly basis.

I’m always conscious that lots of news stories flood out of MLB on a daily basis and, particularly with the time difference to take into account, it’s not always easy to keep up with the action, especially for newcomers to the sport. Through my rankings, the aim is to provide short capsules for each team that review the past month, functioning as either as a ‘cheat sheet’ or a starting point to find out more depending on how you want to use them.

This debut version provides a glimpse at every team’s off-season moves and their prospects for the coming year, as I evaluate them at least. The rankings are subjective to a large extent and individual placements shouldn’t be taken too literally as they’ll often be little difference between teams within a cluster of 4 or 5.

1. Washington Nationals

The Nationals were the best team in the Majors over the course of the 2012 regular season and a 3-2 NLDS defeat to the Cardinals made sure they didn’t rest on their laurels over the offseason. Denard Span was acquired from the Twins to take over in centrefield and then the Nationals went out and signed premium closer Rafael Soriano.

Stephen Strasburg will be free to pitch all season long:  a major boost in terms of on-the-field performance and avoiding off-the-field distractions following the farce the Nationals created with their badly-managed strict innings limit last year. The ultra-talented Bryce Harper also looks ready to build on his hugely impressive rookie season. Quite simply, Washington’s roster looks strong in all departments and they will take some stopping this season.

2. Toronto Blue Jays

There’s no doubt that the Blue Jays have improved their current MLB roster more than any other team over the offseason. What we don’t yet know is how the new players – Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle etc – will come together as a team under new manager John Gibbons, making a surprising return after managing the team between 2005 and 2008.

Injuries resulted in the Blue Jays’ season completely falling apart during the second half last year (30-46, after going 43-43 during the first) so their 73-89 record wasn’t totally representative of the talent they did have when healthy. They’ll need to add at least 20 wins to their 2012 total to live up to the billing as AL favourites. That’s possible if the new recruits play to their potential and the holdovers find form and fitness and it will be intriguing to see if they can do it.

3. Detroit Tigers

Being swept in a World Series is a devastating way to end what was otherwise a successful season for the Tigers. They’ve kept hold of mid-season recruit Anibal Sanchez, signed outfielder Torii Hunter and can welcome back Victor Martinez after he missed the whole of the 2012 season with a knee injury. Whilst the closer role is still unsettled, everything else about the team points to another postseason visit.

4. Atlanta Braves

Last year they were victims of the harsh, if exciting, new Wild Card ‘play-in’ game. They’ve bagged a pair of Uptons to off-set the loss of free agent Michael Bourn, although it remains to be seen how they will replace the leadership of Martin Prado (traded) and Chipper Jones (retired). Talent across the roster should ensure they are strong postseason contenders again, with all eyes on how Kris Medlen follows up his incredible run of pitching performances during the second half of 2012.

5. Cincinnati Reds

The Reds won the NL Central despite a .208 batting average and .254 on-base percentage from players batting 1st in the lineup. That was quite a trick but not one they’re going to try again as Cincinnati acquired Shin-Soo Choo from Cleveland. With a good lead-off hitter and, hopefully, Joey Votto fit all season long, the Reds should be well set to defend their division crown and to avenge their NLDS defeat to the Giants.

6. L.A. Dodgers

You don’t spend the money the Dodgers have done over the past year and expect to finish second. With Zack Greinke and Korean Hyun-Jin Ryu added to 2012 mid-season recruits, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, manager Don Mattingly knows that – fairly or not – he’ll be under great scrutiny if his team doesn’t lead the way in the NL West. Injuries to Greinke and Ramirez are a reminder that whilst this talent-laden roster should make its way to the playoffs, nothing is guaranteed.

7. San Francisco Giants

It seems to be the Giants’ lot to win a World Series and then be damned with faint praise. It happened in 2010 and again after their 4-0 sweep of Detroit in 2012. Still, Giants fans had the joy of celebrating their victory and can bask in the glow of being reigning champs, so why care what anyone else thinks?

The Giants have concentrated on keeping the team together over the offseason, re-signing Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Jeremy Affeldt, whilst signing free agent Angel Pagan one year after trading him to the New York Mets. They won it all with pretty much the same team last season, so they could do it again in 2013.

8. L.A. Angels of Anaheim

The Angels expected much more than a third-placed finish in the AL West after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson over the 2011/12 offseason, witnessing Mike Trout having a historically brilliant season and adding former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke during the season. Further disappointment followed when the Dodgers gazumped them for Greinke’s signature over the off-season, but they retaliated by taking Josh Hamilton away from Texas and they will be intent on making up for what was a lost season last year.

9. Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays’ ability to compete in the AL East consistently over the past 5 seasons, despite being at a significant financial disadvantage, has earned them the respect of everyone in baseball.  That’s something the Rays should be proud of, but I’m sure the plaudits make them all the more desperate to earn a prize or two as well. As is common for Tampa Bay, they’ve lost key players over the offseason, notably B.J. Upton as a free agent and trading away pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. With reigning Cy Young award winner David Price leading a talented pitching staff, they’ll brush off the departures and get back to beating the odds once again.

10. St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals let a 3-1 NLCS lead slip against the San Francisco Giants last year: a painful way to end their bid to retain their World Series title. Still, getting deep into the postseason despite losing Albert Pujols as a free agent during the preceding offseason showed that the Cardinals are a resilient organization. So far this offseason, serious injuries have struck Chris Carpenter (quite probably ending his career) and Rafael Furcal (Tommy John surgery meaning he’s out for the season), whilst David Freese and Jason Motte are likely to start the season on the DL. They are using their organizational depth to plug the gaps – particularly in the form of promising pitchers Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal – and you wouldn’t bet against them being at the sharp-end once again this year.

11. Oakland A’s

The A’s mixed-and-matched their batting lineup and pitching staff to great effect last season, surprising everyone by winning 94 games and taking the AL West ahead of the Rangers and Angels. Oakland haven’t lost many key contributors over the offseason – Brandon McCarthy being the main one and even he missed a number of games through injury last year – and have added some good pieces in Jed Lowrie and Chris Young. The Angels and Rangers are still being touted ahead of them coming into this season, but maybe Bob Melvin can weave his magic again.

12. Texas Rangers

They may have won 93 games and finished ahead of the LA Angels, but 2012 was a relative disaster for the team that had tasted World Series heartbreak in both of the previous two seasons. A late season collapse helped the A’s beat them to the AL West title and the Rangers then fell victim to the new Wild Card ‘play-in’, having their season ended abruptly by the Orioles.

That disappointment has carried over into the offseason, losing Josh Hamilton as a free agent to the Angels and missing out on a host of free agent targets, most notably Zack Greinke. A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman have been added to the offence and Texas will be desperate just to put the last 12 months behind them and get back onto the field.

13. New York Yankees

It’s been an off-season of injuries and departures in the Bronx, making it easy to forget they led the AL in wins last season (95). Their season may start slowly as the likes of Jeter, Granderson and Teixeira make their way back from injuries and this is clearly a weaker roster than we’ve come to expect over the past 15 years or so from the Yankees. However, when healthy, they’ve still got a strong core and you can never write them off.

14. Milwaukee Brewers

The Brew Crew led the NL in runs scored last season (776) and whilst Corey Hart will start the season on the Disabled List, the offence should still be potent once more. Milwaukee’s season will be determined by their pitching and the recent addition of Kyle Lohse was a needed and welcome signing that should help them to stay in the race, even if they seem likely to fall a little short.

15. Boston Red Sox

Boston consigned a miserable 2012 to the dustbin by ditching manager Bobby Valentine, replacing him with former pitching coach John Farrell, and they’ve added some experienced players in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoil, Ryan Dempster and Joel Hanrahan. The changes they’ve made have been positive, but the Red Sox require returns to top form and fitness from Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz (already hobbled by an achilles injury), Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to quickly move from a 93-loss season to one in which they can compete for a playoff spot.

16. Arizona Diamondbacks

After finishing atop the NL West in 2011, the D-Backs slipped back to a level 81-81 record in 2012. Trading away talent in Justin Upton, Chris Young and Trevor Bauer wasn’t the obvious way to get the team headed back in the right direction, but that’s what they’ve done. Brandon McCarthy, Heath Bell and Tony Sipp have been added to the pitching staff, with Cody Ross and Martin Prado joining the batting lineup. Kirk Gibson has a good all-round roster to work with in 2013 and they could be one of the most underrated teams coming into the season.

17. Baltimore Orioles

The surprise package of 2012, suggestions that the Orioles’ success was a flash in the pan will be put to the test in 2013 as they have basically kept things the same over the offseason with no major joiners or leavers. They can’t expect to go 29-9 in one-run games again, but the lack of name-value shouldn’t make opponents underrate their solid pitching staff that could be the bedrock of another good campaign.

18. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox spent 126 days at the top of the AL Central last season, only to concede the place to eventual winners Detroit on 25 September. Chicago lost catcher A.J. Pierzynski as a free agent over the off-season and their main work was in agreeing contract extensions with pitchers Jake Peavy and Chris Sale so they have largely stood still. Detroit have improved and were generally seen to have underachieved during the regular season last year – keeping the White Sox in the race – so Chicago may not have done enough to keep up with their main division rival.

19. Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies’ run of NL East division titles ended at 5 as the team dropped from 102 wins in 2011 to 81 in 2012. Unlike last year, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley enter the season healthy, but Roy Halladay’s poor performances in Spring Training have done little to quell fears that his decline last season is going to continue, rather than it just being a temporary blip. If Doc can’t find a cure and the offence doesn’t really fire, the Phillies will likely be a .500 team once again. The more positive prognosis would be somewhere around  the 86-87 win mark, which in all likelihood would leave them third in the NL East, hoping that other teams underperform and make the second Wild Card a potential target.

20. Cleveland Indians

Scooping up a double World Series-winning manager (Terry Francona) and two of the top free agent position players (Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn) is a good way to plenty of positivity heading into a new season. Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir have been added to the starting rotation and a lot of Cleveland’s hopes will rest on Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez bouncing back from disappointing campaigns last year.

21. Kansas City Royals

The Royals’ decision to trade away much-hyped prospect Wil Meyers for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis was one of the big talking points of the winter. There’s no doubt that the Royals acquired two good pitchers, the question is whether the additions are enough – alongside hoped for improvement from the likes of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas – to push the team into Wild Card contention. The Royals haven’t made the postseason since the team’s only World Series title was won in 1985.

22. Seattle Mariners

Is 2013 the year when the Mariners field a half-decent offence once again? Felix Hernandez’s perfect game last season was a wonderful moment, but the fact that he was only backed by a single run during that game against the Rays, and that it came in an otherwise mediocre season for the team, encapsulated Seattle’s problems of late.

King Felix signed a seven-year contract extension with the M’s over the offseason . They’ve moved the fences in at Safeco Field, traded for Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse and re-signed Raul Ibanez to try to jump-start the offence to back their pitching. The strength of the AL West will make moving far forward in the standings difficult, but they deserve to see some benefit from trying to address their weaknesses.

23. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Buccos’ 2012 must have left their fans wondering if they will ever break their sequence of losing seasons. They were only 3 games behind the Reds in the NL Central at the end of July and a .500 season looked the very least they would obtain. They then went 20-39 the rest of the way to end up with a 79-83 record that was somehow both better than any season they’d had since 1997 and at the same time more disappointing than any season during that spell. Former Yankee catcher Russell Martin is the only significant addition they’ve made over the offseason and their hopes of progress revolve around how quickly their two outstanding pitching prospects, Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, make it to the Big Leagues.

24. San Diego Padres

It’s been a quiet offseason for the Padres, with the main news being the recent injury to last year’s leading contributor Chase Headley. The third baseman is expected to miss the first month of the season in what is most likely to be another rebuilding year in San Diego. Injuries to Carlos Quentin and Casey Kelly have also added to a Spring Training that the Padres will be glad to leave behind.

25. New York Mets

It was somehow fitting that no sooner had the Mets’ David Wright earned Captain America plaudits for his World Baseball Classic performances, he suffered an injury and brought an abrupt end to a morsel of enjoyment Mets fans could take from seeing their man leading the way for the national team. That followed R.A. Dickey’s Cy Young winning-season being followed by him getting shown the door, traded to Toronto. Pitchers like Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler offer promise for the future, but don’t expect much from the season ahead.

26. Chicago Cubs

The first year of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer rebuilding project in Chicago brought predictable results at the Major League level (a 101-loss season). They took the opportunity to invest in Edwin Jackson (4-year, $52m) over the offseason and he’s one of several players that will be worth watching at Wrigley, including Jeff Samardzija who will hope to prove his promising first season as a starter can continue into a second. Even so, the Cubs can no longer rely on the abject Astros to keep them from the bottom spot in the NL West.

27. Minnesota Twins

The Twins have finished bottom of the AL Central in the last two years and they’ll be there again in 2013, although with some exciting young talent on the way. One of which, outfielder Aaron Hicks, has made the Opening Day roster and along with Mauer and Morneau (unless the latter gets traded at some point) he’ll be one of several reasons to watch a Twins game or two this season.

28. Colorado Rockies

Rookie manager Walt Weiss will not have to manage any great expectations in 2013. The Rockies finished 30 games behind the Giants in the NL West last season and have not made any notable additions to their roster over the offseason. They will hope Troy Tulowitzki recovers from an injury-hit 2012 that restricted him to just 47 games and that some of their younger players can at least gain valuable experience during what will be a testing season.

29. Miami Marlins

This time a year ago everything seemed to be going right for the Marlins. Fast forward twelve months and Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonifacio are now all in Toronto, Heath Bell is in Arizona, Ozzie Guillen is unemployed and the Marlins are back to rebuilding again as if it was all one big dream. Giancarlo Stanton is still around to provide something exciting for the few fans that will be at Marlins Ballpark this season, but rookie manager Mike Redmond knows this is going to be a year full of losses.

30. Houston Astros

The Astros’ move to the AL West should be a cause of excitement for the team, but instead it is likely to cause trepidation considering they lost 107 games in the weaker NL Central last year. Houston are in a complete rebuilding effort and, excruciating as it will be for their fans to sit through, this is going to be a long season for rookie manager Bo Porter to navigate his team through.

 

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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