Spring Training has arrived and it has brought with it that familiar sense of hope and optimism. It’s one of my favorite times of year and as we get ready for the 2013 MLB season, there’s no shortage of storylines. The offseason was never really “off” with many teams making key trades and signings that have resulted in big names in new cities. Add to that the much anticipated sophomore seasons of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Cabrera’s quest for back to back Triple Crowns and you’ve got a lot to look forward to. Here’s my 10 most intriguing MLB storylines as we get ready for Opening Day.
1. Will the Blue Jays be any good?
The biggest move of the offseason happened very early on. Just two weeks after the Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series, the Marlins and Jays completed a 12-player blockbuster trade. The Marlins shipped almost every major piece of theirs to the Jays, including Jose Reyes (who signed a $106M contract prior to the 2012 season), Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck. Miami cleaned house with the exception of Giancarlo Stanton, who made his feelings about the trade very public. Whether any fans will be attending the Marlins beautiful 2-year old ballpark in 2013 is a separate storyline for another time.
Toronto was the beneficiaries of a good, old fashioned salary dump. They gave up Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, Jeff Mathis and young prospects Adeiny Hechavarria, Justin Nicolino, Anthony Desclafani and Jake Marisnick in exchange for a brand new team. By giving up a number of prospects, they are going all-in on the present. Alex Anthopoulos made that sentiment even clearer by acquiring reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets. It will be virtually a brand new team in Toronto and I’m an anxious as everyone to see how it plays out, especially in the extremely competitive AL East.
2. Miguel Cabrera’s season after the Triple Crown
The reigning AL MVP made history last season by hitting for the first Triple Crown since 1967. It was an amazing season (.330, 44 HR and 139 RBI) and one that I think he will duplicate in 2013. I don’t know if he will win the Triple Crown again but he can definitely produce his 2012 numbers this year. Don’t forget he won the batting title in 2011 with a .344 AVG. He’s been consistent throughout his whole 10-year career and it’s safe to say that he is in his prime as he enters his age 30 season.
The whole league knows that Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball right now but they can’t pitch around him thanks to the protection provided by Prince Fielder. The Tigers are going to be a dangerous team and I expect an extra edge to them this season after getting swept in the World Series. If I had to make a guess, I think he hits .322 with 42 HR and 120 RBI, falling short of the Triple Crown but leading the Tigers to a deep run in the 2013 playoffs.
3. Can Hamilton, Pujols and Angels live up to the hype?
Josh Hamilton was the top free agent entering this offseason and there was a lot of speculation as to where he would end up. For a while, I thought he would definitely resign with the Rangers but then the Angels made a power move and assembled possibly the greatest 1, 3, 4 in a lineup ever. Like when Stallone, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger teamed up for The Expendables 2 – the Angels have assembled baseball’s A-Team.
I apologize for the hyperbole and poor analogy but listen to this lineup… 1. Mike Trout (AL Rookie of Year with unlimited potential), 2. Albert Pujols (9-time All-Star and 3-time MVP), 4. Josh Hamilton (5-time All-Star and 2010 AL MVP). Erick Aybar (Jason Stathem in this analogy) will likely hit in the 2-hole and score a lot of runs in front of Pujols and Hamilton. If by some chance they can’t knock in Trout or Aybar, Mark Trumbo (Chuck Norris) will have to do the dirty work from the 5-hole.
I know what you’re thinking though – The Expendables 2 wasn’t a good movie. Neither were the star-heavy Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. But this isn’t the movies, this is sports and teaming up the best players usually leads to titles. Just ask the Heat. Either way, the potential for this Angel’s lineup feels limitless and I can’t wait to see if they score runs at the pace I’m envisioning. Trout led the league with 129 runs last season and he missed the entire month of April. He could conceivably score 170 runs this season, which would be the most in a single season since Babe Ruth scored 177 runs in 1921.
4. Will Mike Trout regress?
Some time has passed since Mike Trout completed one of the best rookie seasons in history. My feelings on Trout’s amazing season are well-documented but in case you need a reminder… he hit .326 with 30 HR and 83 RBI from the leadoff spot. He stole 49 SB (one shy of just the third 30/50 season in MLB history) and led the league with 129 runs scored. Trout also lapped the league with a 10.7 WAR, joining this list of baseball royalty who also finished a season with a double-digit WAR. Finally, as I said, he did all of this after spending the month of April in the minor leagues. Watching him for a 162-game season will be a real treat.
I have seen numerous predictions that he will regress with experts saying that many rookies fail to live up to their first-year seasons. I’m sure those people are basing their predictions on historical precedence, but personally I think Trout is in a league of his own and will prove them wrong. His combination of speed and power set him apart and he gained 10 pounds during the offseason. Hopefully, that won’t slow him down and he can hit for even more power, while still being a terror on the basepaths. Another stellar season for Trout would also be a welcome positive story to overshadow the PED mess and prove that we can still watch greatness without wondering whether it was legitimate or not. Whether he is great or average, everyone will be watching.
5. Are Jeter and Mariano healthy? Will the Yankees age be a problem?
In my opinion, Derek Jeter is the face of the MLB. So, when he went down with a fractured ankle in last year’s playoffs, I was a little worried about his recovery and if he might consider retiring. That thought never crossed his mind though and he claims he will be ready by Opening Day. Jeter had a fantastic 2012 season (at age 38), leading the league with 212 hits and .316 AVG. New York got swept by Detroit in the ALCS and Jeter seems determined to win at least one more ring before he calls it a career. Mariano will also be returning from a season-ending knee injury. Soriano filled in nicely last season but I’m sure it will be nice to get back the greatest closer ever. Both claim to be back to normal but only time will tell if they are truly the great players that we knew them as prior to major injuries.
Brian Cashman was unusally quiet this offseason. I’m not sure whether that was due to what he perceieved as a weak free agent field or if he is content with what he’s got. Signing Kevin Youkilis was a good move to fill in for a rehabbing and PED-denying A-Rod. Locking up Kuroda and Ichiro was also smart but the Yankees are an old team. Will their age catch up with them in such a competitive division? None of the teams in the AL East are rebuilding and everyone has a win-now mentality. I can see any of the Orioles, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays or Yanks winning the division. If I’ve learned anything from my 23 years as a baseball fan though, it’s to never count the Yankees out.
6. Will money help the Dodgers dethrone the Giants?
The Dodgers new ownership group has lots of money and is willing to spend it. That was one of the major takeaways of the offseason – and their money changed things for everyone. Teams were hesitant to talk to players because they were afraid that player was also talking to the Dodgers, thus driving up their price.
Zack Greinke signed a then unprecedented 6-year, $147M with the Dodgers in December. (Felix Hernandez signed a deal this month that surpassed Greinke’s in both total and annualized value). The Dodgers also pulled off a blockbuster trade during the season last year, landing the large contract of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett among others. Their payroll will exceed $210M, a number that even makes the Yankees blush. The expectations are high and it will be interesting to hear Vin Scully call the names of players who will be making more money this season than the entire Dodgers team earned when Vin started out in 1950s.
With the Dodgers and Angels offseason moves, everyone should prepare to stay up well past midnight this season. West Coast baseball is going to be must-watch television.
7. Will the entire Braves outfield be 30/30 players?
Justin Upton and B.J. Upton join forces this summer in the Braves outfield. Jason Heyward rounds out the trio to give Atlanta the most dynamic outfield in baseball. The Braves are definitely still bitter about losing the NL Wild Card game last season on a controversial infield fly call but signing the Upton Brothers is a good way to cope. For all three players to hit 30 HR and steal 30 bases, the stars would have to align. Let’s be honest, it’s highly unlikely. B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward have never hit 30 HR in a season. Justin Upton has never stole more than 21 bases in a season. It’s wishful thinking but a man can dream right? Even if they don’t reach those milestones (which they won’t), it will be exciting to watch that outfield on a daily basis.
8. What will come of this Biogenisis clinic in Miami and will there be major suspensions?
PEDs are still a large part of the game despite the efforts of the league. I give MLB credit for ramping up the testing but the truth is that the penalties are still not severe enough to deter players from going after that extra advantage. Melky Cabrera served a 50-game suspension and didn’t play with Giants in the World Series but he also just earned $8M a year for the next 2 seasons and he still gets a World Series ring.
The Biogenesis clinic in Miami was the offseasons new spin on the familiar story and it accused some well-known names of being involved (Braun and A-Rod). It will take time to sort everything out but MLB is investigating the link between the players who were named and the clinic. Hopefully we will get some answers sooner than later as we continue to work towards a clean game. It may be impossible to have a completely PED-free game anymore but at least the problem is out in the open. That’s a step in the right direction, maybe.
9. How bad will the Astros be in the American League?
The Astros finished with a 55-107 record last season. In 2011, they went 56-106 and unfortunately for them, I think they will finish 2013 with their third straight 100-loss season. I would have thought this even if they were staying in the NL Central but with their move to the AL West, I want to go to Vegas and bet my life savings on it. Houston is clearly in a rebuilding mode – they don’t have a player making more than $3M this season – and Texas, Oakland and the Angels are welcoming the lowly Astros with open arms. I won’t be rooting for them to fail (I’ll get my fix of schadenfreude elsewhere) but it will definitely be interesting to see if changing leagues causes a record number of losses for Houston.
10. Can A’s and O’s repeat success?
Two of the best storylines last season were the surprise successes of the Athletics and Orioles. Oakland won the AL West and seemed to really gel as a team. There were some surprising contributors including Josh Reddick, Bartolo Colon (before his 50-game PED suspension), Coco Crisp and rookie Yoenis Cespedes. Baltimore also had some surprise standouts especially on the pitching side with Wei Yen Chen, Chris Tillman and Jim Johnson. The O’s also went an amazing 16-2 in one-run games (winning 16 straight). Baltimore and Oakland are in very tough divisions but they both seem to have great team chemistry and a manager they like playing for. That’s usually a formula for success.
Honorable Mention: Impact of Shields/Wil Myers swap on both Royals and Rays
Wil Myers was the most highly touted prospect in the game. He hit .314 with 37 HR and 109 RBI in the minors last season and is ready to make a name for himself in the bigs. That’s why it was interesting to see him included in the James Shields trade. The Rays got a potentially great player in exchange for an established arm. Kansas City gave precedence to improving it’s rotation and it will be interesting to see how that trade plays out. Myers should fit in nicely in Tampa where there is no shortage of good, young talent.
Writing all that down got me even more excited about the upcoming season. Is it March 31st yet?