National League East
Washington Nationals: Despite winning the most games in baseball last season, the Nationals didn’t stand pat. GM Mike Rizzo added Denard Span, Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano to what was already one of the most talented teams in baseball, which now includes a more seasoned Bryce Harper as well as an unencumbered Stephen Strasburg. Barring a meltdown, Washington should be first in more than just the hearts of Beltway baseball fans.
Atlanta Braves: The Braves accomplished a rare off season feat: they got younger and better. Atlanta’s opening day roster is the youngest in the majors, thanks in part to the addition of B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, who join a young, talented core on the field, mound, and bullpen. With youth comes inexperience, and some likely growing pains reign in expectations a little. Still, a wild card seems like a good bet, with a division title a possibility should the Nationals slip up.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies still have three aces, which should allow them to remain a wild card contender. However, the impenetrable fortress that was the team’s starting rotation is starting to show cracks. If Roy Halladay is healthy and Ryan Howard and Chase Utley can play 150 games, it still might be sunny in Philadelphia, but with age creeping up and limited depth across the board, another .500 season is looming.
New York Mets: Prospects like Zach Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Travis d’Arnaud have started to brighten the future in Flushing. However, the losses of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana will cast a shadow over the 2013 season, leading to one more step back before the franchise can finally start moving in the right direction.
Miami Marlins: Jeffrey Loria isn’t the most popular man in Miami, but if not for his reputation, the decision to pull the plug and start over probably wouldn’t look so bad. Loria has earned the mistrust, but the Marlins have improved the depth of their minor league system. Of course, to the understandably cynical fans in south Florida, those prospects may only represent another fire sale in the making.
National League Central
Cincinnati Reds: Most of March was spent debating the role of Aroldis Chapman, but the back and forth was much ado about nothing. Because of the depth the Reds enjoy in both the rotation and the bullpen, it doesn’t matter where Chapman pitches. Instead, Cincinnati’s main concern should be scoring runs. Even with the addition of Shin-Soo Choo and a full season of health for Joey Votto, the Reds’ offense is a little thin. Still, the team’s overall strength makes Cincinnati the class of the Central division.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals have had the Midas touch over the past few seasons, but this year, there seems to be more tarnish. The team’s greatest weakness is the lack of offense in the middle infield, but a thin bullpen is another concern. The Cardinals are also counting on Shelby Miller to pick up the slack created by Kyle Lohse’s departure, so if the rookie struggles, that could further handicap St. Louis’ pennant aspirations. A division title isn’t out of the question, but another wild card is probably the Cardinals’ best bet for a return trip to the post season.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Cardinals’ loss of Lohse was the Brewers’ gain, but even with the veteran added to the staff, the Milwaukee bullpen and rotation are replete with question marks after ace Yovani Gallardo. As a result, the Brewers’ success will depend on their bats, and with Corey Hart already expected to miss two months, the offense is starting off behind.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates finally have a legitimate blue print for a winning season, but by no means have they broken the chains of 20 consecutive below .500 seasons. The Pirates’ recipe for finishing above .500 starts with another MVP caliber season from Andrew McCutchen, but relies heavily upon small improvements up and down the roster. In addition, there are two potential aces in the hole. If Francisco Liriano can turn back the clock to 2010 and/or Gerrit Cole can accelerate his time table, the Pirates may finally get over the 81 win barrier that has confined the franchise for two decades.
Chicago Cubs: Theo Epstein’s rebuilding program is only in year two, so the curse of the billy goat won’t be lifted in 2013. However, Chicago has a handful of blue chip prospects on the way as well as talented young players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro already established in the majors. If all went right at Wrigley Field this summer, the Cubs could threaten the .500 mark, but things seldom break that way on the north side. Considering the likelihood of one or two mid-season trades (Matt Garza or Alfonso Soriano), even if the Cubs hold their own in the first half, the final months probably won’t be kind to their record.
National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers: With a high payroll come even higher expectations. That’s the quid pro quo the Dodgers face this season. Anything less than a post season appearance will be considered a big disappointment, which is a reasonable standard considering the talent that has been amassed in Los Angeles. Losing Hanley Ramirez for a couple of months is an early blow, but it does little to dampen expectations. Although the Dodgers could be sitting on a powerhouse, there are enough questions, like lingering health concerns for Matt Kemp and Zack Greinke, to demand a more modest prediction, but a division title remains the forecast nonetheless.
San Francisco Giants: Despite winning their second World Series in three years, it’s still hard to not look at the Giants as overachievers. With the exception of Buster Posey and Matt Cain, there is a lot of mediocrity on the roster, and candidates for regression abound. Although that paints a gloomy picture by the Bay, the Giants are good enough to remain in pennant contention, but probably will come up just short of the post season.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Kirk Gibson’s Diamondbacks got grittier over the winter, but did they get better? Martin Prado and Cody Ross are solid additions, but the loss of Justin Upton looms as a referendum on Gibson’s managerial philosophy. After all, in exchange for a more hard-nosed style of play, the Diamondbacks aren’t just losing Upton’s 2012 contribution, but his potential to be a superstar as well.
San Diego Padres: The early season absences of Chase Headley and Yasmani Grandal and the recent Tommy John surgery for prospect Casey Kelly have the Padres starting out on the wrong foot, which probably extinguishes whatever small hope to contend the team may have had. The continued struggles of Edinson Volquez, which were evident in the WBC, are another red flag that points toward a disappointing season. However, with several top prospects on the way, including second baseman Jedd Gyorko, the Padres may not be a lost cause for long.
Colorado Rockies: With young stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki (if he can stay healthy), the Rockies’ roster is not as barren as some other teams in the midst of rebuilding. However, there’s little beneath the surface in Colorado. Without many prospects in the pipeline, the Rockies are beholden to a core of youngsters whose first impressions in the major leagues have been disappointing. If 2013 does not bring more progress, the Rockies could be bringing up the rear in the West for foreseeable future.
Braves beat Cardinals in Wild Card game.
Nationals beat Braves in NLDS.
Dodgers beat Reds in NLDS.
Nationals beat Dodgers in NLCS.
Nationals beat Blue Jays in World Series (click here for AL predictions)
Regular Season Awards
NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg
NL MVP: Joey Votto
NL ROY: Julio Teheran
Three Bold Predictions
1. Following a lengthy investigation into Biogensis, MLB will attempt to discipline Ryan Braun, but the suspension will again be overturned on appeal.
2. Charlie Manuel will be the first manager fired in 2013, ending his 10-year reign in Philadelphia.
3. The Upton brothers will each post 30/30 seasons in Atlanta.