In preparing a column that purports to be an objective preview of Major League Baseball’s 2013 season, this writer realizes a few reality checks to confess: First, his predictions are no better or no more important than yours, so why bother going there? Second, any attempt to cover all potential storylines in the sport will ultimately either crash and burn or be laughingly forgotten. And third, if this writer focuses solely on the aspirations and expectations of the hometown Red Sox, he will have come no farther in his professional life than his preschool days when he wowed relatives and friends alike with the perfect spelling of Yastrzemski, Conigliaro, and Petrocelli. With all that in mind, let’s look at ten storylines that bear watching as the 2013 season unfolds.
Opening Day at Fenway Park – Monday, April 8 for those who may have missed the memo – renews a lifelong love affair for generations of New Englanders. Red Sox fans have endured a brutal combination of misery and humiliation since September 2011 that not one but two offseasons have resulted in lower and more realistic expectations for the Olde Towne Team. Perhaps more than any other team, so much is at stake as the Red Sox attempt to shake off the unmitigated disaster of the past 200 games.
The Bobby Valentine era is over and so may be the team’s much-ballyhooed and nearly fictitious sellout streak. The team faces the 2013 season with a new manager in John Farrell, new short-term free agents in Shane Victorino, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Ryan Dempster, and an exciting rookie left fielder in Jackie Bradley, Jr. Much emphasis has been placed on procuring talent that also brings good clubhouse karma and an understanding of what it takes to win. The Fenway faithful have tempered expectations and are expecting at least a .500 season. Beyond the team’s record, this writer will be hoping to watch a more likeable team.
Less than 200 miles down I-95, the archrival Yankees have reloaded with a patchwork of free agents complementing a bevy of former superstars precariously close to receiving their AARP cards. Perhaps it is time to question the wisdom of New York GM Brian Cashman: he has sat idly by and watched his team get older and older while occasionally handing out disastrous contract extensions to the likes of Alex “A-Roid” Rodriguez. The face of this franchise continues to be the injured future Hall of Fame shortstop, Derek Jeter, but 2013 may be far more about the farewell tour of future HOF closer Mariano Rivera than about making a concerted charge at the postseason. The Yankees will be a team to watch as it suffers through an early-season rash of injuries to key players. So far, this team adjusted maturely through the kneejerk reaction of acquiring the fading Vernon Wells to fill a spot in the lineup. While the team plays its new game of payroll frugality, fans reacted in horror at an opening day lineup of rejects named Nunez, Francisco, Nix, and Cervelli. This bunch reminds no one of Mantle and Maris, let alone Ruth and Gehrig. It could be a long, disappointing season in the Bronx. Or at least we can hope so.
While 2013 may be teeming with disappointment in New York (even the Mets will do their part), expectations and salaries have never been higher in Los Angeles. The Dodgers continue to spend like drunken sailors in their quest to conquer the NL West. The jaw-dropping acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford (obvious throw-ins in the Nick Punto deal) were supplemented with the signing of the top free agent pitcher in the offseason, Zack Greinke. How this team will gel, no one knows … yet, but anything less than a strong postseason run will be seen as a huge disappointment, which could lead to manager Don Mattingly sweating on the hot seat. Nearly the same situation is unfolding in the Anaheim neighborhood: Angels owner Arte Moreno, fresh off last season’s purchase of Albert Pujols, bought this past offseason’s big free agent prize, Josh Hamilton. The Angels have all the tools to win and currently reside in a division that they are fully capable of winning. Again, nothing less than a league championship series appearance will keep the buzzards away from the carcass of manager Mike Scioscia, who must bring home a winner in 2013 to secure his job.
This column has examined the joys of excess on the West Coast, the pressure to rebuild (quickly) in Boston, and the goal of emptying the store shelves of Geritol in the Big Apple. Let’s turn some attention to the activities of our divisional neighbor to the north, the super-aggressive Toronto Blue Jays. Any team that acquires Jose Reyes, R. A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buerhle in one blockbuster deal is downright serious about winning the AL East in the face of the aging Yankees and the rebuilding Red Sox. Can this mesh of superstars gel immediately in Toronto? The team’s offseason restructuring at the very least offers Blue Jays fans an awful lot to cheer about. Potentially, this could tip the scale in favor of Toronto winning the division and returning to playoff baseball.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Miami Marlins, the team that generously provided the Blue Jays with the grand opportunity to make a statement in the American League. Owner Jeffrey Loria dismantled the Marlins, something the franchise has done at two other times in its short history. This recent purge has left fans and superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton more than upset. This team will resemble a minor league team for maybe two seasons before slowly slipping back into contention with young and hungry players. In the meantime, the Marlins parted company with their other 2012 public relations disaster, manager Ozzie Guillen, and are auditioning rookie Mike Redmond in the dugout.
This column has yet to discuss the two best teams in baseball, at least on paper: the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers. This should be the World Series matchup come October, and fans are likely already salivating about a Game One faceoff between Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. For the Nationals, the final season of manager Davey Johnson is expected to bring home a World Championship to the nation’s capital, something that has not happened since 1924. Washington is a team loaded with age-appropriate talent: Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Gio Gonzalez, Jayson Werth, and Denard Span join a deep bullpen headed by new closer Rafael Soriano. On paper, this team should waltz to the World Series. The Tigers, similarly, are the crown jewel of the American League. With a rotation fronted by Verlander, and the infield flanked by first baseman Prince Fielder and third baseman/MVP/Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, Detroit seems to have the right combination of players in their prime to dominate a run through the postseason. Of course, all this exists on paper … in April.
The Texas Rangers seem to be facing a crossroads year. Perennially a favorite to go all the way, they failed to taste much of the postseason last season. Since then, they have said goodbye to All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton, who defected to division rival Los Angeles. The Rangers countered with a positive long-term move by extending shortstop Elvis Andrus, but seem locked in a front office power struggle between newly-promoted president Jon Daniels and franchise icon Nolan Ryan. Rumors persist that Ryan will be the loser in the battle. The team still has a stable of star players and should compete down to the wire with the Angels.
Last – and often least – are the last two teams for this column: the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. While these two will compete for awful and one-step-up-from-awful, they present interesting storylines nonetheless. The Cubs have entered Year Two of the Theo Five Year Plan and appear to be in focus, on target, and showing a healthy combination of player development and financial restraint to move that plan toward mediocrity and then upward to competitive. This storyline will not yield fruit in 2013. The big payoff will occur if and when team president Theo Epstein brings a world championship to Cubbies fans. Theo’s walk toward Hall of Fame immortality will be completed if he can lay claim to building teams in both Boston and Chicago that win championships under his watch. Warning: be patient. The hapless and largely irrelevant Astros serve only one purpose in 2013 and deserve only one mention in this column (and it’s not the opening night win by Bud Norris). Moving to the American League West in 2013, it seems clear that whichever other team in the division (Angels, Rangers, Athletics, Mariners) beats up on the ‘Stros the worst may have the inside track to win the division title. Good teams that will play Houston 19 times could win 17 of those contests. There could be some big winners in the AL West, but surely not the Astros.
2013 will have its share of victories and defeats, glorious moments and tragedies. Watch these and other storylines with interest, cultivate your own love affair with America’s pastime, and enjoy seeing the action unfold. Play ball!