Jeff Praught | Dugout Chatter
I do not really know where the time went, but somehow the calendar has turned to the page that says “April,” and Major League Baseball is back. As I do every year, I am going to make a bunch of predictions that will likely be equal parts correct and embarrassingly bad.
American League East
A case can be made for any of the five teams in the American League East to be division winners, but for the first time in ages, that parity is based more on mediocrity than the usual dominance this group of teams has shown over the last decade. I do not see the Yankees winning anything because I just do not see how they will not break down over the course of the season. Will CC Sabathia, paid like an ace, even be a regular contributor to the starting rotation by the All-Star break? Their best starter elected to avoid surgery while rehabbing a serious arm injury. Alex Rodriguez returns after a year-long suspension, and there is just no way that he will justify his astronomical salary, a point the local media will focus on relentlessly if he struggles. Just too many question marks swirling for this team to be considered a contender.
It’s a shame that Tampa Bay lost manager Joe Maddon, along with Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers. Those are tough hits for an otherwise strong franchise. Baltimore basically stood pat during the offseason, a tactic that rarely translates into a return to the postseason. Toronto and Boston stand out to me as the less-flawed teams in the division, with Boston getting the edge thanks to a dynamic offense that may lead the league in runs scored.
American League Central
It’s just about time for the Detroit Tigers to pay their credit card bills, as they have over $600 million tied up in long term commitments to their stars who are all on the wrong side of 30. If they do not win it this year, I cannot see them winning any time soon. Gone is Max Scherzer, the AL Cy Young Award winner. Justin Verlander was hurt in 2014 and nobody knows how he will rebound. There are plenty of bats in the lineup, but will their health hold up?
Instead of the Tigers as favorites, I am going with the Cleveland Indians, who nearly put it together last year. The team finally has some pitching, and made a few offseason additions to their lineup that make manager Terry Francona’s team a dark horse candidate to win the division.
As wonderful of a story as the Kansas City Royals were in 2014, they were not as good as the late hot streak they went on and it is tough to see them returning to the postseason, especially without workhorse James Shields anchoring the rotation. The White Sox are intriguing, because they essentially flipped half of their roster. They will be competitive. The Twins are in for a long summer.
American League West
If it were not for the moves the Padres made this offseason, Oakland general manager Billy Beane would be drawing more attention for the astounding number of trades he made in remaking his roster. Beane is famous for dumping guys just before their salaries are set to skyrocket and acquiring cheap and controllable talent. With as much turnover as Oakland has experienced this offseason, I find it almost impossible to predict how well they will do.
The division is much improved, however, as the Seattle Mariners look like a good bet to win the West and return to the postseason after several years. Felix Hernandez is the best right-hander on the planet, and they have added some offensive pieces to help Robinson Cano and the M’s score runs. The Rangers have become a cursed franchise that just cannot avoid injuries to their big-time players. The Astros should continue their improvement, with Jose Altuve and George Springer providing some excitement atop their lineup.
National League East
On paper, the Washington Nationals are the best team in baseball and it’s not even close. Their starting rotation is sick. Their fifth starter, Gio Gonzalez, is better than some teams’ ace. Having to face Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann on consecutive nights is sure to be hell for most lineups. An early-season knee injury to rising star Anthony Rendon is concerning, but how many runs does this team really need to score to win games with that rotation?
The Mets and Marlins are each improved, though if I had to pick between the two, I would bet on Miami having the better season. Each team boasts an ace returning from a serious arm injury, with New York hoping for dominance from Matt Harvey and the Marlins anxiously awaiting the return of Jose Fernandez. The Braves have gutted their roster with an eye towards 2017, while the Phillies could be the worst team in baseball as they endure a major rebuild.
National League Central
There has been a lot of chatter about the Cubs and their chances for making the playoffs, and rightfully so. They added one of the best managers in the game (Maddon), signed the top free agent pitcher on the market (Jon Lester), and have a slew of young prospects — some of the best in the game — ready to contribute. With all of those young bats, though, will come some adjustment periods as hitters try to deal with how major league pitchers react and adjust to them. I do not think the Cubs have enough good starting pitching to counter what is sure to be a powerful but inconsistent lineup.
Instead, I give the edge to those consistent St. Louis Cardinals. To fill the hole left by the tragic offseason death of young star Oscar Tavares, the team traded for gifted outfielder Jason Heyward, who may be primed for a breakout season himself. Adam Wainwright returns 100 percent healthy to anchor a solid starting staff. The team can hit and plays terrific defense.
The Reds could give the Cards a run for their money, but I believe they are going to miss Mat Latos, whom they traded to Miami, more than they realize. Even if Joey Votto bounces back with an All-Star caliber year, the Reds’ pitching worries me. The Pirates, on the other hand, would not surprise me if they battled St. Louis all the way down to the final week. This team is as complete as they have been in 20 years. Solid pitching, great defense, and a lineup powered by MVP Andrew McCutchen means the Pirates could have a long postseason run in them. As for Milwaukee, that rotation looks pretty ugly.
National League West
As much as I hate to predict it, I think the Dodgers will run away with this division. Furthermore, as a Giants fan, I would be awfully surprised if the defending World Series Champions even reached the .500 mark this year. The starting rotation is full of a lot of promising “if” scenarios, but relying on “ifs” rarely pans out. The offense took a major hit with the loss of Pablo Sandoval, and with Hunter Pence out for a month, that lineup looks tepid.
On the bright side, the Padres look like they will be challenging for a playoff spot this year. The starting rotation, if it remains healthy, looks fantastic. A lot of teams would take Shields, Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy as their top four starters. Adding Myers, Matt Kemp, and Justin Upton has given the lineup instant credibility.
The Rockies are often mocked for their awful pitching, but in reality, their biggest downfall has been their offense in road ballparks. The drop off from their production at Coors Field is astounding. Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks look like a franchise that just has no idea what it wants to be. They have dealt away a tremendous amount of young talent under their former regime. The new regime, led by first-time general manager Dave Stewart, does not believe in analytics. This should be an ugly season in the desert.
NL Wild Card Game: Padres defeat Pirates
NL Division Series: Padres defeat Dodgers
NL Division Series: Cardinals defeat Nationals
NL Championship Series: Cardinals defeat Padres
AL Wild Card Game: Blue Jays defeat Tigers
AL Division Series: Mariners defeat Blue Jays
AL Division Series: Indians defeat Red Sox
AL Championship Series: Indians defeat Mariners
World Series: Indians defeat Cardinals
As you can see, my playoff predictions do not match up well with how I believe the regular season will shake out. As the Giants have proven three times in the last five years, you do not need to be the best team to win the title. Just get into the playoffs, and you have a chance.
Here is hoping that the Padres just make it in, because no city in America deserves a title more than San Diego, and this year’s roster is capable of winning a short series against anyone in baseball.
—Jeff Praught is actively involved in the LGBT sports community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.