Although technically Houston and Texas opened the 2013 regular season Sunday evening, I consider Monday Opening Day, and this special day should be celebrated as a national holiday. After a long offseason to lick their wounds from their painful Game 5 playoff exit, the Nationals today start their journey toward their second consecutive division title. In the new position of being the favorite, the team will need to manage expectations if they are to capture their second consecutive NL East division championship.
Before the Nationals unveil their new banner today and Stephen Strasburg takes the hill, I wanted to share my prognostications for the forthcoming season, both with the Nats and around major league baseball.
General manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals front office must be commended for a fantastic offseason, as they had the difficult task of improving a team with the best record in baseball the previous season. Although many thought the team would be relatively quiet this winter, the Nationals took the opposite approach as one of the more active teams during the Hot Stove season.
The Nationals organization has made little secret of its desire for a leadoff hitting centerfielder since they arrived from Montreal, going through 30+ different people trying to find the solution (remember Lastings Milledge, Nook Logan, and Nyjer Morgan). Finally this winter the team solved this long-standing problem, as they sent highly regarded prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota in return for Denard Span. Span is a terrific defender and has a career .357 on-base percentage, making him an ideal choice to fill this role.
However, the team did not stand pat with Span. Next the Nationals signed free agent starting pitcher Dan Haren to a 1-year $13 million dollar contract to replace departed starter Edwin Jackson and provide stability to the back of the starting rotation. Next, the team took some time to allow the market to develop, but eventually they re-signed first baseman Adam LaRoche to a 2-year deal to stay in Washington. LaRoche’s defensive wizardry, solid left-handed bat, and calming influence was important to keep in Washington, but this signing meant the team needed to find a new home for Mike Morse.
Therefore, shortly after the ink was dry on LaRoche’s new deal, Rizzo turned around and traded Morse back to his original team, the Seattle Mariners in a 3-way trade with the Oakland Athletics; in return, the Nationals received pitching prospects AJ Cole (remember him?), Blake Treinen, and Ian Krol to replenish their farm system. While it will be difficult to watch Beast Mode hitting homers in another jersey this season, this was a smart baseball decision as Morse had nowhere to consistently play this season, and the Nationals received some talented pitchers. This trade was one of the best offseason moves in all of baseball this winter, in my opinion.
Finally, after everyone thought the front office was finished for the winter and packing for Viera, stunningly the Nationals signed free agent closer Rafael Soriano to a 2-year contract to bolster the already formidable Nats bullpen. His arrival will shift proven relievers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen into setup roles this season, and adds further depth to an already proven relief corps.
These moves allowed for one of the quietest editions of spring training in recent history, as the Nationals arrived in Viera with potentially only one roster spot available and one of the most impressive teams on paper in baseball. While the most talented team does not always claim the championship at the end of the season, the Nationals enter this season in an outstanding position to make the playoffs. As Davey Johnson stated a few weeks back, this season is “World Series or Bust”.
Final 2013 Record: Washington Nationals 92-70, 1st Place National League East
BOLD Predictions… Nationals:
1) Danny Espinosa out-homers fellow infielders Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond this season, finishing with 24 home runs and a .268/.328/.435 batting line.
2) Bryce Harper completely avoids the dreaded sophomore slump and posts a truly magical season with 34 home runs and a gold glove for his outfield defense. Also, I predict Harper’s season numbers are more impressive than Mike Trout.
3) Free Agent acquisition Dan Haren produces such an excellent season in Washington that he earns a Top-7 finish in the National League CY Young award. Pitching deep into games and the Nationals strong lineup has the potential to earn him 17+ wins this year, which will merit attention from the voters next fall.
4) The Nationals as a team have 5 players with more than 15 stolen bases (Desmond, Espinosa, Harper, Span, Werth) and 6 players with 15+ home runs (Desmond, Espinosa, Harper, LaRoche, Werth, Zimmerman)
5) Davey Johnson is still the manager of the Washington Nationals on Opening Day 2014, deciding he is having too much fun to quit and thinks “I’m the best man for the job”.
Predictions Around MLB
AL East: Tampa Bay Rays 91-71
While the loss of James Shields and Wade Davis will hurt the pitching staff, the emergence of starters Matt Moore and Alex Cobb and the midseason arrival of power hitter Wil Myers will allow the Rays to hold off the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East.
AL Central: Detroit Tigers 93-69
Continued excellence from Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, along with the return of Victor Martinez from knee surgery and a breakout season from pitcher Rick Porcello spurs Detroit to a return trip to the playoffs.
AL West: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 91-71
Although this division is loaded with impressive teams, the combination of Mike Trout avoiding a sophomore slump, and a bounce back season from Albert Pujols, not to mention newly-signed outfielder Josh Hamilton will lead the Angels to claim this division in a tight race.
AL Wild Cards: Texas Rangers 89-73, New York Yankees 89-73
Although Texas had largely a disappointing offseason after failing to acquire another top-of-the-rotation starter, the Rangers have too much talent on their roster and one last quality season from Lance Berkman will help them make the playoffs. The Yankees enter the season off a spring training filled with injuries and more question marks on their roster than at any time I can remember, but they still have plenty of talent and a farm system ready to make a big trade, allowing them to eventually claim the last wild card position.
AL CY Young: Yu Darvish RHP Texas Rangers
I could not choose the obvious favorite, Detroit starter Justin Verlander, and I think Darvish improves on his impressive rookie season in 2013 by trimming his walk rate and pitching deeper into games, giving him a lower ERA and more wins. These improvements along with his massive strikeout totals will help him capture the CY Young.
AL MVP: Albert Pujols 1B Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
His statistics are trending downward leading most analysts to forecast the arrival of the decline phase of his career, but with Mike Trout batting leadoff and having the dangerous Josh Hamilton hitting behind him, I believe Pujols has a monster season coming for the Angels in 2013.
AL Rookie of the Year: Jackie Bradley Jr. OF Boston Red Sox
Bradley arrived at spring training with little chance of making the team because of service time concerns and no space available on the big league roster, but a phenomenal .419 spring batting average forced his way onto the roster, where he is expected to form a platoon with Jonny Gomes in left field. Bradley Jr. is a dynamic defensive outfielder and as the strong side of the platoon, stands an excellent chance of receiving 400+ at-bats this season in route to winning the rookie of the year award.
NL East: Washington Nationals 92-70
General good health and a breakout season from Bryce Harper leads Washington to their 2nd consecutive division championship.
NL Central: St. Louis Cardinals 90-72
The loss of Kyle Lohse and a lengthy injury to Carlos Beltran is overcome by impressive seasons by Shelby Miller and Oscar Tavares to help the Cardinals narrowly win the division.
NL West: San Francisco Giants 93-69
The Giants take advantage of weak division foes Colorado and San Diego and a breakout season from Brandon Belt to coast to their 2nd straight NL West title and likely, the best overall record in the National League.
NL Wild Cards: Atlanta Braves 89-73, Cincinnati 88-74
Not the more celebrated Upton brothers, but Freddie Freeman leads Atlanta in home runs in 2013 in establishing himself as one of the best young first baseman in baseball. Cincinnati’s outstanding offense with Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and newly-acquired Shin-Soo Choo overcomes their defensive lapses in the outfield to help the Reds claim the final wild card this fall.
NL CY Young: Madison Bumgarner LHP San Francisco Giants
23-years-old with a career 3.20 ERA in 84 starts, Bumgarner is just scratching the surface of his immense talent, and this season he becomes the ace of the Giants staff, leading San Francisco to another division title.
NL MVP: Bryce Harper OF Washington Nationals
Is this far enough out on the limb for you… Yes I am predicting a monster season for Bryce which will conclude with an MVP award. The best player on the best team in baseball seems like a good bet to win the award to me.
NL Rookie of the Year: Jedd Gyorko Infield San Diego Padres
Choosing a hitter with a home park of Petco Park might seem foolish at first glance, but Gyorko is guaranteed plenty of at-bats this season as their starting second baseman and his offensive skills should outshine his potential liabilities defensively, allowing him to beat St. Louis outfielder Oscar Tavares and Atlanta Braves pitcher Julio Teheran for the award.
BOLD Predictions… MLB:
1) Not only do the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers miss the playoffs, but they will finish 3rd in the NL West behind the surprising (and gritty) Arizona Diamondbacks.
2) Albert Pujols joins legendary Frank Robinson (NL 1961, AL 1966) as the only player(s) to ever win the Most Valuable Player award in both leagues, as Pujols leads the Angels to a division title.
3) Although not historically bad, the Houston Astros struggle this season with lack of talent and a trade deadline purge to finish 52-110 in 2013.
4) Even lacking lineup protection, Marlins Giancarlo Stanton hits 41 home runs this season while bolstering the youthful Miami team to a 63-99 record.
5) Spurred by an excellent season from Manny Machado and the late-season callup of Kevin Gausman, Baltimore finishes with an 84-78 record and narrowly misses a wild card berth.
What do you think? I encourage everyone to leave your predictions in the comments section below…