Masters Preview

Promos for the Masters on ESPN since the first of the year have been saying “It won’t be spring until it’s The Masters.”  And with that, just a few days before the annual pilgrimage of golfers and golf lovers to Augusta, Georgia, it warmed up across the south.  And, quoting the advertising of CBS, the “tradition unlike any other” is here.

Unfortunately, Tiger Woods is not, due to surgery on his back.  The man who has played in every Masters since 1994, and has been the favorite in practically every one since his first win in 1997.  Therefore, this field is wide open.

As always, there are tons of storylines this week, with the absence of Tiger certainly being one of them.  A young field, with a record number of first-timers, is another.  Perhaps my favorite is the story of Craig and Kevin Stadler.  Craig, the 1982 Masters champion, and Kevin, the 2014 WM Phoenix Open winner, will become the first father-son pair to play in the same Masters (they are the ninth tandem to both play in the Masters in their lifetime), as Kevin plays his first, and Craig, at age 60, plays his last.  While the tournament did not pair them together (that shouldn’t have been that hard, Augusta), Kevin will be four groups ahead of his father on each of the first two days, allowing him to meet Craig on the 18th green.  If Craig surprisingly makes the cut, perhaps the golf gods will allow them to be paired together.  If not, Kevin can see his father putt out at Augusta one last time.

I don’t have to preview the course, as anyone who has ever watched the Masters knows about the glory, prestige, and excitement created each April by the Augusta National Golf Club.  However, one change has been made, and not by the choice of the Augusta hierarchy.  The landmark Eisenhower Tree on the left side of the 17th hole had to be removed in February after an ice storm that some have called the worst ever to hit the Augusta area.  Without the tree to block the potential path of tee shots on the hole, the drive was just made a lot easier.  Expect a lot more balls in the 17th fairway, which should lead to easier approach shots, and a few more birdies on Augusta’s penultimate hole.

I heard one commentator say there are literally 30 players in the field with a legitimate shot at winning from the moment they step on the first tee on Thursday.  I thought that number was a little high, until I went through the field and looked at who had a good shot to win.  Sure enough, here are the 30 players with a great chance to be wearing the green jacket on Sunday night:

30. Nick Watney
Watney is by no means on this list due to current form, but instead due to experience; Watney has four top 20s in six Masters starts, including a 7th in 2010.

29. Graeme McDowell
McDowell seems to play his best on big stages, although his career record at Augusta shows four missed cuts in six appearances. He does, however, also have a pair of top 17 finishes.

28. Patrick Reed
One of a record 24 Masters rookies, Reed has won three times since August, including a WGC event at Doral. He also has all the confidence in the world.

27. KJ Choi
Choi tends to suddenly appear on the leaderboard at Augusta, with a 3rd in 2004 and top 10s in 2010 and 2011. Has played every major since 2002 Masters (I was surprised by that).

26. Louis Oosthuizen
The sweet-swinging South African has made only one cut in five attempts at Augusta, but finished 2nd in 2012, losing to Bubba Watson in a playoff. Has been battling injury lately, though.

25. Hideki Matsuyama
The former Asian Amateur champion was low amateur in 2011, and finished in the top 20 in all three majors he played in last year. Has a very bright future.

24. Fred Couples
Throw out the stats for Freddy; the ageless wonder (he’s 54 now), and 1992 Masters champion, seems to play well here no matter how he’s playing coming in. Here’s one relevant stat: Couples has finished in the top 15 each of the last four Masters, and had a shot on Sunday in 2010.

23. Lee Westwood
Westwood is not having a good year, but one of the best players without a major is one of two players to finish in the top 15 each of the last four Masters (Couples is the other), including a 2nd in 2010 and a tie for 3rd in 2012.

22. Jimmy Walker
The 35-year old got his long-awaited first PGA Tour win in October, and won two more events soon after. He is playing his first Masters, and his career best in a major is a tie for 21st at the 2012 PGA.

21. Ernie Els
The four-time major champion is always a threat, and a win this week would be the third leg of the career grand slam for the Big Easy. Finished top 6 at Augusta every year from 2000-2004, but has only one top 15 since (2013).

20. Steve Stricker
The now part-time player has a plethora of top 20s in majors, 11 top 10s, but only three top 5s, and none since 1999. Did finish tied for 6th at Augusta in 2009.

19. Henrik Stenson
While his best Masters finish is 17th, he ended 2013 as the hottest player in the world, finishing 2nd at the Open Championship and 3rd at the PGA before winning the FedEx Cup. Of his 7 top 10s in majors, 6 are top 5s. Could become world #1 with a win.

18. Ian Poulter
Poulter had top 10s in 2010 and 2012, and has come close to winning a pair of Open Championships and a PGA. If someone tells him the Ryder Cup is being played this week, he might blow out the field, as he always plays well in that arena.

17. Charl Schwartzel
He has all of one top 5 in a major in his career, but we know he’s capable of winning after he birdied the last four holes to win the 2012 Masters over a crowded leaderboard. He did finish in the top 25 in three of the four majors last year, with a high of tied for 14th in the US Open.

16. Angel Cabrera
Cabrera is another player that his form coming in never seems to matter. “El pato” won the Masters in a 2009 playoff, over Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell, and was in the final group on Sunday in 2011 and 2013, losing last year’s playoff to Adam Scott, with each result coming with little to no warning signs.

15. Sergio Garcia
One of the best players without a major title comes in with good form, having finished in the top 20 in every start this season, including a win in Europe in January and a 3rd last week in Houston.

14. Keegan Bradley
Augusta seems to fit Bradley’s game, although his best finish in two tries is just 27th. He is one of two players in the last century to win his first major start (along with Ben Curtis), and comes in off a 2nd at Bay Hill and five top 20s in seven starts so far this year.

13. Brandt Snedeker
Snedeker has been in the last group on Sunday twice, in 2008 and 2013, and was the 54-hole leader last year. He has publicly spoken about the process of learning the course, and what it takes to win here. His worst Masters finish as a pro is 19th, although his start to 2014 has been up-and-down.

12. Jordan Spieth
No Masters rookie has won the tournament since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, and Spieth is the highest ranked rookie on my list. He certainly appears to have the game and nerves to do it, but history isn’t on his side. Was low amateur at the 2012 US Open, and comes in with a pair of top 5s early in the season on the west coast.

11. Jim Furyk
The most recent “Mr. 59” has a trio of top 6 finishes at Augusta, although none have come since 2003, and is coming off heartbreak in the 2012 US Open and 2013 PGA. He is one of the most consistent players of this era, and can be counted on for a likely top 20, if not better, and has top 20s in three of his last four Tour starts.

10. Jason Dufner
While the defending PGA champion hasn’t finished better than tied for 20th in his three Masters appearances, he hasn’t finished worse than 30th, and he now knows what it takes to win a major. He was the 36-hole co-leader in 2012, and has finished in the top 5 in five of his last ten non-Masters major attempts, and hasn’t missed a cut all year.

9. Bubba Watson
The 2012 champion hasn’t played on Tour in over a month, but he finished in the top 2 each of his previous three starts, with a win at Riviera. In his career, when he’s threatened in major championships, he’s really threatened, losing a playoff at the 2010 PGA, and winning the green jacket in 2012.

8. Justin Rose
Rose finally won his long-anticipated major championship at the US Open last year at Merion. While his Masters record isn’t the best, he did tie for 5th in 2007 and tie for 8th in 2012. His best result of the year is a tie for 8th in Tampa, although he appears to have centered his schedule around the majors more than he has in past years.

7. Zach Johnson
While Johnson’s Masters win in 2007 is his only good finish at Augusta, he is one of the few top 10 players in the world who is actually playing very well right now, with a win at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and three other top 10s. He has finished in the top 10 in three of the last six majors.

6. Dustin Johnson
The one-time novelty player known for his length is now a threat to win every time he tees it up. In four starts this year, he has two runner-ups and a worst finish of 6th. He came painfully close to the US Open and PGA in 2010, and the Open Championship in 2011, and the only thing holding him back could be that, if he is in contention on Sunday, it would be his first time with a shot down the stretch.

5. Jason Day
It seems it is just a matter of time before one of the game’s best young players, wins a major, and particularly the Masters. He finished in a tie for 2nd in 2011 and 3rd in 2013, falling just short of becoming the first Aussie to win the event. He also has two other runner-up finishes in majors, at the 2011 and 2013 US Opens. He can become #1 in the world with a win, and won his last start at the WGC-Match Play, although he has been sidelined with a thumb injury since.

4. Matt Kuchar
Kuchar has a reputation as a top 10 machine, and that has held true early this season, with five top 10s and a 13th in eight starts. He finished tied for 4th and 2nd in his last two starts, and had the tournament won in Houston before an unfortunately timed pull and the incredible luck of Matt Jones. Kuchar finished tied for 3rd in the 2012 Masters, and had a great shot to win on the back nine, and tied for 8th last year. The Georgia native surely wants this major more than any other.

3. Phil Mickelson
It’s hard to bet against the three-time Masters champion, particularly after his unexpected win at the Open Championship last July that leaves him just a US Open away from the career grand slam. Before last year’s tie for 54th, Lefty had finished in the top 27 in every Masters since 1997, and the top 10 every year of that stretch except three. Phil has eight top 3 finishes in this event. The words Mickelson and Masters seems synonymous. While he hasn’t had the best results of his career this year, a runner-up in a European Tour event at Abu Dhabi and five top 20s on the PGA Tour early in the season isn’t bad at all.

2. Rory McIlroy
The favorite in Las Vegas is probably the most talented player in the field. He, surprisingly, doesn’t have a top 10 in his Masters career, in five tries, with a best finish of tied for 15th in 2011 after leading by four after 54 holes and leading by one on the tenth tee on Sunday. He knows how to win majors, with a pair of eight-shot victories in the 2011 US Open and the 2012 PGA. Augusta seems to suit his game, so it’s probably only a matter of time before he is wearing a green jacket. Will it be this year? In four Tour starts this season, he has finished in the top 25 in each, with a tie for 2nd at the Honda Classic, and a tie for 7th last week in Houston, where he closed with a 65.

1. Adam Scott
Scott finally won his first major at last year’s Masters, after finishing in the top 10 the previous two years, with a tie for 2nd in 2011. In doing so, he became the first Australian to win the Masters after so many heartbreaks for the nation. After winning at Augusta last year, he finished tied for 3rd at the Open Championship and tied for 5th at the PGA. He was playing fairly well before his breakthrough win last year, but is playing better coming in this year. In five starts, his worst finish is a tie for 25th, while each of his other four finishes were in the top 12, with a 3rd in his last start at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. No one has won the Masters back-to-back since Tiger Woods in 2001-02, and the only others to do it are Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and Jack Nicklaus in 1965-66. Scott, however, seems poised and ready to join them. Should he win, the 33-year old would jump to the top of the world rankings for the first time in his career.

 

 

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2014 American League Preview

After looking at the National League yesterday, here is a look at the junior circuit, the American League.

West (Division Rank: 4)

1. Texas Rangers (91-72, 2nd, lost to TB in AL Tiebreaker)
The Rangers have been among the best teams in the AL for the last few years, winning 87 games or more each of the last five seasons. But after falling one win short of the playoffs, the front office went to work, making this team even better. Ian Kinsler was traded to Detroit in exchange for Prince Fielder, who joins Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios as the leaders of a lineup led off by free agent Shin-Soo Choo. While the bench is a bit light, an excellent pitching staff makes up for it. Injuries are hurting the rotation early, but Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland will all be back. Closer Joakim Soria and all-star Tanner Scheppers anchor the bullpen. Some won’t pick this team, due to a couple of holes, but they may also be the hungriest team in baseball after the way last season ended.

2. Oakland Athletics (96-66, 1st, lost to DET in AL Division Series)
The A’s have won the West in back-to-back seasons, and had a busy offseason as they try to keep that streak intact. After losing some key pieces to free agency, the team traded for closer Jim Johnson and reliever Luke Gregerson and signed starter Scott Kazmir. The bullpen also includes solid arms in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Jesse Chavez, while the rotation features talented young guns Sonny Gray and Jarrod Parker. The lineup only has one potential superstar in Yoenis Cespedes, but has a solid core of Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Brandon Moss, and Josh Reddick. This team should compete for another division title, and take home one of the AL Wild Card bids.

3. Los Angeles Angels (78-84, 3rd)
It’s been two years since Albert Pujols moved west, and a year since Josh Hamilton joined him, and yet the Angels are still looking for their first playoff berth since 2009. Offense isn’t the issue here. In addition to Pujols and Hamilton, the Angels have Mike Trout, who is on pace after two seasons to be an all-time great. Howie Kendrick and Raul Ibanez could also hit well, behind the excellent trio. Pitching will be the issue. Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson top off the rotation, but while Wilson was stellar in 2013, Weaver continues to battle injuries as age begins to show itself, even at 32. The rest of the rotation, and much of the bullpen, lacks experience, while those in the bullpen who have experience also have bad medical histories. Ernesto Frieri and Joe Smith are the exceptions, and should be solid in relief. This team will score a lot of runs, but will give up a lot too, and will likely be stuck in mediocrity again.

4. Seattle Mariners (71-91, 4th)
The Mariners made an offseason splash signing Robinson Cano to a $240 million contract, but he isn’t the only good player on a team looking for their first winning record in five seasons. Corey Hart also signed a free agent deal with the team, and gives Seattle a solid 1-2 punch. Hot-and-cold hitter Justin Smoak is a key piece when he’s playing well, as is top youngster Dustin Ackley and newly acquired Logan Morrison. Behind this lineup is a solid bench, including veterans Willie Bloomquist and Franklin Gutierrez. The rotation is led by former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who will return from injury in the near future. Management is high on the three prospects filling out the rotation, although they do lack experience. The bullpen is good, but not great, led by closer Danny Farquhar. This team will be relatively competitive, and should improve on last year’s win total, although they still appear a couple years away from playoff contention.

5. Houston Astros (51-111, 5th)
When your highest win total in the last three seasons is 56, it can’t possibly get any worse. Unfortunately, that is the situation the Astros are in right now. The front office did some work to improve this team in the offseason, although they are still a young bunch. Dexter Fowler comes from Colorado to leadoff, ahead of players with all-star potential such as Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Chris Carter, and Brett Wallace. Jesus Guzman comes over from the Padres to add a little depth on the bench. Scott Feldman signs with the team after splitting time with the Cubs and Orioles last year, and joins prospects Jarred Cozart and Brett Oberholtzer atop the rotation. Chad Qualls comes over from Miami, and will split time closing games with Matt Albers and Josh Fields, with veteran setup man Jesse Crain returning soon from injury. Like the Mariners, there are some good young players mixed in with a few veterans on this roster, but they aren’t quite there yet.

Central (Division Rank: 5)

1. Detroit Tigers (93-69, 1st, lost to BOS in AL Championship Series)
The defending AL Central champions lost the ALCS to the Red Sox after coming within six outs of a 2-0 series lead. While they lose manager Jim Leyland to retirement, Brad Ausmus should be more than capable of continuing the franchise’s success. In spring training, the team locked up two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera to an eight year deal, and he returns to playing first base after the trade of Prince Fielder. The Tigers got Ian Kinsler in that deal, and he joins perennial all-stars Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter in the lineup. The team also traded for Alex Gonzalez near the end of spring training after the injury of Jose Iglesias. Don Kelly and Rajai Davis would start almost anywhere else, and provide a quality bench. Arguably the best rotation in baseball features defending AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez. The only question is the bullpen, which added closer Joe Nathan and former Yankee Joba Chamberlain in addition to keeping most of the pieces from last year. This is a very good, complete team, which is why I’ve picked them to win not only the AL Central, but the AL pennant.

2. Cleveland Indians (92-70, 2nd, lost to TB in AL Wild Card Game)
The Indians were last year’s surprise team, as manager Terry Francona took the team from 68 wins in 2012 to the AL Wild Card game. Not much has changed on the Indians roster, although David Murphy joins the lineup from the Rangers. He joins Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Asdrubal Cabrera in a lineup which has no superstars but is overall a very solid unit. 43-year old Jason Giambi anchors a very good bench, which also includes Ryan Raburn. Justin Masterson leads the rotation ahead of a young group including Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, and Corey Kluber. Former Cardinal John Axford will close, leading a good and underrated bullpen, which includes Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Marc Rzepczynski. I expect this team to contend for the division title, as they did a year ago, but fall short of the postseason, in part due to a lack of offseason moves.

3. Kansas City Royals (86-76, 3rd)
The 2013 edition of the Royals notched their first winning campaign since 2003 and came very close to their first playoff appearance since 1985. Like the Indians, the Royals roster is still very similar to last year. One addition is the consistent Omar Infante, an excellent addition at second base. He joins Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon in a lineup that isn’t overwhelming but is efficient. Danny Valencia and Jarrod Dyson are nice reserve pieces for Ned Yost off the bench. Pitching is the key to the Royals success, led by James Shields, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen in the rotation. Closer Greg Holland gave up just 40 hits in 67 innings last year, and is joined in the bullpen by solid options Luke Hochevar and Tim Collins. Like a lot of teams picked in third, this is a good team that simply has two better teams ahead of them.

4. Chicago White Sox (63-99, 5th)
Last year the ChiSox fell from a division contender the previous two seasons to a 63-win team that was, at times, uncompetitive. Unfortunately, not much was done in the offseason to improve the roster for Robin Ventura’s team. Chris Sale is a Cy Young contender, and is joined in the rotation by Jose Quintana, but has little help. The biggest name remaining is John Danks, who struggled last year in a comeback from shoulder surgery. Matt Lindstrom will close, and is joined by Nate Jones and veterans Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario in an otherwise very young bullpen. Adam Dunn and Cuban defector Jose Abreu provide the biggest power threats in the lineup, while Adam Eaton and Alexei Ramirez prove to be solid options but can struggle at times. Paul Konerko will retire at season’s end, and will mostly come off the bench this year, as will Jeff Keppinger. This team has some talent, but it is too similar to last year’s team to believe it will be competitive.

5. Minnesota Twins (66-96, 4th)
After Ron Gardenhire opened his tenure with eight winning seasons in nine years, the Twins have failed to win more than 66 games each of the last three years. While they may improve some from that, getting back to a winning record will be an uphill battle for this team. They did make some offseason improvements, particularly to a rotation that was last in ERA last year. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes join the team and provide an automatic 1-2 punch, ahead of Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, and Scott Diamond, making the rotation average now. Last year, the bullpen was close to average, and everyone is back from that unit including all-star closer Glen Perkins, who did well in limited save opportunities. In the lineup, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first base in an effort to save his knees, and will be followed by Josh Willingham and re-acquired Jason Kubel, although there are holes. With the new pitchers on this team they could surprise some people, although I still think they are at least a year or two from contention.

East (Division Rank: 1)

1. Boston Red Sox (97-65, 1st, defeated STL in World Series)
The defending World Champions were active in the offseason, and while they mostly retain the same core they were able to make moves to offset the players who moved on. The lineup contains Shane Victorino, once he returns from injury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli, all returning from last year. AJ Pierzynski replaces Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher, Xander Bogaerts will now play shortstop full time, and the Sox somehow found Grady Sizemore, who had not played since 2011, to replace Jacoby Ellsbury, who left for the Yankees. The same rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront returns. The bullpen, anchored by Cy Young-worthy closer Koji Uehara, remains mostly the same but adds Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica. This is, once again, a very strong team, who won’t be falling off the radar for at least a few more years.

2. New York Yankees (85-77, tied for 3rd)
The Yankees hit the free agency market big time over the offseason after missing the playoffs in 2013, and if their goal was to produce baseball’s best lineup, they may have done just that. Derek Jeter will be the headliner as he plays his final season, and returns alongside Mark Teixiera, Brett Gardner, and Alphonso Soriano. Adding to that stellar group, the Yanks signed Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kelly Johnson, and Brian Roberts. The bench may be the strongest in baseball as well, as there are players good enough to start elsewhere who can’t fit into the lineup, most notably including Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells. And this is, by the way, with Alex Rodriguez suspended for the season. Whether or not the pitching staff produces will determine how good a season the Yankees have. CC Sabathia is beginning to show his age, even at 33, and has Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova behind him. A boost will come from “rookie” Masahiro Tanaka, playing his first season in MLB after seven seasons in Japan. Closer David Robertson has big shoes to fill, taking the place of Mariano Rivera, and anchors an otherwise weak bullpen, although they did sign Matt Thornton to help in that area. This team will put up a lot of runs, and I think the pitching staff, although they will struggle, will still be good enough to get the Yankees a Wild Card spot and a return to October.

3. Tampa Bay Rays (92-71, 2nd, lost to BOS in AL Division Series)
Many have picked the Rays to win the East, and they have a legitimate argument. This is a very good team, which happens to be picked behind two other very good teams. A very good rotation is anchored by the dependable David Price, a perennial Cy Young candidate, and also includes Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jeremy Hellickson, although Hellickson is out until late May. Grant Balfour and Heath Bell both come east, with Balfour expected to close and Bell expected to pitch the eighth. Behind that pair, and Joel Peralta, the bullpen is a big question mark after losing pieces like Fernando Rodney and Jamey Wright. Evan Longoria leads a good lineup, along with Desmond Jennings, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist, James Loney, and Wil Myers, who will improve in his sophomore season. Utility man Sean Rodriguez is the highlight of an average bench. This team will be competitive, and only has a couple of holes, but will fall behind just enough to miss postseason play.

4. Baltimore Orioles (85-77, tied for 3rd)
Baltimore returned to the playoffs in 2012, and came close again in 2013, only to fall just short. A powerful lineup returns its core of Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters, in addition to sophomore sensation Manny Machado and consistent veteran J.J. Hardy. Nick Markakis and late signee Nelson Cruz add two terrific options at the corner outfield spots, as Cruz tries to regain his reputation after last year’s drug suspension. The rotation doesn’t necessarily have any big names, but is a decent unit, with Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. The bullpen should be decent as well, but the question exists how good it will be. Tommy Hunter will close, and will be set up by Darren O’Day, while the rest of the bullpen has good potential but is relatively inexperienced. Being in the east will hurt the O’s, who would be picked third in any other division but are fourth in this one.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (74-88, 5th)
The Jays were picked by some, including me, to win the tough East Division last year, after a big offseason. Instead, they couldn’t gain any momentum and ended up 14 games under .500. While this roster is still pretty good on paper, they didn’t make any major offseason moves and are still stuck in the toughest division in baseball. Toronto boasts a very powerful lineup, with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Melky Cabrera, and also includes solid leadoff man Jose Reyes, once he returns soon from injury. Each member of the bench has some experience, but the overall unit is a bit below average. R.A. Dickey, Mark Buerhle, Brandon Morrow, and J.A. Happ anchor a decent rotation, although last year they were inconsistent. A competent bullpen includes closer Casey Janssen and setup options Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar, and Brett Cecil. This is by no means a bad team, they’ve just been dealt a bad hand having to play 76 games against the AL East.

Wild Card

1. Oakland Athletics

2. New York Yankees

 

Playoffs

Championship Series: Tigers def. Red Sox

Division Series: Tigers def. Athletics, Red Sox def. Rangers

Wild Card: Athletics def. Yankees

 

Yesterday, I picked the Cardinals to win the NL, so here is my World Series pick, in a rematch of the 2006 Fall Classic:

World Series: Cardinals def. Tigers

2014 National League Preview

Baseball is here, and after six weeks of seemingly meaningless exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, and a pair of regular season games in Austrailia, the season is upon us. It is a time of hope for the 29 franchises whose season last year fell short of the ultimate goal, and a time of celebration for the one franchise who reached that goal, as the Boston Red Sox will commemorate their World Series title (that day will officially come Friday at their home opener).

Everyone currently has a shot at doing something special this season, no matter how much of a favorite or an underdog each individual team is. This is true in any sport, but certainly in baseball where so many teams have made surprise runs into October after being picked near the bottom of their division and/or finishing at or near the bottom in previous seasons.

That being said, while I’m sure I’ll miss some of these picks, here is my best guess as to how each division will play out over the course of the upcoming season. Included is each team’s 2013 record, division finish, and playoff results if applicable.

Here is a preview of the how each National League division could play out, as well as the NL portion of the playoffs.

West (Division Rank: 2)

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70, 1st, lost to STL in NL Championship Series)
A team of stars with a payroll of $235 million, the Dodgers ended the Yankees 15-year streak of having the highest payroll in MLB. It may not be wise to pick against them, as they present a very complete roster. The rotation is anchored by defending Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, although he will miss some time early with a back injury, and adds free agent Dan Haren. The bullpen has five pitchers who have each saved at least 17 games in a single season, including closer Kenley Jansen. The lineup is led by veterans Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, and will be extremely potent as long as everyone stays healthy (injuries were an issue last year). One key will be whether or not outfielder Yasiel Puig can continue to play like he did during his outstanding rookie season a year ago. This team can really make some noise this year.

2. San Francisco Giants (76-86, tied for 3rd)
After winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012, the 2013 season saw the Giants gain no luck or momentum and lose their shot at returning to the postseason. They have the roster to do it, however, in 2014, based on pitching, just like those title teams. The rotation returns Cy Young candidate Matt Cain, former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, and adds free agent Tim Hudson. The bullpen is anchored by closer Sergio Romo, in addition to a pair of tough lefties, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. The Giants lineup isn’t overpowering, but very consistent, including Marco Scutaro, who was the second hardest hitter in baseball to strike out in 2013, as well as 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (81-81, 2nd)
The Diamondbacks were in the race in the West most of last year, before fizzling down the stretch and falling victim to the Dodgers amazing second half run. Most of that team returns, although the rotation lost ace Patrick Corbin to Tommy John Surgery in spring training. The rotation does still include big names Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy. A key offseason acquisition was closer Addison Reed, who came over from the White Sox, and anchors a better-than-average bullpen. The heart of the order includes MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Hill, and Mark Trumbo, in addition to the always reliable Martin Prado, with the veteran Eric Chavez on the bench.

4. San Diego Padres (76-86, tied for 3rd)
Last year the Padres won 76 for the second consecutive year, although this year they are quietly optimistic about their playoff chances. Their best player is 3B Chase Headley, although they need him to return to 2012 form. Joining him in the lineup is Everth Cabrera, back from a 50-game drug suspension, and Carlos Quentin. The bench is also made up of former starters, including Seth Smith, who homered in his first Padre at bat Sunday night. The rotation features a solid top three of Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Josh Johnson, and the bullpen is led by consistent closer Huston Street and setup man Joaquin Benoit, once a closer in Detroit. The only problem for the Padres is that they are behind three other good teams in the best division in the NL.

5. Colorado Rockies (74-88, 5th)
The 2013 edition showed a 10-win improvement from 2012, although I don’t quite expect another 10-win improvement this year. It’s not that the Rockies are a bad team, they are just in a tough division. The Carlos Gonzalez-Troy Tulowitski-Michael Cuddyer middle of the order is solid, and new addition Justin Morneau is also a key piece. The issue comes in pitching, as the rotation lacks an ace, with Jorge De La Rosa becoming the de facto leader last year, with the rest of the rotation below average. Veteran journeyman LaTroy Hawkins, who leads all active pitchers with 943 career appearances, got his chance to close during the second half last year with the Mets, and will likely close for the Rockies this year. The rest of the bullpen lacks overall depth. While this would be a mid-pack team in any other NL division, they’ve got a tough hand in the West.

Central (Division Rank: 3)

1. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65, 1st, lost to BOS in World Series)
The defending NL champions appeared in their fourth World Series in the last 10 years, and did so with the youngest team out of those in the playoffs. That team was so young after numerous injuries, particularly in the pitching staff, in addition to the emergence of some amazing prospects. Ace Adam Wainwright was a workhorse last year, and is a perennial Cy Young contender. The rotation which has the most upside in baseball includes postseason phenom Michael Wacha. The bullpen will feature closer Trevor Rosenthal, who stepped in last year after a series of injuries. He is joined by a solid unit including Jason Motte, returning soon from injury, and veteran Randy Choate. In the lineup, Matt Carpenter moves to third base, and joins Jhonny Peralta, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, and Yadier Molina to create the best lineup core in baseball. Each member of the Cardinal bench would likely start almost anywhere else. This Cardinals team should easily win a decent Central Division, and is my favorite to the NL pennant and the World Series.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68, 2nd, lost to STL in NL Division Series)
The Pirates earned their first winning record and playoff berth since 1992 last season, and took the Cardinals to five games in the Division Series before falling. The Pirates roster stays pretty much intact from that run a year ago, led by a strong, young pitching staff. Francisco Liriano is a leader among so many young arms, and Edinson Volquez is the lone newcomer. Former journeyman Jason Grilli returns after recording 33 saves a season ago despite a late-season forearm injury. He is joined in the bullpen by setup man Mark Melancon. A lineup that seemed to have a flare for the dramatic last year returns NL MVP Andrew McCutcheon, in addition to Pedro Alvarez, and Russell Martin. As good, and deep, as this team is, they still are just the second best team in their division and the sixth best in the NL.

3. Cincinnati Reds (90-72, 3rd, lost to PIT in NL Wild Card Game)
Bryan Price takes over as manager after the interesting firing of Dusty Baker, despite the Reds making the playoffs last year as a Wild Card. A powerful lineup in a small ballpark includes MVP candidate Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce, while rookie Billy Hamilton will do his best replace the departed Shin-Soo Choo. The bench picked up competent utility man Skip Schumaker, but otherwise is just average. A powerful rotation features a trio who could all be called an ace, in Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey. Closer Aroldis Chapman could be back as soon as late April, a miracle after a skull injury due to a line drive to the face in spring training, and has one of the best setup units in the game. This is a good team, although they will likely fall just short of the postseason.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (74-88, 4th)
The biggest story in Milwaukee is the return of Ryan Braun from a 65-game suspension for his connection with the Biogenesis scandal. He certainly adds some pop to a lineup that includes Carlos Gomez, one of the best young players in the game. A decent rotation includes Kyle Lohse, Yovanni Gallardo, and Matt Garza. The problem for this team will be depth late in games, as both the bench and the bullpen are very young and inexperienced, and may give the Brewers issues trying to hold leads. Milwaukee will improve on its 74-win season from 2013, but it’s hard to make a case that they are any better than the fourth best team in this division.

5. Chicago Cubs (66-96, 5th)
It has been 105 years and counting since the Cubs won a World Series, and unless new manager Rick Renteria can manufacture a miracle, the dubious curse will continue. It’s not that the Cubs don’t have good players. The lineup is led by Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and Nate Schierholtz, and the pitching staff is led by Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and newly acquired starter Jason Hammel and closer Jose Veras. Like the Brewers, depth will be an issue for the Cubs, although things can’t get much worse than they’ve already been the last two years (and really the last 105) in Chicago.

East (Division Rank: 6)

1. Washington Nationals (86-76, 2nd)
The 2013 Nationals were picked by many to win the NL, but due to a slow start, nagging injuries, and bad luck, they couldn’t get anything going, and a late surge fell short. After Davey Johnson’s retirement, new manager Matt Williams takes over. In a league full of outstanding rotations, this is one of the best, with four pitchers who have a legitimate Cy Young chance in Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and free agent Doug Fister. A solid bullpen is anchored by veteran Rafeal Soriano. All eight position players in the Nationals lineup are tough outs, led by five tool player Bryce Harper and slugger Ryan Zimmerman. The bench is a nice blend of youth and experience, which should supplement the lineup nicely. If this team can stay healthy, they should have a very potent blend of offense and pitching, and win the division.

2. Atlanta Braves (96-66, 1st, lost to LAD in NL Division Series)
The Braves won the East last year, only to lose in the playoffs when Juan Uribe of the Dodgers couldn’t bunt. Injuries have hurt the Braves throughout the spring, particularly in the rotation, losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John Surgery, although the late signing of Ervin Santana will help when he joins the team in mid-April. After Mariano Rivera’s retirement, the consensus “best closer in the game” is Craig Kimbrel, who saved 50 games while allowing just 39 hits, and has led the NL in saves three straight years. He is also joined by a strong bullpen, which was statistically the best in baseball last year. Jason Heyward moved to the leadoff spot in August and the Braves caught fire, and he will continue there this season. Freddie Freeman is locked up for the next eight years, and will anchor the lineup, where the biggest questions are whether BJ Upton and Dan Uggla can return from tough 2013 campaigns. A solid bench is led by veterans Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit. This team, with its injury issues, still has the talent to win 100 games, should still win around 90, but could win only 80.

3. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89, 4th)
After a 102-win campaign in 2011, the last two seasons have been disastrous for the Phillies. Injuries, as well as an aging core, have hurt the franchise significantly. And due to some lengthy contracts with that core, they are stuck with many of the same players this year. Jimmy Rollins may or may not be at odds with the front office, and Chase Utley and Ryan Howard have had trouble staying healthy. Domonic Brown and free agent Marlon Byrd add depth to the lineup. Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels anchor a rotation which also includes highly touted rookie Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a Cuban defector. The Phillies bullpen was abysmal a year ago, and other than closer Johnathan Papelbon, it’s still a big question for the fighting Phils. Health and the bullpen could be the only two things between Ryne Sandberg’s team and a competitive season.

4. New York Mets (74-88, 3rd)
The Mets have suffered five consecutive losing seasons, but they have filled some holes this year, trying to avoid that number becoming six. Longtime cornerstone David Wright is joined in the middle of the lineup by free agent Curtis Granderson, who came across town from the Yankees. They are joined by players with a lot of potential, like Daniel Murphy, Chris Young, Ike Davis, and highly touted catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud. The rotation does not include Matt Harvey, who is out for the year after Tommy John surgery, but does include the ageless Bartolo Colon, a free agent pickup, and prospect Zack Wheeler. Closer Bobby Parnell is already battling injury, and is backed up by an inexperienced bullpen. While they have filled some holes from last year, depth will still be an issue for the Mets.

5. Miami Marlins (62-100, 5th)
The Marlins won 87 games in 2009, but have gotten worse every year since, including a 100-loss campaign in 2013. The team does have a lot of good prospects, so the future looks better (then again, it can’t get much worse). Free agent veterans Rafael Furcal, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, and Casey McGehee will add some experience to a young lineup, with Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich expected to become superstars at some point (Stanton may be already there). 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez should compete for the Cy Young Award out of the rotation, which is full of good prospects, and just needs a little more experience. Closer Steve Cishek currently has a streak of 29 consecutive saves converted, and the bullpen also has a good upside but lacks experience. It’s tough to keep this team in the cellar, and I don’t think they’ll lose more than 90 games this year, which is a vast improvement.

Wild Card

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Atlanta Braves

Playoffs

Championship Series: Cardinals def. Dodgers

Division Series: Cardinals def. Giants, Dodgers def. Nationals

Wild Card Game: Giants def. Braves

Tomorrow, I will look at the American League, both through the regular season and the playoffs, and see who I think the Cardinals will play in the World Series, and who will win it all.