The beauty of baseball lies in its uncertainty, from the way the grass is manicured, the differing park dimensions, the umpires varying strike zones and the varying visibility of balls in day and night games.
All of these elements either add or detract from the success of a particular team. Last year’s MLB season contained a similar uncertainty, which led to heightened drama and excitement in October. There were underdogs and underachievers, improbable heroes and unrelenting clubs. When the dust cleared, the San Francisco Giants survived the one-run games and fantastic finishes to win its second World Series in three years.
This season looks to be just as unpredictable and titillating. The Shadow League has its ideas about what’s going down in 2013. Here’s a glimpse into the future. One pitch at a time.
AL TEAM TO BEAT
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers had the best team in the AL last season, but the Giants had the baseball Gods on their side. Sometimes you just have to wait your turn. This season, the Tigers have no excuses. It’s time to bring a chip home. They haven’t won since The Cosby Show popped off in ‘84. They still have the best pitcher in the sport in Justin Verlander, a solid rotation and last season’s Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera.
Prince Fielder has a year in Detroit under his belt, and is looking to stake his claim on an MVP award, too. Last season, skipper Jim Leyland was catching heat for being outmaneuvered in the playoffs by younger, more tech-savvy, sabermetrically-inclined coaches. His biological baseball coaching clock is ticking, and this would be the year to silence non-believers and make Detroit fans finally move on from the ghosts of Kirk Gibson and Sparky Anderson.
NL TEAM TO BEAT
LA Dodgers: You can’t spend any more money than the Dodgers spent in free agency the last few seasons. LA has even surpassed the Yankees in payroll. More than $200 million spent on upgrading the roster, and another $100 million invested in their aging stadium, makes the Dodgers a team everyone expects to be in contention for a title. The Dodgers were an arm or two short from grabbing the NL West last season. They’re hoping that signing Zack Greinke to a righty-record $147 million will do the trick.
"We want to go to the World Series," Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson said, before spring training. "If we don't accomplish that, yes, it is not a good season for us."
A loaded squad leaves the Dodgers with nothing left to do but win. It’s up to skipper Don Mattingly to make it happen.
NL SLEEPER TEAM
Atlanta Braves: As usual, the Braves have playoff talent; but, beyond that, there’s something special brewing in Atlanta within its thick African-American culture. The first all-black outfield since the dynasty ‘90s is bringing the color back to the A. The Upton brothers are primed for bounce back seasons and Justin Heyward, a 2012 Gold Glove winner, is probably the jewel of the triumvirate. If these cats can do it up, Atlanta can be a surprise stud in the N.L.
AL SLEEPER TEAM
NY Yankees: Don’t double take or wipe your eyes for clarity. Yes, the Yankees are my sleeper pick. Most people are counting the Yankees out after losing half of their lineup to injuries. Combine that with the Yankees unwillingness to spend big bread this off season and people are picking them to finish third or fourth in the division. Luckily for the Yankees, most games are won and lost on pitching, and that’s the strength of their team. If CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova — who can throw a ball through a glove — Andy Petitte and Hideki Kuroda can stay healthy, the Yankees will compete for a wild card, at least. The return of Mariano Rivera is most important to the Yankees, especially with ‘12 closer Rafael Soriano gone.
NL TEAM WE DON’T BELIEVE IN
Philadelphia Phillies: If healthy, a rotation of Doc Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, looks like a killer set of arms. Injuries to their best players have wrecked Philly of late. The success of the team depends on the health of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. The NL East is a division that can be won by any team that stays healthy and gets a few breaks along the way.
The Phillies look great on paper, but look terrible on X-Ray. Similar to the Yankees, Philly is counting on banged up veterans who have already tasted championship success to play with a purpose and turn back the clock just one more time. Their window of dominance has passed.
AL TEAM WE DON’T BELIEVE IN
Oakland A’s : Lightning rarely strikes twice, and miracles need to be distributed across the earth; so once you see one, don’t expect another anytime soon. Behind Bob Melvin’s exceptional bench work and the dramatic clutch contributions of a ragtag band of rookies, cast offs and vets, Oakland became the fourth team in MLB history to come back from a deficit of 13 or more games to stun Texas and win the AL West. It’s hard to believe that Oakland can one-up last year’s historical comeback. Texas won’t get caught in another game of tortoise and the hare.
AL PLAYER TO WATCH
Robinson Cano: It’s the moment of truth for Robinson Cano. The Yankees are officially his team now and the money he’s going to command in free agency at the end of this season – and the MVP votes he garners – will depend on how he performs in this dismantled Yankee lineup, as Cano has had the luxury of hiding behind living legends in the Yankee lineup for most of his career. A durable player who gets in at least 159 games per year, Cano’s bat collapsed in the playoffs last season. Now, he has one more chance to prove he is worth the nearly $200 million contract he is reported to be seeking at the end of 2013.
NL PLAYER TO WATCH
Stephen Strasburg: In just 159 1/3 innings, he guided the league’s most potent rotation to a regular season-high 98 wins, before getting shut down right before the playoffs as an injury preventive method. Sorta like the only sure way to have safe sex is to abstain. Problem is, the playoff stage is baseball’s grandest moment. To deprive his own team and fans a chance to win and witness the game’s greatest arm in October, was a huge risk for GM Mike Rizzo. It was a risk that thirsty Nationals fans won’t cosign the second time around. Fans were appeased by the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1981. Now, the training wheels have to come off. The Nats have to let “Flashburg” flow. Let him throw close to 200 innings and give the Nats a real shot at a World Series.
NL MVP CANDIDATE
David Wright: If he does win the MVP, Wright will become the first NL player to win MVP on a last place team (Mets projected finish) since Andre Dawson with the Cubs in ‘87. Granted, the ‘Hawk hit 49 homers that season, so it would take a similar Ruthian effort for Wright to win the MVP on a Mets team expected to be cellar-dwellars in the NL East.
AL MVP CANDIDATE
Josh Hamilton: There is no doubt Hamilton will hit a ton more homers surrounded by a star-studded lineup including Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. It was obvious that Texas was wearing on The Natural and he wanted out. As a legendary baseball player with a Hollywood-scripted life story, Hamilton is a perfect Angel. But his personal demons, which may never be fully exorcised, make some wonder if the LA scene is one in which Hamilton can remain focused on baseball and not fall susceptible to the glitz, glamour and lures of fast living. Texas almost seemed like the best place for him, medically and mentally. But when you are raised on fast cars and fast women, the school teacher with the three-date rule isn’t going to hold interest.
MOST INTRIGUING NL STORYLINE
Can Don Mattingly get it done?
The robust investment LA’s new ownership made in the Dodgers has definitely turned up the hot seat on Mattingly. The former Yankee great has shown a knack for managing and we know his baseball intelligence, work ethic and acumen is ridiculous. Last August, the Dodgers showed they were going to toss cash until they landed on a World Series, only to see division-rivals San Francisco Giants win its second World Series in three years. They went back to the vault this offseason and now the pressure is on Donny Baseball to be the supreme chemist and get one of baseball’s most storied franchises back into the autumn swing.
MOST INTRIGUING AL STORYLINE
The Blue Jays are the new Yanks.
The Yankees have switched financial approaches with the Blue Jays. While baseball’s perennial money machine has made a concerted effort to cut payroll, the Blue Jays are mega-spending. Newcomers like 20-game-winning knuckler RA Dickey and speedster Jose Reyes, put the Blue Jays in AL East contention–talk. Will the Scrooge-philosophy of Yankee ownership, coupled with massive injuries, cause a huge Yankee fall?
If last year’s chain of events is any indication, after the conclusion of 162 games, predicting a champ will be a toss-up and stunning finishes will become commonplace.