It’s March. Spring Training is underway, and the weather is going to start to get warmer. Soon enough we will have baseball again. It will be tough to top what happened in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan), but the start of baseball means a rebirth and a fresh start once again. I’m not good at predicting what will happen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
1. San Francisco Giants. I think last year’s struggles were a fluke and that the Giants will be back in the playoffs once again in 2014. Barry Zito is finally off the books, and the Giants have brought in a different Moneyball-era former Oakland A’s ace in Tim Hudson. Zito’s contract was the most expensive contract for a pitcher at the time of his signing in San Francisco, but for tall the criticism he took, it ended up being one of the better bad contracts in baseball history. I mean, it couldn’t have hurt the Giants that badly if they won their first two World Series titles since moving out of New York, and they definitely do not win the 2012 Series or even get that far without Barry Zito.
The Giants have re-signed World Series heroes Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum to contract extensions, They still have one of baseball’s best all around players in catcher Buster Posey, who is just entering his prime. Bruce Bochy is still among the best managers in Major League Baseball, and is now the winningest one now that Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker are both either retired or out of work. San Fran’s GM Brian Sabean is very good at adding to the roster at the trade deadline to improve the team for October.
The Giants, much like the football team that shares their name, is one of those teams that always seems to miss the playoffs or win it all. They were champions in 2010 and 2012, but sitting at home in October of 2011 and 2013. If they make the playoffs, they will be a tough out. If the miss the playoffs, they might be back in it next year. That’s Giants baseball. They never make it easy on themselves, but they’re always around to play.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers. When the 2013 season started, the Dodgers looked awful. There was nothing going right for a team with one of the highest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Josh Beckett was fat, overpaid, and dealing with nagging injuries (sound familiar, Red Sox fans?). Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was on the hot seat, and nothing could jolt this team into action until Yasiel Puig came along. Puig had maybe the most exciting first month in Major League Baseball a rookie has ever experienced. He brought energy and swagger to a franchise that has to compete with the Lakers, Kings, and countless A-list stars for attention and relevance. From there, the Dodgers were the hot team all summer, and their August series with the overachieving Red Sox looked like a World Series match up in the making. The Red Sox upheld their end of the deal, but the Dodgers came up short against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Dodgers this year have signed Clayton Kershaw to a long term extension, keeping the face of the franchise on LA. Magic Johnson and his business partners who own the Dodgers have not been afraid to spend money, but with a high payroll comes high pressure. The Dodgers have not been to the World Series since they beat the Oakland Athletics in 1988, and every other team in the NL West has been to the Fall Classic since then, including the arch nemesis Giants, who went there three times and won twice in that span. I expect the Dodgers to be competitive, but I don’t expect them to be as good as they were for stretches of last season. That’s a tough winning percentage to maintain for long periods of time. There’s a lot of talent on that roster, but also a lot of history of not playing the best they can, especially in the cases of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, who were all acquired from the Red Sox in 2012. The Dodgers will be connected and compared to the Red Sox as long as the players from that trade are playing, and so far, the Red Sox have earned another red pennant to put up at Fenway, and the Dodgers still have to answer a lot of questions.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks. Last year, the D-Backs were the team that got upset that the Dodgers celebrated too excessively in their ballpark when LA clinched the NL West division title. Everyone else around baseball thought it was funny. It served them right for building a pool in the outfield. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate with a pool party? Arizona’s manager, Kirk Gibson, will forever be linked to the Dodgers for his iconic pinch hit home run in the 1988 World Series, his only at bat in LA’s rout of the A’s, but now he’s managing a division rival. The D-Backs aren’t a great team, but they will compete. This is a relatively weak division, but the D-backs are looking to crash the party that only the Giants and Dodgers ever seem to get invited to anymore. Maybe it will happen this year, but I wouldn’t count on it.
4. San Diego Padres. The Padres have to be the least interesting franchise in Major League Baseball. There uniforms have changed a bunch of times, but none of them are particularly memorable or iconic. They’ve played in the World Series and they’ve had Hall of Famers, but what have they done since Tony Gwynn retired? I don’t know either. San Diego was the place were Trevor Hoffman quietly recorded nearly 600 saves (he did get to 600, but not until he was playing in Milwaukee) while Mariano Rivera got all the attention for recording save after save in New York for a Yankee team that won the World Series five times in his career. According to Wikipedia, they are the only Major League team that has never pitched a no-hitter, and one of two teams to never have a player hit for the cycle.
I had to consult Wikipedia just to be able to name players on the Padres roster. Joaquin Benoit is a good pickup. He was the best reliever the last few years for the Detroit Tigers, and was great against David Ortiz until one fateful night in October. After that, the Padres have a few former members of the Red Sox farm system like Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes as well as has-beens like Carlos Quentin, Huston Street, and Xavier Nady, but most of the roster consists of unfamiliar names. Bud Black is a pretty good manager, and he’s tasked with getting these guys to compete, but there’s nothing to be excited about…except for the really really nice weather San Diego has all the time, I guess.
5. Colorado Rockies. The Rockies seem to be trying to recreate the magic of the Minnesota Twins teams from five years ago, with Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, that never won a playoff series. Todd Helton, the greatest Colorado Rockie ever and Tennessee Volunteers starting quarterback before some guy named Peyton Manning, retired last fall and the Rockies gave him a horse to ride off into the sunset with as a going away present. Troy Tulowitzki is still one of the best hitting shortstops in the game, and Brett Anderson is a pretty good pitcher, but this seems like the makings of a playoff team from 2008. Then again, people were saying the same thing in a sarcastic manner when the Red Sox acquired Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Mike Napoli to go with David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, and that 2008 All-Star team went on to win the World Series in 2013, so what do we know?
In conclusion, the National League West is a top-heavy division, but there’s enough talent on the other three teams to make it interesting, even if none of the teams have a particularly good record.