Tagged: National League

Life after Never: The 2017 Chicago Cubs

Image result for miguel montero jake arrieta

It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.

The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco. 

As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.

In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.

The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.

Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.

As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.

This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians  in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.

I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.

Excitement in San Diego

This Major League Baseball offseason has been terrific for trades and player movement, to the point that baseball is taking up time in the 24 hour sports news cycle during football/basketball/hockey season the way the NBA was during the middle of the summer when baseball was the only major sport playing games. The eager waiting of baseball fans everywhere for Jon Lester’s free agency decision did not have the ESPN flair of LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, but jokes about waiting for a new Pope, and anticipating red smoke if the lefty ace chose Boston and blue smoke if he picked Chicago (or orange smoke if he decided to take his talents to San Francisco, but they were out of the running before the Red Sox and Cubs) dominated Reddit and Twitter, and did not seem that far off from the reality of the situation. Not every offseason is this exciting, but 2014 has not disappointed, unless you’re a fan of the Orioles or Athletics (but even then, A’s fans must be used to Billy Beane’s wheeling and dealing by now, and they’ll be contending again soon enough).

One team that usually flies under the radar during the winter, and rarely makes waves during the regular season has been right in the thick of it this offseason, however. The San Diego Padres might not be good this year, but there’s more to talk about with that club than there has been in a while.

The Padres are one of those teams that you might forget are in Major League Baseball if you follow an American League team, and they’re not on the inter-league schedule. In recent years, the National League West has been dominated by the San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Arizona Diamondbacks (who beat the New York Yankees in seven games in 2001) and the Colorado Rockies (who actually beat the Padres in a one game playoff before eventually getting swept by the Red Sox in 2007) have both been to the World Series since Bruce Bochy, Trevor Hoffman and the late great Tony Gwynn led them to a National League Pennant in 1998, before being swept by the juggernaut Yankees. These days, Gwynn is in Cooperstown, but gone well before his time, and Bochy and Hoffman appear to be headed there eventually, with Bochy the skipper behind three World Series winning teams in the last five years, and Hoffman getting a new award for the National League’s best closer named in his honor, but none of them are doing anything to help the Padres right now.

The plight of small market teams in baseball is reflected in San Diego’s baseball club. Adrian Gonzalez was a good player for them, but they traded him to Boston in 2011 rather than sign him to an extension or lose him via free agency. This winter, however, the Padres went on the offensive with their trades, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and Justin Upton from the Atlanta Braves, three outfielders with All-Star caliber bats. They also flipped veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Red Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. This is a low-risk trade that could potentially work well for both teams. Middlebrooks is a young player with plenty of power who gets injured almost as much as he strikes out, but a change of scenery could be good for him, especially since the Red Sox were ready to move on from him with the signing of World Series hero Pablo Sandoval earlier in the offseason. For the Red Sox, Hanigan is a local kid (from Andover, MA) who could play the role of mentor to young catcher Christian Vazquez, and replace David Ross (who signed with the Cubs to catch for Lester) as the team’s backup catcher.

The recurring theme seems to be a change of scenery, and there isn’t much better scenery than San Diego. I was always surprised that San Diego couldn’t attract free agents on its good weather alone, but it is exactly what these players need. Matt Kemp was a fan favorite and a legitimate superstar in Los Angeles, having been a two time All-Star, two time Gold Glover, and a two time Silver Slugger, but is now 30, and has had injury issues, and has fallen out of favor with the Dodgers. It’s interesting to note, though, that both Kemp and Dodgers owner Magic Johnson were mentioned by name in the Donald Sterling tapes, for being people that V. Stiviano had taken pictures with and posted to Instagram against Sterling’s approval. At any rate, it was probably time for Kemp to head south. San Diego should be a good change of pace after playing his entire career with the Dodgers.

Wil Myers was part of a big trade two years ago that sent pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Kansas City Royals. Myers, a top prospect in Kansas City’s farm system was believed to be a steal at the time, although Shields and Davis were a big part of the incredible, improbable, no joke, very exciting run to Game 7 of the World Series that Kansas City went on this past October. Myers was no slouch, either. He won the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Award with Tampa, and at 24, still has a promising future ahead of him in the game of baseball. It may be a very Boston-centric sports take, but it might do Myers a lot of good to spend less time at Fenway Park. Myers made a costly error at Fenway in the 2013 ALDS, which helped kick off the Red Sox postseason success that year, and in 2014, he collided in the Fenway outfield with Desmond Jennings resulting in a wrist injury that would derail his season (as well as the Rays’ season, which resulted in Tampa trading David Price to the Detroit Tigers, general manager Andrew Friedman leaving to become President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, and field manager Joe Maddon leaving to become manager of the Cubs). With the Padres, Myers won’t even have to go to Fenway every season.

Justin Upton is another player who could use a change of scenery because things just weren’t working in Atlanta. The Braves had plenty of bats, but had poor plate approach as a team. Upton and his brother B.J. did not live up to the hype that came with them arriving in Atlanta the same year. After the Braves dealt Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, it seemed as if they were ready to blow it up and start rebuilding.

It’s unclear at this time if the Padres will be good, but it’s the first time I can remember that there is buzz around the Padres in the offseason, and it just might lead to regular season buzz. At the very least, the Giants and Dodgers are looking over their shoulders because the division has a chance to be more than just a two team race in 2015.

You stay classy, San Diego.

Lincecum Does It Again

Sometimes sequels are better than the original. Such was the case with Terminator II: Judgement Day, and The Dark Knight, and The Empire Strikes Back, and Toy Story 3, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This week, when Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants threw his second career no-hitter, nearly a year after his first, it was better than the original as well. Lincecum took 147 pitches to no-hit the San Diego Padres last summer, but only needed 113 to no hit the same team this time around. Lincecum was a walk away from a perfect game. That’s about as good as it gets.

Timmy has had to reinvent himself in recent years. He used to throw harder and used to rack up a lot more strikeouts, but as his velocity has diminished, he’s found different ways to get people out. He’s done a great job of developing his off-speed pitches since he can’t just blow it by everyone anymore. Lincecum turned 30 last week, and has four National League All-Star selections, two Cy Young Awards and two World Series rings to go with his two no-hitters. He may not be the Freak he once was, but that’s a pretty good trophy case and a solid foundation for a Hall of Fame bid.

Last week, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw a no-hitter that was a Hanley Ramirez error away from being a perfect game, and since Josh Beckett threw a no-hitter last month, the last three no-hitters in the Majors have come from the forever rival Dodgers and Giants. Since Red Sox vs. Yankees has gone stale over the last decade, Giants vs. Dodgers has become the best rivalry in the sport, in my opinion. For Beckett and Lincecum, it is believed have their better pitching days behind them, while Kershaw is proving why he’s one of the highest paid players in the game. As it currently stands, the Giants have a two game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West, and between the Giants, Dodgers, and Oakland Athletics, some of the best baseball on the planet is being played in California. This October, we could see a rematch of the 1988 World Series where Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers defeated Tony La Russa’s A’s, or we could see a rematch of the 1989 World Series where the A’s defeated the Giants, but the series between the Bay Area rivals was overshadowed by the earthquake in that region that put it on hold. Both potential sequels have the chance to be better than the original, but it’ll take a few months to see how it will shape out.

Out of Their League

Earlier this week, the Red Sox turned around their fortunes with a home-and-home four game sweep of the Atlanta Braves. In those four games, the Sox looked like the Sox of last year again, with good defense, great relief pitching, and timely hitting. What those four games told me more than anything else was more about the Braves than the Red Sox, though.

The four game series between Boston and Atlanta showed us the disparity between the American League and the National League, and just how much better the AL is right now. Going in, the Red Sox were a fourth place team on a ten game losing streak. The Braves, despite dropping four straight games to the Red Sox, remain in first place in the National League East. The Braves are one of the better teams in the NL, but look sloppy and amateur next to an average AL team.

The disparity between the National and American Leagues is as bad as the disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA. There are only two teams in the NL who would be competitive in the AL, and they happen to be the two teams who have represented the NL in the World Series for the last four years winning it three of those years: the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants. Beyond that, there are a lot of middle of the pack teams that don’t quite have it together.

The Braves are a prime example. They have good pitching (and one of the best closer in baseball in the form of Craig Kimbrel, who got the loss in the one game he pitched against Boston) and they can hit home runs, but they can’t do much else. Fielding errors will be their downfall. They can hit homers, but don’t get a ton of base runners. Dan Uggla has found himself on the bench because his batting average cannot crack .200, and the brothers Upton have been disappointing since joining Atlanta’s outfield last season. The 2014 Braves remind me of the Chicago White Sox teams that Ozzie Guillen used to manage. In 2005, they got hot enough to roll all the way to Chicago’s first World Series title since 1917, but never made it past the ALDS again if they made the playoffs at all. The NL is a bunch of mid-2000s White Sox clones…and the Giants and the Cardinals, who are dynasties in the making.

If the Red Sox were in the NL, they’d be on top of their division because of the lack of competition. Despite winning six straight games this week, the Red Sox are still a bit of a playoff long shot because they’re in the American League. Some things are out of your control.

MLB Predictions 2014 Part III

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.

NL East

1. Atlanta Braves. Once again, the National League East is Atlanta’s division to lose. That’s been the norm for most of the time since I started following baseball in the mid-90s. The Braves are built to be a great regular season team, but that must be frustrating if you’re a fan of the team. You’re in it every year, but the only time they won the World Series during that stretch was in 1995 against the Cleveland Indians. The Braves have only won the World Series three times in their history: once in Boston, once in Milwaukee, and once in Atlanta. If you ask me, they’ll have to move to Japan, Vegas, or Vancouver before they win it again. Then again, there was a time in my life where I thought I would never live to see my beloved Red Sox win the World Series. They won the World Series when I was 14, and they’ve won it twice since then. Baseball has a way of imposing an existential sense of doom on people from an early age.

The Braves lineup boasts a lot of power from the brother B.J. and Justin Upton, and Dan Uggla. Jason Heyward is the team’s best athlete, and can make plays in the field as well as he can around the bases, and is only 24 despite having played in the majors since 2010. Freddie Freeman, when healthy is the team’s best hitter, and he’s only five months older than I am, which makes me feel like I haven’t accomplished enough in life (again with the baseball related existential crises, but enough about me). The loss of Tim Husdon from the starting rotation is a significant one, but not one they can’t overcome. Hudson is on the back nine of his career, but he was a great veteran presence in the Braves’ clubhouse. The loss of catcher Bryan McCann, in my opinion, hurts the Braves more than it helps the Yankees, but Atlanta was right not to overpay for an aging catcher who is not very good behind the plate. I expect to win the division, or at least make the playoffs, but going any further is not a safe bet with this team.

2. Washington Nationals. The Nats took a step backward last year, but had been trending in the right direction the past few years. In 2012, they were overly cautious about their future when they shelved Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs and they ended up not doing anything in the playoffs. They potentially left a championship on the table, and didn’t even get back to the playoffs in 2013. The success of the Nationals depends heavily on the health of their young stars Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If those guys are right, Washington has a chance to overtake Atlanta. If not, they’re a very mediocre team struggling for relevance and losing fan interest to the Orioles.

Beyond Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals have solid pitching from Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and former Detroit Tiger Doug Fister, and solid hitting from Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span. This should be the roster of a playoff team, but there would be no point in having a 162 game regular season if we didn’t need them to go out and prove it. If they stay healthy, the Nationals should be a contender in the National League.

With Davey Johnson’s retirement at the end of last season, the Nats hired Matt Williams as their new skipper. This is Williams’ first managerial gig, but he already made a name for himself as a power hitter in his playing days. Williams was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007, but that did not stop him from getting coaching jobs, so hopefully this hire helps the baseball writers come to grips with the Steroid Era and hopefully it gets them off their high horse. Time will tell, I suppose.

3. New York Mets. In 2013, Mets fans had a reason to be optimistic about their team for the first time in years. They had endured years of September collapse, owners victimized by Ponzi scheme, bad free agent signings like Jason Bay and Francisco Rodriguez, and inability to keep their own star players like Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey. Then Matt Harvey happened. The 24 year old starting pitcher was the story of the first half of the season in the National League last year, and earned the honor of being the NL’s starting pitcher in the All-Star game that was hosted by the Mets. Last August, Harvey tore a ligament in his elbow, and required Tommy John Surgery. His return is uncertain for this season, but that’s the New York Mets in a nutshell.

The Mets have quite a few has-beens on their roster including Curtis Granderson, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Bartolo Colon. David Wright and Daniel Murphy are pretty good players, but without Harvey, it’s hard to get excited about the Mets’ chances in 2014. The division is relatively flat after the Braves and Nats, so I suppose the Mets have as good a chance as anyone to compete, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Manager Terry Collins has a lot on his plate dealing with the pressure and expectations of playing in New York. If they Mets have another slow start, the media and the fans will grow impatient. They’re not just competing with the Braves, Nationals, Marlins, and Phillies in the National League East; they’re competing with the free spending Yankees for headlines in The TimesThe Post, and The Daily News.

4. Miami Marlins. Last year, the Marlins were the laughingstock of Major League Baseball. Miami has easily been the most poorly run franchise to win multiple championships in my lifetime in any of the four major sports. After a disappointing 2012 season, they traded away their expensive talent to the Toronto Blue Jays, and appeared unwilling to spend money, a year after opening a new ballpark paid for by Florida taxpayers. Owner Jeffrey Loria is one of the worst owners in all of sports, and he showed us once again why. The result was a lost season with low attendance, but the Marlins have a chance to be better in 2014. They’re not a great team yet, but they’re headed in the right direction.

The Marlins appear to be building around 24 year old power hitting outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. This winter, the Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia away from the World Series winning Red Sox. Salty is an above average hitting catcher, who the Red Sox may have decided to part with because of his poor performance in the World Series. If he makes more accurate throws to third base, then the Red Sox win it sooner than Game 6. Salty struggled at the plate against St. Louis, and was benched in favor of David Ross for the final two games of the World Series. Salty is from Miami and it’s a great pickup for a team looking to improve its image among its fans and around the majors. Miami made another solid free agent signing when they brought in 36 year old former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal. They might not be the best team out there, but at least they will be respectable in 2014. Provided that Loria doesn’t blow up the baseball operation again to save a few bucks, the Marlins will be a contender sooner rather than later.

5. Philadelphia Phillies. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Phillies were the best team in the National League and among the best in all of baseball. When they won the 2008 World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays, it appeared to be the start of a dynasty. The following year, they were back in the World Series, but fell short against the loaded New York Yankees. With each year, they would end up a little further from the ultimate prize. They had great hitters in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth. They had great pitchers in Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. Now Victorino is roaming the Boston outfield, Werth is roaming the Washington outfield, and Halladay and Oswalt are both out of baseball. What is left is an aging shell of a dynasty that could have been.

Last summer, Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. put an unceremonious end to this era in Phillies baseball when he fired field manager Charlie Manuel before the ceremony they team had planned to commemorate his 1,000th managerial win. Philadelphia is a tough city to be a coach because of the high expectations placed on the teams by the passionate fans and media members, but Charlie handled Philly really well. Despite the firing, Manuel is still with the organization as a special adviser to Amaro. Manager duties have been handed over to Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who split his playing career between the Phillies and Cubs, two of the lowliest teams in the history of baseball. Ryno has a tough job, but hopefully the Phillies give him a chance with the less than stellar roster they currently have. Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, and Lee are all still in Philly, but they are all getting up there in age. Hamels is only 30, but the others are all either 34 or 35. With each passing season, the 2008 World Series appears five years further away in the rear view mirror.

MLB Predictions 2014 Part II

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.

NL Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards are the class of the National League. Albert Pujols signed with the Angels in 2011, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired that same winter after an improbable run to the World Series, and they’ve been just as good ever since. The Cardinals outlasted the Pirates and Dodgers to get back to the World Series in 2013, but came up short against the Red Sox, much like they did in 2004.

The Cardinals have a deep farm system and they can replace aging superstars more easily than anyone with the young talent they’ve drafted. Their pitching is strong, and Yadier Molina is the best catcher in baseball, both behind the plate and in the batter’s box. They have one of the tougher lineups in the National League with Molina, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and newly acquired shortstop Jhonny Peralta going to bat for them. The Cardinals have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, headlined by Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha, who proved to be an elite even under the bright lights of the playoffs in 2013. Mike Matheny is a great young manager who has taken St. Louis to the NLCS and the World Series in his first two years, losing to the eventual champion both times. This year, I expect them to be there again.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates. They finally did it in 2013. Now, the Pirates have high expectations heading into the season for the first time since Barry Bonds was starting for them in left field. After getting into the playoffs as a wildcard, they stayed in it by beating the Reds in a one game playoff series, but could not get past the Cardinals in the NLDS.

Andrew McCutchen is the reigning National League MVP, and the best thing to happen to the Pirates organization since a man named Barry Bonds. Russell Martin had and incredible year behind the plate for the Bucs. They play in a tough division, but the Pittsburgh fans who had seen the Steelers and Penguins reach the finals of their respective sports six times since the Pirates last reached the playoffs, are hungry for a trip to the World Series. The team is relatively young, and Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle has them playing good baseball. I expect them to get back to the playoffs and maybe even make some noise this time around. If they falter, it might be because players like Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano fall back to earth. Last year, the Pirates and their fans were just happy to be there, but not that they have ended the twenty years of futility, the expectations are a bit higher.

3. Cincinnati Reds. It’s a new era in Reds baseball. After firing manager Dusty Baker despite three playoff berths in the last four years, decided to promote pitching coach Bryan Price to be the club’s new skipper. Pitching coaches are a lot like special teams coaches in football, in that they are important to an effective coaching staff, but very few of them ever get offered head coaching positions. Since John Farrell, who previously served as pitching coach for the Red Sox from 2007 to 2010, has enjoyed success as a manager, it seems more and more teams will be willing to consider pitching coaches as management material.

The Reds have one of the best hitters in baseball in Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are good hitters as well. Cincy’s pitching is the teams greatest strength, at least in the regular season, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey highlighting the starting rotation and Aroldis Chapman emerging as one of the best young closers in the game. The Reds have been to the playoffs three times in four years, but have had early exits each time. The core of this roster is entering its prime, and the expectations are high. Dusty Baker is out of a job because they couldn’t deliver on his watch. Major League Baseball’s oldest team is tired of living in the past. The Reds may have the most recent championship of any major professional sports team in the state of Ohio, but that was the year I was born (1990, against the Oakland A’s), and they are due. Fans don’t want another great regular season, but if they don’t even get that, then things could get ugly.

4. Chicago Cubs. One of these years, the Cubs have to turn it around, right? It could happen this year, but there are a few good teams standing in their way. Theo Epstein drafted well while he was with the Red Sox, and now Boston has one of the best farm systems in baseball while also competing for the World Series. Epstein won quickly in Boston because he inherited what was already a good roster built by Dan Duquette. Building a championship roster is easier if you already have Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez on your roster. Theo was the executive to ended a championship drought that began in 1918. Now he has a chance to end one that started in 1908. If he won were able to bring championship pennants to both Fenway and Wrigley, then he could go down as the greatest baseball executive of all time.

The Cubs have some pretty good young players who still have the potential to be great. 23 year old All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro is the biggest name of the bunch. After strong seasons in 2011 and 2012, Castro’s production fell off a bit in 2013, batting only .245 with 10 home runs, but the Cubs are hoping for a bounce back in 2014. Anthony Rizzo is another young player to look out for. New manager Rick Renteria is not the most exciting managerial hire, but hiring the biggest name isn’t always the best idea. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Cubs, but that’s what the regular season is for. Theo turned one franchise around already, but he’s going into his third regular season running the Cubs and if progress isn’t made, the Lovable Losers might be looking for a new executive come November.

5. Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers aren’t necessarily the worst team in the NL Central, but they were the most disappointing one last year. Ryan Braun’s suspension was a blow to baseball and may have cost Braun his friendship with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The days of the Brewers contending for the World Series just a few short years ago seem like a much more distant memory. Prince Fielder signed with Detroit and has since been traded to Texas. Zack Greinke got overpaid by the Dodgers. The Brewers were one of the most fun teams in baseball in 2011, but now they’re just a shell of their former selves.

Matt Garza is a Brewer now, but he hasn’t pitched to the level of his name recognition since he left the Tampa Bay Rays. Rickie Weeks is a pretty good player, if a little overpaid. Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Rodriguez have seen better days. The Cubs might be worse than the Brewers, but my expectations for this team are the lowest of any in this difficult division.

In conclusion, the NL Central is by far the National League’s toughest division, but I expect the Cardinals to remain on top. The Pirates and Reds will still be in playoff contention, and the Cubs are x-factor that is very intriguing from a front office standpoint.

MLB Predictions 2014 Part I

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.

NL West

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.