National League

Early MLB predictions: Who will come out of the National League in 2013?

It’s never too early to start making predictions, right? Sure, spring training has only just begun, but what better time to predict which teams will be resilient enough to make it through the season and duke it out for baseball’s ultimate prize? In fact, should I get my predictions right, I’ll be seen as a baseball genius. And, should I get them wrong, I can just attribute it to the fact that my prediction was made in March. It’s a win-win. So, without further ado, here is my 2013 National League Champion prediction. 

On paper, it looks to be a five-horse race for the 2013 National League pennant. The Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, Reds and Braves all look like they could play the part this year in the NL. However, when looking at potential contenders, you can never count out the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that has lived for October over the past decade. Additionally, with their payroll and own version of the “Big Three” atop their rotation, the Phillies will look to come back strong in 2013 after missing the playoffs in 2012. 

The Reds are set to win the NL Central, with a rotation that can rack up innings and a potent lineup. The addition of Shin-Soo Choo at the top of the lineup is one of the more underrated moves of the offseason and could turn out to pay huge dividends when October rolls around. The Cardinals will give them some trouble in the Central, and I expect the Redbirds to earn another Wild Card berth.

A point of concern I have for the Nationals and Braves and the Dodgers and Giants is the fact that both these pairs of teams are in the same division, which could cause them to beat up on each other during the regular season. Furthermore, one of these teams might not even make the playoffs, assuming the Cardinals fulfill my prediction and clinch the other Wild Card spot.

In the NL West, I expect the Giants to win the division once again, despite the blockbuster moves the Dodgers made during the past offseason. I believe there is lots of built-up pressure in the LA baseball community, and I’m not positive that the Dodgers made all the right moves to build toward winning a championship. Instead, the Dodgers roster looks to be full of unproven players who will attract a larger fan base.

In the NL East, I fully expect the Nationals to pick up where they left off, with a slight decrease in run production. However, should Steven Strasburg make it through a whole season this year, expect them to dominate even more than last year. The addition of Denard Span will provide a spark at the top of the lineup and expect Bryce Harper to take another step forward this season. The Braves will rely on an aging Tim Hudson and two very young starting pitchers that have only really proven themselves for one season. What worries me more, in the case of the Braves more than the Nationals, is the threat of the Philadelphia Phillies. After a very disappointing, injury-riddled season last year, the Phillies will be hungry and the intense fan base will provide enough pressure and motivation to force another playoff appearance or a change in management.

In my eyes, the Nationals, Giants and Reds look to be the cream of the crop in terms of management, talent and experience of recent success. However, the Giants have won it all two of the past three years, so the odds are against them. So it comes down to the Reds and the Nationals. To be honest, I can’t make a case against the Reds potentially reaching the Fall Classic, but last year, the Nationals made one decision preventing them from getting past the Cardinals in the 2012 NLDS — the decision to sit Steven Strasburg after pitching 160 innings. Strasburg would have gotten the Nats through that series and perhaps deeper into the playoffs, but the organization chose to make a long-term decision.

Therefore, this year, barring any injuries to Strasburg or any other key players, the Nationals will fight their way through the National League en route to the World Series.

Melky Cabrera bails out Bud Selig

Did everybody just see that? Melky Cabrera, San Francisco Giant’s outfielder, just took a bullet aimed straight for Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s head. On Friday, Cabrera requested through the MLB players union that he be disqualified for the 2012 National League batting title.

Cabrera, playing in his seventh full major league season, was enjoying a breakout campaign out by the Bay Area in San Francisco. He was hitting a whopping .346 through 501 plate appearances. He was the National League MVP of the All-Star Game in Kansas City, Mo., and was presumably on his way to being the National League MVP of the season. He was also on his way to a big pay day when his contract was due to expire at the end of the season. And just like so many before him, it all came crashing down around him when it was announced that he had tested positive for testosterone. He was suspended for 50 games for violating the MLB drug abuse policy, and his entire stellar season would be remembered with a hint of resentment from the fans who have been cheated in a similar fashion all too many times.

But Cabrera still had a chance, even after being caught cheating, to be listed in the history books as the 2012 National League batting champion.

It was announced Thursday through the commissioner’s office that if the season ended with Cabrera still in the lead in the batting race and on Friday he was still leading second-place Pirates’ outfielder Andrew McCutchen by seven points, then he would be crowned as the batting champion because of a quirky rule.

Did you catch that? The guy who failed a drug test for performance-enhancing drugs would still be remembered in history as the batting champion. Let it sink in.

Of the four big sports in North America, baseball has suffered plenty of black eyes. While Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and a slew of others are being held out of Cooperstown, N.Y., for their alleged performance-enhancing drug use, all of their records still stand just as pristine as ever.

Those games happened, and this isn’t “Men in Black” where you can simply flash all of America and make them forget that magical season when McGwire and Sosa were going toe-to-toe for the single season home run record. We can’t forget the season just a few years later when Barry Bonds blew past the both of them.

The point is, if Bud Selig didn’t have his head in the sand for a decade-plus on the steroid issue, those records wouldn’t be tainted. Hank Aaron wouldn’t be second on the all-time list for home runs, behind someone like Bonds, who put on almost 40 pounds of muscle over the course of his 22-year career. Those records will forever be tainted because Selig was reactionary instead of being proactive.

Now six-and-a-half years after Major League Baseball adopted its new drug-testing policy to cleanse the game, we still have superstars faltering and tainting records and personal achievements. 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun failed a drug test a month after he received the prestigious award. And while Braun had the test overturned on a strange appeal, the award still holds a bit of question, even if Braun is matching his MVP numbers this season under a presumably clean slate.

If Melky Cabrera had not taken himself out of the running for the National League batting crown, which he likely would have won, baseball would have affectively not taken a positive step forward since the days of the “juicers.” Cheaters would still be embraced as historical icons, and the game’s integrity would continue to sink like the Titanic.

Instead Cabrera did what was right, something Bud Selig cannot seem to wrap his mind around. Cabrera took the bullet for a spineless commissioner in hopes of returning integrity back to America’s pastime. And while Cabrera still cheated, he at least owned up to his mistake and made it right, something the cheaters before him did not. He ensured that the proper winner will win the batting title the right way, not by cheating the game and all its fans that crave to put the days of tainted baseball behind them.

Fans unimpressed by watered-down All-Star game.

American League's Alexi Ogando of the Texas Rangers pitches at the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, July 12, 2011, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
American League's Alexi Ogando of the Texas Rangers pitches at the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, July 12, 2011, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The National League beat the American League 5-1 in the 2011 MLB All-Star game, and that is about as much as some are willing to remember.

“What a waste of two hours and some odd minutes of my life,” said broadcast journalism senior Derek Lewis.

Like many sports fanatics, Lewis decided to watch the All-Star game on Tuesday, but was disappointed by the lack pomp and circumstance. Some of these fans said that this year’s watered-down cast of All-Stars and boring broadcast was not appealing.

“It had three big plays,” Lewis said. “The rest was all fairly boring, undominating pitching that was just good enough to get outs for the National League and some poor defensive efforts that made the game into Keystone Cops at certain points. Plus, several big American League pitchers were out. Several big name players overall were out. Not a good showing from baseball.”

In the American League two players chosen to by the fans — Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez — and four pitchers selected by the players (including three more Yankees), skipped for medical reasons. Jeter, who recently recorded his 3,000th career hit, cited mental and physical exhaustion as the reason for his absence. Rodriguez is currently in on the DL.

In the National League, only one voted starter — Jose Reyes — didn’t suit up Tuesday in Phoenix, but Shane Victorino, who won the final vote over Washington Nationals first baseman Michael Morse, was also out injured.

Though this year’s numbers have not been released, the MLB All-Star game’s ratings have declined consistently over the past decade, with last year’s mid-summer classic boasting the worst ratings ever. Fans who watched but didn’t enjoy this year’s game said the MLB isn’t doing enough to keep the very people that drive the game interested — the fans.

“It was like any other baseball game, which is sad because it’s the All-star game,” said baseball fan Sarang Patel. “A lot of it may be Fox's fault. There was no "fun" appeal. The highlight was Justin Timberlake with his beer near a pool with girls. The NBA All-Star game has all these in-game microphones, celebrity interviews, jokesters, etc. The MLB and Fox couldn't even utilize Brian Wilson correctly.”

Other fans echoed Patel’s sentiment that the MLB has gotten lazy in keeping fans interested, and say other sports offer more exciting draws in the summer sports lull.

“They [MLB] really aren't trying to fight Soccer for this summer market while the NBA and NFL take vacations,” Lewis said.

Brian Wilson is the San Francisco Giants reliever known for his post-game celebrations and hilarious antics.

It may not be fair to compare the two sports’ All-star games, but in terms of ratings, the NBA knows what it’s doing. It puts the game on a weekend and spends an entire week building the event up with funny promotions; Usher crooning about it, and with players who actually want to play in the game. The 2011 NBA All-Star game boasted its highest ratings since 2003, bringing in over 12 million viewers.

Some regular sports fans didn’t even realize the All-Star game was even scheduled for Tuesday night.

“I didn’t even know it happened,” said business senior Saagar Grover, adding that he didn’t mind missing it.

Obviously these dissenting voices don’t represent the voice of every sport and baseball fan. The fact of the matter is that baseball is slowly losing younger viewers to the glitz and glamour of the NBA and NFL. Both those leagues are able to draw viewers to games in which a fan may not even have a vested interested beyond the desire to be entertained. One would have thought that with the other leagues wrapped up in lockouts, baseball would do everything it could to retain and even gain viewers who have nothing else to follow right now. If I were Bud Selig, I would have put in a call into Usher, or maybe Ke$ha.

Not every baseball fan had a bad time. History junior Eli Perez said he preferred the low-key nature of the game, as well as getting the opportunity to see some fresh talent.

“It was exciting to see the next crop of super stars like Starlin Castro and Rickie Weeks come up and playing in the game, but it was really disappointing to not see Derek Jeter out there," Perez said. “Overall it was a fun game to just sit back and relax to. Not every game is going to have hundreds of runs scored. Sometimes they are just a grind which can be equally as enjoyable to watch.”

He may be right. That type of game does appeal to some people, and I certainly tuned in for 90 percent of it. But it wasn’t exciting enough to keep me from flipping back and forth between Fuse’s 100 Sexiest Videos of All-time, and ESPN U’s rerun of last year’s Texas vs. Nebraska football game.

Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs since 1916, will host yet another Opening Day game this afternoon when the Cubs take on the Washington Nationals. Stephen Strasburg returns from surgery to pitch for the Nationals, while the Cubs will give Ryan Dempster the nod.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Opening day: It’s a special time of year.

Hot dog vendors are open for business, employees everywhere are calling in sick to work and fathers and sons are making lifelong memories watching their favorite team begin the season anew.

All 30 teams start with a clean slate, and every fan believes their team has a shot to be competing in October — yes, even Cubs fans.

That dream of reaching the postseason became even more real this season, as the MLB added an extra wild card slot, meaning that five teams from each league make the playoffs instead of four.

But realistically, there are only a few teams from the National League and the American League that have a shot at a ring each fall.

The American League is wide open, with up to six teams with real pennant aspirations. Offseason moves have altered the landscape of the league, and the balance of power has shifted to the AL with the moves of a pair of superstar first basemen to the AL — Prince Fielder to the Tigers and Albert Pujols to the Angels.

The usual subjects in the AL East will be in contention: New York, Boston and Tampa Bay, each of which has loaded pitching staffs and dangerous lineups. The AL Central on the other hand should be clear-cut, as the Tigers have the reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander and a scary one-two combination of Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in their lineup.

The AL West is top-heavy this season with the two-time AL defending champs, the Texas Rangers, returning the most potent lineup in baseball while adding Japanese import Yu Darvish to lead the rotation. The Angels also made a splash, inching closer to the Rangers with the signing of the best player in the game, Pujols, and adding former Ranger C.J.

Wilson to an already stacked rotation.

In the National League, the picture is just as murky.

Perennial powers like the Phillies and World Series champions the Cardinals each lost key pieces this offseason, and each have questions about their ability to score runs.

The other two playoff teams from last season, the Brewers and the Diamondbacks, aren’t exactly sure things, either.

The Brewers lost their hefty star slugger in the offseason, and they will have to contend with the hard charging Cardinals and Reds for the NL Central crown. Arizona, a young squad, has questions whether it can repeat its success of last season while continuing to improve. The Diamondbacks will also have to deal with a talented San Francisco team that returns stud catcher Buster Posey from injury. That’s without even mentioning the Miami Marlins or the Atlanta Braves, two very improved teams that will be players in the race for the postseason.

While it’s tough to predict what will happen 162 games down the road, that’s part of the beauty of opening day. Everyone is even in the standings, and the broad picture is still fuzzy.

So, baseball fans sit back and enjoy the American classic that is opening day. Besides, how many other days of the year can Cubs fans say they were in first?

Printed on Thursday, April 5, 2012 as: Pennant race wide open in 2012

Astros catcher Jason Castro is finally healthy and ready to contribute in Houston.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Opening day is upon us and the Houston Astros will be celebrating their 50th anniversary when they take on the Colorado Rockies on April 6 at Minute Maid Park.

Last season the Astros went 56-106 and finished last in the National League.

The Astros have named five pitchers to the opening rotation.

Left handers Wandy Rodriguez and J.A. Happ, along with right hander Bud Norris, return from last season’s main rotation. Rodriguez and Norris will serve as the backbone of the pitching staff.

Last season Rodriguez turned in a season ERA of 3.49 with 7.82 strikes and 3.25 walks per nine innings pitched. He also pitched an impressive 191 innings last season which should help keep the bullpen fresh. Rodriguez is also the only player or coach who remains from the Astro’s 2005 World Series squad.

Norris’s fastball has helped keep him in the starting position, and while it has slowed to around 93 mph, his control in the past two seasons has kept it effective. He turned in a 3.77 ERA last season.

Happ did not have an impressive 2011 season. Late in the season, Happ was demoted to the Astro’s triple A affiliate Oklahoma City RedHawks. He posted a 5.35 ERA in 2011 and his offseason performance has coaches hoping he will return to his 2009 or 2010 form where he achieved ERAs of 2.93 and 3.40, respectively. Happ is 1-1 in 2012 spring training games.

Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell are the new faces on the mound at the start of this season. Both had ERAs below 4.00 in their respective minor league career. Weiland has posted a 2-1 spring training record this season with a 3.75 ERA. As a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2011, Weiland had a 0-3 record on the mound, giving up 22 runs with 13 strikeouts.

Harrell pitched three games for the Chicago White Sox over two seasons. He posted a 1-2 record for the Sox with a 4.71 ERA. Despite injuries, Harrell makes up for his lack of a fast ball with his powerful sinker.

Last season’s pitching staff ranked 15th in walks given up and 14th in hits given up and owned a team ERA of 4.55, lowest in the National League.

The two most productive hitters on the roster last season, outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, both were traded at the end of the season. Jason Bourgeois returns to the 2012 Astros with the highest batting average from 2011 which was .294.

The offense as a whole scored 615 runs, less than the major league average of 694, and was the second straight season under 700. Only four teams had less production at the plate.

Despite this dismal statistic, the 2011 Astros looked pretty good on paper. They ranked first in the NL in doubles, fourth in batting average, and third in total hits. However, they also ranked 15th (out of 16) in home runs and 13th in runs scored. The lack of runs is what hurt last season’s squad.

In the offseason, the Astros only traded out and not in, as far as hitters go. First baseman Carlos Lee will return to the plate as the anchor of the Astro’s struggling line up. Lee finished with a .275 batting average, a team-high 18 home runs, and a team-high 94 RBIs.

Right fielder Brian Bogusevic is also expected to help Lee out at the plate. The former pitcher hit .287 in 2011, but Bogusevic is inconsistent at best against left-handed pitchers.

In addition to trading their top hitters, the Astros also traded their fastest base runners. In 105 games, Bourn stole 39 bases and, after being traded to Atlanta, went on to finish the league with the highest number of stolen bases.

Outfielder Jason Bourgeois, who was second on the team in stolen bases, was traded to the Royals in the offseason.

They are expected to finish about the same in 2012 as they did in 2011 due to the lack of incoming talent.

The 2011 season was the first in franchise history where a squad lost more than 100 games, a statistic that most want to forget. Hopefully the offseason was enough to start the rebuilding process for the Astros as they play their last year in the National League.

When the Texas Rangers reached their first-ever World Series appearance last season, not having the home-field advantage took a toll on them. They dropped both games in San Francisco before losing the series in five games.

Rangers manager Ron Washington will lead the American League at this year’s All-Star game, where the American League will try to redeem themselves after having their 14-game winning streak snapped by the National League in last season’s Midsummer Classic.

2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton secured a spot in the starting lineup of the 2011 All-Star Game, which will take place in Phoenix, Ariz., on July 12. Each team’s rosters were announced Sunday, and three of Hamilton’s Texas teammates will join him in Phoenix — pitcher C.J. Wilson, third baseman Adrian Beltre and designated hitter
Michael Young. Hamilton edged out Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury for the starting spot by just 36,727 votes.

Hard-hitting right fielder Hunter Pence was the only member of the Houston Astros chosen to be on the NL’s All-Star squad.

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. Bautista was the leading vote-getter. Bautista, who led the majors with 54 home runs last year and leads the majors this year with 26, blasted Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1994 vote record of 6,069,688 with 7,454,753 votes.

The New York Yankees led all squads with six All-Star selections, including four starters — second baseman Robinson Cano, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, shortstop Derek Jeter and center fielder Curtis Granderson. However, the Yankees ace and 11-game winner, CC Sabathia, did not make the cut. Last year’s AL- and NL-leading vote-getters, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols were also left out.

This year’s All-Star game will feature plenty of fresh faces as well, as 24 players are participating for the first time.

The Rangers are well-represented at this year’s All-Star game. If they make a return trip to the Fall Classic, home-field advantage would help. But to earn that, they’ll need a good showing at the Midsummer Classic.