My dad got on a plane this morning to hit up Florida for spring training; by now every team has reported and you’ve got games beginning in earnest. They mean nothing on surface, but they’re important for an emotional/functional reason. I live in Minneapolis right now, and the fact that on the radio someone can be talking about the Twins working out means that eventually, God willing and the creek gon’ rise, winter will end. Also, if you’re really into baseball, it signals new hope. Every season is a new beginning. Cue the sepia-toned MLB Network feature.
But no, really, it is: this year there will be more MLB playoff teams than ever, and in the 19 years we had the wild card, 18 of those years we saw a team with a losing record the previous season make the playoffs. Last year, the Red Sox won it all after having been in the cellar the previous year (the Pirates and Indians also made the field after being sub-.500 in 2012).
So who will be this year’s Indians? (I don’t want to say Red Sox, because expecting a team to go from the cellar to winning it all is a lot — although it has happened in MLB a few times — and I don’t want to say the Pirates, because I think they might have been on a little destiny kick last year, although the NL Central is a really tough division).
The top choice would probably be the Seattle Mariners; they had the big free-agent grab (Robinson Cano) and they have a bunch of guys entering their prime right about now (Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, etc.) Tom Verducci even agrees with me on this, although he points out something I too was worried about:
Alas, you could have identified all those ingredients in the 2013 Blue Jays — and they stumbled to a 10-21 start and essentially were toast. Starting well will be paramount for Seattle, but it faces a brutally tough early schedule. The Mariners play 23 of their first 34 games on the road, a five-week gauntlet in which they play nearly as many games in California (10: seven in Oakland and three in Anaheim) as they do in Seattle (11).
Therein, you could say the Blue Jays or the Angels — big-time prediction teams from last year — could be the sleepers of this year. In Toronto’s case, Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista only started 54 games together. The Angels’ rotation is a straight tire fire in a bad week, but their offense — Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout as anchors — can be stunning. The AL West is a tough division too, though, especially if you believe the Mariners will be better this year.
Over the past four years, the Mariners have lost 100 games more than they’ve won, so the climb is a bit uphill, yes. Taijuan Walker, a stud young pitcher, is being shut down for a bit with some injury concerns. Their beat writers are hedging their bets; talent is there, but it’s mostly unproven. Based on last year’s numbers, they actually should have lost 95 games (they lost 91). None of their primary nine offensive starters had a batting average over .300. And like every pro sports team based in Seattle (RIP Sonics), the travel schedule can be brutal.
I like the talent a lot, but the jury is obviously still out here — we’re early in spring and most of “who rises, who falls” is ultimately based on injuries to key players who need to be appearing together. I wouldn’t start penciling in a Mariners’ playoff game just yet, but among the sub-.500 squads of 2013, they may be among the most interesting if things start to come together the right way.