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Baseball Is Back: M’s, Nats, Dodgers Strong; ChiSox, Jays, Mets Dark Horses

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The grand-old game returns with all the makings of a very interesting season. While most agree the Nationals, Dodgers, and Mariners should be pretty darn good, and the Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Rangers should be, well, pretty darn bad, a slew of teams present a huge spectrum of possibilities.

Some of the upstart teams to keep an eye on include the White Sox and Blue Jays in the American League and the Mets and Padres in the senior circuit.

No team was more active in the winter than the White Sox. Chicago added their big three of Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, and Melky Cabrera. The trio will join a group that’s on the rise. The question is: Can Robin Ventura squeeze enough wins out of them in a very competitive division?

On paper, Toronto looks stacked. Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin head north of the border to join a lineup that already features Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes. Pitchers R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are older but reliable. The biggest red flag is track record. The Jays have been sleeper picks before. In 2015, they need to prove they deserve the accolades.

Ever since Carlos Beltran was caught looking to end the 2006 NLCS, the Mets have been a mess. Finally, after years of pumping up “next year” to their fans, New York could make a legitimate wild-card run behind a young pitching staff that happens to also include a big name in his 40s. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and the other Mets hurlers will look to mow down hitters while picking the brain of Opening Day starter Bartolo Colon. The innings and outs should come. Will the Mets have enough punch at the plate however and will Terry Collins be a positive or negative come meaningful games in September?

Everyone likes an underdog. After a string of rotten campaigns, San Diego is certainly that. This year the Padres are talking postseason after an outstanding offseason that brought slugging outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton to town. This team hasn’t won a home playoff game since Bill Clinton’s presidency. In a division that includes Dem Bums and Da Champs, a Padre playoff berth is far from a lock.

For the Padres, Mets, Blue Jays, and White Sox the hopes are high. But it won’t be easy.

There are plenty of experienced playoff clubs standing in the way. The world champion Giants, for one, will certainly not be pushovers. Yes, Pablo Sandoval has left for Boston. But while the Panda is gone, Matt Cain is back. He should be a big help to a San Francisco rotation anchored by World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner. All-World manager Bruce Bochy will likely keep the G-Men in contention all the way through. So, those enamored with San Diego will need the Friars to best the Giants or Dodgers unless both wild-card squads come from the NL West.

The Cardinals and Pirates both have postseason expectations, and the two should duke it out for NL Central supremacy. The chic pick is the Cubs. Joe Maddon is a smart man but he’s not a magician. Look for Chicago to finish fourth at best.

In the NL East the mighty Nats are the toast of DC. Their rotation is ridiculous and the lineup is stout. Their most formidable challengers within the division are New York and Miami. Look for those two to contend in the wild card race but not touch Washington.

The American League East should be a wild one. Tampa Bay is your likely cellar dweller, but the other four all have a shot. Toronto has let us down so many times before and the best argument for the Yankees is simply that they’re the Yankees. The Red Sox and Orioles enjoy the best odds with Boston a slight favorite over the defending division winning Birds.

The Tigers have had much success of late and the Royals won the pennant in 2014 but the Indians may be the class of the AL Central. It should be a long season for Minnesota but on the south side of Chicago optimism exists. The White Sox need a lot of “ifs” to turn into “ares.” But if they do, the Ws could stockpile for Jose Abreu and company.

This year’s top dog may play most of their games while many of us sleep. A talented crop of AL West teams will fight for the playoffs and possibly the whole shebang come October. While Houston and Texas have their problems, the Angels and Athletics both intend to make a run for the division. LA and Oakland may have to settle for a play-in game at best, though, because Seattle is emerging as the best in the West if not baseball.

It’s been 14 years since the Mariners won the division but ace Felix Hernandez and a potent hitting attack has the M’s compass pointing in the right direction. Seattle fell just one game short of the playoffs last year and now top pitching and a capable lineup should propel them to October baseball.

Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton will compliment King Felix as well as the upper tier of the starting five. The Mariners bullpen, which shined in 2014, returns six of its members, including closer Fernando Rodney.

A dynamic Seattle lineup includes Robinson Cano, Austin Jackson, and Nelson Cruz. Mariners hitters should punish opponents pitching while relying on their own staff to keep the run production expectations reasonable.

If the Mariners can stay healthy and work in some of their young players they will be tough to beat in the AL. Whether they can outplay the Nationals, Dodgers, or what’s sure to be a loaded NL champ is a problem the M’s will gladly deal with six-and-a-half months from now.

One thing’s for sure, this team plays for Lloyd McClendon and his staff that’s chock full of former successful Major Leaguers, including Howard Johnson and Andy Van Slyke. It will be fun to see if Seattle can put it all together.

There’s plenty more to keep an eye on this season as well. Washington’s rotation, new rules that are intended to speed up the game, a new regime in the commissioner’s office, and, if you’re so inclined, the soap opera in the Bronx known as A-Rod.

 


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