Astronomically speaking, spring begins on the date of the vernal equinox which, in 2014, was Thursday, March 20.
From a more cultural perspective, spring is said to begin when those two famous words are uttered at major league ballparks across the nation, “Play Ball!”
Heck. Even a major brewery has floated the suggestion for a movement to declare and observe Opening Day as a national holiday!
Using the cultural reference as the more applicable reference point, spring began in earnest this past Monday as 25 of the 30 major league baseball teams played their first game of the season. The Dodgers and Padres played on Sunday in the opener for San Diego. The Dodgers had previously opened the season a week earlier with a pair of games against Arizona but played in Australia.
The two remaining teams, Houston and the New York Yankees, were to make their regular season debuts on Tuesday, the first of April.
As I’ve done in past seasons, the initial column of a new season contains forecasts and predictions for the coming season and thus here is what we might expect from the 2014 season.
NL East: Washington is the team to beat. The Nationals strengthened an already strong starting rotation with the offseason acquisition of Doug Fister. Although Fister is expected to miss the first month of the season the Nats have enough depth to overcome his absence and should win the division for new manager and ex-UNLV Rebel Matt Williams, former star for the San Francisco Giants.
Atlanta has some issues with its starting rotation but should still have enough to finish second in the East while Philadelphia, the New York Mets and even Miami all poised to show improvement. It would not be a surprise if the NL has the greatest number of teams exceed their expected season win totals. Predicted order of finish: Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia, NY Mets, Miami
NL Central: Defending NL champion St Louis is favored to prevail in the division although Cincinnati has the depth and balance to challenge. The Reds have a new manager, Bryan Price, who should do a better job than former boss Dusty Baker in managing the pitching staff. Pittsburgh finally made the playoffs last season with its first winning record since 1992 and should fall back this season with question marks surrounding the starting rotation.
Front office wiz Theo Epstein has started to put his imprint on developing Chicago. While not threatening to make the playoffs, or perhaps even break .500, the Cubs should be much improved and top their projected wins total of 69.5. Milwaukee will have Ryan Braun back in the lineup and his post-suspension performance will be closely watched. In 61 games and 225 at bats last season the slugger had just 9 dingers before being suspended. He also missed over 40 games due to injury. The Brewers should be improved in 2014 but their ceiling might be a .500 record. Predicted order of finish: Cincinnati, St Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Chicago Cubs.
NL West: The Los Angeles Dodgers have the highest projected wins total in all of baseball (94) and their deep lineup and solid starting pitching should have the Dodgers approach 100 wins and easily win the West. Their one-two duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, however, is matched by San Francisco’s tandem of Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. But without the depth enjoyed by the Dodgers the Giants should finish second but that should be good enough to earn a Wild Card. San Diego should be much improved and is the pick to finish third in the Division though unlikely to contend for the playoffs. Colorado has a better roster than Arizona and both should battle for the Western cellar with wins in the 70 to 75 range. Predicted order of finish: L A Dodgers, San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado, Arizona.
AL East: Tampa Bay is considered the team to beat with both Boston and the New York Yankees expected to be the primary challengers. Both the Red Sox and Yankees are aging in many areas and that makes each susceptible to and above average number of injuries playing a factor in how far either team can go. The surprise team in the division could be Baltimore and a potent lineup that was bolstered with the addition of ex-Texas slugger Nelson Cruz.
But Cruz is another player returning following a lengthy drug related suspension last season and it remains to be seen if he can approach the level of performance he displayed as a Ranger. If the Red Sox and Yankees are burdened by injuries the Orioles are certainly capable of passing either or both of them. Toronto has a roster filled with holes and a shaky starting rotation and making the Blue Jays the choice to finish last. Predicted order of finish: Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, NY Yankees, Toronto.
AL Central: Detroit is still the top team and new manager Brad Ausmus inherits a deep and talented team from Jim Leyland. That includes the top starting pitching duo in the AL with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. In his first season managing Cleveland, Terry Francona guided the Indians to a second place finish, just one game behind Detroit, earning a Wild Card. But the Tribe was very fortunate in one run games and is expected to regress a bit this season.
The team most likely to challenge the Tigers is Kansas City. The Royals have a maturing offense, decent enough starting pitching and an outstanding closer. The Royals are a chic pick to make the Playoffs and the opinion here is that they will not disappoint. Both Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox are still a season or two away from contending but both should be improved this season with the White Sox expected to fare slightly better than the Twins. It would not surprise, however, if the reverse occurs and the Twins finish fourth and the Sox fifth. Predicted order of finish: Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago White Sox.
AL West: This may be the most intriguing of baseball’s six divisions. Lest you forget, Oakland won last season with 96 victories, second in the AL to Boston’s 97. The Athletics, however, suffered some key losses to its starting rotation and will be relying on a new closer this season. Texas finished second but also has some starting pitcher issues as 2014 begins. That clears the path for the LA Angels to rebound from a disappointing 78-84 season in 2013.
Both Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have shown signs this spring that ailments and other issues are behind them and that bodes well for the Halos who could improve enough to make the Playoffs if not challenge for the AL West title. Seattle is most intriguing. The addition of free agent Robinson Cano could positively affect the entire offense which has been one of baseball’s weakest over the past several seasons. The pitching is solid enough such that the Mariners could surprise most and challenge for the Playoffs. And then there is Houston. With a projection of 63 wins the Astros are expected to have the fewest wins in all of baseball and 8 fewer than the next lowest AL team, Minnesota. Predicted order of finish: Seattle, LA Angels, Oakland, Texas, Houston.
Atlanta and St Louis earning NL Wild Cards, while the AL Wild Cards are Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
In the playoffs the forecast calls for Detroit to defeat Boston for the AL pennant and the Dodgers to best Washington in the NL.
In the World Series the prediction is for the Los Angeles Dodgers to get the desired payoff from their record setting payroll and defeat Detroit in six games.
It will only take about 2,500 games to see how it plays out.
So let’s “Play Ball!”
Over the course of the season a look at several series for the upcoming weekend will be previewed with some suggestions for how to best invest on the games, sides and/or totals, with certain parameters or conditions involved. This should provide for between one and three potential plays per series.
Here’s a look at four series to be played over the season’s first weekend.
Atlanta at Washington: Nats have the better overall starting pitching and a decent lineup while the Braves have the deeper and potentially better lineup but questions abound about their starting pitching.
Recommended plays: Washington -140 or less in starts by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Jordan Zimmerman; Atlanta +125 or more against other Washington starters; UNDER 8 or higher in any matchup; UNDER 7 or higher if Strasburg, Gonzalez or Zimmermann oppose Atlanta’s Julio Teheran or Alex Wood.
SF at LA Dodgers: Both teams are loaded with solid starting pitching. The Dodgers have the better lineup but the Giants have the better bullpen.
Recommended plays: San Francisco as underdogs of any price not facing Zack Greinke or Hyun-Jin Ryu; SF +125 or more against that duo; SF -120 or less in starts by Matt Cain or Madison Bumgarner not facing Greinke or Ryu; OVER 7 or less in starts not involving Bumganer, Cain, Greinke or Ryu; UNDER 6.5 or higher in a matchup of Bumgarner or Cain against Greinke or Ryu
Texas at Tampa Bay: The addition of Prince Fielder gives Texas one of the most powerful offenses in baseball. Tampa’s strength is its pitching. – both starting and relief – and the
Recommended plays: Tampa Bay -140 or less in starts by David Price, Matt Moore, Chris Archer or Alex Cobb; Texas +160 or more against that quartet; OVER 7 or lower in any matchup; UNDER 8.5 or higher in starts by Archer or Cobb.
Seattle at Oakland: The addition of Robinson Cano should give the Seattle offense a major boost with several players at the point of their careers when progress is often at peak level, between the ages of 24 and 27. The Mariners have the potential to surprise on many levels.
Recommended plays: Seattle +140 or more against Sonny Gray; Seattle +110 or more against other Oakland starters; Oakland +120 or more against Felix Hernandez; OVER 7 or less in any matchup not involving Hernandez or Gray.
Andy Iskoe, and his Logical Approach, provides his popular and unique handicapping statistics to Gaming Today readers and online visitors. He has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football. Contact Andy at [email protected]