Jeter's career will end with championship ring
Playoff series, division winners and more predictions for 2014 season
During the slew of daylight openers around the Major Leagues this week, the sun seemed to have never shined brighter. If you didn't know better, you would swear on a stack of Willie Mays trading cards that the start of the baseball season caused one of the ugliest winters ever to vanish in a flash.
Most ballparks were stuffed beyond capacity. Heroes were everywhere. One moment, Neil Walker sent a walk-off shot over the wall at PNC Park to make the hometown folks giddy in Pittsburgh. The next, Alex Gonzalez became the Tigers' version of Walker in the bottom of the ninth inning in Detroit, where he used a single instead of a home run to push his team to victory.
Elsewhere, pitchers Yovani Gallardo and Adam Wainwright were brilliant. And as that sun sparkles even more during these early days of the season, you can imagine the World Series featuring any combination of teams at this point -- even the Cubs and the Mariners.
Well, maybe not that.
During this yearly time of fantasy for players, coaches, managers and fans around the Major Leagues, let's pause for a moment of reality.
The Nationals will win the National League East. They haven't a choice. The Braves are too injured, the Phillies are too old, and the Marlins and the Mets are too far away from mattering at this point. Plus, the Nats just have too much of everything, including the incentive to get it right after they followed their rise to prominence in 2012 with last year's plunge out of postseason contention.
Nobody in this division has better pitching than the Nationals' starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. This team also can hit a little, with Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman leading the way. It's just that, in the big picture, there is another team in the league that features all of those things and something else: The ability to turn potential into reality on a consistent basis.
Tell me if you've heard this before when the subject involves the list of contenders during just about any given stretch in baseball history: The Cardinals, the Cardinals, the Cardinals. In fact, since 2000, the Cards have made 10 postseason trips. If they aren't challenging for a World Series title, they are at least within reach of adding to their record number of NL pennants, or taking their division or settling for a Wild Card berth.
So you're allowed to yawn over this: The Cardinals will capture the NL Central for the second straight season. That said, despite their overwhelming number of power pitchers and solid collection of everyday players, ranging from left fielder Matt Holliday to catcher Yadier Molina to their annual guy-of-prominence that comes out of nowhere, St. Louis will sweat down the stretch. That's because the Reds, the Pirates and the Brewers will keep charging from behind.
This sounds like the Giants, in relation to the Dodgers.
While the Dodgers will take the NL West for all of the reasons you already know (Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig, money, money and more money), the Giants aren't exactly potted plants. But they will only matter if Tim Lincecum rebounds from last year's struggles to form a Big Three pitching rotation in San Francisco with Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson. It also would help the Giants' cause if Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain regain their prowess on the mound.
In addition to trying to catch the Dodgers, the Giants will be seeking to hold off the D-backs, Rockies and Padres, all capable of challenging San Francisco and others for the NL's two Wild Card berths.
I'll address those NL Wild Cards, right after I predict the American League races, starting with the East, where the Rays pitch well and where quirky manager Joe Maddon has the ability to will them to victories. Not only that, the Red Sox still have David Ortiz, and the Orioles still are rising, but this division belongs to the last hurrah known as the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour. You also can call this the Yankees Farewell Tour, since it is the end of the pinstriped dynasty that Jeter led to five World Series titles between 1996 and 2009.
Even with the free-agent loss of Robinson Cano to the Mariners, the Yankees' everyday lineup remains potent. Masahiro Tanaka is enough of the real thing to give the Yanks an impressive starting pitching rotation, and that will help compensate for the retirement of Mariano Rivera.
Well, a little.
Neither David Robertson, nor anybody else, is Rivera.
As for the AL Central, I mean, seriously. Until the Royals prove they are more than a tease, the Tigers will sprint to the top again. They are peerless in baseball with two AL Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer) and a two-time AL MVP Award winner (Miguel Cabrera). So there is no need to discuss the Indians, the White Sox or the Twins, because their chance of topping the Tigers is zero.
The more striking competition will come in the AL West, not only when compared to the AL Central, but to the other divisions in baseball. You can make a sensational case without much effort that the winner of the AL West will be either the Rangers, Angels or Athletics.
You always should go with the best pitching, though, and that belongs to the Angels, who also have the most prolific overall lineup in the AL West -- potentially. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton can't spend another season invisible at the plate, can they? I guess they can, but even if they do, there are too many aches and pains for the Rangers among their starters and relievers. Then there are the usually pitching-rich Athletics, who nevertheless will lose Jarrod Parker for the season and A.J. Griffin for months due to elbow issues.
But back to the Wild Cards. I'm talking about the Giants and the Braves in the NL and the Rangers and the Red Sox in the AL. Then look for the Cardinals and the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and the Tigers and the Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
World Series: Yanks vs. Dodgers.
World Series champion: The Derek Jeter Farewell Tour.