By Ross Newhan
One of the strangest seasons in baseball history begins Sunday with 15 teams in each league, an interleague game virtually every night and 30 owners rolling in money, the average franchise value having increased 23%--a one year record, according to Forbes--to $744 million.
Amid the nightly/daily absurdity of "now you see the DH and now you don't," here is my top 10. the most obvious features being the absence of that former hedge fund giant known as the New York Yankees and their annual American League East rival from Boston:
1. Washington Nationals: No weaknesses, from lineup to bench to pitching staff, unless the do nothing Congress counts.
2. Detroit Tigers: You could say the same thing about the Tigers except for some consternation about the bullpen by committee. Still, easily the best in AL Central.
3. Atlanta Braves: Should be a dynamite dogfight with the Nationals in the NL East. Upton brothers figure to inspire each other, and if only Chipper was still at third base.
4. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Spring pitching didn't provide much confidence, but Ernesto Frieri should be able to save enough high scoring games to edge out Texas and Oakland in AL West, a division that now welcomes the doormat Houston Astros.
5. Toronto Blue Jays: With help from Jeffrey Loria, Miami North filled enough holes with that one-sided trade and subsequent acquisition of R.A. Dickey to be considered the favorite in the AL East, particularly amid decline of Yankees and Red Sox.
6. Cincinnat Reds: GM Walt Jocketty did a major league with minor fanfare in flushing away a lot of strikeouts in his lineup, strengthening his bench, acquiring a legitimate leadoff runner in Shin Choo Soo and who cares whether Aroldis Chapman starts or relieves, as long as they don't make him do both. Now the best in NL Central.
7. San Francisco Giants: Two out of the last three World Series title and still no respect, but the thinking here is that someone in the NL West is going to have to prove they can best that pitching over 162 games, and the Giants did what they needed to do to retain their key players from 2012.
8. Los Angeles Dodgers: Here's what a $230 million payroll gets you: Questions in left field, shortstop, third base, back of the rotation and closer. Maybe they will all come up positive, but at this point no one is handing Guggenheim anything except a few more checks to be invested. The team has weapons but will have to prove it can return dividends.
9. Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies will open with a healthy Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, a revamped outfield in which Ben Revere and his 40 steals were acquired from Minnesota and the homegrown John Mayberry and Domonic Brown finally have unobstructed starting chances, but the ability to compete with Washington and Atlanta largely comes down to Doc Halliday proving he retains a fastball and Cliff Lee shaking off the 15 no decisions of last year.
10. Kansas City: Considering that 13 different teams have made at least one postseason appearance in the last two years and nine have won the World Series in the last 12, parity is obvious and there is no really no such thing as a sleeper anymore, but lets put the long dormant Royals in that disappearing category with their baseball best spring record, array of young talent and off-season acquisitions of starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis in exchange for top hitting prospect Wil Myers.
And on to a season in which a schedule is mandatory.