Look at the odds provided by bookmakers for the 2013 baseball season, and you’ll spot a curveball: some of the game’s traditional big spenders, like the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Phillies, are long shots. The Yankees are a 20 to 1 bet to win the World Series, whereas the Phillies are 25 to 1 and the Red Sox are an eye-popping 33 to 1.
Many factors are driving these numbers. But most importantly, these teams are carrying injury-prone players of advanced years. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, 39, won’t be ready for opening day against the Red Sox on Monday, and fellow thirtysomethings Alex Rodriguez, 37, Mark Teixeira, almost 33, and Curtis Granderson, 32, are all hurting too. And lest we forget, despite arguably being the greatest closer in the history of the sport, 43-year-old Mariano Rivera has just gone through knee surgery to say nothing of being bothered by migraines of late. If he blows a few saves in April, his headaches may get worse. Can the Phillies’ ace pitcher, 35-year-old Roy Halladay, along with the rest of the starting rotation, come good? And how heavily do the Red Sox need to lean on the likes of the iconic 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, if his Achilles heels, well, heal?
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We would never want to count the Big Three out, but fully understand why the Las Vegas oddsmakers are looking elsewhere. America’s pastime is seemingly in a period where run prevention, youth and, as always, pitching are being prioritized over power and experience, which is a subtle way of avoiding the term ‘old age.’
The presumptive favorites are the Washington Nationals, available at odds hovering around 8 to 1, who reside in the National League East. TIME’s sister publication, Sports Illustrated, picked them to win the Fall Classic against the Tampa Bay Rays. In the words of Tom Verducci,
Like the ’86 Mets, the 2013 Nationals are the best team on paper at the start of the season. And like that championship team, Washington has young power pitching, a deep bullpen with multiple closers, a blend of power and speed, and an unmistakable swagger.
This year, should the Nationals reach the playoffs, manager Davey Johnson won’t be shutting down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who was told to rest his surgically repaired right elbow at the end of last season. He and fellow phenom, Bryce Harper, were both No. 1 overall picks in baseball’s amateur draft, and have teammates in the rotation and batters box who can back up the team’s frontrunner status. But they won’t have the element of surprise this season. “The expectations have risen,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “The players see that. They understand where we’re at, what type of team we have.”
The four other pre-season contenders in the National League, if you believe the bookies, are the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves, and the reigning champions, the San Francisco Giants. The Giants have not only won two of the last three World Series but managed it last year by scoring the fewest amount of home runs among all the sides. A third win in four years seems a tough ask unless pitchers Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner win 20 games each, and Tim Lincecum regains his control, while catcher Buster Posey needs to stay healthy.
Far likelier to succeed are their NL West division rivals, the Dodgers, who will be looking to show that their picking up of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett from the Red Sox was a wise move. If Matt Kemp is in the running for MVP, and pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke have stellar seasons, the Dodgers could be built for the playoffs. Rotation issues could dog the Reds – do they know Aroldis Chapman’s best position? – and Braves. If pitching is the most important metric, you could do worse than look to the Arizona Diamondbacks to make a deep run with none of their sparkling rotation of Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, Brandon McCarthy, and Randall Delgado over the age of 30.
Over in the American League, the East could conceivably be a five-way fight for supremacy. The Toronto Blue Jays, despite finishing third or lower in 18 of the last 19 seasons, may be considered slight favorites due to their splashy signings of Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and pitchers Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson (in total, these five players are being paid $205 million in salary over the next five years). When it comes to the Tampa Bay Rays, pitcher James Shields might have departed for the Kansas City Royals, but opposing batters won’t be particularly pleased to face reigning Cy Young winner David Price, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, or Jeff Niemann. And look for prospect Wil Myers, who comes to Tampa via the Shields trade, to be a potential rookie of the year. The Baltimore Orioles can’t be easily dismissed after their impressive exploits of late and the Yankees and the Red Sox could both go under .500 or make the playoffs. That’s the beauty of the game.
The American League Central may well be won at a canter by the Detroit Tigers, as not only are their divisional rivals considerably weaker than them (though look to both the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals to play significantly better than last year) but Detroit has possibly the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander. And if Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, as well as Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, and Torii Hunter swing their bats, it could be hard to hold them at bay.
But when it comes to swinging the bats, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim can give the Tigers a run for their money. The AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout is only going to improve, the signing of Josh Hamilton from AL West divisional rivals the Texas Rangers should be an upgrade in the home run department, and Albert Pujols needs no further introduction. But can their pitching hold up? If not, look to one of last season’s feelgood sides, the Oakland Athletics, to nip in and sneak above both the A’s and the Rangers to win the division for a second year running. But in what might turn out to be one of the more surprising baseball seasons in recent times, the only prediction we feel safe in making is that the American League’s newest team, the Houston Astros, who are 150 to 1 just to win the AL West, will not come anywhere near making the playoffs. Still, for the rest of the sides, and even the Astros, it’s time to play ball.