Before we get into team-by-team previews of the Tigers' opponents this year, let's take a quick look at the other teams in the National League vying to be World Series runners-up in 2013.
Since we have a lot of time before the actual games start and nothing to talk about besides Bruce Rondon's bullpen sessions, we're going to preview the other 29 teams in baseball. Today, we're starting with all of the National League teams that the Tigers will not face before October this year.
The Dodgers spent a boatload of money this offseason on Zack Greinke, making him the third-highest paid pitcher in baseball and the fourth-highest paid player on his own team. They also gave Brandon League roughly $27 million more than he should have earned after a rough 2012 season. However, reports have surfaced (not really) that the Dodgers' owners are actually using League's contract as a charitable tax write-off. Carl Crawford is still owed $102.5 million over the next five seasons, and he will probably miss the start of this year after having Tommy John surgery last August. South Korean left-handed pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu was acquired for $61.7 million despite having never thrown a pitch in the major leagues. Summary: the Dodgers' new owners are throwing money around like they're living in a rap music video.
For all of the money that this team has spent since Frank McCourt was sent packing, this really isn't that great of a roster. The Dodgers will be relying on bounce-back seasons from Crawford, League, Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, and Adrian Gonzalez, all of whom were acquired via trades last year. Matt Kemp should be a safe bet to stay healthy -- he played in at least 155 games per year for the four seasons prior to 2012 -- but there aren't many others that will be in 2013. Starters Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly are all coming off of injury-plagued 2012 seasons. A.J. Ellis and Luis Cruz need to prove that last year wasn't a fluke, Mark Ellis needs to ward off regression for another year or two, and Andre Ethier needs to learn how to hit left-handed pitching since he won't be platooned.
The defending champs followed the Dodgers' lead by overpaying for both Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan after the two played pivotal roles in last year's title run, and are still paying Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum a combined $42 million this season. Other than that, this is actually a pretty stacked roster full of cost-controlled talent. Buster Posey won't be on an $8 million salary for too much longer if he has another year like he did in 2012, but paying the piper won't be an issue when Hunter Pence's $13.8 million salary comes off the books after this year. Pence's pending free agency should be plenty of motivation to improve upon his .219/.287/.384 effort after being traded to San Francisco last July.
Their roster is largely unchanged from the outfit that won 94 games in the regular season last year, but they were uncharacteristically healthy in 2012. Pablo Sandoval is the only regular position player on their roster that missed significant time due to injury, and the Giants had a grand total of one start come from someone not in the five-man rotation they used at the beginning of the season. Regression to the injury mean won't stop this team from contending, but winning the division won't be the cakewalk that it was when the Dodgers collapsed down the stretch in 2012.
While some people think that the Atlanta Braves got the better end of the Justin Upton trade, I'm of the belief that the Diamondbacks got away with highway robbery, ridding themselves of a player who will probably struggle to hit outside of the friendly desert air in Chase Field. In return, the D-Backs got Martin Prado, who actually hit better than Upton did last year, and a few decent prospects. They also signed Cody Ross, whose lefty-mashing tendencies will match up well against the plethora of lefty starters throughout the division. Paul Goldschmidt will anchor the middle of the lineup, along with Jason Kubel and Miguel Montero. Adam Eaton and Aaron Hill both had on-base percentages above .360 last season at the top of the lineup. Don't expect to see shortstop Didi Gregorius in the big leagues this year unless he's having a monster season down in the minors.
Even after trading Trevor Bauer to the Cleveland Indians, the D'Backs might have one of the most underrated rotations in baseball. They don't have the top-end talent of a team like the Giants or Dodgers, but their fourth and fifth starters -- presumably left-handers Wade Miley and Patrick Corbin, though Tyler Skaggs may be along shortly-- should absolutely clean house against whatever bums the opposition decides to roll out against them. If Ian Kennedy can improve upon his 2012 numbers and Brandon McCarthy can stay healthy for a full season, the Diamondbacks could be a dark horse contender in 2013.
The Rockies will be banking heavily on the triumphant return of Troy Tulowitzki from injury/mediocrity in 2013, because their pitching staff won't be winning them many games. Jhoulys Chacin should fare well if he continues to churn out groundball outs like he did last year, but the rest of that rotation is in trouble. Left-handers Christian Friedrich and Drew Pomeranz are young enough to still inspire optimism, but it's going to take a big improvement from both guys to make this team competitive. Todd Helton hasn't shared his fountain of youth with anyone else yet, so hopefully he still has more there for himself. Color me skeptical after his injury-plagued 2012 season, though. Wilin Rosario is a promising young catcher who hit 28 home runs last year. Carlos Gonzalez deserves to be in a Tigers uniform, awful home/road splits be damned.
Other than that, this team is awful. So, naturally, Kurt will probably pick them to go to the World Series again.
The fences have been moved in at Petco Park, but it remains to be seen if this will improve an offense that was 23rd in runs scored last season. Chase Headley will continue to be half of a monster until a contender
pays for his release from hitter's purgatory makes a move to acquire him at the trade deadline. Everth Cabrera is a promising young shortstop in that he has Dee Gordon-like speed but, unlike Gordon, will actually get on base occasionally. Yasmani Grandal had a great season in 2012, but got busted for using PEDs and is suspended for 50 games. Some fans see first baseman Yonder Alonso as a poor man's Adrian Gonzalez, but I'd like to see another year of decent production before I believe the hype. While their rotation isn't much to brag about -- other than Clayton Richard's decent 2012 numbers -- the bullpen is pretty solid. Luke Gregerson will be an All-Star in 2013 and will probably become the closer when Huston Street is traded to a contender at the trade deadline.
Can you imagine if the Cubs had signed Anibal Sanchez? Their roster would be stacked with Sanchez, Starlin Castro, and... well, that's probably it. Theo Epstein has his work cut out for him, but signing Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract doesn't seem to be the type of deal that a roster this inexperienced will benefit from in the long term. Maybe Epstein and manager Dale Sveum are hoping that a rotation of Jackson, Matt Garza, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva can win enough low-scoring games in a weak division to keep the team competitive into the late summer, but I just don't see it. Unless some of the young bats like Anthony Rizzo, Welington Castillo, and Brett Jackson take massive strides, this team will struggle to win 70 games.
And no, Cubs fans, we don't want Carlos Marmol.
On the other end of the NL Central spectrum, we have what was probably the best roster in the league last season. Had Joey Votto not turned into a singles hitter by season's end and Johnny Cueto lasted more than 1/3 of an inning in the postseason, the Reds probably would have finished off the Giants in the NLDS and cruised to a World Series meeting with our beloved Tigers. The 2013 Reds are even more stacked now that they have Mr. Underrated, Shin-Soo Choo, patrolling their outfield.
[This is the part where we celebrate the fact that Choo is no longer in our division.]
Choo joins a lineup that already includes Votto, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Ludwick, Tiger-killer Todd Frazier, and breakout candidate Devin Mesoraco. Considering the quality of pitching in the rest of this division, the Reds might score 10 runs per game. They won't need to, though. Their bullpen is so stacked that they can afford to let Aroldis Chapman try his hand at starting games, a la Phil Coke in 2010. Odds are Chapman will have more success -- lefties that can hit triple digits tend to do that -- but it's still a puzzling move nonetheless when you look at how truly dominant Chapman was last season. Hey, I guess they have to level the playing field in their division somehow.
The loss of Mat Gamel to another knee injury hurts, but it's tough to say bad things about any lineup containing Ryan Braun, who replicated his 2011 MVP numbers in 2012. The Brewers didn't miss a beat last season after losing Prince Fielder, scoring 776 runs to lead the National League. And that's in spite of Rickie Weeks deciding that he didn't want to be good at baseball, putting up his worst season since 2005. Aramis Ramirez was a monster in the middle of their order, hitting .300/.360/.540 with 27 home runs and 105 RBIs. Corey Hart will likely miss the beginning of the season due to knee surgery during the offseason. Norichika Aoki was a steal for the Brewers' front office, hitting .288/.355/.433 and stealing 30 bases while costing the club just over $5 million over three years.
The pitching staff is another story though, as it's Yovani Gallardo, Mike Fiers, and not much else. Fiers was a bit of a surprise in his rookie season last year, putting up an FIP of 3.00 in 127 2/3 innings. If he can maintain that production over 150+ innings this year, I'll be impressed. Marco Estrada pitched well during the second half of 2012 and should be penciled in as their #3 starter to begin the year. Closer John Axford was a mess, as was most of their bullpen. If Axford bounces back, this only reinforces my theory that relievers are inconsistent as all get-out and should not be trusted.
Oh, what could have been. The Cardinals are largely the same team that had the Giants on the ropes last October, but will be pushed by some of the fresh, young talent in their absolutely stocked minor league system. Outfielder Oscar Taveras and pitcher Shelby Miller are ranked the third and sixth best prospects in all of baseball by Baseball America. Both should be in the big leagues by the time summer rolls around, especially if Carlos Beltran struggles like he did throughout most of the second half of 2012. Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina will be the major run producers in an offense that was second in the NL last year in runs scored. Centerfielder Jon Jay will probably hit leadoff if Rafael Furcal isn't fully recovered from last season's elbow injury.
If there's a question here, it's in the rotation. Chris Carpenter retired, Kyle Lohse is gone (for the time being, at least), Jaime Garcia is dealing with shoulder issues, and the rest of the options just aren't very good. Adam Wainwright is going to have his work cut out for him every fifth day unless someone else steps up. Still, the Cardinals will somehow find a way to make it to the playoffs. They always do.