Baseball's top storylines of 2013 - NBC Sports

Baseball's top storylines of 2013
The Californication of the league, future of the Yankees and more
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The San Francisco Giants have won two of the last three World Series, and are better poised for a run at another than they were after their 2010 title.
January 9, 2013, 4:01 pm

Here's a look at what's likely to be the top storylines in baseball in 2013.

Hold those standings projections
Brett Myers signing with the Indians reduces the list by one, but several free agents who will have impacts on 2013 races remain unsigned.

Which contender will add Kyle Lohse to its rotation; Rafael Soriano as its closer? Is Michael Bourn a solution to the talent drain in Texas, or will he take a potential non-contender's cash? Does Adam LaRoche stay in D.C.? Six weeks and counting on those answers.

Daisuke Matsuzaka could spin yet another strong World Baseball Classic showing into a late-spring deal, and here are another handful of now-possible bargains with potential impact: Francisco Rodriguez, Delmon Young, Shawn Marcum and Kyle Farnsworth.

World Baseball Classic III
If you watched the 2009 Japan-Korea championship game, or upstart Brazil upset favored Panama in a play-in final in November, you realize what this series can offer.

But nothing would boost WBC acceptance and credibility more than a dominant U.S. team that wins it all in late-March in AT&T Park. It's high time for a U.S. roster that is actually motivated to win.

Too bad Bryce Harper didn't agree with that line of thinking. He's exactly what's needed - along with Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, David Price and a core of the game's best young stars.

Californication
The San Francisco Giants have won two of the last three World Series, and are better poised for a run at another than they were after their 2010 title.

Project increased production from Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, add in full seasons for Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro, and the offense should score enough. And everybody knows about the pitching, plus the acumen and leadership of Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy.

And while it's a well-established fact that money doesn't often buy championships, the Dodgers of Los Angeles and the Angels of Anaheim certainly are doing their best to buck the trend.

The result very well could be three California-based playoff teams - and we haven't even mentioned the defending AL West-champion Oakland A's, with their emerging rotation and some of the better young talent in the game.

Even after spending $650 million or so, there still are holes and health questions with the Dodgers' roster. And the pressure to win on Don Mattingly and Co. has been ratcheted all the way up.

But considering the boatload of additions since late-July to a team that won 86 games in 2012, it's not hard to imagine 90-plus wins and a playoff spot.

No situation is potentially more explosive than the 2013 Angels. Arte Moreno's win-now impulse spending puts Mike Scioscia on the hot seat after three consecutive non-playoff seasons. No player on a new team will be watched more closely than Josh Hamilton. Jerry Dipoto's other moves also will face scrutiny.

But in the last two off-seasons, the Angels have added Albert Pujols and signed away Hamilton and C.J. Wilson from the division-rival Rangers. Their lineup is scary, Mike Trout could get better, Peter Bourjos will be unleashed in center field, and the bullpen is deeper.

Can the Tigers win a World Series for Mike Ilitch?
So many ingredients that produce championships are in place:

Three superstars in the midst of their peak production seasons. An already-potent offense poised to improve with the return of Victor Martinez and addition of Torii Hunter. A six-deep rotation as long as Rick Porcello isn't dealt away. An elite GM-manager combination.

But the Tigers apparently are willing (at least for now) to gamble on a rookie closer with some command issues, plus the returnees from their 2012 bullpen. Infield defense likely will remain an issue, too.

How good are the Blue Jays?
GM Alex Anthopoulos quietly has been putting the right pieces in place for awhile. But he blew his cover with a big-strike off-season - and it couldn't have been more well-timed given the issues in New York and Boston, and a likely dropoff in Baltimore.

Still, here's all that needs to go right for the Jays' first postseason appearance in 20 years:

Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow throwing 200 or so innings, plus a rebound by Ricky Romero to join R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.

Sergio Santos' healthy return at the back end of the bullpen.

Jose Bautista's bounce-back to MVP candidacy after missing 70 games in 2012.

Post-PED suspension, Melky Cabrera must resemble his 2012 first-half self, or at least his 2011 Royals self - and not the underachieving fourth-outfielder of 2010 and earlier.

Production upticks from Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia and dare we say, Adam Lind?

John Gibbons bringing it all together in his second go-round as Blue Jays manager.

Can the Yankees sustain AL East dominance?
It's hard to knock their obsession with fitting under the salary cap by 2014 because it's rooted in sound fiscal planning.

And before you predict their age-related fall from grace, keep this in mind: Their rotation has seven quality candidates if Michael Pineda bounces back, and their 2012 run differential of +136 was 204 runs better than Toronto's -68 mark.

This most likely will be the last hurrahs for Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, and you wonder why the Yankees didn't keep Nick Swisher, or got outbid by the Pirates for Russell Martin, as every key piece will be needed in light of anticipated production drops from Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

It's a slippery slope the Yankees have put themselves on, and their short-term course likely will hinge in part on what they end up doing with Robinson Cano, set to hit the market next off-season.

Who has a better roster than the Nationals?
Stephen Strasburg will be unleashed for a 200-inning season, and Dan Haren replaces Edwin Jackson in the rotation. Denard Span is the key lineup addition, putting a quality leadoff hitter with speed at the top of Davey Johnson's lineup, and setting up a better defensive outfield flanked by Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth.

The LaRoche issue remains, but it's not as if they don't have a solid first-base option in Michael Morse. A full season of Drew Storen should help counteract a potential shortage of left-handed setup men. And the bench has versatility and different ingredients.

But you know what? The Nationals will have to be better, because the Braves should be, too.

Can the Reds make it back-to-back post-season appearances?
Their history under Dusty Baker - two division titles and three losing seasons - says no. The lineup does benefit nicely from Shin-Soo Choo in the leadoff spot - as opposed to Drew Stubbs, or taking Brandon Phillips out of a production spot. But Choo doesn't appear to be the answer in center field.

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The Reds also had four starting pitchers who threw 200-plus innings in 2012 (and another at 179), and you know that's not likely to repeat.

Is the Rangers' post-season run about to end?
Two pennants and three consecutive playoff appearances mark the best run in franchise history. A great management pairing is in place, there is young talent on hand, and money in the budget. But the talent drain here has been substantial - starting with Cliff Lee, and including Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, Mike Napoli, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Scott Feldman and an in-decline Michael Young.

For a change, power is lacking, and never has Nelson Cruz been so critical to their success.

They'll also need Jurickson Profar to produce right away. Mike Olt, too.

There still is time to add an outfield bat and strengthen the bullpen. But the Rangers' margin for error has grown dangerously thin.



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