We stepped out of our comfort zone last year and did not anoint the defending champion No. 1 in our power rankings to start the next season. And with good reason. The Cardinals’ 2011 World Series title was one of the grittiest — and flukiest — in history. ¶ And minus Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa, it was hard to imagine a repeat. There was none, although you have to give the boys in red incredible props for coming within a game of getting back to the Fall Classic. No one expected that. ¶ In the end, however, the Giants pulled off a whopper of a comeback against the Reds, winning the final three games of the division series on the road, and then reveled in the rain of Game Seven while taking the last three from St. Louis in the NLCS. The World Series was an afterthought as the Tigers sat for six days following a sweep of the punchless Yankees and became punchless themselves against San Francisco pitching. ¶ Since we moved to the 21st Century, the Giants, Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals are the only teams with two World Series titles. No one has three. If the Giants do it this year, they would join the ’70s-era A’s and the 1996-2000 Yankees as the only teams to take three in four years or less since 1955. That would be pretty heady company. ¶ Do they have the personnel to do it? Absolutely. The pitching staff remains solid and while an argument can be made the lineup took a hit without Melky Cabrera, he was out long before the postseason in 2012 and the Giants hardly took a step back. ¶ The Giants headline a power ranking filled with National League teams at the top as there’s a clear shift in baseball’s axis of power with the Yankees and Red Sox on the decline. It won’t be easy for anybody to get through the NL playoffs again — hopefully the boys in blue will get the infield fly rule right this time — but the World Series could once again prove anticlimactic. Here’s a look at how we think the teams stand coming out of spring training:
1. San Francisco Giants. Do they look like a World Series team on paper other than maybe in the rotation? Not really. But it just plain works and Bruce Bochy is one of the most underrated managers in history. Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum star in the rotation and Sergio Romo is the main man out of the pen. The offense normally revolves around catcher Buster Posey but Pablo Sandoval became a World Series hero with a three-homer game and ex-Bison Marco Scutaro was the MVP of the NLCS. Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti are universally hailed as glue guys in the clubhouse.
2. Washington Nationals. Young guns will be around that want to give an old warhorse a going-away present. Manager Davey Johnson, a grandfatherly figure to this club, is retiring after the season and the Nats would love to give him a World Series title on his way out. They came close last year, with only a ninth-inning implosion in Game Five against the Cardinals keeping them out of the NLCS. With a full roster back – and no restrictions on Stephen Strasburg’s golden arm – they could give the District its first title since the 1924 Senators. How good is Bryce Harper going to be? How much of an impact will Denard Span have in the leadoff spot? How about Rafael Soriano doing the Untuck after closing games, as he did last year in the Bronx? I’d sign up for a Nats-Giants NLCS right now.
3. Los Angeles Angels. They won 89 games last year and would have won the AL West were it not for the silly decision to keep Mike Trout in the minors for 20 games, during which they went 6-14. Like the Nats and Harper, it was likely arbitration/Super 2 status thinking but it proved costly. Now they’ve added Josh Hamilton to a lineup that already included Pujols and Trout. It’s the best in the AL, especially with Hamilton having the added motivation of proving he can rebound from last year’s flop down the stretch in Texas. You have to question the pitching behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
4. Toronto Blue Jays. The Bisons’ new parent is going for it. Period. With an lineup that already featured 40-homer men Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and several other decent parts, they add Jose Reyes. (Just mind the hamstrings on the artificial turf of Rogers Centre). Throw in R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson (who was fabulous in spring training) and Mark Buehrle and you have a solid top of the rotation. The biggest crisis of the spring was figuring out the No. 5 starter. Prohibitive favorite in the AL East.
5. Cincinnati Reds. Appearing on Jim Rome’s national radio program last month, ex-Bison Brandon Phillips said the Redlegs are still stinging from their October collapse. They had the Giants down, 2-0, in the division series and became the first team ever to lose three straight at home after winning Games 1-2 on the road. So they have some real motivation to go with their real talent. And they added Shin-Soo Choo, very underrated from his days in Cleveland. They made an interesting decision to keep Aroldis Chapman as the closer after flirting with adding him to the rotation.
6. Detroit Tigers. All the Blue Jays/Angels talk overlooks the fact the World Series played Motown last October and could have another gig there again in October. Torii Hunter going from Anaheim to Detroit is an interesting dynamic and so is the return of Victor Martinez. I’m still not sold on the rotation after Justin Verlander and they need to figure out the closer spot after Jose Valverde’s postseason meltdown.
7. Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s really been since 1988 – and just twice in the last 35 years – that Dodger Blue has been to the World Series. The Magic Johnson/Stan Kasten group is obviously serious about spending money but you have to worry about chemistry. Plus Hanley Ramirez’s thumb, injured during the World Baseball Classic, will keep him out eight weeks. With Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation, they’re good, but I still say a step down from the elite.
8. St Louis Cardinals. Without Albert Pujols, this is an ordinary roster. So you have to give Mike Matheny credit for the amazing job he did last year stepping in for Tony La Russa and nearly getting them back to the Series. I can’t see that happening again. Carlos Beltran and David Freese open on the disabled list. That’s not good.
9. Tampa Bay Rays. Find me a coach/manager in any of the four major sports with a better Twitter feed than @RaysJoeMaddon, one of the game’s most cerebral minds. He’s going to ride David Price in his rotation and hope Evan Longoria can stay healthy this year. Top outfield prospect Wil Myers, acquired from Kansas City, opens in Durham but won’t stay there long after being an MVP in last year’s Triple-A All-Star Game here.
10. Atlanta Braves. Lost Michael Bourn but now have B.J. and Justin Upton. Great young arms. Need a bounceback from Jason Heyward. You have to like how they’ve remade themselves in the post-Bobby Cox era, now we ‘ll see how they do in the post-Chipper era.
11. Cleveland Indians. Looking for a big jump? Look three hours west. The presence of Terry Francona immediately changes the culture and quickly attracted some players like Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and Jason Giambi. They’ll hit but the rotation is the issue. That said, playoff contention is real for the first time since 2007.
12. Oakland Athletics. Still trying to figure out how this group of no-names won a division title last year over the big-name, big-money Rangers. But they did. It was a character group that meshed well and got great play from the likes of Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick. Nice team. Not happening again.
13. Chicago White Sox. The Tigers went to the World Series but it’s easy to forget it was the Sox who led the AL Central well into last September. Then the bats went cold and that was that. Still, you have to love young guys in the lineup like Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham. But losing A.J. Pierzynski creates a huge hole on the field and in the clubhouse, where he’s been the central guy for years.
14. Texas Rangers. Until the last week of the season, they looked good for three straight World Series trips. Then they fell apart in Oakland, lost the wild-card game to Baltimore and lost Josh Hamilton to the Angels. Getting Pierzynski isn’t going to be enough to compensate. This is a borderline playoff team at best.
15. Philadelphia Phillies. I had them in bounceback mode after an 81-81 finish but then the word started filtering out of Florida that Roy Halladay’s velocity was down to alarming levels and I was reminded they’re getting old. Subliminal message they add two “Youngs” – Michael and Delmon? Not nearly good enough anymore.
16. Baltimore Orioles. One of the game’s great stories last year but the Birds can’t be selling that one again and you shouldn’t be buying it. Yes, they have a cadre of young talent and a solid skipper in Buck Showalter. But their 2012 season was a confluence of amazing success in one-run games and extra innings that can’t possibly be duplicated. That’s going to even out.
17. New York Yankees. Wither Horace Clarke? No A-Rod, no Curtis Granderson and no Mark Teixeira for a while. No Derek Jeter at the start. No Mariano Rivera after this year. All that money for those Legends Seats is going to be a real waste this year. Look for them to end below .500 for the first time since 1992.
18. Boston Red Sox. They’ll be better, largely because there’s no way they can be worse. For one thing, John Farrell is a big upgrade in the manager’s office from scattershot Bobby Valentine. But injuries to the likes of David Ortiz are a concern and there will be empty seats at Fenway for the first time in a decade. Outfield prospect Jackie Bradley has been one of the big stories of spring training.
19. Seattle Mariners. Old friend Eric Wedge hopes the fences coming in at Safeco Field will boost the offense and that maybe Jason Bay will find his long-lost swing. Don’t bet on it. You can bet on King Felix but how long does he stay with this outfit?
20. Kansas City Royals. No playoffs for them since 1985 and they’re trying to win with a thick rotation, via the addition of James Shields from Kansas City. I still say no “Big Game” for them but they’re getting closer. Still not enough offense.
21. Milwaukee Brewers. When do all the steroid rumors start weighing on Ryan Braun, right, so much that they impact his play? A completely meh team in a meh division.
22. Arizona Diamondbacks. Is Heath Bell done? Can Cody Ross keep going deep? Is this the biggest who-cares team in the West?
23. Pittsburgh Pirates. I just can’t believe them. They were 63-47 in early August last year – and then became the first team in history at least 16 over .500 after 108 games to finish with a losing record. While that may be a mouthful, it’s significiant because now it’s 21 seasons and counting since they last had a winning record. And then they went and traded closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston?
24. New York Mets. Poor Terry Collins. He’s a lame duck with a bad team. How does a big market team field an outfield that includes the likes of Jordany Valdespin, Collin Cowgill and Lucas Duda? Lots of promise in the rotation as we saw here last summer (think Matt Harvey, Collin McHugh and Zack Wheeler). Love the trade with Toronto for R.A. Dickey to get pitching prospects and stud catcher Travis d’Arnaud. But they are still years away. Have fun in Las Vegas.
25. Colorado Rockies. The Rox continue to prove that magical ’07 run to the World Series was the greatest fluke in history. Now they hire ex-MLB shortstop Walt Weiss out of the high school ranks to manage. Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki aren’t nearly the players they once were. Looking down the rest of the roster the common thought is, ‘who are these guys?’
26. San Diego Padres. Bud Black can’t survive this time unless Chase Headley pushes an MVP level again. With the fences at Petco Park pulled in, they’re still going to stink and now the opponents will hit more home runs.
27. Chicago Cubs. GM Theo Epstein could chisel his Hall of Fame plaque by winning a World Series at Wrigley after winning two at Fenway. Too bad it still feels like he’s 100 years away. Yikes.
28. Minnesota Twins. Manager Ron Gardenhire has turned into MLB’s version of Lindy Ruff – a beloved figure who’s done nothing lately, whose best days with this team are behind him and who needs a change of scenery. He’s on the last year of his deal and this could finally be it.
29. Miami Marlins. They’re giving away two-for-one tickets to Opening Day. They’re a joke, a disgrace. If Bud Selig & Co. had any stones, owner Jeffrey Loria should be run out of the game.
30. Houston Astros. They’ve lost 106 and 107 games, respectively, the last two years while in the NL Central. How many are they losing now that they’re in the AL West? Could push the 120-loss ’62 Mets. Rookie manager Bo Porter had the names removed from the backs of all the jerseys during spring training, and the 25 to make the roster will “earn” back their names for tonight’s opener. They’ll want to become nameless again.