So much to look forward to this season
Talented contending teams and exciting young players will provide another wild ride
I'm looking forward to watching Albert Pujols hit another one of his monstrous, towering, take-your-breath away home runs. You know the type. One of those where the ball is hit so hard and leaves the park so quickly that it seems to vaporize in the night air.
And there's Albert tossing the bat aside, beginning that it's-no-big-deal trot around the bases as we look at one another and ask, "Did you see that?"
Welcome to another baseball season. Actually, I'm looking forward to Pujols hitting a bunch of those kinds of homers because he's healthy again and about to re-establish himself as one of the best players on the planet.
There's my first prediction for 2014.
Here's another: No team is more compelling than the Angels, and that's a large statement when at least 22 teams -- and I mean at least 22 -- can reasonably believe they're good enough to make the postseason.
Another five or six clubs think that if a couple of things break right, they'll be in the mix as well. There's no reason to doubt them at a time when 13 of baseball's 30 teams have played at least one postseason series the past two season alone. Last Sept. 1, 16 teams were within 6 1/2 games of a postseason berth.
The Dodgers, Nationals and Cardinals appear to be the National League's best clubs, but the Giants, Pirates, Diamondbacks and others believe they're going to be in the mix. There's a similar story in the American League. We love the Rays, Red Sox and Tigers, but we think the Royals, Indians and others could make some noise, too.
Parity rocks, doesn't it?
More on that later.
OK, back to the Angels.
Pujols isn't the only one who will re-prove himself in 2014. His teammate Josh Hamilton is poised for a comeback season, and Mike Trout, well, he is the best player on the planet, the guy who brings us out of our seats more often than any other player.
General manager Jerry Dipoto has done a nice job upgrading his pitching staff, and so the Angels seem to have gotten themselves in the mix with the A's and Rangers in the AL West.
I'm looking forward to watching Derek Jeter one last season. I'm hoping he's healthy and productive and that he gives us all a last glimpse of his grace, dignity and greatness. Here's to you, kid.
There are the Red Sox and Cards, too. They've changed some since we last saw them in Game 6 of the World Series, but they're both going to be good again. Both are driven by great ownership, tremendous leadership and deep, talented rosters. Here's to more.
I'm looking forward to watching the Nationals, as deep and as talented a team as there is. This is the summer Bryce Harper fulfills all that promise and the summer when we will again appreciate how good Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth are. Job well done, Nats GM Mike Rizzo.
I'm looking forward to watching Brad Ausmus take over for Jim Leyland in Detroit and show the world his smarts, vision, people skills and organization. No young manager has ever come to the game better prepared. That he has never managed a game simply doesn't matter.
Oh, and it helps that Ausmus hopes to be handing the baseball to Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez about 100 times this season. They make managers look really smart.
So does Miguel Cabrera. Has any player ever hit the ball harder and more consistently than this guy? Cabrera showed up early at Spring Training and looks capable of winning a third straight AL MVP Award.
I'm looking forward to seeing the Royals back in the postseason. They took a step forward in 2013, with 86 victories, and after all the good work GM Dayton Moore has done and all the patience owner David Glass has exhibited, it's time to take the final step.
Who do you like in the NL West? Yes, yes, the Dodgers will be almost everyone's favorites. But you can see the Giants winning, right? Sure you can. As an experienced scout said recently, "I never count the Giants out."
That's a tribute to GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy and the way they handle their affairs. Now if Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong rediscover their magic, we might have some more October baseball by the bay.
The D-backs and Padres in the NL West? Yes, they both have a chance. It's a longer shot, but if we've learned anything the past few years, it's that strange stuff happens.
Maybe that will happen in the AL East, too. The Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees all seem capable of going to the playoffs, but at least at the start, it feels like it's going to be a great run for the Rays.
In the end, there's one compelling message in all of this. There has never been a better time to be a baseball fan. It's really that simple, isn't it? That's how the 2014 season begins. There are possibilities around every corner.
This is a sport that delivers on every level. Tense playoff races. Compelling individual performances. And the kids, yes, the kids. Don't you just love the kids?
Trout and Jose Fernandez. Harper and Yasiel Puig. Manny Machado and Stephen Strasburg.
Teams are pushing their best young players, challenging them and trusting them. And the kids have given fans an entirely new context for their teams, because they have the power to change things almost overnight.
Harper and Strasburg helped transform the Nationals. Machado did the same thing for the Orioles. Puig energized the Dodgers and Fernandez made the Marlins a must-watch team.
There's another wave of young talent on the horizon. Take your pick: Kolten Wong (Cardinals), Gregory Polanco (Pirates), Kevin Gausman (Orioles), Jose Abreu (White Sox), Andrew Heaney (Marlins), Billy Hamilton (Reds), Nick Castellanos (Tigers), Archie Bradley (D-backs), Yordano Ventura (Royals) and Christian Bethancourt (Braves).
About the easiest prediction for this new season is that we'll see kids sweep into the big leagues and change a race or a club. Speaking of that, pennant races have become chaotic, and aren't those the best kind?
That's the beauty of Major League Baseball in 2014. Competitive balance has set up shop and made itself at home. Faith and hope live. Two decades ago, this was Commissioner Bud Selig's vision for his sport. He vowed back then to construct a system in which every team, all 30 of them -- big market, small market, every market -- had a chance to compete for a playoff berth and a championship.
So in this, his final season as Commissioner, Selig's vision has been realized. Money no longer dictates the standings. In the past 10 seasons, the average payroll rank of the World Series champion is 10th. Last season, seven of the top 10 payroll teams missed the postseason. Money still matters -- no one would ever argue otherwise. Money allows teams to cover up mistakes and get back in the game.
But teams like the Rays and A's just don't sweat it. They're smart, efficient, competitive and very, very proud of it.
Anyway, the larger point is that with more teams in contention and with an amazing number of extraordinarily gifted young players making an impact, baseball has given us wild, unpredictable rides the past few seasons. Playoff races have gone down to the final hours of the regular season or sometimes forced an extra game.
Managers -- like Tony La Russa did with St. Louis in 2011 -- urge their teams to play until the last out because, hey, you never know. That's how the Rays and Cardinals came from 10 games back in the final month in 2011. That's an important lesson for 2014, too. It's also why we love this sport. Enjoy.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.