The Nationals had the best record and the highest run differential in the majors in 2012, and there's no reason to believe this young team won't improve or at least hold steady. They've traded for Denard Span to play center field, moving Bryce Harper to a corner to give them a terrific defensive outfield, and replaced Jackson in the rotation with Dan Haren, which could be a small upgrade if Haren recovers from back and hip problems that slowed him down last season. If catcher Wilson Ramos returns from his knee injury, the lineup looks deep from No. 1 through 8.
Bryce Harper and the Nationals rank as ESPN's top team in the majors thanks to some inspired youth.
Strengths: starting rotation; depth; youth.
Weaknesses: left-handed power if the Nationals don't re-sign LaRoche; nobody in the rotation threw 200 innings in 2012; closer Drew Storen will have to mentally come back from his playoff meltdown; only one lefty reliever (Zach Duke) on the 40-man roster.
The Reds solved their big hole in the leadoff position by acquiring Shin-Soo Choo, and Jack Hannahan and Jason Donald will improve a bench that carried Miguel Cairo and Wilson Valdez in 2012. The biggest move, however, will be the transition of Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, with Jonathan Broxton taking over as closer. The Reds' rotation was outstanding in 2012, but also went through the season without the five starters missing a single start. But the Reds do have depth here in case Chapman falters or Bronson Arroyo regresses from a strong 2012.
Everybody is down on the Yankees, but right now I still have them as the team to beat in the American League. Yes, they'll lose Swisher and going with Ichiro Suzuki in right field is potentially a big downgrade if Ichiro's hot two months with the Yankees proves to be a fluke (very possible). Yes, they've lost Russell Martin, but Martin didn't provide much offense in 2012. On the other hand, Brett Gardner will return to left field, and his defense alone will provide an upgrade there. Alex Rodriguez is out for a lengthy period, but Kevin Youkilis should be an acceptable placeholder. But the reason to still like the Yankees is simple: They have the deepest rotation in the AL with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, David Phelps and possibly Michael Pineda.
Despite their World Series appearance, you can see from their record and run differential that the Tigers were hardly a powerhouse team. But I like the Torii Hunter signing and Victor Martinez returns as the DH after missing the entire season. Martinez at 80 percent is still a huge improvement over Delmon Young. But after signing Anibal Sanchez, the main reason to love the Tigers in 2013 is their outstanding rotation. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister all ranked in the top five in the AL in ERA in the second half of 2012. No team will enter the season as a bigger division favorite than the Tigers.
The big move the Braves made in center field -- losing Bourn but signing B.J. Upton -- doesn't really improve the team. That doesn't mean Upton was a bad signing; indeed, his right-handed power adds a needed element to help balance out the lefty bats of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. But the Braves have other markers to suggest they'll hold steady or improve upon 2012: youth in the likes of Heyward, Freeman and slick-fielding shortstop Andrelton Simmons plus young starters such as Mike Minor (big strides in the second half) and Randall Delgado who could improve. Oh yeah, and they have a pretty good closer. It's going to be a terrific race in the NL East.
Weaknesses: third base or left field (wherever Martin Prado doesn't play); durability of rotation (nobody threw 200 innings in 2012).
6. Oakland A's (94-68, plus-99)
I'm sure many will doubt the A's heading into 2013, but I'm trying to figure out why that would be the case. The A's were one of the youngest teams in the league in 2012, and history suggests when young teams take huge strides forward like the A's did in 2012 that the talent level is for real. Remember, the A's won 94 games even though Tom Milone was the only starter to make 30 starts. Sure, the A's may have received some fluke production -- Brandon Moss' .596 slugging percentage stands out -- but there are also positions that could see better production in 2013 (second base, catcher, third base) and guys such as Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick could improve with one full season under their belts.
Strengths: youth; rotation depth; power arms in the bullpen; outfield.
No team will have more pressure on them than the Dodgers, as anything short of a division title will be viewed as a massive disappointment. Despite all the big names, this remains a team with a lot of question marks: What can Carl Crawford contribute? Will Hanley Ramirez really play shortstop? Why did Adrian Gonzalez regress in 2012? What does Josh Beckett have left? The talent is certainly here for a 100-win team, and the Dodgers will be deep, but there remains a lot of volatility in what this team will do.
As a starting point, the Cardinals' runs scored and runs allowed totals suggest they should have won 93 games, not 88, so the true talent level may be higher than the record suggests. What the Cardinals lack right now is an obvious ace: Lohse has taken his 16-3, 2.86 ERA season on to the free-agent market, and while he may not be that good, he was also the only Cardinals starter with an ERA under 3.50. But the Cardinals get Chris Carpenter back for a full season and Adam Wainwright could be better now that he's another year removed from his Tommy John surgery. The lineup was second in the NL in runs scored and should be strong once again. Plus, the Cardinals have a wave of prospects nearly ready for the majors, led by pitcher Shelby Miller and outfielder Oscar Taveras.
Strengths: offense; Yadier Molina; quality arms in rotation and bullpen.
While the Shields-Wil Myers trade added a necessary young power bat to the Tampa organization, replacing Shields and his 227.2 innings isn't going to be that easy, even with Tampa's pitching depth. Whoever steps in isn't going to give you that workload, which means Joe Maddon will likely need to use his bullpen more in 2013. And while Desmond Jennings can shift from left field to center to replace B.J. Upton, the Rays will have to figure out their outfield alignment: Is Myers ready right away or will the Rays start him in Triple-A? Does Ben Zobrist play second, shortstop or outfield? If Matt Joyce plays left field, who DHs? Aside from that, the Rays will need Fernando Rodney to come close to his extraordinary 2012, David Price to once again contend for the Cy Young Award and Matt Moore to improve in his second season.
Yes ... I've left the defending World Series champs off my top 10. The Giants have elected to stand pat, which is what they did from 2010 to 2011 (bringing back Aubrey Huff and Cody Ross, for example), and that team missed the playoffs. Certainly, Buster Posey's injury that year didn't help, but right now the Giants are counting on Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro to repeat their 2012 magic, Posey to play at an MVP level again and the offense to score enough runs without Melky Cabrera. I could be underrating the Giants -- especially if Tim Lincecum bounces back -- but the Giants overachieved a bit a year ago, and I predict a rougher ride in 2013.
I've also left off the Blue Jays, Angels and Orioles. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies make a run at the NL East title or the Brewers and Diamondbacks to return to the playoffs. The Red Sox will be better than everyone believes. The White Sox won 85 games. Plus, is there an Oakland or Baltimore in our midst this season? If there's anything that strikes me, it's that making these kinds of predictions are more difficult than ever. I just listed 19 teams that could win the World Series and it wouldn't be that shocking. There's a lot of parity in the sport right now.