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With the 2012 baseball season in our rearview mirror -- congratulations, San Francisco Giants! -- let's look ahead to 2013. It's just over 100 days until pitchers and catchers report. Here are five things to look forward to next season (and yes, even Astros fans are included).
Whether by stathead or traditional standards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper electrified the majors in their rookie seasons. Each made his season debut on April 28 and brought new life and offensive pop to his team.
Trout's rookie campaign was sensational, putting him in contention for MVP and rookie of the year (for which he's a virtual lock). He finished second in the AL with a .326 batting average (behind Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera), was third in the league with a .399 on-base percentage and led the majors with 49 stolen bases and 129 runs scored. He was the first player in major league history to hit 30 home runs with 45 steals and 125 runs scored. Trout also filled up the highlight reel with his defense, robbing several hitters of home runs.
Harper's numbers weren't as otherworldly as Trout's (.270 batting average, .477 slugging percentage, 22 home runs, 59 RBIs, 18 steals), but his impact on the NL East champion Nationals cannot be denied (WAR of 5.0). He arrived in the majors with insanely high expectations and contributed at a top level from day one. I cannot wait to see what the now-20-year-old -- Oct. 16 was his birthday -- does in his second season in the majors.
With the Astros moving to the American League West next season to create two 15-team leagues, there will be interleague games all season long. Yes, traditionalists may have wailed a bit, but we've had interleague baseball since 1997. If evening out the leagues meant having more interleague series, then I say go for it. Every team will play 76 division games, 66 nondivision games and 20 interleague games.
Here are a few of the intriguing matchups to watch for next season:
• The Dodgers and manager Don Mattingly make their first regular-season trip to the Bronx June 18 and 19 (unfortunately, Hall of Fame Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who at 84 does mostly home games, likely won't make the trip). The Yankees will visit Chavez Ravine July 30 and 31.
• Albert Pujols and the Angels play host to the Cardinals in Anaheim July 2-4.
• The AL champion Tigers host the NL East champion Nationals July 30 and 31 at Comerica (Verlander versus Strasburg, anyone?).
• The World Series champion Giants host the Red Sox August 19-21.
• The Giants-A's and O's-Nats traditional interleague matchups May 27-30 take on new significance with all four of the teams coming off playoff appearances.
The Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles were two of the best stories in baseball this season. The O's broke their streak of 14 straight sub-.500 seasons and reached the American League Division Series in the team's first postseason appearance since 1997. The O's were an unprecedented 29-9 in games decided by one run, the highest winning percentage in history. The team also had a remarkable 74-0 record when leading after seven innings and won 16 consecutive extra-inning games. Both those streaks ended during the ALDS against the Yankees. The A's made the playoffs for the first time since 2006, won the AL West and took the Tigers to a decisive Game 5 in the ALDS. With one of the two lowest payrolls in the majors this season and a team batting average of .238, the A's had a remarkable 15 walk-off wins.
Can the A's and O's replicate their magic or will the genie go back into the bottle?
There are strong pitching rotations in the AL West (Rangers and Angels) and the NL West (Giants and Dodgers), but I'm most fascinated by the arms race in the NL East involving the Phillies, Nationals and Braves. Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay lead Philadelphia's rotation. Halladay missed almost two months because of injury this past season, but if healthy and rested he should give the Phillies a boost. If the Phillies could have scored some runs behind Lee, they might have been able to sneak into the playoffs. Lee gave up just 74 earned runs in 211 innings, yet finished 6-9 and didn't get his first win until July 4.
The NL East champion Nationals look forward to another season with Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg at the top of their rotation. Gonzalez won an NL-leading 21 games and is a contender for the Cy Young. Zimmermann, three years removed from Tommy John surgery, had a breakout season, going 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA and a 1.170 WHIP. Finally, imagine what the Nationals will do with Strasburg available for a full season.
Atlanta is no stranger to strong rotations, and it should have another in 2013 with Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Tim Hudson. Medlen was one of baseball's best stories after joining the Braves' rotation July 31. The Braves went 12-0 in his starts and won an MLB-record 23 straight games started by Medlen, dating to 2010. He had a 1.57 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. Minor got off to a rough start but settled in and became a reliable starter, finishing 11-10 with a 4.12 ERA. Hudson looked ageless at 37. Throw in Brandon Beachy, who should return from Tommy John surgery around the All-Star break, and the Braves promise to give the Nationals a run for the division title.
The Mets' 2013 prospects aren't great but Citi Field will be hosting the All-Star Game on July 16. It's a boon not just for the ballpark but also for the city of New York, which did a tremendous job hosting the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. FanFest at the Javits Center and a concert in Central Park will be part of the festivities. In 2008, Major League Baseball created 42 Statues of Liberty, representing every major league team and several other baseball-related events. Will MLB commemorate the 2013 game with giant Home Run Apples around the city?
There are a few other interesting All-Star storylines to watch even nine months in advance: Will David Wright start at third base for the National League in his own park or will he be voted out by rabid San Francisco Giants fans? Will R.A. Dickey, the Mets' power knuckleballer who is a leading contender for the Cy Young, have a season strong enough to start the game in his own park? It's going to be a fun week of festivities in New York City.