Each spring, hope and optimism reign in baseball spring training camps. The beginning of the new season brings with it the potential for contention and a trip to the postseason. In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics surprised with their unlikely improvement from borderline contenders to postseason participants. With the 2013 regular season approaching; let’s examine three potential borderline contenders for the new season. Each team faces some tough games and series in the first month of the season. The performance of each team during the month of April could have a significant impact on its ability to contend for a postseason spot come September.
While the Orioles did make the postseason in 2012, a repeat trip in 2013 may still be a long shot given the improvement of the Toronto Blue Jays over the offseason and likely strong play of the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles face a tough road this season, even with the monsters of the American League East, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, not likely to achieve their typical dominant play in 2013.
A strong bullpen and the emergence of Manny Mercado in the second half of 2012 fueled the Orioles run to the postseason in 2012. Baltimore did not add many significant pieces this past offseason, so the team appears to be looking for repeat performances from many of the same players that delivered last season. With the absence of many big-time stars on the roster, this may be a tall order for the team.
Looking ahead to April , the Orioles face stiff competition with six games against the aforementioned Rays, and three games each against the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays. A poor showing in these fifteen games against their AL East rivals could place the Orioles several games back of the division leaders and create a deep hole to climb out from during the course of the season. A three-game series against the newly-rich Los Angeles Dodgers and four-game road series in Oakland also present the Orioles with a significant challenge to begin the season. If the Orioles are unable to perform well against these teams, 2013 could shape up to be a long season in Baltimore.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals appear to have made a decision to shoot for the postseason this year, a goal highlighted by their trade of top 10 prospect Wil Myers, to Tampa Bay for James Shields and Wade Davis. While the Royals may have little chance of unseating the Detroit Tigers as division champs in the AL Central, a wild card berth could be within the team’s sights in 2013.
The Royals did upgrade their starting rotation with the addition of Shields and Davis. Assuming continued growth and improvement in performance from young stars like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, the Royals could be poised to top .500 this season and contend for a wild card spot. The AL Central offers some opportunity for success this season as well. While the Tigers continue to look strong, the other teams in the division are probably not going to compete for a playoff spot this season.
Match-ups with the Blue Jays and Tigers in the first four weeks of the season will provide the Royals with an excellent test of their ability to compete in 2013. The early season interleague schedule also presents a challenge, with tough road matchups against the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves occurring during the first month. The Royals will need to play strong against the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago White Sox to ensure a strong start to the season.
The Pirates started 2012 off well. They were in first place or at least tied for the National League Central as late as July 14th. Andrew McCutchen was also a potential candidate for Most Valuable Player early in the season. Unfortunately, reality began to intervene in August and September with a late season fade, and the Pirates finished 2012 below .500 for the 20th consecutive season. The 2013 season brings new hope for the team, with McCutchen returning and offseason acquisitions of Russell Martin, Paul Melacotin, and Fransico Liriano offering hope for additional pitching and production.
The Pirates will be relying on another strong season from A.J. Burnett, a repeat of the first-half performance of James McDonald for the full season, and a reasonable level of offensive production from the seven members of the starting lineup not named McCutchen to make a season-long push for the playoffs.
Standing in the way of the Pirates this season is a tough April schedule featuring six games against the National League Central champ St. Louis Cardinals, and three games each against the Braves, Dodgers, Phillies, and Reds, four teams expected to compete strongly for playoff berths in 2013. In a similar situation to that faced by the Royals, the Pirates must look to dominate lesser competition, in this case the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs, while holding their own against the numerous postseason hopefuls that appear on the schedule in April.
While a poor showing April does not preclude a trip to the postseason in October — just look at the Tigers in 2012 who were 38-40 as of June 30th — an early season hole can be difficult to emerge from for teams that are on the cusp of contention. The Orioles, Royals, and Pirates all need to strive for a strong start to the 2013 season against stiff competition. A good performance in April by any or all of these three teams could set the stage for a postseason run and validation of the hope and optimism for February and March.
All schedule information obtained from MLB.com.