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Nationals, Dodgers and Rays on the upswing

Oh, the joy of predictions. We got pretty full of ourselves in this space last season when reminding folks of the 2012 Giants-Tigers World Series that we correctly forecasted that March.

So what exactly happened to that 2013 Fall Classic we envisioned between the Nationals and Angels? Well, the Nationals never got out of the gate until it was too late and the Angels joined the Blue Jays as the big busts of the season. At least we could take solace in the fact pretty much nobody had the Red Sox bouncing back from the Bobby Valentine disaster to win the Series.

The Giants, Nationals, Angels and Blue Jays were 1-2-3-4 in this space a year ago on the eve of the opener. We did have the Cardinals No. 8, and said the Indians would be a playoff contender for the first time since 2007. But we had the Red Sox at No. 18 and simply didn’t believe enough in the Pirates, opening them at No. 23 after their 16-36 collapse to end 2012.

We’re cycling back to our rule of the defending champion being No. 1 until someone knocks them off, so the Red Sox get the spot. The losses of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew and some age issues have me believing less in the Sox this year but they’re the only team in this century with three championships. Never count them out, as we learned in October of 2004, 2007 and 2013.

Belief in the Nationals and Angels remains high, especially as injuries ravage the NL East and AL West contenders. Here’s how things shake out at the start of 2014:

1. Boston Red Sox. They’ll be better at catcher with A.J. Pierzynski, who must have loved what he watched last October while working for Fox. We await a full year of Xander Bogaerts at short. It remains to be seen how healthy the starting pitching will be, how healthy David Ortiz will be at 38 going on 39. Can Grady Sizemore sufficiently replace Ellsbury? You wonder if the rotation is deep enough, if the bullpen can be so dependable again. They could repeat as AL East champs but another World Series seems like asking a lot.

2. Washington Nationals. They finished last year 26-12. Was it because they had underachieved so badly before it that they felt no pressure? Or did it foreshadow what’s to come this year? You have to like the lineup with the likes of Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Harper is going to win an MVP sooner rather than later. Stephen Strasburg is a horse on a deep staff. An intangible is new manager Matt Williams. He was a winner as a player but he’s a first-timer as a skipper.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers. They’ve unseated the Yankees as payroll champion for the first time in 15 years and you know Magic Johnson doesn’t like to lose at anything. But Clayton Kershaw, scheduled to start tonight’s game, was placed on the DL with a swollen back muscle; must have been that long flight to and from Australia. The rotation has to stay healthy and that hasn’t been the case in the recent past (Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Dan Haren). How is Yasiel Puig as a sophomore and a leadoff hitter?

4. St. Louis Cardinals. You have to like how Peter Bourjos improves their defense in center field and how ex-Bison Jhonny Peralta gives them a real bat at short. A great rotation will benefit from a full year of Michael Wacha. The bullpen that includes Lewiston native and ace Sabres fan Kevin Siegrist should remain strong. No surprise if they’re playing deep into October again.

5. Tampa Bay Rays. Where do they keep finding great young arms (Chris Archer, Alex Cobb?) They kept David Price and have a lineup featuring Evan Longoria and Wil Myers. They’re a perennial contender now but it’s a disappointment they’ve only made the World Series once – and that was all the way back in 2008. They’ll be in the hunt again, but will anybody be in the stands at Tropicana Field? So bizarre.

6. Detroit Tigers. Yes, there’s a good chance they get back to the Fall Classic but an aside here: Who were they competing against to give Miguel Cabrera that kind of extension? And two years away, no less? They’d better hope he stays healthy and keeps raking and doesn’t turn into the next Albert Pujols. Rant over. Love the addition of Ian Kinsler at second but is Alex Gonzalez nearly enough at short to overcome the loss of Jose Iglesias? As 1-2 punches go, Justin Verlander-Max Scherzer is unmatched.

7. Pittsburgh Pirates. They were no one-year wonder and they’re not slipping back under .500 like they were for 20 straight seasons until finally breaking through in 2013. Starling Marte-Andrew McCutchen-Jose Tabata form a pretty darn good outfield. Think the Yankees missed Russell Martin a little last year? I wonder if the bullpen can be as good. When do outfielder Gregory Polanco and pitcher Jameson Taillon get the call from Indianapolis to provide a Gerrit Cole-like spark? It’s inevitable.

8. Los Angeles Angels. They’re going to be better. They have to be. And the AL West has come back to them with the crippling injuries in Oakland and Texas. I like David Freese to bounce back from a down year in St. Louis and Pujols to come back from some of his struggles last year in Anaheim. Josh Hamilton’s health is a huge X-factor. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson have to be good because the rest of the rotation is very iffy.

9. Cincinnati Reds. Bryan Price has the classic can-the-pitching-coach-be-a-manager questions hanging over a team that should be pretty good. The lineup is deep, with a fleet Billy Hamilton at the top and Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in the middle. The rotation is strong. But the bullpen is a question mark in the wake of closer Aroldis Chapman’s horrific spring training injury.

10. Cleveland Indians. Terry Francona’s bunch didn’t do much over the winter to get better but they’re young and exciting and should contend again. Jason Kipnis is developing into a star at second base and the lineup has several other dependables. The rotation is iffy behind ace Justin Masterson and a lot is being put on the shoulders of young Danny Salazar. Former Canisius pitcher John Axford came from St. Louis to get another shot at being a closer. Trivia time: Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is the last remaining ex-Bison on the roster from an affiliation that ended in 2008.

11. San Francisco Giants. They’re an even-year wonder. Think 2010 and 2012. They regressed last year due to injuries and subpar seasons. They could bounce back this year. It’s still a great homegrown rotation (Cain, Bumgarner, Lincecum) and now it adds Tim Hudson. Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence are a solid middle. And Bruce Bochy is the only active manager with two World Series titles with his current team.

12. Kansas City Royals. You want a sleeper, here it is. They haven’t made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985 but there’s a good chance the game’s longest postseason drought ends this year. They’ve got some solid pitching in James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie, an unheralded catcher in Salvador Perez and good bats like Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Greg Holland is coming off a 45-save season. It can happen for them coming out of the AL Central.

13. Texas Rangers. They’d be the choice in the AL West if they were healthy but they’re not. Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Jurickson Profar are all down and Yu Darvish is hurting. That may be too much to overcome, even with a lineup that made the huge additions of Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder. After his postseason flameout in Detroit, Fielder has a lot to prove and the warm Texas air should allow him a chance to push a 50-homer season. They need another arm.

14. Atlanta Braves. Who suffered the most in spring training? I’d say the Braves did, absorbing the body blows of major injuries to pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy. They signed Ervin Santana out of utter desperation and he’ll help but this is one of those rare times in the last 25 years where the Braves don’t have enough starting pitching. It will cost them.

15. New York Yankees. Right smack in the middle. I think Derek Jeter’s farewell season will be on a relatively mediocre team. They could win 100 games if everything goes right. They could win 75 if a lot goes wrong. Signing Ellsbury and Brian McCann were good moves. And you’d think Masahiro Tanaka will pay off, starting with his debut Friday night in Toronto at the Jays’ home opener. But CC Sabathia’s velocity continues to drop, Hiroki Kuroda is another year older and Mariano Rivera is home in Panama. No player in the game has bigger shoes to fill than new closer David Robertson.

16. Oakland Athletics. Losing ace Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery drops them precipitously and likely ends their shot at an AL West three-peat. They’re just not deep enough. Neither is the lineup. I was convinced Bob Melvin was doing it with mirrors last year. And now? If he pulls this off, he can battle Bochy across the Bay for title of most underrated skipper in the game.

17. Milwaukee Brewers. Booooooooooo. That’s what the Brew Crew is going to hear all year on the road – and maybe some at home – with Ryan Braun. It will be a season-long distraction. It’s an average team at best but adding Matt Garza helps the rotation.

18. Arizona Diamondbacks. Did those games in Australia really have to count? And last weekend? Easy to forget they’re already 0-2. Paul Goldschmidt will return to the MVP race again and that will be fun to watch. So will their ugly rivalry with the Dodgers. That dip in the pool the California boys took after clinching the division at Chase Field hasn’t been forgotten. Both sides were on their best behavior Down Under. We’ll see how long that lasts.

19. Philadelphia Phillies. The Ryne Sandberg-Jimmy Rollins soap opera was one of the more bizarre stories in spring training. Rollins’ I-run-the-show act under Charlie Manuel won’t play anymore. A.J. Burnett helps the rotation but the lineup is full of veterans on the way down (Ryan Howard, Chase Utley) and youngsters not there yet.

20. Baltimore Orioles. They’ll be battling the Blue Jays to stay out of the cellar, proving again how fluky their 2012 playoff run was. The middle of the lineup is dangerous with Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis but the uncertain status of Manny Machado hurts. And they don’t have nearly enough pitching.

21. Toronto Blue Jays. It’s basically the same team everyone picked to go to the World Series last year. They have to be better just because they’re healthier, right? But how much better is the question. Jose Bautista seems to create an uneasy feel in the clubhouse. There’s not much fun in there most times. They failed to add to the rotation, making R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle another year older and still needing to throw 200+ innings. Ryan Goins graduates from the Bisons to take over second base. If they struggle, they could dump big names at the deadline. And they could dump manager John Gibbons and GM Alex Anthopoulos, too.

22. Seattle Mariners. Even with the additions of Robinson Cano, Corey Hart and Fernando Rodney, color me unimpressed. A thin lineup and a thin rotation, sans Felix Hernandez. A retread new manager in Lloyd McClendon, who was nothing special in Pittsburgh. At least you can get great seafood at Safeco Field.

23. Colorado Rockies. The big talk is how many unused seats in the right field upper deck at Coors Field have been taken out and turned into a giant patio bar. So that tells you about the product on the field. They still have Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, and they added Justin Morneau. But no pitching.

24. New York Mets. Poor Terry Collins. The loss of Matt Harvey cooks the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer pretty much before the season starts. Adding Curtis Granderson to the lineup won’t be enough, especially when you realize many of his home runs in the Bronx will be outs in Citi Field. Young fireballer Noah Syndergaard, acquired from Toronto in the Dickey trade, could have big midseason impact.

25. San Diego Padres. Say something about every team is the assignment I get in this space. What am I supposed to say about this bunch? Save for Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin, how many other guys on this roster can you name? Me either. I had to look it up. Next.

26. Chicago White Sox. They’re thankful the Twins are in their division and the Astros are in their league. At least it will be fun to watch Cuban import Jose Abreu at first base. They fired Bisons legend Jeff Manto as hitting coach last season. It wasn’t his fault.

27. Chicago Cubs. There will be far more focus on the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field than there will be on the team, and with good reason. The Friendly Confines are something to be proud of. The product on the field? Nope. Long summer on both sides of Chicagoland.

28. Minnesota Twins. I’m still shocked Ron Gardenhire got a two-year contract extension last September. The Twins have lost 96 or more for three years running and seem to have Lindy Ruff Syndrome: No reason to change what they love even if the numbers say otherwise. Watch for Joe Mauer’s transition to first base.

29. Miami Marlins. They crabbed the Red Sox didn’t bring anything close to a full lineup to a spring training game they charged premium prices for. So Red Sox owner John Henry unleashed a Twitter blast on the Fish that read, “They should apologize for their regular season lineup.” Shots fired. Aside from Giancarlo Stanton and young pitching star Jose Fernandez, what’s there to watch?

30. Houston Astros. They’ve set a franchise record for losses three years in a row, dropping 106, 107 and 111 games. They’re going all Nationals on you by losing big to get No. 1 picks (think Strasburg and Harper) and at least being open about it. The ’Stros hope that shortstop Carlos Correa and pitcher Mark Appel can do the same thing someday. But someday is not 2014.