Nationals, Braves, Dodgers Could Be Baseball's Teams To Watch This Season

Baseball fans and teams begin the 2013 season this weekend eager and full of hope. Robert Siegel gets the details from sportswriter Stefan Fatsis.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A clean slate, that's what baseball teams and baseball fans have right now with the season about to begin on Sunday night. Or at least that's what fans can imagine as we look ahead at this year's games across the field at fresh grass, blank scorecards in our hands. Enough romance, already. Joining us for a reality check on baseball is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis, who joins us most Fridays. Stefan, who's good? Who are you excited to see this year?

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Oh, well, we're in Washington, Robert, so how can you not be excited to see the Washington Nationals. They're bringing back, of course, their tandem of 20-year-old Bryce Harper. He's now 20. And 24-year-old pitcher Stephen Strasburg. They are projected to go back into the playoffs. Many people are projecting them to win the World Series.

SIEGEL: Harper hit about 500 in spring training.

FATSIS: Yeah, he did. And Strasburg likely will have a green light to pitch more innings than he did last year when the Nationals shut him down late in the season because he was recovering from arm surgery.

SIEGEL: OK. So the mighty Washington Nationals this year. What about the mighty Yankees? They don't look so mighty this year.

FATSIS: No, they're not going to be mighty at all. They're injured; they're old. They still have a lot of money being spent on their team, but get ready for a big salary dump after this season. The Boston Red Sox, another free-spending team, weaker. There's a lot of change in the American League.

Teams that you have not associated with spending have upgraded, in particular the Toronto Blue Jays, they traded for the star knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, formerly of the New York Mets. They added shortstop Jose Reyes from Miami, which purged its roster just a year after spending liberally in hopes of putting a good team in a new taxpayer-funded stadium, smaller payroll.

Tampa should be good again, smaller payroll. Cleveland spent a bunch of money, an even smaller payroll. Kansas City is trying to win now for the first time in a long time, and that's the American League.

SIEGEL: Now strangely enough, the opening game on Sunday is not a marquee opening night match. It is the Texas Rangers against the Houston Astros, who were the worst team in baseball last year and who have changed leagues. They've gone from the National League to the American League.

FATSIS: Yeah, they lost 107 games last year. They're probably going to be the worst team in baseball again. Their major league roster has been stripped to the bone. The club itself was sold. And then baseball commissioner Bud Selig essentially forced the team to move to the American League, a lot of fans are not happy about that. The Astros are going to spend $24 million on their roster this year. The New York Yankees are spending, right now, $228 million.

SIEGEL: Well, that competitive parity that you described in the American League, does it apply to the National League, as well?

FATSIS: Yeah, it definitely feels that way. In addition to Washington, the Atlanta Braves have upgraded. They have brothers playing the outfield, B.J. and Justin Upton, which is a rarity in baseball. Cincinnati was good last year; they're better this year. And then you've got the Los Angeles Dodgers, new ownership, more than doubled the payroll. They've become just the second team to break $200 million. The big off-season acquisition there was the pitcher Zack Greinke.

SIEGEL: What prompted all that Dodgers spending?

FATSIS: Yeah, television money, of course. In January, the Dodgers announced a deal with Time Warner Cable. They're going to create a channel that'll show Dodgers games. And that could pay the team as much as $8 billion over 25 years. And much of that money is likely to be exempt from Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing pool, that is money that's distributed from the wealthier teams to less financially successful teams.

And it's why financial disparity is such a thorn for the sport despite advances in sharing. For instance, baseball does share Internet revenue. Then revenue sharing has helped teams like Tampa and Kansas City, but the gap is just so huge, and really only in baseball, Robert, do you still see these sorts of absurd differences in spending.

SIEGEL: You're not going to mention the Milwaukee Brewers no matter what I do, are you?

FATSIS: You know, the fact that you've become a Milwaukee Brewers fan I think is wonderful. But, yes, your obsession with them is a bit much for us to continue talking about.

SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, despite his better judgment, joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate.com's sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen."

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