#WeekendWalkOff: The boys of summer are back

A look at the 2015 MLB season

#WeekendWalkOff is a weekly column where sports and pop culture collide in a look at the one of that week’s biggest sports topics.

As temperatures drop below freezing and snow covers the local baseball fields, things are heating up in Arizona and Florida.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a global warming pitch, but soon enough Adam Dunn will be back on his personal mission of trying to poke holes in the ozone layer with his homerun (or strikeout) swing. Yes, baseball is back. Sort of. Spring training games began this week.

As with most off-seasons, the MLB off-season didn’t conclude without some major moves (or lack thereof). Bud Selig is no longer the commissioner, Derek Jeter isn’t manning shortstop for the Yankees anymore, A-Rod is back (maybe?), the Red Sox signed a whole new team and Yasiel Puig finally found his cut-off man.

Now, with the beginning of spring training games, and Opening Day just a month away, experts are beginning to make their starting rotation, batting order and even World Series predictions. It wouldn’t be a #WeekendWalkOff if I didn’t do the same.

Let’s start out west in the National League. The NL West will likely come down to three teams: the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres. The Padres, like the Red Sox, acquired what seems like an entirely new lineup. With the improved lineup, the Padres might just get more hits than Drake’s newest release. Maybe.

The Giants lost Pablo Sandoval, but they still have World Series-hero Madison Bumgarner, who looks like Shia LaBeouf in a baseball uniform. San Francisco will have to hope its six-man rotation, with an average age of 32.3, can transform into younger incarnations of themselves if they want to hang with the Padres and the Dodgers, who finished with the second-best record in the NL last season.

Next up, one of the toughest divisions in baseball in recent years: the NL Central. Regardless of how I look at it, though, I still see St. Louis coming out on top. The Cardinals have arguably the most complete team in the division and are a model franchise for success.

Fighting for second will likely beat the Brewers and Pirates. Then there’s the Reds and Cubs. Cincinnati will either have to trade Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline or watch as he drives the U-Haul blasting “Irreplaceable” out of the GABP parking lot at the end of the season.

There’s a weird, positive mood about the Cubs this year, mostly because Back To The Future II predicted this was the year they win the World Series and because they managed to lure manager Joe Madden from Tampa Bay and steal ace Jon Lester from Boston in free agency (okay, maybe I’m still bitter), but I’ll believe they’re World Series-contenders when cars fly.

In the NL East, the Nationals should take care of business rather easily. They’ve put together the best pitching rotation in all of baseball and have a lineup anchored by Bryce Harper. As for the rest of the division, it will be interesting to see if the Marlins and Mets can feast on the weak Phillies and Braves or if it becomes a Royal Rumble of average teams to decide who finishes behind Washington.

Now, let’s jump over to the American League. We’ll start in the AL East, where I’m admittedly biased. The division will likely come down to the Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees. Either Boston’s roster overhaul in chase of its fourth title in 11 years will lead to another memorable October or leave general manager Ben Cherington laughing at his off-season moves like Tom Hanks in The Money Pit.

Speaking of The Money Pit, how about the New York Yankees? The Bronx Bombers have a solid, but old and declining rotation, and a similar lineup which demands the second-highest payroll in baseball behind the Dodgers.

Then there’s Alex Rodriguez. The 39-year old will be due $22 million in his first season back from the PED suspension that kept him out for the entire 2014 season. Whether or not he can attribute anything tangible to New York’s season remains to be seen after A-Rod went 0-2 against the pitching machine in addition to outfielder Chris Young striking out against the same machine.

Should we pencil in the machine as the Opening Day starter in New York?

In the AL Central, Kansas City, the Cinderella story of last season’s playoffs, will have a hard time finding its glass slipper after watching James Shields and Billy Butler head elsewhere. Looking to take over the Central’s top spot will be the Tigers, Indians and White Sox.

Detroit lost 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, but will replace him with David Price. Cleveland will hope that LeBron’s return to the Cavs will rejuvenate the cities’ sports fans who claimed the second-worst attendance rates in the MLB last season. Other than that, they’re more or less the same team from last year.

Finally, in the AL West, the Angels look to be the front-runner, but they’ll have to contend with the Seattle Mariners who added an angel to its outfield. No, Nelson Cruz isn’t a former Angel, but he’s a savior for an offense that was average at best last season. It will also be interesting to see how Texas rebounds after falling apart faster than Trinidad James’ rap career.

Every division, with the exception of the NL East, has the potential for close races throughout the summer and into the fall. In addition to the on-field results, intriguing storylines like the new pace-of-play rules, teams assembled to win now (looking at you Red Sox, Nationals and Dodgers), A-Rod back (yes, whether you like him or not, he keeps your attention) and emerging young teams (Cubs, Mariners, Angels and Padres) will be fun to follow.

So, while you bundle up and head out into the aftermath of Winter Storm Thor, just remember first pitch is on the other side of March.

Shannon Stowers can be contacted at [email protected].