Then there are the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tarnished by ownership-related issues, both clubs seem set to slog behind the competition for yet another season. While Larkin praises Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw for maintaining their focus as off-the-field brushfires flared, he believes the Mets start further back in the race to return to respectability.
“[Mets exec] Sandy Alderson is a great general manager, and he’ll insulate the players from what’s happening upstairs,” Larkin explains. “But [departed shortstop] Jose Reyes was such a big part of that team. He created a lot of the excitement.” As for Reyes, Larkin plans to watch his new employer, the rechristened Miami Marlins, closely, even as he recoils at their new uniforms. “Maybe they’ll look better when they’re dirty,” he laughs. For the first time in years, the Marlins spent extravagantly in free agency, importing Reyes, closer Heath Bell (from the San Diego Padres) and lefty Mark Buehrle (from the Chicago White Sox). The one problem? Reyes’ addition pushes longtime Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez over to third base.
Larkin admits that he himself might not have responded favorably to such a request. In the 1992 MLB draft, the Reds had the opportunity to draft Derek Jeter; had they done so, Larkin might’ve been asked to switch positions to accommodate the young super-prospect. “If someone asks me, ‘If Derek Jeter came to the Reds when you were 27 years old and had five years in the league, would you have moved?’ I say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Larkin admits. “In Hanley’s defense, it’s a matter of pride. … As a competitor, you want to feel like you’re in charge of your own destiny.”
While he assumes the Marlins have soothed any hurt feelings, Larkin doesn’t think the team has enough punch to surpass the pitching-rich Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. In the “wide open” NL Central, he expects the Reds to push the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers for the division title. In the NL West he predicts a repeat by the Arizona Diamondbacks, with the Colorado Rockies close behind.
As for the American League, Larkin anticipates the usual New York Yankees/Tampa Bay Rays/Red Sox cluster atop the AL East. He thinks the AL Central is the league’s only division with a clear favorite — the Tigers — and he expects the Angels to nudge out the Rangers in the AL West.