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Hope was everywhere during opening week—even in Houston, where the home team's payroll was low (at $26 million, it is the smallest in the game in seven years) but spirits were high when the 2013 season began on Sunday night. The Astros unveiled new colors, a new logo and a new manager (Bo Porter) in their first game as an American League franchise. And they got their newest divisional rivalry off to an unexpectedly strong start, beating their closest AL West foes, the Rangers, 8--2.
All in all, not a bad launch party. And really, opening week is a party: introductions, celebrities, bunting and an intoxicating sense that this season, everyone will go home happy. In a baseball world that is increasingly unpredictable, there is truth in all those clichés about optimism. Ask the Orioles and the A's, two teams that a year ago never dreamed they would be in the postseason six months later. (Or ask the Angels if anything is possible: Last year's preseason darlings, expected to cruise into the World Series, watched October from home.)
Here's what we do know at the dawn of the 2013 season. The World Series winner could come from almost anywhere: Nine teams have won championships over the last 12 years. Money no longer guarantees success, not with fat local TV deals fattening the wallets of mid- and small-market teams, allowing them to lock up their top young players. The result is a shrinking free-agent inventory that's forcing big-market franchises to learn to build from within.
The changing economics of the game have led to a bear market for super teams: There have been just three 100-win clubs since 2005, and this year the parity is more widespread than usual, with traditional powers from the I-95 corridor—the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies—hobbling uneasily into April.
We also know that there will be an October surprise. Last year four losing teams from 2011—the A's, Orioles, Nationals and Reds—crashed the postseason dance. So we're looking at you, fans of the Indians, Royals, Mariners and Padres. Your teams, big losers in 2012, have a shot after roster makeovers this off-season.
So hope abounds this week, from Los Angeles, where Opening Day for the $216 million Dodgers felt like the Hollywood premiere of the year; to Atlanta, where the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, jogged out to the outfield together for the first time as Braves teammates; to Toronto, where new knuckleballing ace R.A. Dickey fired—O.K., fluttered—the first pitch for the new-look Blue Jays.
None of those teams has won the World Series since at least 1995. In fact, several of the clubs favored by Las Vegas to win the championship—that trio, plus the Nationals, Reds, Tigers and Rays—have waited at least that long since their last titles (if they have one at all). And one day into the season, none of them felt more confident about ending the drought than Washington, which beat the Marlins on Monday behind two home runs from 20-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper and seven shutout innings from 24-year-old ace Stephen Strasburg. Young guns, indeed.
Of course, over the next few weeks reality will set in for undermanned clubs like the Astros, who will collectively earn less this season than Alex Rodriguez, who is owed $29 million but, with his injured hip, isn't expected to play for the Yankees until July. But write off Houston at your peril. If we know anything at the start of this season, it's that anything is possible.