It is that time of the year again! Baseball, perhaps mankind’s greatest invention, returns tonight. Although the Mariners and Athletics played two games in Tokyo last week, tonight, Thursday and Friday marks the return of baseball to everyone except Bud Selig. Every year has its surprises, and last year had a ton of them. It will be nearly impossible to match last year’s regular season finale, and even harder to replicate the magic that Game Six of the World Series brought. It is memories like those that make baseball America’s sport. For as dramatic as the Super Bowl is, and for as many buzzer beaters that basketball creates, nothing matches baseball in creating theater being played out in front of us. Free of halves and quarters, free of game clocks and shot clocks, transcending time, baseball is America’s sport.
Last year, I did not do a good job predicting playoff teams (four out of eight, thanks to the Red Sox collapse), but I correctly predicted the American League representative in the World Series (for last season’s picks, you can view them here). Without waxing poetic any longer, here are the 2012 MLB predictions.
Division Champions: Philadelphia Phillies. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee return to form the most potent front end of any rotation in baseball, and a supporting cast of pitchers makes Philly the team to beat in the East, and perhaps in the National League. The only obstacle in their path is their continually aging and injury prone offense. Jimmy Rollins has declined over the past three seasons, Chase Utley is out until mid-April (at the earliest), and Ryan Howard’s torn Achilles will keep him out until at least June. Depth will be put to the test early on, but if players like Ty Wiggington and Jim Thome can fill the void long enough, the team will be set in the second half of the season. Let’s also not forget that their outfield of Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and a combination of Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. is stacked. In the bullpen, there’s Jonathan Papelbon, who provides decency for the final three outs, even if last September doesn’t support that. The Phillies have a lot of tools, but some obstacles to overcome, and a tough division too.
Contenders: There’s a case to be made for every other team in the division. Even the Mets, if they can catch a break, could be in contention. I think this division is very deep, especially if Washington can surprise a lot of people, which is a good possibility. I liked the Marlins a lot last year, so let’s start with them.
Miami picked up a couple of big names this past off-season, the biggest being Jose Reyes. The question will not be their offense, because with names like Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton, there will be plenty of firepower. What always costs the Marlins is the health and depth of their starting rotation. If Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibel Sanchez can have a healthy, productive season, they should be in good shape. Mark Buehrle, now in the National League, should help the rotation a lot. The bullpen is in good shape with Heath Bell closing games out, but everything else is a question mark. Miami should be a lot better than last season, but, being in a tough division, will have to prove their worth.
Atlanta is in an interesting position because of their disastrous September. While players like Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters all had very good seasons to revitalize a team that had gotten up there in age, the meltdown in September made the season all for naught. They should continue to blossom, but Jason Hayward’s sophomore slump last season should serve as a reminder to give young players time to develop before projecting results. I think they will still be a good team, and battle most of the season for a wild card spot.
The Nationals are another team that should be good. As long as Stephen Strasburg can deliver Strasmas on a weekly basis, the Nationals will have a high quality ace that the franchise hasn’t had since Bartolo Colon’s days as an Expo. There’s young talent on this team, including Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Roger Bernadina. If Jayson Werth lives up to his massive contract that he signed last winter, which he must do if Washington wants to make a considerable run at the playoffs, the offense will have someone to drive in all those ducks on the pond. But its all about pitching, and the Nationals need the young pitchers to step up. Edwin Jackson signed a big contract over the winter, and if he can replicate last year’s success, it could be a happy season in Washington.
While the Mets are going to need a lot of help to be competitive, but it is not impossible. First, I think that the new dimensions of Citi Field are going to help their offense, namely Jason Bay and David Wright. They have Andres Torres as their new leadoff hitter, and although he has never been one to hit much, he is a great on-base man. If Wright, Bay, Ike Davis and Daniel Murphy can remain healthy, the Mets have a solid enough offense. The big question is their pitching. Neither their rotation nor their bullpen is close to strong enough to compete with any other team in the division. It’s a rotation of “ifs”. IF Johan Santana can pitch well and stay healthy, IF Mike Pelfrey can pitch well, IF Dillon Gee, R.A. Dickey and Jon Niese can contribute, the Mets have a shot. But as we’ve seen in the past, none of them are guarantees to stay healthy or be consistent. Of the five teams in the division, I think the Mets are the least likely to stay competitive, just based off of team depth and response to fill vacancies created by injuries. Sure, there’s a chance the Mets could finish in last place, but I think there’s just as good of a chance of the Nationals not being able to pick themselves out of a slide, or Miami having injury issues.
For those reasons, the NL East will be – 1: Phillies, 2: Braves, 3: Marlins, 4: Mets, 5: Nationals
Division Champions: Although Milwaukee lost one of their superstars to free agency, I still like the Brewers to repeat as champions. Their starting rotation remains the same, and Jonathan Axford returns to try and cement his place as one of the game’s best closers. The lineup is still stacked with players such as Nyjer Morgan, Rickie Weeks, Cory Hart, and the reigning NL MVP, Ryan Braun. They caught a big break when Braun successfully appealed his 50 suspension for elevated testosterone levels. While they might not be America’s darling like they were last season, the Brew Crew have all the tools they need to make another run at the National League Pennant.
There hasn’t been much improvement in the division. The Reds, Cardinals and Pirates will compete for playoff spots. Yes, I said the Pirates. The Pittsburgh Pirates. Pittsburgh had a very solid first half of the season before fizzling out (helped out by Gerry Meals). The addition of A.J. Burnett brings some legitimacy to Pittsburgh’s club. Nerves have been Burnett’s Achilles heel throughout his career. If Burnett can’t deal with the pressure of Pittsburgh, then he is perhaps the most spineless pitcher in the game. While nothing about the team stands out, in the NL Central you don’t have to stand out to be competitive. The Cardinals are Pujols-less, Cincinnati is always enigmatic, and Houston and Chicago are rebuilding. This could be a surprising season for Pittsburgh, and if they finish around .500, with the addition of the fifth playoff team, that may be good enough to keep them in contention until September.
On the topic of the Reds, Cincinnati always confuses me. After they had a very good season in 2008, I picked them in ’09 to have another good season, but they disappointed. I did not pick them in 2010, and they ended up winning their division that year. Last year, I liked them, and they spun the wheels in the mud of mediocrity. There’s not that much different about this year’s team. The team will go as far as Joey Votto and Jay Bruce take them. Their offense is decent, especially if Bruce can find his 2010 form. The pitching, which disappointed last year, remains mostly the same. They suffered a horrible incident in Spring Training, when it was learned that free agent signee, Ryan Madson was going to miss the entire season. That may end up hurting their bullpen, especially as the season wears on.
The Cardinals are an interesting team. They won the World Series, but they do not come into this season with the same feel as a defending champion usually does. They lost their legendary player (Albert Pujols) and their legendary manager, Tony LaRussa. Mike Matheny will manage the team, which will not have start tonight’s season opener as he suffers from a bulging disk in his neck. But they do have Adam Wainwright healthy, and he will start on Saturday after missing all of 2011. Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia form a solid rotation. What worries me is the offense, which lost Pujols, and (don’t call me crazy) can’t rely on the aging Lance Berkman to replicate his incredible 2011 campaign. I don’t think the Cardinals will be bad, but I don’t think they are a World Series caliber team. But they should be able to compete in this weak division.
The Cubs will have to wait a few years before Theo Epstien makes a difference, and the Astros are waiting for a move to the American League West or divine intervention before they field a winning team.
NL Central Standings – 1: Milwaukee, 2: St. Louis, 3: Cincinnati, 4: Pittsburgh, 5: Cubs, 6: Astros.
Division Champions: I really think that the San Francisco Giants would have won the division last year if they had Buster Posey healthy for the entire year. He was not, and the team felt the consequences. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain rival Halladay/Lee as the best 1-2 punch in baseball and their bullpen remains solid, led by Brian Wilson’s beard. The offense, as long as Posey is in there, has enough firepower. They acquired Angel Pagan from the Mets, a good replacement for Andres Torres at the top of the lineup, and they have decent but not great hitters throughout. The division is not that tough, which should make it easier for the Giants to compete.
Arizona, the NL West champions from last year, are pretty much the same team. Kirk Gibson seems to have cleaned up a lot of the dead weight that was hanging around from 2008 through 2010, and Justin Upton, Ryan Roberts and Ian Kennedy all had career seasons last year. It is entirely possible for them to repeat, if everyone can remain healthy. This team was a base hit away from advancing to the NLCS last year, and I think with young pitching like Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, the team can only improve. Look for a great division battle between the D’Backs and the Giants.
I think the Dodgers have something going for them, and it helps that their ownership problems are resolves. The team started out dismally last year, but had a strong second half to finish respectably. They have Clayton Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young Award winner and perhaps the best young pitcher in the game. But they lose Huroki Kuroda, who very quietly gave the Dodgers a lot of quality innings. Their rotation is weaker, but their offense is there, led by Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. While lacking the pitching firepower to win the division, they should battle for a playoff spot until August.
Colorado is an offensive powerhouse. Carlos Gomez, Troy Tulowitski and Michael Cuddyer will rake in runs. But there is not a drop of pitching to be found. Their ace is Jeremy Guthrie, and not even I recognize any of the names on their pitching staff. The Ubaldo Jimenez train has left the station, and with that, any chance of Colorado competing. Luckily, the San Diego Padres are in the division, and will prevent Colorado from finishing in the cellar.
NL West Standings – 1: Giants, 2: Arizona, 3: Dodgers, 4: Colorado, 5: San Diego
Division Champions: You’d have to be crazy not to pick the Angels to win the division. Sorry to disappoint you all, but I am not crazy. The only thing that prevented the Angels from making the playoffs last year was their anemic offense. I’ve just got this hunch that Albert Pujols will help to fix that. The Angels got career years from Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana in 2011, and if they can provide more quality pitching, then C.J. Wilson’s presence should be more than enough to catapult them to the top of the division.
Buffalo Bills Texas Rangers are also in good position to make the playoffs. They return all their weapons on offense, but lose a lot from their pitching staff, most notably C.J. Wilson. Derek Holland, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison will be thrust into the mix. No one is sure what Yu Darvish will bring to the table, but if he can be what Daisuke Matsuzaka was to the 2007 Red Sox, Texas will be set.
Seattle will be better than last year, and if you wait long enough for their prospects, such as Dustin Ackley, to develop, will be a solid team for years to come. But it will not be this year. Oakland took a lot of risks in the off season by signing Manny Ramirez (who will have to serve a steroid suspension) and Yoenis Cespedes, but are relatively weak everywhere else except for Jemile Weeks. Their pitching is their strongest point, but they will not score enough runs to win many games.
AL West – 1: Angels, 2: Rangers, 3: Mariners, 4: A’s
Division Champions: It’s nearly impossible not to pick Detroit. Justin Verlander finally asserted himself as the best pitcher in the game, and if he has a year that is even half as good, the Tigers will be in good shape. Most of their offense remains intact, although Victor Martinez will miss the season with a torn ACL. Instead, their clean-up hitter will be Prince Fielder. That’s not a bad substitute. Outside of Verlander, their rotation consists of Max Scherzer, Doug Fister. If Jose Valverde can repeat his incredible 2011 season, the Tigers can easily run away with the division.
I don’t see anyone else really competing with them, unless Ron Gardenhire can get Minnesota back to the top. The Twins were without Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer for nearly all of 2011, and it showed. If those two are healthy, or even if only Mauer is healthy, it could provide the Twins with enough offense to be competitive. Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano and Jason Marquis lead the pitching staff, which is not a bad rotation, but Liriano needs to show the Twins that he is capable of being an above average starter. If Mauer and Morneau are healthy, the team may rival Detroit for the division, especially if Detroit gets caught up in the malaise that they were in from 2008-2010.
The rest of the division ranges from average (Kansas City) to disastrous (Chicago). The Royals have a lot of young talent, and this could be the year where they start to break out of their decades-long slumber. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will lead the offense, which should be pretty decent, but the pitching still needs to get better. Cleveland has some tools on offense, specifically Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera, but again, there is no pitching to be found and no pitching on the way, unless Ubaldo Jimenez gets his head screwed on correctly. Chicago disintegrated last year, and without Mark Buehrle, I don’t see them being better.
AL Central Standings – 1: Tigers, 2: Twins, 3: Royals, 4: White Sox, 5: Indians
Division Champions: The New York Yankees enter the season as the team to beat in the AL East. I know it seems biased because I am a Yankee fan, but, well it’s true. They significantly upgraded their rotation with the acquisition of Huroki Kuroda and return their always potent offense. The best part about the team is the depth of their rotation, which goes deep even into the minor leagues. Their rotation of CC Sabathia, Kuroda, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova is significantly better than last year’s potpourri of pitchers. They also have Andy Pettitte prepping to rejoin the rotation by May, and also have a bevy of pitchers waiting in AAA, including Dellin Betances, and David Phelps. And they have the best bullpen in baseball, with David Robertson and Mariano Rivera at the end of the game. Unless injuries pile up, the Yankees should be set for October.
The Rays should finish in second place, especially if their pitching continues to get better. David Price had an off year last season, and still was pretty decent for a pitcher in the American League East. James Shields returns as does most of last year’s team. They have a good, young offense, led by Evan Longoria. Desmond Jennings should continue to improve as well, and Carlos Pena is reunited with the team that he helped lead to the 2008 World Series. The bullpen is the Rays’ biggest weakness, so if there’s one reason they do not make the playoffs, the end of games will be the reason.
The Red Sox finished 2011 on a horrible note, perhaps the worst regular season collapse that baseball has seen. They have a new manager, Bobby Valentine, and a new general manager. But they did not do much to improve on last year’s team. They signed Andrew Bailey to close out games, but Bailey suffered an injury at the end of Spring Training and will miss the start of the season. They will not be bad, and will probably pick up that final Wild Card spot, but their pitching woes will prevent them from being serious championship contenders.
The Orioles and Blue Jays will be like they always are – background noise.
AL East Standings – 1: Yankees, 2: Rays, 3: Red Sox, 4: Blue Jays, 5: Orioles.
National League Playoffs:
Phillies will get the top seed, followed by the Brewers and Giants. The two Wild Card teams will be Arizona and St. Louis.
American League Playoffs:
Angels will get the top seed, followed by the Yankees and Tigers. In an all AL East wild card game, the Rays will face the Red Sox.
Hard to say, based on how deep the American League is. To be different, I’ll pick the Angels vs. Milwaukee.
Let’s see what happens. Have a Happy Opening Day!
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