1.)Phillies: The Phillies have the most potent 1-2-3 in the MLB. Roy Halladay/Cliff Lee/Cole Hamels are as intimidating a force as a trio of pitchers can get. No one questions that. It’s what the Phillies have after them, that makes baseball fanatics everywhere, skeptical about how far this team can go. To be honest, the most important Philly this year is Vance Worley. He had a phenomenal rookie campaign, reminiscent of rookie J.A. Happ’s a couple seasons ago. Where the problem lies, is that Happ struggled in his sophomore year & got shipped to Houston. With the loss of Oswalt, Worley will have to anchor the back end of the rotation. While still containing a lot of the same players from the past few years, this isn’t the same force that won the World Series a few years ago. Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, & Chase Utley have all battled injuries the past couple years making them inconsistent at best. Howard’s most recent injury is definitely a red flag, because if he doesn’t have his legs, then he doesn’t have his power & that takes away pretty much all of his offensive importance. Since being sent over from Houston in a mid-season deal last year, Hunter Pence has become the catalyst of this reeling offense. Debatably their most complete offensive weapon going into this season. During the Phillies’ complete dominance of the NL East, one player has been lost in the shuffle on their roster: Shane Victorino. One of the most complete players in all of baseball & is always a candidate to lead the league in triples. He has speed, a little bit of pop in his bat, & at the same time is one of the best defensive CFs in the game. He’s a complete player. Relief pitching has been one of Philly’s biggest weaknesses over the past few years, with the exception of Brad Lidge’s perfect save campaign. Now that Lidge & Ryan Madson are gone, Antonio Bastardo & Jose Contreras are going to have bigger obligations that they’ll have to adhere to, since they’ll presumably split time setting up for new Phils’ closer Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon should be able to shine in his first year in the NL, as long as he’s able to put Boston’s heartbreaking collapse, that he was a part of, in his rearview mirror. While the NL East is getting better, the Phillies are stagnant, but until someone knocks them off their throne, they’re still the team to beat in this division.
2.)Marlins: A new stadium, a new manager, a plethora of new faces, new uniforms, & a fresh, new excitement are causing a ruckus in South Beach. A new identity is taking shape & with hot-headed Ozzie Guillen at the helm, the Marlins are sure to contend this year. Mid-June, when Josh Johnson got hurt last year, he had an ERA just a graze over 1.00 & the Marlins had the best record in baseball at 31-9. When healthy, he’s easily one of the five best pitchers in baseball. Behind Johnson, is former White Sox ace Mark Buehrle. Buehrle can eat innings & provides leadership for a relatively young team. The off & on Ricky Nolasco, under the radar mysterious Anibal Sanchez, & temperamental Carlos Zambrano round out their formidable pitching staff. If all of them stay healthy & live up to their hype, then they can become the best rotation 1-5 in the entire NL. In their offseason shopping spree, Marlins snagged the best closer on the market in the form of Heath Bell. Biggest question mark for Bell is, whether or not he’ll be able to adapt outside the confines of pitcher-friendly Petco Park. If so, then he’ll be the one bright spot in an otherwise mediocre pen. Offensively, the Marlins are hard to define. Mike Stanton has the pop to win his fair share of silver sluggers & Hanley Ramirez is still their superstar who should be able to rebound from an injury-filled slump. Jose Reyes is finally out of New York & finally doesn’t have to bare the harsh weather conditions anymore, so he should get back to the speed that made him so unique in his early years. However, Gaby Sanchez & Logan Morrison are the big keys offensively for the Marlins if they want to win the NL East or at least a wild card spot in 2012. If injuries don’t creep up on them again in 2012, then the fish become the fishers & become a darkhorse candidate to represent the NL in the World Series.
3.)Nationals: Baseball’s been bleak in the nation’s capital in its short presence there. However, the wait is over, the Nationals are finally about to step out of the shadows of baseball obscurity & elevate themselves to the next level this season. A now potent rotation led by rookie hurler Stephen Strasburg seems like one of the most dangerous rotations in the NL on paper. To go along with Strasburg, the Nationals have another young arm in Jordan Zimmermann who’s impressed in his short time in the majors. An offseason trade with the A’s brought lefty Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals & is presumed by many as their ace, until Strasburg is ready to take the role on himself. After the deal to get Gonzalez, most people thought that the Nationals were done this offseason, but quite the contrary. Instead, they signed Edwin Jackson, who just came off an improbable World Series run with the St. Louis Cardinals. However, the Nationals depth doesn’t stop right there. You look at the 8th & 9th inning tandem of Tyler Clippard & Drew Storen & it is clearly one of the best in the league. Also, although Brad Lidge’s health has been influx over the past year & a half, when healthy he can mentor the young arms in the pen & can be used as a multi-inning guy if need be. Offensively, the Nationals aren’t pushovers anymore either. Bryce Harper is the best hitting prospect in the game & it isn’t known if he’ll make his debut this year, or if the Nationals will wait to bring him up, but even without him they have a lot of pop to their lineup. Perennial All-Star Ryan Zimmerman leads what is now considered a very formidable lineup. Michael Morse looks to build off the incredible year he had last year & become a middle-of-the-order type of bat, Jayson Werth is in line to bounce back from an awful 2011 & show why the Nationals gave him all of that money in free agency two years ago & to top it off, Wilson Ramos is considered by numerous analysts as the next great offensive catcher. Nationals are no longer the soft pushovers, like their predecessors, but instead are a serious contender.
4.)Braves: Going into last season, the Braves were a sneaky pick by many as the darkhorse team to represent the NL in the World Series. Down the stretch, a lot of injuries & a young bullpen caught up to them, as rookie sensation Craig Kimbrel blew a save on the last day of the regular season to finish their epic collapse. The Braves are the walking personification of an enigma. On paper, they look like debatably the most balanced team in the NL East. However, that’s why you have to play the games. A couple years ago, the Braves had the best starting rotation in the game, however Derek Lowe was traded this offseason to the Indians & all three of their best starters have nagging injuries(Tim Hudson/Tommy Hanson/Jair Jurrjens). Braves have the best backend of the bullpen of any team in the MLB. No one can top their big three of Eric O’Flaherty/Jonny Venters/Craig Kimbrel. All three are relatively young & if a starter can go 6 IPs & hand the lead over to the pen, then the team believes they can win. Offensively, the Braves have yet to find an identity in what I like to refer to as the Post-Cox Era. Freddie Freeman has drawn favorable comparisons to Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. Jason Heyward lived up to all his hype & had an incredible rookie campaign, before tapering off into a sophomore slump, but he’ll have to bounce back if the Braves want to stay afloat in this loaded division. Braves expect big things out of rookie Tyler Pastornicky, who gets the nod as their opening day SS & is considered by some, the favorite to win NL Rookie Of The Year this year. Brian McCann is the model of consistency offensively for catcher & has been the only consistent production over the past five seasons. Martin Prado is the glue guy that every team needs, he can play any OF position, along with most of the infield if need be, all while providing a pop to his bat as well. Michael Bourn has been the Braves’ most solid offensive producer since a midseason trade sent him to the Braves from the Astros, last year. Dan Uggla is a tale of two stories. Last year, he struggled to adapt to his new team. He had a long mid-season hit streak in which he hit .337, however the rest of the season he hit an abysmal .197. He’s the only 2B in the history of the MLB to hit 30+ home runs five times. It’s impossible to fully figure him out, because the power’s there, but the on base % isn’t. The days of the Chipper Jones’ Braves are over. He’s nearing retirement & no one knows how much he has left in the tank, but he’s handing the torch over to the young blood &with that will come growing pains. Injuries & youth will make this season, a tough pill for fans to swallow. The talent’s there, but it’s hard to gauge if they’ll all be able to stay healthy & piece it together this year.
5.)Mets: The Mets are in for a long season, while most of their division foes shored up their weaknesses, they actually got worse. David Wright leads an abysmal cast of Mets, as presumably their lone All-Star. Ike Davis has shown a lot of promise in his brief career & should be able to up his game to the next level this year. He was off to a scorching start last year, before an injury ended his season. Hopefully this is the year that Jason Bay finally shows why the Mets paid him the big bucks in free agency a couple years ago. To say he’s been awful in New York so far, would be an understatement. In one of their few bright spots, Jon Rauch & Frank Francisco anchor the backend of the Mets’ bullpen. While short tempered, they should be solid in their few hold & save situations this season. Just a short five seasons ago, it was no question that Johan Santana was the best pitcher in baseball. Now, numerous surgeries later, Santana can’t stay healthy enough to prove he’s even a good pitcher. He’s the ace of a very mediocre rotation, that is as bipolar as you can find in baseball. While, the Mets are destined for last place in the NL East, maybe they’ll shock the world & win 70 games this year. Hey, people can dream, can’t they?
1.)Reds: After claiming their first division title under skipper Dusty Baker, the Reds took a step back as a faulty bullpen & poor plate discipline led to their demise. Reds started their offseason shake up by shipping oft-injured ace Edinson Volquez & highly touted prospect Yonder Alonso to the Padres for one of the brightest young arms in the game in Mat Latos. Latos has a career 1.93 ERA in Great American Ballpark, which is a big reason why Walt Jocketty pulled the trigger on such a trade to acquire him. Latos will be coupled with Johnny Cueto who finished the season with a minuscule 2.31 ERA last year to make up one of the best 1-2s in the NL. After those two, it’s presumed that Bronson Arroyo will be their #3, who even at his worst finds his way to keep the Reds in games to pull out victories. Mike Leake, who sported a 3.86 ERA in his sophomore season a year ago, looks like the candidate to get the 4th spot in their rotation, while the man with the fastest fastball in the majors, Aroldis Chapman, will likely round out their rotation. Reds’ biggest problem offensively becomes lack of consistent depth. Joey Votto is going into a contract year & will assuredly put up numbers similar to those of his MVP season, while Brandon Phillips will remain the best offensive 2B in the NL. Reds need to have bounce back years from both Jay Bruce & Drew Stubbs, if they want to make a trip back to the postseason. Last year, they lacked any form of plate discipline & it led to a lot of strikeouts & in turn a very stagnant offense. Reds’ shipped their starting catcher Ramon Hernandez to the Rockies, in order to make room for their top catching prospect, Devin Mesoraco. They expect big things from him, whether he makes an impact on their club this year or a couple years down the line, is another story, but he’ll at least get a shot to earn the starting job out of Spring Training. Once a middle of the order bat, Ryan Ludwick went to San Diego & PetCo messed up his swing, but he’s assured people that he’s working to get his swing back & if he does, then he becomes another weapon they can plug in the 6 or 7 hole to give them more depth. The Reds’ biggest downfall last year, was their bullpen. Their pen had 29 blown saves last year, so to correct that, Jocketty brought in Sean Marshall & Ryan Madson, Marshall has been brilliant in the 8th inning the past two years for the Cubs, sporting an ERA barely over 2.00, whereas Ryan Madson is one of the best young closers in the MLB & should take over where Cordero left off last year. The NL Central is wide open this year & the Reds are the only team in the Central that have gotten significantly better this offseason. It’ll be a competitive division, but in the end the Reds should win it.
2.)Brewers: The Brewers have had a very mundane offseason. They lost their biggest power bat, Prince Fielder, to free agency & their NL MVP, Ryan Braun, tested positive for PEDs, but they’re lucky that he became the first player ever to successfully appeal a suspension. Ryan Braun’s bat will become even more important this season, without Fielder there as protection for him. However, the Brewers had the lowest ERA among starting rotations, in the MLB, last year. Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, & Chris Narveson combine to make up one of the most formidable rotations in the NL. Offensively, the Brewers no longer pack the same punch that they did a year ago. They brought in Aramis Ramirez to soften the blow a little bit, but he doesn’t provide the same type of power that Fielder did. Both Corey Hart & Rickie Weeks have proven over the past several years, that when healthy, they’re two of the most consistent hitters in the NL, but this year have to become bigger parts of the offense, if the Brew Crew want to have a shot to win the Central again. Replacing Fielder at 1B, will be rookie sensation Mat Gamel, who many Brewer faithful think will become a star. At the end of their pen, they have a lockdown duo in Francisco Rodriguez & John Axford, who will finish games with ferocity & passion, leaving teams who are trailing late in games with a sense of hopelessness. Brewers have the pitching depth to stay in contention all year, it’s just a matter of if they’ll be able to muster up enough runs to win the pennant & head back to October as the NL Central Champions.
3.)Cardinals: After an improbable run, that started with a 10.5 game deficit in late August & culminated with a World Series title, the Cardinals have set out to defend their championship with a new cast of characters. The era of Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, & Albert Pujols has come to an end & new manager Mike Matheny will have to develop a new identity for this ball club, if it wants to obtain the same success that they have had over the past 8 seasons. Last year, the Cardinals’ bullpen imploded early on leading to a substantial amount of blown saves throughout the season, which racked up to 24 by the end of the year. By the trade deadline, John Mozeliak was able to acquire enough arms to carry them down the stretch. While Octavio Dotel & Arthur Rhodes won’t be back with the Cardinals, Marc Rzepczynski (also known as Scrabble) still is. Along with Scrabble, the backend of the Cards’ pen will contain Fernando Salas, & Jason Motte. Between the three of them, they combined for 11 blown saves last year in a little over half a season, after Ryan Franklin got demoted for struggling mightily. While the Cardinals’ bullpen was one of the reasons that they fell 10.5 games back, it also played a crucial part in them winning the World Series. While their bullpen has taken a step back, their rotation has presumably gotten better, with the return of their ace Adam Wainwright. While some pitchers have struggled with control after Tommy John surgery, Wainwright is expected to be at full health when the season gets underway. Behind Wainwright, the redbirds’ rotation becomes a little more puzzling. Last year, Carpenter started the season 1-8, before going 10-1 down the stretch, which carried over into the playoffs. Jaime Garcia had a brilliant rookie year, before being inconsistent in his sophomore year. If Carpenter & Garcia struggle again this year, then a lot more pressure will be put on Kyle Lohse to excel yet again. He led all Cards’ starters last year with 14 win & will be one of the biggest keys to the Cardinals’ 2012 season. Offensively, the Cardinals aren’t the same team, without Pujols. Even when he was setting career lows in a lot of key offensive categories last year, his presence was felt by every opposing team. No other Cardinals’ hitter brings that allure & has that daunting effect on the opposition. With the loss of Pujols, Mozeliak brought in former Cardinals’ foe Carlos Beltran. Beltran is a consistent 20 home run guy with a .300 AVG, but isn’t in the same elite company that Pujols is in. On the downturn of his career, Lance Berkman upped with the Cardinals on a 1-year deal & was able to rake again, shocking many baseball fans. However, it isn’t known if that was a fluke, or if Berkman who’s nearing the end of his career, got a sudden rejuvenation of energy for the long haul. Matt Holliday becomes their biggest key offensively, if the Cardinals want to win this division or snag another wild card spot to send them back to the postseason. Outside of his rookie season, last year was Holliday’s lowest career AVG in the NL, in which he hit .296. All three of them will take on larger roles & be asked to substitute for a guy who’s average statline is 42 HRs, 126 RBIs, 123 Runs & a .328 AVG. Another red flag that raises questions, is Rafael Furcal. Last year before being traded to the Cardinals, Furcal was batting a career low .197, which can’t happen for a leadoff man. Even when shipped to the Cards, his average only went up to .255, which doesn’t ignite an offense. A lot of Cardinals’ fans are looking for answers in the forms of David Freese & Allen Craig. That’s a lot to ask from a tandem that has a combined 30 career home runs. Yadier Molina led all Cardinals, who had over 200 at bats last year, with a .305 AVG. He’s always been well respected as the best defensive catcher in the game, but he’s finally putting his offensive game together & just in time. He’s in a contract year & his status for where he’ll be next year is in limbo. The NL Central will be extremely competitive this year & the defending champs look to be in the mix, but the loss of Albert might be too much for them to overcome.
4.)Pirates: A year ago, this youthful Pirates’ team, came out of nowhere to cause a stir in the NL Central. The Pirates were even in a three-way tie for 1st place with the Brewers & Cardinals in late July. All-Star CF, Andrew McCutchen is a 30-30 guy in the making & he leads this scrappy bunch of exuberant players. Pedro Alvarez was seen as the power bat that could clean up, a couple years ago. However, Alvarez’s stats regressed in 2011, leaving him with a .191 AVG & only 4 HRs in 74 games. Back up 3B, Casey McGehee had 23 HRs, 104 RBIs, and a .285 AVG in 2010, before having a terrible 2011. He’ll start the season in a bench role initially, behind Alvarez, but if Alvarez struggles again, then McGehee will get the nod to start. The other big offensive signing that the Pirates made this offseason, was in the form of Clint Barmes. He won’t give them much production, but he will beef up their infield defense. Barmes had the 3rd best UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) among SSs in 2011. Along with McCutchen, Neil Walker & Garrett Jones will have to produce in order for the Pirates to contend. They’re the three bats that the Pirates are building their entire franchise around. Pirates were able to pull a trade with the Yankees to acquire their ace, in the form of A.J. Burnett. Burnett’s had his struggles playing in the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. However, back when Burnett was in the NL, he had an ERA under 3.70, on four different occasions in his seven year tenure with the Marlins. That was a feat that he had failed to obtain in any of his six years in the AL though. In a complete pitching overhaul, the Pirates also inked Erik Bedard to a deal. Bedard’s only five years removed from finishing in the top 5 in Cy Young vote getting. Over that time, he’s been incredibly inconsistent, which stems from the fact that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Along with Burnett & Bedard, the Pirates have four other men competing for a spot in their rotation: Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, Kevin Correia, & Charlie Morton. Karstens & Morton both sported ERAs under 4.00 in 2011, while both Correia & McDonald struggled with control. McDonald’s always shown promise with a high K rate, but struggles with control & let’s his emotions get the best of him. Correia was seen as someone with ace potential, when he was with the Padres, but he hasn’t panned out the way a lot of people thought he would. Pirates also have one of the most underrated setup/closer tandems in all of baseball in Joel Hanrahan & Evan Meek. Pirates should take the next step this season & stay competitive all year, it’s just a matter of if they’ll have enough pitching to win the pennant. The NL Central is wide open, so if the Pirates stay healthy then they’ll be in the mix of things all season long.
5.)Cubs: There’s always next year! Okay, so this year won’t be the Cubs’ year. However, new GM Theo Epstein has made some deals to position themselves for the not so distant future. Epstein acquired highly touted 1B prospect Anthony Rizzo from the Padres & former 1st rounder Ian Stewart from the Rockies to man the corner infield positions. Couple Rizzo & Stewart with Starlin Castro & Darwin Barney & the Cubs are set in the infield for many years to come. Starlin Castro is a superstar in the making & is debatably the 2nd best offensive SS in the NL, behind only Troy Tulowitzki. One of the most underrated acquisitions of this offseason, comes in the form of OF David DeJesus. He used to show middle of the order potential, but his bat died in Oakland, like many men that came before him. He looks to have a bounce back year in the NL. In an addition by subtraction tactic, Epstein shipped Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins in turn for Chris Volstad. Zambrano has proven to be one of the best pitchers in the game when levelheaded, but that hasn’t been that often over the past few years. Volstad can become a solid #3 & is a team player that won’t try to fight his teammates. Along with Volstad, Matt Garza & Ryan Dempster make up the top half of their rotation. Garza has always shown ace potential, but has yet to elevate himself to that level as a Cub yet. The Cubs’ pen is anything but consistent. Carlos Marmol & Jeff Samardzija man the end of the bullpen, but they struggle far too often in close games. While the Cubs probably won’t contend in 2012, Epstein is positioning them to be a contender a couple years down the road.
6.)Astros: Growing pains are a part of life & more importantly a crucial part of young baseball teams. The Astros are chalk full of young talent, but have very little leadership. Astros set their franchise record for losses last year, with 106. Unfortunately for them, they have a chance to surpass that record this year. It’s their last year in the NL Central, before moving to the AL West. Brett Wallace, Jed Lowrie, Jose Altuve, & Brian Bogusevic headline this young Astros’ roster. All four of these players could be stars in the making, but have a lot to learn before they get there. The only veteran presence in their lineup is Carlos Lee. Lee is moving to 1B & is going to have to teach these kids how to win in the majors, if they want to avoid another 100+ loss campaign. The Astros’ pitching staff isn’t much better. Bud Norris & J.A. Happ look to become their 1-2 of the future. After Happ’s brilliant rookie year with the Phillies, he lost his control & has yet to find it again. Norris has shown promise for a couple years now, but he’ll have to take the next step this year & take on a leadership role, if he wants to stop this reeling team. While Norris & Happ are the Astros’ future, Wandy Rodriguez is still in Houston to eat innings & give the Astros some sort of pulse. Brett Myers was named the initial closer, but that could change, if they need another innings eater, if the young arms struggle a lot. Brandon Lyon is very inconsistent, but is the only other arm that they can count on in their pen, as well. While the NL Central will stay competitive all year, the Astros will once again remain in the basement.
1.)Diamondbacks: A year ago, this surprising Arizona squad, stunned many when they found themselves back in the playoffs. A motley crew of misfit players, that the casual baseball fan knew nothing about, clawed their way to a NL West pennant. The Diamondbacks’ first addition this offseason came in the form of Trevor Cahill. He fits in nicely behind Cy Young runner up Ian Kennedy & the impressive Daniel Hudson to make one of the best 1-2-3s in the NL. J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Brad Ziegler, & Craig Breslow give the Diamondbacks four of the best relief pitchers in the NL. The Diamondbacks had the least blown saves in the MLB last year & will set out to accomplish that feat yet again. Offensively, this Diamondbacks team is nothing to scoff at, led by Justin Upton & Miguel Montero. Aaron Hill is looking to get back to the power numbers he had in his early years in Toronto, while newly acquired Jason Kubel is looking to get back to his numbers from a couple years ago, as well. Their SS Stephen Drew is finally back healthy & youngblood Paul Goldschmidt is destined to be their middle of the order power bat that intimidates opposing pitchers. While the NL West is very top heavy, the Diamondbacks look to be one of the three teams with a realistic shot at winning the pennant, this year.
2.)Rockies: Last year, the Rockies underachieved their expectations. Lack of pitching & injuries became huge problems. Ubaldo Jimenez struggled to match his magic of a couple seasons ago & was traded to the Indians. While, the #2 in their rotation, Jorge De La Rosa got hurt midseason & had to miss the rest of the season. The Rockies had a busy offseason this year, they acquired: Jeremy Guthrie, Marco Scutaro, Casey Blake, Michael Cuddyer, Ramon Hernandez, & Guillermo Moscoso. The Rockies’ rotation looks completely different than it did this time last year. Jhoulys Chacin is one of the most underrated pitchers in the MLB & is ready to take on the role of staff ace & have a big year, while the newly acquired Jeremy Guthrie will take on the veteran leadership role that is needed to mold these young arms. De La Rosa is due back towards the end of June & the Rockies will need his presence down the stretch if they want to win the NL West or at least a wild card spot. Guillermo Moscoso will presumably be the #4 in their rotation & has a chance to have a breakout season, now that he’ll have run support backing him. Rafael Betancourt will work the backend of the bullpen, as their one solid arm, since their pen is patchwork at best. Offensively, the Rockies have built the perfect roster for Coors Field. They have by far the most dynamic lineup in the NL West. The Rockies’ two MVP candidates, Troy Tulowitzki & Carlos Gonzalez look to continue their roles as two of the best hitters in the game, while newly acquired Michael Cuddyer gives them a formidable 3-4-5. Scutaro & Blake are seen as very good clubhouse guys that bring energy, defense, & good personalities to a team that is looking to get back to the playoffs. Rockies look to stay in contention all season long, because they can out slug their opponents & are the darkhorse team in a three team race for the NL West pennant.
3.)Giants: Injuries & a lack of offense, led to the Giants’ collapse last year. The Giants scored the least runs in the NL last year, which is something they look to change this year. Buster Posey is healthy again & looks to be a catalyst for this anemic offense. Pablo Sandoval should have a bounce back season, while rookie sensation Brandon Belt looks to take off. The Giants also acquired new CF, Angel Pagan to help generate some offense. The rotation of the Giants, is the best in the NL West, sporting the arms of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, & Ryan Vogelsong. Lincecum & Cain are the best 1-2 in the West & both look to put up Cy Young type numbers this season. Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, & Jeremy Affeldt are at the forefront of a deep bullpen, as well. Wilson is healthy again & should become the same threatening force at the end of ballgames, like he was back in 2010, when they won the World Series. If the Giants, can muster up some runs, then they’ll definitely be in contention for the NL West pennant again, but if not then they’re in for another dissappointing season.
4.)Dodgers: After a complacent 2011, the Dodgers are in for more of the same in 2012. Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young award in the NL last year, but outside of him the rest of the Dodgers’ rotation is listless. Chad Billingsley used to be the club’s ace a couple years ago, but has struggled mightily the past couple years. In the pen, the Dodgers have competition for the team’s closing role this year with Javy Guerra & Kenley Jansen, but outside of that their pen is very mediocre. Offensively, the Dodgers have one of the brightest young hitters in the game, in Matt Kemp, who finished runner-up to Ryan Braun in last year’s NL MVP race. Outside of Kemp, the Dodgers’ offense is very spotty. Ethier has shown flashes of brilliance, but not consistently enough to be trusted on a regular basis & Dee Gordon is a rookie with a lot of potential, who could become one of the best leadoff hitters in the MLB in no time. The Dodgers are a few years away, from being able to compete again in the NL West, but still have a couple of the best players in the MLB, which will assuredly put fans in the seats in 2012.
5.)Padres: Padres are a very young team, that is likely to experience the woes of youth this season. Although their manager Bud Black has been able to manage young rosters in the past & churn out victories, it’s uncertain if he’ll be able to do that again this season. Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, Orlando Hudson, Chase Headley, & Yonder Alonso look to become the base of their offense this season. Alonso was one of the Reds’ brightest young prospects, but never fully got his chance, since he was always in Joey Votto’s shadow. Carlos Quentin has battled injuries the past couple seasons, after his career power surge that he had & PetCo Park isn’t the best place for him to find his power swing again. Orlando Hudson & Chase Headley are consistent defensive staples on this team, that provide a little pop offensively from time to time as well. However, the most underrated offensive option that the Padres have, comes in the form of Cameron Maybin. Maybin is a five tool player who can do it all. He grinds out every play & every pitch & is the pure definition of a baseball player. In the bullpen, the Padres have newly acquired closer Huston Street, who is one of the premiere closers of the past decade & with Street, is setup man Luke Gregerson, who will get the first chance to close if Street struggles. The Padres’ biggest weakness, comes in the form of their starting rotation. They play in the most pitcher friendly ballpark in the NL & have a rotation full of unproven pitchers. The Padres acquired, former staff ace, Edinson Volquez from the Reds this offseason. Volquez proved that when healthy that he has nasty stuff, but he hasn’t been able to have a full season the past two years. Outside of Volquez, the Padres look to Cory Luebke, Tim Stauffer & Clayton Richard to put up solid performances, in order to keep them in ballgames. Padres have surprised the baseball world before, but it looks like they’re destined for another season in the basement in 2012.
1.)Yankees: The Yankees have always been a consistent staple in the MLB. They’re less a baseball team & more of a brand, that’s sold to the general public. The Yankees have built one of the most daunting offenses over the past few years, however most of their bats are aging & one superstar has emerged. Robinson Cano has blossomed into a player who will become a perennial contender for the MVP. While the nucleus(Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, & Mark Teixeira) of the Yankees’ lineup is aging, Cano (along with Curtis Granderson & Brett Gardner) are getting into the primes of their careers. The Yankees’ biggest problem last year, was the lack of quality starting pitching, because C.C. Sabathia was the only starter who was consistent enough at Yankee Stadium, which is essentially a launching pad for homers. However, in this offseason, the Yankees sent top hitting prospect Jesus Montero to the Mariners for a bright young pitcher, named Michael Pineda. Along with Pineda, the Yankees also signed Hiroki Kuroda. Sabathia, Kuroda, & Pineda now give the Yankees a formidable 1-2-3. Not to mention that playoff breakout sensation Ivan Nova is in the mix too. The Yankees now can not only out slug teams, but they can stay in close games with their quality starting pitching. Not only is their starting rotation set now, but they sport one of the deepest pens in all of baseball. Led by the best closer of all time in Mariano Rivera, the Yankees have insurance in case any of their starting pitchers implodes. David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, David Aardsma, & Boone Logan are the other four masterful arms in their pen. The AL East is the toughest division in all of baseball & will assuredly be up for grabs, but the Yankees will always stay in the mix with the depth & talent that they have.
2.)Rays: On the last day of the regular season last year, the Rays stunned many when they rallied from down nine runs against the Yankees to win, while the Red Sox blew their lead against the Orioles to finish off the Rays’ wild card berth. The Rays have the best starting rotation in all of baseball, including: James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, & Wade Davis. Matt Moore only has two major league starts, but already has a mysterious glow surrounding him. He has superstar potential. Offensively, the Rays have a few weapons in the forms of Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, & Matt Joyce. Evan Longoria is a superstar & carries this offense at times. Ben Zobrist has played seven defensive positions the past two years (all except catcher & pitcher) & is the best all around utility player in the game, he can defend everywhere & has five tool talent. Desmond Jennings has five tool potential & is very reminiscent of an ex-Ray, Carl Crawford. At one point last year, Matt Joyce led the AL in batting average, before struggling down the stretch. Also, a couple years ago, B.J. Upton looked like a player that the Rays could build around, but he’s had a rough couple years & he’ll have to turn it around if the Rays want to make another trip to the playoffs this season. Not to mention, that he’s in a contract year & will have to prove himself to the Rays, if he wants to stay in Tampa Bay. The Rays’ pen has a few familiar faces in it with Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, & J.P. Howell & is sure to close the door on most close games that the Rays are in. The Rays are always overlooked & continually are forgotten about, but this is the year where other teams will take notice & realize that the Rays are here to stay. The AL East is tough, but the Rays will have a shot at winning the AL East pennant in 2012.
3.)Red Sox: Red Sox were handed the World Series title last year, before they even played a game. While it’s hard for teams to live up to the “best team ever” tag, the Red Sox’ collapse was completely embarrassing. The Red Sox did have a lot of injuries down the stretch, but at the same time the stars that were healthy weren’t hitting either. The Red Sox are going to play with a chip on their shoulder this season & try to prove something. The top half of the Red Sox’ rotation, can compete with anyone, when you have Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, & Clay Buchholz. Offensively, the Red Sox’ lineup is loaded with: Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, & Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis & Crawford were hurt the majority of last year, even when they were playing. If both of them come back healthy & rejuvenated this season, then it’ll add another dynamic to this offense. In the pen, the Red Sox have a little bit of a different look. Jonathan Papelbon headed to Philly & the Red Sox acquired former Oakland A’s closer, Andrew Bailey. Bailey’s ERA will go up significantly, since he’s going from Oakland to Boston. The difference in park designs & division competition will raise his ERA a bit, however he’ll still get a lot of saves, since he has a loaded offense backing him. Outside of Bailey, the pen is pretty much the same. The AL East will be wide open once again & the Red Sox are on a mission to prove that they can win it & get back in the playoffs, but only time will tell if they will be able to pass the Yankees & the Rays.
4.) Blue Jays: The Blue Jays are becoming a cliche pick in 2012 to set the world on fire & return back to the playoffs. The Jays have a lot of raw young talent & a surprising amount of pitching depth, however their division is stacked & they will have a mountain to climb if they want this fantasy to become a reality. Sergio Santos, Darren Oliver, Jason Frasor, & Francisco Cordero make up one of the most formidable bullpens in baseball. Ricky Romero is their staff ace & is always undevalued when discussing the best pitchers in baseball. Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, & Dustin McGowan have all three been solid pitchers when healthy in their careers, as well. The most interesting pitcher in the Jays’ rotation, is Henderson Alvarez. The Jays expect huge things out of this kid. He’s only 21 years old, but could become the missing piece that the Jays need to contend again. Offensively, their lineup starts with home run leader Jose Bautista, because he’s been on an insane power surge the past two seasons. After Bautista, most people expect Brett Lawrie to shine in his first full season in the majors & become that next elite 3B. After Lawrie came up to the majors last year, he had the highest on base %, from that point on in the entire MLB. Obviously pitchers are going to figure him out & he’ll have to adapt to stay productive, but he should be able to do it. J.P. Arencibia & Colby Rasmus are the other two big pieces of the Jays’ youth movement that many expect to shine in 2012. While, Yunel Escobar is always overlooked when discussing the most complete SSs in the AL, because he’s definitely in the top 10 hemisphere. However, if the Jays want to compete in 2012, then Adam Lind will have to get back to being a typical middle of the order hitter. The Jays have the talent to stir things up in the AL East this year, however their youth & inexperience might make them a year or two away from being in that discussion, but they’ll definitely compete this year & surprise a lot of people.
5.)Orioles: After the Orioles named Buck Showalter as the new manager, before the start of the 2011 season, many people expected the Orioles’ woes to come to an end, however that was far from the case. Brian Matusz was seen as a potential staff ace on many scouting reports, yet by looking at his 2011 numbers, you wouldn’t know it. Matusz had one of the most miserable pitching campaigns in all of baseball & has put his spot in the Orioles’ rotation in 2012 in the air. However, Zach Britton & Jake Arietta are seen as two bright, young arms that the Orioles can build around. Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, & Nolan Reimold are seen as the four main building blocks for this young offense. Three mediocre arms cloud the end of the Orioles’ pen & will compete for their closing job, including: Jim Johnson, Kevin Gregg, & Matt Lindstrom. While, the Orioles don’t have much to get excited for this season, they’re building for their future & might be able to compete five years down the road, if they keep stockpiling young talent & revamp their entire rotation & bullpen.
1.)Tigers: Seen by most analysts, as the clear cut favorite to win the AL Central, the Tigers still have to set out to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. MVP & Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander fronts a solid rotation. Doug Fister is the #2 in the rotation, but is a big groundball pitcher & will be hurt by the infield defense brought on by Miguel Cabrera playing 3B & Prince Fielder playing 1B, same goes for Rick Porcello. Max Scherzer started last season 6-0 before tapering off in the middle & in order for the Tigers to become a serious title contender, Scherzer has to be more consistent all year round & can’t get complacent. Rookie Jacob Turner, who’s drawn favorable comparisons to Verlander, has a legitimate shot at the Rookie Of The Year award in 2012. The Tigers shored up their bullpen by adding Octavio Dotel in free agency, who will work with Joaquin Benoit to set up for the lights out closer Jose Valverde. Al Albuquerque will start the season on the DL, but will give the Tigers another fire pitcher for their arsenal. Offensively, the Tigers are going to rake. The 3/4 of Cabrera & Fielder are one of two teammate tandems in the history of baseball that pits two players under the age of 30 with 200+ home runs each, together. The other duo is Hank Aaron & Eddie Mathews, who are both Hall Of Famers. Alex Avila & Jhonny Peralta both have to prove that their numbers last year were the beginning of a trend & less of a fluke, if this offense is going to be as potent as it can be. Delmon Young finally found his swing again, that was lost when both Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau got hurt & the Twins moved to a hitter’s death trap in Target Field. Brennan Boesch is a star in the making. He’ll be hitting in front of Cabrera & Fielder and is sure to rack up a ton of runs this year. The most vital offensive weapon for the Tigers this year, is Austin Jackson. Jackson has been working with his hitting coach all season, on taking more pitches & making better contact. With that, will come less strikeouts & more hits, which will essentially raise his on base % & lead to more men on base for the big bats. While the Tigers are seen as clear favorites to win the AL Central this year, they still have to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke & that their offense & pitching can both stay consistent all year long.
2.)Indians: The Indians surprised many people last year, by competing with the Tigers for the AL Central crown through the end of July. Ace Ubaldo Jimenez looks to bounce back from a down year in 2011, to help the Indians stay competitive in 2012. Derek Lowe is going to add another veteran arm to their diluted rotation, as well. Justin Masterson has been seen in the past as someone who has ace potential & can anchor a pitching staff. He pitched brilliantly in 2011 & will have to recreate those numbers, if the Indians want to stay competitive again. Offensively, the Indians’ lineup is coming along nicely, Carlos Santana is seen by many as the best offensive catcher in the game & Asdrubal Cabrera saw his stats increase all over the board in 2011, as well. The Indians will have to score runs in 2012, if they want to compete with the Tigers for the division crown, which means that their stars, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, & Shin-Soo Choo are going to have to perform like they have in the past. Chris Perez highlights a downtrodden pen too. Indians have their work cut out for them, if they want to chase the AL Central pennant in 2012, because there’s a powerhouse at the top of the mountain, that they’ll have to chase all year long.
3.)Royals: The Royals are on their way back to baseball relavency. Frontlined by Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, & Eric Hosmer, this Royals’ lineup is taking full shape in 2012. While Johnny Giavotella, Mike Moustakas, & Salvador Perez all look to come out firing on all cylinders to make this lineup even more potent. Perez is a big physical specimen that looks to be a quality offensive catcher in the majors. Hosmer has great poise & has the potential to win a MVP someday. Jeff Francoeur is back for another year, to be the veteran leader for this young, explosive offense. While, the Royals’ rotation is still a big question mark though. Jonathan Sanchez is expected to improve this rotation, while Luke Hochevar & Bruce Chen should expand on their numbers from 2011. However, since they lost Zack Greinke, they have yet to find their staff ace, that brings leadership to this young club. Joakim Soria & Jonathan Broxton headline a quality bullpen that will finish games with intense audacity. While the Royals are still a couple years away from contending in the AL Central, they will at least be competitive in 2012, as their young bats improve.
4.)White Sox: The White Sox surprised many people by struggling mightily in 2011. In the offseason, the White Sox lost their manager Ozzie Guillen, their staff ace in Mark Buehrle, which definitely didn’t help them either, & their closer Sergio Santos left, as well. In order for the White Sox to get back to form in 2012, Adam Dunn will have to get back to his power form that he’s had the rest of his career, as well as Alex Rios finding a way to raise his batting average to his career norms, & most importantly, Jake Peavy will have to get back to form. Obviously, no one expects Peavy to ever get back to his Cy Young form, but if he can come back as a solid #3, then the White Sox have a legitimate shot at finishing 2nd in the AL Central this year. The White Sox’s bullpen has a few question marks. Matt Thornton & Addison Reed will be competing for the closing role in 2012, with the departure of Santos. The one consistent staple on the White Sox, is Paul Konerko. Konerko comes to play whether the Sox are in first place or last place. The Sox expect huge things out of Dayan Viciedo & Alejandro De Aza, who both expect to get an ample amount of playing time in 2012. Viciedo has star potential, if he can hone his power & keep a solid AVG. However, the most puzzling thing about the White Sox, is that no one is sure if they’re rebuilding for the future or trying to compete right now. They lost three important pieces to their team, but opt not to fire sale a few guys that they could get legitimate building blocks for. Sooner than later, the Sox will have to decide if they can win with this group of veterans. If they don’t think they can, then they should ship a few of them out by the trade deadline. There will be a four team battle for 2nd place in the AL Central this year & if the White Sox get some bounce back years from a few of their stars, then it’s in their reach.
5.)Twins: A lot of analysts, picked the Twins to win the AL Central in 2011, but due to injuries to their two big stars & inconsistent pitching, the Twins finished in last place. Target Field was built as a pitcher’s paradise, but the problem for the Twins is that none of their pitchers have been able to stay consistent over the past two seasons. Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, & Scott Baker all have shown glimpses of brilliance, finesse, & ace potential in their careers, but they’ve all also let their emotions get the best of them & they’ve lost their control at times. Both Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau have battled injuries the past two seasons as well, which played a huge part in the Twins’ fall from grace. Both are presumably healthy for 2012, but even if they stay healthy will they be able to get back to form in Target Field, because nobody knows. So far, Mauer has 1 career home run at Target Field, which is a harsh reality, since the Twins locked him up pretty much through the end of his career. After the two big bats, the Twins went out & signed Josh Willingham this offseason to replace Jason Kubel’s numbers. Willingham is as consistent of an offensive OF as there is in the MLB & if all three of them stay healthy then the sky’s the limit for the Twins in 2012. However, as much potential as they have, that’s also as many questions as they have to answer about their ball club. Another underrated Twin, comes in the form of Danny Valencia. Valencia took over as the offensive leader, while the woes of their power bats piled up. Valencia led the Twins with 72 RBIs in 2011 & definitely has an immense amount of potential. Twins’ closer over the past several seasons, Joe Nathan, also headed to Texas this offseason, to be their closer, which leaves the Twins’ bullpen with a lot of questionmarks. Matt Capps will become the Twins’ full time closer, even though he’s struggled for stretches at a time in his long career. Outside of Capps, the Twins’ pen is very blasé. Although they’re only a couple seasons removed from the AL Central pennant, the Twins have more questions with their ballclub than any other team in the division. They have the talent to get back on top, but at the same time could find themselves back in the basement. In 2012, the Twins will presumably fight an uphill battle all season long, trying to form an identity & with that will come a lot of growing pains.
1.)Rangers: Back to back World Series appearances by the Rangers, have definitely helped mold this once young ballclub into an experienced ball club. In free agency, they lost their staff ace C.J. Wilson to their biggest rivals, but they moved their closer Neftali Feliz to the rotation & signed the biggest Asian pitching prospect of all time, Yu Darvish, as well. The Rangers still have the most potent offense, from top to bottom, in all of baseball. Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, & Adrian Beltre. It’s hard to find an easy out in this lineup. While pitching is secondary to folks in Arlington, the Rangers are still putting out a formidable rotation as well with: Darvish, Feliz, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, & Matt Harrison. Not to mention, that the Rangers had one of the best pens down the stretch last year & most of them are coming back & they have the addition of new closer Joe Nathan as well. When you look at their pen, you’ve got Nathan, Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, Alexi Ogando, & Mark Lowe. A loaded pen, to say the least. The AL has gotten more balanced, but the Rangers’ have the offensive firepower, pitching depth, & bullpen arms to challenge for their third straight trip to the World Series in 2012.
2.)Angels: Angels had one of the best offseasons of any team this year by signing the best hitter & the best pitcher on the free agent market. The Angels already had one of the best 1-2-3s in baseball with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, & Ervin Santana, but then they went out & signed C.J. Wilson to just give them another great starter. Offensively, the Angels have been pretty overrated the past couple years. Outside of Howie Kendrick, the Angels really haven’t had a bat that’s stayed productive & consistent from year to year. Mark Trumbo had a breakout rookie campaign last year & veteran bats clutter the middle portion of the lineup with Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, & Kendrys Morales, but they haven’t really been able to piece it all together. So, they went out & signed Albert Pujols to a monstrous 10 year deal. While Pujols obviously makes them better, that lineup still isn’t one of the top 5 lineups in the entire AL. Angels will have to do it all with pitching. Santana hasn’t had back to back effective & healthy seasons in a very long time, plus C.J. Wilson now has to face the Rangers numerous times a year, instead of having that offense backing him. Weaver will take a step back from his near Cy Young campaign last year, but he still can be an effective ace. Not to mention, that Dan Haren has bipolar statlines. Haren always puts up insanely good first half numbers, before tapering off down the stretch & being beyond mediocre in the second half. People are acting like this Angels’ rotation is one of the best ever & it isn’t. At this moment, it’s still the 2nd best in the AL, behind only the Rays, but through the course of the season, this rotation is going to get rocked a few times & will slow it’s role. The Angels’ bullpen still has a few holes in it as well, Jordan Walden, LaTroy Hawkins, & Scott Downs look to save the many save chances that they’ll have, but outside of them their pen doesn’t run very deep. The Angels will make a splash in the AL West this season & will definitely stay neck & neck the majority of the season with the Rangers, but at the end of the day, the Rangers’ offense & experience will give them the edge to win, yet another AL West pennant.
3.)Mariners: A lot of young & exciting Mariners’ players made a big splash in their first stints in the big leagues. Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, & Justin Smoak all look to be big league staples in Seattle for many years to come. In a surprising turn of events this offseason, the Mariners traded rookie sensation Michael Pineda to the Yankees for their C/DH of the future in Jesus Montero. The Mariners have a lot of great young pitching prospects, but it’s hard for them to acquire big bats in free agency, so the trade makes a lot of sense for them. At the helm of their rotation lies King Felix Hernandez. Behind Felix, the Mariners don’t have many impact starters on their major league roster, yet. Jason Vargas has been a stable #2 for them the past couple of seasons though. At the end of their pen, there’s the lone bright spot in Brandon League, who is one of the most undervalued closers in the game, because he doesn’t get many shots on an inexperienced Mariners’ team, to close games. While this is still Ichiro Suzuki’s team, it might not be for long. Last year was Ichiro’s first year in the big leagues in which he didn’t get 200 hits & this is the first year in his big league career where he won’t be batting leadoff. The end is nigh for Ichiro, but the future is bright for Seattle. While, this Mariners’ team has two powerhouses ahead of them for the near future, the Mariners will be back in contention within five years, with the plethora of young bats that they’re bringing up. In 2012, the Mariners will experience a lot of growing pains, but they’ll surprise many people with how good they can be.
4.)Athletics: It wasn’t too long ago, when the Athletics had a full bright rotation, that mimmicked the best rotations in baseball. Those days are over now. In an event filled offseason for the A’s, they had a wide array of acquistions that sent mixed signals to fans about the direction of their franchise. The A’s first sent their three best pitchers packing: Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for prospects, Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for prospects, & Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for prospects. After all of that, they went out & signed the highly touted, top foreign bat of the offseason, in Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes is scouted as someone with five tool potential, but he’s going to a place, in Oakland, that ends hitters’ careers. Then after signing Cespedes, they went out & signed Manny Ramirez. Two signings that don’t make any sense at all. Offensively, this lineup has one true bright spot, in Jemile Weeks. Weeks can hit for average & has 40 stolen bases potential. The best starters in their rotation are Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson & Dallas Braden. The latter two had a lot of potential, before injuries have tampered people’s expectations of them. Where as, the A’s bullpen is completely shot, with no sense of direction. Grant Balfour, Joey Devine, Fautino De Los Santos, & Brian Fuentes all have a shot at becoming the closer for the A’s out of spring training. The A’s are in complete rebuild mode, but it might take awhile before it’s clear what the results will pan out to be. Billy Beane is hellbent on moving the team to San Jose, but for that to ever get the okay by the MLB, Beane will have to give this team an identity. Right now, it’s just a collection of players, instead of a team. If Cespedes & Ramirez do go out & prove something it’ll cause a trickle down effect, because it will put fans back in the seats & they’ll become coveted trade chips for contending teams at the trade deadline, so that the A’s can acquire more prospects that can help the A’s begin the next phase of their organization. The A’s have no shot at contending in 2012, but it’ll be an interesting ride, watching these young kids develop with the biggest scene in the MLB. One thing is for sure, people will talk about the A’s in 2012.