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More peerless prognostication: MLB 2012

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Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, left, and new manager Bobby Valentine pose for pictured during a press conference at Fenway Park Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, left, and new manager Bobby Valentine pose for pictured during a press conference at Fenway Park Justin Neohoff, US Presswire
Thoughts on the upcoming baseball season

It’s almost time. Florida and Arizona are abuzz with Major League Baseball teams getting themselves ready, tweaking those rosters and making those difficult final decisions about minor league demotions and even the ends of careers.

The game is once again coming to life, but while one of baseball’s hallmarks is its consistency, this particular offseason has seen a lot of change. There have been some major changes of address: Prince Fielder moves from Milwaukee to Detroit; Japanese sensation Yu Darvish will take the mound for the Texas Rangers; and St. Louis icon Albert Pujols made the move to the West Coast in joining the Angels.

However, the biggest development of all is MLB’s decision to add another wild card team to the postseason. This means that five teams from each league will make the playoffs, with the two wild card teams kicking off the October festivities with a one-off, win-and-in game. This can only serve to provide even more fans with reason to stay invested in their home teams throughout the long season.

As usual, I have some thoughts on how the 2012 Major League Baseball Season might play out. Obviously, once I commit them to paper, the vast majority will be terribly wrong.

(x=division winner; y=wild card)

American League

AL East

  • New York Yankees - x
  • Boston Red Sox - y
  • Tampa Bay Rays
  • Toronto Blue Jays
  • Baltimore Orioles

The Yankees have done a lot to improve themselves over this past offseason, particularly their rotation. They’ve added guys like Michael Pineda and even coaxed Andy Pettitte out of retirement. Plus they’ve still got a lineup packed with excellent hitters such as Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. Oh yeah, and a couple of guys named Jeter and Rodriguez. You may have heard of them. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have to erase the bad memories of last September’s collapse. If Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are healthy, Carl Crawford gets his act together and guys like Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury can do what they do, the Sox are going to be tough to beat. However, the back end of the rotation could easily turn into a disaster. Tampa finds itself once again in an uphill battle against the two titans of the division. However, they have the best young pitching staff in the league and a wealth of hitters just reaching their prime; it’s not a stretch to think that the Rays could leapfrog one or both of the teams ahead of them. They have an ace in David Price and a potential MVP in Evan Longoria – a solid foundation. Toronto has some good young pitching and hitting savant Jose Bautista, as well as a young star in the making in Brett Lawrie, but the Blue Jays appear to still be a year or two away. Still, if the rotation can put it together and guys like Adam Lind and Aaron Hill step up, the Blue Jays could scare some folks. Baltimore hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since before the dawn of the 21st century and that’s not changing this year. There are a few good players, but the cupboard is pretty bare. Enjoy another season in the cellar, Orioles fans.

AL Central

  • Detroit Tigers - x
  • Kansas City Royals
  • Minnesota Twins
  • Chicago White Sox
  • Cleveland Indians

The Detroit Tigers – already the class of the division - made the biggest offseason splash of anyone in the division when they signed free agent slugger Prince Fielder. If incumbent first baseman Miguel Cabrera can successfully make the proposed transition to third base, the Tigers will be tough to beat – especially with reigning Cy Young/MVP winner Justin Verlander leading the rotation. Despite their youth, the Kansas City Royals could make a big leap forward in this year’s weakened Central. While their pitching is suspect, the Royals have assembled a lineup of excellent young hitters like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer. If the starting rotation can keep the team in games, that potentially explosive offense could take the Royals surprisingly far. On paper, the Twins should probably be a spot or two lower, but manager Ron Gardenhire always seems to get his teams to overachieve. Their two best players – catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau – are both coming back from serious injuries. If those two can flash some of the old MVP form, Minnesota could be strong. The White Sox look to be in a bit of disarray; Robin Ventura replaced Ozzie Guillen as their manager and they lost the longtime anchor of their pitching staff when Mark Buehrle departed in free agency. However, if Paul Konerko can maintain his marvelous consistency and slugger Adam Dunn can recover from his historically terrible 2011, Chicago might surprise. And alas, the Indians will once again give Cleveland fans something to complain about. The best case scenario is that Grady Sizemore comes back as the Grady of old, the kids in the lineup gel and Justin Masterson leads the rotation to an above-average performance; at that point, Cleveland might reach as high as third.

AL West

  • Texas Rangers - x
  • Los Angeles Angels - y
  • Seattle Mariners
  • Oakland As

Remember the days when the AL West was the worst division in baseball? Ancient history. The Texas Rangers are the two-time reigning American League champions and they look to be strong again this season, converting All-Star closer Neftali Feliz into a starter and importing Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. Their lineup is still stacked with the likes of Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler. Meanwhile, all the Angels did this offseason was go out and sign perhaps the best hitter of this generation when they coaxed Albert Pujols away from St. Louis. Add to that an already-electric pitching staff led by Jeff Weaver and the Angels are poised to make a run. Manager Mike Scioscia’s teams always play hard; this squad should be no exception. The Mariners have been down and out for a few years now, and while they are showing signs of life with youngsters like Dustin Ackley and newly-acquired Jesus Montero, they are still a long way from contention. Still, they do have Felix Hernandez, who might just be the most talented starting pitcher in the league. Meanwhile, the only excitement generated by the As in recent years came from Brad Pitt’s portrayal of their general manager in “Moneyball.” Oakland has some pieces, including the fascinating Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, but the truth is that they’re likely years from contending with the division’s big boys.

National League

NL East

  • Philadelphia Phillies - x
  • Miami Marlins - y
  • Atlanta Braves
  • Washington Nationals
  • New York Mets

There are a lot of questions about this year’s Philadelphia Phillies. Slugging first baseman Ryan Howard is injured and star middle-infield combo Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have been showing their age. This is not the offensive powerhouse it used to be. However, when you’ve got three of the top 15 or 20 starting pitchers in the league, you don’t need quite as much offense. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels ensure that this team is just fine. The newly-named Miami Marlins begin play in their new stadium this year, along with a pair of new stars (Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle) and a new manager (Ozzie Guillen). They join face of the franchise Hanley Ramirez in giving the Marlins a real chance to contend this season. It’s hard not to put Atlanta at or near the top of the division; it just feels like that’s where they belong. However, it seems like returns have been slowly diminishing in the home of the Braves. Still, if youngsters like outfielder Jason Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman and pitchers Tommy Hanson and Craig Kimbrel keep developing, the Braves will outperform this pick. Yes, the Nationals sit fourth here, but if the prediction was for 2014, Washington might be at the top. It’s been years of holding patterns for the Nats, but with the imminent arrival of mega-prospects Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the future looks very bright in the capital. One thing that can be said with certainty: The Mets will not be making the playoffs. They’re a mess both on and off the field, with financial issues looming over the franchise. Despite their massive payroll, they just don’t have many good players.

NL Central

  • Milwaukee Brewers - x
  • St. Louis Cardinals - y
  • Cincinnati Reds
  • Chicago Cubs
  • Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Houston Astros

The Brewers lost a lot of offense with first baseman Prince Fielder’s free agent departure to Detroit. Replacing that kind of production will be difficult. However, Milwaukee still has 2011 MVP Ryan Braun, one of the most valuable offensive forces in the game. Add to that a still-strong supporting cast of guys like Ricky Weeks and Corey Hart, along with a rotation led by Zack Greinke, and this team looks postseason-bound. The Cardinals also lost big this offseason, saying goodbye to Albert Pujols, who was not only the best hitter of his generation, but a St. Louis icon and the face of the franchise. They also lost manager Tony LaRussa. However, all is not lost: if Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman can match last year’s numbers and the one-two rotation punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright is healthy, they might have a shot at a repeat of last year’s championship. The Reds are one of those teams that just need to put it together. They’ve got some electric arms on their pitching staff and some elite offensive talents such as Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce. If a couple of the pitchers have big years, the Reds could surprise. Meanwhile, Cubs fans can prepare for yet another season that ends in September. It’s a roster full of guys that are overpriced and underperforming; while there are a few bright spots, this is a team that is only ranked this high because of the division in which it plays. A division that also includes the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates have been bad for a very long time, and while they have been showing the smallest hints of promise in the early going this season, they’ll need to prove themselves before getting any sort of predictive benefit of the doubt. But even the Pirates will be better than the Houston Astros, whose team is boring and lacks talent. Their fans have nothing at all to look forward to – except maybe next year’s move to the American League.

NL West

  • Arizona Diamondbacks - x
  • San Francisco Giants
  • Colorado Rockies
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • San Diego Padres

The NL West is a wild one this year, but Arizona looks best equipped to take advantage. Of course, having an elite talent like Justin Upton doesn’t hurt. Ditto a breakout ace such as Ian Kennedy. Arizona has talent all over the diamond; if a majority of those players meet their potential, the D-backs are going to be very hard to handle. Of course, if San Francisco can generate a reasonable amount of offense, their elite pitching staff will carry the day. Stars like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Brian Wilson are just the tip of the pitching iceberg. If catcher Buster Posey is close to the same player upon his return from injury and guys like Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt keep hitting, the Giants could be playing in October. Colorado has some serious players – for instance, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki might just be the best all-around shortstop in baseball. Carlos Gonzalez is elite too. However, Rockies management still hasn’t found that magical formula for assembling a pitching staff at altitude, and a few stars just isn’t enough to overcome that lack of high-end arms. The Dodgers are an absolute financial mess with a great degree of uncertainty about the future. That’s why – despite having both the reigning Cy Young winner (Clayton Kershaw) and the probably-shoulda-won-it MVP runner-up (Matt Kemp) – they still just barely avoid the cellar. It’s going to be a long summer in LA. But at least they aren’t the Padres. San Diego’s team appears to be a patchwork assemblage of low-ceiling rookies, cheap veterans and a scattering of former name players. There’s literally no one exciting on their roster. I’ll put it this way: Padres followers will enjoy this season even less than Dodger fans.

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