Today is Opening Day* in Major League Baseball, with the first game between the reigning champion St. Louis Cardinals and the newly named Miami Marlins – in the first regular season game to be played at Marlins Park**. In their infinite wisdom, Major League Baseball decided that the excitement of Game 162 last year should not be repeated, and added a second wild card place in each league, starting this season. The two Wild Card teams will face each other in a one game playoff, the winner earning a berth in the five game Divisional Series. If this had been the case last season, the epic collapses by the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves would not have meant anything, as both would have progressed for the one-game matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals respectively.
*Well, actually the season started last week with a two game series between the Oakland A’s and the Seattle Mariners (which they split) in Japan – but still, today is the real Opening Day.
**A game that is in the 7th inning as I am about to post this, with the Marlins yet to record a hit.***
*** No talking in the dugout! You mention a no-hitter and it ends, Reyes got Miami’s first hit of the season just after I wrote this.
The amount of attention that the Angels have been getting must bother the Texas Rangers – who have won the American League Pennant for the last two years. Last year’s devastating World Series loss, when they were twice just one out away from winning it all, will be hard for the Rangers to recover from, and they have also lost last year’s pitching staff ace, CJ Wilson, to the Angels. Texas spent a lot of money to sign Yu Darvish from the Japanese leagues and they will need him to perform as a number 1 starter if they are to have a chance of progressing in October. The rest of the pitching staff should be solid, though their number 2 starter, Colby Lewis, gave up 22 home runs at Rangers Ballpark in 2011. They have a balanced lineup which should keep them in a lot of games, but Mike Napoli is unlikely to repeat last year’s numbers (.320 Batting Average, 30 Home Runs) and Josh Hamilton has been hampered with injuries since the post-season. I think a combination of these factors will result in the Rangers staying at home this October, missing out on the opportunity to lose in the World Series for a third consecutive year.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim added Pujols during the offseason with the hope that it would improve their offense, which failed to support the excellent starting pitching they had last year. Having also signed CJ Wilson, that rotation has become even stronger – Jered Weaver is likely to be a Cy Young candidate again this year, plus Dan Haren and Ervin Santana both posted ERAs under 3.50 in 2011. However, the Angels’ bullpen is unreliable and, outside of Pujols, their hitting is a definite weak spot. It should be improved by the return of Kendrys Morales, who has missed almost two seasons with a fractured left ankle (obtained when he was jumping onto home plate to celebrate a walk-off home run), but with Bobby Abreu and Vernon Wells likely to be two of their regular outfielders again this season, their offense has the potential to seriously hamper the Angels.
The other two teams in the division, the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners, must have considered giving up when Albert Pujols moved into the AL West. They already had to try to overhaul the two-time American League Champions, and now have to contend with one of the best hitters in baseball joining another divisional rival. The A’s basically held up a white flag and traded away starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, as well as closer Andrew Bailey, for prospects. They did sign Cuban outfielder, Yoenis Cespedes, though he has a tendency to swing at bad pitches and that might be exposed in the Major League. Seattle did trade away one of their best young pitchers, Michael Pineda, to the New York Yankees, but they did receive the power-hitter, and top prospect, Jesus Montero, in return. The Mariners were also able to make that move because of strength in depth in their farm system, with youngsters Danny Haltzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton all getting closer to breaking through to the big leagues. Haltzen is likely to be in the rotation this season and, with Hisashi Iwakuma joining from Japan to be the number 2 pitcher behind ace Felix Hernandez, the Mariners could be a surprise team this year. As well as Montero, Seattle have potentially great hitters at first base (Justin Smoak) and second (Dustin Ackeley), and Ichiro Suzuki is likely to improve back to his career averages, after a down year in 2011. AL West Prediction: 1. Angels; 2. Mariners (2nd Wild Card). 3. Rangers; 4. A’s
I really do not want to pick the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Central – they are a consensus pick and I do not think they are going to be as dominant as everybody is predicting. Their defense was poor last year and has gotten worse with the addition of Fielder at first base, moving Miguel Cabrera over to third. It is also highly unlikely that Justin Verlander will be able to repeat last year’s MVP/Cy Young winning season, when he posted a 24-5 record, 250 strikes outs and a 2.40 ERA – but he is still going to be one of the best pitchers in the American League. Adding Fielder to an already strong lineup, and having Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porecllo behind Verlander in the rotation, means that even if the Tigers have an historically bad infield defense, it is unlikely to prevent them from winning a division they claimed by 15 games in 2011.
Behind Detroit, the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians both have good young teams that could be ripe for a breakthrough season. The Royals farm system has been highly touted for many years and could still be 12 months away from peaking, but they certainly have an opportunity to post a winning record – something they have failed to do in 17 of the last 18 seasons. Cleveland could have been strong contenders this year if they were able to lineup the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona (now called Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and listed as 31, not 28) behind Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez, but his return is questionable as he tries to obtain a new visa. In Carlos Santana, the Indians have one of the best hitting catchers in baseball and he hits in the clean-up spot behind Shin-Soo Choo – who they hope will return to form after his batting average last year was lower than his Blood Alcohol Content when he got his DUI.
The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins are both clubs that are being forced to rebuild – although the Twins are limited in what they can do with so much money due to their catcher, Joe Mauer, who appears to be in a sharp decline and not worth the huge contract he was given two years ago. First Baseman Justin Morneau has also been on a downward trend since he suffered concussion like symptoms in 2010 and if both of those players do not return to the form they were showing up until 2009 the Twins will struggle to avoid finishing as one of the worst teams in the Major League. The White Sox have a rookie manager, Robin Ventura, and have a starting rotation – John Danks, Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Chris Sale and Phillip Humber – which includes no pitchers who had a winning record last year. Their Designated Hitter, Adam Dunn, batted only .159 last year – suggesting his position should be renamed Designated Strikes-Out-Swinging – and Chicago will need him to return to his career averages if they are to have any chance of competing. In a not particularly strong division, the Twins and White Sox will be fighting with each other to avoid being the Wooden Spoon. AL Central Prediction: 1. Tigers; 2. Indians; 3. Royals; 4. White Sox; 5. Twins
Last year, the New York Yankees were buoyed by strong performance from rookie starting pitcher Ivan Nova, as well as good contributions (at least early on) from veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. This time around, they are not relying on unexpected surprises, as they have made moves to strengthen their rotation considerably. The Yankees sent highly prized prospect, Jesus Montero – who was the deal-breaker that they would not give to Seattle to get Cliff Lee a couple of years ago – to the Mariners for Michael Pineda; signed free-agent Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers; and sent AJ Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In January, the rotation was further bolstered by the return from retirement of Andy Pettitte who, as Vin Scully described Billy Chapel in For Love of the Game, will try to “push the sun back into the sky and give us one more day of summer”. The ace of the lineup remains CC Sabbathia, who dipped in the second half of 2011 primarily because of underuse, as manager Joe Giradi tried to find space for six starting pitchers – a return to a heavier workload should help the big man this year.
New York’s lineup in 2011 was carried by MVP candidates Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, as well as Derek Jeter’s renaissance after the All-Star Break and his quest for 3000 career hits had been achieved. If the Yankees are going to continue to dominate this year, they will need Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to improve upon last season’s numbers – a drop down to 5th in the lineup should help Teixeira, with some of the pressure going on Cano’s shoulders instead. With the 8th/9th inning combination of David Robertson and Mariano Rivera returning, they should be able to maintain leads in close games again and the improved starting rotation should lead to a deeper playoff run than last year’s Divisional Round exit to the Tigers.
The Boston Red Sox will be trying to lay to rest the ghosts of last September’s epic collapse – when a 9 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the Wild Card evaporated as they ended the season winning just 7 of their last 26 games. The fallout from their failure to even make the playoffs was manager Terry Francona being replaced by Bobby Valentine, amidst stories of pitchers John Lackey, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse on their off days. However, just like last year’s proclamations that the 2011 Red Sox were going to win 100+ games and rival the 1927 Yankees in historical greatness (okay, both of those claims were made by NESN), Boston are being underrated this year. They had the best offense in the MLB last year and the starting rotation will be improved by the return of Clay Buchholz from injury, and the loss of John Lackey for the season after Tommy John surgery. Daniel Bard is being converted from a reliever into a starter, and they also have a new closer in Andrew Bailey* (acquired from the A’s), who replaces Jonathan Papelbon, who joined the Phillies as a free agent. If Beckett, Lester and Buchholz can show anything like their best, and Boston gets adequate pitching performances in their other two rotation spots, then a lineup including Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz will win the Red Sox a lot of games. When he was signed a free agent before last season, Carl Crawford was being talked about – and paid – like he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. He isn’t – but if Crawford is batting 6th for you, that signals a strong lineup. I do not think they will have the pitching to play for long in October, but I do expect Boston to return to the postseason this year.
*As of Wednesday, Bailey is out until at least the All Star Break with a thumb injury and Alfredo Aceves will act as the Red Sox closer to start the season.
Tampa Bay has probably the best rotation on paper in the American League – they have strength in depth and a legitimate ace in David Price. Matt Moore showed the potential to also be a number 1 starter, but he is still unproven despite his fantastic performance at the end of 2011. The biggest issue for the Rays, and the reason I believe they will miss out on the playoffs, is the lack of offense in the lineup. If Desmond Jennings continues to develop then they will have a fantastic leadoff hitter, but other than him and Evan Longoria, there are holes all over the place. Jose Molina is to be the everyday catcher, which will be an issue not only because of his lack of batting, but also will give the opposition the chance to run the basepaths against Tampa Bay. Also giving the opponents hope, will be the sight of Kyle Farnsworth warming up as the closer – with his propensity to give up runs in a hurry, there could be several blown saves for the Rays this year.
Toronto have been developing through youth over the last few years and they should close the gap between themselves and the top of the AL East again this season. Jose Bautista is the clear star of their team and the Blue Jays will need more big numbers from him in 2012 if they are to have any chance of being in contention come September. Third baseman, Brett Lawrie, hit 9 home runs in just 150 at bats in 2011 as a rookie, and their catcher J.P. Arencibia has good power – but the weakness for them will be their pitching. Outside of Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, Toronto has very little depth in their starting rotation and, even when they do leave the game with the lead, there is no guarantee that it will be maintained – the Blue Jays’ bullpen blew 25 saves last year.
Oh yes, and the Baltimore Orioles are also in this division, so the other 4 teams can look forward to those 18 games each – although Baltimore did have the pleasure of ending Boston’s season in 2011. AL East prediction: 1. Yankees; 2. Red Sox (1st Wild Card); 3. Rays; 4. Blue Jays; 5. Orioles
The 2010 World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants, lost their fantastic young catcher, Buster Posey, in May last season for the rest of the year – an absence they were unable to recover from and they missed out on the playoffs. With Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain as their number 1 and 2 starters, San Francisco often does not need to score many runs – which is just as well as they were last in the MLB in that statistic in 2011. They have added Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan at the top of their lineup to try to fix that, but the main help will be Posey returning to hit behind Pablo Sandoval in the clean-up spot.
If the Giants are going to win their division, they will need to get past the Arizona Diamondbacks, who topped the NL West last season. Ian Kennedy had a fantastic year in 2011, posting a 21-4 record and an ERA of 2.88, though there is a danger he will regress from that performance. Arizona added Trevor Cahill to a rotation that includes Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders, and will probably add top-prospect Trevor Bauer before Memorial Day – so starting pitching is likely to be their strength again this year. The issue for the Diamondbacks will be generating runs, as their only premium hitter is Justin Upton in right field. If their starting rotation can keep them in games, and J.J. Putz can lock down saves in the games they do have the lead, the Diamondbacks could return to the playoffs, but I expect them to miss out this year.
Both the Dodgers and the Rockies have two outstanding players each, but that will not be enough for either team to have an impact at the top of the division. Los Angeles has last year’s National League Cy Young winner in Clayton Kershaw, and premium center fielder Matt Kemp anchoring their lineup, but the new owners (a group led by Magic Johnson) will have their eyes on making moves through trades before trying to sign free agents in the offseason with the aim of competing in the future rather than straight away. Colorado has one of the best shortstops in the Major Leagues in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez in center field joins him in the heart of the lineup to give the Rockies a strong-looking offense, but a pitching staff that has Jeremy Guthrie as its ace, as well as 47-year-old Jamie Moyer in the rotation, is unlikely to be a contender in any division – let alone one with as many quality pitchers as the NL West.
San Diego added Carlos Quentin, a power-hitting left-fielder, and Yonder Alonso at first base during the offseason, but they will be still trying to build while they wait for their prospects to develop in the minor leagues. They were last in the division in 2011 and are likely to repeat that again this year. NL West Prediction: 1. Giants; 2. Diamondbacks; 3. Rockies; 4. Dodgers; 5. Padres
The reigning World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, have been written off by many because of the loss of Albert Pujols – but there are still many reasons to be hopeful for the Missouri club. While Pujols has been without question a premium player over the last decade for St. Louis, his OPS (On Base Percentage plus Slugging) has declined for the last three seasons, and the Angels will be paying him $30 million when he is 41 in 10 years time – it was probably the right decision for the Cardinals to let him go. Aside from Game 3 of the World Series, when he slugged three home runs, Pujols was not the outstanding player for the Cardinals in the postseason – that distinction went to Lance Berkman and hometown boy, David Freese, – who took MVP honours in the NLCS and World Series. The loss of their number 1 starter, Chris Carpenter, for the first month of the season at least, will be offset by the return of Adam Wainwright, who missed all of 2011 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Last year they sneaked into the playoffs, but this season I expect them to return as NL Central winners.
Milwaukee won the NL Central in 2011, but their chances of repeating have taken two massive blows – firstly by losing Prince Fielder in free agency to the Detroit Tigers, and with their MVP from last term, Ryan Braun, facing a 50 game suspension for taking a banned substance – a penalty that he is currently appealing, thus making him available to start the year. Being the player who replaces Fielder at first base will be a tough job for Mat Gamel – although he reported for his first training camp in 2009 overweight, so there may be hope for him yet. If the Brewers are to have any chance of returning to the postseason this year, they will need to have another great year from their top two starting pitchers, Yovani Gollardo and Zack Greinke. The backend of the bullpen has the combination of John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez to lock down any leads Milwaukee has, but they will be relying upon production from right-fielder Corey Hart and third-baseman Aramis Ramirez should Braun miss those 50 games.
Cincinnati were the one NL Central team who kept their prized first baseman, as Joey Votto today added ten years – and more than $200 million in value – to the two seasons he had remaining on his current contract. The trade that brought starting pitcher, Matt Latos, in from San Diego, to go alongside Johnny Cueto at the top of the rotation has made the Reds a strong favourite to take their division this year (though they’re not my pick). If they are going to top the Cardinals, the Reds will have to do it without their closer, Ryan Madson, who is going to miss the entire season. One possibility to replace Madson as the 9th inning guy, is flame throwing Aroldis Chapman – who has the fastest pitch recorded in the Major Leagues at 105mph – but the number of walks he gives up may be an issue in securing the win in tight games.
The remaining three teams in the division can all be kindly described as being in rebuilding mode. In Pittsburgh, that has been the case for the Pirates for the best part of two decades, though the addition of AJ Burnett, the long-term contract signed by Andrew McCutchen and the progression of pitching prospect, Gerrit Cole are all reasons for optimism. In the case of Burnett, getting out of the pressures of New York, as well as the daunting schedule of being in the American League East, could help him rediscover his form of years past – he was the best performing starting pitcher the Yankees had in winning the 2009 World Series. The best move that the Chicago Cubs made in the offseason was recruiting Theo Epstein as their new General Manager – he helped the Red Sox end 86 years without a World Series during his time in Boston, and Cubs fans will be hoping he can eventually end their own drought that goes back to 1908. It will not be this season however, and pitchers Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are likely to be traded for prospects to a team in the playoff hunt in the middle of the year. The Houston Astros are several years away from being contenders and, after this season, will move to the American League West – where they will face an even harder division to compete in. NL Central Prediction: 1. Cardinals; 2. Reds (2nd Wild Card); 3. Pirates; 4. Brewers; 5. Cubs; 6. Astros
Last season was a huge letdown for the Philadelphia Phillies, who had been expected to make it all the way to the World Series, but they fell at the first playoff hurdle. With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, they are still equipped to do well in 5 or 7 game series in October, and that strength in the rotation should help them win enough games to make the postseason again this year. Although they paid a lot for him in free agency, new closer Jonathan Papelbon should give them a reliable finish in close games. However, they will struggle to score enough runs to be in the lead a lot of the time. With Ryan Howard out to start the season – having ended his and the Phillies year by collapsing with a hamstring injury along the first-base line in the series loss to the Cardinals – and Chase Utley also missing with strength issues in his legs, it is hard to see where the power will come from for Philadelphia. Hunter Pence, acquired from Houston in the middle of 2011, will be the main focus of the offense, but none of the players who will be in the opening day lineup had a batting average of .300 or better last season.
The Atlanta Braves finished second in the NL East last year, but they saw the 10.5 game lead they held over the Cardinals in late August evaporate during September, as they suffered the biggest collapse in the history of Major League Baseball. To recover from that will be a challenge for the Braves and they will need both Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward to improve on their down years in 2011, as well as a full year of health for their power-hitting catcher, Brian McCann. The rotation is led by Jair Jurrjens, but behind him Atlanta will be relying on Tommy Hanson to fully recover from the torn rotator cuff he had last year.
Even if everything goes right for Atlanta this year, they may still struggle to hold off the rapidly improving Washington Nationals and
Florida Miami Marlins. The Nationals have young pitching stud, Stephen Strasburg, returning after surgery meant he missed much of last year, and the power hitting Bryce Harper developing in the Minor Leagues as well. Combine that with Ryan Zimmerman at third base, Jason Werth in right field, and new starting pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, brought in via a trade with Oakland, and Washington have the base of a team who could compete very soon. The Miami Marlins brought in a fresh manager, Ozzie Guillen, for their first season with a new name and ball park – as well as shortstop Jose Reyes from the Mets and starting pitcher Mark Buerhle from the White Sox. Josh Johnson remains the stud of their pitching rotation, but last season he only made 9 starts before a shoulder injury ruled him out. We are also only three years away from the Back to the Future II prediction that the Cubs would sweep Miami in the World Series – though one of the teams would have to switch leagues before then for that to come true.
The one team in the NL East that are not even in the conversation for a postseason berth, are the downtrodden New York Mets. Johan Santana returns to lead their pitching staff having missed all of 2011, but that is where the good news ends. The payroll has been slashed as the fallout from the Bernie Maddoff scandal continues, and with David Wright out of contract after this year, it is possible that the fan favourite third-baseman could be traded during the season. In Santana and knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey, the Mets do have two quality pitchers who have potential no-hitter stuff, such a performance would be the first in the history of the ball club, and maybe all the Mets fans will have to cheer about this season. NL East Predictions: 1. Phillies; 2. Marlins (1st Wild Card); 3. Braves; 4. Nationals; 5. Mets
Since I am making prognostications, I might as well go the whole way and predict the post season too.
Wild Card: Mariners over Red Sox (if they can start Felix Hernandez in the game)
Divisional Series: Yankees over Red Sox; Tigers over Mariners
Championship Series: Yankees over Tigers
Wild Card: Marlins over Reds
Divisional Series: Cardinals over Marlins; Giants over Phillies
Championship Series: Giants over Cardinals
Yankees over Giants (predicting the Yankees to win the World Series is likely saying casinos will turn a profit in Las Vegas I know, but oh well).