*I know there were those games last week, but those don’t feel like Opening Day-they’re physically separate from the rest of the season by being in another country, and temporally separate by being a week early. I’ll just call those something like “Phantom Opening Day” for now, for lack of a better term.
So, without further ado, how I think the 2012 season will play out (as of right now):
2. Red Sox
4. Blue Jays
I went over this a little bit already, so I won’t go too far in depth. I think that the Yankees are a safe choice for best team in the League, but they have enough old players that multiple things could break the wrong way and keep them out of the playoffs. That’s more of a worst-case scenario, though. The Red Sox are, as of right now, likely the second best team in the league, despite the fact that so many people are calling them disasters and such. It may be easy to forget since, as you may know, the last month of the season counts for double or triple or some multiple for everything (which is why being on a playoff team totally controls how good an MVP candidate was, and also why the Orioles managed to become heavy playoff favorites last season thanks to a strong finish the year before).*
The Rays look to be the third best team, but they have enough young players with room for improvement that they could easily jump the two juggernauts of the division. The Blue Jays keep looking better, and I might like them more if they played in, say, the Central. But they’ll likely need another season or two before they’re ready to make a playoff run. The Orioles will probably play baseball games, although you can never be too sure about these things.
*Absolutely, totally unrelated tangent: sarcasm can be hard to detect without physical cues. I have seen people online take totally ridiculous facetious arguments at face value because you never know just how crazy people on the internet can be. They might actually believe those crazy arguments they were making. No idea what brought that thought up.
5. White Sox
Right now, the Tigers look to be setting themselves up in as heavy favorites, for the short term at the very least. If they traded places with the Blue Jays, they would be able to compete with baseball’s answer to the hydra. As it is, they’re dealing with something more akin to a four-headed newt with seasonal allergies.*
*I guess because it’s more or less harmless, but there’s still stuff to be concerned about. Like, what if it sneezes on you? Or maybe it’s a sign or toxic waste, which would be really worrisome. Wow, that analogy worked out better than I thought.
The Indians were an average team with some things to like last year, and they look to be more or less the same this year. The Royals were a less-than-average team with a lot to like last year, and I expect to seem some improvement (although, barring a sudden, unexpected improvement, they aren’t really set up for a Raysian playoff run). The Twins more or less had their “everything goes wrong” scenario last year, and they at least have useful pieces. Mauer and Morneau, in particular, should be able to keep the team out of the cellar at least (although I would like to think the Orioles would be able to fight the Twins for fourth place if they were in this division). The White Sox are sort of in the position the Astros were in a few years ago where the MLB team can’t compete, the farm system needs help, and the team is running out of useful parts to deal. They seem to be a little too unsure of where they are in rebuilding, though, which might make their fans a little nervous.
The Rangers beat the Angels by 10 games last year; going by expected won-loss record, it was a 13 game difference. Did the Angels become 10-13 games better than the Rangers this offseason? Maybe, but that’s a big gap to make up, particularly for a team that seems content to start Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells, all of whom seem to be nearing the ends of their careers. Their line-up is going to heavily depend on Albert Pujols, which admittedly is not a bad place to be in. But when you’re dealing with a team that’s as well-built as the Rangers, it will be tough (and keep in mind, although they lost C.J. Wilson, there’s a chance that Yu Darvish actually represents an upgrade anyway). It’s very possible both teams make the playoffs anyway thanks to the extra wild card (although I still think the AL East has the three best teams; however, the Rangers and Angels will get more games against the weak Mariners and Athletics to pad their win totals, while Baltimore represents the only not good AL East team, so that might be enough for one of these two to break in).
Speaking of those other teams, they probably won’t be good. The Mariners at least have some young bats now (between Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, and Justin Smoak) to compliment their pitching depth in the minors, so they’re one the right track. Maybe they’ll be in the mix in a few years. The Athletics are pretty clearly setting themselves up for rebuilding as well, but they aren’t nearly as far along in the process yet.
I think this division will see some of the biggest changes this season. That may sound confusing, particularly since I listed these teams in the exact same order they finished last year. However, 2011 saw the Phillies run away with first place (13 game lead) and the Braves comfortably jog ahead with second (another 8.5 games above third). This year, I predict that it will actually resemble a race, with the real possibility that the Braves or *gasp* the Nationals take the crown, especially if injuries continue to plague Philadelphia (although it probably won’t be enough to stop a team with their pitching staff).
Like with the Red Sox, a lot of people seem down on the Braves because they just missed the playoffs, while forgetting that they actually won 89 games. I don’t really see what they could have done to improve. They needed offense, and it seems fair to expect at least some of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Tyler Pastornicky, Martin Prado, and a full season of Michael Bourn represent improvements over last season.
The Marlins made some big splashes, and some people seem really high on them for it (Sports Illustrated, for example, put them second). It’s easy to forget that this team finished fifth last season, five games behind the Mets and seventeen behind the Braves. Did the Marlins gain seventeen games on the Braves this offseason? Well, they added Jose Reyes (assuming he’s healthy the whole year, of course) and Mark Buehrle, as well as Carlos Zambrano and Heath Bell (although I don’t expect either of those two to add much). Hanley Ramirez could rebound from his less-than-stellar 2011. Josh Johnson might finally be healthy for a whole season and provide ace value. Giancarlo Stanton might still have room to improve, although he was pretty darn good last year. If all of that breaks right, I can see seventeen games of difference, I guess. But that’s a lot of ifs that need to happen.
The Nationals seem to be in at least as good of a position, since they only start from eight and a half out. They get a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg (in theory), as well as Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. They might see Jayson Werth rebound, and Bryce Harper might make the majors this season. Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, and Jordan Zimmermann were all impressive, and can foreseeably improve. That seems like more or less the same amount of maybes as the Marlins, except that the Nationals get an almost ten game head start. Overall, I expect two, maybe three playoff teams to come from the NL East.
Also, for the sake of completeness, the Mets.
Maybe my bias is affecting my prediction. However, the Cardinals are pretty well off after their World Series title. They covered their loss of Albert Pujols and the injury to Chris Carpenter with a return by Adam Wainwright and the addition of Carlos Beltran. That should at least keep them equal with last year, not to mention they now have their bullpen sorted out from the start.
In contrast, the Brewers lost Prince Fielder and replaced him with Aramis Ramirez. It isn’t a horrible trade-off, but there is a definite fall-off. They’ll still be competitive, though, and a few good breaks could put them in the playoff race. The Reds seem to be bigger challengers, and as a Cardinals fan, they worry me more. Mat Latos was a big addition, and Devin Mesoraco has been picked as a favorite for Rookie of the Year. However, they were eleven games behind the Cardinals. I think that they’re more or less on equal footing now, so this season should be exciting.
The Pirates won’t be contending this year, but they might improve to the point were they finally have a winning season (I think they’re more realistically going to be around .500, probably just below, but the point is that they’re on the way up). The Cubs and Astros both had solid off seasons with regards to hiring front office personnel. The Astros will probably bottom out this year, or the next, though. They are more or less out of useful pieces to trade in rebuilding, and their farm system isn’t up to speed yet. They’re my pick for Worst Team 2012.
I feel like every team in this division was busy this offseason, but most of the moves were of the “what’s the point?” variety. The Diamondbacks benched their elite-fielding left fielder (Gerardo Parra) in favor of playing a DH with slightly more pop (Jason Kubel). The Giants hope Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera will increase their pop, which seems doubtful. The Rockies added somewhat useful bit-parts such as Jeremy Guthrie, Ramon Hernandez, Marco Scutaro, and Michael Cuddyer, but that probably won’t make up the 21 games between them and first place. The Dodgers added less-than bit-parts, meaning they’ll remain the Matt Kemp-and-Clayton Kershaw show for another season at least (although locking up Matt Kemp was good). The Padres made minor upgrades, such as Huston Street and Carlos Quentin, which should totally help them overcome the 23 games they were behind first place last season (although, again, they made a smart move locking up Cameron Maybin).
In the end, I think it will come down to whether Buster Posey for a full season is enough to improve the Giants offense over last year’s partial seasons from Posey and Carlos Beltran, and whether the Diamondbacks will regress any from last year (although Arizona did add Trevor Cahill, and they'll get a full season from Paul Goldschmidt, both of which should help). My prediction is a resounding “Maybe, but not enough that it will change the result from last year”.
Some other quick predictions:
Best Player in the AL: Evan Longoria
Best Player in the NL: I’m going with a toss-up between Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Upton
AL MVP (because the voters operate on a totally different basis): Miguel Cabrera
NL MVP: Joey Votto
AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia (Verlander will probably be as good as last season, but his BABIP will see a spike due in part to Delmon Young, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder all wandering about the field at the same time, although I don’t expect that to last the whole season)
NL Cy Young: Roy Halladay (I won't do best pitchers, because the Cy Youngs lately seem to actually make some sense)