Saturday, March 31, 2012

MLB 2012: National League

Pitching usually tells the tale for a baseball team, but this may be too much for even the best pitching to overcome

For the past five seasons, the Philadelphia Phillies have won the National League's Eastern Division crown. For the past four they have increased their regular season victory total every single year, culminating in a franchise-record 102 wins in 2011. They won the World Series in 2008. They lost the World Series to the Yankees in 2009. They lost the NL Championship in an upset to a Giants team that went on to win the World Series in 2010. They barely lost in an upset in the Divisional Round to a Cardinals team that went on to win the World Series in 2011. The bottom line in Major League Baseball has been that for the past five seasons the road to a world championship has had to go through Philadelphia. Can that possibly continue despite what appear to be devastating losses?

I am going to hesitate, take a deep breath, acknowledge some serious red flags, and pick my beloved hometown Philadelphia Phillies to win their 6th consecutive Eastern Division crown in 2012. I am hesitating and taking a deep breath only because of the two players pictured above, and their likely absence from the Fightin's lineup for what appears to be a significant portion of the upcoming season. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley first took the field together at Citizens Bank Park in 2004, and since the following year of 2005 have been regulars in the lineup. For 7 seasons the fans have come out and watched these two play on the right side of the infield. A serious tendon injury suffered by Howard on the final at-bat of the 2011 playoffs is combining with Utley's rapidly deteriorating knees to put that streak in jeopardy.

With Howard likely out until at least mid-May and possibly into June, and with no timetable at all on Utley, that right-side infield is likely to be manned by a combination of the enigmatic John Mayberry Jr and beloved future Hall of Famer Jim Thome at 1st base and the shortstop-of-the-future Freddy Galvis at 2nd base. Prescient jack-of-all-trades pickup Ty Wigginton is also likely to see time at both spots, as well as sometimes spelling aging and injury-prone 3rd baseman Placido Polanco. Jimmy Rollins was re-signed in the off-season, and not only his veteran leadership but also his offensive production will be needed more than ever. The outfield features a pair of all-star caliber talents in Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, and the clutch bat and dependable catching of fan favorite Carlos Ruiz is always a plus for this team.

But it is on the mound where the Phillies remain the dominant team in the division, and one of the best in baseball. Specifically because of the first three starting pitchers: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Every time those three take the mound, the Phillies will be tough to beat. They also have returning Joe Blanton, last year's rookie sensation Vance Worley, and improving righty Kyle Kendrick giving the club enviable depth. In the bullpen, longtime Red Sox all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon was brought in, and he should prove a fan favorite. He is supported by a solid mix of veterans and youth including Jose Contreras, Chad Qualls, Antonio Bastardo, and Michael Stutes.

It will not just be the injuries to Howard and Utley that make repeating tougher on the Phillies. The old Satchel Paige adage of "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you" applies here in the form of improving divisional competition from the Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, and the new-name, new-look Miami Marlins. The New York Mets are still around, and appear to be resolving a financial mess that has virtually buried the franchise in the division basement, but they are no threat for now.

The Braves have the deepest young pitching in the game today with talented arms such as Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Craig Kimbrell, Jonny Venters, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran, and more. They have strong veterans in Brian McCann, Michael Bourn, Dan Uggla, Martin Prado, and beginning in May a final season from future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. The key for Atlanta will be the performance of a pair of young bats: outfielder Jayson Heyward and 1st baseman Freddie Freeman. If these young bats and the young guys on the mound all come together at once, this team could dethrone the Phillies.

Both Washington and Florida have things to like. The Nats have phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg back and healthy, and he will lead a vastly improved rotation that includes Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is an all-star and franchise cornerstone, and the club has two of the best hitting prospects in the game in outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Anthony Rendon getting ready. They desperately need Jayson Werth to be a 25-25 player if they want to contend sooner rather than later. The Marlins move into a new ballpark, embrace the Miami identity, and have some stars in Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo "don't call me Mike" Stanton, and free agent stud shortstop Jose Reyes. If ace Josh Johnson can stay healthy at the front of the rotation, the Fish should hang around well into the summer.

In the Central Division, the Saint Louis Cardinals won the World Series for an NL-record 11th time, but then lost perhaps the greatest hitter in the modern era when Albert Pujols left via free agency. They also have last year's post-season pitching hero and savior, Chris Carpenter, struggling with injuries in the spring. But the Cards may still be the team to beat here. A lineup featuring Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, David Freese, and Yadier Molina should remain productive. Adam Wainwright returns from injury to front the rotation. If Carpenter is healthy most of the year, they have the edge, but if not, the door is wide open.

Kicking in that door may be the team that won the division in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds. With a returning lineup that includes MVP-caliber 1st baseman Joey Votto, an emerging all-star in Jay Bruce, and talented 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips, the Reds simply have to prove that they have the pitching talent and depth to return to the top. Or the division could be won by the team that won it a year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite losing Prince Fielder, the Brewers retain MVP-caliber outfielder Ryan Braun, all-star caliber 2nd baseman Rickie Weeks, and an underrated pitching staff led by Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke in the rotation and by Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford in the pen. The Pirates, Cubs, and Astros are likely to pull up the rear in that order. It will be a basement goodbye for Houston in their final season before slinking off to the American League.

An extremely interesting season may be developing out in the West Division where the returning titlist Arizona Diamondbacks may face a stiff challenge from an improved San Francisco Giants squad. The DBacks won a somewhat surprising division crown a year ago and have an emerging MVP-caliber talent in Justin Upton leading the way in the lineup. Leftfielder Jason Kubel was an excellent pickup, catcher Miguel Montero is a possible all-star, 2nd baseman Aaron Hill appears legit, and young 1st baseman Paul Goldschmidt has serious power. I am just simply not sold on this lineup yet, and need to see more. But manager Kirk Gibson has a solid rotation led by Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, and has super prospect arm Trevor Bauer almost ready in the minors.

I hate picking against the team that joyfully lept into their pool to celebrate the division crown a year ago, but I think the Giants can win it back. When you run out a rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner and return a true MVP-caliber player like Buster Posey to the lineup, you have to be considered a favorite. Add in a strong bullpen led by the bearded one, Brian Wilson, and a solid hitting lineup with Aubrey Huff, Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, and the 'Panda', Pablo Sandoval, I like the Giants chances. The Dodgers, Rockies, and Padres should again finish in that order, but the situation in Los Angeles looks like it is about to change for the better, and possibly quicker than anyone may realize.

The news emerged in the last couple of days that the Dodgers long-running ownership mess has finally been resolved. The new group is led by Stan Kasten on the baseball end, and by Magic Johnson on the publicity and recruiting side, and will take over formally in May. With the full financial backing of their Guggenheim group partners, I would expect the Los Angeles Dodgers to quickly return to contending status, perhaps as soon as this summer. Neither the Diamondbacks or Giants are so good that if LA stays in contention behind Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Dee Gordon, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and a strong, young bullpen it is not beyond the realm of possibility the new owners could open the pocketbooks to pursue talent via trade to push them past the others.

For now, I'm going to make the call that the division winners will be the Phillies, the Cardinals, and the Giants. The two Wildcard spots will go to the Braves and the Diamondbacks. For most of the summer, and maybe to the wire, someone from among the Marlins, Nationals, Brewers and Dodgers should be right there contending as well. I am going to be the ultimate homer and predict that Howard finally returns, gets into shape by July, and bashes. Utley manages the injury enough to be ready for the stretch run and post-season. Until then the offense is kept afloat by JRoll, Pence, the Flyin' Hawaiian, and Thome. The pitching is stellar, and Hamels is signed to a longterm extension. In the end, the Phillies return to the World Series. Unfortunately, Josh Hamilton bashes them into submission, and Texas takes home their first-ever championship.

Friday, March 30, 2012

MLB 2012: American League

The married man laying on this bar about to have the whipped cream and his body devoured, and his ability to overcome the problems involved on the night pictured, is the key to the entire 2012 American League season

My predictions for the American League a year ago proved to be a bit of a mixed bag. I had the Red Sox, White Sox, and Rangers as division winners, and called the Wildcard race a battle between the Yanks, Angels and Twins. I called the Tigers my "dark horse contender" club. Boston was the best team in baseball for 5 months, but we all know what happened in September. The Chisox never got untracked, beaten to the Central crown by those darkhorse Tigers. Thank you, Texas, for making my western pick the right one. For the Wildcard, I thought the Rays had lost too much talent, only to learn to never count out a club with Joe Maddon at the helm and tons of strong, young pitching.

So let's get to my 2012 predictions in the junior circuit where the two biggest bats available in the off-season, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, moved from the N.L. to the A.L., further widening the gap between the overall offense available in the two leagues. But the fact is that with or without the DH, and no matter how many big bats you have in your lineup, it will almost always be pitching that gets you through a long 6-month season of ups and downs, and through a multi-round playoff format. With all the slugging lineups, I believe the teams in the A.L. who can stay healthiest and most effective on the mound will rise to the top.

The power in the league has generally been in the East Division, with the Yankees and Red Sox usually as the favorites, and with the Rays emerging over the last four years to become regular contenders as well. It should be no surprise that I am picking those three at the top of the division once again. But none of the three is now the best team in the league. The top teams from the other two divisions: Texas and the LA Angels in the west and Detroit in the central, will be even stronger contenders for the American League pennant.

I'm going to believe in one more solid enough season from the Yankees' veterans that the franchise will bring home the eastern crown before they simply get too old. Derek Jeter is now 37-years old, Alex Rodriguez is now 36, while C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson are all 31. Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of the game, is now the same age as his uniform number of 42. It says here that all of these big names will be contributing players, and the real star will be 2nd baseman Robinson Cano, who should emerge as a full-fledged MVP candidate.

Sabathia is certainly not over-the-hill, and given health should again be a Cy Young contender. The Yanks acquired Hiroki Kuroda via free agency, and 23-year old phenom Michael Pineda from the Mariners via trade. They join Phil Hughes and Hector Noesi in a talented rotation, and veteran Freddy Garcia is still around should anyone falter. Rivera will give it one last shot with a tremendous supporting bullpen cast that includes David Robertson and Rafael Soriano. The Yanks appear to have enough to win the division.

Change came in Boston, with Bobby Valentine replacing 2-time World Series-winning manager Terry Francona. The perception was that the Red Sox needed more discipline and toughness after their September collapse. What the club really needs is health, and a little more pitching. But they have enough overall talent in a lineup that includes legit MVP candidates Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia and big time leadership in Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz. The key may be a return to health and production from left fielder Carl Crawford, last season's big free agent signing bust.

On the mound, the Bosox combo of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett is as good as any, and young Clay Buchholz is a major breakout all-star candidate. But what will they get from the rest of the rotation? How will the Daniel Bard experiment work out? No one inside or outside that organization can answer those questions right now. The bullpen is good even without Bard's tremendous setup work. Newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey has Mark Melancon, Alfredo Aceves and more to support him. If Boston gets the right answers on the mound and from the bat of Crawford, they may overtake the Yanks.

So why am I once again picking the Rays to fall short of the two divisional big spenders? Consistent prejudice against their small market, just-win-baby approach, in all likelihood. There is much to like in Tampa, starting with possibly the best manager in the game today in Joe Maddon. The lineup has Evan Longoria, an MVP candidate, at the hot corner, and an emerging all-star caliber outfielder in Desmond Jennings. It will be up to Maddon to mix and match the rest of the lineup that includes versatile players such as Sean Rodriguez, Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist enough to stay with Boston and New York.

On the mound, the Rays can pitch with anyone in baseball, and they are young. 'Big Game' James Shields had an all-star year last season, and David Price, my Cy Young pick a year ago, is a contender for that award again this time around. They are joined by last year's big rookie, Jeremy Hellickson, and this year's Rookie of the Year contender, Matt Moore in a rotation where Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, two arms that could start for most any team in the Majors, have a hard time finding a place. Kyle Farnsworth harnessed his potential and stayed healthy, finally becoming a legit closer, and his bullpen mates are deep and talented. If Maddon pushes the right lineup buttons, the Rays are right there again.

The Toronto Blue Jays have some interesting talent with all-star slugger Jose Bautista, future 3rd base star Brett Lawrie, talented catcher J.P. Arencibia, and enigmatic center fielder Colby Rasmus. On the mound they have a pair of strong arms leading the rotation in Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, and they stole closer Sergio Santos from the White Sox. But manager John Farrell's team is simply in the wrong division, and does not have enough depth or talent yet to challenge the first three. The Baltimore Orioles have even more holes, though Matt Wieters may prove to be the best catcher in the game this season, and it looks like another long summer for Buck Showalter and the fans down in Camden Yards.

In the Central Division, manager Jim Leyland guided the Detroit Tigers back to the top led by MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. While Verlander's season of winning the pitching Triple Crown of Wins, ERA, and Strikeouts was phenomenal, strong supporting work was turned in by Max Scherzer, trade deadline revelation Doug Fister, and 22-year old Rick Porcello. The team remained aggressive after the potentially devastating loss of Victor Martinez, and perhaps even got better, by spending big bucks to bring Prince Fielder home to the Motor City. He and Miguel Cabrera give the Tigers a pair of MVP candidates, two of the most dangerous bats in the game today.

The supporting cast in Detroit is an interesting mix of emerging players such as Alex Avila, Ryan Raburn, and Brennan Boesch and the occasionally frustrating underachieving talents of outfielders Delmon Young and Austin Jackson. The bullpen features one of the top closers in the game today in Jose Valverde, and some of the best late inning matchup guys around in Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, and young Daniel Schlereth. There does not appear to be another team in this division capable of challenge the Tigers - yet.

The word "yet" was highlighted above because there is one other very interesting team in this division. It has been a quarter of a century since George Brett led the Royals to the franchise' lone World Series title, and they have not been back to the post-season since. But Kansas City has quietly been amassing one of the best young farm systems in the game over the last few years, and those players will be emerging soon. Already here are Eric Hosmer, who will blossom into one of the best hitters in the game, and Mike Moustakas, who should become a legit slugging sensation. When the pitching catches up over the next couple of seasons, the Royals will again emerge as true contenders.

For now, Kansas City will have to be happy to battle for 2nd place behind the Motown behemoths. It says here that they can do it, beating out Cleveland, Minnesota, and the White Sox. Yup, I am predicting Chicago for the division basement just a year after picking them to win it. The Tribe is an interesting club that could make some noise if they can stay healthy and a couple of players overachieve. The Twins and the 'M&M' boys, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, may never return to their division-winning glory years. I think the fans in the Twin Cities should be happy to just get those two players healthy and productive at some point in 2012, and look to the future. Chicago still has some talent, and if it all works out they could finish as high as 2nd. But it rarely all works out.

Out in the Western Division is where the two best teams in the league will battle things out. Between them the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels have won 7 of the last 8 division titles, and that dominance will continue before the entire division gets some new company in 2013. Next year, the Houston Astros will move from the N.L. Central into the A.L. West, making it a 5-team division for the first time ever, and evening out the overall number of teams in each league. But this is 2012, and I am going to pick the Rangers to hang on, barely, for their 3rd straight division title.

The key for Texas will be Josh Hamilton and a pair of new members to the starting rotation. Hamilton had a relapse with substance abuse issues, this time apparently alcohol-related, back in the off-season. His drunken January night of debauchery, pictured above, is something especially troubling considering his past drug and alcohol problems and the fact that his faith and his relationship with his wife were major factors in his overcoming those issues and staying clean the last few seasons. They allowed him to finally emerge from the pit of despair to the heights of the game, and of life.

Hamilton is, in my opinion, the single biggest key player in the entire league. He must be 100% healthy, clean, and focused in what is his free agent season. If he is, the Rangers will be the beneficiaries of a big salary-drive season for the MVP-caliber talent. With a lineup that also includes stalwarts Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, David Murphy, Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre, not even the Angels can swing bats like the Rangers. In fact, no other team in baseball can.

Of course, as I mentioned at the top of this article, division titles are usually won with arms, and Texas has those as well. Mentored by a new attitude instilled by legendary team owner Nolan Ryan, the Rangers got strong efforts last year from Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando. Now added to that group they have converted closer Neftali Feliz and star Japanese import Yu Darvish. Both Feliz and Darvish have top-of-the-rotation stuff. How quickly Feliz adopts to his new role, and Darvish to his new country, may tell the tale of the division as much as Hamilton's head and body. Another key will be how newly signed closer Joe Nathan holds up. They need him to be healthy as well.

The Angels went out and scored the biggest free agent coup this off-season, possibly the biggest in the history of the sport, when they lured all-time great 1st baseman Albert Pujols away from world champion Saint Louis. Pujols joins an offense that includes veteran outfielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells, emerging star Howie Kendrick, and returning DH Kendry Morales, who looks fully recovered from a horrible leg injury that kept him out all last season. Add in young centerfielder Peter Bourjos and a new catcher in Chris Iannetta, and the lineup is so strong that it cannot find a place for one of the game's best prospects in outfielder Mike Trout. A key may be exactly what this club can get out of the left side of it's infield, shortstop Erick Aybar and the 3rd base combo of Mark Trumbo and Alberto Callaspo.

On the mound, Los Angeles may have the deepest starting four rotation in the game with Cy Young contenders Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and C.J. Wilson in front of Ervin Santana. Youngsters Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards have talent and battle for the #5 slot. The bullpen features a kid closer in Jordan Walden, but it says here that this may be an Achilles heel. The Angels owner Artie Moreno has deep pockets and a strong desire to win, so he may open the pocketbook if need be to improve the depth here as the season goes along.

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics just cannot match up over the long haul with the two front-running big spenders. The Mariners will be trying to get another strong season from future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, will enjoy the days when ace Felix Hernandez takes the hill as a Cy Young contender, and will thrill to a pair of legitimate young hitters in Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley. It should be enough to finish ahead of the A's, who dismantled in hopes of moving and contending again in a few years. Oakland did sign Cuban athletic internet phenom Yoenis Cespedes, but was it to build around him or to trade him at mid-season?

So the call here for 2012 is for the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, and Texas Rangers to win their respective divisions, with the Tigers doing it fairly easily. There are now a pair of Wildcard berths up for grabs, and they should go to someone from among the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, or Tampa Bay Rays. I see no other team in the league capable of reaching the post-season. If anyone except these 6 clubs reaches the post-season, it will be an amazing feat to me. But that is why they play the games. Doesn't some club seem to contend from out of nowhere every year? If there is such a club this time around, it could be those Toronto Blue Jays.

I will go with Robinson Cano as the American League Most Valuable Player, and will pick Justin Verlander to take home his 2nd straight A.L. Cy Young Award. For the Rookie of the Year, all the experts are going with impressive lefty Matt Moore of the Rays. I should too, but I won't. I watched Cespedes double and homer in his first two games. I'll drink the YouTube fed Kool Aid, and go with Yoenis Cespedes of the A's as the top newcomer. The best manager in the A.L. is Maddon, and if somehow the Rays make the post-season, I will call him the Manager of the Year. At the end, I'll call it the Tigers and the Rangers battling for the A.L. pennant, and send Texas back for a 3rd straight trip to the Fall Classic, where they finally give their fans the franchise' first title.