Led by NL Manager of the Year Kirk Gibson, the Arizona Diamondbacks were MLB's 2011 Cinderella story.
Plagued by a last-place NL West finish the year before, a payroll cut between 2010 and 2011 and the lack of a marked superstar on the roster, last year's Diamondbacks squad confirmed to the baseball world that improbable turnarounds do happen.
In all six divisions this upcoming 2012 season, there is a 2011 Diamondbacks story just waiting to happen.
From the AL West to the NL East, these are the six teams that could be the D-Backs of 2012.
In selecting these six squads, the following four criteria were considered:
No. 1: A disappointing finish in 2011. The team needn't have finished in last place in its division, but teams with greater ground to make up—and a propensity for that possibility—were at an advantage in this selection process.
No. 2: A payroll cut or low projected payroll for 2012. The payroll might be lower than the average of the majority of teams in the same division or league, or the team might have downsized its expenditures this offseason. Certain payroll data from USA Today.
No. 3: Unconventional roster. The team may not have produced much buzz this offseason or may lack a bona fide superstar on the roster. Alternatively, the team may have been active these past few months and acquired a big name or two. The team may be going through various changes on or off the field in regards to management, with unpredictable affects.
No. 4: Low expectations for 2012. The 2011 Diamondbacks were expected to finish at or around the fifth-place mark in the NL West. By and large, very few analysts were predicting a 2011 NL West championship for the franchise. Likewise, another important criterion for this list is a set of low expectations heading into 2012.
2011 Finish: 57-95, Last Place, AL West
2012 Projected Payroll: About $79 million after $86.5 million in 2011. Only the Oakland A's are projected to have a lower 2012 payroll in the AL West than the Mariners.
Best Players: Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki. King Felix was an All-Star last season for good reason—he is their ace. Other than Hernandez, Ichiro is about the only A-lister on the squad. The former owner of an MLB-record 10-year 200-hit season streak, Ichiro had a down year in 2011, not being elected an All-Star for the first time since joining MLB in 2001. If Ichiro comes back strong in 2012, the M's will contend.
Expectations: With the Los Angeles Angels headlining their 2012 free-agency class with Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, they are early favorites to win the 2012 AL West. By winning negotiation rights with Yu Darvish, the Rangers proved they are serious about competing with the Angels.
Lost in the shuffle? Seattle. From Dustin Ackley to Trayvon Robinson and other youngsters ready to make an impact, the Mariners just might be the AL West's sleeper squad.
2011 Finish: 71-91, Second to Last Place, AL Central
2012 Projected Payroll: At $36 million in 2011, the Royals will once again have the lowest payroll in baseball in 2012.
Best Players: To be determined. Can Jonathan Sanchez and Jonathan Broxton save the Royals after re-signing Bruce Chen this offseason? Aaron Crow was KC's All-Star in 2011—who? He had a 4-4 record and 2.76 ERA.
Expectations: This sleeper team is again expected to sleep in 2012. However, with a very young lineup (no current starter—both position players and pitchers—is over the age of 30), the Royals have a shot to surprise baseball with an improbable return to the postseason. The youngsters' development is key and will ultimately determine the club's fate next season.
2011 Finish: 81-81, Second to Last Place, AL East
2012 Projected Payroll: At $62.6 million in 2011, the Blue Jays stand to face about $70 million in expenditures in 2012—maximum. Only the Tampa Bay Rays, with a $41 million payroll in 2011, have a lower payroll than Toronto in the AL East, while the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox possess the highest and third-highest payrolls in all of baseball, respectively.
Best Players: Jose Bautista. The photo above is one of Toronto's only highlights in 2012 other than Jon Rauch trying to rip apart an umpire about half his size—after being ejected, the only thing Rauch was able to rip instead was his jersey.
Bautista was a Hank Aaron and Silver Slugger Award winner in 2011, along with leading both leagues with 43 home runs. Other than Bautista, however, the Blue Jays do not have a real A-lister.
Expectations: In a division where championships seem to go back and forth between New York and Boston—and occasionally Tampa Bay—the Blue Jays and Orioles have become forgotten teams. Since the Orioles seem to be perpetually stuck in the mud, that leaves the Blue Jays, a team that actually has a somewhat realistic chance at contending for the AL East title.
2011 Finish: 82-79, Third Place (11.5 GB), NL West
2012 Projected Payroll: At $104 million in 2011, the Dodgers will drastically cut their payroll, expecting to spend "well under" $100 million in 2012. This will be the first time since 2006 that the Dodgers have an opening-day payroll under $100 million and will place them in the ballpark with the Colorado Rockies, whose 2011 payroll was just $88.1 million.
The San Diego Padres, perennially stuck in the NL West cellar, paid their players just $45.9 million last year, while the D-Backs started 2011 with a $53.6 million payroll. The Giants top the NL West payroll list with $118 million in expenditures.
Best Players: Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers were extremely close to sweeping the 2011 NL MVP and Cy Young Award races. For a while, Kemp contended for the batting Triple Crown, while Kershaw ended up winning the pitcher's version. The Dodgers placed their faith in Kemp by signing him to an eight-year deal last month and look poised to do the same with Kershaw once he becomes eligible for arbitration.
With youngsters Dee Gordon, Jerry Sands and Justin Sellers ready to carry on the True Blue tradition, Los Angeles is ready to be competitive in the NL.
Expectations: The Arizona Diamondbacks will be favored to repeat as NL West champs in 2012, with the San Francisco Giants in hot pursuit. The Dodgers, however, will remain a dark horse that some are predicting will recede, rather than progress.
LA fans have struggled through a difficult period in Dodgers history and are enthusiastic about its impending finale. So too are the players and coaches, ready to put certain woes behind them and get back to being contenders. If the fans come back and the team latches onto the new spark, the Dodgers just might win the NL West.
2011 Finish: 79-83, Third Place (17.0 GB), NL Central
2012 Projected Payroll: The Reds spent $75.9 million in 2011, just ahead of the Houston Astros ($70.7 million) and far ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates ($45 million). The Brewers, Cardinals and Cubs all spent more than Cincinnati last year and are projected to once again in 2012, while the Reds currently stand to shave about $3 million off their 2011 mark.
Best Players: Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto. Is Cueto a Cy Young winner in the making, and is Votto a repeat MVP just waiting to happen? It could be, as Votto attempts to rebound from a 2011 season that was slightly off his 2010 MVP campaign of a .324 average, 37 HR and 113 RBI. For the record, he batted just .309 with 29 HR and 103 RBI in 2011.
The Reds' wild card is Mat Latos: How much will he improve now that he is out of San Diego?
Expectations: With the Chicago Cubs' expectations sky-high after Theo Epstein's hiring and the Astros' expectations once again dirt-low after finishing 2011 with 106 losses, the Reds are the happy medium—there is hope in Cincinnati, but after a disappointing 2011 season and with a division featuring both teams that played in the 2011 NLCS, including the eventual World Series champs, the Reds just might sneak into the postseason completely under the radar.
2011 Finish: 72-90, Last Place, NL East
2012 Projected Payroll: The Florida Marlins spent just $56.9 million on their players in 2011, while the Miami Marlins are currently projected to spend around $109 million in 2012. This is a huge jump but still doesn't match the Philadelphia Phillies, who last season spent $173 million in payroll expenses, tops in the National League.
Best Players: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle. Formerly known for Hanley Ramirez, the Marlins have made a name for themselves in more ways than one by signing Reyes and Buehrle. Reyes was a 2011 All-Star, and Buehrle won his third Gold Glove and Fielding Bible awards. Reyes additionally led the league in batting average and triples, while Buehrle will surely enjoy joining his former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen in Miami.
Expectations: With a name change, stadium change and roster change, the Miami Marlins are expected to perform significantly better in 2012—but are they NL East championship good? With Reyes and Buehrle joining Heath Bell and a cast of new and old characters in Florida, the Marlins just might have what it takes to win the NL East after placing dead last in 2011.