In 2007, the Chicago Cubs won the National League Central Division and went to the playoffs a year after finishing 66-96. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays accomplished a similar worst-to-first turnaround. In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks did it.
These are the extreme examples, but a more general lesson may be learned: In today's MLB, the playoffs are always within reach.
That said, many teams head into 2012 with little hope of reaching the postseason. Some are actively rebuilding, while others are getting so aggressive that they form a sort of over-class. Most of the clubs with a realistic shot at making the playoffs have made major moves aimed at doing so, which has stratified the league quite a bit.
The fight for the right to play into October will be fiercer than ever in 2012, and although every team has a chance, they all need certain things to to go right.
For some, the odds of those things happening are minuscule. For others, it seems a foregone conclusion. Here is the blueprint for every big league team to reach the postseason in 2012.
STEP 1: Play Jason Kubel at First Base, Not in Left Field
One of Arizona's key additions this winter, Jason Kubel, can really hit. He should show 25-30-homer power, playing half his games at Chase Field rather than in cold and cavernous Target Field. He can be an excellent left-handed complement to the power punch of Justin Upton and Chris Young in the Diamondbacks' lineup.
In left field, though, where the team reportedly plans to play him, he's a detriment to the team. Inserting Kubel over Gerardo Parra takes (at worst) an average bat out of the lineup and makes the team roughly 15 runs worse over the course of the season, thanks to Kubel's far inferior left-field defense.
Parra earned better than this sort of usurpation with his 2011 campaign.
Instead, Kubel should platoon at first base with right-handed Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt has power, but that's really his only tool, and Arizona will find much better and more even production at first base if it gives its young slugger help.
STEP 2: Get innings from Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Pat Corbin and Andrew Chafin
The Diamondbacks have shown a fetish lately for polished college arms. With their top four picks in the 2011 draft, they took three such players, plus Archie Bradley—a polished high-school pitcher.
One easy way to win any division is to expend more resources in the effort than one's opponents.
The Diamondbacks could do that by pressing top prospects Bauer and Skaggs into the back end of their rotation by the All-Star break, getting quality innings out of the bullpen from Chafin down the stretch and generally being more willing to push their young hurlers than, say, the Dodgers are.
That shouldn't be hard.
STEP 3: Strengthen the Bench, Especially on the Infield
John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist have their days, and I'm sure they're lovely clubhouse guys, but they hardly make up a playoff-caliber bench. Arizona will have some flexibility in terms of pinch-hitters, with Goldschmidt, Kubel and Parra slated to split two spots three ways.
Still, the rest of the second unit is in disarray. A deadline deal should be sufficient to remedy this issue, but sooner or later, Arizona needs an infielder who can pick it and give Stephen Drew or Aaron Hill a day off, without being a total offensive liability.
STEP 1: Get a Major Breakout/Bounceback from Jason Heyward
There's almost certainly no easy answer to the problems that suddenly plagued Jason Heyward in 2011, so this step is easier suggested than executed. Still, it's utterly critical to the team's prospective success.
With Heyward as a solid second-slot hitter and potential .400 OBP guy, they're a juggernaut in league with the rest of the NL East. Without him, they will not be able to score enough runs to win.
STEP 2: Don't Baby Top-Notch Pitchers
The time has come.
Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino can no longer be simply great prospects. This is the year to get 600 combined MLB innings from that quartet—and make them count.
Each presents some vague injury risk, but none is a red-flagged liability. They all have great stuff, great command, and they all should be available in what could be the last rodeo for Chipper Jones.
STEP 3: Spread the Workload in the Bullpen
Craig Kimbrel, Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters simply wore out last autumn, and it led to the Braves' self-destruction during the final month. The shame of it is that such abuse from manager Fredi Gonzalez simply was not necessary.
Kris Medlen will be back from injury as a bullpen reinforcement. Vizcaino could well land there, too. Christhian Martinez rounds out a very talented corps, among whom Gonzalez should have no qualms about spreading innings relatively without prejudice.
Hopefully, that will translate into a fresher group down the stretch.
STEP 1: Recover the Lost Mojo of Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta
Some dreaming is necessary in order to accept the Orioles as even fringe playoff contenders, but this team does have a talented positional core, and a renaissance for a quartet of pitchers that the team has failed miserably to develop over the past two years could go a very long way.
The skills all still seem to be there, and these guys are very young. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that one or two of them still reach their ceiling.
If the other two can even find their way to mid-rotation status, Baltimore is a much better team.
STEP 2: Sign Prince Fielder
It's grossly unlikely, but Baltimore would need to add a true superstar bat in order to be a formidable run-scoring team in the AL East, and Fielder could make them so.
He's going to get a below-market deal. The Orioles' top pick in the draft is protected and cannot be lost to compensation. Fielder is a potential 50-homer guy at Camden Yards.
This deal would make a ton of sense, but competition is afoot.
STEP 3: Extend the Brief Success of Matt Wieters for a Full Season
A superstar bat may not be simply sitting in-house in Baltimore, but then again, it might.
Matt Wieters was supposed to be such a slugger, after all, and his numbers from August 19 through the end of the year read as follows: .289/.377/.628, 11 HR in 138 plate appearances. He struck out just 17 times.
He was a machine, the kind of player the O's always thought they had in him. Wieters needs to sustain that kind of production in order for the Orioles to be remotely competitive in 2012.
STEP 1: Add a Top Starter, if Not Two
Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt make up pretty well the last of the impact pitchers available this winter. The Red Sox have Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz locked in atop their rotation, but after that, things get very interesting.
In order to feel good about their ability to hold up over a long season, the Sox need to establish more pitching depth before heading to camp.
Oswalt is perhaps the best choice for Boston, in that he's flexible about contract terms. The sheer complexity of any Garza trade, which would almost certainly involve renewed battles over the Cubs owing the Sox compensation for Theo Epstein, just about precludes a deal. Jackson offers the highest upside, but he will be relatively expensive.
STEP 2: Move Daniel Bard Back to the Bullpen
It's only natural that the Red Sox endeavored to turn Daniel Bard back into a starting pitcher this winter. They were grossly deficient there. It was a sort of pis aller.
It will not work.
Bard last pitched as a starter in 2007, when he was 22 years old and the Red Sox wanted to achieve maximum return on their investment in him. That season, at two levels of Single-A ball, Bard pitched 75 innings in 22 starts, walked 78 batters, struck out just 47 and posted a 7.08 ERA.
He simply was not then, nor is he now, suited to that role. He's a two-pitch pitcher who is at his best when he need not pace himself. The Sox need to add pitching so they can take that pressure off their fire-balling right-hander.
STEP 3: Trade for Marlon Byrd
After nabbing Ryan Sweeney in the Andrew Bailey deal, the Red Sox feel they have their primary right fielder.
Unfortunately, Sweeney really is not a championship-caliber corner outfielder on his own. Instead, the Sox should provide him with a partner, someone to bounce off the occasional wall and mash left-handed pitching.
Marlon Byrd is the perfect fit. He's athletic enough to be an asset in Fenway Park's expansive right field, yet powerful enough to rack up a great many doubles and not hurt the lineup.
STEP 1: Retain Matt Garza
Though it's first on the list of key things the team must do to win in 2012, keeping Garza seems almost unfathomable for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer at this point. The team simply is not built to win next year; all the front office's resources have gone toward building for the future.
Keeping him, though, would give the Cubs rotational pitching depth as they have perhaps never had it before. It would also put a legitimate ace at the head of that group for the second year in a row. It's one way the team can easily prevent enough runs to stay sheltered.
STEP 2: Flip Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro Defensively
This should be a familiar war cry for those who read my work. It still makes sense. Barney is the superior defensive player, while Castro has the range to play about any position but struggles to make consistent throws.
It's possible this would create only marginal savings in terms of runs allowed, since the personnel would not change, but it should optimize the infield defensively, and it would probably augment Castro's batting work if he no longer needed to worry so much about his shoddy shortstop defense.
STEP 3: Be Aggressive with Farm Talent
Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo currently project to begin the 2012 season in Triple-A, and to stay there until at least June. If they do so, it will be a fine indicator of the patience the new regime has.
However, keeping the two jewels of the Cubs' upper farm system off the MLB roster would probably cost the Cubs a game or three they could ill-afford to lose.
With Jackson and Rizzo in the lineup immediately, the team could score consistently from the start and might give themselves a chance.
STEP 1: Fix Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham
When one accepts the sobriquet "Big Donkey," one undoubtedly prepares to be made scapegoat one day. Nonetheless, it seems unfair to throw the White Sox's 2011 failures all at the feet of Adam Dunn. Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham were about as culpable.
All three have great talent, and maybe all three can rediscover what has gotten lost. White Sox fans certainly hope so, because the team fell from contention in 2011 chiefly due to these three.
Having sunk too great a cost in each to simply cut ties, the team will have to find a way to corral its runaway skill sets.
STEP 2: Sign Yoenis Cespedes
Get used to reading that one. Many teams need a high-risk, high-reward offensive jolt, and Cespedes could provide it more efficiently than anyone. He is on many clubs' wish lists, but the White Sox have seemed to be one of the more serious suitors all along.
STEP 3: Make Addison Reed the Closer Right Away
It's not hard to find the top prospect in the White Sox system, since Addison Reed is (arguably) the only legitimate such player they have.
Reed is a reliever, but that's fine. He has the stuff to dominate the late innings, and with Sergio Santos gone to Toronto in an (ostensibly) rebuilding move, Reed deserves the call. He can lock down the ninth frame and ease some of the tough decisions for rookie manager Robin Ventura.
STEP 1: Start Devin Mesoraco at Catcher from Opening Day
Sometime in 2012, Devin Mesoraco will take control of the Reds' catching situation, never to relinquish it. The sooner that happens, the better.
Mesoraco needs to learn to handle pitching staffs, and specifically, how to handle each member of the Reds' very eclectic crew. He needs to be ready by August to be a leader and to view the game with a computerized mind.
There is no sense in asking him to do so while waiting for Ryan Hanigan to step aside. Mesoraco will be a star very soon, and if he gets his chance beginning in April, he could win the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year award.
STEP 2: Sign Kosuke Fukudome
The Reds have shown tremendous conviction in their chances for next season by trading for Mat Latos and signing Ryan Madson this winter. That has probably left them with relatively little fiscal flexibility to fill remaining holes.
One of those holes, though, can be filled without a great deal of financial commitment. Kosuke Fukudome's perceived value is in the tank right now, but he remains a fairly lithe corner outfielder with good-to-great on-base skills.
He should be at the top of the Reds' wish list, as he would pair with Chris Heisey to form a very strong left-field platoon and could be the final ingredient to Cincinnati success.
STEP 3: Handle Aroldis Chapman with Care
The Reds are right to try to maximize the value of Aroldis Chapman by moving him into the starting rotation. He can comfortably take a bit off his fastball and sit merely in the mid-90s, and the exercise will improve his command and control.
Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Mike Leake all provide solid upside, though. They give Walt Jockety a chance to bring Chapman along slowly.
Because of the starting pitching depth the Reds do have, losing Chapman back to the bullpen would be no great loss.
STEP 1: Sign Carlos Pena
The Indians need a big bat at first base, and they need him badly.
The team should be able to keep its opponents off the scoreboard just fine in 2012, especially if Ubaldo Jimenez is healthy and at full strength. If they do not get much, much more from key offensive positions, though, that will not matter much.
Pena has tremendous power, the kind that should neatly protect Carlos Santana or Asdrubal Cabrera in the Indians' order. He would be an instant upgrade over their incumbent options, and what's more, he is left-handed. When tough lefties start, Pena could take the day off and allow Santana to step out from behind the plate to bat right-handed and play first base.
The final point in Pena's favor is his defense, which is stellar. That could matter a great deal given the ground-ball fetishes of the Indians' current starting rotation.
STEP 2: Fix Shin-Soo Choo
From 2008-10, Shin-Soo Choo averaged .302/.397/.500, with roughly 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases per 150 games. He was a budding superstar and had posted two healthy years in a row headed into 2011.
Then his DUI happened. More than a mere personal setback, that incident seemingly colored Choo's entire year.
He lost a good deal of face in his native Korea, admitted to battling depression and (ultimately) got hurt and missed a big chunk of the season. His final line was .259/.344/.390, though he hit a torrid .340/.404/.596 in August and September. That came after recovering from a fractured thumb on a hit-by-pitch in June, and before a nagging strained oblique made his life miserable down the stretch.
Choo needs to be his usual self in order for the Indians to win the AL Central in 2012. If he can keep up the momentum he built before getting re-injured in 2011, he may be able to do so.
STEP 3: Shorten the Rotation
It need not be a strict four-man rotation, but the Indians must find a way to give 140 or more starts to their top four guys in 2012.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe and Fausto Carmona are innings-eaters by nature, so they simply need to be ready to do it every five days, regardless of the vagaries of the schedule.
Pitching Josh Tomlin 30 times is a recipe for disaster for Cleveland.
STEP 1: Sort out the Pitching Surplus
To be clear, it's not certain that any surplus exists for the Rockies right now. Much depends on the speed at which Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio recover from very serious injuries.
Still, with those two, Jhoulys Chacin, Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Tyler Chatwood, Kevin Slowey and Esmil Rogers all in the mix in Denver, it seems the Rockies have too many pitchers to squeeze into their rotation. Rogers is an easy fix; he belongs in the bullpen. White, though, should really follow him.
Though a first-round pick based on a once-nasty slider, White now sticks mostly to his fastball and his splitter, which is a reliever profile. There are a lot of different skill sets in play, so the fifth slot could be a revolving door wherein grounder machine Chatwood pitches more often at Coors Field, while Slowey gets primarily road assignments.
STEP 2: Trade from Strength in Outfield for Infield Help
At present, the Rockies' playoff hopes hinge in too great a part on the health and effectiveness of Casey Blake and Chris Nelson. The second base and third base spots are critical to building a winner anywhere in the league, and the Rockies have no viable answers there right now.
In the outfield, on the other hand, they have Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Michael Cuddyer, Seth Smith, Charlie Blackmon, Tyler Colvin and (possibly) Tim Wheeler. They should deal one or more of those players for a first-division second baseman.
Blake is a fine placeholder until Nolan Arenado arrives at the hot corner, but the Rockies need a better second baseman to win anything in 2012.
STEP 3: Get Troy Tulowitzki's Best Season
At age 27, Troy Tulowitzki could be poised to finally assume a mantle that has arguably been partially his for two years: Best Player in Baseball.
Tulowitzki last surpassed 600 plate appearances in his rookie year of 2007 and hasn't managed 150 games played since 2009. Yet, he has 89 home runs in the past three years and is one of the elite defensive shortstops in the game.
He needs to stay fully healthy, but assuming he does so, Tulowitzki could single-handedly carry his team to the playoffs under the right circumstances. An A-Rod-type year is not out of the question.
STEP 1: Keep Justin Verlander Healthy, Miguel Cabrera Sober
No team (save maybe the Dodgers, who are not as competitive and therefore not as impacted by this arrangement) relies more on its top two players for wins than Detroit. Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander were two of the five best all-around players in the American League last season, and as a result, the Tigers won the division and reached the ALCS.
There are risk factors here, though. Verlander pitched 251 innings in 2011 and surpassed 120 pitches in a start 10 times. He has proven impervious to that kind of heavy workload thus far, but an injury would be catastrophe for Detroit.
Cabrera, meanwhile, is overweight and has a problematic history with alcohol. It has been addressed more than once, but it may be that the Tigers' top slugger is at constant risk for relapse, or simply for an alcohol-fueled decline in skills. That's a dangerous, tenuous situation.
STEP 2: Trade for Matt Garza
Jacob Turner provides greater prospective long-term value to the Tigers than they can possibly get from a deal for Matt Garza, but that deal is reportedly in the works, and it would certainly make the Tigers a more formidable club in the near term if they could pull that trigger.
Garza would lessen the pitching staff's reliance on Verlander, and in just about every way, he would be an excellent model for Max Scherzer to follow in truly fulfilling his own potential. Doug Fister is not a great third starter on a contending team, but he is a major asset as a fourth starter.
STEP 3: Sign Kosuke Fukudome or Rick Ankiel
Detroit does not need an outfield upgrade the caliber and cost of Yoenis Cespedes, but it does need depth.
After the starting trio of Delmon Young, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers have Andy Dirks and Ryan Raburn available. A bit of left-handed platoon help would be great, though.
STEP 1: Sign Prince Fielder
The Astros badly need offensive help.
STEP 2: Sign Edwin Jackson
They also need one more to round out a strong, if flat, starting rotation that should keep them in games. Jackson would cost astronomically more than the team will pay. So, of course, would Fielder.
Those two are the best buys left on the market, though, and would have the biggest impact on a team that stands no realistic chance.
STEP 3: Stay VERY healthy
This is an underrated element of winning baseball. A team that has overwhelming talent but cannot keep it on the field every day will struggle despite its talent. A team with flaws but the blessing of good health has a chance, anyway.
In particular, if the Astros could get 162 starts from the combination of Jackson, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles, they would be in great shape.
STEP 1: Sign Roy Oswalt
The Royals' major offensive prospects have landed in the big leagues, and things look good. In addition to Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon has risen from the prospect grave to re-establish himself as a star.
Now, they need pitching to match their potential offensive explosiveness. Picking up Jonathan Sanchez was neat, but it still leaves them two pitchers short of a contending rotation.
Oswalt would be a major step in the right direction, and remembering his affinity for playing close to home, Kansas City is not far (in baseball terms) from Oswalt's hometown in Mississippi. He'll reportedly discuss deals of various lengths, so the Royals should be able to find a fit for Oswalt.
STEP 2: Promote Mike Montgomery Early
Despite vicious early struggles in Triple-A in 2011, Mike Montgomery remains the closest of the Royals' bevy of pitching prospects to big-league readiness. He could join the rotation at the All-Star break and have limited impact, or the Royals could give him a fair shake to win a starting job out of the gate, and he would likely be up before May 1.
It's clear that if the team believes in itself for 2012, Montgomery has to be part of that. The Royals should believe, too, because they aren't far from ready to make that leap.
STEP 3: Trade for a Center Fielder, Right Fielder or Second Baseman at the Deadline
Lorenzo Cain and Johnny Giovatella have no more ardent supporter than I, but one of those two is going to fall short of the standard of who can start for a competitive team sometime in 2012. They're fine young players, but have limited upside, and it can't be allowed to cost the Royals the division if they're in the hunt in July.
Adam Jones of the Orioles could be available by the summer and would be the right kind of target for Kansas City. The Royals could pry him loose from Baltimore for less than top-prospect compensation.
STEP 1: Bench Vernon Wells, Play Mike Trout
If the Angels were willing to spend $250 million and more on Albert Pujols and $77 million on C.J. Wilson, they need to do some soul-searching and figure out why money is suddenly so damned important in making decisions about Mike Trout and Vernon Wells.
If there was room for Pujols in the budget, cutting or trading Wells at a major loss should be an acceptable sunk cost. If they have money enough for all that, the extra year of salary arbitration Mike Trout might get should not put a dent in their ledgers.
Trout is one of the 25 best MLB players in the Angels organization right now. He's probably one of the top 10. If he sits for any length of time while Wells plays, the Angels might well miss the playoffs, and they would deserve as much.
STEP 2: Platoon Mark Trumbo and Bobby Abreu at DH
Trade whispers have encircled the Angels since they signed Pujols, all predicated on the notion that his arrival created a logjam at DH and in the outfield corners.
It's true that Mark Trumbo, Bobby Abreu, Trout, Wells, Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales can't all coexist on one bench, but the idea that no two of them could or should share a job is nonsense.
Trumbo bats right-handed; Abreu bats left-handed. They should be used as platoon DHs, the better to take advantage of the team's newfound depth.
STEP 3: Trade Kendrys Morales for Bullpen Help
The Angels need a bit more beef at the back end of their bullpen, and having seen what Ryan Madson got from the Cincinnati Reds, it's a true shock that he didn't get more and land with the Angels.
With Madson off the table, though, the Angels simply change gears. They should use Morales (in a small package, if necessary) to acquire a legitimate closer ahead of Jordan Walden.
STEP 1: Get the Same Magic from Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw
For one season, anyway, the Dodgers had the best position player and best pitcher in the National League. It's a shame that didn't translate to anything but a mediocre season, because it's unlikely the team can catch lightning in the bottle again.
Though prodigiously talented, both of these players have some flaws, and the league may exploit them better going forward. The Dodgers need that not to happen in order to compete.
STEP 2: Sign Prince Fielder
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti already shot down this rumor what seems like a dozen times, but it won't die, and it won't die because it would be a major impact move. The ownership situation may intrude on the proceedings with Fielder, but it should not stop them, since the team was allowed to sign Kemp to an eight-year, $160-million deal earlier this offseason.
STEP 3: Trade Andre Ethier, Sign J.D. Drew
Gold Glove or none, Andre Ethier is a poor defensive right fielder. That matters more in L.A. than it would anywhere else, too, because the team spent the winter adding fly ball-crazed hurlers like Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano to a staff already featuring Ted Lilly.
The Dodgers are the anti-Indians in this regard, and as such, they need to put together an elite defensive outfield. Drew, even at an advanced age, is a much better right fielder than Ethier.
STEP 1: For Crying Out Loud, Do NOT Trade Hanley Ramirez
Though Hanley Ramirez clearly does not relish the idea of moving to third base to accommodate new teammate Jose Reyes, the Marlins have thus far shown no signs of being willing to deal him.
That's a good thing.
Ramirez has no leverage, belongs at third anyway and should be very productive once again in 2012 after struggling last year. He is a key part of what could be the league's most electric offense.
STEP 2: Sign Yoenis Cespedes
He's back! Cespedes would be a terrific fit in Miami.
They are a team who wants to win in the near term; they need a center fielder, and they treasure Latin American talent. If they do not make the highest offer and sign the Cuban defector, it will be a moderate-to-acute surprise. If they do, their offense begins to look downright delightful to watch.
STEP 3: Keep Carlos Zambrano under Control, Avoid Distractions
Acquiring Carlos Zambrano was not such a bad idea for the Marlins. He and new manager Ozzie Guillen are friends and countrymen, and if anyone can elicit from Zambrano the positive energy and riding fastball that were once his trademarks, it's Guillen.
Historically, Guillen is most tolerable and Zambrano is least explosive when they play for winning clubs, so it's important that the Marlins get out of the gate fast. With Reyes, Logan Morrison, Ramirez, Zambrano, Guillen and possibly Cespedes in the picture, media scrutiny should be intense.
It will be up to the Marlins to avoid losing focus—or losing their cool.
STEP 1: Re-sign Prince Fielder
Utterly unimaginable two months ago, a reunion between Fielder and the only organization he has ever known looks more and more possible. Milwaukee may not have the money even when Fielder's price drops, but if he ultimately accepts a below-market deal somewhere, it might as well be to become a hometown hero for life.
Fielder would also cushion the fall from grace for Ryan Braun, whose pending PED suspension threatens to derail the team's pursuit of a World Series a year early.
STEP 2: Keep Shifting
Manager Ron Roenicke and his staff got creative last season to address the woeful infield defense they expected from Yuniesky Betancourt and Casey McGehee. In a gesture generally unseen against any but the most extreme such batters, Roenicke aggressively ordered infield shifts against right-handed pull hitters like Geovany Soto of the Cubs and Dan Uggla of the Braves, to great effect.
Alex Gonzalez is more adroit at short than was Betancourt, but new third baseman Aramis Ramirez is a very poor third baseman. Shifting could help keep the Crew as efficient as possible in preventing hits when their strong pitching staff allows balls in play.
STEP 3: Stay Sensationally Healthy—Again
Last season, neither Ryan Braun nor Prince Fielder missed substantial time for the Brewers. More importantly, though, very few of their starts were made by any but their regular pitchers. Randy Wolf, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke and Chris Narveson combined to make 155 of the team's 162 regular-season starts.
If they can do that again, they have a real shot, but that seems wildly unlikely.
STEP 1: Get Healthy
Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Denard Span combined to play 221 games in 2011, or an average of fewer than 75 per person. For as long as that persists, the Twins are going to be bad. Morneau might never be the same again, but it's too early to give up on him, and anyway, the farm system isn't offering a ton of help.
Mauer is the most interesting case. Going forward, if he can't stay healthy or is forced to play a non-premium position in order to do so, he loses a lot of value. Since he's owed $23 million annually for the next seven years, the Twins have to hope that does not happen.
STEP 2: Find Optimal Middle Infield Alignment
The Twins lured Jamey Carroll on a two-year deal, based on the premise that he would be the starting shortstop. Maybe he can stay there. It would seem, though, that a promise like that might simply help a veteran make up his mind, and that Carroll would move to second base if it were necessary.
One way or another, the Twins need to find the best available defensive pairing up the middle. Their pitchers nearly all prioritize ground balls, so range and good hands are both critical. Carroll at second base and Tsuyoshi Nishioka at shortstop makes the most sense, but Nishioka needs to earn his spot in spring training after an abysmal first season Stateside.
STEP 3: Sign Francisco Cordero
With Joe Nathan gone via free agency and Matt Capps in place as presumptive closer, the Twins need a solid insurance policy.
Capps should never have gotten the deal they gave him in November, but now that he has, the best thing they can do is to simply acquire a new reliever at the current (highly reduced) rates and bump Capps from the relief ace role at the first opportunity.
Francisco Cordero fits the bill, especially now that the door is closed to his returning to his long-time team, the Reds.
STEP 1: Ike Davis Goes Nuts
After only 149 plate appearances, Davis lost his 2011 season to a microfracture injury to his ankle. It was a good start he was off to, though, batting .302/.383/.543 with seven homers at the time.
If the Mets are to mount a surprise run as the NL East's least highly-regarded team in 2012, Davis has to be that kind of monster, an elite hitter who can split the burden of carrying New York with David Wright.
STEP 2: Johan Santana Pitches Full Season
That Santana missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury is worrisome beyond words. He might never recover the stuff that once made him great, and that's if he even stays on the mound much longer at all.
The flip side of that coin is that Santana expects to be ready for spring training, and that he still hasn't ever been a poor pitcher. He's either hurt, or he's very good, and until last season, he had not been hurt all that often.
STEP 3: Jason Bay Has His Last Hurrah
In two years with the Mets, Jason Bay has been a league-average batter in fewer than 1,000 plate appearances. He's hit 18 home runs, which is about what the Mets might have hoped he would do in half a season, not two. He has played poor defense in left field and struggled with concussions.
Bay is the third Mets mystery man for 2012. If these three guys break out and play near the height of their potential, the team can be good. If they flop, or even two of them flop, it's possible the team will win fewer than 70 games.
STEP 1: Add Starting Pitching
CC Sabathia is awesome, but he can't do this alone. Ivan Nova's numbers belie a scarcely average performance last year. Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon aren't going to repeat their strong 2011 numbers.
Unless Brian Cashman believes he can have top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances ready by Opening Day, he needs to add to his pitching staff. Should he choose not to, the team will give up way too many runs and may be in fourth place come August 1.
STEP 2: Keep Defying Father Time
Why is it critical that the Yankees add a Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson or Roy Oswalt type? They must do so because they will not have many more chances with this group. The Yankees could be forced to openly rebuild if they do not add a solid pitcher and go for the gold now.
A sixth championship would be immensely special to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. A second one would be light unto Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. None of those guys have that much time left before their skills permanently and completely erode, though, so the team really needs to add pitching and stave off Father Time one more time.
STEP 3: Flip Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner in Outfield
Brett Gardner isn't merely a better center fielder than Curtis Granderson; he is worth 15-20 extra runs defensively there.
Granderson would give back only five or six of those runs relative to Gardner's ace work in left field, and the swap might enable Granderson to focus on retaining the 40-homer power he found when aiming at the short porch inside Yankees Stadium last year.
Beneficial positional swaps are possible in a number of places around the league, but perhaps never more than here.
STEP 1: Get Immediate Impact from Trade Returns
The A's have spent the winter unloading for a full rebuild, which means their playoff hopes are remote. Any push begins, though, with pressing Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, Brad Peacock and Josh Reddick into immediate service.
They are the next premium talent in the Oakland system, and GM Billy Beane is unlikely to push them that soon or that hard, but that would make the team better.
STEP 2: Run More
The A's stole 117 bases in 160 attempts in 2011, roughly average in terms of both aggression and success rate. That was by design: Beane well understands that the benefit of a steal rarely outweighs the risk of trying one by enough to make running the unequivocally right play.
Still, with this team and at this time, the A's should run more. Jemile Weeks, Coco Crisp and Reddick all can steal bases. So can Cliff Pennington. For a team with a lousy projected offense, there is little to lose.
STEP 3: Sign Yoenis Cespedes
Even here, Cespedes would make immediate impact. Oakland has been involved more often in international free-agent pursuits than in major domestic ones, and rumor has it they very much like Cespedes.
They probably lack the money to make the deal above some others, but landing that bat would change the complexion of the team.
STEP 1: Play Domonic Brown in Left Field
As of now, the Phillies list John Mayberry as the starting left fielder on the depth chart at Phillies.com. That probably doesn't mean much, since Ryan Howard will miss the start of the season and Mayberry should get his plate appearances at first base, but it is telling: The Phillies still do not trust Domonic Brown.
Why not, you ask? That's anyone's guess.
Despite a rough season, Brown is a high-ceiling player with athletic tools and good makeup. For whatever reason, he is being passed over again. If that gets fixed this spring, Ruben Amaro's life will be a lot easier this fall.
STEP 2: Keep Cole Hamels Chasing the Carrot
Reports now suggest the Phillies will stick to a one-year deal with Cole Hamels, who is just one year from free agency. Hamels is a former World Series MVP and had a dominant 2011, so he would normally be in line for a pricey extension right now.
Amaro, however, has chosen another route, either because he has reason to suspect Hamels will lose value this season, or because the Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon contracts have tied his hands.
It may be for bad reasons, but this is a blessing for Philadelphia. Hamels is very driven, the kind of guy from whom you get maximum performance when you push, challenge and (perhaps) even insult him.
Look for a big contract year from Hamels in 2012.
STEP 3: Build the Right Lineup
For too long, the Phillies batted left-handed batters one after the other. Late in 2011, though, with the acquisition of Hunter Pence, they found the right balance. They had one thing wrong, though: Jimmy Rollins remained the lead-off hitter.
Here is a better lineup, one the Phillies should use whenever possible in 2012:
- Shane Victorino, CF
- Chase Utley, 2B
- Hunter Pence, RF
- Ryan Howard, 1B
- Jimmy Rollins, SS
- Domonic Brown, LF
- Carlos Ruiz, C
- Placido Polanco, 3B
STEP 1: Get 150 Innings from Erik Bedard
For $4.5 million, Erik Bedard is a one-year bargain. The Pirates landed him and add him happily to a quirky, tough-to-read pitching staff. Bedard might be the ace of this group, or its third or fourth guy, but any way one slices it, the critical question for Bedard is always health.
If he takes the mound 25 or more times and doesn't get hurt, the Pirates have a real asset on their hands. His left-handedness should be especially advantageous in the NL Central.
STEP 2: Fix Pedro Alvarez
The light-tower power is still there, but Alvarez has been unable to access it the past year-plus due to problems with injuries and conditioning.
If the Pirates have instilled some discipline and have made a few adjustments to the loopy swing he showed last summer, it's far from too late to make Alvarez into the star for which they thirsted.
He might never stick at third base, though, so the bat needs to come to life ASAP.
STEP 3: Sign Derrek Lee.
An excellent fit for PNC Park and a great guy to have around even as the Pirates' season collapsed last summer, Lee would provide protection for Andrew McCutchen and right-handed thump on a full-year basis. Carlos Pena will land somewhere he is more needed, but Lee might be the bargain Pittsburgh needs.
STEP 1: Promote Pitchers Quickly
The Padres may have given up Mat Latos in a December deal, but they got yet another pair of arms to add to their stable. They already have Huston Street penciled in as the closer (he should be very effective in PETCO Park). They now also have Brad Boxberger and erstwhile Cubs flame-thrower Andrew Cashner for that bullpen unit, along with the incumbents. Luke Gregerson might never get his shot to close, but he's an excellent set-up man.
In the starting rotation, it is time for a youth movement. Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard, Cory Luebke, Edinson Volquez and Dustin Moseley make up that squad right now, and none needs to be booted immediately.
Three pitchers, however, could knock hard on the door by mid-season, and if the Padres want to reach the postseason, they will take their chances with Casey Kelly, Joe Wieland and Robbie Erlin. That trio has a great blend of athleticism, control and pitching instinct, and should be part of the rotation before the end of the year if San Diego is pushing for anything.
STEP 2: Start Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal Right Away
Though Nick Hundley is a serviceable backstop, the Padres need to infuse this team with energy from the get-go if they hope to beat some (frankly) better teams out west. Grandal is nearly big-league ready, and Alonso should slice the gaps from Day One, so this arrangement would also have tangible immediate benefit.
STEP 3: Trade for a Big Bat
Even granting the potency of Alonso and Grandal (not to mention the deal for established slugger Carlos Quentin), the Padres lack offensive punch.
Chase Headley, Alonso, Grandal, Cameron Maybin and Quentin all should be safe in their jobs, so the best places to improve would be second base, shortstop or left field.
At the trade deadline, the best such player who may be available will be Jeff Francoeur of the Royals. He would fit well in left for San Diego.
STEP 1: Buster Posey Returns, Catches, Slugs
After a gruesome leg injury ended Buster Posey's sophomore season, there is some question about his long-term future as a catcher. These questions are akin to those surrounding Joe Mauer, though it's fair to note that Posey is younger and has a more favorable offensive projection in 2012 and beyond than does Mauer.
In order for the Giants to be NL West favorites, though, Posey needs to stay behind the plate this year. If he comes back as the same offensive force at the heart of the Giants' batting order, they have a very real chance to win something.
STEP 2: Get out of Brandon Belt's Way
The saga of Brandon Belt in 2011 was painful for all involved. He simply never got his fair shake, partially due to injury and ineffectiveness, but mostly due to mismanagement.
He should be the left-handed anchor of the San Francisco lineup, Posey's partner in crime, and if he can avoid further freak injury, he should develop nicely in 2012.
STEP 3: Extend Matt Cain in August or September
One year from free agency, Matt Cain may be eager to prove his worth, but try too hard and either hurt himself or pitch poorly as a result. The Giants would be wise not to disincentivize a big year for Cain, but also to lock him up before the season ends.
That will put some good vibes around whichever pennant race the Giants find themselves in, and it will put Cain at ease at just the right time.
STEP 1: Let the Beasts off the Chain
Last season, Seattle wisely slowed and then shut down Michael Pineda, making sure he did not abuse his own arm with overuse at a young age. In 2012, though, if they want to see the playoffs, they need to get much more aggressive than all that.
In addition to Pineda, collegiate star Danny Hultzen is now part of the organization. He should be MLB-ready by the end of spring training, and a push toward October for Seattle inevitably includes simply bringing him North in April.
STEP 2: Sign Prince Fielder
Fielder and the Mariners are a strange, awkward fit, yet it seems Fielder will get no better offer monetarily than he could there. He would instantly change the landscape of the Mariner lineup, though they would still score fewer than the average number of runs.
STEP 3: Platoon Ichiro
Ichiro is a fading star in the Seattle outfield and may actually be hurting the team more than he is helping these days. With one more year on his deal, he is probably on the way out.
In the meantime, though, if Seattle wants to make a run at October, they can start by sitting Ichiro against right-handed pitching. As he always has, Ichiro has a significant negative platoon split: He is better against southpaws, despite batting left-handed himself.
In this case, then, the Mariners need a lefty bat who can play right field and hit right-handed pitching. Kosuke Fukudome would be a fine option.
STEP 1: Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran Stay Young at Heart
The Cardinals lost a batter they valued pretty highly this winter, but by signing Carlos Beltran (on a very reasonable deal, no less), they may have solved some of the problems left by Albert Pujols' departure.
Beltran will take over right field, bumping Lance Berkman in to first. That's a big defensive upgrade, even with Beltran's balky knees. Better yet, both men (despite their accumulating health and age issues) had awesome seasons in 2011. If they can hold onto that level of production once more, the Cards may have another deep run in them.
STEP 2: Push Adam Wainwright, Hard
With Wainwright shelved in 2011, the Cardinals put the whip to Chris Carpenter. He faced more batters than anyone had in a decade, counting the playoffs, as the one man Tony La Russa insisted on leaving in to save his weary bullpen.
Carpenter gutted all that out, and won anyway, but he might well have trouble staying healthy next season as a result of 2011's abuse. If that be the case, and if St. Louis still thinks it can go all the way again, the Cardinals may have to decide to ride Wainwright just the way they rode Carpenter to glory in 2011.
STEP 3: Find a Second Baseman
More than one team is looking for a first-division second baseman. They're hard to find.
If the Cards want to edge out the Reds, though, they need to eliminate all holes in their lineup. Right now, second base is their weak link.
They have until June or July to find the right player and make a move, or else Cincinnati might run away from the Cardinals in the NL Central.
STEP 1: Sign Two More Bats
I happen to think Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero would be an excellent pair for first base and DH, respectively, in Tampa Bay, but something along that line will work itself out. The Rays need two more batters but do not need to find absolute gems.
They have enough great hitters in their lineup in Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings. It's all about not having a gaping hole in your armor, when it comes to the AL East.
STEP 2: Promote Hak-Ju Lee Early
An easygoing schedule for Hak-Ju Lee to take over the shortstop role in Tampa Bay would put him there in mid-2013, but it may be that the Rays need him sooner. Injuries could take a toll on their infield, and Elliot Johnson is not championship-caliber even as a backup infielder.
STEP 3: Move Jeff Niemann to the Bullpen
The Rays need a bit of relief reinforcement. The starting rotation is overcrowded. Jeff Niemann is the one piece with whom they are not much enamored.
It all makes sense, then. Niemann should go to the bullpen, killing two birds with one stone.
Rumors have raced around the Web that Wade Davis could be on the move. However, in the name of maintaining depth and insurance against injury, moving Niemann makes more sense.
STEP 1: Finish the Darvish Deal
Landing Yu Darvish was a coup for Texas, who scouted him extensively and think he is worth much more than C.J. Wilson was worth.
Now all they need to do is make that bid matter, by bringing Darvish overseas and setting him confidently alongside Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis in the starting rotation.
Assuming they complete this transaction, they take a small lead again in the race to be AL West favorites on Opening Day.
STEP 2: Platoon Mike Napoli with Mitch Moreland at First Base, Start Napoli at Catcher Otherwise
For all the great things Mike Napoli did for Texas during the playoffs, he didn't get much run during the regular year. He came to the plate only 432 times, exactly as many times as he did in 2009 and 78 fewer than in 2010.
Napoli proved he deserves full-time deployment. Especially with the Angels getting aggressive, the Rangers need to field their best lineup every day, and their best lineup has Napoli in it.
STEP 3: Be Themselves
These are the two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers, after all. Their non-first base infield is as good as anyone's in baseball.
They have a flat but deep rotation, a loaded bullpen and an offense without a black-hole hitter in it. The Rangers are a great young team and should have no problem cruising into the postseason.
STEP 1: Add a Starting Pitcher
The AL East is dominant and all, but it's a bit suspicious that the best teams therein all seem to be a top-flight pitcher short of what they really need right now. The Jays clearly cannot afford much, or will not, but they need to explore avenues through which to add a pitcher who can make their rotation comparable to those in New York and Boston.
Ricky Romero holds up fine next to Sabathia and Lester, but after that, the Jays look very exposed. Swooping in on Matt Garza before the Tigers land him could be a good idea for Toronto, both cost-effective and impactful.
STEP 2: Add Another Starting Pitcher
Because they really are that far behind in terms of pitching depth.
STEP 3: Trust the Young Guys
Any team built the way Alex Anthopoulos has built the Jays (by snatching up undervalued top-level assets) is going to suffer growing pains. Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie and Eric Thames will struggle some in 2012.
If the Jays are patient, though, and work well with that group, it's possible the corps could gel a bit early and make a run.
STEP 1: Get More from Jayson Werth
Jayson Werth had a rough year, but it's hardly the end for him. He has six more seasons to earn the $18 million per year the Nationals will pay him. Werth is not going anywhere, and though he had succeeded only in a limited sample before, all signs point toward his recovering from all this and re-establishing his presence as a slugger.
STEP 2: Survive Adam LaRoche's First Half
Despite Prince Fielder rumors a-brewing, Nats GM Mike Rizzo insists Adam LaRoche will be the team's first baseman in 2012.
If that be the case, it bears note that LaRoche is going to hurt the team during the first half. He's a career .246/.324/.435 batter before the All-Star break. That's the bad news.
The good news is that LaRoche really comes alive after mid-July, posting a .295/.354/.535 line in those contests for his career. If the team can weather LaRoche's first half, then they might get a delightful mini-boost from him down the stretch.
STEP 3: Cut Strasburg Loose
If the Nationals are really going to go for it, this is the obvious, no-brainer, perfect way.
Strasburg is on schedule to pitch something like 140 innings in 2012. For the team to reach the playoffs, though, he will need to exceed that by 75 or so. Strasburg is a strong kid; his problems were mechanical, not based on workload.
He could handle it, and though such a gambit is ill-advised, it's that kind of gambit the Cardinals used to win the 2011 World Series.