Arizona Diamondbacks: 10 Reasons the 2012 NL Pennant Race Is Wide Open

Gil Imber@RefereeOrganistAnalyst IIJanuary 30, 2012

Arizona Diamondbacks: 10 Reasons the 2012 NL Pennant Race Is Wide Open

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    When the Arizona Diamondbacks completed their unlikely run to the 2011 MLB postseason, the National League pennant had already been decided by many analysts.

    For some, that meant a World Series appearance for the NL East's Philadelphia Phillies, a team looking to repeat their 2008 baseball championship success.

    Meanwhile, many used 2010 as their jump off point, predicting the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants would have no problem defending their NL crown en route to the 2011 Fall Classic.

    That, of course, was before Giants prospect Buster Posey suffered a May, 2011 season-ending broken leg injury and before Diamondbacks ace Ian Kennedy's breakout, 21-win performance.

    So as 2011 gives way to 2012, here are 10 reasons why the 2012 NL Pennant race is wide open.

Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa and the Demise of the St. Louis Cardinals

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    As United States Congress political history will tell you—even in 2010—voters prefer incumbents to the new and unproven. From 1964 to the present day, not one election cycle has seen less than 80 percent of US Representatives win re-election campaigns.

    Baseball analysts operate very similarly. As mentioned, some analysts chose the San Francisco Giants to repeat their 2010 success in 2011, primarily because defending World Champs are often favored to win back-to-back titles.

    By the way, the New York Yankees were the last team to win back-to-back World Series (1998-2000), while the Philadelphia Phillies were the last NL team to win back-to-back pennants (2008-2009).

    That said, the St. Louis Cardinals have a certain degree of rebuilding to do, now that both Albert Pujols and manager Tony LaRussa are gone.

    This should take the Cardinals out of the No. 1 favorite position, opening the NL Pennant for everyone else.

Prince Fielder, the Milwaukee Brewers and the NL Central Power Outage

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    With Albert Pujols leaving St. Louis for the Los Angeles Angels and Prince Fielder leaving the Milwaukee Brewers for the Detroit Tigers, the National League Central will undergo some giant changes in 2012.

    Every NL Central team, save for perhaps the Houston Astros, is in play, including the Chicago Cubs.

    After all, with Theo Epstein now on board, the Cubs have shown they are serious about snapping their own World Series drought.

    As for Ryan Braun, whether or not he took improper drugs, his 2011 All-Star season is unlikely to be repeated in 2012, and the negative publicity almost certainly will take its toll.

    The looming possibility of a 50-game suspension can't possibly help Milwaukee.

The Miami Marlins

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    It has been a busy offseason for the Miami nee Florida Marlins.

    From swapping stadiums to changing the team's name and logo, it's a wonder that the Marlins have had any time to sign free agents and trade players.

    The Marlins did, however, make several key moves this offseason, acquiring big bat Jose Reyes, closer Heath Bell and starter Mark Buehrle.

    Miami also placed former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen at the helm while trading for former Cubs hothead Carlos Zambrano—that should be entertaining.

    After a fifth place 72-90 performance in 2011, could the Marlins be the 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks and capture first place in next season's NL East?

Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg and the Return of Injured Prospects

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    When catcher Buster Posey suffered his season-ending injury in 2011, his San Francisco Giants were sitting on a 27-21 record, first place in the NL West ahead of the second place, 25-24 Arizona Diamondbacks.

    After Posey's injury, the Giants wandered through the 2011 season, ultimately surrendering the NL West lead for good several months later.

    For the Washington Nationals, the 2011 season began without highly-touted prospect Stephen Strasburg.

    Strasburg finished 2011 with a five-game September run, winning one game while losing another, throwing a dominant 1.50 ERA with 24 strikeouts in exactly 24 innings.

    2012 will see Posey and Strasburg's returns to their respective teams, giving the Giants and Nationals a sorely-needed boost as the new MLB season kicks off.

Los Angeles Dodgers Emerge from Ownership Struggles

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    To put it succinctly, the Los Angeles Dodgers have had a rough few years after failing to make the playoffs in 2010.

    Now that MLB and the Dodgers have announced their agreement for owner Frank McCourt to sell the club by April 30, 2012, the team may get back to focusing fully on on-field matters while the distractions that plagued the franchise in 2011 begin to dissipate.

    Lost in the shuffle, NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP runner-up Matt Kemp have demonstrated some of the young talent present in Los Angeles, talent that could help the Dodgers contend for the NL Pennant as soon as next season.

Restructured Diamondbacks Pitching Staff

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks made some terrific moves in the pitching department this 2011-12 MLB offseason, keeping ace Ian Kennedy and No. 2 starter Daniel Hudson, while adding Trevor Cahill to the staff.

    Kennedy recorded a 2.88 ERA with a 21-4 record and 198 strikeouts en route to a fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young race, while Hudson won 16 games and pitched a 3.49 ERA with 169 strikeouts in 2011.

    Cahill owns a career 40-35 record with a 3.91 ERA, including a 2010 AL All-Star appearance, not to mention his youth at just 23-years-old.

    Meanwhile, veteran reliever Craig Breslow and his 3.06 career ERA will compliment closer J.J. Putz nicely in the bullpen, while reliever Takashi Saito gives the 'pen added depth heading into 2012.

San Francisco Giants: Where Pitching Meets Hitting

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    San Francisco Giants pitchers posted a 3.20 ERA with 1,316 stikeouts in 2011, good enough for second place in the National League in both categories.

    Additionally, the Giants' batting average against of .232 and 96 home runs allowed were good enough to be the best in all of baseball.

    Their offense, however, was their downfall.

    The Giants' team batting average of .242 was second-worst in the NL, while their 570 runs scored and .303 on base percentage were dead last in the senior circuit and their 534 RBI put them into a tie with the Seattle Mariners for lowest RBIs in the majors.

    With Posey's impending return, the rising confidence of Brandon Belt and the acquisitions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, the Giants have tried to position themselves to contend in the National League next season.

Jonathan Papelbon and the Philadelphia Phillies

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    The Philadelphia Phillies will attempt to repeat their NL East championship in 2012 with newcomer Jonathan Papelbon, adding a star closer to a pitching staff that already features starters Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

    The Phillies also signed the likes of Jim Thome, Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre, indicating the Phillies, 102-60 in 2011, could potentially beat the remainder of the eastern division to a pulp, opening up that wild card slot for the NL West.

    Then again, with at least one source tying former Phillies starter Roy Oswalt to the Texas Rangers, perhaps the best laid plans of Philadelphia will fall apart, paving the way for a completely unpredictable division.

    Speaking of which...

Game 162 and the Unpredictability of Baseball

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    The 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals weren't even supposed to be in the playoffs.

    The Atlanta Braves held an 8.5 game lead over the Cardinals on Sept. 1, 2011, giving Atlanta a 99 percent chance of reaching the postseason via the NL Wildcard.

    Through September and into Game 162 of the 2011 MLB season, the Braves absolutely fell apart.

    While the Cardinals shut out the Houston Astros on the very last game of the 2011 season, Atlanta lost to the NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies in extra innings, giving St. Louis its improbable postseason pass and ticket straight to the Fall Classic.

    No matter the predictions and the statistics, 2011 showed that anything is possible, including that worst-to-first performance out of Arizona.

The Wild Card and Potential Playoff Expansion

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    With the Houston Astros set to enter the American League in 2013, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig continues to try and expand baseball's postseason.

    Just this weekend, Selig called an expansion of MLB's wild card system, "Pretty definite ... Clubs really want it."

    Selig is pushing for a second wild card to be added to both the AL and NL in time for the 2012 postseason, meaning an expansion from eight to 10 teams that would make the postseason this year.

    If that happens, just as the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series and the Anaheim Angels won the 2002 World Series, yet one more team per league has a shot at winning a pennant and possibly a championship.

    As far as the 2012 National League is concerned, that means the NL West could send up to three teams to the postseason, just as the NL East and Central could send three of their own instead.

    Most likely, two NL divisions in 2012 would send two teams each to the playoffs—one division winner and one wild card team.

    The NL East and NL West are shaping up to be those two divisions, something that would bode well for the Diamondbacks if the San Francisco Giants come back to compete for first place in the NL West.