In Major League Baseball, it often seems like the same teams are good on a yearly basis. While that is true to a point, there are always playoff teams who falter, allowing new teams to make a run. In 2011, there were quite a few perennial contenders who fell off, but they'll be looking for vengeance in 2012.
Some of last year's top teams took it on the chin in free agency, while other non-playoff teams made drastic improvements. Here are three teams that had strong offseasons and are poised to return to the playoffs this season.
Los Angeles Angels
The Los Angeles Angels finished 2011 with a solid record of 86-76, but they finished a whopping 10 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West and five games behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card. It has been two seasons since the Angels have secured a playoff spot, and while that may not seem like a long time, the organization did everything possible during the offseason to ensure that the drought comes to an end.
It's fair to say that no team made a bigger splash in free agency, as the Angels were able to reel in the biggest fish of them all in first baseman Albert Pujols. In addition to that, they signed lefty starter C.J. Wilson away from the rival Rangers. When you add an expanded role from top prospect Mike Trout and the return of Kendrys Morales from injury, the Angels have a very formidable offense.
On top of that, Los Angeles easily has the best starting rotation in the league. Wilson joins an already-excellent group, including Jared Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. With that combination of offense and pitching, I like the Angels to regain their perch atop the AL West.
After unexpectedly winning the World Series in 2010, there were high hopes for the San Francisco Giants. For one, they had a top-notch starting rotation, and they were also playing in the weak National League West, so a return trip to the playoffs seemed like a mere formality. The Giants sputtered to a disappointing 86-76 record, though, while the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks won the division.
The Giants made some positive changes during the offseason and have a much brighter outlook heading into 2012. San Fran made some offensive improvements, trading for outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. Also, stud catcher Buster Posey will return from a broken leg that cost him much of last season. Offense was the Giants' Achilles' heel last year, but it looks a lot better on paper, especially if youngster Brandon Belt can make an impact.
What made the Giants so successful two years ago, though, was pitching. They have a top three in the rotation that can go head-to-head with almost anyone, as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner all have excellent track records. Add to that a strong bullpen anchored by closer Brian Wilson, and the Giants are prime bounce-back candidates.
Which team is most likely to make it back to the playoffs this season?
Lost in the historic meltdown by the Boston Red Sox down the stretch was one that was equally bad from the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta led the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card race by 10.5 games on Aug. 25. But they ultimately relinquished that lead and missed the playoffs thanks to a loss against the Philadelphia Phillies in the final game of the season.
As bad as that was, the Braves were good enough at one point last season to have a 10.5-game lead in the playoff race, so there are obviously some pieces to build with. Atlanta wasn't active through trades or free agency this offseason, but the team as it is currently constructed is good enough to make the postseason.
Atlanta's pitching was sublime last year, and that figures to be the case once again, with Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy carrying the load. There will also be opportunities for promising youngsters like Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. On top of that, the Braves still have the best bullpen in baseball with Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty.
If the offense is even a little better this season, the Braves should be fine. That isn't asking too much, as second baseman Dan Uggla was non-existent the first half of last season and outfielder Jason Heyward took a big step back in his second season. As long as the offense improves, the Braves will be playing extra games this year.