MLB 2012 Spring Preview: 10 Things That Will Happen This Baseball Season
The month of March is a great time of year. The weather begins to get warmer, college basketball heats up, and of course, there's spring break.
It's also the month that MLB players retake the field for spring training, and with that comes plenty of baseball predictions.
Who will win it all, who will win awards, who will have a breakout season, and who will be a disappointment are all, among other things, the subjects of numerous predictions from almost anyone who watches the sport.
But who needs predictions? They're just guesses, some of them not even educated guesses. Wouldn't it be better to have a guarantee? Isn't it time for baseball prognosticators to stop predicting what may happen, and tell baseball fans what absolutely will happen?
With that in mind, I've decided to make some bold predictions, no, guarantees, of what will definitely happen this 2012 Major League Baseball season.
Disclaimer: Nothing in life is guaranteed except death and taxes, and this is neither. Enjoy.
Jose Valverde Will Blow a Save This Year
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This may be stating the obvious, but closers, even the best closers, blow saves.
Occasionally that's not the case. Recent cases of closer perfection were Brad Lidge, who was a perfect 41-for-41 in save chances for the Phillies in 2008, Eric Gagne's record 84 consecutive saves and, of course, there's Tigers closer Jose Valverde in 2011.
That's right, the wacky closer in the Motor City saved 49 games without blowing a save in 2011, easily having his best season while helping the Tigers to a division crown.
Valverde was a beast last season, and there is absolutely no way he comes close to matching his 2011 campaign in 2012.
Take Lidge for example. After his career year in 2008, Lidge was terrible in 2009, saving 31 games but going 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA and a 1.81 WHIP.
Gagne's record consecutive streak lasted over a two-year span. The following year, Gagne appeared in only 14 games, was ineffective after returning from injury and out of baseball three years later.
Valverde surely won't fall off as badly as Lidge or Gagne, but it's possible. Even if he doesn't, Valverde is surely not going to be as good as he was in 2011.
Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman Will Have Disappointing Seasons
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Maybe not giving the greatest player of this generation, and the best right-handed hitter since Willie Mays, a 10-year contract will benefit the Cardinals organization in the long run, but the team will sorely miss him in 2012, and it will be embodied by disappointing seasons from the two men who will be expected to carry the St. Louis offense.
Are Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman quality players? Yes. Will they duplicate their 2011 seasons without Albert Pujols in the lineup with them? No.
Matt Holliday put up huge numbers playing his home games at Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies, and remarkably lesser numbers playing away from Coors.
After being traded to Oakland, Holliday, playing his home games in a pitchers park with no protection in the lineup, was off to his worst season in the majors. After being traded to and then re-signing with the Cardinals, Holliday's numbers returned to All-Star form.
Lance Berkman is one season removed from the worst season of his career, has been injury-plagued the past few seasons (despite a relatively healthy 2011 campaign) and will be 36 years old in 2012.
He had a great bounce-back year in 2011, but with the exception of his batting average, Berkman's production severely fell off in the second half.
Is it really that far-fetched of a thought that both Holliday and Berkman could struggle without Pujols in the lineup to protect them? Absolutely not, and both guys will end up being big disappointments in 2012.
David Wright Will Play His Final Days in Queens
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It's no secret that the Mets are poised to not only be the worst team in their division, but one of the worst in the entire sport in 2012, while trying to work in a big market on a small-market budget.
With that in mind, conventional wisdom would be that the Mets will try to move David Wright, arguably their only tradeable asset, for younger, less expensive talent the team can rebuild around.
The walls are being lowered and moved in at Citi Field, and it's difficult not to imagine that the Mets are doing this with Wright's production in mind.
The consensus scenario is that Citi Field's new dimensions will produce the kind of power numbers the Mets third baseman showed while playing at Shea Stadium, making him more valuable so they can trade him before Fred Wilpon has to decide whether to pick up Wright's $16 million option in 2013 or buy him out for $1 million.
Unfortunately for Mets fans, trading Wright makes total sense, but after watching the Mets hang on to Jose Reyes for all of 2011, only to not offer him a contract and eventually watch him sign with the division-rival Marlins, who knows what the Mets are thinking.
There's definitely a chance that Wright will spend the entire 2012 season in New York, but if he does, he'll surely be bought out in the offseason. Either way, one thing is certain: The Mets will not be paying David Wright $16 million in 2013.
The Pittsburgh Pirates Will Finish Third in the NL Central
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Any time a team suffers through 19 consecutive losing seasons, saying that they'll finish in third place, and with a winning record, is a huge prediction.
This is the year it will happen for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who haven't had a winning team since Barry Bonds roamed the outfield in a stadium that no longer exists.
The Pirates showed signs of life in 2012 before faltering in the second half of the year, but 2013 looks like it may be a perfect storm for the Pirates and the Pittsburgh faithful.
Think about it for a second. The Pirates have some of the best young talent in baseball, they have a manager that has taken a small market team to a World Series, and the two most feared sluggers in the division the past few years, who played for the two best teams in the NL Central last year, are now in the American League. Everything is lined up for the Pirates to have a big year.
They won't win the division, but they will be much better than both the Astros and Cubs, and they'll even be better than last year's World Series champion Cardinals. For the first time in 20 years, the Pirates will finish the season at least at .500 and in third place in the NL Central.
The Angels Will Be the Best Team in Baseball
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After an offseason that saw the Angels sign arguably both the best available free-agent position player and pitcher, big things are expected in LA/Anaheim in 2012.
They may not be big enough, however, as the Angels, not the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies, will be the best team in the entire sport in 2012.
It's not exactly rocket science. The Angels possible lineup and starting staff reads like an all star team:
Albert Pujols, 1B Jered Weaver, SP
Howie Kendrick, 2B Dan Haren, SP
Mark Trumbo, 3B C.J. Wilson, SP
Erick Aybar, SS Ervin Santana, SP
Vernon Wells, LF Jordan Walden, Closer
Peter Bourjos, CF
Torii Hunter, RF
Kendrys Morales/Bobby Abreu, DH
Chris Iannetta, C
Very few teams are going to be able to offer comparable firepower in their lineup and pitching staff, excellent defense at core positions, and a top-notch manager. The Angels will be the best team in baseball and a tough out in the playoffs.
Mark Buehrle Will Be the Most Valuable New Addition to the Marlins
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The new look Miami Marlins totally reinvented themselves during the offseason by adding one of the best shortstops, closers and managers in baseball, not to mention an enigmatic pitcher who, if he can keep his emotions under control, is a borderline ace.
All those new high-profile additions are nice, but the guy who will end up meaning the most to this new-look Miami squad will be a veteran pitcher whose signing ended up being somewhat under the radar.
He may be one of the most underrated players in baseball, but for a decade now, Mark Buehrle has been the definition of a "horse." In fact, since joining the big leagues in 2000, Buehrle has put together quite a resume.
Buehrle's thrown two no-hitters, one of them a perfect game. He's been an All-Star four times, won three Gold Gloves and been a major part of a World Series championship team.
As nice as that stuff is, the best, and arguably most important, quality Mark Buehrle will bring to a young Marlins club is consistency.
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2001, Buehrle has won at least 10 games a year, while only posting one losing season (12-13 in 2006), all while never starting fewer than 30 games in a season or throwing less than 201 innings.
As great as it is for Miami to add Jose Reyes and Carlos Zambrano, both guys have had injury and character issues.
Both of those acquisitions received much more attention than the signing of Buehrle, but for a young team on the rise, it's not difficult to see where Buehrle's consistency, durability and experience will be every bit, if not more, valuable than anything those other new guys do on the field.
Edinson Volquez Will Have a Bounce-Back Season
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For as talented a pitcher as Edinson Volquez is, it's hard to believe that he has had only one productive season in the major leagues.
Since winning 17 games for the Reds as a rookie in 2008, injuries and ineffectiveness have limited Volquez to a total of 41 total starts since, not to mention some pretty ugly numbers to boot.
Still, there is a lot to like about Volquez, especially after the Reds dealt him to San Diego this offseason for Mat Latos.
First, although it seems like Volquez has been around for awhile (he's been in the major leagues since debuting with the Texas Rangers in 2005), he's still only 28 years old, meaning that it's entirely possible that we have yet to see the best of the right-handed pitcher.
Next, his "stuff" is still there. Sure his 2011 season was a disaster that saw Volquez pitch so poorly at times that he was actually demoted to Triple-A, but there were still signs of the Volquez from 2008.
He is still getting his velocity into the mid-to-upper 90s, and he posted a strikeout rate per nine innings of 8.6 despite being very hittable and wild at times. Volquez wasn't great after returning from his demotion in September, but he was better than at any other point during the 2011 season.
Finally, the change of scenery should do wonders for Volquez. He's a fly-ball pitcher, as evidenced by his 19 long balls allowed last season, who will be moving from the bandbox that is Great American Ballpark to the pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
It may seem like a reach, especially considering that Volquez hasn't been a quality major league pitcher in four years, but Volquez is just too good, and in too good of a situation in a relatively weak division, not to bounce back in 2012. Maybe he won't be an All-Star, but he'll have a good season.
The Rays Will Win the AL East, and Evan Longoria Will Be Named AL MVP
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Apologies to Red Sox and Yankees fans, but both of those teams will be battling for a Wild Card spot this season, because the Tampa Bay Rays will win the American League East.
It will be a close race for sure, but the Rays starting staff, which will be the best in the division, will carry this team. The offense will not be as good as their counterparts in Boston or New York, but it will be good enough, especially since Evan Longoria will continue to improve and by season's end will be the best player in the division.
Longoria played through injuries all season in 2011, and while his batting average suffered to the tune of a career-low .244, the Rays third baseman was still able to produce 31 home runs, 99 RBIs and an .850 OPS.
When a player can play hurt, have some of the worst numbers of his career and still produce like that, that's special.
Longoria will be healthy and ready to take the next step in his career. While this Rays squad will really be led by their young and talented pitching staff, Longoria will have a monster season and be the face of the offense. When the Rays win the division, Longoria will also win his first MVP award.
The Rangers Will Regret Making Neftali Feliz a Starter
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Take a lesson from the career of Joba Chamberlain. Do not mess with a great reliever by bouncing him back and forth between the rotation and bullpen.
The Neftali Feliz starter experiment was supposed to begin last spring, before an injury scare to Feliz made the Rangers think twice. Feliz was put back into his closer's role almost immediately.
Despite the scare, the Rangers are committed to the idea this spring, going so far as to bring in former Twins closer Joe Nathan as Feliz's replacement in the bullpen.
Feliz has the stuff to be a starter, but it's an entirely different role with an entirely different form of preparation. Some pitchers, such as John Smoltz and Brett Myers, have handled the change just fine, but those guys were savvy veteran pitchers.
The flip side of that is Joba Chamberlain, who once looked like the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera but is now a shell of his once stellar self. After being bounced around between the Yankees bullpen and starting rotation and failing miserably as a starter, Chamberlain was never the same.
Chamberlain, like Feliz, was a young pitcher, and he had trouble changing his regimen and pitching style to adapt to his new role as a starter. The case of Neftali Feliz is absolutely more Joba than Smoltz, and unless Joe Nathan completely falters, the Rangers are stuck with this experiment for the entire 2012 season.
You don't mess with young pitchers, and the Rangers will regret this move.
The Nationals Will Be the Most Improved Team in Baseball
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Both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals will be much improved this year, and while the Bucs will be a solid team, the former Montreal Expos will contend for an NL East crown.
Much like Pittsburgh, the Nationals lineup will boast some of the best young talent in the game, like Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman, with solid, quality veterans like Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth.
What will separate the two clubs, and make the Nationals the most improved team in the sport, will be pitching.
Everyone knows about Stephen Strasburg, who will enter his third season fully healthy and ready to reclaim the role of staff ace, but for the first time since Strasburg got to D.C., the Nationals will have plenty of firepower behind him.
John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann were very quietly a solid 1-2 punch for the Nationals in 2011. Former 19-game winner Chien-Ming Wang will finally be healthy for 2012 and ready to compete with newly-acquired Edwin Jackson for a spot in the rotation.
Maybe the most underrated acquisition this offseason was trading for lefty Gio Gonzalez. Over the past two season in Oakland, Gonzalez was the A's best pitcher, winning at least 15 games, tossing 200 innings and keeping his ERA under 3.25.
Best of all, he's still only 26 and relatively inexpensive. He and Strasburg could form a formidable 1-2 lefty/righty combo atop the Nationals rotation for years to come.
The Nats are set for a big run in 2012, and even in what looks to be one of the toughest divisions in baseball, the Nationals will win close to 90 games.