We got to see some pretty great individual seasons in the American League in 2011.
Justin Verlander dominated the key pitching categories, leading the AL in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
Choosing him for the Cy Young was way too easy, and voters were impressed enough by his season to make him the first starting pitcher to win the MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986.
That's still impressive in retrospect, especially given the fact that there were plenty of other candidates for the award, chief among them being Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson. Those four put up some impressive stats, and were key components on their respective teams.
So who will be lighting up stats sheets in 2012, and who will be taking home the key awards at the end of the season?
Here are my picks.
Batting Average: Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox
As expected, Adrian Gonzalez's first season in Boston was a success. He didn't hit for the kind of power that many expected him to, but he ended up tied for second in the American League with a .338 batting average.
Miguel Cabrera took home the batting title and Michael Young was right there with Gonzalez, but there are reasons to think Gonzalez will post an even higher batting average this season.
First, Gonzalez actually had to go into something of a slump in order to get all the day down to .338. He had a .354 batting average before the All-Star break, and then hit .317 after the break. That had a lot to do with a month of August in which he hit a pedestrian .283.
The other thing that was strange about Gonzalez's 2011 season was that his walk rate declined to 10.3 percent. He was swinging the bat more often than he had in either of the prior two seasons. When he put the ball in play, though, Gonzalez had a .380 batting average, tying him with Matt Kemp for the highest BABIP in the major leagues.
In so many words, Gonzalez proved something last season that we already knew about him: He's a tremendous hitter. He's my pick to win the AL batting crown in 2012.
In the Discussion: Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano
Dark Horse: Eric Hosmer
RBI: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
For the first time in his career, Albert Pujols failed to record 100 RBI last season.
Assuming he stays healthy the whole season, I don't see any reason why Pujols wouldn't get back to driving in runs in bushels. Through the first 10 seasons of his career, he averaged 123 RBI, and I don't see his regression in 2011 as a sign of things to come in the short term (long term yes, but not short term).
A lot will depend, obviously, on runners getting on base for Pujols, and that's something that doesn't worry me too much. Mike Scioscia has some quality hitters that he can plug in in front of Pujols, and all he would have to do is drive them in.
I'm thinking roughly 35-40 home runs will help that effort. And let's not forget that Pujols is a career .346 hitter with runners in scoring position. He'll drive in runs without any issues in 2012.
In the Discussion: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, Evan Longoria
Dark Horse: Kevin Youkilis
Home Runs: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera has won a home run title before, leading the American League with a mere 37 home runs in 2008.
One thing Cabrera hasn't done yet is hit 40 home runs in a season. He's come close on a couple of occasions, but he hasn't been able to cross the mark.
This is the year that will change. Cabrera will be hitting in front of Prince Fielder in the No. 3 spot, and that's going to result in a lot of hittable pitches coming his way. At least, more than Cabrera is used to, anyway.
Cabrera will be able to drive them out of the yard. Remember, the only hitter in the AL with a higher ISO than Cabrera over the last two seasons is Jose Bautista.
In the Discussion: Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Mark Reynolds, Paul Konerko
Dark Horse: Carlos Pena
Stolen Bases: Brett Gardner, New York Yankees
This pick is a little too easy, as no player in the American League has more stolen bases than Gardner over the last two seasons. In all, he's swiped 96 bags since the start of 2010.
This is not exactly a surprise.
Gardner has the wheels to steal bases, and he has the green light to go every time he reaches first. This is true even when he bats leadoff.
You'd think Joe Girardi wouldn't want Gardner on the move with the stud hitters in the Yankees order coming to the dish, but Gardner stole 26 of his 49 bases last season when batting leadoff.
Gardner likely won't get much competition. Jacoby Ellsbury will be hitting for too much power to bother about leading the league in steals, and I just have a hunch Coco Crisp won't be stealing 49 bases again.
In the Discussion: Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp, Ichiro Suzuki, Desmond Jennings, Elvis Andrus, Chone Figgins
Dark Horse: Carl Crawford
Wins: CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
This is yet another pick that's a little too easy. In his three seasons in pinstripes, Sabathia has yet to win fewer than 19 games, topping out at 21 in 2010.
This is not surprising. Sabathia is the perfect pitcher for the Yankees, as he logs innings and keeps games well within reach. The Yankees' bats take care of the rest, as they typically give Sabathia plenty of support.
As long as Sabathia stays healthy (he will) and provides a ton of innings (he'll do that too), he'll win a ton of games. The bar is set at 20 wins, and nobody should be surprised if Sabathia goes over that.
In the Discussion: Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, David Price, James Shields
Dark Horse: Matt Harrison
ERA: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
A year after posting a major league-best 2.27 ERA in 2010, King Felix regressed and posted a 3.47 ERA in 2011.
Yeah, he slacked off too.
Hernandez's regression had little to do with his pitching. His strikeout and walk rates looked eerily similar to those of his 2010 season and he got a similar amount of ground balls, all signs that Hernandez was doing his usual thing on the mound.
The key difference was a spike in BABIP. Hernandez's BABIP was .263 in 2010. It ballooned to .307 in 2011, resulting in more baserunners and ultimately more earned runs.
Despite that, Hernandez's FIP was 3.13, right on par with the FIP numbers he posted in 2009 and 2010, when his ERA was well under 3.00.
I expect Hernandez to keep doing his thing in 2012. With a little better luck, his ERA will drop to where it's supposed to be.
In the Discussion: Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Doug Fister, James Shields, David Price
Dark Horse: Brandon McCarthy
Strikeouts: Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays
Beware Brandon Morrow, my friends.
Very quietly, Morrow has been the best strikeout artist in the American League over the last two seasons, compiling a K/9 of 10.53. His K/9 in 2011 was 10.19, significantly higher than the next guy on the list (Michael Pineda at 9.11).
The key for Morrow this year will be to pitch enough innings to make a run at the AL's strikeout crown. A converted reliever, Morrow has yet to pitch as many as 200 innings in a season, but he is working his way there. He pitched 146.1 innings in 26 starts in 2010, and 179.1 innings in 30 starts in 2011.
If Morrow makes over 30 starts and manages to hang in each start for roughly six innings, he's going to strike out a ton of hitters.
In the Discussion: Justin Verlander, David Price, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Jered Weaver
Dark Horse: Max Scherzer
Saves: Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels
Jordan Walden's claim to fame in 2011 was his AL-high 10 blown saves. Not exactly the best distinction for a closer to have.
Part of that was due to the reality that Walden didn't have the best control, as his BB/9 was close to 4.00. His struggles were also partially due to all the one-run leads he had to protect. The Angels' offense just wasn't capable of creating much breathing room.
That's something that should be different now that Albert Pujols is around. The rest will all be on Walden developing as a pitcher. He'll need to get his walks down and his strikeouts up, which he can do by mixing in his slider more often to keep hitters off-balance.
The save chances are most definitely going to be there. If Walden progresses as a pitcher, he'll be far more dependable, and will cross the 40-save plateau with ease.
In the Discussion: Mariano Rivera, Jose Valverde, Brandon League, Sergio Santos, Andrew Bailey
Dark Horse: Addison Reed
Rookie of the Year: Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners
Jesus Montero was born to swing a baseball bat.
When Montero got called up to the bigs late last season, I half-expected him to be revealed as yet another overrated Yankees prospect. He proceeded to hit .328 with a .406 on-base percentage and four home runs in 61 at-bats, thus shutting me up.
The Mariners had to part with a pretty good pitcher in Michael Pineda to acquire Montero, but he'll be worth it. The Mariners know from Montero's brief exposure last season that he can handle big league pitching, and Montero definitely hit well in the minors.
Montero is in the big leagues to stay now. His first full season will be a good one.
In the Discussion: Mike Trout, Matt Moore, Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes
Dark Horse: Manny Banuelos
Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins
Joe Mauer was never 100 percent healthy last season and it showed. All told, he played in just 82 games and hit just .287 with a .368 slugging percentage.
Mauer has been insisting during spring training that he's healthy, and I for one am willing to take his word for it. He didn't have to have knee surgery shortly before spring training like he did last season, and he's put on all the weight that he lost battling various ailments in 2011.
The Twins know that they can't take any chances with Mauer's health, so I'd expect him to get a fair number of starts at first base and as the team's designated hitter. The effort will help keep Mauer in the lineup, and his talent will take care of the rest.
I'd say a fair expectation would be something like 130-140 games played with a .300 batting average. That would be a welcome sight for the Twins, and it would make Mauer the player to beat for Comeback Player of the Year.
In the Discussion: Carl Crawford, Clay Buchholz, Adam Dunn
Dark Horse: Manny Ramirez
Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
I mentioned above that I expect Hernandez to win the AL ERA crown. By default, that will put him high in the running for the American League Cy Young.
Hernandez will have other stats to prove his worth. He's always been a good strikeout pitcher, and he's pitched at least 230 innings in three straight seasons.
The one thing Hernandez didn't have when he won the Cy Young in 2010 was a good record, as he finished the year 13-12. That was largely due to Seattle's lack of offense, and I'm of the mind that that's not going to be as big of a problem this season.
Having Montero around will help, and the Mariners also stand to get key contributions from Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and, of course, Ichiro. In addition, moving Chone Figgins back to leadoff should help him recapture his old form.
I'm expecting at least 15 wins for Hernandez, and possibly as many as 18. Combined with a league-leading ERA and great innings and strikeout totals, that will make him a Cy Young pitcher.
In the Discussion: Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, David Price, James Shields, Jon Lester
Dark Horse: Brandon McCarthy
Most Valuable Player: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are my pick to win the AL East this year, as their starting pitching is simply too good to ignore.
But they're not going to do it without a terrific season from Evan Longoria. He's been an All-Star and he's come up with numerous clutch hits in the early portion of his career, but he hasn't yet put it all together and had a brilliant season.
A "brilliant" season in Longoria's case would entail a batting average around .300, 35 home runs and about 120 RBI, all combined with outstanding defense at the hot corner.
Longoria is certainly capable of having a season like this. He just hasn't had it yet.
This is the year he will. If he does, he'll lead the Rays to a ton of wins, putting him high in the running for the MVP. When it comes time for the voting to take place, Longoria won't have to worry about teammates taking MVP votes away from him.
In the Discussion: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista
Dark Horse: Asdrubal Cabrera
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Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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