The Marlins and Cardinals kick things off tonight on Opening Day.
Sport is a production.
Every year we see new cameos, new frontmen, sequels, trilogies, flash-in-the-pans, ensembles, and fresh faces. Some players re-invent themselves, a la Jonah Hill and his disappointing, newly-found proclivity for healthy life decisions, and some players orchestrate their own enigmatic reincarnation like a grey-haired, ash-wielding version of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (yeah, I'm talking to you Lance Berkman).
But, it's the unforeseeable elements of a production that make sport, and entertainment, the spectacle that it is. Six months ago, who really saw The Artist walking away with Best Picture honors? Likewise, who saw Tony LaRussa going out on top after Adam Wainwright, Ace and Cy Young candidate, went down with a season-ending injury?
It's the murkiness of the crystal ball that makes sport so mystifying. But, against all logic and reason I will present to you what I see as the futures for all 30 MLB teams this coming season. Would it help if I told you I stole these predictions from the three-nippled fortune teller at U.S. #1 Flea Market and Antiques? Works every time...
Darth Vader is known to envy the stranglehold under which the AL East has held the wild card race since the turn of the century. Now, with an additional wild card team being granted entrance to the show, I don't see anything changing. Though some folks may suggest that this division is capable of sending three teams to the postseason, I just don't see it:
Baltimore Orioles: 5th Place
Basically, the baseball version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in the Best Picture race. What was that film doing there? Honestly, it had no business appearing in the category. As the writers of that mediocrity clung to the memory of Tom Hanks' once stellar career, so too will the players and fans in Baltimore to the future of Matt Weiters. Adam Jones provides some pop, and if Nick Markakis could ever manage to break out then Baltimore could showcase a mean middle of the order. Sadly, these Orioles are nothing but bird seed in the East.
Toronto Blue Jays: 4th Place
If the Blue Jays were in any other division they would be in the conversation for a top spot. Brett Lawrie is drawing comparisons to a young Ryan Braun (and my fantasy squad needs this premonition to pan out), and Jose Bautista clears fences in his sleep. Toronto has done a good job sprinkling other bats in around Bautista, including the addition of Rasmus and Adam Lind at first base. JP Arencibia looks serviceable behind the plate, but they still don't have the firepower to out-muscle the other big guns in the East.
Sergio Santos will prove to be a savvy pick-up. Behind him, Jason Frasor and Casey Janssen are professional pitchers providing good odds for victories when the starters can hand them a lead. But behind Romero, who will be able to accomplish that feat consistently?
New York Yankees: 3rd Place
2008 was a year to forget for Yankee fans, and I see a repeat coming in 2012. There is so little to like about this team compared to years past: aging stars are everywhere, the rotation is absurdly top-heavy, and they traded away their best young piece in Jesus Montero.
Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez still comprise the left side of the infield, which is very worrisome both defensively and offensively. Robbie Cano is a stud, but Big Tex isn't the player he used to be. Curtis Granderson burst onto the scene this past season like Rooney Mara (with less full-frontal nudity, thankfully), but one can only guess if he'll be able to produce his own trilogy of MVP-caliber seasons.
CC Sabbathia will do what he always does, but it will take a prodigious performance from Ivan Nova to get this team over the hump. Can Freddy Garcia continue the magic? And without the tricks pulled by Bartolo Colon last year, will Andy Pettite be able to come out of retirement and Max Von Sydow the crap out of all of us? I doubt it.
The major bright spot remains the duo of Robertson and Rivera in the 8th and 9th innings. But major questions remain about whether or not the rotation can carry the lead that long, and if the offense is still dynamic enough to just outscore everyone.
Tampa Bay Rays: 2nd place (Wild Card Winners)
Everyone has touted this as the best rotation in baseball. Perhaps. But the biggest addition in my eyes is the re-introduction of Carlos Pena to the batting order. Much like Ridley Scott's triumphant return to the Alien franchise with the upcoming Prometheus, Pena will have a profound effect on Tampa's offense. He's never been an average hitter, but Evan Longoria will once again have someone other than Ben Zobrist protecting him. Expect 40 HRs from Pena, and Longoria to be back in the MVP conversation this season.
As for that rotation, I'm not sold on James Shields. Hell, even Nic Cage won an Oscar, but people have track records for a reason. James Shields has been more Wicker Man than Leaving Las Vegas on average, and typically, those averages pan out. He put up a 2.86 ERA last season despite a 5.18 in 2010 and a 4.14 in 2009. He pitched an entire .2 points below his career WHIP, and notched 11 complete games while only having 5 in his career prior to last season. I need more consistency.
Matt Moore will have to carry a lot on his shoulders. You know what David Price will give you, and Jeremy Hellickson looks like a good piece. But, if the team is going to jump the Yankees, and I predict they will, Moore will have to be special.
Boston Red Sox: 1st place
The movie Batman came out in 1989. Shortly thereafter, its sequel Batman Returns graced the silver screen. Both movies were directed by the artfully mad Tim Burton, and both were great additions to the superhero genre. Then, the franchise hit a lull period. Even with Burton attached, Batman Forever came out in 1995 and instantly derailed what was becoming a fantastic series. Though it made a fortune at the box-office, second only to the Toy Story cash cow that year, it didn't live up to critical expectations. The franchise remained in a comical rut until the production team cleaned house and hired the Nolan brothers to take over. Since then, we have been given Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the upcoming Dark Knight Rises.
I predict a Nolan brother resurgence for the Red Sox in 2012. They've ousted entrenched leaders Terry Francona and Theo Epstein, and after a couple seasons of deflated expectations dampened what was once a prolific franchise, Bobby Valentine now assumes the reigns of a very powerful lineup.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, and Dustin Pedroia comprise the best top of the order in baseball. I also refuse to concede that Carl Crawford has completely mailed it in forever. Considering the Red Sox were at the top of the league in nearly every offensive category last season, factor in bounce-back seasons from both Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis, and you have the scariest lineup in the league from top to bottom. Perhaps the most underrated factor here? Bobby Valentine's incessant hatred for the Yankees. Passion is paramount.
The biggest worry here is the bullpen. Andrew Bailey is out four months due to thumb reconstruction surgery. How badly will they miss Daniel Bard in the set-up role? And can Mark Melancon get the job done in the ninth? Remember, even with terrible performances from Crawford and Youkillis last season and injury concerns on the pitching staff, Boston was still in the driver's seat until their historic choke job set in. Regardless of their bullpen, I still see them championing the division for the first time since 2007.
Let me save you the suspense: much like The Tourist and it's dumbfoundingly obvious conclusion, the Detroit Tigers are going to win this division. There isn't a more clear-cut division in baseball this season. Nonetheless, there will be a couple of surprises this season regarding teams not based out of Motor City.
Chicago White Sox: 5th Place
This may as well be a remake of Eight Men Out because the White (Black) Sox aren't going anywhere.
New manager Robin Ventura has his hands full this season. Their pitching isn't terrible, especially if Jake Peavy has anything left in the tank, but the bullpen lost Sergio Santos to Toronto, and now perennial 8th inning extraordinaire Matt Thornton assumes the closer role. How will he fare?
The X-factor in the rotation is Chris Sale. A high-octane lefty, his conversion from the bullpen to the rotation will rival the success found in a similar move involving Petey Jones and his transformation from "runnin' back, thee running' back , ya'll" to lockdown safety overnight for the fabled TC Williams High School football team. He and Danks are a real nice duo off of which to build going forward.
Besides Paul Konerko (a 36-year old Paul Konerko, mind you), there isn't much to fear. Adam Dunn might bounce back, or he might not. Regardless, this offense is going to have a tough time keeping the southsiders relevant.
Minnesota Twins: 4th Place
Everything for the Twins this year hangs on the health of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. With Cuddyer and Kubel in new uniforms the two former MVP candidates are the only recognizable faces in an otherwise forgettable lineup. Josh Willingham may be able to provide a bit of relief, but if Mauer and Morneau don't rebound then it's nearly impossible to see where Ron Gardenhire will find any offense this season.
With Scott Baker beginning the season on the DL the Twins are losing quality time with their most promising young pitcher. Elder statesman Carl Pavano and perpetually erratic Francisco Liriano must shoulder the load until his return. Matt Capps will work the ninth, but without the Joe Nathan of old there isn't the inevitable sense of dread in the mind of opposing teams. The only reason I don't have them in last place is my faith in Ron Gardenhire as a great manager. He'll have to prove it again this season.
Cleveland Indians: 3rd Place
Cleveland tried to make a run of it last year before the Tigers ripped off a 30-9 blitzkrieg to finish the season. They have some nice young pieces in place, most notably Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, who are complimented by the experience of Shin Soo-Choo and Travis Hafner. Joining the mix this season will be up-and-comer Jason Kipnis, who belted 7 HRs in a brief stint in the show last season. Look for him to be a big contributor.
The rotation was helped in the offseason with the addition of the veteran Derek Lowe. Production may be a struggle for him, but his expertise will definitely be helpful to both Ubaldo Jimenez and budding Ace Justin Masterson. Pestano and the Perez duo make up a decent bullpen, which should help them stay competitive late in games.
Kansas City Royals: 2nd Place
All those years of bottom-feeding have finally paid off in the form of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Mike Moustakas. Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder the Royals did what most teams have trouble doing, consistently hitting on their high draft picks. Joining the three young studs is incumbent DH Billy Butler, and reinvigorated veteran Jeff Francoeur. With a couple of speed additions to the front and back of the lineup, the Royals could form one of the better lineups in baseball within the next year or two.
As for pitching, they still leave a lot to be desired, though Johnathon Sanchez was a good pick-up. He's a young fireballer who, if he develops some consistency, could be a 15-game winner this season.
What intrigues me the most is the dynamic of a young, very talented team out there having fun. Much like the World Series Tampa Bay Rays of a few years back, I can see Hosmer leading a heady charge at the wild card this year, though I'm certain it will come up a bit short.
Detroit Tigers: 1st Place
They have the best pitcher in baseball, the best hitter in baseball, and the best power-hitter not named Jose Bautista. Needless to say, there's a lot to like here.
The big storyline was the injury to Victor Martinez and his subsequent replacement with Prince Fielder. Not bad, eh?
Though Prince Fielder's addition caught all the headlines, let's not forget that Ocean's Eleven, or Twelve, or Thirteen, or Eighty-two, will always be George Clooney's show, regardless of how many stars attach themselves to the project. The Detroit Tigers, in much the same fashion, will always go as far as Justin Verlander takes them.
The other off-season moves will prove immensely useful come playoff time. Alex Avila was dead by the Texas series, and Jose Valverde looked drained of his usually fire. With Gerald Laird, the Tigers will be able to rest Avila more consistently, allowing him to enter the postseason with plenty of rest. Octavio Dotel, after a great postseason last year with the World Champion Cardinals, will be able to work the 7th innings, while also relieving Valverde of the occasional save opportunity, thus saving his arm for October.
The biggest question will be the consistency in the rotation behind Verlander and the upstart Fister. Can Max Scherzer finally put together a full-season, and will Rick Porcello regain the form that once had him projected as a second starter? Can 22-year old Drew Smyly make everyone put aside their dreams of Jacob Turner for one more season?
The AL West received an extreme makeover this offseason. Not only did CJ Wilson jump ship, he pulled an Adam Banks and joined the Eden Hall Academy Varsity team. What a cake-eater. Texas enlisted Japanese ace import Yu Darvish to replace him, but he remains unproven. Oh yeah, three-time MVP, and two-time World Series champion Albert Pujols joined the Angels. Just a sidenote.
Seattle Mariners: 4th Place
Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero. Jesus Montero.
Oakland A's: 3rd place
The best highlights for the A's this season will be the re-runs of the Human Centipede's YouTube video. Jemile Weeks is a very bright star-in-the-making, but the big deficiency is a complete lack of proven, big bats. Cespedes doesn't have a regular season at-bat in the majors yet, in effect making Kurt Suzuki their most trusted power-source. Not comforting.
Historically, the A's have prided themselves on pitching. Ironically, though, the year Moneyball dominates the box office it looks as though Billy Beane will have his thinnest staff in recent memory. Brandon McCarthy looks poised to establish himself as a true ace, but other than him there isn't much. Colon had a decent resurgence in New York last season, but he is anything but dependable at this stage of his career. But, if Brad Pitt taught us anything, it's that bums can win, but only if—Brad Pitt points at your face— "they get on base". Thank you, Jonah.
Texas Rangers: 2nd Place (Wild Card winners)
Too many questions surrounding them for me to be comfortable enough placing them atop the division: What kind of success will Yu Darvish find? Is Mike Napoli a star despite a career .251 average prior to his .320 explosion in 2011? Though I don't find the substance abuse thing a big problem with Josh Hamilton, will his off-field distractions, including his contract, hinder his play? Is Derek Holland ready to take the next step, shave his mustache, and avoid the meteorology studio like it's a barber shop? Can Adrian Beltre repeat last year's performance even though he has only posted an average above .290 three times in his career, and knocked in over 100 runs equally as often? How badly will they miss CJ Wilson's left-side presence?
Los Angeles Angels: 1st Place
The arrival of Pujols brings with it a culture of winning. Pujols is a winner, and that confidence will only help the rest of the team. What may hinder their playoff chances, though, is their apparent loyalty to aging vets like Torri Hunter and Vernon Wells. Young phenom Mark Trumbo is poised to break out, but it doesn't look as though Mike Scoscia has awarded him a starting job in the outfield. With Pujols entrenched at first, and the returning Kendrys Morales reclaiming the DH spot, Wells or Hunter will need supplanting in order to allow for Trumbo's growth. If Scoscia wants a playoff spot this year, he had better make room.
The rotation, on the other hand, is the gold standard of the AL. Actually, make it the adamantium standard of the AL today, since they almost seem like a fantasy squad as opposed to something actually staring you in the face. Weaver. Wilson. Haren. Santana. Saunders. Yikes.
The Angels took the Rangers to the wire last season, I think the addition of Pujols gets them over the hump.
Welcome to the most competitive division in baseball. Seriously, you could make a reality show out of this. Ultimate Fighter? Please. Put Craig Kimbrel, Bryce Harper, Doc Halladay, David Wright, and Ozzie Guillen in a motel together and just film what happens. I guarantee Bryce Harper puts that John Randall face paint on within the the first 60 seconds, and 2 seconds later Ozzie Guillen smacks it right off his face. Toss in Jose Reyes and he and David Wright will have one of those candid camera crying sessions where Wright breaks down and, between sobs, forces out, "You...left me here...sniff...all alone...with these...idiots!" I'd watch that over Glee with pleasure.
New York Mets: 5th Place
Once David Wright wipes his tears from Jose Reyes' sleeves on the series premier of Hardball With Ozzie, he'll realize things aren't all bad in New York— he'll probably get traded by the time the season's up. At least, I'm sure he's praying for that.
With aging veterans like Andres Torres, Jason Bay, Johan Santana, and Frank Francisco, it's really, really hard to get excited about this team. I mean, it's like The Expendables where David Wright is Jason Statham and then everyone else is the starting line-up on the Straight-to-Video shelf at Movie Mania.
As I've said before, I do like Daniel Murphy, and I'm a huge fan of Justin Turner. If either of them have big years it could at least bode well for the future.
Washington Nationals: 4th Place
The Nats have made strides in the past couple seasons. Adding Gio Gonzalez to a very young staff was a smart move. Even though his WHIP is never impressive he is a professional pitcher. Strasburg, if he can hold it together for a full season, will dominate, and Jordan Zimmerman really shined last season. Pitching may be their strength this year, even with Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and potentially Bryce Harper in their lineup.
The problem is depth. Their infield is incomplete sans Ryan Zimmerman, as is their outfield sans Werth. Wilson Ramos should inject some life into the lineup, both with his youth and overall production. He will produce at this level for years to come.
Tyler Clippard might be the best set-up man in baseball, and once it gets to the eighth inning the Nationals will be tough to knock off. But I don't see them stringing together enough wins, especially with the other juggernauts in the division.
Miami Marlins: 3rd Place
The Marlins have six proven hitters, including three superstars, Ozzie Guillen in the dugout, and a healthy Josh Johnson. Despite all of this, this division is just too deep for me to see them making the playoffs.
Bell has been rock solid as a reliever the past three seasons. The addition of Jose Reyes, and the subsequent move for Hanley Ramirez to third base boosts the club defensively, as well as bolsters the top of their order. Mark Beuhrle will provide more stability in case Johnson succumbs to injury, as he is prone to do, and Ozzie Guillen brings a solid managerial record—and a World Series ring—to a group unfamiliar with success. All of these moves were wins, in my opinion, but it doesn't seem like enough.
I'm a bit worried about the personality clashes on this team. Ozzie Guillen is loud, Logan Morrison is a diva, and Hanley Ramirez has yet to display honorable professionalism during any point in his career. If the transition to third doesn't go smoothly we could be in for a lot of press out of South Beach.
Philadelphia Phillies: 2nd Place (Wild Card winners)
The Phillies are going to win a bunch of games based on sheer arithmetic: Halladay, Lee, and Hamels will all approach 20 wins this season, and that's 60 right there. Vance Worley came on well last season and should continue that trend.
The health of Chase Utley is concerning, but they made the post-season last year without a productive campaign from him, so all is not lost. I expect better numbers from Hunter Pence now that he's had an entire offseason to prepare with a championship-caliber team, as opposed to banging his head against a wall for four months knowing that he was an Astro. Ryan Howard should be back after a month or two, and he is a reliable source for consistent offense.
The addition of Papelbon was a gamble, strictly based on the contract, but his production is never in question.
There aren't many unknowns with the Phillies. What you see is what you get: great pitching and good coaching, and that spells playoffs in my book.
Atlanta Braves: 1st Place
Unknown fact about Craig Kimbrel: His body from the neck down is descended from Maximum Decimus Meridius.
Even lesser-known fact: His head is the image projected onto the E-Trade baby. Seriously, this guy looks like the strongest, baby-faced assassin ever. And he is the only pitcher in baseball history to completely square his shoulders to every batter and puff out his chest like a self-conscious tubster at the school dance. It's intimidating and adorable at the same time.
He and Johnny Venters make up the most-feared bullpen duo working today. Combined, they struck out 226 batters and allowed only 36 runs on the season last year. Most impressive is that their combined age barely hits 50. These two are going to be great for a long time.
Beachy, Minor, Delgado, and Tehearan are some of the best pitching prospects in baseball, with Beachy already proving he's the real deal. Pair them with Hanson and Jurjjens and its tough to find a hole in their entire staff.
At the plate they have a number of intriguing pieces. Freddie Freeman is ready to claim this team as his own, and should have a breakout season. Jason Heyward can produce, and both Brian McCann and Dan Uggla are proven power bats. Tyler Pastornicky is a wild card, as many have him pegged for a solid rookie campaign. Throw in Martin Prado and the speed of Michael Bourne and the Braves look about as complete as any team in the majors.
No Pujols or LaRussa, Theo Epstein trades one major city for the other, and Ryan Braun breaks the hearts of every little Hulkamaniac around the world. A lot went on this offseason in the AL Central, but where is the division headed?
Houston Astros: 6th Place
Ugh, do I really have to write about these guys, or can I short-cut it like I did the Mariners? Curses, I can't even find a player to get excited about.
JD Martinez. JD Martinez. JD Martinez...
No, that's preposterous. Just because you're decent on an incapable team doesn't all of the sudden make you good.
Umm, Jordan Schafer. Jordan Schafer. Saying it over and over again doesn't make things easier, sort of like drinking ipecac over and over again doesn't make it taste good—no matter how many times you try it you're still going to puke. Don't try that on your own. Simply reading through the Astros' roster will suffice for your vomitary needs. Trust me.
Chicago Cubs: 5th Place
Epstein is in town, as is his apparently adopted son Anthony Rizzo. Seriously, does anyone get the feeling that Epstein was secretly an army vet and overseas he served with Rizzo's father, only to promise him that if he ever made it back he would do whatever it took to make sure his son succeeded? The guy is obsessed with Rizzo. It's unhealthy.
Despite retaining his prized draft-day prospect, Epstein still has a lot of work to do with this organization. Long gone are the days of Wood and Pryor (oh wait, Wood is back with meager hopes of retiring where he started like he's some 3D version of Star Wars or Titanic), leaving a pitching staff without a real blue-chip to call their own. Starlin Castro looks to be on the rise, but the outfield of Soriano, Dejesus, and Marlon Byrd may as well visit casting calls for the sequel to Gone Fishin'. And apparently Bryan LaHair is simply keeping the seat warm until Godfather Epstein bestows the honor upon his test-tube baby Rizzo.
The only bright spot on the staff, Matt Garza, doesn't even seem to be on Epstein's good side as he was involved in every trade rumor since the former Red Sox GM took over. Send him over to the Motor City, Theo, we'll take him as long as you're fire-saling.
Pittsburgh Pirates: 4th Place
One of last season's feel-good stories until the midway point, after which they completely OD'd on their life-high and fell flat on their faces. They're probably a sexy pick with some critics, but the problem is that they didn't get any better in the offseason.
Again, they will be dependent upon Pedro Alvarez to start producing, and players like Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata to provide some sort of lineup support to budding All-Star Andrew McCutchen. That's way too much uncertainty.
They added Erik Bedard to the rotation, but he's basically the villain from Unbreakable minus the crazy haircut and wheelchair. The unfortunate thing about this is that Bedard remains the brightest piece of the rotation despite his Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, which is a condemnation of management more than anything.
They were entertaining last season, but in terms of sequels, they're more Dumb and Dumberer than Godfather: Part II.
St. Louis Cardinals: 3rd Place
I'll be the first to say it: The Cardinals will miss Tony LaRussa more so than Albert Pujols. If LaRussa were still managing this team then I probably would've picked them to win the division. They do have some good pieces remaining—Berkman may continue his Mickey Rourke story-arc, Carlos Beltran is on-board, Matt Holliday is a professional-hitter, and youngsters David Freese and Allen Craig (once off the DL) look ready to contribute. But without stellar performances from both Wainwright and Carpenter, St. Louis will have trouble staying relevant.
Minus LaRussa, I have a hard time seeing this team overachieving, as they did last season. I mean, look at what happened to Road House 2 without Patrick Swayze. First off, you don't replace Patrick Swayze without getting a restraining order first. Second, to replace him with Jonathan Schaech was just downright insulting. In the grander scheme of things, the script must not have grabbed Swayze's attention, and the same can be said here about LaRussa as he walked out the door, thinking to himself, "There's always barber college".
Cincinnati Reds: 2nd Place
Joey Votto is on board long-term, which is great news for every Reds fan. He, alongside Jay Bruce, head a lineup of good complimentary bats and budding prospects. Devin Mesoraco got a cup of coffee in the big leagues last season but should be primed to shoulder most of the catching duties this season. Drew Stubbs is potentially a 30-30 guy, and Brandon Phillips provides much-needed veteran leadership to an otherwise young team.
The big addition was Mat Latos. Unfortunately, he'll begin the season battling injury and a lot of pressure will be on Opening Day starter Johnny Cueto to perform. Cueto, who surprised with a phenomenal season last year, should pair with Latos to rival Milwaukee as the best top of the rotation duo in the division—when healthy.
What may decide whether Cincinnati can battle with the Brewers for the division title is whether Homer Bailey ever validates his first-round draft status or continues on the path of mediocrity. Aroldis Chapman, despite a thunderous left arm, has been rather uninspiring since his transfer from the Dominican Republic, and if the Reds are to take the next step he will need to become an elite eighth inning commodity.
Milwaukee Brewers: 1st Place
The Brew-Crew needed Braun back more desperately than the Hoosiers needed Jimmy. Though I doubt Ron Roenicke shot hoops with Braun and his ridiculously deflated basketball, I wouldn't be surprised if Milwaukee went to great lengths to ensure Braun's innocence. I'm sure someone in the league office had a first-born to kidnap and hold for ransom, right?
How much will Milwaukee miss Prince Fielder? Will Braun receive the Miguel Cabrera treatment now and simply be intentionally walked in most big situations? Aramis Ramirez should be adequate enough to provide moderate protection, but don't expect another MVP season from Braun.
The strength of this team, and what I like most about them, is the pitching, most notably Zach Greinke. Greinke really found his stride in Milwaukee towards the end of the season, posting ERAs of 2.27, 3.02, and 3.00 in the final three months. Don't forget, he was a Cy Young winner in Kansas City, so he has an Ace's arsenal. Now more comfortable with his new team I expect a complete season from a vintage Greinke.
Behind him, Gallardo and Marcum provide a lot of insurance. Gallardo has had a sub-4.00 ERA every year in the majors, and Marcum adjusted very well last season coming over from Toronto. With John Axford locking down the ninth innings look for Milwaukee to be atop the NL in most pitching categories.
It felt as though Wes Craven was writing the script for the Giants season last year as the landscape of the NL West was drastically altered in one gut-wrenching home plate collision. Like Craven's pioneering decision to ice out Drew Barrymore, an A-list actress, within the first ten minutes of Scream, Buster Posey was essentially gutted and hung from the tree in the front lawn a mere 45 games into his season. With that season-ending injury the doors swung open for the Diamondbacks to cruise to the playoffs. Barring more unforeseen catastrophes, things will be far more competitive in 2012:
San Diego Padres: 5th Place
It's about time SOMEONE starts seeing dividends from the trade that sent Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins to the Tigers. Funny how it isn't the Marlins, though. Cameron Maybin, one of the two studs along with Andrew Miller in the package that lured Miguel Cabrera to Motown, is finally showing his tools at the major league level. In 2011, he scored 80 runs and stole 40 bases while supplying a little bit of power. I say "finally", but the guy is only 24. It looks like Maybin could be the star everyone envisioned when he was traded in 2008.
Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer are going to be two of the surprise performers in the division this season. In 17 starts last year, Luebke allowed more than three runs on only three occasions while striking out more than a batter per inning. Stauffer, on the other hand, will be making his second consecutive Opening Day start for the Padres and looks primed to become the leader of this team.
The future looks good for this team, but 2012 will most likely be one to forget in San Diego.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 4th Place
The Dodgers are the Detroit Tigers of the NL, except without the savvy secondary moves that make a team great. They have the best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw, and the best hitter in Matt Kemp. But outside those two superstars, things get thin. Real thin. Like, Dee Gordon thin. Have you seen that guy? He's like Christian Bale in The Machinist.
Gordon is actually one of the other promising pieces in Hollywood, but behind him it's mostly role players—Andre Ethier, James Loney, Juan Rivera. Meh.
Chad Billingsley may be the most unpredictable, and frustrating pitcher ever. What are you going to get with this guy? Who knows. He's never had a terrible season, but critics and fans have been anticipating a breakout year that to this point has eluded him. On a positive note, he is still only 27 and just now entering his prime years. Perhaps the best is still ahead of him.
Colorado Rockies: 3rd Place
Die Hard With a Vengeance was a disappointment for many reasons, but that wasn't a surprise given the original. I mean, c'mon, how do you beat Hans Gruber? Definitely not by bringing in his estranged brother and having one of the least intimidating actors in history portray him. But, alas, that's what they did.
What kept that movie afloat and somewhat passable were the well-crafted performances of Bruce"the Goose" Willis and Samuel "L stands for 'will work for food' Jackson.
Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki will have to deliver similar performances to keep Colorado out of the cellar this season. There is way too much dependency on a youthful, unproven staff for these two to suffer down years. Drew Pomeranz and Juan Nicasio are intriguing, but have a lot to prove.
And, as a sidebar, can we please just give Juan Nicasio the Comeback Player of the Year, nay the Decade, nay the CENTURY, Award right now? I mean for God's sake the man had his neck broken by a line-drive last season and he's back to gassing 95 MPH fastballs past people. It's completely unreal.
Arizona Diamondbacks: 2nd Place (Wild Card winner)
Arizona was another of the surprise stories in 2011. Led by five-tool stud Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks look ready to build off recent success and make another World Series push in 2012. Though I like them as a playoff team, I see more of a Hangover 2-type performance from the desert-dwellers: all the same faces are back but the chemistry just doesn't deliver the same punch the second time around.
Trevor Cahll is over from the A's, and Jason Kubel switched leagues from Minnesota. I'm not too excited with the Kubel move, as I think Parra was a bright, young piece who now looks to be the odd man out in the outfield, but Cahill could pay dividends.
Ian Kennedy is an ace, and management hopes they have another maturing in Daniel Hudson. If Cahill can build off his 2010 campaign, during which he went 18-8 with a 2.92 ERA, instead of continuing last year's regression, then Arizona will be tough to deal with in a short playoff series.
A lot hinges on whether Miguel Montero and Paul Goldschmidt provide adequate protection for Justin Upton. I've never been much a fan of Chris Young, as his OPS and AVG are never impressive, but he does anchor a very capable defensive lineup. Pitching and defense will set Arizona apart.
San Fancisco Giants: 1st Place
Who is the highest-paid righty pitcher in baseball history? How about in the game today? Verlander? Halladay? How about just on the Giants? Lincecum, right? With his two Cy Youngs, right? Seriously? Matt Cain signed a 6-year deal worth $127.5 million? Really? Jim Carrey still makes $20 million per movie? Really? Tyler Perry still earns a paycheck? Really? Talk about undeserving.
Matt Cain is good. In fact, he's really, really good. But is he great? We'll leave that debate for another day. Regardless, the Giants have Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain on their staff, and therefore are my pick to win this division. Only one other team has a single ace (Ian Kennedy in Arizona) yet the Giants have two bonafide studs. Not fair. And there's a dude name Madison Bumgarner just chillin' behind them in the 3-spot, AND some guy named Ryan Vogelson who dropped a sub-3.00 ERA last season yet still finds himself fighting for a spot at the back-end of the rotation. That is just too rich. Some folks just have it too good. Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Veruca Salt.
Buster Posey is back, and the sneaky acquisition of Melky Cabrera will bring back high marks by season's end. But the Giants are going to need some major production out of Pablo Sandoval if they want to do some damage in the playoffs. And he doesn't need to frequent rehab, or possess intolerable wit, but a Robert Downey-type resurgence from Aubrey Huff wouldn't hurt anyone.
AL: Texas Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Rays
With the retirement of Tony LaRussa, Joe Maddon is probably the best manager working today. I mean, why would you bet against him? Did you bet against Scorcese even though Hugo was a "children's movie"? Of couse not, the guy just makes great films. Period. Joe Maddon does more with less than any other manager in baseball. Period.
In this rematch of last season's ALDS I see the Rays avenging their 3-1 defeat. Matt Moore dominated the Rangers in Game One en route to a 9-0 victory as he essentially stood at the nose of the Titanic, arms spread, and announced himself to the world. Expect more of the same.
Two of the Texas wins last season ended 4-3, and I see both of those games going to Tampa this time around. Their pitching is lightyears ahead of Texas, and their offense will be much improved in 2012.
Prediction: 3-1 Rays
NL: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Phillies have the pitching, and I don't see Arizona mustering the offense to undermine it.
The Phillies lost game 5 to the Cardinals in last season's NLDS thanks to absolutely breathtaking performances from both Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay. The game ended 1-0 as the former teammates gave everyone the show they wanted. In a scenario like that, I don't see Arizona having anyone to battle Halladay should this go five games.
Prediction: 3-2 Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Detroit Tigers
Are any of you folks euchre players? Well, Justin Verlander is basically the right AND left bauers. A common practice in euchre is, in a game where you need three out of five tricks to win a point, you take two yourself and always count on your partner for one. Detroit can basically roll Verlander out there twice and pencil them in as wins—he's that good. They just have to count on the rest of the team for the others.
Tampa's pitching is dominant, but so is Detroit's offense on paper. Fielder and Cabrera? Ever heard of Redford and Newman? Travolta and Jackson? Smith and Mewes? These two are that good, and likely will be considered the best three-four hitters of the past decade. Pitchers beware.
Prediction: Tigers 4-2
Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels
I'm bucking the trend of pitching in favor of offense in this year's playoffs. I have a lot of faith in the resurgence of Boston's bats, and I think they will overcome the Angels in this series.
The Angels' staff is great, but by the time the post-season rolls around the Red Sox should have Jon Lester, a healthy Josh Beckett, and a healthy Clay Bucholz, and they're no slouches.
Pujols brings a winning attitude to LA, but Boston has been here before recently and experience should win out.
Prediction: Red Sox 4-3
Milwaukee Brewers vs. Atlanta Braves
The Braves have too much balance on both offense and defense. I don't see that bullpen giving up any leads, and their staff is good enough to hand over their fair share of good outings.
Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman will do a good enough job neutralizing the Brewer arms. Milwaukee's only shot would be to force a Game Seven and get a great short rest outing from Greinke. I think he's the best pitcher in this match-up and we've seen how one great pitcher can change the outcome.
Prediction: Braves 4-2
Philadelphia Phillies vs. San Francisco Giants
These two staffs met in the postseason in 2010 with San Fran slipping past en route to a World Series title. I see a repeat performance this time around, as well.
In 2010, Tim Lincecum out-dueled Cliff Lee in both Games One and Five of the World Series. Timmy loves pitching on the big stage. Halladay, Hamels, Cain, and Bumgarner round out what is probably the best group of pitchers in a series in recent memory.
The difference-maker is that Buster Posey is the best player in this series. On the Phillies side, I'm not sure Chase Utley will ever be healthy this season, and that's a big blow to any postseason plans they may have.
Prediction: Giants 4-2
Boston Red Sox vs. Detroit Tigers
The Tigers have the two best hitters, the best pitcher, and the better bullpen in this match-up. There are too many questions surrounding the back-end of the Red Sox pen for it not to catch-up to them at some point. The buck stops here.
Alex Avila will have a big impact once the postseason rolls around. As opposed to last year, when he was exhausted due to catching 133 games, a well-rested Avila poses a lot of problems for opposing pitchers.
Don't forget that Doug Fister was the Tigers' best pitcher in the second half last season, and he performed very well in the postseason. Look for him to be the difference-maker behind Verlander, who has a career 3.22 ERA against Boston.
Prediction: Tigers 4-2
San Francisco Giants vs. Atlanta Braves
The Giants rotation is what separates them, but this pick is based more on feel than anything else.
The Braves, carrying the sting of their epic collapse on the final day of last season, will have a lot to prove both to themselves and their critics. I think that fire carries them all the way to the World Series.
Though Jurjjens is not as flashy as Lincecum or Cain, let's not forget that he has posted sub-3.00 ERAs in two of the past 3 seasons. He and Hanson at the top of the Braves' rotation can definitely get the job done against a less-than-stellar Giants lineup.
Prediction: Braves 4-3
Atlanta Braves vs. Detroit Tigers
Mike Ilitch forked out the cash to "win now", and that dedication will likely pay dividends right away.
Detroit and Atlanta are two very well-balanced teams from top to bottom. Though Atlanta's bullpen is great, Detroit's is extremely dependable with Jose Valverde going unblemished in 2011. Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel provide even more stability for Jim Leyland and Co.
As has been the argument all postseason, having the best pitcher in baseball makes a huge difference. Verlander has the ability to provide a Josh Beckett-like performance if called upon, pitching both Games One and Five while having the stamina to spot relief in Game Seven if necessary. That goes a long way.
Both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are crunch time performers who will absolutely thrive on the big stage. After all is said and done, I think the Tigers offense dishes out too heavy a barrage for Atlanta to handle.
Prediction: Tigers 4-1