MLB Power Rankings: Predicting How the Teams Will Stack Up on Opening Day

Ben Shapiro@benshapironyc1 Analyst IIIDecember 5, 2011

MLB Power Rankings: Predicting How the Teams Will Stack Up on Opening Day

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    April 4th is a long way off. That's when the first official game of the 2012 MLB season will be played. The defending champion St. Louis Cardinals will face off against the new-look, new-name Miami Marlins in a new stadium.

    There are going to be a lot of player moves between now and then. Some free agents will sign big deals to stay with their current teams, while others will find riches in other cities with other teams. Where do all the teams rank right now, and where will they be come Opening Day?

No. 30: Houston Astros

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    Last season was pretty brutal in Houston, and barring major changes when Opening Day finally arrives in April of 2012, it will usher in another pretty bad season.

    The Astros are in the depths of the rebuilding process. They're at the point where they've reached bottom and can't really go anywhere but up. Last season they finished with a record of 56-106. The 2012 season could be better, but not by a significant amount.

    The Astros will likely start their final season in the National League without their best starting pitcher from the 2011 season. Wandy Rodriguez won't ever be confused for Justin Verlander, but he's a pretty talented starting pitcher. That makes him plenty tradable, and the Astros have given every indication that Rodriguez will be dealt in the offseason for the best package of decent prospects they can get.

    It's conceivable that Rodriguez's loss could mean that 2012 is actually worse than 2011, but the team could see improvement from some of its existing young talent, such as Bud Norris, who will be entering his fourth season as a starting big-league pitcher.

    Any Rodriguez deal would likely net the Astros at least one big-league-level player as well. Aside from the youth and Carlos Lee, there's not much for Astros fans to look forward to in 2012, but at least there's really nowhere to go but up.

No. 29: San Diego Padres

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    If the Astros are indeed the worst team in baseball in 2012, the San Diego Padres are likely to not be too far behind.

    The Padres embarked on a mission to shed payroll two seasons ago. First, All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was dealt to the Boston Red Sox. Top middle reliever Mike Adams was traded to Texas at the trade deadline last summer, and then this past Thursday night All-Star closer Heath Bell departed via free agency to the Miami Marlins.

    Needless to say, the 2012 Padres won't be a high-payroll team.

    They've got some talent though. Top prospect Anthony Rizzo, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox as part of the Adrian Gonzalez deal, had a forgettable debut last season, but his future still looks bright. Cameron Maybin, who has been a top-tier prospect for years, broke out last season to the tune of 40 stolen bases and a .264 batting average. He'll be 25 on Opening Day, so look for continued improvement.

    Mat Latos is one of the brightest young pitchers in baseball. He'll be 24 next season and could emerge as one of the best pitchers in the National League before the end of 2012.

    Make no mistake about it: This team has plenty of holes, but there are some pieces in place that could be cause for optimism.

No. 28: Minnesota Twins

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    To think it was just a touch over one year ago that the Twins were squaring off against the Yankees in the ALDS. The Twins were 94-68 in 2010; in 2011 they finished at 63-99. That's not the type of one-year turnaround that teams are hoping for.

    The decline was steep and sudden, and unfortunately for Twins fans it might not be over next season. The Twins have suffered dearly from injuries to former American League MVP first baseman Justin Morneau.

    Joe Nathan, who was once a top closer, needed Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2010. He returned in 2011 but never really regained the dominant form he had back in 2009 and now is gone, having signed a contract with the Texas Rangers.

    Morneau, who has been hampered by lingering effects of a concussion suffered over a full season ago, may come back next season. Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, two of the Twins' more consistent players from last season, may not. Both are free agents and could be on their way out of town.

    The Twins pitching, which has traditionally been a strong point, morphed into a weakness last season. Matt Capps was not good in the closer role. Jose Mijares continued to suffer from a lack of consistency.

    Francisco Liriano provided a bright point in May when he threw a no-hitter, but his season had its ups and downs, and his impending free agency following the 2012 season may force the Twins to consider trading their best starting pitcher either in the offseason or during the season if they feel that they won't be competing in the AL Central.

    It's not all bad—Ben Revere emerged as a legitimate leadoff man and outfielder last season. Mauer and (if he's healthy) Morneau are still both All-Star-caliber offensive players. There just aren't enough bright spots to shine too much light on Twins fans' hopes in 2012.

No. 27: Chicago Cubs

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    The Chicago Cubs will be a good baseball team. Theo Epstein's ability to rebuild a farm system will yield positive results in the upcoming seasons.

    Player development takes time, though, and next season is coming too soon for the Cubs to see real results from Theo's arrival. Much like when a top college football or basketball coach arrives on the scene, Cubs fans are going to have to wait for a few recruiting classes to be brought in and allowed to develop.

    In the meantime, things will be interesting.

    The Cubs are currently sitting at No. 27 in this ranking, but in the coming weeks or months they could sign a high-profile free agent such as Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols; they could also trade Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Zambrano. Carlos Pena seems like a safe bet to leave via free agency, as does third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

    One thing that is certain is that 21-year-old shortstop phenom Starlin Castro isn't going anywhere. Other than that, the current big-league roster is very likely to change.

    It will change for the better, but "better" may not be in 2012.

No. 26: Baltimore Orioles

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    Well, it looks like the offense is coming around in Baltimore. Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are both solid in the outfield. Matt Wieters emerged as a Gold Glove-winning catcher and a growing offensive force at the position as well. J.J. Hardy and Robert Andino both had solid seasons.

    The Orioles may lose free-agent designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, but the lineup card won't be what keeps manager Buck Showalter up at night in 2012.

    It's going to be the pitching.

    That's because the Orioles have some serious pitching issues. Baltimore felt that it had a host of young bright pitching prospects coming through the pipeline a few seasons ago. That still may be the case, but the time it's taken all of these pitchers to develop is a growing cause for concern.

    Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jeremy Guthrie, Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta may all be solid pitchers someday, but as of now they range from mediocre (Guthrie and Britton) to truly bad (Matusz and Tillman).

    Kevin Gregg did a solid job closing in the bullpen last season but is not a top-notch closer by any means. Of course, when you have bad starting pitching, who is closing is of far less consequence since his save opportunities are going to be limited.

    The Orioles need their young pitching to come around. If they do, if even one or two of them do, then the Orioles could easily improve next season. The playoffs are not likely—not in the American League East—but an overall improvement will happen. If not, then Baltimore will once again sit at the bottom of the AL East and near the bottom of the power rankings.

No. 25: New York Mets

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    The New York Mets have organizational problems.

    They have the financial problems that have plagued ownership since the Bernie Madoff scandal cost them millions of dollars in assets.

    They have a farm system that is not exactly brimming with top prospects, and then they have the current on-field product that lost Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez last season and lost star shortstop Jose Reyes to free agency this offseason.

    Manager Terry Collins, who was brought in to clean up the on-field product, did an admirable job last season. The Mets were actually in the race for the wild card well into late July and even early August. Then they dealt Beltran to the Giants, the team experienced its seemingly annual spate of injuries and the season cascaded downward.

    The Mets are reeling from the loss of Reyes to the Florida Marlins via free agency. Reyes was one of the most gifted offensive players in baseball, and with the Mets already lacking offensive punch, he was a player they simply could not afford to lose and definitely can't afford to replace.

    Losing Reyes and the likelihood that the team won't be leaping head first into signing any of the impact free agents on the market due in large part to the team's financial woes will have a negative impact on next season's offense.

    Nest season's pitching could be a problem as well. In 2012 the Mets will begin the process of finding out just how much of a loss they're going to incur on the massive six-year, $137.5 million contract they lavished upon Johan Santana.

    Santana arrived in New York as a two-time Cy Young winner. He was solid but not Cy Young-quality in his first three seasons in the Big Apple. Then he missed all of 2011 recovering from shoulder surgery.

    It's possible that the Santana who emerges in 2012 could be better than the one that exited injured in 2010. Rest, recovery and potentially a stronger shoulder could mean a better pitcher. Then again, Santana hasn't pitched in a live baseball game since September 2nd, 2010, so a degree of rust should be expected.

    The Mets pitching staff took a hit on Friday when free-agent starter Chris Capuano signed a deal with the Dodgers. That leaves a thin returning staff featuring R.A. Dickey, who is a knuckleball pitcher, Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey. Those four pitchers are all too inconsistent to turn the Mets into contenders in what is looking like an increasingly competitive National League East.

No. 24: Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Last season the Pirates were in the mix into August, but then the St. Louis Cardinals caught fire, the Brewers kept playing great baseball and the Pirates faded back into mediocrity, finishing below .500 and in fourth place.

    In 2012 the Pirates will benefit from playing in the same division as the Astros and Cubs, but other than that 2012 doesn't look like a year in which the Pirates will be contenders into September.

    The Pirates have spent the better part of the past 20 years vacillating between mediocre and downright awful. The 2012 version is apt to be like many of mediocre versions.

    The Pirates do have some talent, specifically young center fielder Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is possibly on the verge of true stardom. With the exception of some plate discipline issues, he's a lethal all-around offensive player who can hit for power and run the bases.

    Neil Walker and Garrett Jones will also add some pop to a lineup that could still benefit from more power and better pure hitting throughout.

    On the mound the Pirates have talent and more on the way. The key question is when will the talent reach the big-league level? Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are both very promising young prospects. Cole was the No. 1 overall pick in last year's MLB draft and could make an impact by the end of 2012.

    In spite of being low in these rankings, the Pirates aren't really that bad a team. Baseball won't have more than a few great teams next year, but it also won't have a lot of awful ones. The Pirates are part of a group of teams that are in a perpetual rebuilding mode, and that comes with various peaks and valleys. Next year could be a slight dip, but not a major one.

No. 23: Colorado Rockies

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    The Colorado Rockies are coming off a rough 2011 that saw their 2010 National League MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez decline slightly and their best starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez dealt at the trade deadline to the Cleveland Indians.

    With Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki in the fold the Rockies won't have to worry about being too awful a team, but in spite of their two possible perennial MVP candidates, this team still has serious pitching concerns.

    Pitching has always been an issue in Denver with the high mountain air routinely turning high fly balls into home runs.

    In addition to the departed Jimenez, the bullpen looks to be entering a transitional period as well with closer Huston Street and setup man Rafael Betancourt both potentially departing via free agency.

    Jhoulys Chacin is without question a solid starting pitcher, and the Rockies did get some high-ceiling prospects back from Cleveland in exchange for Jimenez, but Alex White appears a bit green, and that's going to make for a rough season on the mound in Denver.

    The Rockies are a team positioning themselves to make another run for the playoffs, but that run seems to be a few years off.

No. 22: Oakland A's

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    For a team that produces as much good pitching as any organization in all of baseball, the A's sure do a lousy job of holding on to it.

    At one point the A's appeared to be a team that would compete every year and then take a few steps back, reload and compete once again.

    As of late the A's seem more prone to the "take a few steps back" part and not as likely to compete. The emergence of the Rangers and Angels as contenders is one reason. The other is that the A's always seem to have great young pitching, always seem to trade the talent and don't always get the returns they expect when they do trade the pitching talent.

    In addition, the Oakland offense, which once boasted MVP-caliber hitters such as Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi, is now one of the American League's weakest offensive squads.

    With Oakland poised to deal both Gio Gonzalez and closer Andrew Bailey, as well as possibly lose leadoff man Coco Crisp to free agency, 2012 may just feature the worst Oakland team in quite some time. Trevor Cahill will remain a key member of the rotation, and a healthy Brandon McCarthy will produce at a high level as well. That's not going to be enough in a division that features two very competitive teams in Texas and Los Angeles, as well as a team with more pitching talent to the north in Seattle.

    At some point the constant shipping of talent out of Oakland had to catch up to the organization. 2012 might be that point.

No. 21: Kansas City Royals

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    The Kansas City Royals system is absolutely loaded with talent.

    The question is when will it be major league-ready?

    For 22-year-old Eric Hosmer, last year was "when." Hosmer was called up in May and responded with a great rookie campaign. The first baseman hit almost .300 with 19 home runs, 11 stolen bases and 78 runs batted in.

    In 2012 the Royals will look for improvement from Hosmer, but they'll also be counting on third baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain to become reliable everyday contributors.

    Cain was a key part of the trade that sent Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to Milwaukee last offseason. That was a controversial trade since it dealt the Royals pitching staff a serious blow, and make no mistake about it—the reason the Royals are at No. 22 is because of their starting rotation, not their lineup.

    The lineup has the aforementioned young talent and now also features Alex Gordon, who was at one time the top prospect in all of baseball. Gordon is finally playing exactly the type of baseball most thought he could when he made his hyped major league debut back in 2007.

    That pitching staff has holes though. The patches are on the way in the form of highly touted prospects such as Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Danny Duffy. Young pitchers generally have a slightly longer period of adjustment and inconsistency than hitters do, though.

    The best news for the Royals and their fans was the late-season emergence of former 2006 No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar as a viable starting pitcher.

    Hochevar, who had suffered through several seasons marred by a litany of control problems since his debut back in 2007, seemed to gain a degree of comfort on the mound. He registered career lows in earned run average (4.68) and WHIP (1.283). Those aren't "ace"-type numbers, but they're solid improvements, and if they can continue in 2012, that will make for an even more promising 2013.

No. 20: Seattle Mariners

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    Some teams are all offense and no pitching, and some teams are the Seattle Mariners.

    This is a team that features two of baseball's brightest young starting pitchers in Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, as well as a closer in Brandon League coming off an All-Star-caliber season.

    Normally a one-two punch like that would spell trouble for Seattle's opponents. Instead, those two pitchers had a combined 23-24 record last year, due largely to the simple fact that the Mariners have a very weak offense.

    The days when Ichiro Suzuki was the toughest out in all of baseball are coming to an end. Ichiro is getting old, and with that age it appears he's lost a step on the bases. More importantly, it appears he's lost a bit of his bat speed.

    That's a big part of why Ichiro hit a very un-Ichiro-like .272 last season. The combination of a slower bat and slightly fewer infield hits can shed points from even the most skilled hitter's average.

    The Mariners, to their credit, are aware of this offensive malaise and as of now are in on the Prince Fielder free-agency sweepstakes. Perhaps the Mariners will take the plunge and pony up the $200 million or so needed to secure Fielder for most of the next decade, but I'd still place them as a dark horse in that race.

    For that reason the Mariners, in spite of a fantastic pitching staff, can't be placed much higher than 20th. The farm system has some decent offensive players, but the Mariners really need a big bat in the middle of their lineup.

    If Fielder can't be convinced to head to the Northwest, then Seattle will have to try to make some trades or sign some lesser offensive free-agent talent. It might not be enough to get them much higher by Opening Day 2012, but those pitchers will ensure they won't dip lower either.

No. 19: Chicago White Sox

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    With all the attention being paid to the new blood in the Chicago Cubs organization, it's easy to forget that the Chicago White Sox are also coming off a bad year and going through a major transition.

    Out is former manager Ozzie Guillen, who led the White Sox to a World Series title in 2005, as well as veteran pitcher Mark Buehrle, a staple of the team for nearly a decade. In is former All-Star third baseman Robin Ventura.

    Ventura inherits a White Sox team that appears poised to plunge itself into what it hopes will be a quick rebuilding process. As the offseason gears up for full swing, the White Sox look prepared to ship key components of their starting rotation off to other teams in an effort to both shave payroll and restock a farm system that has been depleted over the past few seasons by numerous trades made in an attempt to return to the World Series.

    Both Gavin Floyd and John Danks are decent starting pitchers who are not super expensive. That makes them both very valuable commodities. Either one could bring back some decent prospects in return, and the White Sox really need that.

    Chicago is weighed down by a few cumbersome contracts on offense, as well as a big contract that is still insured to oft-injured Jake Peavy. The White Sox still have some bright spots on the team, but the team must get some type of production out of Alex Rios and Adam Dunn next season.

    The team is clearly going to go in a direction whereby it allows some of these larger contracts to expire and grants playing time to its younger players in the meantime.

    Next season will likely be a transition season: a new manager and some new faces with hopes of heading in a new direction.

No. 18: Washington Nationals

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    Things promise to get tight in the National League East next season. Only the Mets seem headed into a season worse than the one they had in 2011.

    In Washington the Nationals will prepare for the arrival of Bryce Harper. Harper, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 MLB amateur draft, is one of the most heavily hyped hitters in recent memory. Most scouts seem to think Harper could possibly make it to the majors when the rosters expand in September of 2012.

    Until then the Nationals will continue to look for improvement from young players such as pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, second baseman Danny Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond. Pitchers like Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen also have fans excited, and for good reason. The Nats have a solid young core and have plenty of talent besides Harper coming up through the system as well.

    In a National League East with three other competitive teams, the Nationals could be poised for a fourth-place finish in 2012. That's not the type of thing that will excite too many fans, but with money to spend and a young and very talented core of players, fourth place could be only a memory soon.

No. 17: Miami Marlins

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    There will probably be some Miami Marlins fans wondering how they could be ranked No. 17 after signing Jose Reyes and Heath Bell.

    To be sure, that's a serious influx of talent, and the potential exists that the Marlins could be much better than the ranking suggests they'll be.

    Josh Johnson will return from injury as well, providing the Marlins with yet another positive for 2012.

    In spite of all that, there remain some big question marks.

    Hanley Ramirez is one of baseball's most gifted players, but his questionable attitude at times has raised major questions. Now with Reyes in the fold, the Marlins will almost certainly look to move Ramirez to third base, a move he has at times voiced opposition to in the past.

    Guillen, for his part, isn't always the smoothest operator. Throwing him into this mix of brash players could be the perfect fit, but there could also be serious growing pains.

No. 16: San Francisco Giants

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    Yes, the Giants won the World Series in 2010, but they missed the playoffs last season, and in the process they dealt a legitimate pitching prospect to acquire Carlos Beltran, who now appears poised to bolt from the Bay via free agency.

    The same strong rotation that got the Giants to the World Series in 2010 is for the most part in place, but the specter of Matt Cain's free agency following 2012 will be in the back of everyone's mind.

    In addition, the offense will still be bad even with the return of budding superstar Buster Posey and the acquisition of Melky Cabrera.

    That's not going to be enough to jar the Giants too far from their lowly offensive performance of 2011. The Giants were near the bottom of all of baseball in key team offensive rankings, and with GM Brian Sabean saying they are unlikely to be too active in this offseason's free-agent market, the prospects for next season point toward another decline.

No. 15: Cleveland Indians

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    The Cleveland Indians were the feel-good story of 2011. An afterthought in the preseason, the Indians spent much of the first two-thirds of the season playing as if they were in their own real-life version of the movie Major League.

    Then in August the clock struck midnight on the Indians' season, and they slumped. That slump coincided with a Detroit Tigers hot streak, and a once promising season deteriorated into an under-.500 finish.

    The Indians made a daring move at the trade deadline and acquired Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. They had to part with top pitching prospects like Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. That could prove costly down the road. Justin Masterson, who was acquired in 2009 for catcher Victor Martinez, became the staff ace last season. Add in Jimenez and the starting pitching is not that bad.

    On offense the Indians are still waiting for Matt LaPorta, who was one of the centerpieces of the 2008 trade of CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers, to become the hitter everyone thought he'd be. Asdrubal Cabrera had a great season in 2011, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that he regresses a touch in 2012. Catcher Carlos Santana and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo ensure that Cleveland's offense won't be stagnant in 2012.

No. 14: Toronto Blue Jays

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    For the Toronto Blue Jays, the problem is as much the division as the players on the team. If Toronto was playing in the National League West, then a playoff berth and division title could be well within reach. Instead, in the American League East the Blue Jays will likely finish with a solid record and in fourth place.

    The Jays have a bona fide MVP candidate in Jose Bautista, a budding young superstar in Brett Lawrie and a Cy Young-caliber pitcher in Ricky Romero. Brandon Morrow is a young fireballer who could be a very good starter if he can just harness his control a bit.

    The Jays are rumored to be interested in some of the high-profile free agents on the market. If they were to sign Prince Fielder, perhaps that would be enough of an offensive boost to catapult them back into the playoff picture for the first time since 1993, when they won the World Series.

No. 13: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    When you have the reigning Cy Young winner in Clayton Kershaw and a 27-year-old outfielder named Matt Kemp who almost won the Triple Crown, then your team can only be so bad.

    Last season was a total disaster for the Dodgers. The McCourt divorce, the bankruptcy, the lawsuits—it was a never-ending string of bad news.

    Next season looks to be one of improvement—not dramatic improvement, but improvement nonetheless. The Dodgers will likely lose Hideki Kuroda to free agency, but they've already signed starter Chris Capuano as his replacement.

    Chad Billingsley is another solid arm in the rotation, and the offense isn't just Matt Kemp. Andre Ethier and James Loney can both swing the bat as well. The farm system is, as usual, stocked primarily with pitching talent.

    Next season's most important factor could be off the field, or rather what doesn't happen off the field. The divorce is final, and the sale of the team seems to be headed toward a conclusion. Once stable ownership is put in place, it can set up a vision for success, and with the available talent that formula might not be as complex as one thinks.

No. 12: Cincinnati Reds

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    Unless the Reds make the nearly incomprehensible decision to trade perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto between now and Opening Day 2012, they should find themselves in the postseason mix once again next year.

    As of now, talks between the Reds and second baseman Brandon Phillips are progressing positively as well.

    The Reds suffered from major pitching woes last season. Johnny Cueto was great, but Edinson Volquez, Homer Bailey and Aroldis Chapman all had subpar seasons. There's a good chance the Reds will have a mid-level pitching acquisition on hand by Opening Day. That could be critical because the National League Central could be a very tight race.

    Milwaukee is likely to be weaker with what appears to be the inevitable departure of Prince Fielder. It still has solid pitching and the returning National League MVP in Ryan Braun. In St. Louis, if Albert Pujols were to depart, then clearly the Cardinals would be a weaker team as well.

    The Reds can't just sit and wait for that to happen, though. Ten teams will make the postseason as early as next year, so being ranked No. 12 means the Reds could be right in the thick of things down to the wire.

No. 11: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Diamondbacks were one of the best stories in all of baseball in 2011. Coming off a 2010 season in which they finished 65-97, Arizona rebounded in a big way to go 94-68.

    That resurgence was really spearheaded by three key figures.

    Manager Kirk Gibson apparently manages like he played baseball. The hyper competitive Gibson always seemed to get the most out of his physical abilities—his team appears to emulate that quality as well.

    Twenty-four-year-old Justin Upton, who was once thought to be on the trading block, emerged as the bona fide superstar that many had him pegged as for years.

    Ian Kennedy, who was once part of a trio of heavily hyped New York Yankee pitching prospects along with Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, became the first of the three men to finish in the running for a Cy Young Award.

    The good news for Diamondbacks fans is that the overall weakness of the National League West means a return to the postseason is a reasonable expectation. The bad news is that a regression by Kennedy could make the overall pitching a touch worse than it was in 2011.

    The Diamondbacks are going to be competitive for a number of years, but whether or not they can return to the glory of the 2001 World Series title remains to be seen.

No. 10: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Milwaukee may have seen its best chance at postseason glory go by the wayside last year. Then again, maybe not.

    Yes, it does seem like a foregone conclusion that Prince Fielder will leave Milwaukee for another team. That's a major loss, to say the least. Still, it's not a stretch to suggest that Zack Greinke will improve over last season's mediocre numbers. Shaun Marcum could also improve.

    On offense Fielder's loss is huge, but Ryan Braun—not Fielder—was the MVP in 2011. Nyjer Morgan, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart are all talented hitters as well.

    Fielder's departure will be a loss, but it doesn't have to be a backbreaking one.

No. 9: Atlanta Braves

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    For those Red Sox fans who really don't follow the rest of baseball, it's worth mentioning that the Red Sox weren't the only team have a total September meltdown and miss the playoffs last year.

    That's because the Atlanta Braves pulled a collapse of almost the same magnitude. It was the Braves' implosion that allowed the Cardinals to claim the wild card on the final night of the season. This was a Braves team decimated by injuries to key members of their pitching staff down the stretch last season.

    Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson are both top-of-the-rotation-type starters, and they were both hurt for the stretch run last year.

    Exactly how big a difference that made could be debated, but what seems fairly certain is that the presence of even one of those pitchers might have made a one- or two-game difference. Since the Braves lost the wild-card spot on the season's final night, those injuries may very well have allowed the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals the opportunity to make the magical run they did.

    As an organization the Braves don't usually make the biggest and boldest of offseason moves. Trading Jurrjens, which has been rumored, would represent a serious move for the franchise.

    Craig Kimbrel is back at closer after his National League Rookie of the Year season in 2011.

    On offense, expect more from the kids. Freddie Freeman at first base and Jason Heyward in the outfield are both very talented young hitters. Expect Dan Uggla to continue to produce at second base as well. Finally, veteran Chipper Jones will return for his 19th season at third base. Jones would love to win his second World Series ring; most of the Braves are still looking for their first.

No. 8: Boston Red Sox

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    The Boston Red Sox are back in the thick of things in the American League East, but will offseason moves yield enough results to put the Sox atop the AL East?

    Probably not.

    In spite of the addition-by-subtraction many Red Sox fans feel with regards to John Lackey missing all of 2012, the Red Sox enter the season with a rotation that has plenty of talent at the top with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett and plenty of question marks at the bottom. Can new, unproven starters in Boston succeed?

    Even those that arrive with plenty of big-league experience often falter. Combine that with a new everyday right fielder and a new manager, and throw in the hyper-competitive American League East environment, and the Red Sox are in for a rocky but ultimately good season.

    On offense, expect fireworks. The Red Sox placed three players in the top nine of the American League MVP voting last season, and all three players—Jacoby Ellsbury (second in MVP voting), Adrian Gonzalez (seventh) and Dustin Pedroia (ninth) are back. There's little reason to expect a serious drop-off in production from any of these players. David Ortiz will return at DH as well.

    The Sox will score runs in buckets this season, but they'll also give up a few too many at times. That won't keep them out of the postseason, but it might prevent them from advancing too deep into October.

No. 7: Los Angeles Angels

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    Get ready to run in Los Angeles.

    The Angels feature not one but two of the American League's brightest young speedsters in the outfield.

    Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos will be terrors on the basepaths this season. The real question is how many runs can they score?

    The answer is probably a bunch.

    The Angles are poised to engage in a season-long fight with the two-time defending American League West champion Texas Rangers. The Angels have the edge when it comes to pitching, but the offense might not be able to keep up with the Rangers.

    On the mound the Angels present serious problems for opponents. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana are all among the league's better starting pitchers. Weaver should contend once again for the Cy Young Award, and Haren may compete with him for it.

    Jordan Walden returns at closer. The rookie had a great first run in 2011 but appeared to fatigue a bit down the stretch. This season manager Mike Scioscia will attempt to give Walden as much downtime as possible. If he can get some production out of Vernon Wells and the returning Kendrys Morales, then perhaps Walden won't be needed as often in the late innings.

No. 6: Texas Rangers

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    The Texas Rangers have already made some big changes in the offseason and could easily make some more.

    Neftali Feliz has moved to the starting rotation. In his place is veteran closer Joe Nathan, who is attempting to regain his 2009 form as a dominant closer.

    C.J. Wilson will likely depart via free agency, and the Rangers will hope that Derek Holland can use the momentum of his World Series Game 5 masterpiece to become a more consistent starter all season long. Colby Lewis is back as a decent back-of-the-rotation option, and the Rangers would love to get more out of Matt Harrison.

    The good news is that the bullpen has enough depth to shorten games for Texas. Mike Adams, Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara return to give Nathan plenty of support.

    Let's not forget the bats. Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young and Mike Napoli all return to form a lineup that won't necessitate shutdown starting pitching on a nightly basis.

    Ron Washington has his critics, but he's also navigated the Rangers to two World Series appearances in a row. Could Texas make it three? It's going to be in the running again, that's for sure.

No. 5: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Albert Pujols almost caused St. Louis to become Cleveland.

    His flirtation with the Miami Marlins and other teams as a free agent has kept many a Cardinals fan up at night, but his likely return to St. Louis will now keep many National League managers up at night wondering if the Cardinals can be knocked off their lofty perch.

    Add in the return of the bulk of the Cardinals team that won the 2011 World Series, and the ingredients are there for more magic in 2012.

    There are some major questions, though.

    It starts with the guy filling out the lineup card. Mike Matheny is in his first year as a major league manager, and he's got some rather large shoes to fill. No one could logically expect Matheny to be as good as Tony La Russa in his first season as a big-league skipper, but there also won't be too much wiggle room when it comes to the results.

    What makes 2012 tough for the Cardinals is that in addition to La Russa being gone, Chris Carpenter is another year older, and no one knows whether or not Adam Wainwright will make a return from Tommy John surgery similar to that of Jaime Garcia, who bounced back quickly, or more like that of the ace Carpenter, who ended up needing nearly two full seasons to finally return to form.

    After allowing Edwin Jackson to walk as a free agent, the pitching staff could lack the needed depth. Then again, Cardinal management was more than willing to go out and make deadline deals to patch up the roster holes for the stretch run in 2011—why should 2012 be that different?

No. 4: New York Yankees

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    The New York Yankees once again are at or near the top of the list.

    Why shouldn't they be?

    If they could somehow get all the way to the playoffs in 2011 in spite of Mark Teixeira hitting under .250 and Alex Rodriguez not even hitting 20 home runs, then 2012 could be a real boon offensively.

    The pitching is still a question mark though. Yes, CC Sabathia returns as the staff ace and will make his annual push for the American League Cy Young Award. After that, it's still a touch murky though.

    Can Freddy Garcia be productive again? Can Ivan Nova repeat his 17-win performance? Can the Yankees ever figure out Phil Hughes, and can Joba Chamberlain bounce back from Tommy John surgery? Then there's the annual A.J. Burnett issue. Can he pitch a full season at a high level in New York?

    At least the Yankees still have the soothing sight of Mariano Rivera emerging from the bullpen to close games. That alone gives the Yankees a huge edge mentally over many teams.

    In 2012 Yankee fans finally get to find out about Jesus Montero's bat. The youngster had a very impressive late-season debut in the Bronx in 2011. In 2012 Yankee fans will get to see him for a full season. He'll likely have his ups and downs, but he appears poised for a very good career in New York.

No. 3: Tampa Bay Rays

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    In a league that seems increasingly focused on the value of pitching, the Rays might have the deepest line of credit.

    When will the string of great young Tampa starters end?

    Not in 2012, that's for sure.

    Joe Maddon, the 2011 American League Manager of the Year, is back, and so are the Rays. The team that gutted its way to an American League wild-card berth in 2011 looks to pick up where they left off in 2012. 

    The offense won't "wow" anyone, but it's got enough to compete. Desmond Jennings gives the Rays the dynamic leadoff man they thought they lost when Carl Crawford left via free agency in December of 2010. B.J. Upton still has major issues with patience at the plate, but he's still a threat to be a 30/30 type of hitter, and of course Evan Longoria is one of the best third basemen in all of baseball.

    In Tampa, though, it's all about the starting rotation.

    James Shields returns from a Cy Young-caliber season, and David Price is back and looking to bounce back from what might be considered a "down year" for one of baseball's more talented young starters. Speaking of young starters, the Rays have a potential second consecutive American League Rookie of the Year candidate in Matt Moore.

    Moore arrived on the scene heavily hyped in September and didn't disappoint. He's got dynamic stuff, most notably a high 90s fastball. Can Moore follow in the footsteps of 2011's American League Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson? It won't shock too many people if he does.

    The bullpen in Tampa always has two constants. One is turnover with new pitchers arriving to fill roles, and the other is performance. Joe Maddon must know something that other managers don't, because in Tampa it seems like regardless of who comes out of that bullpen, the results always seem good.

    This team simply has too much pitching to experience too many losing streaks, and after last season's late push to the playoffs, the mental toughness is clearly present as well.

No. 2: Philadelphia Phillies

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    The Phillies lost some key players in the offseason in Roy Oswalt and Ryan Madson, but by bringing in closer Jonathan Papelbon from Boston, they strengthened their bullpen.

    In spite of losing Oswalt, a returning trio of Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels makes Philadelphia a serious contender again in 2012.

    The big question mark in Philadelphia is going to be offense. The loss of Ryan Howard with a torn Achilles tendon makes an already weak middle of the order that much weaker. Those problems could be offset if second baseman Chase Utley can find a way to stay healthy for a decent portion of the season.

    Hunter Pence should be a more productive player after coming over from the Houston Astros in midseason of 2011.

    Most importantly, the Phillies will look for offensive development from two key young players in Domonic Brown and John Mayberry Jr. Both men have high ceilings, and Mayberry looked to be on the verge of finding a real groove at times last season.

    The pitching is so good in Philadelphia that the offense doesn't need to perform at the level of a Texas or Boston. If Howard can return in the summer and be productive and the young players can continue to improve, then the rotation and bullpen can do the heavy lifting and bring Philadelphia back to some serious October baseball.

No. 1: Detroit Tigers

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    It's easy to look at the Detroit Tigers and understand why they're the team to beat in 2012.

    They've got the returning American League Cy Young Award winner and MVP in Justin Verlander, and they've got another MVP candidate in Miguel Cabrera. They're managed by Jim Leyland, a man who always seems to figure out ways to maximize his team's potential.

    The Tigers also have some young pitchers who could continue to improve, and that might just put them over the top. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer both had their ups and downs in 2011, but they could easily be better in 2012.

    Add the presence of Doug Fister and the Tigers might have one of the American League's best rotations, coupled with an offense that doesn't suffer from a lack of punch.

    Delmon Young could be on the verge of finally putting all of his skills to good use, and Austin Jackson has tons of talent as well.

    Jose Valverde returns to anchor a solid bullpen, and the presence of Leyland in the dugout is always an advantage.

    Nothing is ever settled on Opening Day, but this Tigers team has to have the city of Detroit feeling pretty good and the rest of baseball concerned.