Rankings and analysis of all 30 teams, complete with postseason predictions
Last baseball season certainly left us wanting more. What looked like locked down playoff spots disappeared before our eyes, faster than it took the Red Sox to fire Terry Francona after Boston's season was over, as a result of some of the greatest individual games of the season. It has been said that Sept. 28, 2011, was the greatest day of regular season baseball in MLB history.
Fast forward to the World Series, which featured one of the teams that just barely caught the bus to the postseason. The sixth game of the series saw the Texas Rangers come to within one strike of the championship, twice, only to see David Freese force a critical game seven on a majestic shot to center field.
Jump to the offseason. Two of baseball's biggest stars are free agents and nobody seems to be able to sign them. Finally Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are leaving the Midwest for L.A., Detroit and millions and millions of dollars.
For spring 2012 Major League Baseball (MLB) announced that it will allow two additional teams to make the playoffs. Let the insanity begin.
And now, because we can't jump forward any farther without it being baseball season again, we present to you the 2012 MLB Preview. Because in a game as predictable as baseball, we can guarantee our readers 100 percent accuracy in all of our predictions.
Oh, if only we could.
This division has been the toughest in baseball as of late, and with the recent ascent of the Blue Jays, it's only getting stronger. For the past two years, four of the five division teams have finished at or above .500. If this year's playoff system had been in place last year, three of the five playoff teams would have come out of the East. The days of the Red Sox-Yankees two-party system are over, with the Rays just as legitimate of a threat and Toronto continuing to make noise. Notice the absence of one local team from this conversation.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
2011: 91-71, second in AL East, lost in ALDS.
Tampa Bay fans undoubtedly remember Evan Longoria's walk-off home run on the last day of the season to steal the AL Wild Card from the Red Sox. Unfortunately, the Rays soon fell flat, dropping three of four games to the Rangers in an anticlimactic end to their season. Fortunately, the Rays are back and even (slightly) better than they were in 2011. Their starting lineup is remarkably consistent with last year's, and any changes they've made are for the better. Newly acquired veteran catcher Jose Molina had the highest on-base percentage (OBP) (.342) and second highest on-base percentage plus slugging percentage OPS (.757) of his career in 2011; Carlos Peña returns to first base after a good year in Chicago; Wade Davis moves to the bullpen to allow prospect pitcher Matt Moore into the starting rotation. In short, the Rays are back, they should be hungry and they can win the pennant.
2. New York Yankees
2011: 97-65, first in AL East, lost in ALDS.
Pitching is, was, and for the foreseeable future, will be the only real question mark for the Bronx Bombers. 2011 Yankees pitchers ranked just ninth in the AL in WHIP and opposing OBP. Certainly Yankee Stadium, with its wind tunnel that shoots balls out of right field, is a factor, but these ranks still leave a lot to be desired. Much of New York's success will fall on the shoulders of young hurlers Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova, who have the opportunity to be very successful, especially given their expected run support. Last season, the Yankees were only outscored by the stacked Red Sox and led the league in home runs (222), hitting more than twice as many as six other MLB teams. The Yankees ought to secure a wild card spot and make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
3. Boston Red Sox
2011: 90-72, third in AL East, did not make playoffs.
Last fall's catastrophic collapse led all of Beantown to play the blame game. The firing of manager Terry Francona and resignation of GM Theo Epstein were probably undeserved, but not surprising. At the end of the season, the Sox flat-out stunk. After being in first place in the division for more than two straight months, Boston went 7-20 in September, giving up 172 runs (50 more than in any other month) in the process. The primary offseason changes will be seen in the team's pitching rotation. Lackey and Wakefield are gone, to be replaced by Alfredo Aceves and Daniel Bard. They'll need to perform at least at a decent level for the Red Sox to make the postseason; being great won't be necessary if Boston leads the league in runs again (which they probably will).
4. Toronto Blue Jays
2011: 81-81, fourth in AL East, did not make playoffs.
Toronto is cursed to be in the AL East. In 2011, the team had just a .458 record against its own division, but a .660 record against teams from the Central and West divisions. This is how they managed to win half of their games in a schedule that faced the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays more than any other team not named the Orioles. With mediocre pitching, the Blue Jays have been primarily kept afloat by the offensive production of J.P. Arencibia and Jose Bautista. It's a good thing Bautista is a god among men. The outfielder has hit 97 home runs over the past two years. In order to determine just how much better he is than his counterparts, we can look at Wins Above Replacement, a statistic that predicts how many more games a team would win with a certain player in the lineup than an average position player. Bautista's 2011 WAR was 8.5, the highest in the American League, meaning that his contributions gave the Blue Jays 8.5 more wins than they would have had otherwise. Just imagine what 8.5 extra wins could do for a potential playoff team, like, say, one in Boston, or Atlanta. Unfortunately, the Jays are not a potential playoff team; they'll play well again in 2012 but won't secure a postseason bid.
5. Baltimore Orioles
2011: 69-93, fifth in AL East, did not make playoffs.
Sorry O's fans. Baltimore will not contend this year, or the next, but they are on an upward trend and should have hope for coming years. The Orioles actually managed to finish ahead of three other MLB teams last year (if you count the Astros as an MLB team), which is an accomplishment. They knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs, which is at least fun (if not particularly helpful) for Baltimore. They even had a winning record against an entire division (22-20 versus the Central). So things are looking up…slightly. The team's prospect pitchers had glimpses of talent among them; Zach Britton was dominant in April. But for now, they are nothing more than prospects. If the O's are to have any chance at being competitive, they can't have starting pitchers that set the record for highest season ERA in history (Brian Matusz). The team can't just be carried on the shoulders of its young, talented outfield of Reimold, Jones and Markakis. It needs good, even just decent, even just respectable, starting pitching.
In stark contrast to the AL East, the Central was the least-competitive division in baseball last year. Only the Tigers finished above .500, no other team was within 15 games behind them at the end of the season. Detroit was 50-22 against the other Central teams and we can expect the team's dominance to continue, and perhaps even strengthen, this season. The Royals might have something to say about that, however.
1. Detroit Tigers
2011: 95-67, first in AL Central, lost in ALCS.
A pitcher hadn't won a Most Valuable Player (MVP) award since 1992, before Justin Verlander took the 2011 trophy. Regardless of whether you believe someone who plays 20 percent of a team's games should be voted MVP, there is little debate over Verlander's supremacy. Also the 2011 Cy Young Award winner, the righty went 24-5, averaged nine strikeouts over nine innings and had a WAR of 8.5. And don't forget about the rest of the Tigers' staff: Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello both had solid years. Detroit is set on the mound. Now, add Prince Fielder to the lineup, and you've got yourself a championship contender. Over the past five seasons, Fielder has never had an OPS below .871. He and Miguel Cabrera (who will do just fine at third, by the way), will play off each other and each should have career years in 2012. The Tigers are poised for a deep, deep playoff run.
2. Cleveland Indians
2011: 80-82, second in AL Central, did not make playoffs.
3. Kansas City Royals
2011: 71-91, fourth in AL Central, did not make playoffs.
The Royals will surprise a lot of people this year. The team is on the upswing, having played .600 ball last September, and they are looking to ride this momentum into 2012. Billy Butler, who was cash money for fantasy owners last season, will continue to be a solid designated hitter (DH). The rest of the pieces of the puzzle are still a mystery. Can a rotation headed by Bruce Chen contend for a playoff spot? Can closer Jonathan Broxton return to his 2009 self? Perhaps hosting the 2012 All-Star Game will energize the city. It is unlikely that the Royals will be able to win a Wild Card spot and nearly unthinkable that they would win the division, but they have the potential to make some noise near the end of the season.
4. Minnesota Twins
2011: 63-99, fifth in AL Central, did not make playoffs.
The Twins' return to being mediocre will be facilitated by Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. Minnesota is looking for Morneau to recover from concussion symptoms, and the team hopes that DHing him will be safer than making him play first. Mauer, in the second year of his eight-year monster deal, simply needs to play better. The former .365-hitter has struggled with injuries as well but even when healthy, his performance has been sub-par. The catcher batted .287 last year, while drawing criticism from his teammates for not wanting to fill in for Morneau at first base. A return to his old self will give Twins fans hope for the coming years and have the rest of us saying, "Well played, Mauer. Well played."
5. Chicago White Sox
2011: 79-83, third in AL Central, did not make playoffs.
2012 does not look good for Chicago's south side. Jake Peavy, who has struggled with repeated injuries, had an ERA of 4.63 in 2010 and 4.92 in 2011 respectively, and can't be relied upon to carry the White Sox for another season. The Sox may trade Peavy during the season, which would launch them into complete and total rebuilding mode. Chicago's second biggest problem is DH Adam Dunn. He's terrible. His 2011 stat line: .159 batting average, 177 strikeouts, 75 walks, 42 RBI, 11 home runs, .292 OBP and an incredibly low .277 slugging percentage. New manager Robin Ventura will have his work cut out for him this year.
The division that has recently been led by the Texas Rangers shifts, as two stars decide to take their talents to Anaheim. The West, a two-team race last year, will be a two-team race once again, with the Rangers and Angels playing far better than their opponents to the Northwest.
1. Los Angeles Angels
2011: 86-76, second in AL West, did not make playoffs.
2. Texas Rangers
2011: 96-66, first in AL West, lost in World Series.
Texas will be hurt due to the loss of ace C.J. Wilson to the Angels. They will be relying on current Opening Day starter Colby Lewis and Japanese investment Yu Darvish to carry the team through the hot Arlington summer. However, the offense is stacked at nearly every spot in the lineup. Led by Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre and Michael Young, the Rangers scored 5.3 runs per game in 2011 and look to do again. They may struggle against the Angels' pitching, but should but up big numbers on most other teams. The Rangers will be fighting for a playoff spot late into the fall.
3. Seattle Mariners
2011: 67-95, fourth in AL West, did not make playoffs.
Seattle has a lockdown starter in pitcher Felix Hernandez, but hardly anyone else to support him. New Mariner Jesus Montero has shown tremendous promise, but has only had 61 Major League at-bats. The M's will DH Montero, leaving seasoned veteran Miguel Olivo behind the plate for now, but it seems clear that Montero, the young former Yankee, is their choice to take over as catcher. If he develops into a good RBI producer, Ichiro will give him plenty of chances to drive home runs. However, Seattle has few other offensive weapons and will likely struggle to score runs.
4. Oakland Athletics
2011: 74-88, third in AL West, did not make playoffs.
Brandon McCarthy will lead an unspectacular A's rotation. 38-year-old veteran Bartolo Colón and former Nationals prospect Tomaso Milone will aim to support him, but the set of pitchers in Oakland leaves more questions than answers. The A's will be overpowered by the Rangers and Angels and likely not be competitive for the majority of the season.
The NL East is likely to be the most competitive division in the league this year. With the resurgence of the Braves, the budding of the Nationals and the overhaul of the Marlins, the five-time division champ Phillies are going to have a hard time continuing their dominance.
1. Atlanta Braves
2011: 89-73, second in NL East, did not make playoffs.
The Braves are shaping up to be the best all-around team in the majors. Even with the injury to Chipper Jones, they have a stacked lineup. The speedy Michael Bourn and all-star Martin Prado will top the order, followed by two more all-stars Brian McCann and Dan Uggla, and then two Rookie of the Year runner-ups Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman. They are also bringing back several key players from the best bullpen in the league, including Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and set up men Johnny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. Finally, the Braves boast one of the best rotations in the majors with veteran ace Tim Hudson followed by four starters below the age of 28. The Braves' biggest issue may be recovering from their epic collapse to end last season where they blew an 8.5 game lead in the last month of the season and missed the playoffs.
2. Philadelphia Phillies
2011: 102-60, first in NL East, lost in NLDS.
The Phillies will win games this year, but not because of their offense. They had offensive struggles last year with both Ryan Howard and Chase Utley in the lineup. This year, both will begin the season on the disabled list; Howard will be out for half of the season and no one knows when or how much Utley will be able to play. That means that the team will have to ride the back of recent acquisition Hunter Pence. That being said, what the Phillies lack in offense, they make up for with one of the best pitching staffs in recent history. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels make up the best starting three in the majors and all are legitimate Cy Young candidates. If the Phillies can manage to score two or three runs a game, then they should be in good shape. But the question is whether they can do that or not.
3. Washington Nationals
2011: 80-81, third in NL East, did not make playoffs.
4. Miami Marlins
2011: 72-90, fifth in NL East, did not make playoffs.
The Marlins have a new stadium, a new name, a new logo and color scheme, a new manager and a whole bunch of new players. The only thing that's the same about the Marlins will be where they finish - near the bottom of the division. There is no doubt that the Marlins will be a strong team, but it will take a lot of good luck for them to be playoff-worthy. Their reliance on Carlos Zambrano as an important member of their starting rotation is a recipe for disaster. Key players such as ace Josh Johnson, who only pitched nine games last season and new acquisition Jose Reyes, will have to stay injury-free. Adding to that, Hanley Ramirez will have to accept his position change to third base and give full effort. If everything goes smoothly and the team responds well to the fiery and polarizing manager Ozzie Guillen, the Marlins could be a powerhouse. However, it all seems quite unrealistic.
5. New York Mets
2011: 77-85, fourth in NL East, did not make playoffs.
The Mets are the odd man out in East. While the rest of the division is improving or already playoff-tested, the Mets are heading the other direction. Over the offseason, they lost Jose Reyes to free agency and their owners were at the wrong end of a major lawsuit. Meanwhile, they did very little to help their team, keeping the same cast of players. Injuries are sure to be a problem, as David Wright and Daniel Murphy were only able to play 100 games last year, first baseman Ike Davis missed almost the entire season and the pitching staff will be resting on the back of former Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who has not pitched since 2010. The Mets do not entirely lack skill, but unless all the right pieces fall into place, there is no way that they will be able to keep up with the rest of the NL East.
With the loss of power hitters Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, the Central has lost much of its clout and attraction. It will, however, feature a strong three-team race for division supremacy. Up-and-coming Cincinnati will, for the first time in years, seriously compete with the Cardinals and Brewers.
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2011: 90-72, second in NL Central, won World Series.
Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals was reminiscent of LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, except that Pujols did not find it necessary to have a one-hour television show dedicated to his decision. When LeBron left the Cavaliers, they became the worst team in the NBA. But despite losing arguably the best hitter of all time, the Cardinals will hardly be affected. The Cardinals made two moves nullifying Pujols' departure. They signed Carlos Beltran and brought back ace Adam Wainwright, who missed last season due to injury. Looking at WAR again is the best predictor of how the two signees will replace the departed stars. Pujols' last season was 5.4. Beltran's and Wainwright's (from 2010) together were 10.3. These additions should wipe out any doubt that the Cardinals can play at the same level they did last year. The Cardinals will be a great team this year. They may not be great enough to repeat as champions, but are good enough to get to the World Series.
2. Cincinnati Reds
2011: 79-83, third in NL Central, did not make playoffs.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
2011: 96-66, first in NL Central, lost in NLCS.
The Brewers came scarily close to losing both of their stars this offseason, one to free agency and the other to suspension, but after Ryan Braun's successful appeal, the Brewers will continue to be a powerhouse in the Central. Without Fielder, the Brewers have lost a good amount of their offensive punch, but with Braun in the three spot and a couple of other good hitters, they will not be seriously lacking offense. Their pitching staff, however, will be the strongest part of the team with Yovani Gallardo on top, followed by Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum and Chris Narveson. They will need their starters to pitch late into games, since their bullpen is not at all deep. If they can get to the last two innings with a lead however, they should be in good shape with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to close things out. The Brewers were not a one man team when they won the division last year, and they should be competitive again this year.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
2011: 72-90, fourth in NL Central, did not make playoffs.
Believe it or not, last year's 72-90 finish was considered a step forward for this dismal organization, which has not had a winning season since 1992. Offensively things are certainly starting to look up for the Bucs, but if they plan on coming anywhere near .500 within the next few seasons, they will need to completely overhaul their rotation. Last year, prospects Jose Tabata and Neil Walker stepped into the spotlight, both performing relatively well; there is no doubt about Andrew McCutchen's skill. For anything near a winning year, the Pirates will need to see improvement from both touted prospect Pedro Alvarez and longtime minor leaguer Garrett Jones, both of whom disappointed last year. But the team's biggest problem is clearly its pitching staff. It would be a stretch to say that a single one of their starting pitchers is close to good. Any rotation headed by A.J. Burnett is seriously flawed, and that is just the beginning of the problem. There is little chance of improvement for any of their pitchers, since it is not even a particularly young staff. Before the Pirates can restore their past greatness, they will have to draft some young pitchers and not squander their talent by the time the younger pitchers get to the majors.
5. Chicago Cubs
2011: 71-91, fifth in NL Central, did not make playoffs.
The Cubs were relatively proficient offensively last year, finishing in the upper half in batting average and runs scored in the NL, and led by shortstop Starlin Castro, they won't lack for runs this year. Their problems lie in pitching, where they had the third worst combined ERA in the league. They made a couple of moves to bolster their rotation in the additions of Paul Maholm, Travis Wood and Chris Volstad. All three will get the opportunity to provide help at the back end of the rotation, but for the Cubs to succeed, they will need a rebound year from starting pitcher Ryan Dempster. Losing third baseman Aramis Ramirez to free agency will not help Chicago either.
6. Houston Astros
2011: 56-106, sixth in NL Central, did not make playoffs.
There is no doubt about it; the Astros will be dismal this season. Last year at the trade deadline, they unloaded stars Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, guaranteeing an inevitable last place finish in the division. The one bright spot on the team might be 33-year-old pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, who they didn't deal away at the end of last season. He has been incredibly consistent, winning between 9 and 14 games in each of his seven seasons. It is unclear who else on the team will win any other games.
The NL West is the division of the pitchers. With Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw atop the Giants' and Dodgers' respective staffs, as well as a good pitching core for Arizona, and a surprisingly solid staff in San Diego, the only team left hanging out to dry is the Rockies. Maybe that explains why they will finish last in the division this year.
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
2011: 94-68, first in NL West, lost in NLDS.
2. San Francisco Giants
2011: 86-76, second in NL West, did not make playoffs.
After last season's disappointing finish, the Giants' goal for the offseason was obvious: to acquire some hitting power. (After finishing second in the NL in ERA last year, pitching was not much of a concern.) While they were unable to get any of the available big bats, they did make an array of smaller moves, which could help significantly. They added outfielder Melky Cabrera and utility man Ryan Theriot to improve their offense, but more importantly catcher Buster Posey will be ready to go at the start of the year. After his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2010, Posey was limited to only 45 games last season, which really diminished the Giants' playoff hopes. But even with Posey's return, the Giants will struggle offensively, and unless someone steps up they will have an uphill battle to the playoffs.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
2011: 82-79, third in NL West, did not make playoffs.
The Dodgers arguably have the best pitcher in the NL in Clayton Kershaw, and the best all around player in the NL in Matt Kemp, but the lack of a good supporting cast will leave them out of the race when September rolls around. After Kemp, the majority of the offense will have to come from Andre Ethier and James Loney, both of who can hit for contact and a fair amount of power. Their bigger issue will be a pretty mediocre pitching staff after Kershaw, made up of Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. The Dodgers have two stars, but to be a contender, they will need more support from their role players.
4. San Diego Padres
2011: 71-91, fifth in NL West, did not make playoffs.
In recent years, the Padres have maintained a solid pitching staff, but lacked in hitting. This year it should be the opposite, as the batting lineup is looking rather strong, while the pitching rotation is lacking in several departments. Offensively, they will be looking for strong seasons from new acquisitions Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso, as well as long time Padre Chase Headley. Will Venable, Cameron Maybin, Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett are all also fully capable of contributing offensively, in addition to their good defensive reputations. The rotation is comprised of several under the radar players, who could potentially perform better than expected. The Padres could be good enough to grab the last wild card spot, but the likelihood is that they stick around for a while and then drop out of the race come August.
5. Colorado Rockies
2011: 73-89, fourth in NL West, did not make playoffs.
The Rockies are desperate for pitchers. As many Orioles fans will know, anytime Jeremy Guthrie is the ace of your staff, you are in big trouble. Well, not only is he the ace of the Rockies' staff, but closer examination of the rest of the rotation finds that Guthrie may deserve the spot. . Other than maybe Jhoulys Chacin, the Rockies have almost nothing in the way of pitching. Their hitting, however, is a different story. Their lineup comprised of Carlos Gonzalez, Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer is far above average, but if they want to win games they will need to score a lot of runs - most likely more runs than they can handle, which is why at the end of the season, they will find themselves in the cellar.
(x) Division leader
1. Los Angeles Angels (x)
2. Tampa Bay Rays (x)
3. Detroit Tigers (x)
4. New York Yankees
5. Boston Red Sox
(x) Division leader
1. Atlanta Braves (x)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (x)
3. Arizona Diamondbacks (x)
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Philadelphia Phillies
AL Wild Card Game
New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox
NL Wild Card Game
Cincinnati Reds vs. Philadelphia Phillies
Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Detroit Tigers
Atlanta Braves vs. Cincinnati Reds
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
Los Angeles Angels vs. Tampa Bay Rays
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Atlanta Braves
2012 World Series
Los Angeles Angels vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Albert Pujols faces off against his former team, the defending champion Cardinals.
World Series Champions: Los Angeles Angels
The Cardinals are always better in the playoffs than in the regular season, but Los Angeles is just too good. Albert Pujols gets his second consecutive World Series ring and third championship overall. But will his enormous contract be worth it in the long run? We have a decade to find out.
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