If the Robins singing outside my window aren’t enough evidence, the Jays and Cardinals playing on the diamond are proof positive- spring is in the air! Our long winter is over, and for us Blue Jays fans it’s been rather a winter of our discontent. But March is when hope springs eternal and all teams are equal. The Orioles are tied with the Yankees and the Pirates have no more losses on the board than their cross-state rivals. This of course will not be the case come Independence Day, or even the May long weekend, by which time we should have an idea of how the 2012 season should shake down. For now though, the fun is in looking ahead and imagining what will be. Thus in the next few days I’ll share with you my predictions, starting today with the National League.
You’ll see that as well as the outlook for the teams in general, I’ve listed three key players for each one this season: the Ace, the Wild card and the Joker. The Ace is the “franchise” player, the marquee performer (not necessarily a pitcher mind you); the Wild Card is less obvious, the player whose season is pivotal to the fate of the team’s success. The joker, as the name implies, is the guy they’re stuck with that takes up space (and you probably want to stay away from in your Rotisserie leagues.)
Atlanta: Funny thing. I grew up in greater Toronto, and the only other place i’ve ever lived is in metro Atlanta briefly. Besides that personal point, the two cities seem connected in the baseball world. Both cities seem to feel a sense of boredom and impatience when it comes to their teams, a sense of disappointed nostalgia looking back to the glory years in the 1990s. Both teams are pretty good, but not good enough anymore in their tough divisions.
The Braves will continue that tradition this year too. Yes, its a good team. Unfortunately, their in a great division where the competition is getting better as Atlanta spins its wheels. Their rotation is as good as any in the league not wearing scarlet caps with a “P” on them; it’s arguably better than last year even with the departure of Derek Lowe. Or perhaps because of that; it frees up a spot for a talented youngster like Brandon Beachy (7-3, 3.68 in 25 starts last year) or Julio Teheran (15-3 in AAA). Add in that Tommy Hanson should be healthy this year and that they have the best 1-2 bullpen combo in the NL with Craig Kimbrel (as in Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel) and Jonny Venters (85 appearances,96 K’s in ’11) and you have to figure the opposition won’t be scoring a ton of runs against the Tomahawks.
Unfortunately, neither will they score a ton of runs. Granted Michael Bourn is a great addition and gives them speed aplenty on top of the lineup, and Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball. But Chipper Jones has had surgery on both knees in the past couple of years and seems to be running on fumes, Dan Uggla is too streaky to rely on and as an everyday outfielder, Martin Prado makes a great utility infielder. The team’s offence isn’t bad; it’s just not spectacular and they are cursed by a tougher sched than Central division teams.
Ace: Brian McCann- even on a “down” year he caught 126 games and hit close to his .286 career average
Wild Card: Jason Heyward- needs to show last year was a case of sophomore slump, not signs of his rookie year being his career year
Joker: Chipper Jones – turns 40, bad knees, power shrinking…
2012 Prediction: 87 wins, 2nd place
Miami– will be fun to watch if nothing else what with new name, new art deco look, new manager and payroll. No question the team has improved in the off-season, they’d better have become better after dishing out some $191M in free agent contracts! The thing to remember though is that last year’s edition won only 72 games– are the new stars and identity enough to add the 18 or so games it will take to compete or at least make the playoffs? Short answer: no.
Perhaps the biggest addition for the M’s will be one who’s not an addition at all- Josh Johnson. Johnson seems to be healthy again which is good news indeed for Florida fans. The young hurler has a .667 winning percentage and 2.14 ERA over past 2 years. The bad news is that he’s managed to only log 243 innings in that span. The addition of Mark Buehrle is bound to help the pitching, but with Javier Vasquez departing, Johnson will have to step up and stay healthy if the fishies are to improve upon their 2011 10th place finish in pitching. Heath Bell should help their previously mediocre bullpen and close out leads Johnson hands them but might not match the success he had in the pitcher-friendly West.
Giancarlo (nee “Mike”) Stanton is the best young outfielder in the NL and should have a break out season with more support around him in lineup; if the ball carries in new SunLife Stadium, 40homers and 110 ribbies isn’t out of the question. Jose Reyes gives them a great leadoff hitter and reigning batting champion and with John Buck thrown into the mix, the Marlins could score a lot.
The worry for SE Floridian fans has to be the “intangibles”. No doubt there is a ton of talent in the clubhouse. But there are also some very difficult personalities. Reyes wasn’t known for his work ethic in New York and has displaced the already peevish Hanley Ramirez from shortstop, to the latter’s displeasure. Throw in hot-headed Carlos Zambrano and have them all reporting to the always colourful but at times redoubtable Ozzie Guillen and one thing’s certain- there should be some entertaining stories coming out of Miami this summer. Less certain is if the Marlins mix will be magic or melee.
Ace: “Giancarlo” Stanton – two years, 113 extra base hits, one RBI per 6 at bats
Wild Card: Ozzie Guillen- granted, he’s no longer a player, but how the rather eccentric manager deals with such a talented but emotional roster will spell the difference between a lot of W’s and L’s
Joker: Juan Oviedo, formerly “Leo Nunez”…apparently his identity was as big a scam as were his credentials as a closer.
2012 prediction: 82 wins, 4th place
New York: baseball’s black hole, where stars go to collect absurd amounts of cash and never be heard from again. Jose Reyes departure leaves them with all of one decent veteran player in the everyday lineup, and David Wright seems to be living upto his owner’s insult (“Wright is not a superstar”). In fact a third baseman who has a meagre .929 fielding percentage and .427 slugging percentage might realistically be viewed as a liability but he’s still the best player on the squad and might rejuvenate his career in a different environment. With the fences moved in a bit this year,he may outdo last year’s 14 dingers as might jason Bay and his 12 but neither will do much damage. Ike Davis should be back from his ankle injury and in a parallel universe would be on his way to being a star, but in Mets land will probably level off at .250 with 12 home runs.
Johan Santana is potentially healthy again after shoulder surgery last year, surprisingly he’s only 33 so there is time for him to return to form, but realistically he was great when George Bush was president. The Metropolitans should be ecstatic to get 175 innings and 12 wins out of him now. They raided the Jays clubhouse for Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch to revamp their bullpen. Apparently they didn’t watch Blue Jays games last year. This is a team which has potentially to blow 40 saves if they could only lead in that many games.
Ace: None. David Wright is the best they have and he’s a jack at best.
Wild Card: also David Wright. A good first half should parlay itself into a trade to a contender which will bring in future prospects that might help the M’s look decent by 2015.
Joker: Johan Santana. Hey, maybe i’ll be wrong, he’ll return to his prime Twins form and win 20. But my money’s on him being injured by July and having a losing record at that point.
2012 Prediction: 72 wins, 5th place
Philadelphia: City of Brotherly Love fans hope that Punxsutawney Phil stays over on the western side of the state and that this year won’t be Groundhog Day for them. The last two years have looked much the same for the Phils- best record during the regular season, great pitching, trouble scratching out runs, flat-lined hitting in the post-season. Unfortunately , little they did in the off-season promises great change from that pattern.
Even though pouting Roy Oswalt isn’t there anymore (in fact, lacking an offer from his favoured Houston or St Louis,he’s not anywhere but sitting on his front porch, having apparently spurned suitors in Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit), the Phils still have pitching coming out of their yin-yang. Roy Halladay is simply the best pitcher of our era, potentially starts the season as the wins leader among active pitchers and has, when “adjusted” (to league averages basically) one of the 15 best ERA’s – ever. So what if he turns 35 this year? With his discipline and work routine, 35 is the new 24. Give him some runs and a solid bullpen for the 20 games he doesn’t finish and he is a threat to win 25 and his third Cy Young. Writing this today, March 4th, he already looked in mid-season form in his spring training debut. Cliff Lee would be the ace of any other staff not located in Michigan but here is second fiddle. But his fiddle is a Stradavarius violin; all he did last year was notch six shutouts and post a 2.40 ERA, and run his career record in Philly upto 24-12. Cole Hamels is one of the best young pitchers in the game and no doubt benefits from being around not one but two Cy Young winners in the clubhouse as will Vance Worley who in any other year would likely have been the Rookie of the Year after going 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA and better than a strikeout per innin in his first complete season. Joel Piniero is a new addition who will challenge Joe Blanton for the number 5 spot.
Jon Papelbon might not quite make up for the loss of both Brad Lidge and ryan Madson, but keeps the P’s in the game with a rock-solid closer although relying on former starters Jose Contreras and Dontrelle Willis for middle innings is a little disconcerting. Nonetheless, a team with an ERA of barely 3 can stand to lose a bit of ground and still dominate opposing batters.
The area of concern of course, isn’t the pitching. It’s the hitting, and for the past two years the Phil’s have been squarely middle of the pack. Last year their .253 average was right in the middle of the league and their 713 runs was 7th best . Good enough to make the playoffs, bad enough to be shut down quickly by good pitching as the Giants and then Cards showed in the past two post-seasons. Little they did this winter inspires confidence that they will be much better this year. Ty Wiggington has hit 37 homers in the past two years and will be a good bat off the bench and the timeless Jim Thome adds a superb veteran presence to the bench but is questionable as an everyday player at age 42- and with Ryan Howard being out for some time at start of season with his Achilles tendon trouble, that is what Jim might need to do. Howard being out of the lineup for potentially 40 games will not help them get off to a flying start. Hunter pence however is a solid all-round hitter and will fill in as the cleanup hitter nicely. Out of the hole that is Houston, Pence might well shine and be mentioned in MVP circles…he was hitting .308 with 11 homers in south Texas when traded last year and then upped his average while knocking another 11 out of the park in just 54 games in Philly. A .333 average, 30 home run year isn’t out of the question. Neither is a World series win for this team, but things will have to fall into place nicely for that to happen and in all likelihood, they’ll have to supplement their offence again this year by the All Star break.
Ace: Roy Halladay- 170 wins in past ten seasons, tops in majors.
Wild Card: Chase Utley – once the best second baseman in the game, various injuries have cost him over 100 games in past two years. Can he stay healthy this season?
Joker: Domonic Brown, one time top prospect hasn’t shone in his stints in bigs over past two years and with the addition of Wiggington and juan Pierre, may not even make the opening day roster.
2012 Prediction: 96 wins, 1st place
Washington: the Nationals start looked a lot like their predecessor, the Expos, finish- a lot of future promise, little real-time performance and disinterest among fans, or potential ones, in their home cities. Thankfully, the ownership of this team has made some wise moves, drafted well and all of a sudden there is a buzz about the Nats. Their top picks in ’08 and ’09 are arguably the most talked about and anticipated youngsters in the game: pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper. Strasburg has already dazzled in his brief time in the majors and showed at the end of ’11 that he’s recovered from his Tommy John surgery, his 2010 debut should help him be ready for the inevitable media frenzy that will surround his every pitch. Gio Gonzalez gives them a legitimate #2 starter, even if his ERA is likely to rise from his 3.02 of last year, given the tougher competition he’ll face most days, and Edwin jackson is a solid addition to the rotation too. Brad Lidge gives them a reliable closer and to get to him, there’s none better than rubber-armed Tyler Clippard, of 18 wins and 210 innings over past three seasons fame. His ERA of 1.83 last year was best of his career and second best in the league among pitchers with 70+ innings.
Jayson werth was an expensive flop last season for Washington, leading off his $126M contract with just 20 homers and .389 slugging percentage, but expect bigger things from him this season as well as from Ryan Zimmerman, who missed two months last year with abdominal injuries but seems good to go this year. When healthy Zimmerman , if not the best third bagger in the league is at least the most under-rated, hitting for a rather consistent .289 or so average and 20-25 homers per year. Danny Espinosa was an under-rated rookie infielder last year, with 21 home runs and being one of only two 2Bs in the league to participate in over 100 double plays. If he can be more selective at the plate and cut down on his 166 whiffs, he’ll up his average and help the Nats be in the top half of the NL hitting-wise. There’ll be pressure on the team to bring in 19 year old star-in-the-making Bryce harper but smart money would keep him in the minors for more seasoning. If Werth et al can hit upto their capability, the team will score enough runs anyway.
Ace:Stephen Strasburg, only 23 and with only 92 big league innings, he’s a rarity in being a kid who shows signs of living upto his reputation.
Wild Card: Jayson Werth. Forget about the $18M a year stipend, a .232 average and 160K’s won’t cut it for a major league outfielder. He knows it and may be the Werth of old again, in which case the N’s will be a number of games better.
Joker: Chien-Ming Wang- light years removed from his 18 win season with Yankees, yet another Asian pitcher who’s not been able to succeed as expected in North America.
2012 Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd place.
Up next- the Central Division… were the Cardinals a fluke?