It’s April, and for baseball fans everywhere, hope springs eternal. Every team starts with a clean slate and most fans are brimming with optimism as tarps are being pulled off infields, and the crack of baseball bats are filling the spring air in major cities across the country.
In my 2012 Major League Baseball preview, I’ll tell you who should have their hopes up, which fan bases will be pleasantly surprised by their team’s performance and who should show up to the park with paper bags on their heads.
National League West
If you are one of the many people who think that the Arizona Diamondbacks were a fluke in 2011, think again. This is a quality team with quality pitching. Anchored by a strong starting rotation and just enough pop, the Diamondbacks should compete again for the NL West title, but I’d like the Giants to get back to the playoffs in 2012. As good as Arizona’s rotation is, it pales in comparison to a healthy San Francisco starting five. Look for a bounce-back year for the 2010 champs. Division Champs: Giants
National League Central
The Cardinals were one of the most powerful lineups in all of baseball in 2011. That will diminish with the loss of baseball’s best slugger Albert Pujols, but not as much as people may think. Also, the return of Adam Wainwright will go a long way to help fill the whole left by Pujols. That said, this race is going to be very close. I’d like the high-octane Reds offense to get Cincinnati back to the playoffs with just too many changes in St. Louis. Division Champs: Reds
National League East
The Phillies are still the class of the NL East, but a couple of teams should close that gap in 2012. Expect the Braves to bounce back. Atlanta has some good young pitching, which is starting to mature. I’m not as high on the Marlins as most people are after all the changes that took place in Miami over the offseason. I’m also not sold on Jose Reyes as a difference maker (neither are the Mets). Division Champs: Phillies
The Braves should be one of the wildcards to come out of the National League. However, their lack of run production is a major problem that only a healthy Jason Heyward can fix. As for the other wildcard from the NL, I like the Diamondbacks out of the West. It is a very top-heavy division, and Arizona should be able to feed off of its bottom half. Wildcards: Braves, Diamondbacks
American League West
The top six teams in baseball may all be in the American League, and a trendy pick to sit at the top of that list is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. With the additions of Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson, the Angels’ lineup changes dramatically.
A lineup that was full of single’s hitters and few run producers is now maybe the best run producer of our generation in the middle of it. Pujols adds a whole new dimension to the lineup, but the additions of him and Wilson are overshadowing maybe the most key addition Los Angeles gets in 2012: Kendrys Morales. Morales, when healthy, is an MVP-caliber player.
The Rangers are incredible, but I’m buying the Angels . . . mostly because we didn’t even mention their starting rotation which may be the best in the American League. Division Champs: Angels
American League Central
With the addition of Prince Fielder, the Tigers are a trendy pick to win the Central and for good reason. Fielder adds protection to Miguel Cabrera, who is the best hitter in the game in my opinion. Last year’s AL MVP Justin Verlander will lead the rotation again, but don’t expect him to have the year he had last year. I know, I know, you can’t really expect anyone to have the type of year Verlander had last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Verlander drop off in 2012. Some advanced statistics are pointing toward a little luck in his 2011 campaign.
However, the Tigers are the class of an otherwise very weak division, so expect Detroit to run away with the Central quite easily. Division Champs: Tigers
American League East
This division should carry on its legacy as the toughest in baseball, this year with a surprise contender. You heard it here first, so don’t be surprised when you see the Blue Jays in the mix for the division late in the summer.
I don’t think the Jays will win it, however. I still think the East belongs to the Yankees. They have the deepest pitching staff, and their lineup is loaded once again. New York should be worried about its age, though. 2012 may mark the beginning of the end for aging players like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Mark Teixera is also trending downward, and there are many indications that that is not going to change.
Boston and Tampa Bay shouldn’t be too far behind either. The Rays have a rotation that is second to none in the game, and let’s not forget that for the middle four months of 2011, the Red Sox were the best team in baseball . . . and it wasn’t even close. Division winner: Yankees
Nothing has changed for Boston, except that they are now healthier. With how bad the September collapse was in 2011, you can’t forget that one win amidst Boston’s dismal start to the season, and that team which was built for the playoffs could have made a deep October run.
The Rangers have not changed much either, though the loss of Wilson will hurt. The pitching rotation will have a few of its youngsters get exposed in 2012 (my guess would be Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis). Wildcards: Rangers, Red Sox.
Playoff Predictions: National League
Wildcard Playoff: Diamondbacks over Braves
ALDS: Phillies over Diamondbacks
ALDS: Giants over Reds
ALCS: Phillies over Giants
Playoffs: American League
Wildcard playoff: Red Sox over Rangers
ALDS: Red Sox over Tigers
ALDS: Angels over Yankees
ALCS: Angels over Red Sox
Angels over Phillies. I know, this bandwagon has been really easy to jump on, but the dynamics of this Angels team has completely changed. Like I said earlier, the X-factor for Los Angeles is going to be Kendrys Morales if he stays healthy.