The first pitch was thrown in Japan earlier this morning which means baseball is officially back. We wrap up our team-by-team preview with a look at the teams who can contend in 2012.
Boston Red Sox
How do you solve a problem like the Red Sox? Step one: clean house. They fired their coach, their GM and shipped their shortstop options out of town. Step two: hire a hard ass who loves media swarms. Step three: fill up on so many sub-par pitchers it would be impossible to wash out down the stretch. Despite spring cleaning, the Sox are still faced with a ‘forest through the trees’ type scenario; no shortstop, shoddy right fielding and a few question marks as far as bounce back years go (Youkilis, Crawford, Bucholz). But they boast one of the better lineups, an experienced pitching staff and some new faces in the pen. Being mindful of where their weaknesses are could be their biggest strength.
Best Asset: A one-through-four that can hit. Look out for: SP Clay Bucholz. Strategy: They need Carl Crawford to return to 2008-2010 form. With some of the pressure off after last year’s implosion this team should be able to get back to playing baseball instead of playing video games. Projected Finish: 1st in the AL East.
This offseason was a homecoming of sorts for the Fielder family in Detroit; Cecil spent seven years mashing for the Motor City and now his son Prince joins the ranks. His 230 career homeruns will be backed by Miguel Cabrera with an 80-90 homer season not out of the question for the tandem. Getting guys on base might be a problem in Detroit, but with the rotation the way it is, anchored by Triple Crown winner Justin Verlander, the Tigers should be able to win on their all-stars alone.
Best Asset: A toss up, either the 1-2 Fielder/Cabrera punch or Justin Verlander. Look out for: C Alex Avila. Strategy: Given the state of the AL Central the Tigers with all their talent could compete at 80 per cent and still win the division handily. They should have no trouble staying on top. Projected Finish: 1st in the Al Central.
Los Angeles Angels
So the Angels added C.J Wilson to a rotation that featured two of the MLB’s best in 2011, Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. They’ve also got Ervin Santana so let’s say the rotation is set for a base of at least 55-60 wins. They also brought in the offseason’s biggest prize in Albert Pujols, an all-natural pull hitter and one the best in the game. They’ve got a ton of guys who can get on-base so the runs should just roll in. One question though: which one of their underperforming corner outfielders will protect him at the plate? Why not just walk Pujols 300 times this season?
Best Asset: 1B Albert Pujols. Look out for: 1B Albert Pujols (career year with all those guys to bat around). Strategy: The Angels have prided themselves on a balanced team for a while but this edition is not only balanced, its chalk full of talent. The Angels will have no trouble keeping up with the Rangers offensively but we’re willing to wager Haren and Weaver cannot replicate last year’s success. Projected Finish: 2nd in the AL West.
New York Yankees
Undoubtedly the elder statesman of the baseball world, the Bombers are old in all the right ways. Only a handful of their position players are under thirty and the ones who aren’t are household names. Jeter, Rodriguez, Teixeira, Granderson and Swisher can still play baseball at an elite level. Beyond that, they’ve shed some of the dead weight holding them down, retooled their bench and somewhat sorted out their rotation troubles. They won the uber-competitive East last year and that team is still in place in 2012.
Best Asset: Experience. Look out for: SP Ivan Nova. Strategy: The core of this team hasn’t changed for a while and why would it? They’re winning. That said, last years’ divisional title was more about another team falling apart than them playing exceptional baseball. The AL East is a beast; the Yankees can’t afford to lose a few steps now. Projected Finish: 3rd in the AL East.
Even in the absence of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies have one of, if not the best, rotation in baseball; last year their big three combined for 50 wins, a 2.51 ERA, and 17 complete games. The best opposing teams can hope for is that they only have to see one of them in a series, but their four and five guys —Vance Worley and Joe Blanton—are nothing to shake a stick at either. The Phillies problem this year will be staying healthy long enough to contend; Chase Utley already looks like he’s on the shelf for the season and Ryan Howard won’t report until May. The left side of their infield is even older so the weight may very well be on the rotation this time around.
Best Asset: SP Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Look out for: SP Vance Worley. Strategy: It’s already been implemented; knowing that injury risk loomed, the Phils brought in a handful of veteran reserve players as stop gap solutions. They won’t put up the numbers their starters would, but they will be able to keep them in games. Their pitching staff can do the rest. Projected Finish: 1st in the NL East.
Two trips to the World Series and nothing to show for it. The Rangers have hands down the best lineup in baseball; when it works it’s a well-oiled machine that could hit for days, but a missing piece can throw off the cycle and guys like Hamilton, Kinsler and Beltre are not without a history of injury. The Rangers are hoping the addition of Yu Darvish will supplement the loss of C.J. Wilson in a young rotation that could stand some seasoning. Still, runs won’t be at a premium; pitching mistakes can be made and the Rangers can still win.
Best Asset: A lineup that can hit for power and average at every position. Look out for: SP Derek Holland. Strategy: They could use a veteran workhorse in the rotation to help lighten the load, but they should be poised to make yet another run for the title. Projected Finish: 1st NL West.