With spring training coming to close, we look at the final five teams looking to claw their way into the postseason.
In the finale of our baseball preview, we run down the teams who look to be more or less in the same place they were in 2011: somewhere near the top, fighting for a playoff spot.
Sports have been unkind to the good people of Atlanta in recent years. Above average teams have made a habit of falling apart. It’s the worst kind of thing to happen because it’s unclear which pieces of the puzzle need to be replaced when the talent seems fine. The Braves’ collapse late last September happened for no discernible reason other than bad luck, bad breaks and an untimely stretch of bad play. This is a good team, but they’re on the cusp; their veterans are getting old but their youth are coming into their own. 2012 offers a small window when both can work and they’ll need to take advantage of that.
Best Asset: A deep though largely untested rotation. Look out for: RF Jason Heyward/SP Julio Teheran. Strategy: Their lineup can still produce at a high level. They need to use that starting pitching depth wisely. If one piece isn’t working, replace it; they’ll need all the wins their starters can get. Projected Finish: 3rd in the NL East.
To say the Twins had a down year in 2011 would be a bit of understatement; they finished last in a division that had but one team cross the finish line over .500. The problem the Twins face is the same one they’ve been facing for years; Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, their supposed power hitters, cannot stay healthy. When Mauer’s on, he’s on but Morneau’s injuries appear to have gotten the best of him and it’s unclear whether he’ll ever be the player he was in 2008. The rest of the club is in decent shape, with a surprising sharp rotation in spite of a lack of name recognition. They can get on base and hypothetically score runs if they had some power guys to get them in.
Best Asset: A healthy Joe Mauer. Look out for: LF Josh Willingham. Strategy: Hold the line. This club is not as bad as it looks. If they get another solid year from Carl Pavano, an average year from Francisco Liriano and an exit visa for the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona, they could take advantage of a temporarily weak division. Projected Finish: 2nd in the AL Central.
San Francisco Giants
The injury to catcher Buster Posey really got in the Giants’ heads last year. Their pitching fell apart, their lineup couldn’t produce, the whole season came to standstill. Well he’s back at 100 per cent and the two headed monster he creates alongside Pablo Sandoval could make problems for opposing pitchers. On the whole, this is a team built for National League small ball; their lineup is lightning fast with enough power to explode when necessary and their pitching staff won’t surrender many runs. With the exception of Arizona, the rest of the West is retooling so this should be an easy division title.
Best Asset: Experienced, talented youth. Look out for: C Buster Posey/SP Ryan Vogelsong. Strategy: With all their speed, the Giants need to be aggressive on the base paths and play sound defensively. They’ll need to keep scores close; if a game gets out of hand, they likely won’t have enough going for them to catch up. Projected Finish: 1st in the NL West.
St. Louis Cardinals
We can talk about the Phillies big three being the best in the business but one through five the defending World Series champs have this pitching thing down pat. With Adam Wainwright coming back from injury and throwing like we know he can, the Cards should have no trouble keeping runs off the board. At the plate, they lost their most obvious asset in Albert Pujols and it's unlikely a 36 year old Lance Berkman will have a repeat of his outstanding 2012. But with David Freese showing his chops and Carlos Beltran on board, the Cards should still be able to produce runs albeit in not quite as showy a fashion as in years’ past.
Best Asset: An all-around complete, even-keeled team. Look out for: 3B David Freese. Strategy: The NL Central has some stiff competition at the top but the Cards are a nice blend of youth and experience and coming off a World Series so they know the ropes and what it takes to get there. They’ll have to work a little harder for runs in the absence of Pujols but it really shouldn’t be a problem with rookies coming along and a few parts added. A Wild Card spot is the very least they can expect. Projected Finish: 2nd the NL Central.
Tampa Bay Rays
Pundits of the salary cap lose points every time the Rays win a game. The core of this team has been in place for a while and they’ve been able to win ball games and kick the tires on the postseason despite a baseline budget. As far as raw talent goes, their rotation just churns it out and they should benefit from the experience of catcher Jose Molina calling the games. They reenlisted Carlos Pena and Luke Scott to add some pop to a lineup that sometimes lacked it last season, so they should be in the thick of things again come October.
Best Asset: Any one of their starters. Look out for: SP Jeremy Hellickson/Matt Moore. Strategy: Don’t be fooled by lack of big time contracts, this a fast, defensively sound team that will eat you up on errors and miscues. They can capitalize on weak pitching matchups (almost every team will be outmatched over a three game series) and score runs in a handful of different ways. No win will come cheap against Tampa. Projected Finish: 2nd in the AL East.