Raise your hand if you foresaw a Baltimore-Kansas City ALCS matchup back in April. Anyone? Anybody at all? No? That’s what I thought. It’s a matchup that’s 30 years in the making and it features ball clubs that find a way to win in vastly different ways. The Royals stole more bases than any other team in the league while the Orioles plodded along the base paths, finishing dead last in baseball, 12 behind the next slowest team. Instead the O’s mashed their way to victory, racking up a Major League best 211 homers in the process, more than double the number of dingers hit by Kansas City. Both teams feature solid starting staffs and deep bullpens that have been dynamite this year when protecting a lead. This series has all the makings of a barn burner. So who’s going to win? Let’s take a run-through at some of the more salient points:
As we prepare to embark on yet another wild and enthralling MLB season it’s time for everyone’s favorite exercise in futility: Predictions! After 2012’s thrilling season ended with the Giants raising the World Series trophy the offseason that followed was full of surprises. Annually overlooked ball clubs like Cleveland, Toronto, and Kansas City all made big win-now moves while traditional powers like the Yankees and Phillies opted for minor moves and the ensuing result could turn baseball as we know it on its head. So without further adu, I present to you my thoughts and ideas about what’s in store in 2013. No matter what happens, 2013 should be a thrilling year so sit back, grab a beer, and get settled in for some great baseball.
Major League Baseball fans everywhere should be a bunch of happy campers today. We’ve been blessed by the Baseball Gods with a star-studded World Series match-up between the American League champion Detroit Tigers and the National League champion San Francisco Giants. There is MVP and Cy Young hardware all over the place in this series. We have the presumptive 2012 MVP winners in Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey, seated to your left (although there are MVP arguments for other players, Mike Trout in particular). Over in that corner you have the 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander. Turn around and you can catch a glimpse of Barry Zito, the 2002 Cy Young winner. Just strolling in the door is Tim Lincecum, the winner of the 2008 and 2009 Cy Young awards in the National League. It’s ridiculous how many big names are in this series, and we haven’t even mentioned the perennial All-Star types like Prince Fielder and Matt Cain. Every single playoff series, except for the ALCS, has been remarkably balanced and has gone the distance this year, and with two evenly matched competitors set to take the diamond tonight, you can expect more evenly matched world-class baseball. Here’s some of what you should be keeping your eye on in the games to come.
Here’s my best guess for how the 2012 season will turn out:
AL MVP: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
NL MVP: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks
AL CY Young: CC Sabathia, New York Yankees
NL Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
ALCS: New York over Los Angeles
NLCS: Arizona over Atlanta
World Series: New York over Arizona
I think that have the Yankees pitching depth and offense that will carry them to the title. New York will score somewhere between 850-900 runs. They also have 7 major league caliber starters, and that should allow them to win 95 games. Arizona is my best guess out of the National League. I don’t think there is a favorite and there are a bunch of teams that could win 85-90 games. The playoffs in the Wild Card Era have been a crapshoot, and with the addition of another Wild Card expect more of the same. I think that the National League has 8-9 teams that could get to the playoffs and I think that there are 8 in the American League. There is a massive amount of talent flowing throughout baseball today, and its reflected in the overall depth of the Major League Baseball.
The 2012 American League West is one of the most top-heavy in baseball. The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are star-studded teams that will probably eclipse the 90 win plateau. Seattle and Oakland, not so much. Let’s take a look.
The Texas Rangers 2012 season has one goal and one goal only: get to the World Series and finish the job this time. After two consecutive American League pennants, Texas enters the season as the odds on favorite and their most talented team ever. The offense remains elite, with solid to great hitters 1-9, and now the pitching is getting up to speed as well. Texas has all the ingredients of a World Series winner, it’s just a matter of finishing the job this time around.
The Rangers offense should once again finish in the top-3 in baseball after ranking 3rd a year ago, a comfortable 64 runs ahead of the 4th place Tigers. Texas has a balanced attack, with 6 hitters that had an OPS+ above league average in 2011.
The heart of the lineup is ferocious, with 2012 MVP Josh Hamilton surrounded by Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, and Ian Kinsler. Only the Yankees and Red Sox have this sort of firepower and its no coincidence that these 3 teams all won 90+ games a year ago. All 5 of the aforementioned players are a threat to hit 30+ homers, making Texas the most powerful lineup in baseball. Many of these sluggers, including Hamilton, Napoli, and Beltre also have the ability to post a batting average over .300 as well.
The Rangers also have plenty of speed to go with all that power, finishing 5th in the baseball in steals a year ago. Texas prides themselves on taking the extra base, and plays with one of the most aggressive approaches in baseball. Manager Ron Washington always has the green light on, and this puts extra pressure on a pitching staff. The double play duo of Kinsler and Elvis Andrus sets up the rest of the lineup, applying pressure on the opposition, and combining for 67 steals a year ago.
For a long writeup on the Rangers rotation check here.
The Texas bullpen should once again be deep and talented too. Newcomer Joe Nathan has had some injury problems, but should provide elite production in the back of the ‘pen. When health he posted 5 straight seasons of 35+ saves with an ERA south of 2.20. The rest of the bullpen is a good mix of lefties and righties, featuring Mike Adams, Koji Uehara, and Alexi Ogando. This should be one of the best end game units in the league, and will make Texas tough to beat.
The Rangers enter 2012 as the favorites in the American League for the first time. Despite there defending AL champion status a year ago, Boston was seen as a heavy favorite in the spring in 2011, but this year is different. Yu Darvish is aboard, the rotation is deep, the lineup deeper, and the bullpen is lock down good. Expect another year of October baseball in Texas.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The unanimous winners of the 2011-12 offseason were the Los Angeles Angels. By adding the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols, and stealing CJ Wilson away from rival Texas, LA has set itself up nicely for a return to the promised land after a season away. The Angels will have one of the best rotations in the American League after finishing 2nd in runs allowed a year ago, 7th overall. The offense will have more power, with Pujols and Kendry Morales making a return from injury, so expect improvement from a unit that finished 17th in baseball. The battle out west between Texas and Los Angeles will rage all season and probably won’t be decided until the last week or two, so every run matters.
The Angels bold move to snag Albert Pujols this offseason signaled that the franchise was going all-in. Pujols will make an obscene $254 million over the course of his backloaded 10 year deal, and will have to put up monster numbers early to earn his keep. Pujols will be making $12 mil this year and $16 mil next, but will make 29 mil for his age-39 season and $30 mil for his age-40 season. Numbers that could cripple the Angels in the future, but his current production will be worth it. Pujols 162 game average is ridiculous and jaw-dropping. He averages .328/.420/.617 with 42 homers and 126 RBIs.
The Angels need this sort of run producer, after a season in which not one player accumulated over 90 RBI. Pujols has never failed to do that, and has only failed once to get 100 ribbies, last year when he drove in 99. If Kendry Morales can return successfully, the Angels will have a fearsome heart of the order. Morales was a MVP candidate during his only full season, hitting .306/.355/.569 with 34 home runs and 108 RBI. A 25 homer, .280 batting average seems doable and would provide a big boost to the club.
The rest of the Angels’ lineup is either aging poorly or is under 26. The Angels will ask veterans Torii Hunter and Wells to man the corner outfield positions around youngster Peter Bourjos. Hunter is still a productive veteran and brings excellent leadership to the clubhouse, but Wells would be better served in a reduced role. The Angels have youngster Mike Trout, who has the #1 rated prospect in baseball a year ago. Finding the 5-tool Trout at-bats and playing time would be an improvement over Wells and could add a win or two to the total. Bringing up Trout to play left or right field would also give the Angels excellent outfield defense, which could save a few runs for the pitching staff.
In adding CJ Wilson to what was the 2nd best staff in the AL a year ago, LA made another move to catch the Rangers. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are a playoff caliber top-2 who won a combined 34 games in 2011 while posting sub-3.20 ERAs. Each pitcher has a strong fastball, locates their pitches well, and they both pile up strikeouts. Wilson, despite his playoff struggles, provides another top of the rotation arm, and slots in nicely in the #3 spot. He is capable of winning 15 games with a sub-3.50 ERA. Ervin Santana, the 4th starter, had a breakout year in 2011, throwing for a 3.38 ERA in 220 innings with 7 strikeouts per 9.
The Angels will need to find the right mix in their bullpen. Jordan Walden will be entering his 2nd season in the bigs and was able to compile 32 saves a year ago while striking out more than a batter per inning. He has an issue allowing too many base runners, leading to an average 2.98 ERA.
Overall the LA Angels have plenty of star power and are a good bet to win 90 games. Texas has a deeper roster but the Angels may have the best players. If the Angels find a way to get Mike Trout in the lineup and platoon Wells and Abreau, they could sneak past Texas and avoid the Wild Card round. If not they will still be able to keep pace with the Rangers and are in for a season-long dogfight.
Oakland has a very good chance to be the worst team in baseball during 2012, and will probably be the worst team in the American League. After a somewhat disappointing year in 2011, finishing 74-88, Billy Beane decided that it was time for another tear down. Gone are Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Daric Barton, and David DeJesus and in their place is Yoenis Cespedes, Bartolo Colon, and not much else. The offense will struggle to score against everyone, and the pitching staff is comically shallow. Billy Beane has not won so much as an American League pennant since becoming GM in 1997 and hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2006, so maybe his way of doing things isn’t working anymore.
The offense has only one potential star, and only a few players who would start on other major league teams. Yoenis Cespedes is the future of the franchise, a 26-year old, powerfully built outfielder who hasn’t met a pitch he doesn’t love. He will probably experience some growing pains this season, but is immensely fun to watch. He has shown the ability to hit the ball with big power, going deep in his second major league game. He is going to have a strikeout problem, probably finishing with around 150, but he has the ability hit 30 homers in the Coliseum, a difficult feat.
The rest of the rest of the up-the-middle defense is Cliff Pennington, Jemile Weeks, and Kurt Suzuki. Suzuki and Pennington are major league average players at their peaks and both were not last year. Weeks has some potential, hitting .306 in 400 at bats. He could develop into a decent base stealer, but last year was thrown out on 1/3 of his attempts, a rate that has to improve. Coco Crisp, the left fielder, can also steal bases, nabbing 49 a year ago. The rest of the offense is completely uninspiring and will not put up many runs.
The pitching staff, a strength in 2010 and 2011, will probably see some drop off in 2012. Their projected top-5 is Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Tom Milone, Tyson Ross, and Graham Godfrey. There will be plenty of long days in Texas, Los Angeles, where Oakland is pounded by a 6-1 or 8-2 mark. Both McCarthy and Colon looked good in their first 2 starts, but McCarthy is a #2 or #3 starter masquerading as an ace, and Colon, at age 38, will probably wear down like he did a year ago as the season gets into July.
Billy Beane has been given a lot of credit for furthering the use of sabermetric statistics in baseball, but it may not be working or the rest of the league has caught up. Oakland is probably looking at 2-4 more losing seasons at minimum, which would be an extremely long run of mediocrity. Beane is given too much credit constantly and needs to be reassessed for what he is: a mediocre GM at best, who found an edge, used it until everyone else caught on, and has failed to adjust.
The Mariners have an excellent chance to be an improved team in the upcoming season, possessing a solid collection of young, talented players. Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Felix Hernandez, Mike Carp, and Justin Smoak are all under 26 and have the potential to be an impressive core. The Mariners pitch isn’t as deep as it was a year ago, but the offense should be better, which will mean more wins and a shot at 3rd in the division.
Felix Hernandez will have to carry the rotation, because the other 4 days the Mariners will be sending out a below average starting pitcher. King Felix looked downright nasty in his Opening Day start, striking out 5 while only allowing 1 run in 8 innings. Hernandez has had some of the toughest luck in baseball the past 2 seasons, going a combined 27-26 while posting a stellar 2.87 ERA, 11 complete games, and 454 strikeouts. If Seattle could scratch out a meager 4 runs a game, Hernandez would be a threat to win 20 games.
The rest of the rotation isn’t looking so good following the trades of Doug Fister and Michael Pineda. Jason Vargas, Kevin Millwood, Hector Noesi, and Blake Beavan round out the rotation currently, and will probably get hit very hard. Vargas has the potential to be league average, but the rest of the unit is terrible. Millwood was unable to win a starting job on a rotation a year ago, and won’t be any better in 2012. Noesi is a 5th starter at best and Beaven shouldn’t be in a major league rotation. On days where the King rests, the Mariners will be hard pressed to win.
The offense on the other hand is on the up-and-up after ranking as the worst in baseball the past 2 seasons. A full year of Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, and a healthy Justin Smoak should be able to improve that standing. Ackley and Montero each had impressive major league debuts in 2011. Ackley in particular, has the look of a future All-Star at 2nd base. He was a corner fielder in college at North Carolina, where he hit for a high batting average with some decent power. Ackley has displayed both in his first 350 at bats, posting a Mariner’s best 117 OPS+. Montero massacred the ball in his short call-up in New York, batting .328 with 4 homers in 60+ at bats. He has been ranked as high as the #3 prospect in all of baseball, a tribute to his batting prowess.
The rest of the Mariner offense is a collection of slap hitters, the best being Ichiro. Chone Figgins has been abysmal in his time in Seattle and posted a god-awful 38 OPS+ last year in 300 at bats. Finding even a cardboard cutout to play 3rd base would be n upgrade at this point. Weak-hitting/above-average fielding, Brendan Ryan is back at short again, and will probably provide what he usually does.
Seattle is probably not good enough to compete with the powerful Rangers and Angels, even if everything breaks just right. The Mariners could, at best, finish around .500 but expecting much more is asking too much. Getting out of the division cellar, while continuing to develop young talent would count as a successful season in the Great Northwest.
*Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
American League West MVP: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
American League West Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
This division will be a 2-horse race between Texas and LA. Seattle and Oakland will fight for the bottom of the division and I give the edge to the Mariners because of Felix Hernandez. I like Texas to repeat as division champs for the 3rd year in a row with the Angels no more than 3 games behind. I think the lineup depth in Texas will win out over the course of a long season, giving the edge to the Rangers.
The National League East enters 2012 as deepest in all of baseball. Aside from the Mets, all of the other 4 teams have a chance to make the playoffs or win the division. Philadelphia and Atlanta have already proven that they are good bets to win 90+ games, and with Miami’s spending spree and Washington’s youth movement each of these teams could jump to the 90-win plateau. Let’s take a look starting with the defending division champion Phillies first.
The Phillies had the finest regular season in the history of their franchise a year ago, winning 102 games. But the season ended on a crushing note, losing 1-0 in a fantastic Game 5 to the Cardinals in the NLDS, with the last out being made by Ryan Howard as he tore his Achilles. With the acquisition of Cliff Lee prior to the 2011 season the Phillies had a staff for the ages, allowing a paltry 529 runs, or 3.27 per game. The pitching will once again be excellent, but the offense may not measure up and the Phillies may struggle to score runs. Philadelphia is also the oldest team by average age in baseball at nearly 30, so their title window may only be open for a couple more seasons.
The trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels is returning again for 2012 and will probably be the best top-3 in league. A season ago each pitcher had an ERA under 3, a k’s/9innings rate of better than 8, and each finished in the top-5 in Cy Young award voting. Ideally for the Phillies, they will get another 30+ starts out of their 3-headed monster and pile up another 50-60 wins. Throw in Vance Worley, who at 23, went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA and posted a near-elite strikeout rate. Joe Blanton, who is about league average, brings up the bottom of the rotation, which once again should lead the league in innings pitched as well as fewest runs allowed.
The bullpen got a pricey reinforcement this offseason in the form of Jonathan Paplebon. Paplebon posted an elite 12 k’s/9 innings a year ago, while cutting his walks by 60%, down to 10 total. He posted the 5th highest WAR for all relievers, according to Fangraphs, and gives more credence to the idea that the Phillies are in win-now mode.
The Phillies offense has been on a steady decline since winning back-to-back pennants in 2008-09. Last year they were 7th in the National League in scoring and 14th in baseball. While its possible to win the World Series with an average offense its unlikely as only 3 teams in the past 15 years have won a title with an offense ranked as low as Philadelphia’s. Early returns on the Philly offense aren’t looking to good either, with 3/4 of their infield struggling with injury problems.
Ryan Howard has been a major producer on the Phillies recent division winning teams. Howard has played at least 140 games every year since 2006 and in each of those seasons he has driven in at least 100 runs while hitting at least 30 homers. He’s finished in the top-10 in the MVP vote every year, winning in 2006, and will be sorely missed. He is probably looking at a June return, leaving Philly with 200 important at-bats to be filled by Ty Wigginton or Jim Thome. Neither player is an average hitter anymore and both are liabilities on defense. But each player is a good clubhouse influence who can hit a home run from time-to-time.
The Phillies will have to rely on their outfield, which could end up being one of the best in baseball. Led by do-it-all All-Stars Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino, this unit plays solid defense while providing speed on the base paths as well as some pop at the plate. Pence hit for an OPS+ of 138 with 22 homers and 97 RBIs. Victorino had 27 doubles, 16 triples, and 17 homeruns while stealing 19 bases. Both players played excellent defense and provide a lot of range, taking away extra-base hits. Leftfield looks to be manned by John Mayberry Jr. who had 15 homers in 300 at-bats.
If Chase Utley can get back quickly, he the Phillies could score enough to win 95+ games. If Utley and Howard have any setbacks it could cost Philly greatly and they could become San Francisco East, a team with phenomenal pitching that is let down by its below average offense. Philadelphia will enter the season as favorites to win the division, but don’t let it surprise you if another team takes the crown.
The Atlanta Braves enter the 2012 season trying to rebound from one of the largest collapses in baseball history. The Braves seem to have the horses to recover, possessing pitching, pitching, and more pitching. 2012 will also be the swan song for franchise legend Chipper Jones. Chipper is a major league average player now so the Braves will need some of their young hitters to step up in 2012, particularly Jason Heyward. The fate of Atlanta’s season may very well hinge on if the big lefty can rebound.
Atlanta struggled to score for the most part last season finishing 22nd in baseball in runs scored. After finishing 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Heyward battled injury, posting a disappointing .227/.319/.389. Hitters with as much power, bat speed, batting eye, and ability like Heyward have the ability to win pennant races and MVPs. If he can stay healthy he is a good bet to rebound and hit an OPS+ around 140. The Braves also have last year’s Rookie of the Year runner-up Freddie Freeman. Freeman has a bit of a strikeout problem but he hit .282/.346/.448 last year and hit 21 homers.
A couple more keys to the Braves’ lineup are Dan Uggla and Brian McCann. McCann has been the most consistent All-Star behind the plate in baseball, posting an OPS+ of 119 or greater each of the last 4 years. McCann has won 4 straight Silver Slugger awards and has hit over 20 homers in each season, and he is also a solid catcher behind the plate. Uggla had a terrible first half of the season posting a .185/.257/.365, until a fantastic 2nd half where he hit .296/.379/.569. He is also a big power threat for a 2nd baseman hitting 30+ homeruns each of the last 5 seasons.
The pitching staff throughout the organization is remarkably deep boasting 7 potential starters. Tim Hudson, age 36, is the senior pitcher on the staff, and he has posted an ERA+ above 115 each of the last 5 seasons. The rest is made up of young talents Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor.
Tommy Hanson is probably the most talented having posted a 3.28 ERA in 460 career innings. He’s a big 6’6” righty has a mid-90s fastball, a solid change-up, and a powerful 12-6 curveball. If he can stay healthy this season he could be a dark horse Cy Young candidate, and a potential 20 game winner.
The Braves should also boast a strong bullpen for the 2nd straight year. Craig Kimbrel led the National League in saves a season ago with 46 and posted a 181 ERA+ in 77 innings. He may have been overworked a season ago and he wore down at the end of the year, but he is an excellent closer. Set-up man Jonny Venters posted a 1.81 ERA and an elite strikeout rate as well. If the Braves take a lead into the 7th, they are a good bet to win the game.
For my full write-up on the Nationals click here.
New York Mets
The 2012 season will probably be a rough one for the New York Mets. The team has been trying to dump salary for the year and will probably continue to do so. The Mets still have quite a few highly paid players like David Wright, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana, all of whom could generate trade interest, especially if they rebound for solid seasons. The Mets outside of these few players are rather young, and some like Ike Davis has solid potential. In a division this tough the Mets will more than likely finish in the cellar and look to sell off any usable, higher-priced parts.
David Wright has steadily seen his value drop every year from 2008 onward. He bottomed out last season posting only a 2.6 offensive WAR, and he looked slow in the infield as well. If Wright can rebound and hit over .300 with 20-homer power he could generate a ton of interest on the trade market. 4-5 win players rarely come available and he could bring back quite a haul.
The offense outside of David Wright doesn’t look like it will be able to score too many runs. The Mets rated near the middle of the league a season ago. They could defy expectations if Jason Bay comes back strong and if Ike Davis can come back healthy. Davis showed some promise in his rookie year of 2010 hitting 19 homers and driving in over 70 runs. He had a strong start to last season hitting over .300 in 36 games before succumbing to injury. If he can reprise that 30-game stretch the Mets could have a potent offense.
The pitching staff was a disappointment a season ago finishing 22nd in baseball in runs allowed. The rotation and bullpen do not look very strong again this season and it would not be surprising to see the Mets finish in the bottom-10 again. Johan Santana, once one of the most feared pitchers in the game, is once again attempting to come back from injury. Santana didn’t pitch at all last season and at age 33 he may struggle to reprise his Cy Young form. Young pitchers Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese look like solid mid-rotation starters but in a tough division they may struggle again.
The Mets bullpen was a team weakness last year and has been somewhat rebuilt for 2012. Frank Francisco has been brought in to close and Jon Rauch has been imported to be the set-up man. The rest of the bullpen will probably struggle and no lead will truly be save for New York this year.
This team will probably struggle in 2012 and will more than likely finish in 5th in a tough division. Ideally for the Mets they will be able to get strong first halfs out of David Wright and Jason Bay in order to flip both players to contenders for elite level prospects, as they did in 2011 when they netted highly touted Zach Wheeler from San Francisco.
For my full write-up on the Marlins click here
New York Mets
NL East MVP: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
NL East Cy Young: Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
I think that this is the year Atlanta finally puts it all together and takes the division. If they have injury problems like they did a season ago with Hanson and Jurrjens, the Braves have depth in Arodys Vizcaino, and Mike Minor. They also have a supurb bullpen and if Freddy Gonzalez has learned a lesson from last year he won’t overwork Kimbrel and Venters. The Phillies have an absurd amount of pitching depth, which should carry them to the playoffs. The offense will probably underwhelm so expect a drop-off from the 102 wins of a season ago. I think Miami and Washington will be two of the 4-5 teams competing for the second Wild Card, with Miami winning it. Picking playoff teams from this division is a grab bag, with so many excellent ball clubs, and the division race should be an excellent one.