That means it's time to unveil our predictions for the 2012 season. Division and wild-card races, awards, playoff winners, the whole megillah:
Red Sox: 87-75
Blue Jays: 83-79
Pitching injuries are the story in the AL East as the season gets under way. The worst news comes out of Boston, where would-be new closer Andrew Bailey is expected to miss three to four months with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb. Losing 30 innings from a closer doesn't have to be all that painful, and the Red Sox traded for Mark Melancon and scrapped their plans to make Alfredo Aceves a starter to cover for just such an emergency. The better news for the Red Sox is that Josh Beckett saw the same hand specialist who diagnosed Bailey, and got a clean bill of health after struggling through some thumb soreness. Still, Boston's thinning pitching depth reminds us that the team didn't meet all its offseason goals: The winter trade of Marco Scutaro was supposed to free up salary to add starting pitching help, but Edwin Jackson signed cheap in D.C. and Roy Oswalt remains a free agent. That leaves Daniel Bard to attempt the treacherous conversion to starting pitching, Felix Doubront to also take the ball every fifth day, and zero margin for error from Beckett, Jon Lester, and not-exactly-invincible third starter Clay Buchholz.
That's not to say the Red Sox are the only AL East team with pitching-injury issues. Does Michael Pineda simply have a mild case of tendinitis, or should the Yankees be concerned about a more serious injury, Pineda's reported weight gain, or both? How long will Kyle Farnsworth's elbow injury linger, and do the Rays have the bullpen depth to withstand a prolonged absence should one occur? Those question marks (along with regression in other key areas, such as pullbacks for Curtis Granderson and James Shields after career years) are why I see the division's top three teams all falling back slightly this season. With full seasons from promising young players like Brett Lawrie and Henderson Alvarez, and breakout candidates like Brandon Morrow, Toronto has the personnel to win more than 83 games. But playing 54 times against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays seems to slice a few wins off their total every year — if the Jays played in the NL Central, they would win it this year. The Orioles have to hope their farm system improves, that a few young pitchers make it through the season without a cast or a 5.50 ERA, and that Peter Angelos lets the new regime do its thing.
White Sox: 77-85
I've written and talked at length about the Tigers being overvalued this season as result of their porous infield defense and likely regression from key 2011 contributors like Jose Valverde. Overvalued doesn't mean "not good," though. The Tigers have the easiest path to a division title of any team in baseball, with an 89-win season nearly as likely to vault them back into the playoffs as a 99-win season.
The Indians will rely on a ground ball-heavy staff and hope for leaps from Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and other young, core players, but a playoff berth might be stretching it. No one likes the White Sox this year, but one wonders if the catastrophic seasons put up by Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, and Gordon Beckham (among others) leaves room for that rebound potential; 77 wins was a stab at a median projection, but 70 or 84 aren't outside the realm of possibility. Grantland colleague Rany Jazayerli and others have written about the Royals before: There's potential star power in Eric Hosmer and other young players, but everything from settling for a Chris Getz/Yuniesky Betancourt platoon at second base to a lack of major league-ready starting pitching likely keeps this team below .500 again. The Twins almost can't help but be better after last season's injury-plagued debacle, but core players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Francisco Liriano remain far from sure things a year later.
Most projection systems love the Rangers. From a process standpoint, I do too. But clever player-acquisition strategies aside, there are some real risks on this roster, from Mike Napoli coming down after his peak Piazza-esque 2011 campaign to Josh Hamilton's persistent injury concerns to Michael Young's bat potentially slowing to Yu Darvish pitching in the big leagues for the first time (though on that last front, I have faith in Texas's new ace). I see the Rangers making it back to the postseason, but the more I ponder, the more the fortified Angels look like a decent bet to edge ever so slightly past Texas and claim the AL West crown. With TV riches about to flow in and Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson already onboard, Arte Moreno looks to be in all-in mode, ready to make a move if, say, Kendrys Morales can't help the slightly thin hitting behind Pujols or the bullpen needs an additional arm. With two teams so evenly matched and the incentive to win the division growing thanks to the added wild card, the AL West could provide an enormously entertaining pennant race into the final days of the season.
The Mariners and A's probably won't take part in that race, but they will be fun to watch on many nights. Jesus Montero could start to pay dividends immediately after the big offseason trade that sent Michael Pineda to the Yankees, while Dustin Ackley could be primed for a big year after making his first Opening Day start in the big leagues. Throw in Felix Hernandez and the always entertaining (albeit aging) Ichiro and the M's will be a better product this year. Oakland could win fewer games this year with Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill shipped out of town. But Yoenis Cespedes (the homeless man's Vladimir Guerrero) should provide nearly as much entertainment in his spectacular strikeouts as he will when he crushes meatballs deep into the night.
Yup, Miami. The newly branded, newly neon-stadiumed, suddenly richer Marlins fell one Albert Pujols short of meeting all their offseason goals. But that might be enough in a division where every team has at least one major flaw. Picking the Fish is a bet on one or more of their young hitters taking a step up: Logan Morrison is my best bet on that front, though who knows how high Giancarlo Stanton's power potential might go. A healthy Jose Reyes (no sure thing) would offer a catalyst atop the lineup and also a defensive upgrade at short that could nudge someone like perennial underachiever Ricky Nolasco a little closer to a breakout.
The Phillies will be without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for an extended period of time, leaving their lineup in rough shape. The starting pitching alone is so loaded that it could propel Philly back to the postseason, but this is not the powerhouse team we're accustomed to watching. The Braves looked to be overloaded with pitching depth, so much so that they dumped Derek Lowe for nothing and nearly dealt Jair Jurrjens this offseason; with Tim Hudson out to start the season and Arodys Vizcaino the latest Tommy John surgery casualty, things don't look quite as rosy. Dan Uggla not hitting like a pitcher for three months and Jason Heyward resuming his march toward stardom could help offset any further leaks that might spring up. The Nationals have quietly built one of the better starting pitching quartets in the National League. They're also awful in center field while they wait for Bryce Harper, lack star power in the lineup aside from Ryan Zimmerman and maybe Mike Morse, and are relying on Stephen Strasburg to dominate in his first full major league season (which itself will be limited to 160 innings). Good team, not yet a great team. Some projection systems kind of like the Mets, picking them to finish near .500. Look for solid seasons from young players like Lucas Duda, but also some in-season veteran-for-prospect deals as the rebuilding process continues, which would limit their win total upside for 2012.
Joey Votto got the big money to stay, while Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols didn't, which is partly what has made the Reds a popular pick to win the NL Central for the second time in three years. I might've made the same pick, but Ryan Madson's season-ending injury nudged St. Louis slightly above Cincinnati in our projections. Cardinals doubters point to Chris Carpenter's injury, Adam Wainwright's return from surgery, past injuries for Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran as reasons to expect major regression by the Arch. But I expect improvement from multiple areas, too, from a bullpen that will be led by Jason Motte and an able supporting cast (and not Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista) from day one, a next-step season for David Freese, and more playing time for (and thus more long balls from) Allen Craig.
The Reds could have been the pick had they chosen a bold move such as starting Aroldis Chapman over Bronson Arroyo. Instead, there's lingering doubt about misusing resources, whether it's giving 650 plate appearances to Zack Cozart in the no. 2 slot or giving Ryan Ludwick too much playing time in left. Individually, these are all little things, especially on a team with top-shelf talent like Votto, Jay Bruce, and Mat Latos. Taken together, it's just enough to keep the Reds out of the playoffs. The Brewers will miss Prince Fielder, though Mat Gamel could be a capable (or better) replacement. I'm also expecting a major pullback and/or injuries from Aramis Ramirez, which would significantly weaken what was a strong lineup last year. The Cubs might not be that bad for a rebuilding team, not with Matt Garza anchoring the rotation, the underrated Ryan Dempster still around, the also-underrated David DeJesus added to the outfield mix, and role players like Bryan LaHair offering bits of upside. Love Andrew McCutchen, not nuts about most of the rest of the Pirates' roster, with Gerrit Cole, Sterling Marte, and other top prospects still a year or two (or three) away from a significant impact in the big leagues. The Astros have smart people in charge, but also a long, long way to go.
Between outperforming their expected record and taking a huge year-over-year leap from 2010 to 2011, the Diamondbacks would appear to be prime candidates to hit a big ol' pane of Plexiglas this season. But sift through the roster and you'll find good, young talent everywhere, with the promise for more. Justin Upton has been hailed as a potential future MVP since entering the league, and he could realize that potential as soon as this season. The starting rotation got great production from Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson last year; now Trevor Cahill is onboard, too. Meanwhile, uber-prospect Trevor Bauer might be the D-Backs' fifth starter before we hit May. Chop a few wins off last year's total, but it says here that Arizona repeats in the West anyway.
The Giants can now look forward to many more years of Matt Cain, keeping their immensely talented top three starters together for at least two more years (when Tim Lincecum's contract would be up). They can also look forward to out-makers dragging down their lineup. Aubrey Huff might not have another big bounce-back season in him, and the middle infield could have two replacement-level hitters in Emmanuel Burriss and Brandon Crawford (until Freddy Sanchez comes back, but don't hold your breath there). Heavy pitching and a few fortuitous hitting performances were enough to get the Giants a World Series banner two years ago; it might not be quite enough this year. Few teams can match the in-their-prime duo of Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler's second half last year hinted at what he could become, and veterans Marco Scutaro, Michael Cuddyer, and Ramon Hernandez should help. But the Rockies' starting pitching feels light — unless both Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio have big seasons, in which case this becomes an under-the-radar playoff contender. The Dodgers' deep-pocketed new owners would surely love to get to work on restoring the team's winning tradition, but they'll have to wait a year to bid for the likes of Cole Hamels. That leaves a mostly Stars-and-Scrubs roster, with perhaps the best position player and best pitcher in the league in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, then too many Juan Uribes. The Padres own the deepest farm system in baseball per Keith Law, which means they could become really interesting in two or three years.
The playoffs are something of a crapshoot. The best team rarely hoists the trophy in the end, with games and series often turning on everything from hot pitching to fluky injuries to a right fielder coming up a foot short of snagging a World Series–ending line drive. One hundred and sixty-two games are a much more reliable test of a team's supremacy than 18 or 20. I'll make picks because you want them. But these are basically semi-educated guesses.
American League East champion: YANKEES
American League Central champion: TIGERS
American League West champion: ANGELS
American League wild cards: RAYS, RANGERS
American League champion: YANKEES
National League East champion: MARLINS
National League Central champion: CARDINALS
National League West champion: DIAMONDBACKS
National League wild cards: PHILLIES, BRAVES
National League champion: PHILLIES
World Series champion: YANKEES
As we've seen in the recent past, the position of a team's place in the standings can play a big role in deciding who wins awards and who doesn't. Consider these stabs at not only top player performances of the year, but also voter perception given likely team results.
American League MVP: ALBERT PUJOLS
If the Angels win the West, someone's going to get the credit. With four strong starters poised to share the pitching credit, Pujols on a mini bounce-back season will be poised to claim the hardware.
American League Cy Young: CC SABATHIA
Incredibly consistent, which might be partly what's kept him from winning more than one Cy Young award. I could see the ace of the American League's best team finally winning another one in 2012.
American League Rookie of the Year: YU DARVISH
He's already being penciled in as the Rangers' new ace, even as he opens the season by taking the fourth turn in the rotation. The battle between Darvish and the Rays' Matt Moore could make for one of the most exciting Rookie of the Year races in years.
National League MVP: JUSTIN UPTON
Pujols is gone, Fielder's gone, the Phillies are no longer a juggernaut, and the Diamondbacks could claim their second straight division title. All of that, plus further improvement in Upton's game, could hand him his first MVP.
National League Cy Young: ROY HALLADAY
He'll be the best over-35 player on the planet next month. He'll also be the biggest reason the Phillies overcome lineup attrition to play into October again.
National League Rookie of the Year: TREVOR BAUER
Josh Collmenter isn't exactly formidable competition, and Bauer was an incredibly polished prospect when he mowed down hitters a year ago at UCLA. He'll take the fifth starter's job and run with it.