Spring Training is fully underway in Florida and Arizona and with all sorts of commotion happening during the off-season, 2012 has some very interesting story lines baseball fans will be keeping an eye on all season long. Following one of the most horrendous ends of the season in baseball history, it will be particularly interesting to see how Boston can recover. A revamped front office and a new manager after almost 10 years will have an impact, but at the end of the day its up to the players. Even former on-field reporter Heidi Watney has bolted from Boston! Perhaps all the beer and chicken references they're sure to see in the stands of opposing ballparks will motivate them. But as big a a focus as will be on the Red Sox, they aren't even the biggest story going into the new season. Here are my top-five story lines entering 2012.
Even former on-field reporter Heidi Watney has bolted from Boston following one of the worst collapses in sports history!!
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels and owner Arte Moreno have been spending a lot of money the past few seasons, however they haven't been to the playoffs despite adding the contracts of Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells. Well the Angels landed perhaps the biggest free-agent of the decade when they signed Albert Pujols away from the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and followed that up by signing the best available free-agent pitcher in CJ Wilson. By adding Albert "not El Hombre" Pujols, who could very well be the most talented player in the bigs, to the lineup and CJ Wilson joining what was already a formidable rotation, the Angels have to be at or near the top of any Word Series champion projections.
After dominating the AL East for most of the 2000s, the Texans Rangers wrested the division title from the Angels the past two years and rode them to consecutive World Series appearances. The Angels will not be walking away with the division this year. You know the Rangers are hoping the third times a charm, and there's a good chance the West will wrest the Wild Card from the AL East for the first time since 2006 (Tigers). This also marks the last year of the AL West having just four teams, as the Astros are joining the division starting next year. (Not that the Astros will be competing for the division any time soon).
It will take some getting used to not seeing Albert Pujols in a St. Louis Uniform.
The Angels were more than competitive last year, and with the addition of Pujols to the third hole in the lineup, it will help to take some of the pressure off Wells, who hasn't been the same since Toronto signed him to one of the largest deals ever. On paper the Angels might have the best team in the game, so it will be interesting to watch how they perform on the field. Mike Scioscia is one of the most experienced managers in the league and rallied the Angels to a World Series Championship in 2003. We'll see what Scioscia's team can do this season.
The Detroit Tigers
Detroit landed the second-most coveted free agent of the season, 27-year-old Prince Fielder, and added him to a lineup that was already one of the best in the league. Right now Detroit might have the most potent lineup, but we'll see how that $214 million, nine-year contract (and that gut of Fielder's) looks in 2020. According to ESPN, in 2011 the Tigers were 3rd overall in batting average as well as 4th overall in runs scored, on base percentage and slugging percentage, so the addition of Fielder, who has 228 home runs since 2006, should give the Tigers even more offense.
Unfortunately for Tiger fans, and fans of offense in general, Victor Martinez is out for the 2012 season with a knee injury. The combination of Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez would give any pitcher nightmares, so there's lots of AL Central pitchers sleeping a bit easier. We can still expect the Tigers to score runs with anyone, and with the steady hand of Jim Leyland at the helm the Tigers should be able to stay cool throughout the season.
Fielder joins a lineup that features Delmon Young, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson. Reports are Jackson will be using a new batting stance this year that cuts down on his leg kick, and the club hopes this will drop the strikeout rate of one of the fastest leadoff hitters in the league.
As potent as their offense will be, the Tigers will need their pitching to hold up their end as well. Luckily they have the reining Cy Young winner and perhaps the best pitcher in the bigs right now in Justin Verlander. As you can expect there is a bit of a dropoff after the ace, but not all that much. Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello round out the known starters, and the Tigers will decide on the fifth starter after spring training. Even if the Twins stay healthy, the Tigers have to be the favorites to repeat as AL Central winners. But as always they have to win their games before they get another shot at the AL crown.
I mean seriously, what is that?
New name, new park, new manager, new shortstop, new closer, new unis. Theres a lot different this year in Miami. In fact the Marlins are near the top of Ticket Liquidator's baseball ticket sales, one more "new."
The Marlins open the season hoping to compete in what should be a very tough division. They have one of the best pitchers in the game in Josh Johnson, along with two of the most electric players in the game in Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. Fans are going to have a good time watching those two compete this summer. And don't be surprised if LeBron James or Dwyane Wade show up in the stands. And that's before we get to the most outspoken manager (and manager of a World Series winner) in the history of the game in Ozzie Guillen. With these players and this manager in a market like Miami, the Marlins should be able to energize the fan base, especially if they play to the level they can.
Johnson should be solid, and he's joined by new-face Mark Buehrle, who has been the model of consistency his whole career. The rotation is rounded out by Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and either Carlos Zambrano or Wade LeBlanc. While the pitching might be a tad less formidable than the division rival Phillies, this rotation should be near the top in most pitching statistics when its all said and done.
With the addition of Reyes, Ramirez will be moving to third base, so we'll have to wait and see if that affects the infield defense at all. Marlins fans are hoping the play on the field is prettier that their uniforms, which have been compared to Cartoon Networks's softball team. I think that's not fair to Cartoon Network. This day and age, how can a team whiff so bad on a mascot? I mean its almost as bad as the Amarillo Sox mascot! But there's nothing wrong with winning ugly. If Peyton Manning ends up joining the Dolphins, there will be all kinds of talents in South Beach, and the Marlins will be as talented as anybody.
Entering last season it was all but certain the Phillies would be facing the Red Sox in the World Series, and look how that turned out. The Phillies are all a year older, but they still have what should be the best one-two punch in baseball in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. They also managed to sign Jonathan Papelbon, among the more reliable closers out there.
The Phillies ended last decade as perennial NL Champs, but they haven't been as lucky since the end of the aughts. They have some professionals, although Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have slipped a bit in recent years. They don't have many years left if they are going to get another ring, so the pressure is on manager Charlie Manuel to get the team back to the Series.
With so much action going on around the league, the Phillies aren't getting the same level of attention as they have in the past. That might be to their advantage, as they can fly under the radar. They still should be the favorites to win the division, but they'll get some tough competition from the Marlins and Braves especially. And even though the Mets are in all likelihood headed for another season of futility, they could be a feisty nemesis. It will be interesting to see how the Phillies fare in 2012. Even with the (probable) loss of Roy Oswalt, the pitching should be tough, however once again the questions be about the offense. Ryan Howard can mash with the best of them, but he needs runners on base in front of him. He also needs to cut down on strikeouts and improve on the .253 average of 2011.
Which brings us to the Boston Red Sox.
Its been one of the longest off-seasons in Boston history, nearly as bad as the winter following Aaron Boone's walk-off homer in 2003 to end the ALCS. But perhaps the silver lining is that Boston went on to win their first World Series in 86 years following that winter. Then again the 2004 team added one of the best big game pitchers ever in Curt Schilling as well as a solid closer in Keith Foulke, who proved to be invaluable.
The Red Sox only added relief pitching during the off season, and got rid of both their shortstops. JD Drew will not be in right field for the fist time since 2007, and Carl Crawford opens the season on the DL.
And even though the Red Sox don't know who will start the season at short, right or left field, the biggest question marks are in the starting pitching. The ace of the staff is Jon Lester, but after him fans don't really know what to expect. Last season Josh Beckett was as good as can be expected, but he is a year older. Perhaps he'll have a chip on his shoulder to fire up his well-known competitiveness. We've yet to see Clay Buchholz get through a whole season. And we'll have to see if John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka being hurt is a good or bad thing. I'm going to say good thing, even if there isn't a fifth starter so far and the fourth spot will likely be Josh Bard, who will be moving from his setup role. He's got electric stuff but had a few rough outing last season. And moving from the 'pen to the starting rotation is no sure thing, right Joba?
But on the bright side, the Red Sox lineup should be able to score a lot of runs. And they are finally bringing up some young players who've been waiting for their chance for a long time. Ryan Kalish, Lars Anderson, Jose Iglesias or someone else could end up being the next Jacoby Ellsbury.
Speaking of which, the Sox have what has to be the best leadoff hitter in the game, along with Alex Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. Any team would be thrilled to have these guys in their lineup, and they should be able to score runs with anyone. Yes, things could go from bad to worse in Beantown, but here's to hoping Bobby Valentine adds to his impressive record as a manager. On a team where nobody wants to be the face of the franchise, Valentine will be good for absorbing a lot of the attention.
Opening Night is scheduled for Wednesday, April 4, when the defending champs travel to the new Miami Ballpark.
Should be a fun season.