MLB 2012 : The Story Lines
BY: JAY SMITH
2012 very well could be quite a season to remember in Major League Baseball.
From the rubber to the plate, through the clubhouse and into the tabloids, there’s a certain level of anticipation that comes with the dawning of Spring Training.
How will the Brewers recover without Prince Fielder, and presumably Ryan Braun, for at least 50 games? What will happen with Braun, the NL MVP following his performance enhancing drugs allegations? In the “post”-steroid era, the microscope is used like never before. Just ask the two-time home run king Jose Bautista. Even better, ask him 16 times, just like the major’s “random” drug test model has over the last two years. Where are the boundaries?
Will the Dodgers be able to bounce back after a bitter divorce between owners – and more importantly, does this mean the Dodgers get to celebrate Christmas twice? Are the Yanks and Red Sox still the class of the A.L. East – and have they done enough to ensure their spot at the top? Are the Blue Jays daydreaming when they think they can put Canada back on the map and field a highly competitive ball club in 2012? Can Theo Epstein be the building block the Cubbies have long needed and bring a 100+ year drought to an abrupt end? Were the Indians for real last year? Can they take the next step with a full year from Ubaldo? Are teams long-endured as under-achievers like the Pirates, Royals and Nationals really showing such promise through highly anticipated youngsters, or is the hype not enough? Are the Marlins ready to make another World Series splash, this time in Miami? Do the reigning champion Cardinals stand a chance without Albert? And how about a brand new playoff match-up, with two additional wild card teams being added to the mix – does your team finally have a realistic shot at playing in the postseason?
All of these questions and many more will be answered. All it will take is a mere 162-game schedule, plus some playoff drama to get there.
Prince Of Motown – So THAT’S what $214 million can get you! But is it enough for a World Series Championship? The opinion seems varied across the board, to say the very least. Fielder is undoubtedly one of the league’s best and most reliable power hitters, and his durability has spoken for itself. However, it’s that same durability that will be called upon as the benchmark for this deal in years to come. A nine year contract for a ball player weighing 275 pounds may not be perceived as the most intelligent move of the offseason, but it’s hard to argue against a potential history making three-four punch consisting of Miguel Cabrera and Fielder. Fielder’s ability to hit in Comerica Park has been called to question, but it’s hard to give credit to that thought when Fielder is one of the most prolific power bats of this generation. Credit the Tigers management for making such a bold move that others were too timid to approach, let alone pull the trigger. Losing Victor Martinez for the year may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but one has to wonder just how much Detroit gained in this domino. Sounds silly, I know, but in a numbers game, it may surprise the casual fan to see the comparison in value between each hitter. Martinez, a career .303 hitter is a locker room leader who hit .330 last year with 12 HR, 103 RBI with a .380 OBP. Those who have been able to play alongside V-Mac, Tigers personnel included, agree the intangibles he brings to the table are priceless. Meanwhile, Prince, a .282 career hitter, hit for an average of .299 with 38 HR, 120 RBI and a slightly improved .415 OBP (largely due to 107 walks) last year. Outside of the long-bombs from Cecil Jr, the numbers don’t change too drastically. Granted, if the Tigers well-rounded offence can get support and base-runners for Prince, those dingers may create more runs and translate to wins. No argument, the Tigers have put themselves in a good position, BUT have they also put themselves in a position where they HAVE to win it all this year?
Albert’s Angels – Much like the Motor City Kitties adding Prince Fielder, the addition of Albert Pujols could easily be thought of as quite an upgrade to say the least. Arguably, the best hitter of a generation, the former Cardinals first baseman is coming off of his second World Series win, is a nine-time All-Star and three-time NL MVP with something to prove after a change of scenery. It’s a no-brainer: Pujols makes the Angels a legitimate threat. The Dominican Republic native, named ‘the greatest player of the decade’ by ESPN, solidifies an already highly skilled and dangerous line-up. What the Angels have been lacking is a solid force up the middle of the line-up to hit clean up. To say they’ve now got one is the understatement of the century. Anaheim is crossing their fingers on the comeback of former first-bagger Kendry Morales, to add even more pop in the line-up. The rotation has added authority with the addition of former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson to a battery that already includes Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Closer Jordan Walden could be the most important piece of the puzzle for the Angels. Sophomore slumps are always a concern no matter the age, but management believes Walden is the real deal, as he appeared to be with 32 saves (albeit in 42 save opportunities) and a 2.98 ERA in his rookie season. Without Pujols, the Angels finished just five games back of the wild card playoff spot in the American League. With an extra playoff spot per league likely to be up for grabs this year and the future Hall of Famer at first base, it would be nothing short of failure if the Angels don’t play a 163rd game.
Rangers – Yu Done Enough? For some reason, it seems that back-to-back World Series appearances just ain’t enough. A World Series Championship – now that’s the answer! The panic button has been pushed rapidly and there’s a need in Texas to either improve and get to the baseball holy grail, or at the very least, to be just as dangerous despite losing their number one starter. In response, Nolan Ryan and the Rangers brass went all in on Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. They walked away with the winnings, and dished out a total of $111.7 million for an MLB unknown in the process. Darvish is thought to be a solid #2 if not a top notch #1 for any team in the majors, and it wouldn’t be a long shot to suggest he ends up worth the pay day and more. The unknown is simply just a mystery until proven otherwise. Gone are the days of uber-impressive Neftali Feliz closing out ball games for the Rangers, as the youngster will help bolster the starting rotation as was always intended. That being said, something tells me I’d be much more comfortable within my organization with Feliz closing out games than banking on an injury-free return to form from free agent signing Joe Nathan. Much like the Tigers and Angels, there is a certain need to win and win now. Indifferent as it may be, it’s the Rangers’ ghost of World Series past that haunts them much more so than the ghost of possible championship future.
Remember, winning the offseason doesn’t necessarily translate to winning when it counts. Just ask last year’s Red Sox.
Almost time to play ball folks. Let the stories begin…
Jay Smith is a local baseball enthusiast and radio announcer at 99.1 CKXS in Wallaceburg, Ontario. An avid Toronto Blue Jays fan, Smith will be filling some regular commentary duty throughout the 2011 offseason and 2012 year. You can e-mail Jay at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jay991ckxs