10 Bold Predictions For The 2012 MLB Season
1. The Washington Nationals Will Make The Playoffs
Ever since the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005, the Nationals have had a long stretch of futility. In five of their seven years in D.C., they finished in last place and they have not once finished the season above .500. Yet, due to the moves they made in the offseason and with their two young prodigies healthy and ready to make an impact, Washington will experience postseason baseball for the first time in 79 years (back when the Washington Senators existed).
The Nats bolstered their pitching staff greatly this offseason by aggressively trading for Athletics ace Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson for a steal (one year, $11 million). They also have their own young ace and future superstar Stephen Strasburg healthy, and with another young stud starting pitcher in Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals have a very formidable starting rotation. They sport a very strong bullpen as well, signing Brad Lidge to join the fantastic setup man-closer tandem of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
Washington's lineup also has some great pieces. Young hitters Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa had solid years last year, and will provide some spark at the top of the lineup. Ryan Zimmerman and last year's biggest breakout hitter Michael Morse anchor the middle of the lineup. Also, while the Nationals may have overspent on outfielder Jayson Werth last offseason, he should be due for a bounceback year and is still a very good hitter.
And don't forget their other young phenom Bryce Harper, who is expected to play a significant role for the team this season, even if he doesn't make the club right out of spring training. Manager Davey Johnson (who has only one full losing season in his managerial career) has a lot of talent to work with, and I think it will translate into a team that will be playing in October.
2. Prince Fielder Will Hit Under 30 Home Runs
Fielder has not hit under 30 home runs since his rookie year (when he had a "pedestrian" 28), and has since had five straight years of at least 32 home runs. However, Prince Fielder has always played for the National League and his home stadium was Miller Park, the Milwaukee Brewers' ballpark that helps the batter more than the pitcher.
Now with Fielder in Detroit's Comerica Park, I think his power numbers will be down in his first year as a Tiger. Players usually have trouble in the first season switching leagues because they face numerous of pitchers against whom they have not had a lot of previous experience. He also goes to a more pitcher-hitter neutral stadium in Comerica Park. In fact, 9 out of the 24 home runs Fielder hit in Miller Park last season would not have been home runs in Comerica Park. And if you subtract those 9 from Fielder's total of 38 last season, you would get a much less impressive 29 home runs.
Don't get me wrong, Prince Fielder will help the Tigers return to the playoffs this year, but for those people expecting Prince and Miguel Cabrera to put up video game home run totals, you may want to think again.
The Rays have been an enigma over the past couple years, stealing playoff spots from the powerhouse New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in three of the past four years. The Rays, who spend significantly less than either team (Their 2011 payrolls were: Yankees - $202 million, Red Sox - $161 million, Rays - $42 million), have relied on their strong farm system and savvy spending by their front office to compete in the American League East.
Last season, the Rays were supposed to tank after losing their superstar left fielder (Carl Crawford), their second-best starting pitcher (Matt Garza), their starting first basemen and shortstop (Carlos Peña and Jason Bartlett), and most of their bullpen in the offseason. Yet they completed one of the most remarkable playoff runs in MLB history (thanks in large part to the Red Sox and their collapse) before bowing out in the A.L. Divisional Series against the Texas Rangers.
This offseason, they did not lose anyone. They actually signed a couple of power bats (Peña and Luke Scott) to go along with arguably the deepest starting rotation in baseball. Yes Phillies and Giants fans, I don't think your teams have the pitching depth of Big Game James Shields, young flamethrowers David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, reliable spot starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, and top pitching prospect Matt Moore.
The top of the offense is loaded with young studs in Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and last year's game-162 hero Evan Longoria. The Rays additionally have one of the top defensive teams in baseball. Manager Joe Maddon will find a way with this young and promising team to once again propel the scrappy Rays to win the AL East over the mighty Yanks and Red Sox.
4. Only One Team From California Will Make The Playoffs
I think this prediction is extra bold considering the MLB's addition of a second Wild Card this season. The Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres do not have the offensive firepower to compete for a postseason spot this season, so we can eliminate them immediately.
The Dodgers have two elite talents who will contend for the MVP and Cy Young the next decade in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. However, outside of those two guys, the Dodgers do not have a lot of elite talent developed. While the ownership controversy is solved, (the Magic Johnson-led group will help the Dodgers a lot) the lack of spending the Dodgers have done over the previous offseasons has hurt them a lot. Even though they are in the wide open National League West, I think the Dodgers are one year away (since they now have ownership who can spend money) from becoming a playoff contender.
That leaves the Los Angeles Angels and the San Francisco Giants as the last two California teams. Despite the addition of another playoff spot in each league, I still have a gut feeling that only one of these two talented teams will make the postseason. The competition is simply too great this year for both teams. The American League is absolutely stacked this year, with six incredible teams vying for five spots (Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Angels, and Rangers) the competition will be tight.
The Giants don't have an easy road either, with the defending NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks ready to repeat. The wild card spots will not be an easy task either, having to deal with the four-headed monster in the NL East (Phillies, Nationals, Braves, Marlins) and the loser of the NL Central battle of the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers. It looks more and more likely that California will have an easy time choosing which team to root for this postseason.
This is the Year of the Comeback. The races for AL and NL Comeback Player of the Year will be interesting ones to follow this year because there are so many viable candidates like Adam Wainwright, Josh Johnson, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, Carl Crawford and Ichiro. However, the one guy who I love to have a big comeback is Adam Dunn. Dunn had at least 40 home runs in five straight seasons (2004-2008), and when he moved to pitcher's paradise Nationals Park, he still put up 38 home runs in each season he played there (2009 and 2010). So when he signed with the Chicago White Sox last season, despite his switching leagues, people were predicting big power numbers for Dunn since he was playing in hitter's heaven U.S. Celluar Field.
What resulted was one of the worst offensive seasons in MLB History, with Dunn hitting an otherworldly .159 and hitting a career worst 11 home runs. However, this spring training Dunn has shown great signs that he is ready to bounceback. In his 32 spring training at-bats, he's hit four home runs, and more importantly has a .250 batting average to go along with a 12:4 walk-to-strikeout ratio. While his strikeout totals will not be this low during the season, expect the power to return and a possible AL Comeback Player of the Year trophy to follow.
6. The Biggest Name Dealt This Season Will Be Felix Hernandez
In 2011, the Seattle Mariners had another disappointing last-place finish in the AL West, finishing with 29 fewer wins than the Texas Rangers and 19 fewer wins than the Los Angeles Angels. And this was before the Angels landed their two prized free agent acquisitions in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. Do you see any way for the Mariners to compete in a division where they have one team who has represented the American League in the past two pennants and another team who is clearly on the rise with their bold offseason moves and phenomenal pitching?
King Felix has pitched brilliantly for the Mariners, but once his contract expires in 2014, would anyone really expect him to return to the Mariners over a legit contender (assuming the Rangers and Angels will still be powerhouses in that division)? Some thought that King Felix would have gotten traded over Michael Pineda this offseason, but with Felix's value as high as it is, it may be time to trade him for some top prospects so the Mariners can contend while the Rangers and Angels are getting older.
The Mariners also have some great pitching prospects already (Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen to name a couple), but they really need an influx of young talent on the offensive side of the ball to help 2B Dustin Ackley. Don't be surprised if a contender gives the Mariners a Godfather offer for Felix, and the Mariners take it, realizing that they will probably have to go into a full rebuilding mode over the next couple of years before they can compete with the big boys of the West.
The last time a World Series winner followed it up with a losing record, it was the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals. And that 2007 ballclub still had Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa after winning the championship. This 2012 Cards team will have a manager without any prior experience managing at any level (Mike Matheny) and its big replacement for Pujols is an injury-prone, aging outfielder (Carlos Beltran). Not only did the Cardinals lose one of the greatest hitters and greatest managers of all time, they may have lost their ace Chris Carpenter for a while as well due to a nerve injury. And do you really expect Lance Berkman to have a season that even somewhat resembles the dream comeback season he had last year?
The Cardinals offense will struggle to score runs, and they will probably have to rely on postseason heroes David Freese and Allen Craig, two guys who have had very little regular season success. And their bullpen isn't exactly the most talented group. The bullpen's strength is matchups (righty-righty, lefty-lefty), which La Russa managed so beautifully. But will Matheny be able to use them as effectively?
Even with their other ace Adam Wainwright coming back from Tommy John surgery (and there are even concerns about how effective Wainwright can be after the surgery), there are too many question marks on this team. Add in the fact that the Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are better teams than the Cardinals, and I don't see better than a losing record and a third-place finish in the NL Central.
8. In Its First Year Of Inception, One Of The Second Wild Card Teams Will Make The World Series
Ever since the Wild Card was created in 1995, Wild Card postseason teams have had a great amount of success in postseason play. Five Wild Card teams have won the World Series (including the St. Louis Cardinals last year) and there was even a six-year stretch from 2002-2007 that had at least one Wild Card team in the World Series each year.
This year, with the amount of competition that each league has, it is entirely conceivable to believe that the second Wild Card team could actually have more talent than some of the division winning teams. A second wild card team that is coming from the loaded American League or a much-better-than-you-think National League East can make some noise in the postseason this season. Also, wouldn't it be fitting for the first year of this newly-instilled process to instantly pay dividends for one of the teams benefitting from the second Wild Card?
What do Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Gaylord Perry all have in common? Besides all being outstanding pitchers, they are the five pitchers to have won both the AL and NL Cy Young Awards. This year, I believe that Zack Greinke will be the sixth pitcher to join this exclusive club.
After winning the AL Cy Young in 2009 with the Kansas City Royals, Greinke was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers before the 2011 season. However, he got off to a rough start because he fractured his rib while playing basketball, and he did not pitch until May. Greinke still finished with a 16-6 record and over 200 strikeouts, however his ERA was much higher than expected at 3.83. However, sabermetric statistics still love what Greinke did last year because of his great peripheral numbers (like his MLB-leading 1.17 strikeout per inning and his very low walk totals, 45 walks in 171 innings). Greinke's xFIP (a sabermetric stat that is a good indicator of future performance) was 2.56, which was the best in baseball.
Because the Brewers had a below-average defense last year, Greinke's ERA was much higher than what it would have been if he has an average defense. Also, once he settled in with the Brewers, he went on to have a 2.59 ERA and hold batters to a .234 batting average after the All-Star Break. He's also had an incredible spring training, allowing just 2 runs in his 19.1 innings or a 0.93 ERA. It's always a tough bet to predict the best starting pitcher in the National League because it's loaded with elite ones (Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum to name a few), but this is the year Greinke reverts back to complete 2009 form and captures his second Cy Young Award.
10. Ryan Howard And Chase Utley Will Miss Over 100 Combined Games, Yet The Phillies Will Still Make The Playoffs
First baseman Ryan Howard made the last out for the Philadelphia Phillies against the Cardinals in last year's NL Division Series, and he ruptured his Achilles while doing so. In what looked like an absolutely gruesome injury, people immediately thought that Howard's 2012 season was in jeopardy. Recently, Howard was seen without wearing his protective boot, and now he expects to be ready for a late May/early June return.
Second baseman Chase Utley missed quite a few games last year, and now the injury problems have returned during spring training this year. Utley was sent to a specialist due to his chronic knee problems and the injuries are now becoming a common tale with Utley. No one on the Phillies knows when Utley will be ready to return, or even healthy. Also, expect Utley to receive a lot of days off this year to keep his knees in decent enough shape for the season.
Despite the Phillies missing their two power bats for what is expected to be a good amount of time, I still think they will make the playoffs due to their pitching. Their top three starters (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee) are the best in baseball, and they revamped their bullpen by signing All-Star and former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. They still have enough talent on offense with the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino to keep the offense afloat while their big bashers heal. However, this team has way too much pitching talent to miss the postseason.