I can smell the fresh cut grass. I can hear the familiar pop of a crisply throw baseball into a worn-in mitt. I envision the players picking grounders, lackadaisically stretching in the outfield, and taking soft toss batting practice while the hot sun beams down on the field. Few things generate the given euphoria I feel every year when I hear those words.
But 2012 is set up to be a strange season. Usually, by the Winter Meetings you have a general idea of what teams will be there come August/September – Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Cardinals, etc.
Not as much this year.
2012 is capable of housing a severe shake-up in the standings. Perennial losers have worked up their farm systems to achieve at least share of preseason credibility, and some big market teams have a realistic chance to have a down year. Here are some surprise teams to look out for in 2012:
New manager, New players, New fan base, New image, New attitude
The “loser” mentality is gone. The new ballpark in Miami will attract more fans and the young players will thrive off the energy of a home crowd – something they could only dream of in Sun Life Stadium.
The Ozzie Guillen move was perfect. His no-BS attitude will halt any ingrained pessimism inherited from playing in front of consistent 8,000 fan crowds. He’ll manage his young players correctly (they’ll hate him, but Guillen will make them winners) and bring some media attention to the team – therefore pulling in the casual fan.
Jose Reyes was a steal. He comes back to a warm-weather climate comparable to his home in the Dominican Republic, his home crowd won’t hate him, and – let’s just face it, he’s not on the Mets. He won’t bat .337 again, but he won’t be a cancer either.
(On a side note, Reyes’ flawed attitude was showcased after his self-dismissal last year to secure the batting title. I would not want him on my team. This deal may be real bad in three years, but this year he’ll be a stud.)
Emilio Bonafacio had a breakout year in 2011. He batted .296, was third on the team in doubles, and can play anywhere on the field. If he can limit his strikeouts (129 in 152 games in 2011) he’ll be a key player.
Mike Stanton is a baller. He’ll be fine this year.
Final Record: 83-79, 3rd in the NL East.
Young talent, Easy division, Unexpected leader
On July 19th, the Pirates were 51-44 and sat atop the NL Central. They have the talent to be good – and they will be. Inexperience is usually the diagnosis of a young team’s late season failures, as was the case in 2011. But what veteran has the possibility to lead the Pirates in 2012?…
I’ve said it since 2010. The first year out of New York will be a rejuvenation season for Burnett. Didn’t matter what team he played on. He couldn’t handle New York (yes, he did during Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, and it’s the sole reason he leaves NYC on good terms), but in Pittsburgh, there’s no pressure. He’s going to be more relaxed, content, and effective. Look for Burnett to go 15-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 2012.
Andrew McCutchen had a different season in 2011. His home runs were up but his batting average was down. If he can level out yet continue to work those walks, he can set the pace for an offense that struggled mightily last season. They were 14th in the NL in runs scored in 2011.
The top two teams in the NL Central in 2011 will take severe steps back in 2012. The NL Central champion Brewers lost their best player Ryan Braun for 50 games and their second best player Prince Fielder for life. When Braun comes back, who knows what kind of player he’ll be.
*2/24 UPDATE: The Brewers will get off to a better fifty game start now that Braun’s suspension has been reversed. The Pirates will have to overcome Braun’s presence which will be a daunting task.
The World Series Champion Cardinals lost Albert Pujols and their eventual Hall of Fame Manager. Do I think that’s enough to catapult the Pirates past the Cardinals in the standings? Honestly… no, but there’s a chance.
Will this be the season the Pirates finally have a winning season? They haven’t had one in 19 years, a record in the four major sports.
Yes; 83-79 at season’s end.
Kansas City Royals
If Not Now, When?
I have to throw the Royals in here because they will be good. I just don’t know whether this year or in four. The Royals have had the strongest farm system in baseball for some time. The players have had a long time to grow into the game and are now expected to make a splash in the standings.
If Eric Hosmer can be as good as people think he may be, he can set the pace for this young team. Don’t be surprised if the Royals start the season 15-5. Of course they won’t keep that pace up, but they’ll be fun to watch in 2012.
Final Record: 80-82, nine game improvement from 2011 (71-91).
Stephen Strasberg, Winning Atmosphere
The Nationals are going to be real good this season. They have some scary talent and a juicy blend of young and seasoned players. Plus, they’ve shown they are committed to winning when they signed Jayson Werth last season.
Strasberg is off Tommy John Surgery, which means he may be throwing even harder than before his injury. Mike Morse will look to work off his stellar 2011 and Jordan Zimmermann is capable of winning 15 games. Zimmermann was 8-11 last season, but with a 3.10 ERA.
Brad Lidge is back to give the Nationals confidence in the ninth, and everyone will go crazy with support for Bryce Harper if he makes his Major League debut in 2012.
If they can score runs and Strasberg has a big campaign, why can’t this team finish 85-77? The NL East is not entirely brutal this season.
I still don’t know if what they have puts them over the hump, so I say their final record is 82-80, but don’t look them over just because they’re the Nationals.
Looking at the opposite end of the Major League spectrum, the Yankees will be good this season, but who knows how the Red Sox will respond after their epic collapse last September? The Phillies proved shutouts don’t mean anything if the offense can’t score, plus they lost Roy Oswalt.
Fantasy owners are going to go crazy in the first two weeks of the season – there’s a lot of unknown talent in this year’s bunch. Many divisions are up for grabs, as well. Either way, baseball is here and never too soon. I have my calendar ready for Opening Night and my mitt literally right next to me.
Play Ball – because baseball is back.