Articles By Charlie Miller
Career complete game by Phil Humber of the Chicago White Sox. The 29-year-old, who has been claimed off waivers twice in his career, had never pitched into the ninth inning before his perfect game against the Mariners on Saturday.
Run differential for the Texas Rangers, who are 13-3 on the season. Texas has three one-run losses to the White Sox, Mariners and Tigers.
Hits by Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski at Fenway Park, the most of any player in the stadium’s 100-year history.
Games started at catcher by the trio of Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek and Ivan Rodriguez, who all retired since last season. They combined to play in 228 postseason games, including 48 World Series games, winning seven championships.
Age of Colorado’s Jamie Moyer, who became the oldest pitcher to win a major league game with a victory over San Diego on April 17. Moyer tossed seven innings and allowed no earned runs to lower his ERA to 2.55. It was win No. 268 for the veteran lefthander.
Players who participated in Moyer’s historic win who were not born at the time the veteran pitcher made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs in 1986. Cameron Maybin, the first batter Moyer faced in the game, Anthony Bass, the opposing pitcher, Wilin Rosario, Moyer’s catcher, Rex Brothers, who relieved him and Yonder Alonso, who later pinch-hit for the Padres, were all born after Moyer made it to the big leagues. Eric Young, Jr. pinch-hit for Moyer. Young’s father, Eric Young, Sr., a 15-year major league player himself, was just age 19 and still six years away from his major league debut with the Dodgers, when Moyer first pitched for the Cubs on June 16, 1986.
After three times through the rotation (and four starts for ace Stephen Strasburg), the Washington Nationals’ rotation has been dominant. Extremely dominant. All five starters boast a WHIP below 1.00, allowing less than one base runner per inning. While the numbers are staggering (1.82 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, two home runs in 98.2 innings, .186 batting average against), the success of the group isn’t that shocking. All five starters have, at some point in their careers, been projected as top-of-the-rotation aces.
Certainly, they will come down to earth and cough up a few bad outings, but the Nationals’ plan to build around starting pitching is coming together nicely.
Ace Strasburg has been hyped as a Hall of Famer since the Nats made him very rich as the first overall draft pick in 2009. After missing about 12 months recovering from Tommy John surgery, the fireballer is dominating again. Over 25 innings, he's allowed just three runs. The Nats have won all four of his starts, but he has two no-decisions, one after pitching six scoreless innings against Miami. Imagine how good this guy can be once the Nats decide to turn him loose. Strasburg has been allowed to pitch into the seventh inning just once this season.
Ross Detwiler, who leads the staff with a 0.56 ERA, was the team’s first round pick out of Missouri State in 2007. The organization thought enough of Detwiler to promote him to the big leagues three months after he was drafted.
Jordan Zimmermann was taken in the second round in 2007, and in four seasons of minor league pitching, he allowed just 182 hits in 235 innings. He was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008, and blossomed last season with a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts for Washington.
Gio Gonzalez was a first-round pick by the White Sox in 2004 and was subsequently traded three times before Oakland dealt him to Washington this winter. In two full seasons with the A’s, Gonzalez was 31-21 with a 3.17 ERA and gave up 346 hits in 402.2 innings with 368 Ks.
Edwin Jackson was once considered by Baseball America (2004) as the No. 4 prospect in baseball. The 2001 sixth-round pick of the Dodgers never turned the corner in the minor leagues, but his major league numbers have been much better. This season, he tossed a two-hit complete game against Cincinnati, then had a horrendous first inning against the Astros, before settling down. He tied James Shields for the team lead in wins for the Rays in their historic pennant-winning season in 2008, and was a part of the world champion Cardinals’ staff down the stretch last season.
This weekend, the best rotation in baseball will take on the senior circuit’s best offensive player in Matt Kemp as the Nationals visit the Dodgers. Detwiler will get the ball for the opener on Friday night against the reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Strasburg will be on the hill on Saturday against Chad Billingsley. Two lefties, Gonzalez and Chris Capuano, will take the stage for the finale on Sunday.
- Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)
Each week during the season Athlon Sports looks at the best and worst baseball teams in the league. Here's our MLB Power Rankings for April 23, 2012.
1. Rangers—Josh Hamilton early MVP candidate.
2. Dodgers—Mark Ellis is proving to be a nice offseason acquisition.
3. Yankees—Yanks rained homers on Boston’s weekend parade.
4. Tigers—Justin Verlander was only answer for powerful Texas offense.
5. Cardinals—Won first five three-game series of the year.
6. Nationals—Rotation is best in baseball right now.
7. Blue Jays—Part of logjam in AL East.
8. Braves—Michael Bourn and Freddie Freeman getting it done.
9. Diamondbacks—Won’t face Dodgers until mid-May.
10. Rays—Pitchers prepping for vaunted Rangers offense this weekend.
11. Indians—Hafner and Hannahan hitting above .340; teammates, .221.
12. Phillies—Only the Pirates have scored fewer runs.
13. Reds—Team batting average mired at .223.
14. Brewers—Only team to take a series from the Dodgers.
15. Angels—Better batting average than opponents, but fewer runs.
16. Rockies—Won three series in a row.
17. Giants—Buster Posey hitting his way into MVP talk.
18. White Sox—Perseverance pays off for humble Humber.
19. Marlins—Last four losses by one or two runs.
20. Orioles—Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles trip yielded a 6-4 record.
21. Red Sox—On the outside looking in at four-team division race.
22. Mets—Of the four NLers hitting above .370, two play for the Mets.
23. A’s—Scored fewest runs in American League.
24. Mariners—Can M’s get Felix Hernandez any runs?
25. Pirates—A.J. Burnett gave Bucs huge lift on Saturday.
26. Astros—Closer Brett Myers becoming valuable trade bait.
27. Cubs—Cubs have just five homers through 16 games.
28. Padres—Opponents are slugging just .316 at Petco Park.
29. Twins—Only Boston has allowed more runs.
30. Royals—Lost first nine games at home.
After last night, 59 players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title are homerless so far this season. Some like infielders Daniel Descalso and Ruben Tejada may not hit one all season. And, yes, we know it’s less than a month into the season, but we like to have fun anyway.
Here are some notable players yet to go yard:
Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs
Forget the $79 million the Cubs have already sunk into this guy. But they still owe him $54 million to cover this season through 2014. I think there’s been a heist on the North Side.
Jayson Werth, Washington
We’re giving Werth a break because he’s hitting .347. But the Nats are paying him handsomely to produce runs. He has just six RBIs and four runs scored.
Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
The poster boy for this list. How can King Albert not have any home runs two weeks into the season? Although this is the longest drought to start a season in his career, we’re betting on Pujols to finish north of 35.
Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
We know. We know. He’s a notorious slow starter, so leave him alone, right? Why? He’s a .238 career hitter prior to May 1 and .289 after. He’s driven in just 10 percent of his runs in April. Maybe the Yankees should pay him only half his salary in April.
Ryan Zimmerman, Washington
Over the winter, the Nats gave Zim what is essentially a lifetime contract, which is guaranteed through 2019 with a team option for 2020. We’re not giving up on Zimmerman being a terrific player, just merely pointing out that hs hasn’t homered since inking a huge deal.
Mark Reynolds, Baltimore
The Orioles might be able to stomach the 15 whiffs in only 36 at-bats if they were just one home run to show for the big swings.
Justin Upton, Arizona
He now has a jammed thumb, which could land him on the DL. Prior to that, the D’backs’ No. 3 hitter had just two extra-base hits and no RBIs.
Giancarlo Stanton, Miami
We’re reverting to Mike until he hits at least one bomb.
Regardless what the standings look like now, with the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox teetering near the bottom of the AL East, they are not likely to end the season there. The Baltimore Orioles are bad enough that they won’t let it happen this season, but just in case you’re wondering, the last time the Yankees and Red Sox finished last and next-to-last in their division/league was in 1966. The only other time was way back in 1925.
Now in 1966, the Red Sox were a year away from winning the pennant in 1967, and the Yankees were just two years removed from winning five straight from 1960-64. Boston had stars like Carl Yastrzemski, George Scott, Jim Lonborg and a young Tony Conigliaro. The Yankees had Elston Howard behind the plate, Bobby Richardson at second and an outfield of Roy White, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Howard, Mantle and Maris were all former MVPs. Mel Stottlemyre and Al Downing led the pitching staff that included an aging Whitey Ford.
But with all that star power, somehow the Red Sox managed to finish ninth, 26 games back of the Orioles (who swept the Dodgers in the World Series) and the Yankees a half game behind the Sox. I wonder how Mickey, Maris and Whitey felt about finishing last.
Back in 1925, the Red Sox were a collection of no-name players, so it’s understandable that they would finish last, 49.5 games out of first. The BoSox had the worst offense, pitching and defense — last in batting average, last in runs, last in ERA, last in fielding percentage and made the most errors. It takes a microscope to find anything positive about that team.
But there was no excuse in New York. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Earle Combs led the Yankees’ lineup. You know, guys most fans have heard of. You would think that would be enough firepower to support a pitching staff of Herb Pennock, Urban Shocker, Waite Hoyt and Sad Sam Jones. And the Yankees were 21 games better than the Red Sox, but still finished seventh in the eight-team league. Must have been why Sam was so sad.
- Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie)
Active pitchers who have held opponents to a sub-.200 batting average over a full season: Justin Verlander 2011 (.192); Johan Santana 2004 (.192); Kerry Wood 1998 (.196) [min. 162 innings].
Times players have hit 40-plus home runs in a season over the past three years. Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols are the only players to accomplish it twice.
Teams that ended last weekend with a team batting average below .200. The Padres ended Sunday with a .191 average and the Pirates finished up at .188.
Pitching staffs that ended last weekend holding opponents to a sub-.200 batting average. Toronto’s pitchers are holding opponents to a .199 average, and the Nationals’ pitchers are even stingier at .186.
Players with enough plate appearances to qualify hitting below the Mendoza Line (.200).
Players with enough plate appearances to qualify not even on the interstate yet, hitting below .100. Marlon Byrd of the Cubs ranks at the bottom of the 193 players with a .065 average and .212 OPS.
Remember those cool little trophies that Topps has put on baseball cards of the previous year’s best rookies? The card company began the practice in 1960 honoring the best rookies from 1959 — a group that included the likes of Pumpsie Green and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey.
Since that time, Topps has forsaken the trophies in a few years, but has continued to select an All-Rookie Team. Topps usually honors eight position players and two pitchers, one right-handed, one lefty. We prefer four starters and a closer.
Here’s our lineup of the top 2012 rookies we believe will be honored by Topps at the end of the season. Some are still in the minors, but you will know their names by the end of the summer.
Hector Sanchez, San Francisco
Sanchez won’t get as many plate appearances as other catchers because of some guy named Buster Posey. But as the Giants get Posey more time at first base, Sanchez will continue to impress with his bat and arm.
Others: Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati; Wilin Rosario, Colorado
Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
Rizzo is likely to make the scene by the end of May, and will immediately take his place in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup. The Cubbies need his bat, for sure.
Other: Chris Parmelee, Minnesota
Freddy Galvis, Philadelphia
Given the full-time gig in Philadelphia until Chase Utley returns, Galvis’ bat has been slow starting this season, but he knows how to play the position — and there is little competition at the position.
Other: Kolten Wong, St. Louis
Nolan Arenado, Colorado
The third baseman has hit well at every stop, including spring training this season. The hot corner in Denver will be his later this summer. He is among the best long-term prospects on this list as well.
Tyler Pastornicky, Atlanta
Clearly, the deepest position for rookies this season, there are shortstops galore. Pastornicky isn’t the best defender of this group, but he is expected to hit close to .300 and steal 20-plus bases.
Others: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati; Nick Franklin, Seattle; Marwin Gonzalez, Houston; Jose Iglesias, Boston
Each week Athlon Sports looks back at the previous week's best baseball players in the American and National leagues, and recaps the most outstanding pitching performances. Here are last week's—April 9-15—standouts.
National League Player of the Week
Matt Kemp, Los Angeles
For the second week in a row, the most feared hitter in the NL is honored here. Kemp hit .455 for the week with an NL-leading four home runs and nine RBIs. He scored seven times.
National League Pitcher of the Week
Jake Westbrook, St. Louis
The Cardinals are getting strong starting pitching from unexpected sources, and Westbrook tossed two gems this week. He won at Cincinnati, then defeated the Cubs at home. In 14 innings he was 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 0.86 WHIP.
American League Player of the Week
Josh Willingham, Minnesota
The Twins are struggling to score runs, but Willingham showed why Minnesota signed the free agent over the winter. He hit an even .500 and slugged north of 1.000 with three home runs.
American League Pitcher of the Week
C.J. Wilson, Los Angeles
It hasn’t been the kind of start to the 2012 season that the Angels expected, but Wilson was a lone bright spot last week. He won both his starts with a 1.38 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.
Each week during the season Athlon Sports looks at the best and worst baseball teams in the league. Here's our MLB Power Rankings for April 16, 2012.
1. Rangers—Joe Nathan gets first save, bullpen only potential problem.
2. Dodgers—Matt Kemp determined to have monster season.
3. Tigers—Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder latest version of Bash Bros.
4. Yankees—Derek Jeter off to hottest start of his career.
5. Cardinals—Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook are all 2-0.
6. Diamondbacks—Bullpen becoming strength of the team.
7. Nationals—Stephen Strasburg is officially dominant.
8. Blue Jays—Kyle Drabek finally pitching like an ace.
9. Phillies—Phils’ leader: 5 RBIs; Ryan Howard: 11 after 9 games in 2011.
10. Red Sox—Big Papi crushing the ball early.
11. Braves—Atlanta needs Jason Heyward and he’s producing.
12. Rays—Rays out of the gate slowly once again.
13. Brewers—Cleanup hitters are batting just .103 with no homers.
14. Angels—Offense is struggling and bullpen is terrible.
15. Reds—Aroldis Chapman dominant in relief role.
16. Indians—Derek Lowe settling in as Cleveland’s ace.
17. Giants—Tough blow losing Brian Wilson for the season.
18. Rockies—Rockies and opponents have identical .777 OPS.
19. Mariners—Outhomered 15-7, but outscored by only two, 42-40.
20. Marlins—Giancarlo Santon yet to go deep, Omar Infante has four.
21. Orioles—Four regulars hitting better than .285; four below .220.
22. Mets—Relievers Francisco, Byrdak, Rauch and Parnell 1 ER in 16.2 IP.
23. White Sox—Opponents batting .196 with runners in scoring position.
24. A’s—May have found another ace in lefty Tom Milone.
25. Pirates—Bucs have 2.57 ERA and .188 batting average.
26. Royals—Hitting .313 at home, .227 on the road.
27. Astros—J.D. Martinez becoming a big hit in Houston.
28. Cubs—Cubs have no home runs from their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters.
29. Padres—Hitting .219 on the road, .179 at Petco Park.
30. Twins—Josh Willingham brings big bat to Minneapolis.
1. St. Louis
The St. Louis Cardinals seemed to be riding a magic carpet for two months last season, turning a 10.5-game deficit in the wild card chase into a World Series win. At least some — if not all — of that magic left town with Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa. But the Cardinals have enough talented veterans to win the division. Catcher Yadier Molina is the heart and soul of this team now, and the return of Adam Wainwright certainly helps. Due to Lance Berkman’s age and Carlos Beltran’s recent history and David Freese’s only history, the second, fourth and fifth hitters in the lineup are huge injury risks. If the Cardinals stay reasonably healthy, new manager Mike Matheny will enjoy his first ride at the helm.
NL MVP Ryan Braun will miss the presence of Prince Fielder in the Milwaukee lineup, no doubt. Having Aramis Ramirez on deck while you’re hitting just isn’t the same. But the Brewers have a solid rotation and proven bullpen and cannot be counted out.
The Reds signed closer Ryan Madson to a one-year deal, seemingly going all-in for 2012. But Madson needs Tommy John surgery and suddenly things don’t look so bright. Cincinnati made a huge ($225 million) commitment to keep Joey Votto in town for what could be his entire career. The Reds learned from the proceedings in St. Louis and Milwaukee this winter and were determined to keep their star first baseman.
Pittsburgh is still young and some of its hyped position players are beginning to blossom. But where are the pitchers? GM Theo Epstein has the huge task of rebuilding the Cubs in front of him. The Astros are young and building for their move to the AL West in 2013.
Best Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Milwaukee
Best Hitter: Joey Votto, Cincinnati
Best Manager: Dusty Baker, Cincinnati
Rising Star: Shelby Miller, St. Louis
Most wins next five years (2013-17)
1. St. Louis
— Charlie Miller
Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie
2. Atlanta (wild card)
5. New York
With cracks appearing in the Philadelphia offense, the NL East has become the most competitive division in baseball. The Phillies have the most daunting rotation in the National League with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. But without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard for much of the season, the Phillies will struggle to score runs. There will be tremendous pressure on Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence to carry the offense. We may see the Phillies manufacturing runs with speed this season.
The door is open — or at least ajar — for the Braves, Nationals and Marlins to enter. Atlanta will have the pitching to compete, but the offense may struggle unless Jason Heyward can hit at 2010 levels, and not what we saw last season. You have to wonder how long catcher Brian McCann can continue to carry such a huge offensive load.
The Nats are up and coming, and fast. With Stephen Strasburg back and Bryce Harper on the way, the Nats are the team of the future. Expect Harper to show up as the team’s centerfielder by mid-May.
The Marlins’ spending spree and move into a new stadium made them winners over the offseason, but there are still a few parts needed in order to be winners during the season. Outfield defense could spell trouble in their spacious park. The Mets simply have no chance in this division.
Best Starting Pitcher: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia
Best Hitter: Hanley Ramirez, Miami
Best Manager: Charlie Manuel, Philadelphia
Rising Star: Bryce Harper, Washington
Most wins next five years (2013-17)
5. New York
— Charlie Miller
Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie
1. San Francisco
2. Arizona (wild card)
3. Los Angeles
5. San Diego
The NL West is the home of some of the game’s brightest stars in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum of San Francisco and Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki. But the teams are not so great. San Francisco with its pitching, and Arizona with its grit, should fight it out for the division title. The loser will get one of the two wild cards.
The Giants will trot out Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner every five days. Add to that Ryan Vogelsong — if 2011 was too much of an aberration — and Barry Zito. The bullpen is stingy; led by closer Brian Wilson and setup man Sergio Romo. But who will generate the offense? Good question.
Manager Kirk Gibson did a masterful job in his first full season as skipper in Phoenix. He has two horses atop his rotation in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. The bullpen is a little iffy and other than Justin Upton, there is no fear in this lineup either.
The recent sale of the Dodgers should begin the transformation of one of the game’s most storied franchises. The Giants and D’backs need to win while they can before the big blue monster is unleashed. Kemp and Cy Young winner Kershaw are impressive cornerstones.
Colorado actually has a chance to compete this year, but will need better-than-expected seasons from its starting pitching. San Diego has no chance.
Best Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
Best Hitter: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
Best Manager: Bruce Bochy, San Francisco
Rising Star: Dee Gordon, Los Angeles
Most wins next five years (2013-17)
1. Los Angeles
2. San Francisco
5. San Diego
— Charlie Miller
Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie
2. Los Angeles (wild card)
While the Los Angeles Angels upped the ante in the AL West by signing the ultimate free agent, Albert Pujols, and by signing away the Rangers’ best pitcher, C.J. Wilson, the Rangers didn’t blink. Texas remains the best team in the division with a lineup featuring Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler, although the gap is narrowing. Texas invested $111.7 million to replace Wilson in the rotation with Yu Darvish from Japan. They also moved Neftali Feliz, their closer the past two seasons, into the rotation.
Pujols provides a huge presence in the Angels’ lineup, but with little support he may find himself trotting to first base, or chasing less desirable pitches this season. But the Angels won 86 games without King Albert and with a bullpen that blew 25 saves. Expect a much-improved bullpen this season. The rotation, of course, is one of the best if not the best in the American League. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Wilson are all Cy Young candidates.
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s are miles behind their competitors.
Best Starting Pitcher: Dan Haren, Los Angeles
Best Hitter: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles
Best Manager: Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles
Rising Star: Mike Trout, Los Angeles
Most wins next five years (2013-17)
1. Los Angeles
— Charlie Miller
Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie
3. Kansas City
There is very little debate about who is the best team in the AL Central. The Detroit Tigers have a healthier bullpen, a deeper rotation and a more potent lineup than they played with for most of last season, when they won the division by 15 games. Case closed. They replaced the injured Victor Martinez with slugger Prince Fielder, and will have the services of Delmon Young for a full season. What is lacking is defense. Pitchers like Justin Verlander may need to rely more on strikeouts and popups this season. Don’t be surprised if shortcomings on defense haunt this team in the postseason.
Cleveland surprised most fans last season and should continue to improve. The Tribe’s bullpen is terrific, but the rotation and lineup have serious questions. It will take a return to good health by Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore (expected back midseason) and steady improvement by young players for the Indians to chase down the Tigers.
Kansas City is still young and waiting for its uber prospects to break out. Injuries to catcher Sal Perez and closer Joakim Soria were tough blows.
The Twins found out last season just how bad they can be without playing sound baseball. The healthy return of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will help, but not nearly enough. The White Sox were a colossal flop last season — with little improvement expected in 2012.
Best Starting Pitcher: Justin Verlander, Detroit
Best Hitter: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
Best Manager: Jim Leyland, Detroit
Rising Star: Eric Hosmer, Kansas City
Most wins next five years (2013-17)
2. Kansas City
— Charlie Miller
Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie
1. New York
2. Tampa Bay (wild card)
It’s official. The Tampa Bay Rays are consistently competing with the rich boys up north. Make no mistake, the Yankees are clearly the team to beat in the AL East, but the Rays have a better rotation, play solid, fundamental defense and score just enough runs to win.
The Yankees’ lineup is stacked once again, even as New York’s stars are aging. Second baseman Robinson Cano of the Yankees is quickly becoming the game’s best all-around player. Curtis Granderson is a threat at the top of the lineup and Mark Teixeira shares duties with Cano the duties of anchoring the middle. At this point, the production the Yankees get from their older stars Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter is almost a bonus.
With James Shields and David Price leading a strong rotation, the Rays pose a tough challenge every night. Carlos Peña is back to bolster the lineup and support Evan Longoria, but offense is not how the Rays win.
The Boston Red Sox have a new manager in Bobby Valentine, who has accepted the challenge of forging a new culture in Boston. There are still a few too many questions in the rotation, and with closer Andrew Bailey out for an extended period, the bullpen as well. When good health is on the Red Sox side, this lineup is dangerous. But even though Boston is younger than New York, the injury issues are about equal.
Poor Toronto. The Jays are capable of competing in any other division. The second wild card will at least give them a chance. The Orioles may be the worst organization in baseball right now.
Best Starting Pitcher: David Price, Tampa Bay
Best Hitter: Robinson Cano, New York
Best Manager: Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay
Rising Star: Matt Moore, SP, Tampa Bay
Most wins next five years (2013-17)
1. New York
2. Tampa Bay
— Charlie Miller
Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie
San Francisco Giants
The Giants are trying to get back into the postseason after a post-World Series season in which almost nothing went right. Once again, they will rely on their pitching, just as they did to win the World Series in 2010 and to win 86 games and stay in contention last year. Their 3.20 ERA was second in the NL in 2011, and they return every key pitcher except Jonathan Sanchez, who did not have a good year. The upgrades to an offense that was the worst in the league are mostly “incremental,” which is GM-speak for “moves that probably won’t make much difference.” The most significant newcomers are Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera, neither of whom is an impact player. A bigger boost could come from Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez bouncing back from injuries, or from Aubrey Huff continuing the every-other-year pattern of his career.
It doesn’t get much better than the top two in this rotation, with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and the quietly dominating Matt Cain. Lincecum was just as good as he’s ever been, except he was victimized by criminal run support. The Giants scored 2.8 runs per start for Lincecum. Cain is used to that sort of thing, as his career 69–73 record, with a 3.35 ERA, attests. Young Madison Bumgarner is certainly better than most No. 3s. The 22-year-old cracked the 200-innings barrier last year, despite worries that his workload in 2010 might cause him problems. Ryan Vogelsong was the surprise of the staff, making the All-Star team after coming back from a three-year detour to Japan and another year in the minors. One of the big questions for the Giants will be whether Vogelsong was a one-year wonder. Finally, the most expensive No. 5 starter in the majors: Barry Zito. He has teased the Giants with good work for three or four weeks at a time, but not much more over his disastrous five years in San Francisco. At this point the Giants would just be happy if he could soak up league average innings.
Traditionally it’s hard to put together back-to-back good years out of a bullpen without changing the personnel because relievers, by their nature, are so inconsistent year to year. The Giants bucked the trend last year, though. Despite All-Star closer Brian Wilson missing the start of the season with an injury and having a few more struggles than usual (he still saved 36 games with a 3.11 ERA), the Giants posted a relief ERA of 3.04, second-best in the league. Sergio Romo emerged as a lights-out setup man, at one stretch retiring 30 consecutive batters over 14 games. Lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt held lefties to a combined .154 average. Santiago Casilla, who seemed sure to come back to earth after a 2010 that was so much better than the rest of his career, posted a 1.74 ERA. Perhaps the Giants are pressing their luck, but they will essentially have the same bullpen for a third consecutive season.
The Giants acquired Sanchez in a 2009 deadline trade, but they still haven’t seen a full season from the former batting champ. He’s been injured every year. Last year’s separated shoulder was so severe that it’s no sure thing Sanchez will be fully recovered by midseason. When he has been out there, he’s been consistent at the plate, hitting between .284 and .292 in each season with the Giants. Shortstop will once again be an issue, as it has been every year since Omar Vizquel left after the 2008 season. Brandon Crawford is in line to get the first shot at the job, even though his résumé doesn’t show any reason to believe he can hit in the majors. He’s a career .266 hitter in the minors, and he hit .204 in the majors last year. The Giants couldn’t afford to get an upgrade, so they’ll take Crawford’s above-average defense and hope he can be a respectable No. 8 hitter.
Pablo Sandoval saved his career with his bounce-back season in 2011, hitting .315 with 23 homers and earning an All-Star berth. His defense went from abysmal to above average. Funny what the loss of 40 pounds can do for you. Now, the challenge for Sandoval is to keep it going. If he relaxes at all, the weight will surely come back. On the other side of the diamond, the Giants could use another revival from Huff. Like Sandoval, Huff fell victim to poor conditioning during his down season. The difference is that Huff is now 35, so he’s got that going against him, too. His career has been marked by alternating good and bad years, but no one is assuming a rebound for him because of his age. The Giants are still hopeful than Brandon Belt will blossom, which could push Huff to left field or to the bench.
None of the starters from the World Series team is back. There’s also not much depth, because the only true outfielders are the three starters, with converted infielders as the backups. Right and center figure to be manned by two newcomers, Cabrera and Pagan. The alignment is going to be determined in spring training, but Pagan will probably get the first crack at center. Both players are coming off years that may have been aberrations, and the Giants are hoping that’s the case for Pagan (.694 OPS with the Mets) and not Cabrera (.809 OPS with the Royals). If either is motivated by money, that will benefit the Giants, as both are eligible for free agency after the 2012 season. If Nate Schierholtz proves he can hit big league pitching consistently, his glove will keep him in the lineup in right, switching Cabrera to left field. An excellent defender but not a prototypical corner outfield bat, Schierholtz has a career .727 OPS, and he’s never hit more than nine homers. The most likely scenario has Belt at first and Huff in left, Cabrera in right and Pagan in the middle.
Posey is going into his third year, but he’s played only one full season between his first two years in the majors. His sophomore year was cut short by a horrific ankle injury in May. Posey’s long rehab kept him mostly off the field until the fall, when he began doing some hitting and catching in Arizona. The Giants need Posey to be the offensive force he was in 2010, but that’s a lot to ask from a catcher. We’re still only assuming he can be that player over the long run, because he hasn’t done it yet.
Belt is the Giants’ most intriguing bench player, because ideally he won’t be on the bench at all. The Giants envision him as the long-term answer at first base. Belt or Huff could play in the outfield if the Giants want to get both bats in the lineup, but either would be a defensive liability. Ryan Theriot is a solid pro who can play multiple infield positions. He’s the primary fallback if Crawford can’t cut it. Emmanuel Burriss was rushed to the big leagues and never panned out as the middle infield starter the Giants had hoped, but now he’s become a valuable utilityman, able to play a few positions, switch-hit and run. He’ll likely fill in for Sanchez at second. Hector Sanchez has the potential to be an everyday catcher. That’s not necessarily good news since he’s blocked by Posey.
Manager Bruce Bochy and GM Brian Sabean are entering their sixth year working together. Both have ultimate respect for each other and a seemingly solid understanding of each other. There are always questions around both men about a perceived reluctance to let young players play, but the farm system hasn’t exactly churned out players who forced their way into the lineup. They will be challenged this year with how to handle youngsters like Crawford and Belt, and how to maximize Posey’s value without wearing him down.
You have to assume that the Giants are going to be better offensively than they were in 2011, simply because of the return of Posey and Sanchez. However, neither is a lock to be an impact player, Sanchez because of his injury history and Posey because he hasn’t proven himself over a full major league season. Most of the position players are journeymen, aging veterans or unproven youngsters, so it would be wrong to count on more than a couple of them being above average. That means it’s likely the pitchers who will have to carry this team again. They are good enough to keep the Giants in contention, but it will be up to the hitters to push them over the top.
CF Angel Pagan (S)
OPS declined two years in a row, but still hit better than Andres Torres in ’11.
RF Melky Cabrera (S)
Only 27, so there’s still reason to believe his ’11 breakout (.809 OPS) was for real.
3B Pablo Sandoval (S)
Career back on track after 2010, now must string two good years together.
C Buster Posey (R)
Catch-22? His value is behind the plate, but greatest risk of injury there too.
LF Aubrey Huff (L)
He has never had back-to-back full seasons with an OPS below .800, so he’s due to bounce back. Maybe.
1B Brandon Belt (L)
Has to find a way to lay off the high fastballs to hit consistently.
2B Emmanuel Burriss (S)
Speed and plays multiple positions. Perfect sub at second until Freddy Sanchez is healthy.
SS Brandon Crawford (L)
Hey, Omar Vizquel was overmatched at the plate when he first got called up, too.
2B Freddy Sanchez (R)
Has hit .290 since coming to the Giants, but hasn’t stayed healthy for a full season.
C Hector Sanchez (S)
Only 21 years of age and owns a .295 average in 319 minor league games.
OF Gregor Blanco
Dependable extra outfielder.
OF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Giants love his D, but just doesn’t have the pop to be an everyday right fielder.
INF Ryan Theriot (R)
Proved to be better at second than short for St. Louis last season.
UT Brett Pill (R)
A late bloomer, the 27-year-old provides some pop off the bench.
RH Tim Lincecum
Two years in a row he’s overcome a rough stretch to remind you how good he is.
RH Matt Cain
One of the most underrated players in the majors, period. The Giants believe enough to make him $200 million richer.
LH Madison Bumgarner
First Giant pitcher since Mike McCormick (1960) to pitch 200+ innings in age 21 season.
RH Ryan Vogelsong
What does he do for an encore after being one of baseball’s best stories in ’11? Should be off the DL by mid-April.
LH Barry Zito
If he can just be average, the Giants come out well ahead of most teams in the No. 5 spot.
RH Brian Wilson (Closer)
Leads major league baseball with 163 saves since start of 2008 season.
RH Sergio Romo
Before his teammate stole his thunder, he had the most famous beard in the bullpen.
LH Javier Lopez
Five of the past six years, Lopez has had an ERA of 3.10 or better.
LH Jeremy Affeldt
Lefties hit .144 against him in ’11; also had career-best WHIP of 1.15.
RH Santiago Casilla
The hardest thrower in the Giants bullpen had a 1.74 ERA in ’11.
RH Guillermo Mota
Long reliever has 50 plate appearances in 13 years — and two home runs.
RH Clay Hensley
Provides some veteran depth in pen.
Los Angeles Dodgers
For Dodgers fans, the long nightmare is over. Last year was one of the darkest in the storied franchise’s long history. A Giants fan was brutally beaten in the parking lot outside Dodger Stadium. The team’s owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, engaged in a tacky and embarrassing divorce battle. Frank also took the team into bankruptcy, battling with TV rights-holders and MLB hierarchy in the process. An organic boycott grew out of fans’ disgust with the franchise’s management, and attendance dipped below three million for only the second time in the past 16 years. McCourt eventually sold the team to a group headed by Magic Johnson and former Braves executive Stan Kasten, giving those fans hope for the future. The new owners inherit two very valuable assets in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp — two of the best young players in baseball. Unfortunately in the short term, though, GM Ned Colletti has been handcuffed by the franchise’s financial problems and surrounded those two stars with cheap spare parts. The Dodgers’ biggest offseason acquisition was starter Aaron Harang, signed as a free agent for two years and $12 million. But the sleeping giant has been awakened. The dark days are over and good times are coming.
The Dodgers had hoped by now to have one of the best 1-2 punches in the National League at the front of their rotation. They’re halfway there. Kershaw has blossomed into one of baseball’s best pitchers. He won the NL’s pitching Triple Crown in 2011, tying for the lead league in wins (21) and leading the NL in ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248) while running away with the Cy Young Award. However, righthander Chad Billingsley has yet to take his next step forward. Since winning 16 games back in 2008, the 27-year-old Billingsley has been basically a .500 pitcher (35–33) with a rising ERA (a career-high 4.21 last year) and slipping K-rate. The rest of the Dodgers’ rotation is an uninspiring group of middling veterans, placeholders for a wave of young talent led by injured Rubby De La Rosa. Harang and lefthander Chris Capuano were signed as free agents (at half the cost of departed free agent Hiroki Kuroda) to join Ted Lilly.
Jonathan Broxton’s four-year roller-coaster ride as the Dodgers’ closer ended with elbow surgery and free agency last year. In his place, Javy Guerra has stepped in as the last link in a young bullpen featuring only two veterans (Matt Guerrier and Mike MacDougal). Guerra was a godsend, making his major league debut in May and quickly laying claim to the closer’s role. As a rookie, he converted 21 of 23 save opportunities with a 2.31 ERA. He’ll team with hard-throwing Kenley Jansen as the finishers in the Dodgers’ bullpen. After a dynamic debut in 2010, Jansen got off to a rough start in 2011 before righting himself in a big way. From mid-June until the end of the season, Jansen retired 97 of the 120 batters he faced — 61 by strikeout. Though inexperienced, the Guerra-Jansen combo is a formidable hammer for manager Don Mattingly to wield at the back end of games. He’ll sort through a passel of young arms (including Josh Lindblom, Scott Elbert and Nathan Eovaldi) to build the rest of the pen.
Rookie shortstop Dee Gordon breathed some life into the Dodgers last season, batting .304 in 56 games after his big league debut in early June. Gordon was particularly dynamic in September, when he led all National Leaguers with 42 hits and stole 12 of his 24 bases (tied for the NL lead among rookies). The still-developing Gordon is a mixed bag (particularly defensively) at this point in his career. But the Dodgers will insert him at the leadoff spot and hope the spark he provides will outweigh the blunders. Alongside him at second base, meanwhile, will be a pair of veterans on the downside of their careers. Mark Ellis, 34, figures to get most of the playing time with Adam Kennedy in a utility role.
As he rose through their farm system, the Dodgers envisioned first baseman James Loney developing into a Mark Grace clone, providing defensive range at first with doubles power, high average and run production at the plate. Those visions have yet to be realized. Loney’s power has not emerged; he has driven in fewer runs each of the past two seasons, and his average seems stuck in the .280s. The Dodgers would like to see more punch from Loney to give them a complementary offensive piece behind Kemp. The other side of the infield was an even bigger disappointment in 2011. Casey Blake is gone, but Juan Uribe and his three-year, $21 million contract live on. Injured, out of shape and ineffective, Uribe hit just .204 in 77 games last season. With few alternatives, the Dodgers will give Uribe another chance to earn his salary at third in 2012.
Potential turned into reality with Kemp in 2011. The supremely gifted center fielder emerged as the best all-around player in the NL, just missing out on a 40-40 season and finishing second to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting while leading the league in home runs (39), RBIs (126) and runs scored (115), winning a Gold Glove, stealing 40 bases and batting .324. More of the same is expected after he signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. Simply more is expected from his outfield neighbors, particularly Andre Ethier in right. After a scorching start, Ethier finished the season with a .292 average, 11 home runs (matching a career-low) and 62 RBIs. If he rebounds, the Dodgers will have a robust 1-2 punch in the middle of their lineup. If not, the offense will continue to sag as it did in 2011. While Ethier and others were failing to support Kemp in the Dodgers’ 2011 lineup, Juan Rivera was a valuable midseason find, batting .274 with five home runs and 46 RBIs in 62 games with the Dodgers. That was enough to get him a new contract (one year with a club option for 2013). Tony Gwynn Jr. lurks, ready to take away playing time.
The Dodgers moved on from Russell Martin last season, trying to combine the talents of Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro to fill the vacancy at catcher. That didn’t work out very well. A.J. Ellis gets the chance now to lay claim to the primary catcher’s job with veteran Matt Treanor backing him up. The best asset Ellis has shown in his career is an ability to get on base — he has a career OBP of .406 in the minors and .360 in 87 major league games.
Colletti’s spare-parts approach to team-building (necessitated by the team’s uncertain finances) will be most evident on the bench, where the Dodgers’ roster thins out rapidly. It may take a year or so for the effect of new ownership to show here, but at least there are resources to add necessary parts during the season. Hairston Jr., a veteran utility man, and Kennedy offer versatility but little else. Treanor is a reliable backup at catcher. Only Gwynn threatens to be more than minimal role players.
In his first year as manager, Mattingly proved that he was up to a challenging situation, getting his team to finish strong (45 wins in the final 73 games) despite being out of the race. He proved to be a more hands-on presence than predecessor Joe Torre, getting the most out of the Dodgers’ best player, Kemp, who chafed under Torre and did not mesh well with his old-school coaching staff. If the Dodgers overachieved by finishing with a winning record (82–79) in Mattingly’s first season, he’ll have to milk more of the same out of a limited roster once again in 2012.
The NL West has been a difficult division to get a handle on. Four of the five teams have made the playoffs at least once in the past three seasons (the Padres being the only ones left in the cold) with a different division winner each of those years. The Dodgers’ best hope in 2012 might be for a similar open casting call extending deep into the season. That would allow time for new ownership to free Colletti’s hands for some midseason moves that could prove the difference in a close division race. Perhaps now the Dodgers can start performing like the big-market team they really are.
SS Dee Gordon (L)
Had more hits in September (42) than any hitter in the National League.
2B Mark Ellis (R)
OPS of Dodgers second basemen in 2011 (.627) was lowest in NL, 28th of 30 MLB teams.
CF Matt Kemp (R)
Monster year could herald arrival of mega-talented Kemp as MLB’s best all-around player.
RF Andre Ethier (L)
30-game hitting streak in April-May was one short of franchise record set by Willie Davis in 1969.
LF Juan Rivera (R)
Hit only two homers in final 28 games but still had 22 RBIs in September.
1B James Loney (L)
With settled ownership, Dodgers might have bid for free agent Prince Fielder.
3B Juan Uribe (R)
Three-year, $21 million contract given to Uribe looks like another costly mistake.
C A.J. Ellis (R)
Emerges from last year’s Rod Barajas-Dioner Navarro muddle to get first shot at every-day job.
UT Jerry Hairston Jr. (R)
Played five positions (second, third, shortstop, left field and center field) for Nats and Brewers in 2011.
INF Adam Kennedy (L)
Made 58 starts batting third, fourth or fifth for offense-starved Mariners last season.
C Matt Treanor (R)
Career .225 hitter better known for his defense — and his wife (beach volleyball star Misty May).
OF Tony Gwynn Jr. (L)
Could surface in left field again if Rivera reverts to 2010 form.
INF Justin Sellers (R)
Made 17 starts across three infield positions last season, but hit just .203.
LH Clayton Kershaw
Dodgers’ first 20-game winner since 1990 was 12–2 vs. NL West teams, 5–0 vs. rival Giants.
RH Chad Billingsley
Dodgers still waiting for Billingsley’s breakout season despite career 70–52 record.
LH Ted Lilly
Has averaged less than six innings per start — but WHIP is just 1.11 in season-and-a-half as Dodger. Will begin the season on the DL, but not expected to miss a start.
RH Aaron Harang
Cautionary note: ERA jumped from 3.05 to 4.70, WHIP from 1.21 to 1.65 away from Petco Park in 2011.
LH Chris Capuano
Went 11–12 with 4.55 ERA for Mets in 2011, his first full season after Tommy John surgery.
RH Javy Guerra (Closer)
Went from Double-A to Dodgers’ closer in 2011, but Jansen lurks as potential successor.
RH Kenley Jansen
Set major league record by averaging 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings last year.
RH Matt Guerrier
Lone veteran in young pen allowed 16 of final 28 inherited runners to score in 2011.
RH Blake Hawksworth
Had career-high 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings last year but let half his inherited runners score. He’ll miss at least two months nursing a sore elbow.
LH Scott Elbert
Held lefties to .191 average (13 for 68) with 18 strikeouts in 2011.
RH Josh Lindblom
23 strikeouts, 20 runners allowed in final 19 innings with Dodgers last year.
RH Mike MacDougal
Posted 2.05 ERA in first year wearing blue; re-signed to one-year deal with club option in offseason.
RH Jamey Wright
The 16-year vet is now playing for his ninth franchise.
RH Todd Coffey
Allowed only 55 hits in 59.2 innings with the Nationals last year.
The Diamondbacks are in it to win it, again, although they will no longer be able to sneak up on the NL West after their stunning worst-to-first run to the division title in 2011. General manager Kevin Towers made several key offseason moves, trading for quality starter Trevor Cahill and signing free agent outfielder Jason Kubel to a team that returns virtually all of the other elements that produced a 29-game improvement from the previous year. The D-backs must be considered a top contender to repeat.
The D-backs benefited from career years from the top four in their starting rotation last year, and there is no reason to believe that after a slight remake they cannot put up a reasonable facsimile this time around. Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter and newcomer Cahill fit Towers’ M.O. — they throw strikes and are not afraid to use their defense. Kennedy, who was one of three 20-games winners in the majors last season at 21–4, finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting, and discerning voters could have moved him up a notch considering that he pitches in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the majors. Hudson, acquired in a 2010 trading deadline deal from the Chicago White Sox, won 16 games in his first full season in a major league rotation and finished eighth in the league in fewest walks per nine innings. Cahill, acquired from Oakland for prospects Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Cook, has won 40 games in his three major league seasons, and he is only nine months older than Parker. Cahill won 18 games in 2010 before falling to 12 last season, which he believed was a direct result of getting away from a curveball that he plans to throw more often this year. Saunders was re-signed to a one-year deal in January. He went 12–13 with a 3.69 ERA and tied a career-high with 33 starts in 2011. Collmenter, a funky righthander whose ultra-overhand delivery is a result of throwing hatchets as a youngster in the woods of Michigan, won 10 games despite not entering the rotation until May 14. Collmenter commands an 87 mph fastball and a 78 mph change with devastating effectiveness.
Everything Towers has touched recently has turned to gold, and the retooled bullpen is the prime example. Closer J.J. Putz had a career-high 45 saves after signing a two-year, $10 million free agent deal in the winter of 2010. He proved to be a steal, and his numbers might have been even better had he not missed a month with right shoulder tendinitis. When Putz, a sinker-changeup guy, was out, setup man David Hernandez filled in seamlessly, converting all seven of his save opportunities during that stretch. He and Putz were the principal reasons the D-backs’ bullpen ERA dropped more than two runs from 2010 to 2011. Towers did not stand pat, signing free agent Takashi Saito, who will start the season on the DL, and acquiring lefthander Craig Breslow in the Cahill deal. Saito missed half of 2011 with a variety of ailments but was his normal effective self when he got on the mound, although he is more of an every-other-day pitcher at age 42. Breslow gives the D-backs a second lefthander to pair with specialist Joe Paterson, who set a franchise record with 19 consecutive scoreless appearances to start the season last year. Breslow is considered a one- or even two-inning guy. Sidearmer Brad Ziegler will begin his first full season with the D-backs after coming over at the trade deadline. Righthander Bryan Shaw, one of seven D-backs who made the jump from Double-A Mobile to the major leagues last season, enters spring training expected to contribute in the seventh after a strong finish.
Shortstop Stephen Drew suffered a fractured right ankle when his spikes caught in the dirt around home plate against Milwaukee on July 20, and his status is still uncertain on Opening Day. Willie Bloomquist, who stabilized the infield after coming over from Kansas City to replace the injured Drew, will fill that role again to start the season. He can run and gets the job done on defense. Second baseman Aaron Hill will begin his first full season with the D-backs after making a big splash following his acquisition from Toronto last August. Hill improved the D-backs’ middle infield defense, and his bat was a plus. He may not be a 36-homer guy any longer, but his line drive bat plays well at Chase Field.
Paul Goldschmidt will take over first base full time after continuing his power ascent with a strong two months following his promotion from Double-A Mobile last Aug. 1. Including the playoffs, Goldschmidt hit a combined 40 homers last year. But unlike many power hitters, he’s not pull-happy, and his triple that clinched the NL West title last year came to right-center field. Third baseman Ryan Roberts put up a career year — 19 homers, 18 stolen bases — in his first full season in the majors after making the team when Geoff Blum suffered a knee injury in spring training last year.
Justin Upton looks to build on his breakout season, and there is no reason to believe he cannot. With the help of hitting coach Don Baylor, Upton tweaked his batting approach on a day off in Houston late last May and took off afterward, finishing fourth in the NL MVP balloting. With a rare combination of power and speed, he set career highs in almost every offensive category in his first 30-homer, 20-stolen base season. He also grades out high in outfield range. Chris Young is another superior defender, especially valuable in spacious Chase Field, and has a franchise record three 20-20 seasons, reaching that level despite a thumb injury that he played through in the second half last year. Kubel, who signed a two-year, $15 million free agent deal in the offseason, will add stability to what has been a revolving door in left field. His bat is his best asset, and his all-fields approach should work better at hitter-friendly Chase Field than at Minnesota’s Target Field.
Finally healthy, Miguel Montero put up a career year, both offensive and defensively. Montero settled into the cleanup spot midway through the season, and strong offensive numbers helped him to his first All-Star Game. Somewhat overshadowed was a significant improvement in his mechanics behind the plate, especially in his footwork. Montero threw out 36.8 percent of the runners who attempted to steal on him, the best percentage in the majors last year.
Gerardo Parra, who won his first Gold Glove in left field last year, will be a handy fourth outfielder after the offseason acquisition of Kubel. Parra has the best outfield arm on the team, and the D-backs expect him to fill in at all three outfield spots. Bloomquist is a reliable multi-tasker who can play the middle infield and every outfield position. Once Drew returns, Bloomquist will immediately improve the bench. John McDonald is another veteran shortstop whose glove is his primary asset. Veteran catcher Henry Blanco had eight homers in 100 at-bats last season and proved to be a strong clubhouse presence, and he also is credited with helping Montero on the defensive side. Veteran Lyle Overbay returns to mentor Goldschmidt and provide a left-handed bat when the D-backs want to load up against a righthander.
Managing partner Ken Kendrick and president/CEO Derrick Hall have put the right pieces in place. Towers added exactly the right pieces on the field and brought an immediate change to the clubhouse chemistry in his first full season. His best move was retaining manager Kirk Gibson, who spent the last half of 2010 as the interim manager. Gibson’s all-baseball, all-the-time approach was a night-and-day change from the laissez-faire approach of the previous regime, and the 27-out mindset helped the D-backs record 48 come-from-behind victories. Gibson justly deserved his NL Manager of the Year award. Ownership has shown a willingness to spend money at the trade deadline, and Towers always seems to find a good fit.
The D-backs are in a great position to defend their NL West title. They have no bad contracts, a youngish group of core position players and pitchers, and a minor league farm system that is deep in prospects, especially pitchers. Career years from a half-dozen players certainly played into their unexpected 2011 success, but with Gibson calling the shots you can be sure that there will be no complacency moving forward. This is a team with its best days still ahead.
SS Willie Bloomquist (R)
Hit safely in 46 of 57 starts at shortstop; added 20 stolen bases, second-most in his career. Filled in after Drew’s injury last season, and will pick up there now.
2B Aaron Hill (R)
Hit .315 with 12 doubles and 16 RBIs in 33 games after joining the D-backs in August.
RF Justin Upton (R)
A two-time All-Star who could be on the cusp of superstardom; turns 25 in August.
C Miguel Montero (L)
Led National League catchers with 36 doubles, 86 RBIs and .471 slugging percentage in 2011.
CF Chris Young (R)
Added a more discerning eye to his toolbox by drawing a career-high 80 walks last year.
LF Jason Kubel (L)
Averaged 19 home runs, 79 RBIs in last five seasons as an outfielder/DH in Minnesota. His shortcomings on defense may allow Parra more playing time.
1B Paul Goldschmidt (R)
Two of first three major league homers were against Cy Young winners Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee.
3B Ryan Roberts (R)
The most unexpected surprise a year ago, when he set career highs in virtually all categories.
OF Gerardo Parra (L)
Great arm, good range; should see time at all three outfield spots after 2011 Gold Glove year.
1B Lyle Overbay (L)
The only member of both the 2001 and 2011 D-backs’ NL West division winners.
SS John McDonald (R)
Smooth glove man who gives the D-backs a third option at shortstop.
C Henry Blanco (R)
Has thrown out a remarkable 41.3 percent of potential base-stealers in his career.
UT Geoff Blum (S)
Can play anywhere and will be valuable off the bench.
SS Stephen Drew (L)
Still not recovered from bad ankle injury that limited him to 86 games, a career-low since becoming a regular in 2007.
RH Ian Kennedy
Went 10–0 against NL West, including 3–0 against both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
RH Daniel Hudson
Had 16 victories and won a Silver Slugger in his first full year in a major league rotation.
RH Josh Collmenter
Rookie season included three stretches of at least 13 consecutive scoreless innings.
RH Trevor Cahill
Has 40 major league victories before reaching his 24th birthday, all with the Oakland A’s.
LH Joe Saunders
Re-signed with th Diamondbacks in January; pitched over 200 innings, with a 1.31 WHIP, in 2011.
RH J.J. Putz (Closer)
Converted first 16 save opportunities, later had a run of 24 straight.
RH David Hernandez
Hard thrower held opponents to .193 batting average; lefties hit only .171.
RH Takashi Saito
Offseason selling point? He shut out the D-backs in three playoff appearances.
LH Craig Breslow
Has averaged 73 appearances in the last three seasons, almost all with Oakland.
RH Brad Ziegler
Held opponents scoreless in 19 of his 23 appearances after joining the D-backs.
LH Joe Paterson
Made 19 consecutive scoreless appearances in his first major league season.
RH Bryan Shaw
Conversion to the bullpen two years ago has paid dividends for the 2008 second-round pick.
Press releases, not press conferences, have been the offseason norm for the Rockies in recent years when introducing new players. But after their hugely disappointing 2011 season, the Rockies uncharacteristically splurged in the free agent market by signing right fielder Michael Cuddyer to a three-year, $31.5 million contract and held a press conference at Coors Field to celebrate his arrival. Cuddyer will strengthen the offense and bring some veteran accountability and a team-first outlook that the clubhouse could use to help the Rockies move past a dismal 2011. But if the Rockies are to contend this season, it will be because their starting pitching moved beyond potential to genuine production. Last year at the trade deadline, GM Dan O’Dowd dealt Ubaldo Jimenez, the Rockies’ erstwhile ace but a very ordinary pitcher since the 2010 All-Star break, to the Indians for four players, including pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Alex White. Offseason deals brought pitchers Jeremy Guthrie from Baltimore, Kevin Slowey from the Twins, Tyler Chatwood from the Angels and Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman from the A’s. The Rockies need at least one of these pitchers to step forward this season. But they also need Jhoulys Chacin, whose performance was spotty over the final three-and-a-half months last year, to find the fastball command that was elusive and led to his inconsistency after a brilliant start. If the starting pitching comes together, the Rockies could contend in a division that is by no means overwhelming. But if it doesn’t, the Rockies won’t be playing in October, despite the contributions of Cuddyer on and off the field.
Guthrie led the Orioles with 16 quality starts, but his 17 losses in 26 decisions tied for the sixth-most in club history. He hasn’t posted a winning record since 2007, but he’s been a victim of poor luck and run support. The Rox are counting on him leading the staff on and off the field. While the Rockies are waiting on their young starters to mature, they have the ageless Jamie Moyer following Guthrie to the mound. Coming off Tommy John surgery that cost him last season, Moyer is set to become the oldest pitcher to win a major league game. Veteran lefthander Jorge De La Rosa, who underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2010, is due back around the All-Star break, maybe sooner. Chacin, 24, has the stuff to pitch near the front of the rotation but needs better fastball command, which can come with more consistent mechanics, to reach his lofty potential. Juan Nicasio, who suffered a broken neck on Aug. 5 when he was hit on the right side of the head with a line drive, has made a remarkable recovery and is expected to be in the rotation. Moscoso, acquired from the A’s in January, held opponents to a .212 average in 23 games (21 starts) with Oakland last season. Pomeranz was impressive during a September call-up. White, Chatwood and Esmil Rogers will contend for the rotation at some point this season.
Rafael Betancourt filled in for injured closer Huston Street for two weeks in August and supplanted Street with what became part of a dominant second-half stretch. The Rockies are confident Betancourt can close, something he has never done to enter a season, and freed up $7 million by trading Street to the Padres for a minor leaguer. The bullpen was a strength last year and should be again — assuming Betancourt continues to close effectively — with lefthander Rex Brothers along with Matt Belisle available for late-inning work. Outman, part of the Moscoso deal, was terrific against left-handed batters last year with the A’s. Middle relief arms include White, Chatwood and Rogers, assuming they don’t win a rotation spot, and Josh Roenicke.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is one of the best players in the game, a productive clean-up hitter and a Gold Glove winner. He’s 27, so there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to be a force on both sides of the ball. Marco Scutaro was brought over from Boston to play second. He brings a veteran presence and some offense, having hit .299 last season for the Red Sox. He’s steady in all phases and unafraid of big situations, as his 10 lifetime walkoffs suggest.
Todd Helton is 38 but had a nice comeback in 2011, and the Rockies will hope he can give them similar output this year. He doesn’t hit a lot of homers anymore but hits his share of doubles, draws walks and makes pitchers work. Helton’s defense remains superb. Back soreness idled him for most of September and is an ongoing concern. Jordan Pacheco, originally a middle infielder who was converted to catcher in 2008, is now back in the infield. He made starts last season at first, second, third and catcher. He will keep third base warm until the arrival Nolan Arenado, one of the organization’s top prospects. Arenado played High-A ball last year and will have a chance to make the Rockies in spring training but seems destined to begin the season at Double-A and not arrive in the big leagues until August or September, if he gets there at all this season.
Left fielder Carlos Gonzalez and center fielder Dexter Fowler are very good defensive players, which can’t be said for Cuddyer. But Cuddyer gives the Rockies an impact right-handed bat and veteran leadership. Upon his return from a one-month stay in the minors, Fowler was very productive after the All-Star break, and the Rockies are hopeful he can finally sustain that consistency over a full season as he enters his fourth season in the majors. Gonzalez had a decent season but not as robust as 2010 because of a slow start and a July 3 collision with a wall at Coors Field that resulted in a lingering right wrist issue. When healthy in 2010, Gonzalez was a five-tool threat and one of the best all-around players in the game.
The Rockies signed free agent Ramon Hernandez to a two-year, $6.4 million contract and traded Chris Iannetta to the Angels for Chatwood. Hernandez, who turns 36 in May, will help mentor prospect Wilin Rosario, who came up in September from Double-A and will be given more than a typical backup’s share of starts. Hernandez is likely to hit for a better average with similar power to Iannetta but will walk less.
Jason Giambi gives the Rockies a left-handed power-hitting threat off the bench, and he can spell Helton at first base. Newcomer Tyler Colvin and switch-hitter Eric Young Jr. will be used often off the bench. Chris Nelson will be the primary reserve infielder.
Coming off a hugely disappointing season, O’Dowd had a busy offseason, trading Iannetta, Street, third baseman Ian Stewart, infielder Ty Wigginton, outfielder Seth Smith and signing free agents Hernandez and Cuddyer, whom the Rockies have been interested in since the middle of last season. One of O’Dowd’s objectives was to change the mix in the clubhouse, but he realizes that newcomers can only have so much of an effect. “I don’t think anybody we bring in from the outside is going to change our culture, our environment,” he says. “Our players internally are going to have to make their mind up about what kind of clubhouse and what kind of environment and what kind of team they want to be part of day in and day out.”
The addition of Cuddyer will help an offense that already had Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, two of the better players in the game. If Fowler finally fulfills his potential — which he showed could be the case in the second half of 2011 — the offense has an element of speed and is that much more effective. But ultimately, if the Rockies are going to contend, they are going to need some of their young starters to step forward and pitch effectively and hope De La Rosa can hit the ground running when he returns around midseason.
CF Dexter Fowler (S)
Must reduce strikeout rate, which was one every 3.7 at-bats overall and one every 3.3 batting left-handed.
2B Marco Scutaro (R)
Scutaro’s a luxury in that he can bat atop the order or at the bottom of it.
LF Carlos Gonzalez (L)
Set franchise record with an RBI in 11 straight games (and 21 total) from Aug. 15-27.
SS Troy Tulowitzki (R)
In 1,486 career plate appearances in second half of season, has .321 average, .944 OPS.
1B Todd Helton (L)
Last hit 20 homers in 2005; 14 last year were lowest total in a season with 400 at-bats.
RF Michael Cuddyer (R)
Hit 10 homers in 151 at-bats against left-handed pitchers and 10 against righthanders in 378 at-bats.
C Ramon Hernandez (R)
Threw out 37 percent of runners attempting to steal last year.
3B Jordan Pacheco (R)
Second player in franchise history with a seven-game hitting streak in first 10 major league games.
2B Chris Nelson (R)
Made 39 starts last year, including 23 at second base, 14 at third base and two at shortstop.
1B Jason Giambi (L)
Ranks 42nd all-time with 428 homers, 39th all-time with 1,314 walks and 71st all-time with 1,397 RBIs.
C Wilin Rosario (R)
The catcher of the future has some power.
INF Jonathan Herrera (S)
Two errors in 247 chances at second base, three errors overall at second, third and shortstop.
OF Tyler Colvin (L)
Acquired from Cubs with DJ LeMahieu for Ian Stewart and Casey Weathers.
UT Eric Young, Jr. (S)
Bring speed and versatility.
RH Jeremy Guthrie
Has pitched 200 innings or more last three seasons, but is 47–65 lifetime.
LH Jamie Moyer
Amazing comeback story at age 49. With his first victory he will become the oldest pitcher to record a win.
RH Juan Nicasio
Held righthanders to .205 average and two homers, but lefthanders hit .313 with six homers.
RH Jhoulys Chacin
Led NL with 87 walks or average of 4.04 per nine innings, but limited opponents to .231 average.
RH Rafael Betancourt (Closer)
Held opponents to .203 average with eight walks, 73 strikeouts and 46 hits allowed in 62.1 innings.
LH Rex Brothers
Opponents hit .221 against him in 77 at-bats at Coors Field and .213 in 75 at-bats on the road.
RH Matt Belisle
Made 74 appearances following 76 in 2010 with total of 30 walks and 149 strikeouts in 164 innings.
LH Matt Reynolds
Lefthanders hit .292, and righthanders hit .217 against him.
RH Tyler Chatwood
Was 6-11 in 25 starts for the Angels last season.
RH Esmil Rogers
Was 6-6, but allowed 110 hits in 83 innings with a 7.05 ERA.
RH Josh Roenicke
Earned a spot in the bullpen with good spring training.
San Diego Padres
Just when it was looking like the Padres were building for the future, new general manager Josh Byrnes made two moves in late December that should at least give the Padres some hope in 2012, even if they’re still long shots to win the NL West. Byrnes made a New Year’s Eve splash when he acquired All-Star slugger Carlos Quentin from the Chicago White Sox for two prospects, bringing the left fielder to his hometown. The addition of Quentin, who’s had four straight 20-homer seasons, is an immediate upgrade for a weak offense. Two weeks earlier, Byrnes swapped mercurial starter Mat Latos for starter Edinson Volquez and first baseman Yonder Alonso, plus two prospects. The two moves showed that Byrnes and CEO Jeff Moorad are willing to take on some salary and acquire established major leaguers in exchange for some of the prospects the franchise has been stockpiling for two years. In another notable deal, Byrnes traded Anthony Rizzo, one of three prospects obtained for Adrian Gonzalez a year earlier, for reliever Andrew Cashner.
With Latos gone to the Reds and 14-game winner and local product Aaron Harang off to the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, the Padres’ rotation should still be solid, even if it doesn’t have a marquee name. The starting five is expected to be Tim Stauffer, Volquez, Cory Luebke, lefty Clayton Richard and Dustin Moseley. The low-key Stauffer has carried the Padres in big situations before and was the Opening Day starter in 2011. Richard and Moseley are both coming off shoulder surgeries and are expected to be ready to go by spring training. Volquez is trying to bounce back from a disappointing season. An All-Star in 2008, he still hasn’t regained the form he had before having reconstructive elbow surgery. Of the five, only Stauffer came close to double-digit wins last season; he went 9–12 with a 3.73 ERA.
Byrnes had to do some tweaking to the bullpen. He didn’t make an attempt to keep closer Heath Bell, and setup man Mike Adams was traded to Texas for prospects in late July. Bell signed with Miami for $27 million over three years, the kind of money the Padres say they’d never spend on one player. Byrnes responded by trading for closer Huston Street from the division rival Colorado Rockies. The 28-year-old Street had 29 saves in 33 chances in 2011. He says he’s looking forward to pitching at sea level in pitcher-friendly Petco Park rather than at mile-high Coors Field. Luke Gregerson, the opening salvo in what had been a 1-2-3 punch with Adams and Bell, is expected to retain his seventh-inning role. Cashner, obtained when Rizzo was sent to the Cubs, is expected to be the setup man. Ernesto Frieri is solid.
Shortstop Jason Bartlett and second baseman Orlando Hudson could very well be in their second and final seasons with the Padres. Bartlett hasn’t regained his 2009 All-Star form while with Tampa Bay, and Hudson showed too many lapses in judgment in the field. In one game, Hudson lost track of the number of outs and tossed a live ball to a ball girl, who tossed it into the stands. At least twice he remained on the ground instead of hustling up to grab a live ball, allowing base-runners to advance. Each player will make $5.5 million this year. Hudson got a sweet deal from the Padres, whose CEO, Moorad, represented Hudson during his days as an agent.
After getting their wish for the Padres to promote Rizzo last spring, fans watched as Rizzo had a few good games, then struggled mightily with his big, looping swing. The Padres acquired Alonso in the deal for Latos, and he immediately becomes the leading contender for the starting job at first base. Alonso, the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft, was stuck behind Joey Votto with the Reds and was moved to left field briefly last season. He batted .330 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 47 games. Chase Headley remains the third baseman, although there’s never a shortage of rumors that he’ll be moved. Headley continues to lack decent power numbers at spacious Petco Park. He missed 39 games with a broken left pinkie, hit only four homers and struck out 92 times.
Until the addition of Quentin on New Year’s Eve, the emerging star of this group had been center fielder Cameron Maybin. Maybin is exciting in the field, at the plate and on the base paths. He set career-highs in nearly every offensive category in his first year with San Diego, including games (137), runs (82), hits (136), doubles (24), triples (8), home runs (9), RBIs (40) and stolen bases (40). He led the team in runs, triples, stolen bases and posted a career-high 37 multi-hit games. His 40 stolen bases ranked tied for fourth-most in the majors and tied for second-most in the National League. After recovering from knee surgery, which should be by the end of May, Quentin will start in left and provide badly needed power in the middle of the lineup. A two-time AL All-Star, the hometown product has had four straight 20-homer seasons, including 36 in 2008. Rightfielder Will Venable struggled so badly last season that he was sent down to the minors to work on his swing, and still finished with a .246 average. Jesus Guzman, who will see significant time in the outfield, especially until Quentin is completely healthy, hit .312 after his promotion, ranking 13th-best in the National League from June 16 through the end of the season.
Nick Hundley has established himself as the front-line catcher. He started a career-high-tying 73 games, his third straight season of 70 or more starts. He had two trips to the disabled list, the first for a strained muscle in his right side and the second after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow. He also showed nice pop with the bat, setting career-highs with nine homers, a .288 average, .347 on-base percentage and.477 slugging percentage. The backup will be John Baker, who missed most of last season after having elbow surgery. He had only two hits in 16 games with the Marlins but has a career on-base percentage of .356.
Mark Kotsay, signed as a free agent in November, will be a backup outfielder but, more important, a veteran presence for a young club. Outfielder Chris Denorfia has been solid in his two seasons with the Padres. The Padres continue to have hopes for shortstop Everth Cabrera, who’s been up and down after joining the club as a Rule 5 draftee. He’ll start 2012 in the minors. Guzman’s bat is too valuable, so he’s expected to see time in both the outfield and at first.
Moorad, the CEO and minority owner, got what he wanted during a management shuffle that saw Jed Hoyer leave for the Cubs, where he’s been reunited with Theo Epstein. That allowed Moorad to promote Byrnes to GM. Byrnes was GM when Moorad was an executive with the Diamondbacks, and was fired the season after Moorad left to buy the Padres. Finances will force Byrnes to continue the philosophy of building the farm system to restock the big league club. Moorad is still in the process of purchasing the team on the installment plan from John Moores.
While the rival Dodgers gave Matt Kemp a $160 million contract and the neighboring Angels gave Albert Pujols a $250 million deal, and division rival San Francisco ponied up more than $200 million to keep starter Matt Cain, the Padres will operate with a player payroll now in the upper $50 million range. The willingness to acquire Quentin, Volquez and Alonso changed the complexion of the club and shows that the Padres are looking for something a little quicker than a total rebuilding job. A change from those boring, low-scoring nights at Petco Park would be a good thing for San Diego’s long-suffering fans.
CF Cameron Maybin (R)
Padres’ most exciting player could be face of franchise for years.
RF Will Venable (L)
Homegrown talent struggled at plate so badly last year he was sent to minors to work on swing.
3B Chase Headley (S)
Low power numbers, development of prospect Jedd Gyorko have people wondering how long he’ll be around.
LF Jesus Guzman (R)
Came from nowhere to become Padres’ most consistent hitter and earn a roster spot for this year. Team may face a tough decision when Quentin returns.
1B Yonder Alonso (L)
Is expected to make people forget Rizzo-mania — at least for the time being.
C Nick Hundley (R)
Impressive offensive year included career-best nine homers, .288 average, .347 OBP, .477 SLG.
2B Orlando Hudson (S)
Brain cramps on defense had people wondering why Padres gave the O Dog a big contract.
SS Jason Bartlett (R)
Solid if not flashy with glove, batting average continued downward trend at .245.
OF Carlos Quentin (R)
Brings his power to Petco Park after four straight 20-homer seasons with White Sox. Knee surgery will keep him out until at least mid-May.
OF Mark Kotsay (L)
Signed for his clubhouse leadership as much as his left-handed bat off the bench.
C John Baker (L)
Left-handed hitter missed most of 2011 with Marlins after having right elbow surgery.
OF Chris Denorfia (R)
Can play all three outfield spots; made 72 starts in 2011 and is solid backup with nice bat.
1B/OF Kyle Blanks (R)
The .219 career hitter has yet to show the potential displayed in the minors.
1B/OF Andy Parrino (S)
Hit .327 in a partial season at Triple-A last year. In 1,547 prior minor league at-bats at lower levels, he hit just .258.
OF Jeremy Hermida (L)
Made the team as a non-roster player after injuries opened some spots.
RH Tim Stauffer
Opening Day starter set career-highs in starts (31), wins (9), innings (185.1) and strikeouts (128).
RH Edinson Volquez
2008 All-Star still struggling to regain form after 2009 reconstructive elbow surgery.
LH Cory Luebke
Recorded a career-high 154 strikeouts, in 139.2 innings, second-most by a Padres rookie.
LH Clayton Richard
Made 18 starts before undergoing season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder on July 29.
RH Dustin Moseley
Had career-bests in starts (20), innings (120), ERA (3.30) and strikeouts (64) before shoulder surgery.
RH Huston Street (Closer)
Former Longhorn had 29 saves in 33 chances for division-rival Rockies in 2011.
RH Luke Gregerson
Only one of big three left; worked scoreless ball in 48 of 61 outings, including 23 of 30 at home.
RH Ernesto Frieri
Middle relief workhorse had 76 strikeouts in 63 innings over 59 appearances, all career bests.
RH Andrew Cashner
After missing bulk of ’11 with rotator cuff injury with Cubs, is expected to assume setup role.
LH Joe Thatcher
Made 18 appearances in final two months after having surgery on left shoulder in early May.
St. Louis Cardinals
With the Cardinals wallowing 10.5 games back in the wild card race, several veterans convened a team meeting in late August to stress making the most of a misspent season. Two months later they did more than that. They made history. The Cardinals won 34 of their final 50 games (including the postseason) and punctuated baseball’s most improbable comeback with the franchise’s 11th championship. Down to their final strike twice in Game 6, the Cardinals rallied to win and then defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of a captivating World Series. That’s when things really got interesting. Tony La Russa retired after 16 years with the Cardinals as the club’s winningest manager. Three-time MVP Albert Pujols left behind a legacy of 11 uncanny seasons for a record $250 million contract with the Angels. Their departures signaled the sudden end of one of the franchise’s greatest eras, but not the end of its ability to pursue another title. Mike Matheny, without a day in the dugout as a coach or manager, took over and redirected the conversation from who was leaving to who was returning. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and newcomer Carlos Beltran will power the lineup, and ace Adam Wainwright is back after missing all of 2011. Despite the loss of two icons, the Cardinals enter 2012 with a team that they believe can win again. Just without all the drama.
The news that threatened to derail the Cardinals’ summer before it started came last February: Wainwright needed season-ending elbow surgery. Now, one year later, Wainwright returns this spring to complete a rotation set to defend a World Series title. Plans for a reunion with Chris Carpenter, who shouldered a league-high 237.1 innings and won four playoff games, has been put on hold — not by Wainwright’s health, but Carpenter’s. The ace is dealing with a nerve issue, not unlike what has sidelined the big rightnahder in the past. The Cardinals hope it is a temporary setback, but with Carp you never know. Carpenter is 44–22 with a 3.02 ERA in the past three seasons, so he will be missed. Jaime Garcia is working to minimize his habit of letting minor trouble mushroom so that he can emerge as the division’s top young lefty. Kyle Lohse went 3–0 with a 1.72 ERA during the final month to lead the rotation in wins (14) and ERA (3.39). He has been named the Opening Day starter. Jake Westbrook’s inconsistency kept him from 200 innings. Lance Lynn has earned the right to fill Carpenter’s shoes. Even without their 2011 ace, this is not a bad rotation.
The trade that fortified the Cardinals for the postseason did so by sending outfielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto and reshaping a beleaguered bullpen. The Cardinals had been sabotaged by blown saves — they’d finish with 26 — and to mend the ruptures they added four arms: lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes, righty Octavio Dotel, and Kyle McClellan, transplanted from the rotation. By October, the bullpen became a force, posting a 3.31 ERA in the playoffs and inspiring La Russa’s 75 pitching changes, a record for a single postseason. Vets like Dotel are gone, leaving closer Jason Motte to anchor an October-tested, though still green, pack of burgeoning arms. Rzepczynski, McClellan, Fernando Salas and Mitchell Boggs are the keys to success here.
When Rafael Furcal arrived from the Dodgers on the trade deadline, he did more than introduce the rallying cry for getaway day victories — “Happy Flight!” He also brought a steadfast glove. Mileage has made him less of a dynamo on offense, but Furcal remains a top-flight shortstop, a safety net that the Cardinals’ groundball staff requires. Furcal returns on a two-year deal at a position that’s been in flux since David Eckstein left four seasons ago. Second base should be so stable. Skip Schumaker, the incumbent, returns, but the Cardinals have identified Daniel Descalso for regular playing time. Schumaker is dealing with an oblique injury, so Descalso is the man for now.
When the Cardinals pushed in September to re-sign Berkman for another season, their motivation went beyond rewarding his comeback summer. He was insurance. Berkman offered an All-Star alternative at first base if Pujols vacated. The veteran switch-hitter is a worthy replacement after finishing seventh in NL MVP voting and fueling the Cardinals with his best offensive season since 2008. In World Series Game 6, Berkman’s single tied the game in the 10th inning to set up David Freese’s winning homer in the 11th. Now healthy, Freese has the potential to help replace lost offense. Including the postseason, Freese had 12 homers, 58 RBIs and a .525 slugging percentage in his final 77 games. The Cardinals no longer have to squint through the injury report to see the makings of their next impact hitter.
The gamble of signing a former rival late in his career paid off so handsomely with Berkman that the Cardinals are trying it again. Enter Beltran. The switch-hitter became the Cardinals’ chief target when Pujols left because he fit immediate needs. Beltran is the first player outside the organization to sign a multi-year deal during general manager John Mozeliak’s stewardship. Beltran augments what already was the NL’s most productive outfield. Holliday’s 2011 was complicated by unlucky injuries (example: a moth flew in his ear), and yet the only left fielder to out-produce him was MVP Ryan Braun. Jon Jay seized the everyday job in center with savvy and a swing that will make him a high-average hitter in any role. Allen Craig’s breakout as a power complement to Holliday will be delayed by knee surgery. That puts Beltran in right to start the year, in center at times through the year, and in position to match Berkman with an All-Star year.
Accustomed to getting elite play from him behind the plate, the Cardinals saw what could be a breakout year at the plate for 29-year-old Yadier Molina. The Gold Glove Award winner set new career bests in average, homers and RBIs. His career-best .465 slugging percentage was 100-plus points better than his career .361. Molina tied for the lead in the majors in starts (131) and finished third in innings caught (1,150), and for only the second time in five seasons he avoided knee troubles at season’s end. Molina signed a five-year extension that will pay him upwards of $70 million beginning in 2013.
After several seasons of building their bench around inexperienced players to control costs and cultivate homegrown talents, the Cardinals may delay their usual search for a seasoned backup. They’ve developed their own experienced role players. Tyler Greene took several short tours as a utility infielder, and Descalso shined as defensive replacement and part-timer in 2011. Tony Cruz is a capable backup to Molina. Craig gives the Cardinals an offensive option as a fourth outfielder or first baseman. There will still be youngsters aplenty because the Cardinals aren’t shy about shuttling players between Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis. How Matheny intends to utilize his role players will help set the ideal bench blend and determine when (or if) the annual addition of a vet is necessary.
Mozeliak emerged from the defining stretch of his tenure with a team he redefined for the future. Within weeks of being unable to re-sign Pujols, Mozeliak moved aggressively to lock in Molina, Furcal and Beltran. In four seasons as GM, Mozeliak has made successful deals under duress (Scott Rolen for Troy Glaus), taken high-yield risks (Berkman), and pieced together a gutsy blockbuster (three-team Rasmus trade). With two headlining personalities moving out, Mozeliak is the club’s public voice surrounded by a roster and front office of his making. The biggest stamp Mozeliak put on the offseason was hiring Matheny. The former Gold Glove catcher landed the job on the Cardinals’ longstanding view he had potential to manage. Matheny is a commanding presence and already a confidant of many players. In his early days on the job, he mined La Russa and Whitey Herzog for their expertise and canvassed the organization, from its analytics department to its scouts.
A day after Pujols’ decision to leave, the new face of the franchise took stock of the team around him. Most clubs, Holliday said, would lose a Hall of Fame manager and the best hitter of his generation and “be sent reeling.” Yet, a sense of optimism prevailed. The Cardinals know they cannot replace Pujols, but they don’t believe they need to in order to remain competitive. A new era is being built around the pitching staff and the next generation of core players, like righty Shelby Miller, who can ease onto a strong roster. “If we’re not the favorite, I’d like to know who is,” Wainwright says. An offseason that could have created an identity crisis instead reinforced the Cardinals’ constant. No matter how profound the changes, their expectations to contend remain the same.
SS Rafael Furcal (S)
A nimble fielder with his signature rifle arm, Furcal still shows flickers of electric talent.
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Six-time All-Star brings desired power/OBP blend for post-Albert Pujols lineup.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Heir apparent to Pujols’ lineup spot is a former batting champ who teammates believe is poised to win an MVP.
1B Lance Berkman (S)
Charismatic presence and revived force on the field, Comeback Player of the Year returns for an encore.
3B David Freese (R)
His October heroics could be springboard into breakout season. If he stays healthy, he’ll stay productive.
CF Jon Jay (L)
For second straight season, Jay started in a part-time role, and production earned him a regular’s playing time.
C Yadier Molina (R)
Four-time Gold Glove winner had a career year at the plate with highs in BA (.305), slugging (.465), HRs (14).
2B Daniel Descalso (L)
Started 81 games, often finishing them as a defensive replacement at third. He may remain the second baseman even after Schumaker returns from injury.
OF Allen Craig (R)
With four homers in the postseason, Craig showed his promise and his pop – with a fractured kneecap. He’s still recovering from surgery.
2B/OF Skip Schumaker (L)
Glue guy landed a two-year deal this winter and a new position title from management: “super utility.” But a strained oblique will keep him on the sidelines for the first month.
INF Tyler Greene (R)
Overpowering at Triple-A, former first-round pick appears overwhelmed and uneasy in the majors.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Gained the trust of the rotation and proved versatile enough to play third and outfield.
OF Erik Komatsu (L)
Hasn’t played above Double-A but hopes to stick as club’s speedy extra outfielder.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Until Craig and Schumaker return from injury, Robinson will have an opportunity to prove himself.
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
Owns a .300 average and .408 on-base percentage in the minors.
RH Adam Wainwright
Back from Tommy John, he expects to return to elite status that includes two top-three finishes in Cy Young.
LH Jaime Garcia
Rewarded for potential with a four-year extension with options that could keep him a Cardinal through 2017.
RH Kyle Lohse
Healthy after two years of nagging forearm trouble, righty led rotation in wins and ERA.
RH Jake Westbrook
Inability to command his signature pitch, the sinking fastball, kept Westbrook from grounding opponents.
RH Lance Lynn
Rookie emerged as a power reliever, but his durability makes him an attractive starter until Chris Carpenter returns.
RH Chris Carpenter
Ace owned October with four wins, including World Series Game 7 and shutout to clinch division series. He now owns a nerve problem that has shelved him for a while.
RH Jason Motte (Closer)
Hard-throwing righty seized the ninth during the September run.
RH Kyle McClellan
Started 2011 in the rotation before returning to familiar setup role he’ll likely hold this summer.
RH Fernando Salas
Rescued a hemorrhaging bullpen with his steady pulse and a team-best 24 saves.
RH Mitchell Boggs
Has the desirable high-voltage sinker and breaking ball that fits late-inning assignments.
LH Marc Rzepczynski
Advertised as the long-term prize of the Rasmus trade, “Scrabble” has the stuff to someday start.
LH J.C. Romero
Cardinals are banking on a rebound from the inconsistencies that defined 2011.
RH Scott Linebrink
Pedestrian 4.02 ERA and 1.375 WHIP over last five seasons.
The Pittsburgh Pirates want to stretch four months of feel-good baseball into six months this season. The Pirates reached the 100-game mark last season with a 53–47 record and tied for first place in the National League Central. Not only were the Pirates in position to break their streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons, most in North American professional sports history, but they also had a chance to become one of the best baseball stories of recent times if they could somehow win the division. Alas, the bottom fell out. The Pirates lost 43 of their final 62 games to finish with 90 losses. The Pirates, though, believe they can go the distance this season. They believe their younger players are now better prepared to physically and emotionally handle a long season. They also believe that signing lefthander Erik Bedard, catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes as free agents will improve their club on the field and provide more of a veteran presence in the clubhouse. Time will tell, though. After all, despite the unlikely success in the first two-thirds of last season, the Pirates finished 14th in the NL in runs scored and 11th in runs allowed. And they are still the Pirates.
The Pirates don’t have anybody resembling a No. 1 starter, so the job will likely fall to Bedard by default after he signed a one-year, $4.5-million contract. The oft-injured Bedard logged over 100 innings last season for the first time in four years as he went a 5–9 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 starts with Seattle and Boston. A.J. Burnett was acquired from the Yankees and most everyone in baseball believes that a change of scenery and escape from New York will benefit the enigmatic righthander. He didn’t exactly get off to a great start with the Pirates. He fouled a pitch off his face during a bunting drill and broke an orbital bone, which will cost him several weeks. Charlie Morton has the best raw stuff on the staff and showed signs of turning the corner last season when he went 10–10 with a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts. However, he underwent hip surgery in October and will miss the first month of the season. James McDonald also has above-average stuff but has yet to harness it. If he can somehow learn to control his 95-mph and curveball, he could zoom to the top of the rotation. Kevin Correia won 12 games last season after signing as a free agent and was selected to his first All-Star Game. However, he won once after the All-Star break and missed the last six weeks of the season with a strained oblique. Correia is more innings eater than ace. Jeff Karstens doesn’t wow the scouts or light up their radar guns. Yet he usually finds a way to keep the team in the game because of his pitching acumen and command. Either Brad Lincoln or rookie lefthander Jeff Locke will likely begin the season in the rotation if Morton has to go on the disabled list.
Joel Hanrahan was one of the best closers in the game last season as he converted 40 saves in 44 opportunities, posted a 1.83 ERA and pitched in the ninth inning of the National League’s victory in the All-Star Game. Hanrahan is seemingly poised for another big season, but one concern is that his strikeout rate dipped to 8.0 per nine innings last season from 12.9 in 2010. Evan Meek represented the Pirates in the 2010 All-Star Game when he had a 2.14 ERA in 70 games. Now he looks to rebound after being limited to 20.2 innings last season because of shoulder problems. If he’s healthy, figure on Meek setting up Hanrahan along with Jason Grilli. The Pirates signed Grilli off Philadelphia’s Triple-A farm club in July and he had a 2.48 ERA in 28 games. It was quite a comeback considering his career seemed to be over after he ruptured his quadriceps in 2010 during a spring training drill. Chris Resop has been solid in middle relief since being claimed off waivers from Atlanta during the 2010 season.
The Pirates are counting on Barmes, signed to a two-year, $10.5-million contract, to provide the stability at shortstop that Ronny Cedeno never did during the previous two seasons. Barmes’ power has run hot and cold throughout his career; he hit .244 with 12 home runs in 123 games for Houston last season. Many of the advanced statistical metrics ranked Barmes among the best defensive shortstops in the game. Second baseman Neil Walker had a .273 batting average and 12 homers in his first full major league season in 2011. The switch-hitting Pittsburgh native believes he is capable of doing more if he can gain consistency, and the Pirates are happy with the converted catcher’s defensive progression.
The Pirates tried to woo Derrek Lee into returning as a free agent after acquiring the 36-year-old from Baltimore at last year’s trading deadline. However, at this advanced stage of his career, Lee would rather play on a team more likely to contend. The Pirates could opt for a platoon of left-handed-hitting Garrett Jones and right-handed Casey McGehee, acquired from Milwaukee in an offseason trade, at first base. Both had disappointing 2011 seasons as Jones hit .243 with 16 home runs and McGehee batted .223 with 13 homers. McGehee is the Pirates’ backup plan at third base if Pedro Alvarez has another poor start. Alvarez crashed and burned in 2011 after a promising rookie season, hitting .191 with four homers in 74 games. Pint-sized Josh Harrison is another possibility at third base. He made his major league debut last year and had a .272 batting average in 65 games.
Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has established himself as the face of the franchise, and the Pirates are confident that rightfielder Jose Tabata and leftfielder Alex Presley can join him as long-term fixtures in the lineup. The multi-talented McCutchen is one of the most dynamic young players in the game at 25 and played in his first All-Star Game last season. His 2011 could have been a great year, but he hit just .216 after the All-Star break to finish at .259 with 23 homers, 89 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. Tabata has yet to stay healthy in his two major league seasons. However, the Pirates believe so much in his ability to blossom into a power hitter that they signed him to a six-year, $15-million contract extension last August that could stretch through 2019 if three club options are exercised. Presley acquitted himself well last season in his first extended major-league action, hitting .298 in 52 games.
Barajas was signed to a one-year, $3.5-million contract as a free agent because he still has some pop at 36 — 16 home runs in 98 games for the Dodgers last season — and an ability to handle young pitching. Michael McKenry, a solid defender, will likely be the backup catcher.
McGehee and Harrison figure into the plan as potential backups if they don’t unseat Alvarez at third base. The Pirates are hoping Nate McLouth can regain some magic by returning to Pittsburgh after signing him as a free agent during the winter meetings to be the fourth outfielder. He won a Gold Glove and played in the All-Star Game in 2008 before the Pirates traded to him to Atlanta the next season. His career has gone into a nosedive. Versatile Yamaico Navarro, acquired from Kansas City in a winter trade, intrigues the Pirates with his bat, but his defense is shaky in the middle infield.
General manager Neal Huntington had to wait until last September before learning he would be returning this season on a three-year contract. Huntington has shown a knack for acquiring pitching gems, but most of the hitters he has signed as free agents have been busts. Clint Hurdle was a breath of fresh air last year in his first season as manager. He brought plenty of energy, and his positive nature rubbed off on his players, who no longer feel it is the Pirates’ birthright to be doormats.
There is no denying that the Pirates are moving in the right direction, as their major league roster and farm system are much more talented than when Huntington took over in 2007. Hurdle also seems to be the man to take the franchise places. However, it would be premature to think the Pirates can contend this season. They still have too many holes and not enough depth. Yet if things break right, the first winning season since 1992 is a possibility.
RF Jose Tabata (R)
He has the speed and basestealing ability to bat leadoff, but health always seems to be an issue.
LF Alex Presley (L)
He could flip-flop with Tabata in the batting order because of his ability to get on base and steal bases.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
He is already an accomplished player at 25, and this could be the year he becomes a superstar.
2B Neil Walker (S)
Pitchers adjusted to him last season following a solid rookie year, and now it’s his turn to adjust back.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
He is an effective hitter with pop and patience when kept away from left-handed pitchers.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
The big-time power potential is there, and it’s time for him to start unlocking it or risk being labeled a bust.
SS Clint Barmes (R)
The Pirates signed him primarily because he can catch the ball and he isn’t Ronny Cedeno.
C Rod Barajas (R)
The free agent signee provides thump at the bottom of the lineup and stability behind the plate.
C Michael McKenry (R)
Defensive specialist is well-liked by the Pirates’ pitchers; hit .222 in 58 games in the bigs last season.
INF Casey McGehee (R)
Pirates are hoping a change of scenery helps after his disastrous 2011 with Milwaukee.
INF Josh Harrison (R)
His defense is suspect and he can only be used at shortstop in an emergency, but he can swing the bat.
UT Yamaico Navarro (R)
He can play all over the infield and outfield and even occasionally pop a ball out of the park.
OF Nate McLouth (L)
Returns to Pirates with expectations much lower than his All-Star season of 2008.
LH Erik Bedard
Signed as a free agent to add stability to rotation, but he is always an injury waiting to happen.
RH Jeff Karstens
A rare soft-tossing righthander, he survives with pinpoint control.
RH James McDonald
He has the stuff to win a lot of games but needs to throw more strikes.
RH Kevin Correia
A solid pitcher for the back end of the rotation but is stretched in a larger role.
RH A.J. Burnett
Only pitcher in majors with at least 190 innings and an ERA over 5.10 last season. Will miss a few months after fouling a ball off his face in a bunting drill.
RH Charlie Morton
Roy Halladay copycat (sans the results) will miss the first month of the season (hip surgery rehab).
RH Joel Hanrahan (Closer)
He made the transition from dominant setup man to elite closer last season.
RH Evan Meek
Following a breakthrough 2010, Meek had a frustrating and injury-marred 2011.
RH Jason Grilli
Signed off the scrap heap last July, he figures to be a key component of this relief corps.
RH Chris Resop
Unsung hero of this bullpen as he provides consistently good work in the middle innings.
LH Tony Watson
Has the stuff to get major league hitters out but walks are a major concern.
RH Chris Leroux
Has allowed just one home run in 54.1 major league innings.
RH Juan Cruz
Allowed just six of 30 inherited runners to score last season in 56 games with Tampa Bay.
Entering the 2011 season, general manager Walt Jocketty essentially did nothing to upgrade a team coming off a National League Central championship. The Reds subsequently slipped to a third-place finish. This offseason, however, Jocketty didn't stand pat. In fact, he might have committed the small-market sin of mortgaging the future for instant gratification. Jocketty clearly had an “all-in” approach, making a trifecta of transactions that could have put the Reds in position to contend for their first NL pennant in 22 years. But one Tommy John surgery later, and the Reds were back in the pack. Jocketty landed one of the NL's top young starting pitchers (Mat Latos), one of its top setup relievers (Sean Marshall) and one of its best closers (Ryan Madson). A few weeks into spring training, the Reds learned that Madson would need season-ending surgery. So much for the all-in plan. But in a division that's now void of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Reds have a chance. Latos brings instant credibility to a rotation that was decimated by injuries and inconsistency, not to mention that Cincinnati mostly had bottom-of-the-rotation-caliber starters. The 24-year-old righthander's 3.47 ERA would have led Cincinnati last season among qualified starters. Latos' arrival gives the Reds two legitimate front-line starters, including ace Johnny Cueto. Cincinnati could end up with one of the most dominant rotations in the NL, depending on the development of $30 million flamethrower Aroldis Chapman. The Reds still have the core of the lineup intact from the 2010 playoff season. But a lineup led by All-Stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips isn't without issues. The Reds have major concerns about the health of All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen, who missed 80 games last season. The leadoff role is a black hole entering spring, considering speedy center fielder Drew Stubbs struck out a club-record 205 times in 2011.
To some extent last season, the Reds began to see the years of stockpiling pitching prospects pay off. Cueto's emergence as the new ace further buried the nightmarish years of having veteran wash-ups in the ace role. After a shaky start, Mike Leake, another homegrown product, rebounded to win a team-high 12 games. But the rest of the rotation was a major disappointment. Swapping the underachieving Edinson Volquez for Latos is a significant upgrade. The only concern with Latos is how he'll adjust from working in pitcher-friendly Petco Park to the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park. The Reds could conceivably have an even newer ace, depending on Chapman's development. But a sore shoulder hampered his progress during the offseason, and the 106-mph-man will start the season in Class AAA Louisville's rotation or in the Reds' bullpen. It says here that he will be in the Reds' pen. Bronson Arroyo is the only over-30 starter, and he is expected to bounce back after struggling with mononucleosis last season.
With two moves, the Reds thought they had ascended from a lower-tier bullpen to possibly the NL's best. The pitching version of the M&M Boys - Madson and Marshall - coupled with hard-throwing righthanders Logan Ondrusek and Nick Masset could end up reminding Reds fans of the Nasty Boys of the early 1990s. Then Madson's elbow balked and left the Reds scrambling for Plan B. During the past two seasons with the Cubs, Marshall had a 2.45 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 150.1 innings. Masset and Ondrusek were inconsistent last season following an outstanding 2010, but they both had extended stretches in which they were almost unhittable. Chapman can be a weapon in the late innings with his heat from the left side. Alfredo Simon, who had 17 saves for Baltimore in 2010, was claimed off waivers from the Orioles with less than a week left in spring training.
Phillips should continue to establish himself as the NL's top all-around second baseman. The Reds picked up his $12 million option for 2012, and the club is hoping to avoid having his contract status be a distraction. A fan favorite, Phillips has made no secret about the fact that he wants a multi-year deal. The other question surrounding Phillips: Where will he end up in the batting order? No. 2 is ideal, but he could end up batting leadoff if Stubbs struggles this spring or cleanup if Rolen breaks down. At shortstop, former second-round pick Zack Cozart gave the Reds a promising glimpse last season, batting .324 after a July call-up. But he played in just 11 games before suffering a season-ending elbow injury.
The Reds are hoping to squeeze one more season out of eight-time Gold Glove winner Rolen, who enters the final year of his contract. He turns 37 the first week of the season and has been on the disabled list three times the past two years. For as much credit as he received for helping the Reds end their playoff drought in 2010, his absence was a big reason why Cincinnati missed the postseason last year. Rolen played in just 65 games. For all of Votto's accomplishments the past two seasons, he still was overshadowed by Pujols. Votto now is arguably the premier first baseman in the NL. Additionally, Votto no longer has to answer questions about what the Reds are going to do with first baseman and top-hitting prospect Yonder Alonso, who was dealt to San Diego in the Latos trade. Cincinnati also avoided any contract distractions with Votto, signing him to a 10-year, $225 million extension, which begin in 2014.
The Reds are ready for the Texas twosome of Bruce and Stubbs to bury some major issues. For Bruce, it's inconsistency. For Stubbs, it's strikeouts. Bruce had a bizarre 2011, winning NL Player of the Month in May for batting .342 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs. But that month was sandwiched by a .228, four-homer April and .217, two-homer June. Somehow, though, the right fielder was named to the All-Star team, but then batted just .241 with 11 homers after the break. Stubbs has struck out an eye-popping 422 times in two-plus seasons. His 40 stolen bases tied for second in the NL last year, and his speed is the only reason why the Reds aren't quite ready to give up on him as the leadoff batter. Instructors will continue to try to teach Stubbs how to bunt this spring. Left fielder Chris Heisey, who tied for the team lead in pinch hits in 2011, isn't a proven everyday player.
The Reds compromised their organizational catching depth by not re-signing veteran Ramon Hernandez and trading former top draft pick Yasmani Grandal. Still, the club is the envy of most teams at the position. The offseason moves mean the Reds are confident in 23-year-old former first-round pick Devin Mesoraco, whom some scouts have likened to Johnny Bench. The Reds will give him a crack to be the everyday catcher, but Ryan Hanigan will still get plenty of playing time.
From an offensive standpoint, the bench is shaping up to be the club's weakest link. Defensively, it should be one of the team's strengths. The Reds led the NL in pinch-hitting (.286), but versatile veteran Miguel Cairo might end up being the only proven player off the bench. Ryan Ludwick was signed in January to be the fourth outfielder, but he will be in the mix for playing time on a regular basis in left field. Wilson Valdez, acquired from Philadelphia, can pair with Cairo as a supersub, capable of playing any position with a smile. Utility man Willie Harris adds even more versatility to the bench.
Owner Bob Castellini holds himself very accountable to the fans, and he was not happy about the Reds' backsliding in 2011. He signed Jocketty to a three-year contract extension in September, entrusting his long-time friend to make some quick fixes without tearing up the core of the team. Jocketty did that with the Latos and Marshall trades. But it's quite possible that trading away three former first-round picks - Grandal, Alonso and pitcher Brad Boxberger - and Wood will come back to haunt Jocketty in a few years. But management is all-in for 2012, which also is the final year of manager Dusty Baker's contract.
The Reds believe the addition of Latos and St. Louis' subsequent loss of Pujols put Cincinnati back as the division favorite. But it will take more than Latos to win the division. Cincinnati will need to regain the clutch-hitting magic it had in 2010, when it ranked second in the majors with a .278 average with runners in scoring position. The Reds' inability to deliver clutch hits was reflected in the fact they suffered 33 one-run losses, most in the National League. A healthy Rolen and more consistent Bruce will be critical to propelling the Reds into the playoffs.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Three-time Gold Glove winner led all National League second basemen with a .300 batting average.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Began his major league career on a seven-game hitting streak, longest by a Red to start his career in a decade.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Became only the fourth player in Reds history to hit at least .320 with 37 homers and 113 RBIs. Now he's assured of being $225 million richer.
3B Scott Rolen (R)
Seven-time All-Star is batting just .242 with seven home runs since August 2010 (including postseason).
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Among five active players to hit at least 20 home runs in each of his first four seasons.
CF Drew Stubbs (R)
Became the first Red to record 40 stolen bases since Deion Sanders had 56 in 1997.
LF Chris Heisey (R)
Led the Reds with three multi-homer games, three leadoff home runs and two pinch-hit home runs in 2011.
C Devin Mesoraco (R)
The Reds pitching staff went 7-6 in the Baseball America top 100 prospect's 13 starts last season.
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Career highs in games (91), runs (27), hits (71) and homers (6).
OF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Hit 37 home runs as recently as 2008 with the Cards; spent 2011 season with the Padres and Pirates.
INF Miguel Cairo (R)
Reliable and versatile veteran played first, second and third base and produced a career-high eight home runs.
INF Wilson Valdez (R)
Hit .370 (27 for 73) with RISP while making 74 starts at three infield positions in 2011 for Philadelphia.
UT Willie Harris (L)
Made at least three starts at second third, left, center and right last season for the Mets. In 71 pinch-hitting appearances he hit just .183.
RH Johnny Cueto
The club's new ace missed reaching double-digits in wins because of five blown saves.
RH Mat Latos
Cincinnati should provide more help after he finished 88th in run support with San Diego last year.
RH Bronson Arroyo
Hampered by mono, innings-eating veteran finished with a National League-worst 5.07 ERA.
RH Mike Leake
After returning in May from a demotion to the minors, he was the club's second-best starter (9-7, 3.36 ERA).
RH Homer Bailey
Management regained confidence in former top pick after career highs in starts (22), wins (9), K's (106).
LH Sean Marshall (Closer)
The 6'7" lefty has a career 2.42 ERA in 15 appearances (26 innings) at Great American Ball Park.
LH Aroldis Chapman
Tough call whether to start Chapman in Louisville's rotation or in Cincinnati's bullpen, where he is badly needed.
RH Nick Masset
Considered a potential closer-in-waiting entering 2011, he blew six saves. Will start the season on the DL with shoulder issues, which are not expected to be serious.
RH Logan Ondrusek
His 0.68 ERA over a 29-game span was one of the most dominant stretches by a Reds pitcher last year.
RH Sam LeCure
Long reliever is an option if a starter goes down, having posted a 4.79 ERA in four starts.
LH Bill Bray
Finally healthy, the former first-round pick finished tied for second in the National League with 79 appearances.
RH Jose Arredondo
Unspectacular but consistent in logging a career-high 53 appearances in his first season with the Reds.
RH Alfredo Simon
Claimed off waivers from Baltimore at the end of spring training.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
|American League||National League|
|Baltimore Orioles||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Boston Red Sox||Atlanta Braves|
|Chicago White Sox||Chicago Cubs|
|Cleveland Indians||Cincinnati Reds|
|Detroit Tigers||Colorado Rockies|
|Kansas City Royals||Houston Astros|
|Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Minnesota Twins||Miami Marlins|
|New York Yankees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Oakland A's||New York Mets|
|Seattle Mariners||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Texas Rangers||San Diego Padres|
|Toronto Blue Jays||San Francisco Giants|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
The Brewers were built to win last year, and the plan worked nearly to perfection: a franchise-record 96 wins, along with the first division title and playoff series victory since 1982. But Milwaukee's pitching and defense imploded in the postseason. Then superstar slugger Prince Fielder signed with Detroit, and even though a highly effective pitching rotation returns intact, and the Brewers upgraded at third base and hope they did at shortstop, there lingers a feeling among the Brewer faithful that all the eggs were in last year's basket. If the 2011 Brewers weren't good enough to advance to the World Series, how could this team possibly fare any better? But as last year's pennant chases demonstrated, very rarely do things go as planned in baseball.
GM Doug Melvin assembled what was arguably the best starting rotation in Brewers history last year, and all five hurlers return in 2012. In Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, Milwaukee has two right-handed aces capable of extended stretches of dominance. A strikeout artist and workhorse, Gallardo set career bests with 17 wins, 23 quality starts and a 3.52 ERA while establishing a franchise record with his third straight 200-strikeout season. In his first season in Milwaukee, Greinke made the home folks happy by winning all 11 of his decisions at Miller Park. After a slow start, he was one of the National League's most dominant pitchers down the stretch, going 9-3 over his final 16 starts. Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum will never overpower hitters, but their command of an array of off-speed pitches is good enough to keep most lineups in check. Before a collapse of epic proportions in the playoffs, Marcum held opponents to a .232 average, eighth-best in the league. Wolf, who won 10-plus games for the fourth straight year, lived up to his reputation as a reliable innings-eater. Lefty Chris Narveson is a more than serviceable fifth starter with occasionally unhittable stuff - he began last season with 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Marco Estrada, who filled in for Greinke and Narveson during DL stints, returns as a spot starter.
Not only does John Axford's mustache hearken back to the days when Rollie Fingers patrolled the mound at County Stadium, but his ability to close out games also reminds Brewer fans of the Hall of Fame reliever. Axford made his first Opening Day roster last year and approached his opportunity fearlessly, setting a franchise record and tying for the NL lead with 46 saves. He converted his final 43 save opportunities and compiled a 0.59 ERA over his last 30 games. Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly accepted salary arbitration to remain with the Brewers. He made no secret of his desire to be a full-time closer. K-Rod excelled as Axford's setup man after a July trade (tying for NL lead with 17 holds over the duration of his stint with the Brew Crew), but whether he'll willingly play that part again this season is questionable. Kameron Loe, who bombed as the eighth inning reliever prior to Rodriguez's arrival but settled down (1.44 ERA over his last 22 appearances) afterward, and Estrada, who pitches better as a starter (3-2, 3.70) than as a reliever (1-6, 4.38) will both get their share of innings. Lefty Manny Parra returns from a full season on the disabled list, and journeyman Jose Veras, acquired from Pittsburgh, has a rubber arm and can be called on often.
Veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez was acquired with a simple mission: bring some defensive stability to the Brewer infield, which was easily the worst defensive unit in the league last year. Gonzalez hit .241 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs for the Braves last year, but most importantly, he committed only 12 errors, about half as many as departed shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. All-Star starter Rickie Weeks remains one of the game's most potent second basemen offensively, and hopes are that he'll return to the explosive form he showed in the first half of the season (17 homers before the All-Star break) before an ankle injury slowed him down significantly.
Brewers fans knew Fielder's departure was coming, but it's still hard to take. Starting at first base for the Milwaukee Brewers: Mat Gamel. Gamel has earned brief call-ups with the Brewers in each of the last four seasons but has never shown the pop against big league pitching that he has in Triple-A (team-high 28 home runs and 96 RBIs at Nashville last year). Manning the other corner position is another new Brewers starter, the team's biggest offseason acquisition, veteran slugger Aramis Ramirez. A longtime Brewer nemesis as a member of the rival Cubs, Ramirez has a reputation for being somewhat injury-prone, but he may in fact be underappreciated for his offensive production. With Fielder gone, Ramirez will face high expectations in his first year in Milwaukee.
In right, lanky Corey Hart returns for his ninth season in Milwaukee, providing doses of power and speed, though his stolen base numbers have been declining over the last four seasons as knee woes continue to slow him down. In center, Nyjer Morgan drew national attention for his unorthodox style and brash mouth (and Twitter stream), and his teammates seemed to feed off his enthusiasm. Time will tell if Morgan's aura remains a welcome diversion if he or the Brewers struggle. Earning starts against left-handed pitching is Carlos Gomez, easily the best defensive outfielder on the roster. There is no doubt that Ryan Braun, the National League MVP last season, is the linchpin of this lineup. With speed and power, Braun is a weapon on the bases as well as at the plate. One of the game's most popular young stars, Braun means everything to the Brewers, on and off the field having signed a team-friendly long-term deal that will keep the slugger in Milwaukee through 2020 with a mutual option for 2021.
In Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers have a promising young catcher with improving skills behind the plate and a solid bat. Though he's below average at throwing out base-stealers, he works well with four of the five Brewers starters, blocks balls in the dirt with the best of them (just one passed ball last year) and would seem to have his best days ahead of him. Wolf's personal catcher, George Kottaras, fits a similar profile, only as a left-handed hitter.
The Brewers' bench was nothing special in 2011 and if anything may be less promising this year. Gomez and Kottaras return in familiar roles, and veteran infielders Cesar Izturis and Brooks Conrad were acquired in the offseason and will provide experience off the bench. Norichika Aoki, who was signed to a multi-year deal in January, will be the fourth outfielder.
Roenicke's style couldn't have been much more different than predecessor Ken Macha's, and the softer touch turned out to be just what the Brewers needed in 2011 (a revamped and dramatically improved pitching staff didn't hurt, either). But while Roenicke guided the Brewers to the best regular season in franchise history, he appeared a bit overmatched in the postseason. Owner Mark Attanasio continues to show a willingness to spend money in a small market, and Melvin has cultivated home-grown talent and traded prospects to give the Brewers a chance to win. In all, the Brewers are as well-run now as at any time in franchise history.
This team likely won't win as many games as last year's, but the Brewers don't have to look very far to see that that might not matter. Just as the Cardinals rode into to the postseason as a red-hot Wild Card last season, this Brewer team has the talent to stay in the hunt.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Injuries are always an issue with Weeks, but when healthy, he's among top hitters in the game.
CF Nyjer Morgan (L)
Mercurial energizer gets on base for big boppers, antagonizes friends and foes alike.
LF Ryan Braun (R)
NL MVP no longer has Prince Fielder following him in the lineup.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
Brewers landed top free agent third basemen, and will need Ramirez to put up typical numbers.
RF Corey Hart (R)
Speed is declining, and knee is balky this spring.
1B Mat Gamel (L)
Gets unenviable job of filling Prince Fielder's large shoes; has put up big minor league numbers.
SS Alex Gonzalez (R)
Free agent signed to provide stability in Brewers infield; marching orders are to just make plays. Pop at the plate is a bonus.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
A budding star at the plate, his defense is improving (just one passed ball, tops among NL catchers).
OF Carlos Gomez (R)
Defensive specialist has some pop but struggles to get on base consistently.
C George Kottaras (L)
Randy Wolf's personal catcher calls a good game; hit for cycle.
OF Norichika Aoki (L)
Career .329 hitter in five seasons in Japan; will see action as fourth outfielders.
INF Cesar Izturis (S)
The 11-year veteran is a top defender at short, second and third, but owns a career on-base percentage of .295.
UT Brooks Conrad (S)
Batted .292 vs. lefties and just .203 against righthanders.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Ace No. 1 ranked among NL leaders in wins (t-fourth), starts (t-fourth) and strikeouts (fifth).
RH Zack Greinke
Ace No. 2 posted a 2.61 ERA over his final 16 starts; ranked seventh in NL in strikeouts.
RH Shaun Marcum
Was Brewers' top starter on the road, going 8-3 with a 2.21 ERA.
LH Randy Wolf
His streak of 19.2 scoreless innings was longest by Brewers pitcher in '11.
LH Chris Narveson
Left-handed batters hit just .212, slugged .333 with two homers off him.
RH John Axford
Blew first save opportunity of season, but converted his final 43 chances.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Ranks 24th on all-time saves list but will set up Axford if Brewers don't trade him.
RH Kameron Loe
Veteran posted a 1.44 ERA over his final 22 appearances in his third season with the Brewers.
RH Marco Estrada
Earned high marks as fill-in starter when Greinke and Narveson went on DL.
RH Jose Veras
Acquired from Pirates, appeared in 79 games with a 3.80 ERA as set-up man.
RH Tim Dillard
Middle reliever didn't see much action, but earned first big league win June 5.
LH Manny Parra
Has had ups and downs as Brewer starter and reliever, returns after missing all of '11.
RH Mike Fiers
Brewers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year (13-3, 1.86 ERA) earned September call-up.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
|American League||National League|
|Baltimore Orioles||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Boston Red Sox||Atlanta Braves|
|Chicago White Sox||Chicago Cubs|
|Cleveland Indians||Cincinnati Reds|
|Detroit Tigers||Colorado Rockies|
|Kansas City Royals||Houston Astros|
|Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Minnesota Twins||Miami Marlins|
|New York Yankees||Milwaukee Brewers|
|Oakland A's||New York Mets|
|Seattle Mariners||Philadelphia Phillies|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Texas Rangers||San Diego Padres|
|Toronto Blue Jays||San Francisco Giants|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
No team is undergoing as much of a drastic change on and off the field as the Astros, who are under the leadership of a new owner and general manager entering 2012 and will be competing in their 51st and final season in the National League. The Astros, in the midst of a major rebuilding project, will be moving to the American League in 2013, which was a stipulation of the team being sold to a group led by Houston businessman Jim Crane. New management remains committed to building through player development, which means the Astros will suffer at the major league level for the time being. Coming off a club-record 106-loss season, the Astros aren't in position to contend in their final year in the NL Central. They'll spend much of the 2012 season getting a longer look at the bevy of rookies who made their debuts a year earlier, while pushing an improving list of prospects through the minor league system. Led by veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, the Astros' pitching staff is actually not as bad as you would think for a team that lost so many games. But there are question marks all over the diamond. Still, the Astros have promising young players to keep an eye on, including third baseman Jimmy Paredes, second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder J.D. Martinez. And don't forget catcher Jason Castro, a former first-round pick who missed all of last season with a serious knee injury. The Astros are digging themselves out of a huge hole, but they appear to be on the right track and hope to continue to lay the foundation toward competing in the AL within the next three or four years. There's nowhere to go but up.
The Astros shopped veterans Rodriguez and Myers in the offseason, but they return to anchor the staff. Bud Norris has settled in nicely as the No. 2 starter and has the stuff to lead the rotation, so 2012 could be a breakout season for him. The previously steady J.A. Happ is back and hoping his nightmarish 2011 is behind him, and he can take solace in the fact he pitched well in the last month of the season. Rookie Jordan Lyles pitched at 20 years old in the rotation for half of last year and figures to be battling for a spot with Kyle Weiland and Lucas Harrell. Weiland came over from Boston in the trade of Mark Melancon, and Harrell was claimed off waivers from the White Sox last year.
The Astros traded Melancon, their closer, in December to the Red Sox, but there is no shortage of arms in the Astros bullpen. The veteran starter Myers, is now the closer. Plus, veteran Brandon Lyon, who missed the final four months of last season following major arm surgery, will be back and healthy for 2012 and will be the primary setup man. The durable Wilton Lopez will be back to eat up innings at the back of the bullpen, and hard-throwing David Carpenter, fresh off a strong rookie campaign, is capable of getting big outs late in games. Fernando Rodriguez was a huge bright spot in 2011 after being a non-roster invitee to spring camp. The Astros drafted flame-throwing Rhiner Cruz in the Rule 5 Draft in December and will have to keep him on the 25-man roster all season or risk losing him.
With Clint Barmes leaving in free agency, the Astros addressed their need at shortstop by making a trade with the Red Sox for Lowrie, who will be the starter in 2012. Lowrie, 27, has played a part-time role with the Red Sox since 2008, appearing in a career-high 88 games last season and hitting .252. He's a career .214 hitter with a .293 on-base percentage as a left-handed hitter and a .326 hitter with a .385 on-base percentage from the right side. The 5'7" Altuve returns as the starter at second base after hitting .276 with two homers and 12 RBIs in his major league debut last year. The jury is still out on whether Altuve can hit at the big league level, but he's certainly fun to watch.
When the Astros traded Hunter Pence last year, they called up one of their top prospects, Martinez, and put him in left field, moving Carlos Lee to first base, where he performed pretty well. Lee wound up leading the team in homers and RBIs and appears to be the starter at first entering 2012. That being said, Brett Wallace - the team's starter at first in 2011 - could push for playing time later in the season if he proves himself at Triple-A. At third, another Opening Day starter from 2011, Chris Johnson, is trying to hit his way back into the lineup after a disappointing season. Paredes, an athletic switch-hitter who can be an adventure defensively, will begin the season in the minors, but will certainly be back in Houston before the summer is over. Paredes looked good at the plate last year hitting .286 in 168 at-bats.
The big question is whether Lee returns to left field after being moved to first base midseason last year. Martinez took over in left field after the Astros traded away Pence and Michael Bourn and put up some pretty solid numbers while displaying a good arm. Jordan Schafer, acquired from the Braves in the Bourn deal, is the man in center. There are several options in right field, including a platoon of Brian Bogusevic and J.B. Shuck. Bogusevic needs to show he can hit left-handed pitching to get more at-bats. Martinez will wind up in right if Lee returns to the outfield.
Castro is expected to be ready for Opening Day despite suffering an injury setback in the offseason. Castro, who missed all of last season after undergoing major surgery on his right knee, missed the beginning of spring training after undergoing surgery in December to remove the sesamoid bone in his left foot. Castro hit .205 with two homers and eight RBIs in 195 at-bats in his major league debut in 2010. The Astros signed veteran Chris Snyder as insurance for Castro.
Matt Downs was one of the best bench players in baseball last year. Downs, who can play third, second and first base and has even dabbled in the outfield, batted .276 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in only 199 at-bats in 2011. He had 15 pinch-hit RBIs, which led the majors, and he led baseball with a .462 on-base percentage as a pinch-hitter. Snyder is a solid backup catcher with a strong arm and handles the pitching staff well. Shuck, a left-handed hitter, got his feet wet in the majors last year and showed some promise.
This will be a new era in Houston baseball with Crane taking over as owner and chairman and Jeff Luhnow replacing Ed Wade as general manager. The man in charge of the day-to-day operations on the field, manager Brad Mills, returns for his third season. Mills hasn't had much to work with in the last two years as the team rebuilds, but he's in the final year of his contract (with a club option for 2013) and is coming off a club-record 106-loss season. Mills will be again depending on young players at several key positions, which will make winning difficult. Mills could be a very capable manager, but whether he gets an opportunity to show it in Houston remains to be seen.
As they enter their final year in the National League, the Astros remain years away from contending. The club is in full-blown rebuild mode and is betting its future on an increasingly improving minor league system, as well as taking advantage of having the No. 1 pick in this year's draft. The road to contention will be a long one, but the Astros have added nearly two dozen young players while trading away veterans in the last few years and appear to be on the right track. Astros fans will have to be patient and enjoy watching the young kids get their feet wet in the major leagues.
CF Jordan Schafer (L)
A former top prospect in the Braves system, Schafer has all the tools to be a dynamic lead-off hitter.
2B Jose Altuve (R)
He has hit at every level in the minor leagues, but can he do it in the majors?
LF J.D. Martinez (R)
The organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2010 had an impressive debut when called up.
1B Carlos Lee (R)
In the final year of his six-year, $100-million contract, the slugger remains a proven run producer.
RF Brian Bogusevic (L)
The team's former first-round pick as a pitcher finally showed some potential as a hitter last year.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
After hitting .308 in 2010, he slumped to .251 last season with 97 Ks in 378 ABs.
SS Jed Lowrie (S)
He'll be the starter after coming from Boston, but can he hit consistently from the left side?
C Jason Castro (L)
The jury remains out on the former first-round pick after he lost all of 2011 with a major knee injury.
INF Matt Downs (R)
Averaged a homer every 19.9 at-bats and led the majors with 15 pinch-hit RBIs.
INF Angel Sanchez (R)
Career highs in runs (35), doubles (10), HRs (1), RBIs (28), walks (27) and stolen bases (3).
C Chris Snyder (R)
The eight-year veteran is good defensively and hit .271 in limited action with Pittsburgh last season.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Went 11-11 with a 3.49 ERA in 30 starts to reach double-digit wins for the fourth time in his career.
RH Bud Norris
In his second full season in majors, went 6-11 with a 3.77 ERA and led club with 176 strikeouts.
LH J.A. Happ
Went 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA in final six starts after posting a 6.26 ERA in his first 22 starts.
RH Jordan Lyles
Went 2-7 with a 5.02 ERA before being moved to bullpen to limit innings.
RH Lucas Harrell
Long-time White Sox farmhand has made just five major league starts.
RH Kyle Weiland
The 24-year-old progressed nicely through the Red Sox system and appears poised to break out at the major league level.
RH Brett Myers (Closer)
Led the club in starts and innings pitched, going 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA, including 4-1 in last five starts. Has spent just one season in the bullpen, which was 2007 in Philadelphia, and he had 21 saves.
RH Brandon Lyon
Veteran began 2011 as Astros closer and went 4-for-8 in save chances before arm injury ended season.
RH Wilton Lopez
Made a career-high 73 appearances in 2011 and went 2-6 with 2.79 ERA, including 1.98 ERA in final 17 games.
RH David Carpenter
Appeared in 34 games in his major league debut after beginning year at Double-A and posted a 2.93 ERA.
RH Fernando Rodriguez
Had a 2-3 mark with a 3.96 ERA in 47 games, striking out 57 hitters in 52.1 innings.
LH Wesley Wright
Appeared in 21 games in three separate stints; allowed one single in 26 AB against lefties.
RH Rhiner Cruz
The 25-year-old Dominican has never pitched above the Double-A level.