Articles By Charlie Miller

Path: /mlb/nl-central-predictions

NL Central
1. St. Louis
2. Milwaukee
3. Cincinnati
4. Pittsburgh
5. Chicago
6. Houston

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
2. Cincinnati
3. Milwaukee
4. Chicago
5. Pittsburgh

— Charlie Miller

Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie

<p> With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder no longer in this division, it's there for the taking.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 14:45
Path: /mlb/nl-east-predictions

NL East
1. Philadelphia
2. Atlanta (wild card)
3. Washington
4. Miami
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)
1. Miami
2. Philadelphia
3. Washington
4. Atlanta
5. New York

— Charlie Miller

Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie

<p> With cracks appearing in the Philadelphia offense, the NL East has become the most competitive division in baseball. The door is open — or at least ajar — for the Braves, Nationals and Marlins to enter.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 14:39
Path: /mlb/nl-west-predictions

NL West
1. San Francisco
2. Arizona (wild card)
3. Los Angeles
4. Colorado
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
3. Arizona
4. Colorado
5. San Diego

— Charlie Miller

Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie

<p> 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.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 14:33
Path: /mlb/al-west-predictions

AL West
1. Texas
2. Los Angeles (wild card)
3. Seattle
4. Oakland

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
2. Texas
3. Seattle
4. Houston
5. Oakland

— Charlie Miller

Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie

<p> The Angels upped the ante with two major free agent signings, but this is still the Rangers' division.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 14:21
Path: /mlb/al-central-predictions

AL Central
1. Detroit
2. Cleveland
3. Kansas City
4. Minnesota
5. Chicago

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)
1. Detroit
2. Kansas City
3. Cleveland
4. Minnesota
5. Chicago

— Charlie Miller

Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie

<p> <br /> There is very little debate about who is the best team in the AL Central.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 14:12
Path: /mlb/al-east-predictions

AL East
1. New York
2. Tampa Bay
(wild card)
3. Boston
4. Toronto
5. Baltimore

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
3. Toronto
4. Boston
5. Baltimore

— Charlie Miller

Follow Charlie on Twitter @AthlonCharlie

<p> It’s official. The Tampa Bay Rays are consistently competing with the rich boys up north.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 14:00
Path: /mlb/san-francisco-giants-2012-preview

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.





Batting Order
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.

<p> 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.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 12:48
Path: /mlb/los-angeles-dodgers-2012-preview

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.




Batting Order
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.

<p> For Dodgers fans, the long nightmare is over. Last year was one of the darkest in the storied franchise’s long history, but good times are coming.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 12:32
Path: /mlb/arizona-diamondbacks-2012-preview

Arizona Diamondbacks

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.




Batting Order
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.

<p> 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. The D-backs must be considered a top contender to repeat.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 12:17
Path: /mlb/colorado-rockies-2012-preview

Colorado Rockies

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.

Middle Infield
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.”

Final Analysis
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.





Batting Order
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.

<p> If the starting pitching comes together, the Rockies could contend in a division that is by no means overwhelming.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 12:01
Path: /mlb/san-diego-padres-2012-preview-0

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.




Batting Order
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.

<p> 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.</p>
Post date: Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 11:47
Path: /mlb/st-louis-cardinals-2012-preview

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.





Batting Order
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.

<p> 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. Despite the loss of two icons, the Cardinals enter 2012 with a team that they believe can win again.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 18:13
Path: /mlb/pittsburgh-pirates-2012-preview

Pittsburgh Pirates

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.




Batting Order
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.

<p> The Pittsburgh Pirates want to stretch four months of feel-good baseball into six months this season. And they believe they can go the distance this season.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 17:51
Path: /mlb/cincinnati-reds-2012-preview

Cincinnati Reds

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.





Batting Order
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
  Washington Nationals

<p> In a division that's now void of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Reds have a chance.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 17:33
Path: /mlb/milwaukee-brewers-2012-preview

Milwaukee Brewers

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.





Batting Order
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
  Washington Nationals

<p> 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.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 17:12
Path: /mlb/houston-astros-2012-preview

Houston Astros

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.

Middle Infield
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.

Final Analysis
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.



Batting Order
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.

<p> 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.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 16:45
Path: /mlb/chicago-cubs-2012-preview-0

Chicago Cubs

The headline writers in Chicago had a field day about the Cubs' new “Theo-logy” when Theo Epstein was named the team's new president in October. As general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Epstein helped craft a team that broke an 86-year World Series drought in 2004. Now he's the boss of a team that hasn't won the big prize in 103 years. The team he inherited was a mess. The Cubs stumbled through a 71-91 season, with far too many dollars going to Carlos Zambrano, who was suspended by the team after quitting in August, and Alfonso Soriano, an aging outfielder who never became the 40-40 man the team hoped for when they signed him to an eight-year deal before the 2007 campaign. The new regime began cleaning up some of the mess in early January by dealing Zambrano to the Marlins, but turning the club into a consistent winner will likely take more than one year, so 2012 appears to be a season of adjustment. With new general manager Jed Hoyer, senior VP of scouting and player development Jason McLeod and new skipper Dale Sveum in place, Epstein believes he has a management team to lead the Cubs to a bright future. But the present “Theo-logy” is a little hazy.

The Cubs had no choice but to part ways with Zambrano. The former staff ace, who had compiled a laundry list of controversial actions over the years, quit on his team after a game in Atlanta in August, prompting then-general manager Jim Hendry to suspend him the rest of the season and effectively end his tenure in Chicago. The Marlins agreed to take Zambrano in a deal for Chris Volstad, but the Cubs will be picking up a reported $15 million of the $18 million he is owed for the 2012 season. Matt Garza finished the 2011 season strong, but he is considered one of the best trading chips, so he probably won't finish the season in a Cubs uniform. Ryan Dempster returns as the likely No. 1 starter despite a 10-14 campaign in 2011. Randy Wells' lights-out August (4-0, 3.32 ERA) helped vault him to a 7-6 mark, which was a nice recovery after struggling in 2010 with an 8-14 mark. But he will start 2012 at Triple-A Iowa. The Cubs traded dependable setup man Sean Marshall to Cincinnati to bring the promising Travis Wood into the rotation. The young lefty will get a few starts at Triple-A before taking his place in the rotation full-time. Volstad, a first-round pick in 2005, struggled last season (5-13) after going 12-9 in 2010. Paul Maholm, who pitched well despite going just 6-14 last year in Pittsburgh, signed a one-year deal with a club option for 2013 in January. They will back Dempster and Garza for now. When Jeff Samardzija was drafted in 2006, the Cubs eyed him as being an effective starter, but he developed a niche as a late-inning reliever and finished with a career-high eight wins and career-best 2.97 ERA. But he's back in a starter's role.

With 10 blown saves and a career-worst 4.01 ERA, closer Carlos Marmol is coming off a rough 2011 season. He was demoted back to setup man for a little while. But he has 72 saves in the past two seasons and goes into spring training as the most experienced closer on the squad. Lefthander James Russell was 0-5 with a 9.33 ERA in five starts and 1-1 with a 2.19 ERA in 59 relief appearances, so he could work his way in as a top setup man. Scott Maine was effective at Iowa but up-and-down in seven major league appearances, posting a 10.29 ERA. Since the Cubs are in need of another southpaw in the pen, he may fill that need. Rafael Dolis showed promise in Double-A Tennessee, got a brief taste of the majors in September and appears to have earned a spot in the bullpen.

Middle Infield
Shortstop Starlin Castro led the National League with 207 hits and 29 errors. His defense can be both spectacular and maddening to Cubs fans - sometimes both in the same game. With experience and maturity will come stardom for Castro. At second base, Darwin Barney became a solid major league player, hitting .276, mostly batting second, in 143 games. He was the National League Rookie of the Month in April but tailed off after the All-Star Game.

Aramis Ramirez was the Opening Day third baseman for the Cubs for the past eight years, but he became a free agent and signed with Milwaukee, so the Cubs traded for Colorado's Ian Stewart, who had 25 homers in 2009 and 18 in 2010. But in 2011 he hit just .156 with no home runs in 48 games and was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs. The Cubs are hoping a change of scenery will help. At first base, the Cubs will turn to 29-year old Bryan LeHair - for the short term. They acquired power-hitting prospect Anthony Rizzo from San Diego, but the plan - for now - is to let Rizzo start in Triple-A. LaHair led all of minor league baseball last season with 38 home runs at Triple-A Iowa. He hit .288 in 20 games last year with the Cubs.

The Cubs' outfield is solid, but unspectacular. Soriano is back in left field, and while his power numbers are decent (70 homers and 92 doubles the past three seasons), his batting average has dipped into the .240-.250 range. His defense in left field continues to be problematic. Marlon Byrd has 101 RBIs and 176 strikeouts in 271 games over two seasons with the Cubs. David DeJesus became the first free agent signing in the Epstein era and figures to patrol right field. He has a lifetime .284 batting average but hit just .240 with Oakland in 2011.

Which Geovany Soto will show up? Soto has never been able to match his 2008 NL Rookie of the Year season (.285 with 23 homers and 86 RBIs). He followed that season with an awful 2009 campaign (.218 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs), and has averaged only 17 home runs and 54 RBIs in the past two seasons. He committed a career-high 13 errors last year but threw out a National League-high 36 baserunners.

The Cubs parted ways with backup catcher Koyie Hill, who was with the organization for five years and was on the major league roster full-time the past three seasons. Steve Clevenger has taken that spot. Outfielder Reed Johnson hit .361 or better in three different months of the 2011 season and made some spectacular plays in the field. Outfielder Tony Campana provides speed in both the field and on the basepaths. Jeff Baker can play in both the infield and outfield and hit safely in 30 of his 45 starts. Infielder Blake DeWitt is a solid fielder and turned into a valuable pinch-hitter, batting .265 in 121 games. Journeyman Joe Mather provides another bat off the bench and can play the corner outfield positions.

Third-year owner Tom Ricketts showed Cubs fans that he was serious about winning with his hires of Epstein and Co., and while the Wrigley faithful are sick of hearing about patience, the fans might be willing to endure a tough year or two if it means building a winner. With so many new executives in place, along with Sveum and a host of new coaches, this is clearly a transition year, and it would be a surprise if the newcomers could turn this team from a 71-game winner to a contender in one season. Sveum was blunt on his first day on the job and put the players on notice. “When you lose that many games, there are obviously problems,” he said. “Losing isn't OK. Not running a ball out isn't OK. It's unacceptable, and that has to be communicated.”

Final Analysis
On paper the roster appears to be filled with underachievers, players on the decline and question marks. Castro is a bona-fide star with a huge future ahead of him, but the surrounding cast isn't anything to get excited about. But with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals losing Albert Pujols and the Milwaukee Brewers losing Prince Fielder, the Central Division doesn't seem to have a powerhouse team. If some of the veterans recover from tough 2011 campaigns and keep the team afloat for four months, management could become bold and aggressive in making trade-deadline deals to help the Cubs contend. However, if the team struggles early, Epstein and Co. will begin to take a look at the younger players in the system and part ways with the veterans.





Batting Order
RF David DeJesus (L)
Has never played in Wrigley Field but should shore up the top of the lineup.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Had 90 hits before the All-Star Game in 2011 but struggled after that.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
The sky is the limit for someone who has accomplished so much before turning 22.
1B Bryan LaHair (R)
Career minor leaguer is keeping the seat warm for newly acquired prospect Anthony Rizzo.
LF Alfonso Soriano (R)
His speed is gone; his contract is immovable; will he ever hit 30-plus homers again?
CF Marlon Byrd (R)
Suffered horrific face injury when he was hit with a pitch May 21 and had mixed results after return in July.
3B Ian Stewart (L)
Cubs are crossing their fingers 26-year-old can return to 25-homer form of 2009.
C Geovany Soto (R)
Roller coaster career needs an upswing this year in a lineup full of question marks.

OF Tony Campana (L)
Stole a team-high 24 bases in 26 attempts in only 95 games in 2011.
OF Reed Johnson (R)
Hit .309, slugged .467 in his second go-round with the Cubs last year.
C Steve Clevenger (L)
Provides a left-handed complement to Soto.
INF Jeff Baker (R)
Started at five different positions last year and was a DH in three games against American League teams.
INF Blake Dewitt (L)
Valuable member of the bench; drove in 10 runs as a pinch-hitter for the Cubs last year.
OF Joe Mather
Former Cardinal and Brave can provide pop off the bench.

RH Ryan Dempster
Has thrown 200-plus innings four years in a row since moving from closer back to starter.
RH Matt Garza
Has averaged 11 wins and 198 innings over the last four seasons.
RH Chris Volstad
Batters hit .289 against the 6'8" former first-round pick en route to a 13-loss season with the Marlins.
LH Paul Maholm
Lost 14 games in Pittsburgh in '11 but had a career-best 3.66 ERA and only allowed 160 hits in 162.1 IP.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Former Notre Dame receiver had best season as a Cub, winning eight games and posting a 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen.
RH Randy Wells
After an April 4 win, didn't get second victory until July 23; was 4-0 in August. Is expected to re-join the rotation by midseason.
LH Travis Wood
Cubs traded reliable reliever Sean Marshall for him and hope he will be around for a long time. His stay in Triple-A should be brief.

RH Carlos Marmol (Closer)
Blew 10 save opportunities last year; will he get his spot as closer back?
RH Kerry Wood
Veteran re-signed with the Cubs in mid-January; struck out 57 batters in 51 innings last season.
LH James Russell
Struggled as a starter but was brilliant as a middle reliever in 2011.
RH Rafael Dolis
Another minor league starter who has found success as a reliever.
LH Scott Maine
Showed promise at Triple-A but was inconsistent in seven major league appearances. Currently the best candidate in the system to be the extra lefty.

<p> With so many new executives in place, along with manager Dale Sveum and a host of new coaches, this is clearly a transition year, and it would be a surprise if the newcomers could turn this team from a 71-game winner to a contender in one season.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 18:17
Path: /mlb/washington-nationals-2012-preview-0

Washington Nationals

The Nationals ended the 2011 season with their best record since their first year in Washington, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to compete in the NL East in 2012. That feeling might have been dampened somewhat by the aggressive moves the Marlins made during the offseason, but for the first time since their surprise pennant chase in 2005, the Nationals aren't an afterthought in the division. They'll have a healthy Strasburg with Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, whom the Nationals acquired in a five-player trade with Oakland last December. A rotation like that makes them a wild card dark horse.

It's been a long time since the Nationals have gone into a season hoping for anything other than mediocrity from their rotation. With Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez at the front of the group, the Nationals could have one of the best young pitching staffs in the game. The team has been waiting for a healthy Strasburg since his sensational 2010 rookie season ended with a torn elbow ligament. He pitched very well in five starts last September and will likely be the Opening Day starter. Zimmermann, who also had Tommy John surgery in August 2009, came back strong last year, posting a 3.18 ERA in 161.1 innings. The Nationals traded four players to get Gonzalez from Oakland, but the 26-year-old lefthander could turn out to be worth it; he's had a sub-3.25 ERA each of the last two years. Edwin Jackson should prove to be one of the best No. 4 starters in the game. He has a string of five seasons of 31-plus starts with five different organizations. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 208 innings and 12 wins. Not bad numbers from the fourth spot in the rotation. John Lannan will man the fifth spot, at least until Chien-Ming Wang recovers from a balky hamstring.

The Nationals' relief corps has been the strongest part of the team for the past two seasons, and there's no reason to think that it won't be solid again in 2012, although it may get off to a slow start. Drew Storen, who had 43 saves in his first season as closer, has experienced some elbow soreness and will begin the season on the disabled list. He shouldn't miss more than a few weeks. The righthander developed better control of his fastball as the year went on, which made his slider even more effective. He'll be helped by roommate Tyler Clippard, whose outstanding performance as the setup man helped him earn his first All-Star nod in 2011. Clippard became Washington's option in all kinds of tense situations, and his rising fastball and odd arm action helped him strike out 104 batters in 88.1 innings. Washington signed Brad Lidge to fill the seventh-inning role, but he may be called on to close a few games until Storen returns. The Nationals also have hard-throwing Henry Rodriguez, who was effective at the end of the season when he developed better control, and Sean Burnett, who was the team's best reliever in 2010 and pitched well late last season after struggling early. With those relievers, as well as Ryan Mattheus and recent acquisition Ryan Perry, the Nationals have plenty of power arms to back up their improving rotation. Lefthanders Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny will complete the pen.

Middle Infield
If there's one area where the Nationals have some unknowns, it's here. They have two talented young players in shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa, but each one has some questions to answer after the 2011 season. It's likely Desmond will begin the season in the leadoff spot, where he hit well at the end of last season, but he got off to a slow start and wound up hitting eighth early in the year. The Nationals also want to see him continue to cut down on his errors; he committed 23 in 2011 after 34 in 2010. Espinosa set a major league record for homers by a rookie second baseman in the first half of the season, blasting 16 before the All-Star break. But he wore down, hitting only five homers in the second half. Still, Espinosa (who finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year race) has the chance to be a special player in his second season. The Nationals have plenty of talent and athleticism up the middle. They'd just like to see more consistency and plate discipline.

One of the reasons for the Nationals' optimism in 2012 is the presence of a healthy Ryan Zimmerman. The third baseman missed nearly two months in 2011 after tearing an abdominal muscle, and he posted career lows in home runs (12) and RBIs (49). Zimmerman also tinkered with his throwing motion to prevent further injury and had developed a more consistent delivery by the end of the year. The Nationals will also welcome the return of Adam LaRoche, who was gone for the season by May. LaRoche developed a tear in his shoulder in spring training and had surgery to repair a torn labrum. He hit just .172 in 43 games, unable to turn on pitches he would normally be able to drive. He played impressive defense, though, and can probably be counted on for 20-25 home runs if he's healthy. Chris Marrero, who played well in a call-up last September, tore his hamstring playing in the Dominican winter league and could miss a good chunk of the season.

At the beginning of last season, the Nationals were counting on Jayson Werth to carry their lineup and were simply hoping Michael Morse could continue making progress after a surprising 2010 season. By the end of it, Morse was finishing a breakout campaign, getting himself on a pair of MVP ballots, while Werth was slogging through a disappointing first year of his $126 million contract. The Nationals will have to hope he rebounds in 2012, both to justify his enormous contract and to fortify a lineup that was too often unable to come up with big hits in 2011. Morse, who was the Nationals' best offensive player in 2011, could see himself shuttled around to a number of different positions in 2012. Morse could start in left or right field, and could also see time at first base if LaRoche isn't fully recovered from shoulder surgery. That is, after Morse himself recovers from a torn lat. Roger Bernadina will get the first crack at the center field job, though it's possible Rick Ankiel will play quite a bit. At some point - and likely this season - the Nationals must make room in center field for the 19-year-old Bryce Harper. He is starting the season at Triple-A Syracuse to hone his skills in center, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him in the nation's capital by mid-May.

The Nationals had accumulated a stable of young catchers in recent years but had never really trusted the position to one of them. That will likely change in 2012, when Wilson Ramos gets most of the playing time. Ramos, who finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year race, gives the Nationals a potent bat and solid arm behind the plate. He'll be backed up by Jesus Flores, the one-time catcher of the future who has been relegated to reserve duty because of injuries. Flores, though, is a good hitter with men on base and could start if Ramos got hurt. He could also be a trade chip.

Manager Davey Johnson wanted the Nationals to add more offense to their bench at the end of 2011. But other than Mark DeRosa or Xavier Nady, it's questionable whether the team has that. Steve Lombardozzi could be a solid utility infielder. But the Nationals still lack a difference-making bat for the late innings. When Morse is healthy, Ankiel provides an athletic fourth outfielder.

Johnson, who took over last June when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned, got the Nationals playing well at the end of the season and decided to return for 2012 at age 69. His handling of the bullpen can be odd at times - his practice of keeping two long relievers seems a bit dated and occasionally left him with poor matchups last year - but he has the respect of his players and the cachet that comes with a World Series ring. In bench coach Randy Knorr and third base coach Bo Porter, Johnson could be grooming a pair of potential successors for when he eventually decides to step down. But at the end of last season, he seemed like a man who wanted to enjoy the ride a little longer.

Final Analysis
As tough as the Marlins have made the NL East, and as many questions as the Nationals could still have about the middle of their lineup, it's possible the team is still a year and a couple moves away from really making noise. But there's enough here, particularly in the rotation and the bullpen, that it's not hard to see the team making a push if Werth rebounds and Desmond helps the team solve its long-standing problem at the top of the lineup. Consider the Nationals a candidate to win 80-85 games, keep themselves on the periphery of the playoff race - especially considering two wild cards - and create a legitimate buzz about baseball in the nation's capital for the first time since the team's inaugural 2005 season in Washington.




Batting Order
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Improved toward the end of the season to raise average to .253; will get first shot to lead off.
2B Danny Espinosa (S)
Nationals will look for more consistency in his second year; has power, great range and arm.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Team's best player missed 61 games in 2011; looking for big year after abdominal surgery.
LF Michael Morse (R)
Hit .303 with 31 homers in breakout season; might be Nationals' best power hitter. Will start the season on the shelf.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
Needs to rebound after disappointing 2011 and show he's worth his $126 million deal; hit .232 with 20 homers.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Back from shoulder surgery, he's looking to get back to typical production; .265, 20-25 homers, 85 RBIs.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
Finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year vote; could hit 16-18 homers with solid defense behind the plate.
CF Roger Bernadina (L)
Tons of talent, but can he ever put it together? Probably his last chance with Washington to play consistently.

OF Rick Ankiel (L)
The athletic defensive outfielder had just one home run in 88 plate appearances against lefties last season.
1B/OF Xavier Nady (R)
Went homerless in 110 plate appearances vs. righthanders last year.
INF Mark DeRosa (R)
He can play anywhere, but hasn't played much recently; only 73 games in the past two years, and one homer.
C Jesus Flores (R)
Might still be able to play every day after two years of injuries, but won't get the chance with Ramos on board.
INF Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Struggled in September call-up, but son of former major leaguer can draw walks and play middle infield.

RH Stephen Strasburg
The phenom returns; he'll pitch around 150 innings, but could strike out 150 batters in that time.
LH Gio Gonzalez
After winning 31 games the last two years in Oakland, he comes to the NL.
RH Jordan Zimmermann
Ranked 10th in NL with 3.18 ERA last year; won't have an innings limit after coming back from Tommy John.
RH Edwin Jackson
Cardinals won seven of his last 10 starts down the stretch last season as he went 4-1 with a 3.14 ERA.
LH John Lannan
Won 10 games for first time in 2011, had career-low 3.70 ERA. Not great stuff, but a solid No. 5 starter.

RH Drew Storen (Closer)
Saved 43 games in first full year as closer; has great stuff, and showed he could handle a big workload. A sore elbow will keep him out for a few weeks.
RH Tyler Clippard
Rode funky mechanics and rising fastball to stellar season and first All-Star Game.
RH Brad Lidge
Healthy for only 19.1 innings last season, he still averaged more than a strikeout per inning.
RH Henry Rodriguez
If he can control his fastball, he can be a good late-inning reliever.
LH Sean Burnett
Nationals' best reliever in 2010; came back strong at end of 2011 after struggling early.
RH Ryan Mattheus
In deep bullpen, could pitch in middle relief, but has potential for more.
RH Ryan Perry
Big fastball and questionable control. Came over in trade from Tigers; probably a mop-up man to start.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Pitched well in long relief (2-0, 2.42 ERA in relief) after being bounced from rotation.
LH Ross Detwiler
The 2007 first-round draft pick is still a candidate for the rotation.

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
  Washington Nationals

<p> The Nationals ended the 2011 season with their best record since their first year in Washington, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to compete in the NL East in 2012.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 23:32
Path: /mlb/philadelphia-phillies-2012-preview-0

Philadelphia Phillies

An anguished Roy Halladay sat for what seemed like an eternity and stared blankly into his locker after the Phillies’ remarkable 2011 season ended in a painful 1–0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in early October. Less than two months later, Halladay’s fire began to burn again. “I’m ready to go try again,” he told manager Charlie Manuel in a Thanksgiving text message. “If we keep doing this, we’re going to win it one of these days.” The Phils won a franchise-best 102 games and a fifth straight NL East title in 2011, but they fell far short of the World Series title that was their goal. They’re not as young, physically sound or offensively explosive as they once were, but with a star-studded pitching staff they’re still plenty good enough to turn Halladay’s text message into gospel and go all the way in 2012.

It’s the best in baseball with Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in the top three spots. The trio helped the Phils record the best starters’ ERA — 2.86 — in the majors last season. That was the best mark by any starting staff since 1985. The group’s 932 strikeouts were the most by a starting cast since 2003. Halladay, Lee and Hamels finished second, third and fifth, respectively, in NL Cy Young voting. Even on the cusp of his 35th birthday, Halladay remains one the game’s elites. He has recorded six straight seasons of 220-plus innings. In 2011, he held opposing clubs to three or fewer earned runs in 27 of 32 starts and never had a month with an ERA above 3.00. While consistency is Halladay’s calling card, Lee became a cult hero in Philly with some amazing highs. He made 10 combined starts in June and August and gave up a total of three runs. Three. His six shutouts were the most in the majors in a season since 1989. Halladay and Lee both fit the description of an ace. What sets the Phillies apart is that they have three aces. At 28, Hamels has already made 13 postseason starts. He had a career-best 2.79 ERA last season, and his best might still be to come. Between the ears, the lefthander has matured and sharpened his focus. On the mound, his arsenal of pitches now goes four deep with the addition of a cutter. Over the last three seasons, Hamels’ opponents’ batting average has shrunk from .273 to .237 to .214. A year away from a big free agent payday — the Phils would like to lock him up before then — Hamels seems primed for a big year. The balance of the rotation has youth and experience. Righthander Vance Worley is locked in after a strong rookie season in 2011. The club went 16–5 in his 21 starts. Joe Blanton spent most of 2011 rehabbing an elbow injury. If healthy, he’s a strong No. 5. If not, Kyle Kendrick will make the necessary spot starts.

No team closed games better than the Phillies in 2011. Their 85.5 save percentage (47-for-55) was tops in the majors. In signing Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year $50 million contract — the richest ever for a reliever — the Phils took a strength and made it better. Papelbon averaged 36 saves for Boston over the last six seasons. He was 31-for-34 last year while striking out 87 and allowing just 50 hits and 10 walks in 64.1 innings. The setup role is a question mark. Hard-throwing lefty Antonio Bastardo was spectacular in the role for five months in 2011 but struggled with control and confidence in September. If Bastardo is over his growing pains, the eighth inning will be in good hands. Veteran righthander Chad Qualls has accumulated 20 or more saves or holds in six of the last seven seasons. But his best days are behind him. The Phils would love for the aging Jose Contreras to come back strong from elbow surgery. Kendrick, Mike Stutes, David Herndon and Justin De Fratus will all have a chance to earn innings. This could be an area of flux during the season, but the ninth inning shouldn’t be a problem with Papelbon responsible for the final three outs.

Middle Infield
With their bats and gloves, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley, both 33, have been pillars on which the best era of Phillies baseball has been built. But as they begin their ninth season together, they are on the downside. Don’t misunderstand: Both players still have good tread on their tires, but they must stay on the field, and that’s been a challenge the last two seasons. Rollins, a player who relies on his legs, has been on the disabled list three times with nagging leg injuries, while Utley has missed significant time with a pair of more serious injuries. Chronic right knee tendinitis forced Utley to miss the first 46 games in 2011, and he did not drive the ball with his usual force when he returned. His batting average (.259) and OPS (.769) were both career lows for a full season. Utley’s knees are not healthy enough for him to start the season. He’s adamant that he does not need surgery, but it appears he will be on the DL for a prolonged period. Rookie Freddy Galvis appears capable of keeping the position warm until Utley can return, but unlike Utley, Galvis will not be a major factor offensively.

This is another area that illustrates the fragile health of this team. First baseman Ryan Howard and third baseman Placido Polanco are both rebounding from offseason surgery. Howard, one of the game’s premier power bats, will begin a five-year, $125 million contract extension on the disabled list after blowing out his left Achilles tendon on his last swing of 2011, which was also the final out of the NLDS. He should be back around midseason, but not in time to make a run at a seventh straight 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Ty Wigginton is the beneficiary of Howard’s injury. The veteran is with his seventh franchise and has averaged 444 at-bats with 18 homers and 56 RBIs over the past four seasons with Houston, Baltimore and Colorado. The Phils’ offense is in need of a contact hitter. Polanco is that kind of guy, but age (36) and health risks — he was plagued by a bad back and a sports hernia in 2011 — are definite concerns.

With Shane Victorino in center and Hunter Pence and John Mayberry Jr. on the corners, this is where the team’s best young athleticism resides. Victorino had a career-best .847 OPS in 2011. Defensively, he can run down any ball and throws with the best of them. Two-time All-Star Pence brings an energetic spark and much-needed, potent right-handed bat to the lineup. Mayberry Jr. has the look of a late-bloomer. The 28-year-old former first-round pick opened eyes by hitting .309 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs over his last 55 games in 2011. He gets first dibs on left field, and his ability to play first base will come in handy as Howard mends. With Howard and Utley out, the three outfielders will carry a much heavier load this season.

Every good pitching staff needs a rock behind the plate, and the Phils have one in Carlos Ruiz. His 3.06 catcher’s ERA was the majors’ best in 2011. The staff swears by him and seldom shakes him off. When Halladay won the NL Cy Young in 2010, he bought Ruiz a replica of the trophy. Veteran backup Brian Schneider, impressive in breaking in Worley in 2011, is back.

This unit received a makeover as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. looked for health insurance and power. He signed left-handed-hitting Laynce Nix who could play himself into a left field platoon. Fan favorite Jim Thome is back to finish his Cooperstown-destined career as a pinch-hitter and occasional first baseman. Pete Orr has become the team’s supersub, capable of playing anywhere with a smile.

Manuel, the most successful manager in team history, begins his eighth season. You have to go back to Gene Mauch (1961-68) to find a longer-tenured Phillies skipper. Manuel has been backed by some of the best talent in franchise history, big payrolls and an aggressive front office that traded 17 prospects the last four years to acquire Halladay, Lee, Pence, Blanton and Roy Oswalt. Amaro likes to strike big at the trade deadline. Keep an eye on July 29. He landed Lee, Oswalt and Pence on that day over the last three seasons, respectively.

Final Analysis
Age continues to creep up on this club. The offense isn’t as scary as it used to be, and the division has gotten better. Still, there are a lot of teams that would like to have the Phils’ problems. Barring injury, they should ride this pitching staff into the postseason once again.




Batting Order
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
Philly’s longest-tenured pro athlete ranks fifth in franchise history with 1,636 games.
3B Placido Polanco (R)
Led NL third basemen in fielding pct. (.977) for second straight year in 2011.
CF Shane Victorino (S)
Had an errorless season (296 total chances) while making second All-Star team in 2011.
RF Hunter Pence (R)
Tied for the NL lead with 57 multi-hit games and batted .339 with RISP in 2011.
1B Ty Wigginton (R)
Hit just .163 (20 for 123) with runners in scoring position for Colorado in 2011. Takes over first base while Ryan Howard recuperates.
LF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Slugged .597 in his final 55 games in 2011; 15 homers in 104 games.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Not known for offense, but has hit .292 with 93 RBIs last two seasons.
2B Freddy Galvis (S)
A career .246 hitter in the minor leagues batted .298 in 33 games at Triple-A last season.

1B Jim Thome (L)
Ranks eighth all-time in homers (604) and 26th in RBIs (1,674). Will get a few spot starts at first base against righthanders.
OF Laynce Nix (L)
Newcomer had a career-high 16 homers for Washington in 2011, all against righthanders.
C Brian Schneider (L)
Steady veteran is back for his third season with the club.
INF Pete Orr (L)
Veteran can play both infield and outfield until Chase Utley can return.
UT Michael Martinez (S)
Rule 5 pick made 48 starts at five different positions as a rookie in 2011. A broken foot will keep him on the DL for most of the year.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Has eight homers, 33 RBIs and one torn Achilles in 46 career postseason games. His return by the All-Star break is a bit optimistic.
2B Chase Utley (L)
Has played 1,038 games at second base, most in franchise history, but knee trouble has put that count on hold.

RH Roy Halladay
Had career-high 220 strikeouts in 2011 while leading NL with eight complete games.
LH Cliff Lee
Reached career highs in strikeouts (238) and innings (232.2) in 2011.
LH Cole Hamels
His 2.62 ERA since 2010 All-Star Break is fifth-best among MLB pitchers with 300-plus innings.
RH Vance Worley
Was first in ERA (3.01) and second in wins (11) among NL rookies with at least 15 starts in 2011.
RH Joe Blanton
Elbow problems limited him to a career-low 11 games in 2011.

RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
His 88.3 save percentage (219-for-248) the last six years is sixth-best in baseball.
LH Antonio Bastardo
Held opponents to a .144 batting average in 2011, lowest by a Phils’ reliever since 1920.
RH Chad Qualls
Veteran will be primary right-handed setup man.
RH Mike Stutes
Had 2.08 ERA in first 23 games in 2011, 4.46 in next 34.
RH Jose Contreras
Opened 2011 with 12 scoreless appearances before elbow injury. Will open 2012 on the DL.
RH Kyle Kendrick
Unheralded swingman had a 3.14 ERA in 15 starts in 2011.

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
  Washington Nationals

<p> The Phillies are not as young, physically sound or offensively explosive as they once were, but with a star-studded pitching staff they’re still plenty good enough to turn Halladay’s text message into gospel and go all the way in 2012.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 17:44
Path: /mlb/new-york-mets-2012-preview-0

New York Mets

The Phillies rule the division. The Braves are loaded with pitching. The Marlins spent big in the winter. And the Nationals have dynamic young stars. The Mets? They’ll show up — as long as they keep getting loans to keep the business up and running, anyway. There’s little reason for optimism at Citi Field, where attendance is slipping fast and only blind loyalists expect the Mets to avoid the basement of the National League East.

For all of their injury woes, the Mets somehow had five starters make at least 25 starts apiece last season, which is often a predictor of success. Problem was, their five were decidedly mediocre, going 50–55, with only one starter, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, posting an ERA below 4.40. Four of the five will return this season, with ace Johan Santana taking the place of Chris Capuano, a one-year fill-in who led the team in strikeouts and then signed with the Dodgers. Serious shoulder surgery limited Santana to only two starts for Class A St. Lucie last season, and the Mets are cautiously hopeful that he will be ready for Opening Day. That may be asking too much, but it seems at least as likely as Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese and Mike Pelfrey all rising from back- to front-end kind of starters. Gee, Niese and Pelfrey struggled on the road, and they could be exposed this season, with outfield fences now normalized at Citi Field. Dickey, improbably, is the old reliable, finishing the season with 12 quality starts in a row. At $4.25 million this season, Dickey is doubly rare for the Mets: a good player, and an actual bargain.

The Mets needed a bullpen makeover after their 2011 group posted a 4.33 ERA to rank 28th out of 30 teams, ahead of only the Astros and the Twins. So in a market rich with closers, the Mets decided it was wiser to spread their limited funds on multiple arms rather than one big name for the ninth inning. To that end, they signed Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco while trading for Ramon Ramirez, all on the same night at the winter meetings. Rauch and Ramirez (one of the most underrated and reliable relievers of the last few years) should be capable setup men for Francisco, who cost $12 million over two years after a dominant second half with Toronto. Francisco is a hard thrower, combining a splitter with a fastball that averages more than 94 miles per hour. He has 368 career strikeouts in 334 career innings. Holdovers Manny Acosta and Bobby Parnell offer depth in the middle innings. Tim Byrdak, a useful lefty, will miss the first month with a tron meniscus. D.J. Carrasco and Pedro Beato offer depth.

Middle Infield
The Mets made little effort to retain Jose Reyes, understanding that they could never match the motivated, cash-rich Miami Marlins. So Reyes moved on, for six years and $106 million, leaving the Mets with Ruben Tejada in his place. As backup plans go, it’s not too bad — Tejada is only 22 and had a .360 on-base percentage while accumulating 376 plate appearances last season. At second base, the Mets want Daniel Murphy’s bat in the lineup and will do all they can to make the position feel natural to him. Last spring, Murphy hop-scotched around the infield and did not have a set position. “This spring going in,” manager Terry Collins says, “if we concentrate and say, ‘Hey, look, you’re going to get the majority of your playing time at second base,’ I think you’re going to see a little bit more comfort when he takes the field.”

Owner Fred Wilpon stung David Wright early last season by telling The New Yorker that Wright was not a superstar. It was a rude thing to say about the team’s marquee player, who never seems to turn down a charity appearance on behalf of the team — but it was pretty much accurate. Before the Mets moved to Citi Field, Wright had four consecutive seasons with an OPS of .912 or better. In the three years at their new home, his highest OPS is .856. The Mets have brought in the fences this season, which could help Wright rediscover his opposite-field stroke, and they have to hope he moves better in the field after missing time last season with a stress fracture in his back. First baseman Ike Davis never played after May 10 because of a serious ankle injury, but he should be back and ready to resume his career as one of baseball’s top young first basemen. He lacks the power of slugging first basemen like Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira, but at 25, Davis’ career arc is headed in the right direction.

In hindsight, the Mets’ four-year, $66 million contract for Jason Bay seems quite foolish, as his two Mets seasons have been disastrous. The Mets need Bay to be the offensive threat he once was, and maybe, with the smaller dimensions at home this season, he can again be the run producer a legitimate corner outfield should be. Bay has been adequate in left field, and the Mets believe they’ve improved defensively in center field with the addition of Andres Torres from the Giants. Torres helped the Giants win the 2010 World Series, but that seems like an aberration in an otherwise ordinary career. Right fielder Lucas Duda thrived after the trade of Carlos Beltran, hitting .315 with a .919 OPS over the final two months of the season. Duda is big and burly, but his bat earns him a spot in the lineup, and with Davis back at first base, right field is the best place to put him.

Josh Thole was born Oct. 28, 1986, in Breese, Ill. That same day, in New York City, an estimated 2.2 million people lined the streets of Manhattan for a ticker-tape parade, exulting in the glory of the Mets’ World Series championship. Thole would love to be behind the plate the next time the Mets win a title, and at his age, he could have staying power. He held his own in 2011, with a .268 average and 40 runs batted in over 114 games as the Mets’ primary catcher. But while Thole caught 44 percent of potential base-stealers in 2010, that figure dropped to 21 percent with more exposure last season. Thole, who was mostly a first baseman early in his minor league career, also led the league in passed balls (16) and admitted to a lack of confidence on defense. Yet with no viable starter ready to supplant him in the system, the Mets will continue to trust in Thole and dream big dreams.

The Mets have little reason to spend money on their bench, which seems likely to be filled by fringe major leaguers and prospects or non-roster invitees who make a good impression in Port St. Lucie this spring. Justin Turner could see some playing time at second base, although Ronny Cedeno will be the primary middle infielder off the bench. Scott Hairston is a valuable pinch-hitter with some pop who can play multiple positions. Mike Baxter will get some opportunities to pinch-hit.

The Mets might not win many games, but it won’t be for lack of effort. Collins demands it, and his team displayed plenty of grit to even flirt with .500 last season. General manager Sandy Alderson and a sharp baseball operations staff will try to give Collins pieces to keep the team respectable enough to get the fans back. The Wilpons continue to seek investors while maintaining majority control of a franchise that incurred $70 million in losses last year.

Final Analysis
Until the Mets completely settle their shaky finances, they will continue to avoid pricey additions, making the development of their mediocre farm system critically important. The upside is that their prospects should have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves, as Davis and Duda have done in recent seasons. But there’s hardly enough star power to make the Mets a playoff contender. The Mets already squandered the Reyes era without reaching the World Series. Wright is a proud company man, but at this point he seems to be lingering by the exit.





Batting Order
CF Andres Torres (S)
Profiles as a classic fourth outfielder who overachieved in 2010, but Mets will see if he’s more.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
Will work extensively on the fundamentals of second base, to keep bat in lineup and avoid further injury.
3B David Wright (R)
If traded, his option for 2013 is voided and he can be a free agent after the 2012 season.
RF Lucas Duda (L)
Must get really tired of opposing PA announcers playing “Camptown Races” when he bats.
LF Jason Bay (R)
His 18 homers in two Mets seasons are half the total he hit for Boston in 2009.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Had 20 RBIs in month of April, one of only 12 Mets ever to do so.
C Josh Thole (L)
After a slow start, hit .299 from May 26 through the end of last season.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
If he can maintain his .360 OBP from 2011, he could rise to the top of the order.

UT Scott Hairston (R)
Can play second base or any outfield spot and provides some pop — hit seven HRs in 132 ABs in 2011.
2B Justin Turner (R)
Hit .350 (35-for-100) with runners in scoring position last season.
C Mike Nickeas (R)
Didn’t hit much at Class AAA, but manager Terry Collins likes his defense and attitude.
IF Ronny Cedeno
A .246 career hitter, but a solid defender at both short and second.
1B/OF Mike Baxter
Queens native has played in 709 minor league games, 31 games in the majors.

LH Johan Santana
After a year lost to shoulder surgery, how close can he be to the ace of old?
RH R.A. Dickey
Knuckleballer took a while to establish himself, but has many good years ahead.
RH Mike Pelfrey
Handed the Opening Day starting job last season — and proved he’s not an ace.
LH Jonathon Niese
Intercostal strain ended a promising season in August; can he move beyond a .500 pitcher?
RH Dillon Gee
Opponents’ batting average went up every month from June through September.

RH Frank Francisco (Closer)
New closer’s ERA was 5.92 at the All-Star break in 2011, but 1.37 thereafter.
RH D.J. Carrasco
Had a September to forget, allowing 21 hits in only seven innings.
LH Tim Byrdak
Across 415 career games, lefties are hitting just .206 off the former Rice Owl, but a torn meniscus will keep him out for a month or so.
RH Pedro Beato
Rule 5 pick started his MLB career with streak of 18.2 innings without allowing an earned run. Likely to start the season on the DL.
RH Bobby Parnell
Flamethrower averaged more than a strikeout per inning for first time in career.
RH Manny Acosta
Has a 3.22 ERA in 85 games for the Mets last two seasons, with more strikeouts than innings.
RH Ramon Ramirez
Of the six pitchers with at least 275 appearances since 2008, Ramirez has the lowest ERA, at 2.77.
RH Jon Rauch
Physically imposing at 6'10", 290 pounds, but fastball averaged just 89.5 MPH last season.

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
  Washington Nationals

<p> There’s little reason for optimism at Citi Field, where attendance is slipping fast and only blind loyalists expect the Mets to avoid the basement of the National League East.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 17:04
Path: /mlb/miami-marlins-2012-preview-0

Miami Marlins

It was the spending spree heard ’round the baseball world. In the span of a few dizzying December days, the newly recast Miami Marlins shelled out $191 million to sign three prominent free agents. And that outlay would have been even richer if Albert Pujols and/or C.J. Wilson hadn’t spurned the Marlins to sign with the Angels instead. In the process, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria didn’t just bring Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell into the crowded South Florida sports scene. Loria also served notice that these new Marlins would be doing business in a very different sort of way. With a new 37,000-seat, retractable-roof ballpark set to open this season in downtown Miami, the Marlins have gone from the team with the worst lease in baseball and a starter-kit payroll to a legitimate factor in the annual race for top-shelf talent. And to think, when Ozzie Guillen was brought in as the new manager to succeed the retiring Jack McKeon at season’s end, one of the first questions was about ownership’s willingness to spend on player payroll.

One of the biggest reasons the Marlins lost 90 games in 2011, second-most in Loria’s nine seasons as owner, was another disappointing performance by the starting rotation. Signing Buehrle, author of 11 straight 200-inning seasons, to a four-year, $58 million contract, was a great place to start. But if the Marlins want to finish higher than 12th in ERA as a rotation — which is where their 4.23 ERA and 42–60 cumulative record landed them last season — they will need to keep ace righthander Josh Johnson healthy. Johnson was limited to just nine starts last season as his comeback from early season shoulder woes kept getting pushed back. The Marlins made a splash in early January by shipping Chris Volstad to Chicago for embattled starter Carlos Zambrano. The team is hoping that Zambrano, who went 9–7 with a 4.82 ERA with the Cubs before he was suspended in August, will thrive playing for his friend, Guillen. He’s a risk, though the Cubs are paying a reported $15 million of his $18 million salary in 2012. Ricky Nolasco, who signed a three-year extension before last season, tested the club’s patience with his erratic showings. However, Nolasco still led the staff with 206 innings. Anibal Sanchez has put together back-to-back seasons of 195-plus innings for the first time in his injury-plagued career and appears to have turned the corner.

Sixteen closers have reached the 40-save mark over the past three seasons, but Bell is the only one to do it three years running. That, along with Bell’s degree from the Trevor Hoffman School of Closer Leadership, made it seem a little more sensible to authorize a three-year, $27 million deal for the former Padres closer. That’s two-and-a-half times what the Marlins had ever paid their primary closer going into a season. Juan Oviedo, formerly Leo Nuñez, was displaced by the Bell signing and should become the primary setup man. Righthanders Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Steve Cishek and veteran lefties Randy Choate and Michael Dunn will round out the bullpen.

Middle Infield
Reyes should be a defensive upgrade over Hanley Ramirez, who still managed to lead the team in errors (14) despite missing 70 games last year. Pairing Reyes with second baseman Omar Infante, who re-upped for two years at $8 million total, should give the Marlins a chance to shine up the middle. Infante ranked fourth in range factor among all big league second basemen, a tribute in part to longtime infield guru Perry Hill, who retired after the season. Offensively, Reyes is just the dynamic sort of leadoff presence Guillen wanted for his lineup. However, the Marlins training staff will have to do a better job of keeping him on the field than their Mets counterparts did over the years.

Don’t believe the hype. No, Ramirez didn’t demand a trade or a fat contract extension in the wake of the Reyes signing. That’s not to say Ramirez was ecstatic about being asked to change positions after six full seasons in the majors, but he’s professional enough to understand what’s at stake this season — both personally and for this franchise. Coming off surgery on his left shoulder will make it tougher for Ramirez to make the transition to the hot corner, but he’s a good enough athlete to figure it out. If he does it sooner than later, the left side of the Marlins’ infield should have ridiculous range. Gaby Sanchez returns at first base after the push for Pujols fell about $50 million short. There won’t be any hard feelings there, not after Sanchez followed his first All-Star selection with a miserable second half at the plate. Defensively, Sanchez has come a long way from prior experiments at third and behind the plate in the minors.

What opened the year as the third-youngest outfield trio since 1990 still has a bright future. Who occupies the middle spot in that future, however, has become an open question after injuries and lost momentum got Chris Coghlan sent back to Triple-A. The former NL Rookie of the Year (2009) will have to battle Emilio Bonifacio and Bryan Petersen for the job. The good news is that Mike Stanton returns in right field — this time as Giancarlo Stanton — and Logan Morrison, borderline tweets and all, is due back in left. That pair combined for 38 percent of the Marlins’ power production. Stanton is expected to take dead aim on that quirky, light-up sculpture the team is planning to unveil in left-center field at the new ballpark. He certainly figures to be the one to make it spin and blink more than anyone else in Marlins colors.

John Buck’s offense was about what most expected it would be after he was signed away from Toronto and the hitter-friendly American League. He still gave the Marlins the defense and staff leadership they hoped for when they gave him a three-year, $18 million deal. That 17 percent success rate against opposing base-stealers needs work, though, as a whopping 83 bags were swiped on his watch. In Buck’s defense, he caught a career-high 1,144 innings and was working for the first time in the South Florida heat.

The best place for Bonifacio, considering his versatility, is probably the same super-utility role he’s held the past few years. However, in light of his offensive growth, he will be given a chance to secure the starting job in center field. If that happens, Donnie Murphy could be the main option at utility infield, with Petersen and Scott Cousins back for outfield depth. Backup catcher Brett Hayes is a glove-first type whose bat likely limits his upside, but he handled himself well in his first full big league season. Greg Dobbs signed a two-year deal in January to serve as the team’s primary left-handed pinch hitter.

How different was this Marlins offseason? Put it this way: That $191 million was just $3 million shy of what the Marlins had spent to field their entire teams the previous five years (2007-11). Most of that change, no doubt, was tied to the new revenue streams that will accompany the long-awaited ballpark. However, there’s no denying the magnetic pull of Guillen. His strong relationship with Buehrle helped lure the durable lefty away from the Midwest, and his reputation as a player’s manager was cited by Reyes and Bell upon their signings as well. The front-office team of Larry Beinfest, Michael Hill and personnel man Dan Jennings has had to do more with less for so long that it should be interesting to see what kind of damage they can do now that the spending field has been evened up a bit.

Final Analysis
For all the hype about the Marlins’ offseason spending, the biggest factor in their ability to roar out of the NL East basement is the health of a pair of holdovers. Get 30 starts out of Johnson atop the rotation and 500 at-bats from a motivated Ramirez at third, and the possibilities for 2012 start to look pretty bright. If nothing else, having Guillen as the daily public spokesman for the franchise will keep them relevant and entertaining, regardless of the standings. After acting like a small-market franchise for virtually all of their two-decade existence, it’s a refreshing change to see the Marlins fall in line with such big-spending Miami brethren as the Heat and the Dolphins. Perhaps that third World Series crown isn’t as far off as some had started to believe.




Batting Order
SS Jose Reyes (S)
His addition gives Marlins two of the past three NL batting champions.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Slick fielder with range who led the league with 17 sacrifice bunts.
3B Hanley Ramirez (R)
His .243 average was down nearly 100 points from his career-high .342 mark in 2009.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Prodigious power hitter ranked fifth in the NL with 34 homers.
LF Logan Morrison (L)
On-base percentage dipped 60 points during injury-plagued sophomore season.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Of his 19 home runs in 2011, only six of them came in the second half.
C John Buck (R)
Ranked last in OPS among 14 NL catchers with at least 275 plate appearances.
CF Emilio Bonifacio (S)
Played six different positions last year, showing up everywhere but catcher and first base.

C Brett Hayes (R)
Has thrown out 28 percent of attempted base-stealers the past two seasons.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Right wrist injury wiped out four months of his 2011 season.
INF Greg Dobbs (L)
Posted a .919 OPS in 30 pinch-hit plate appearances last season.
OF Chris Coghlan (L)
Former NL Rookie of the Year has struggled with knee, defensive problems.
UT Austin Kearns (R)
Likely to fill the last roster spot.
OF Bryan Petersen (L)
Was successful on seven of eight stolen base attempts. Likely to be the odd man out.

RH Josh Johnson
ERA has dropped four straight seasons, but must prove he can stay healthy after elbow, shoulder woes.
LH Mark Buehrle
Has produced 11 straight seasons of 200-plus innings since becoming a starter.
RH Ricky Nolasco
Led the National League in hits allowed with 244, one more than Chris Carpenter.
RH Carlos Zambrano
Three-time All-Star has plenty of baggage, but has the ability to win 15 games in Miami.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Led regular Marlins rotation in ERA and strikeouts, ranking sixth in the league in the latter category.

RH Heath Bell (Closer)
Only big league closer with 40 or more saves each of the past three seasons.
LH Randy Choate
Veteran specialist held lefties to .453 OPS before elbow injury shelved him in August.
RH Juan Oviedo
The deposed closer formerly known as Leo Nuñez averaged 30.7 saves the past three years.
LH Michael Dunn
Ex-Brave’s strikeout rate fell off by 24 percent de-spite staying in the NL East.
RH Edward Mujica
Strikeout/walk ratio of 4.5/1 was easily the best on the staff.
RH Steve Cishek
Durable sidewinder struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings in 2011.
RH Ryan Webb
Sinkerballer pitches to contact but keeps the ball in the park — gave up two HRs in 51 innings.

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
  Washington Nationals
<p> It was the spending spree heard ’round the baseball world. In the span of a few dizzying December days, the newly recast Miami Marlins shelled out $191 million to sign three prominent free agents. After acting like a small-market franchise for virtually all of their two-decade existence, it’s a refreshing change to see the Marlins fall in line with such big-spending Miami brethren as the Heat and the Dolphins.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 16:42
Path: /mlb/atlanta-braves-2012-preview

Atlanta Braves

If not for the beer-drinking, chicken-eating pitchers’ scandal from the Red Sox clubhouse, the spotlight would have shined brighter on the Braves, who are also left to pick up the pieces from one of the most colossal September meltdowns in history. The Braves led the NL wild card by 8.5 games Sept. 5, only to lose it to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals on the season’s final day. Unlike the Red Sox, who dumped Terry Francona, the Braves stuck by first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez, though the scrutiny in the post-Bobby Cox era will intensify. General manager Frank Wren didn’t make wholesale changes to the roster, saying that as it was constructed last Aug. 25, the Braves were on pace to win 96 games, with the fourth-best record in baseball. That thinking, and a lack of available funds, kept Wren from overhauling. With the Marlins having spent nearly $200 million on free agents to go along with a new manager and a new stadium, and the Nationals returning Stephen Strasburg and adding Gio Gonzalez to their rotation, the Braves will have company challenging the Phillies, who have won five straight NL East titles.

Not many teams can lose two All-Star-caliber pitchers — Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) — in the final two months of the season and make a playoff run, but that’s the depth the Braves have in their rotation. They have standout prospects Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran vying for a fifth spot in the rotation and Tim Hudson’s replacement while the ace is recovering from back surgery. They also provide insurance for Jurrjens, who’s faded each of the last two seasons with knee problems; and Hanson, who is hoping offseason rest and rehab gets his shoulder back to 100 percent. Hudson expects to be ready by May 1 despite herniated disc surgery. Not completely satisfied with how the youngsters were progressing in the spring, the Braves signed veteran Livan Hernandez, who had been released by Houston. Derek Lowe went from a workhorse to a burden on the rotation last season — he failed to go six innings in seven of 14 starts in the second half and lost his last five starts — and was traded to the Indians in a salary-dumping move. Had the Braves made the postseason, Brandon Beachy would have been their No. 2 starter. He’ll have to pitch deeper in games to improve on seven wins in 25 starts in 2011.

The Braves return NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel and his rookie-record 46 saves to anchor the bullpen. He blew eight saves and enters the season motivated by his last one in the final game against the Phillies. The 23-year-old rejoins left-handed setup men Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to give the Braves a back end that compares favorably with any in baseball. The key will be whether they are used more effectively after wearing down in 2011. Kris Medlen could help. The versatile righthander showed during the last week of last season that he was healthy after Tommy John surgery. If the Braves don’t need him in the rotation because of injuries or trades, he can help their bullpen depth. Rule 5 selection Robert Fish could be a factor.

Middle Infield
Dan Uggla could use some middle ground after a tumultuous 2011. Through his first three-plus months as a Brave, Uggla hit .173 before breaking out with a 33-game hitting streak, tied for the third-longest ever by a second baseman. He managed to maintain his power throughout, finishing with a career-high 36 homers. The Braves are counting on another 30-plus homers, like he’s hit each of the past five years. Uggla will break in a new double-play partner. Looking for an offensive upgrade at shortstop, the Braves parted ways with Alex Gonzalez, who hit .241 with .270 on-base percentage last year, and opened the door to 22-year-old rookie Tyler Pastornicky. Pastornicky is not the leather-flashing Gonzalez, and he’s played only 27 games above Double-A, but he hit .365 with a homer and seven steals in those 27 games for Triple-A Gwinnett. The Braves like his speed and grit and project him as a 20-steal threat.

By now the Braves know what they’re going to get from 39-year-old Chipper Jones, who had ACL surgery on his left knee in 2010 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in 2011. They figure on 120 to 130 games, with Martin Prado ready to spell him at third base. If they can get another .275 year with 15-20 homers like they did from Jones in 2011, the Braves will be pleased. At the other corner, first baseman Freddie Freeman hopes to avoid the sophomore slump his close friend Jason Heyward endured. Freeman’s swing isn’t as violent and his approach is more refined, giving the Braves confidence he can repeat his success. At times Freeman was the Braves’ best hitter coming down the stretch. If not for Kimbrel, Freeman would likely have been NL Rookie of the Year.

For the second straight offseason, the Braves sought pop in the outfield. They ranked second to last in the National League last year in home runs (41) and last in slugging percentage (.375), after ranking last among NL outfields in home runs (40) and 15th in slugging percentage (.389) in 2010. The Braves upgraded in center field at the trade deadline last year and have Michael Bourn through the end of the 2012 season. But they need Heyward to be the player he was as a rookie, not the injury-laden easy out he became last season when pitchers jammed him inside. Prado’s left field experiment was largely a flop. Whether he was focusing too much on learning a new position, or the five weeks he missed with a staph infection cost him his rhythm, he was a shadow of his 2010 All-Star self offensively.

Brian McCann’s five Silver Slugger awards and six trips to the All-Star game in his first six full seasons make the Braves the envy of the National League and maybe all of baseball. Even by his own lofty standards, McCann was on pace for a career year last year, but his season stalled after an oblique injury. He came back after only about two weeks and maintained that he was healthy upon his return, but his timing was off. He hit .180 with a .346 slugging percentage and 16 RBIs in 37 games after returning from the disabled list. He still hit .270 with 24 home runs for the season, the most by any catcher in the majors, but he shouldered significant blame for the Braves’ September fall-off. David Ross returns as his backup, giving the Braves a little pop, a great signal-caller and a veteran presence in the clubhouse.

Eric Hinske returns to bolster the bench, which is another area where the Braves saw production drop off a year ago. Hinske hit double-digits in homers for the second straight year but drove in just over half as many runs with 28 RBIs vs. 51 in 2010. Brooks Conrad, who was subsequently non-tendered, didn’t spark the Braves as he had in the past, and without Omar Infante and Prado like the year before, the bench didn’t provide much of an offensive lift. Matt Diaz returned via trade from the Pirates in August and should provide some right-handed power. The Braves added veteran shortstop Jack Wilson for insurance if Pastornicky struggles. But a calf injury has slowed Wilson, who may not be available for the first month.

Gonzalez enters the season determined not to overuse the back of the bullpen as he admittedly did in the first half of 2011. The Braves’ lack of offense and propensity for extra-inning games didn’t make it any easier. The Braves hope new hitting coach Greg Walker will help them get back to good fundamental offensive play, and that they won’t be the pull-happy team they turned into down the stretch.

Final Analysis
If the Braves are going bounce back from last season’s epic collapse and make a run in an ever-improving division, they’ll need to see significant improvement from players such as Heyward and Prado. To offset any potential injuries in their rotation, they’ll need some of their good young arms to pitch deeper into games, not just through the fifth inning. The NL East might be the most competitive in baseball, with both the Marlins and Nationals making significant steps forward and the Phillies a continuing threat with that vaunted rotation.




Batting Order
CF Michael Bourn (L)
First true leadoff hitter for Braves since Rafael Furcal in 2005; led majors with 61 stolen bases in 2011.
LF Martin Prado (R)
Followed All-Star season by hitting career-low .260; missed five weeks with staph infection.
3B Chipper Jones (S)
Underwent arthroscopic surgery on right knee last season, but still played 126 games, hit .275 with 18 HRs and 70 RBIs. Had more surgery in the spring and won’t be ready for Opening Day.
C Brian McCann (L)
Provides power in the middle of the lineup, but hit only .180 in final six weeks coming off oblique injury.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
His 33-game hitting streak was longest since Chase Utley’s 35-gamer in 2006.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Led the Braves in batting average as a rookie. Runner-up in Rookie of the Year race.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Followed breakout rookie season with sophomore slump; benched for parts of stretch run.
SS Tyler Pastornicky (R)
Hit .314 in 117 games at Double-A and Triple-A combined last season, with 27 steals.

UT Eric Hinske (L)
Best power threat off bench, hitting double-digit homers each of past two seasons for a total of 21.
OF Matt Diaz (R)
Failed to homer in 116 games last season with Pirates and Braves, but hit .286 in 16 games for Atlanta.
C David Ross (R)
Braves were 28–14 in his starts, and 9–5 when he caught Tim Hudson.
OF Jose Constanza (L)
Speedster was a surprise spark for Braves last year, hitting .372 in first 23 games of call-up.
3B Juan Francisco (L)
Was hitting below .200 for Cincinnati in spring training when Braves acquired him.

RH Tim Hudson
Went at least seven innings in 10 of last 16 starts. Coming off back surgery and will miss at least the first month.
RH Tommy Hanson
10–4, 2.44 ERA in first half, but shoulder injury led to 1–3, 8.10 ERA in five second-half starts. Will be the Opening Day starter.
RH Jair Jurrjens
First-time All-Star after 12–3 first half, but knee problems cost him another September.
RH Brandon Beachy
Started 25 games as a rookie and had 10.7 Ks/nine innings, but had trouble finishing big inning.
LH Mike Minor
Poised to join rotation full-time after Braves won nine of his last 12 starts filling in for injured starters.
RH Randall Delgado
Held opponents to a .220 average over 35 innings in his seven starts last season. Either he or Hernandez will take the fifth spot until Hudson returns.
RH Livan Hernandez
Signed late in spring training as insurance for the youngsters and Jurrjens.

RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
Lived up to billing with rookie-record 46 saves but blew three saves in September.
LH Jonny Venters
Established as one of majors’ best relievers; only allowed 53 hits in 88 innings in 2011.
LH Eric O’Flaherty
Proved more than lefty specialist by leading all major league relievers with a 0.98 ERA.
RH Kris Medlen
Missed all but two outings in 2011 following Tommy John surgery.
RH Cristhian Martinez
Valuable long man, as evidenced by six shutout innings in 19-inning marathon vs. Pirates.
LH Yohan Flande
Earned a spot in the bullpen this spring. In eight games he gave up eight hits, struck out eight and walked eight.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Earned Fredi Gonzalez’s trust in call-up, allowing only four runs in 15 innings in September (2.40 ERA). Starts the season on the DL.
RH Julio Teheran
Had a dominant Triple-A season and held his own in three major league starts. Will start 2012 at Triple-A.

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
  Washington Nationals

<p> The Braves are left to pick up the pieces from one of the most colossal September meltdowns in history. If they are going bounce back from last season’s epic collapse and make a run in an ever-improving division, they’ll need to see significant improvement from players such as Jason Heyward and Martin Prado.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 16:08
Path: /mlb/texas-rangers-2012-preview

Texas Rangers

The American League West race likely won’t be a runaway in 2012, as it was the past two seasons, but the Rangers remain the team to beat. They have the best infield in baseball and one of the top outfields. They received production from their catchers in 2011 that they hadn’t had since Ivan Rodriguez was in his prime. All that offense overshadows a young, talented rotation — which now includes Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz — and some stingy relievers. The bullpen, which faltered early last season and prevented the Rangers from pulling away sooner, is one of the AL’s best. The two-time defending league champions have a chance to be better in 2012 and erase the sting of missing out on their first championship in a terrific World Series against St. Louis.

The biggest pitching story of the offseason was the Rangers’ pursuit of Darvish. The righthander agreed to terms in January after the Rangers bid a record $51.7 million for the posting fee. Darvish is seen as less of a risk than previous Japanese pitchers who came to the majors. He’s 25, 6'5" and has a fastball that clocks in the mid-90s. Darvish, 93–38 with a 1.99 ERA in Japan, is also a premium strike-thrower. While Darvish has ace potential, he won’t top the rotation. Colby Lewis, who resurrected his career in Japan, will likely get the Opening Day nod as the lone veteran on the staff after C.J. Wilson jumped to the Angels. Big things are expected from Derek Holland after he won 16 games in 2011. The Rangers rewarded him with a five-year, $28.5 million contract that takes him through the first year of free agency. Another lefthander, Matt Harrison, should be in the rotation after also breaking through last season with 14 wins. Feliz, the closer the past two seasons, is the most intriguing piece. He was thought to be a No. 1 starter when acquired in 2007 as part of the Mark Teixeira haul. Feliz will be paced, as Alexi Ogando was in 2011, but the Rangers expect him to succeed.

A weakness early last season, the Rangers’ bullpen became a strength down the stretch and in the playoffs. The team worked in the offseason to make sure there are no holes in 2012. The biggest move was the acquisition of free agent closer Joe Nathan to replace Feliz. Nathan returned last season after missing 2010 due to Tommy John surgery. He hit his stride in the season’s second half, though he is not the Joe Nathan of old when he saved 246 games over six seasons for the Twins. Mike Adams will work the eighth inning. The Rangers still have high hopes for righthander Koji Uehara, who struggled last season in Texas after being acquired from Baltimore at the trade deadline. Uehara’s ability to retire left-handed hitters was a factor in how aggressively the Rangers pursued lefty relief help. With Feliz and Darvish in the rotation, the Rangers had the option of moving Ogando back to the bullpen. He was an All-Star last year as a member of the rotation, but he showed in the postseason how effective he could be as a shutdown reliever. Scott Feldman, another starter, was a valuable late-season piece as a long man and spot starter.

Middle Infield
Second baseman Ian Kinsler, a two-time 30-30 man, and shortstop Elvis Andrus excel in all facets of the game and rate as two of the most exciting players in the game. The Rangers like Kinsler’s pop and knowledge of the strike zone atop the lineup. He finished with a team-high 89 walks and a .355 on-base percentage that helped offset a .255 batting average. Andrus, meanwhile, has hit ninth, first and second in his first three seasons, and has swiped at least 30 bases each year. But it’s not just the steals that make him and Kinsler so good on the bases. They both get terrific reads on balls put into play and go from first to third as well as anyone. Andrus is known as much for his glove as his legs. Though he committed a league-high (for a shortstop) 25 errors, he played the final 33 games without one. Many of his errors were on balls that average shortstops never reach. Kinsler’s 11 errors were second-most (among second basemen) in the league, but his .850 zone rating was second-best.

Adrian Beltre exceeded expectations in his first year, even though he missed all of August with a hamstring injury. He hit for power (32 homers) and average (.296) while playing Gold Glove defense at third base, all of which helped him shake the label that he performs only in a contract year. Beltre’s biggest impact was in the field. He was an instant upgrade over predecessors Michael Young and Hank Blalock, and he and Andrus combine to give the Rangers the best defensive left side of any infield in baseball. Across the diamond, though, first baseman Mitch Moreland enters 2012 dogged by doubts. He started 2011 well, hitting .300 the first two months. But an injured right wrist affected his swing in the second half, and he lost out on playing time. Young and Mike Napoli will also see time at first.

Talent isn’t an issue, but avoiding the disabled list has been a problem. Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz combined for 54 homers and 181 RBIs in 2011 even though Hamilton was down for more than a month early in the season and Cruz had two DL stints. Hamilton, who can be a free agent after the season, will play primarily in left field to keep his body fresh. Cruz, who saw David Freese’s two-out, two-strike drive sail over his head to tie Game 6 of the World Series, has a big arm in right field. Julio Borbon, Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin will compete for time in an unsettled center field. Hamilton could become the regular there if no one distinguishes himself during spring training, and fourth outfielder David Murphy would become the left fielder. That’s the alignment that has prevailed the past two postseasons.

Napoli developed into an all-around force, hitting for average and shedding the tag he acquired in Anaheim as a poor defensive catcher. He had always hit for power, but a torrid second half (.383) pushed his final average to .320. He fell 70 plate appearances short of qualifying for league-leader status, but was sixth in average, third in on-base percentage (.414) and first in slugging percentage (.631) among players with 400 plate appearances. Napoli also earned the trust of the pitching staff and threw out base runners at a far better rate than the Rangers had expected. The offense-defense combination made him the No. 1 catcher down the stretch and in the playoffs. Yorvit Torrealba won’t be glued to the bench. He caught a team-high 98 games in 2011, hitting .273 and throwing out 32.5 percent of attempted base-stealers. He will catch at least twice a week as the Rangers monitor the wear and tear of the Texas heat on their backstops.

Young will play first, second and third base again this season, but most of his time will be spent as a designated hitter. He adapted quickly to the role after being a regular in the field over his first 10 seasons, and finished up at .338 with 106 RBIs and 213 hits. Murphy is the team’s best pinch-hitter when he isn’t filling in for an injured outfielder, but the Rangers don’t call on their bench often. Torrealba has pinch-hitting experience from his days in the National League, but he is only 1-for-27 lifetime. Alberto Gonzalez is the leading candidate for a backup infielder.

Ron Washington has seen his record improve each of the past four seasons since he took over as manager in 2007. The Rangers play hard for him because of his enthusiasm and loyalty to the players. Highly regarded pitching coach Mike Maddux turned down two chances to become a manager during the offseason and will return to Texas. General manager Jon Daniels isn’t afraid to make midseason acquisitions to bolster the roster, and he’s attempting to keep a talented core together for the long haul.

Final Analysis
A third AL West title is within the Rangers’ grasp. The division got tougher when the Angels snagged Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, but the Rangers didn’t go quietly through the offseason. Darvish and Feliz ooze talent and will fortify the rotation despite Wilson’s departure. The Rangers’ offense might be the most dynamic in baseball. With the bullpen built to avoid the early-season woes it encountered in 2011, the Rangers enter this season as the team to beat in the AL West.




Batting Order
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
Turned back critics of his .255 batting average with 32 home runs, 30 steals and a team-high 89 walks.
SS Elvis Andrus (R)
Ability to hit-and-run, bunt and steal bases makes him a table-setter for the middle of the lineup.
LF Josh Hamilton (L)
The 2010 MVP missed 36 games with an early-season arm injury but finished with 25 homers and 94 RBIs.
3B Adrian Beltre (R)
Had MVP-type numbers (.296 AVG, 32 HRs, 105 RBIs) despite missing 37 games; wowed with the glove.
DH Michael Young (R)
His first season primarily as DH resulted in 213 hits (tied for the MLB lead) and a career-high 106 RBIs.
RF Nelson Cruz (R)
Two stints on the DL prevented this slugger from hitting 30 homers, but he drove in a career-high 87 runs.
C Mike Napoli (R)
Acquired to bash lefthanders, Napoli was an all-around force at the plate and a pleasant surprise defensively.
1B Mitch Moreland (L)
The Rangers are hoping that an injured right wrist is behind him.
CF Julio Borbon (L)
Has been the Opening Day starter the past two seasons but hasn’t lasted.

OF David Murphy (L)
One of the best extra outfielders in the game typically gets off to a slow start before finishing strong.
C Yorvit Torrealba (R)
Will see plenty of playing time as the Rangers try to limit their catchers’ exposure to the Texas heat.
OF Craig Gentry (R)
The fastest player on the team is also the best defensive outfielder, and he made strides in 2011 at the plate.
INF Alberto Gonzalez (R)
The search for a steady hand to serve as a backup shortstop could end with Gonzalez.

RH Colby Lewis
Has registered consecutive 200-inning seasons and rates as the veteran leader of a young starting crop.
LH Derek Holland
A breakthrough 16–5 season and a near-shutout in Game 4 of the World Series has raised expectations.
RH Yu Darvish
All eyes will be on the Japanese superstar, who could wind up as a staff ace for several seasons to come.
RH Neftali Feliz
A reliever in his two-plus big league seasons, Feliz was groomed as a starter in minors and has ace potential.
LH Matt Harrison
It’s not often that a 14-game winner has to prove himself, but he’ll have to win a spot in spring training.

RH Joe Nathan (Closer)
Second half in Minnesota gave the Rangers confidence that he has recovered from Tommy John surgery.
RH Mike Adams
A top setup man, Adams will be the primary eighth-inning reliever in his first full season with the Rangers.
RH Alexi Ogando
Though an All-Star starter in 2011, Ogando goes to the bullpen role he excelled in during the postseason.
RH Koji Uehara
The Rangers are looking past the rough two final months of 2011 and expect him to be a key contributor.
RH Mark Lowe
No one questions the arm and the stuff, but he suffered periods of inconsistency throughout 2011.
RH Scott Feldman
Though he prefers starting, Feldman proved to be a valuable piece as a long man and spot starter.
LH Michael Kirkman
Lefties batted .214 vs. the 2005 fifth-round pick during his stint with the Rangers in 2011.
RH Yoshinori Tateyama
Allowed just 37 hits and whiffed 43 in 44 innings last season.

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
  Washington Nationals

<p> The American League West race likely won’t be a runaway in 2012, as it was the past two seasons, but the Rangers remain the team to beat.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 14:18
Path: /mlb/seattle-mariners-2012-preview-0

Seattle Mariners

On the morning of July 6, 2011, the Mariners were 43-43 and two and a half games out of the AL West lead. Less than three weeks later, they were 43-60 and 15.5 games back. The 17-game losing streak came to define the Mariners' season, plunging them back into the same last-place abyss they had occupied in three of the previous five seasons. In the process, they reached new lows for offensive futility, posting franchise records for lowest batting average and most strikeouts. And despite bolstering their offense with the addition of Jesus Montero in a January trade, the Mariners are in danger of falling even further behind division rivals Los Angeles and Texas, both of which made significant moves over the winter. Despite small pockets of progress, and some promising young players, the Mariners appear to be nowhere close to contending any time soon.

The Mariners split up one of the best young rotation duos in the game when they traded Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Montero, a slugging catcher/DH, in arguably the biggest deal of the offseason. They still have Felix Hernandez as the No. 1 starter, who remains one of the elite pitchers in the game despite a rather mediocre (by his lofty standards) season in 2011._Newcomer Hisashi Iwakumi, a righthander signed out of the Japanese league in January, could slide into the No. 2 spot vacated by Pineda. Iwakumi was 24 games over .500 in five seasons in Japan with a 1.130 WHIP. Lefty Jason Vargas is locked in as the No. 3 starter, while righthander Blake Beavan and lefty Charlie Furbush figure to vie with veteran Kevin Millwood for the final two spots. Vargas, in his second full season as a starter, went 10-13 with a 4.25 ERA. He has averaged just under 200 innings over the past two years. If one of the starters falters, the Mariners can look to young guns Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton to camp to step into the rotation. Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick last June out of the University of Virginia, is quite polished for someone who has yet to throw his first pitch in the minors, but it remains doubtful that the Mariners would allow him to break camp with the big league club.

The December signing of George Sherrill satisfied two different bullpen needs for the Mariners - veteran leadership, and help from the left side. Though he was once a solid closer, Sherrill is pretty much used strictly as a left-handed specialist these days, something for which the Mariners had an acute need. Despite being the subject of trade rumors all winter, Brandon League is back as the Mariners' closer, coming off a solid 2011 that saw him named to his first All-Star team. The former Blue Jay saved 37 games in his first season as a closer. Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley are penciled in as right-handed setup men, but Chance Ruffin, acquired in the Doug Fister deal with Detroit, has enormous back-end potential. He struck out 60 in 48.2 innings pitched in the minors last season. Hector Noesi, acquired with Montero from the Yankees, can start or come out of the bullpen.

Middle Infield
Picked one spot behind Stephen Strasburg in 2009, second baseman Dustin Ackley arrived in Seattle last June with tons of hype, and despite some stumbles he proved himself worthy. His 2011 numbers may not leap off the page (.273/.348/.417), but that is solid production at Safeco. He should get better in 2012, with a year under his belt, but it is a bit disconcerting that his OPS declined in every month of the season. Ackley's double-play partner once again will be the sure-gloved Brendan Ryan, who hit just .248/.313/.326 in 2011. But on this Mariners team, numbers like those practically qualify him as a middle-of-the-order force. He is far from this team's worst problem.

First baseman Justin Smoak's first full year in the majors began with such promise - 12 homers by mid-June and an OPS that hovered in the mid-.800s until late June. But a thumb injury derailed him physically, and the death of his father brought untold mental anguish, and Smoak declined fast. He wound up hitting just .234/.323/.396. It goes without saying that an AL first baseman needs to do better than that. At third base, youngsters Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi, who looked solid down the stretch in 2011, will compete this spring for the regular job, with veteran Chone Figgins and his disastrous contract (which runs through 2013 with $17 million still owed) still the favorite. Figgins hit only .188 last season in 288 at-bats, almost 100 points below his career average. The Mariners hope a move to Figgins' more familiar role at the top of the order will spark the veteran who thrived in that position for the Angels.

Ichiro Suzuki arrived on these shores in 2001 at the age of 27, and 10 years later looked as if he hadn't aged a day. But that changed over the course of the 2011 season, when Ichiro suddenly seemed to have added those 10 years all at once. His paltry .272/.310/.335 line - easily career-worsts in all three - called into question his long-term future in Seattle (he is a free agent after the season). Of Ichiro's 1,733 games started, 1,720 of them have come out of the leadoff spot (the other 13 were all as the No. 3 hitter). But manager Eric Wedge has not committed to Suzuki as his leadoff hitter in 2012, after his career-low .310 OBP in 2011. On the other hand, the emergence of Mike Carp as an offensive force in the second half of 2011 - he hit 10 home runs in 212 at-bats after Aug. 1 - was arguably the team's best surprise of the year; he will likely split time between left field and designated hitter. In center field, former Gold Glover Franklin Gutierrez faces a pivotal year in which he has to do better at the plate than the anemic .224/.261/.273 he put up during an injury-plagued 2011. While he recovers from a torn pectoral muscle, Michael Saunders will assume the job in center.

The Mariners pulled off a surprising trade in November that netted them catcher John Jaso (in exchange for young pitcher Josh Lueke), who is likely to join veteran Miguel Olivo in a platoon for 2012. Jaso, who hits from the left side, struggled at the plate for Tampa Bay in 2011, but he is only two seasons removed from an impressive .263/.372/.378 year. Olivo, meantime, hit 19 homers for the Mariners in 2011, but his awful OBP (.253) and high strikeout rate (27.6 percent) put a serious drain on their offense. Montero will see the majority of his at bats as the DH unless he shows significant improvement defensively.

The Mariners are hoping Montero will provide some much-needed pop in the middle of the lineup. He hit 18 home runs in 463 at bats in Triple-A last year before impressing during a September call-up with the Yankees. The Mariners got almost no production from the position in 2011, with their DHs posting a combined OPS of .650 for the year. Casper Wells will see time as the fourth outfielder - if he doesn't beat out Carp - but also figures to get some ABs as the DH. Seager, Liddi and the odd man out in the catching platoon will form the bulk of the bench.

General manager Jack Zduriencik brought impeccable player-development credentials with him when he took over in October 2008, but after a promising debut in 2009 he has now overseen back-to-back last-place finishes, and one can imagine that if his 2012 youth movement doesn't pan out, then his days at the helm of the Mariners could be numbered. Wedge received a vote of confidence of sorts when his entire coaching staff was preserved, despite a last-place finish in 2011. Clearly, the Mariners franchise could use some stability in management, but to earn that Zduriencik and Wedge will need to win.

Final Analysis
With plenty of talent and youth around the diamond and on the pitching staff, the Mariners should be better than a 95-loss team in 2012. You can certainly build around a core of Hernandez, Paxton, Hultzen, Carp, Smoak, Montero and Ackley. But the Mariners are stuck in the brutal American League West, and with the Angels loading up this winter (Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson) and the two-time defending AL-champion Rangers still a force, a .500 record and a third-place finish would appear to be the outer limits of hope for the Mariners. And in a worst-case scenario, they could easily tumble back into a loss total in the 90s. There is little hope in the short term for this franchise.




Batting Order
3B Chone Figgins (S)
$36 million contract has been disaster, but a return to his old lead-off role could still salvage the deal.
2B Dustin Ackley (L)
Might be better as No. 2 hitter, but Mariners think he will become a big-time run-producer.
RF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
If his acute 2011 decline doesn't turn around, his days at leadoff could be numbered.
LF Mike Carp (L)
Batted .286/.325/.494 with 12 homers in second-half breakthrough in 2011. Sprained shoulder in Japan and is on the DL.
DH Jesus Montero (R)
Too young to be a full-time DH, not polished enough to be a full-time catcher, but his bat is MLB-ready.
1B Justin Smoak (S)
Improved numbers across the board in second big league season; needs to improve even more in 2012.
C John Jaso (L)
Offensive numbers slipped in 2011, but he hits righthanders very well.
SS Brendan Ryan (R)
Seattle pitchers love his glove at shortstop where he makes their jobs easier. Opposing pitchers love his bat at the plate where he makes their jobs easier.
CF Michael Saunders (L)
Will fill in while Franklin Gutierrez recovers from a torn pectoral muscle.

INF Kyle Seager (L)
Will fill in at 2B, SS and 3B. Carp's injury is an opportunity for Seager.
C Miguel Olivo (R)
Ability to crush left-handed pitching makes him perfect platoon-mate for Jaso.
3B Alex Liddi (R)
Mariners took a good look at him in September and liked what they saw.
OF Casper Wells (R)
Has 15 homers, 44 RBIs in only 340 career plate appearances.

RH Felix Hernandez
With all he's accomplished, amazing to think he'll still be only 25 on Opening Day.
LH Jason Vargas
Not the hardest thrower, but 10 wins, a 4.25 ERA and 201 innings for a bad team are impressive.
RH Hisashi Iwakumi
Went 107-69 in 222 games in Japan; won the Pacific League MVP in 2008 with a 21-4 record, 1.87 ERA.
RH Kevin Millwood
Veteran impressed with nine starts for Colorado last season. He was 4-3 and the Rockies won one of his no-decisions and the bullpen blew a four-run lead in the other.
LH Charlie Furbursh
Went 3-7 with a 6.62 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) after coming over from Detroit last July.
RH Blake Beavan
Big (6'7") Texan pitched his way into rotation discussion with impressive 2011 rookie year.

RH Brandon League (Closer)
Key to All-Star 2011 season was his career-low walk rate (1.5 per nine innings).
RH Tom Wilhelmsen
Thrived in eighth-inning audition as 27-year-old rookie in 2011.
RH Shawn Camp
Averaged 73 innings over the past three seasons with Toronto.
RH Shawn Kelley
Mariners hope 2009 standout is healthy again after two elbow surgeries.
LH George Sherrill
Former All-Star closer returns to Seattle as top lefty specialist.
RH Chance Ruffin
Flamethrower has chance to be closer some day if he reins in his walks.
RH Hector Noesi
Came out of the pen 28 times for the Yankees in 2011 but could pitch his way into the rotation.

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
  Washington Nationals

<p> With plenty of talent and youth around the diamond and on the pitching staff, Seattle should be better than a 95-loss team in 2012. But the Mariners are stuck in the brutal American League West, and with the Angels loading up this winter (Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson) and the two-time defending AL-champion Rangers still a force, a .500 record and a third-place finish would appear to be the outer limits of hope.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 13:20
Path: /mlb/oakland-2012-preview-1

Oakland A's

Billy Beane's offseason left little doubt among A's fans that the team was shifting its focus beyond 2012. Beane traded away Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, the only three players who have represented Oakland as All-Stars over the past three years. In return, the A's received a handful of prospects whom they plan to use to build toward the opening of their new ballpark, whenever that may be. Oakland did make a small splash by signing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36-million deal. Unless you count signing Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal knowing he must serve a 50-game suspension before being active, the A's were quiet in the free agency market. Beane has said he has no choice but to operate under the assumption that the A's will eventually be moving into a ballpark that produces enough revenue to let them compete. In the meantime, he's got a team with a skimpy payroll and almost no chance to contend in 2012.

The Opening Day starter will be Brandon McCarthy, a nomadic righthander whose career had been floundering until he busted out with a 3.32 ERA in 25 starts for the A's in 2011. The two true “aces” will likely start the season on the disabled list. The A's were optimistic about Dallas Braden's rehab from shoulder surgery, but shoulders are always tricky, so they'll be cautious with him, especially in a rebuilding year. But he will be ready months before Brett Anderson, who isn't expected back until midseason at best after undergoing Tommy John surgery last July. They bought some insurance with veteran Bartolo Colon, who was a revelation in the first half for the Yankees last year. If Colon's 2011 season, which came after being out of the big leagues for a year, wasn't a total fluke, which it may have been, he can eat innings and allow the A's not to rush so many young pitchers. The A's essentially have five pitchers fighting for the final two spots in the rotation (three if Braden starts on the DL). Graham Godfrey and Tyson Ross come back after bouncing between Triple-A and the majors with the A's, and Tom Milone and Brad Peacock who each had impressive cameos in the bigs last year before the A's acquired them this winter. If even two of those five can establish themselves as better-than-average big league starters sometime in 2012, the A's have a shot at a decent rotation in 2013 and beyond.

The A's could afford to deal Bailey and Craig Breslow (to Arizona, in the Cahill deal) because they still have Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, two veterans who have track records of late-inning success in the majors. Fuentes has 195 saves since 2005. Balfour has a 2.85 ERA over the past four seasons. Those two pitchers will each be free agents at the end of 2012, so they'll simply be holding the late innings warm while the A's figure out who their next young closer will be. One of the leading candidates is Fautino De Los Santos, who showed electric stuff at times in his rookie year in 2011. Joey Devine might also be a candidate. He missed two years because of Tommy John surgery, but he came back last year with a 3.52 ERA in 26 games. Ryan Cook was a closer in the Arizona system before he came to the A's in the Cahill deal.

Middle Infield
There were reports that Beane went into the winter with only one player on his untouchable list: Jemile Weeks. The second baseman came up in June and wasted little time establishing himself as someone who could hit and make an impact on the bases. His defense isn't quite what the A's had come to expect with Mark Ellis, though. Across the bag, Cliff Pennington is a very good defensive shortstop who has some offensive shortcomings. Pennington's numbers in 2010 and '11 were eerily similar - his OPS was .687 both years. It's a safe bet that he'll be somewhere in that range again, which makes him a below-average hitter, even for a shortstop.

Daric Barton looked like the long-term answer at first base after he showed significant defensive and offensive improvement three years in a row, but last season he started terribly and got hurt. He was a candidate to be non-tendered, but the A's re-signed him for $1.1 million, signaling that they plan to let him have a crack at getting back into their good graces. He is still recovering from shoulder surgery. They have plenty of candidates in Brandon Allen and Kila Ka'aihue (both acquired in trades since July) and the tantalizing Chris Carter, whose raw power allows him a long leash while the A's hope for him to put it together. Carter will start the year at AAA, but will return if he shows more consistency. At third, the A's seemed settled on Scott Sizemore as the answer, for the short term anyway, that is until he tore an ACL early in the spring and will miss the season. That left the A's scrambling a bit, but Adam Rosales and Josh Donaldson are the best options.

Halfway through the winter, the A's had an entire outfield worth of unproven players, but then in a two-week span in January, they re-signed Coco Crisp to play center and traded for Seth Smith to play left, then signed Cespedes in mid-February to complete the group. Cespedes offers good speed and power, but is still a little raw. He may look overmatched at times, but the A's will allow him to learn at the big-league level. A word of caution could be his maturity. That seemed to scare off a few teams. Crisp is an above average defender and he can be a dynamic player at the top of the lineup, but he's had injury problems over the past few years. With Weeks slated to lead off, and considering the dearth in the heart of the order, Crisp will be forced into the No. 3 hole. Smith has been a fairly consistent performer over his three full seasons in Colorado, but if he hit only 15-17 homers there, he's not likely to do better in Oakland. Smith is not such a proven commodity that the A's couldn't slide him to the bench if more than one of the young players proves worthy, though. Josh Reddick, who came from Boston in the Bailey deal, is the top of the pack. He's solid defensively and has some pop, but, like Smith, probably not enough to be a long-term answer in a corner outfield spot. The A's also have Collin Cowgill, who will get just enough of a shot in 2012 to show whether he can be a part of the long-term solution. The real budding star, top prospect, Michael Choice, also could be ready to make his debut sometime this year.

Kurt Suzuki appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the best young, two-way catchers in baseball. The A's were betting on it when they gave him a four-year, $16.25-million deal early in 2010. But he has struggled in the two seasons since. The A's don't have any alternatives in the short term, so they'll hang with Suzuki and hope that he can figure out what went wrong offensively and defensively. They may have to drop him into the middle of their young lineup, though, which is only going to add more pressure.

Whoever doesn't get the bulk of the playing time out of the first base jumble - Barton, Allen and Ka'aihue- is going to get a good crack at the DH spot. The odd man out in the outfield sweepstakes will see some time there as well. Smith is the most likely candidate given that Reddick is better defensively. If the A's are going to punt this season and look to the future, there's no reason not to let Carter (49 Triple-A homers the past two years) see what he can do.

When Beane hired Bob Melvin to replace Bob Geren last June, it marked the first time in his tenure as a GM that he'd hired a manager with any big league managerial experience. Perhaps it's a sign that Beane is yielding more power to his on-field boss. Melvin has been widely heralded by his players for his touch with a team, but he's going to have a big job with this bunch. In any case, don't expect much pressure on Beane or Melvin this season. Ownership most likely understands exactly what's happening here. As long as Beane and Melvin can show some development among the young players, their jobs will be safe. Beane also owns a small piece of the club, so that never hurts.

Final Analysis
The A's have some pieces to have a passable pitching staff. Between the guys coming back and the prospects coming in, this team should be in the middle of the pack in pitching. The problem is going to be scoring runs. They didn't score much last year, and the guys who provided what little pop they had (like Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui) are gone. Weeks and Cespedes are still unproven and the A's best offensive prospects (Choice and Green) are not likely to see the majors until late this season, at the earliest, so it's hard to imagine how this team is going to avoid being one of the lowest-scoring teams in the majors again. The A's have managed to win at least 74 games in the five seasons since their last playoff berth, and they'd probably be ecstatic to win that many this year. More likely they'll be fighting to crack 70 victories.




Batting Order
2B Jemile Weeks (S)
Picked a bad year to be a rookie; got no votes for Rookie of the Year despite hitting .303.
SS Cliff Pennington (S)
Slick fielder with a cannon arm who will hit in the .260 range.
LF Coco Crisp (S)
His .693 OPS in '11 was second-lowest of his career, but he led the AL with 49 stolen bases. Is out of place hitting in the middle of the order.
RF Josh Reddick (L)
A nice fourth outfielder on a good team - but he will be forced to start in Oakland.
CF Yoenis Cespedes (R)
Cuban outfielder is expected to prop up A's lineup immediately - a tall order.
DH Seth Smith (L)
Served as Eli Manning's backup at Ole Miss; has a chance to play everyday in Oakland.
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Should be a 15 HR, .270 hitter, but slumped badly last two years; he's expensive, too.
1B Brandon Allen (L)
Hit .354 in first 13 games after July trade from Arizona, then .133 in last 28. Has an opportunity to prove himself with Daric Barton recovering from shoulder surgery.
3B Eric Sogard (L)
Batted .200 and hit two homers in 27 games for the A's last season.

1B Daric Barton (L)
Hit zero homers in 280 PAs in the majors in '11; not good for a first baseman. Coming off shoulder surgery.
1B Kila Ka'aihue (L)
Former Royal spent parts of four seasons at Triple-A, with a .412 OBP.
C Anthony Recker (R)
Hit double-digit HRs every full season in the minors, including 16 in 345 ABs in 2011.
INF Adam Rosales (R)
Probably the fastest HR trot in the majors; played five positions in 2011.
OF/DH Manny Ramirez (R)
Manny will be available in June after serving a 50-game suspension.
OF Jonny Gomes (R)
Redundant once Ramirez becomes available.
C/3B Josh Donaldson (R)
Primarily a catcher, he has 53 games of experience at third base in the minors, none in the majors.

RH Brandon McCarthy
Had a 3.32 ERA in '11 but better known for his cult following on Twitter (@BMcCarthy32). Already named as Opening Day starter.
RH Bartolo Colon
Was out of the majors for a year but returned to throw 164.1 innings for the Yankees in 2011.
LH Tom Milone
Not the most talented, but probably the most polished of the pitchers acquired this winter.
LH Dallas Braden
Has eight wins and one shoulder surgery since May 2010 perfect game. Likely not ready Opening Day.
LH Brett Anderson
Ace of the staff had Tommy John surgery in July, so a midseason return is optimistic.
RH Tyson Ross
Definite major leaguer (2.75 ERA in limited duty last season) who could start or relieve in 2011. Will get opportunities to start with Braden and Anderson on the shelf.

LH Brian Fuentes (Closer)
Established veteran will be trade bait in July; will be a major surprise if he lasts the season in Oakland.
RH Grant Balfour
Fiery Australian is a dependable setup man who only gave up 44 hits in 62 innings in 2011. Will also be used as a closer.
RH Joey Devine
Has the stuff to be a closer, and he might get a chance to prove it late this season. He will begin the season on the DL with minor biceps injury.
RH Fautino De Los Santos
Could help make the Nick Swisher trade look like one of Billy Beane's best.
RH Ryan Cook
Power righty with some potential to be a set-up type reliever.
LH Jerry Blevins
Has held left-handed batters to a .232 BA in his career.

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
  Washington Nationals
<p> The A's have managed to win at least 74 games in the five seasons since their last playoff berth, and they'd probably be ecstatic to win that many this year. More likely they'll be fighting to crack 70 victories.</p>
Post date: Monday, April 2, 2012 - 12:16