Major League Baseball is Back: 2012 Preview and Predictions

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The baseball season begins with many new faces in new places.

<p> Baseball is Back: 2012 Preview and Predictions</p>

From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, here are five major storylines for the 2012 baseball season , as well as our predictions.

Pujols and the Angels
After their agonizing choke on the brink of the 1986 World Series, it took 16 years for the Angels to return to the October stage — a desolate stretch that encompassed four uniform styles, including the regrettable periwinkle era.

But these are not your father’s Angels. Or your California or Anaheim Angels, for that matter. These are Arte Moreno’s Angels — the Orange County team that brashly calls “Los Angeles” home and plans to keep dominating the SoCal market for years to come.

Moreno made sure of that on Dec. 8 by lavishing $254 million for 10 years on Albert Pujols, baseball’s preeminent slugger. That same day, Moreno also dropped $77.5 million for five years to snag All-Star lefty C.J. Wilson.

Just like that, Moreno altered the landscape for the Angels and three other teams: The World Series champion Cardinals lost their centerpiece in Pujols; the two-time American League champion Texas Rangers lost their No. 1 starter in Wilson; and the Dodgers lost ground in the turf war for L.A.-area baseball fans. There’s a “For Sale” sign outside Dodger Stadium, but there’s a party going on at The Big A.

Miami Makeover
Forget everything you knew about the Florida Marlins. Forget the name, forget the teal, forget the parade of managers, forget the football stadium and forget the stingy payroll. Welcome the Miami Marlins, rebranded to represent their city, with a zany color scheme of orange, yellow, blue, black and silver, the irascible Ozzie Guillen as manager, a retractable-roof ballpark with fish tanks behind the on-deck circles — and a whole lot of money to spend on players. The Marlins snagged NL batting champion Jose Reyes from the Mets with a six-year, $106 million contract. They also swiped a three-time All-Star closer, Heath Bell, from the Padres for three years and $27 million, and workhorse lefty starter Mark Buehrle from the White Sox for four years and $58 million. Those players join the existing cornerstones, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, and a young core that includes Giancarlo Stanton — previously known as Mike — who might be the game’s best young power hitter. The Marlins are all in, and they will demand our attention for the first time in years.

Nice to see Yu
Yu Darvish will be a mystery to most major league hitters, but a few people in uniform have seen the new Texas righthander in action. And they have no doubt how he will perform as a Rangers rookie this season. “Six-foot-six, power arm, picks it up when he’s in trouble, power slider, great split,” says Mets manager Terry Collins, who managed against Darvish in Japan. “He’s got it all. If he’s healthy, he’s going to have a great career here.”

The Rangers spent $51.7 million for the negotiating rights to Darvish, the star of the Nippon Ham Fighters. Then the Rangers took it right to the Jan. 18 deadline before signing him to a six-year, $60 million contract. Darvish improves a rotation that was already strong enough to get the Rangers within a strike of the 2011 World Series title.

We have seen aces from Japan fizzle in the majors before, most famously Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa of the Yankees. But Darvish, at 25 years old, seems to have more polish and potential than any of them. At least, that’s the Rangers’ $111.7 million (combine the posting and contract numbers) gamble.

Rookie Managers in Chicago and St. Louis
The White Sox and the Cardinals both needed replacements for well-known managers with championship rings. Both teams turned to popular former players who know the organizations — but who come without a single day of managerial experience. Robin Ventura replaces Ozzie Guillen with the White Sox, and Mike Matheny (below right) takes over for Tony La Russa with the Cardinals. Ventura is low-key and even-tempered, pretty much the opposite of the feisty Guillen (below left), who left for the Marlins. And while Matheny was known as a smart player with solid leadership qualities, there is only one La Russa. Both new managers have strong advocates in the front office, with Chicago’s Kenny Williams grooming Ventura by bringing him into the organization as a player-development advisor, and St. Louis’ John Mozeliak hiring Matheny in a similar role in 2009. Expect Ventura to have an easier time because of lower expectations for the downsizing White Sox; the Cardinals are coming off a championship, and Matheny must compete for another right away — without Albert Pujols.

HGH Testing
The new collective bargaining agreement, announced in November, showed the sensible leadership of the new union director, Michael Weiner. Players showed their desire for a cleaner game by becoming the first major professional sports league in North America to agree to blood testing for human growth hormone. Testing will begin in spring training, and a player’s first positive test will carry a 50-game ban. Baseball is treading cautiously at first, with no regular-season testing in 2012, but after testing again next offseason, owners and players will decide how to proceed. Here’s hoping they continue to do the right thing.

Athlon’s 2012 MLB Predictions:

NL East
1. Philadelphia
2. Atlanta
3. Washington
4. Miami
5. New York

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

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

MVP
1. Joey Votto, Cincinnati
2. Justin Upton, Arizona
3. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles
4. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
5. Matt Holliday, St. Louis

Cy Young
1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia
2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
3. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia
4. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco
5. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia

AL East
1. New York
2. Tampa Bay*
3. Boston
4. Toronto
5. Baltimore

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

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

MVP
1. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
2. Robinson Cano, New York
3. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles
4. Jose Bautista, Toronto
5. Prince Fielder, Detroit

Cy Young
1. Justin Verlander, Detroit
2. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles
3. David Price, Tampa Bay
4. CC Sabathia, New York
5. Ricky Romero, Toronto

ALCS
Texas over New York

NLCS
Philadelphia over San Francisco

World Series
Texas over Philadelphia
 

MLB Divisions: 

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