It’s been 158 days since the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, but baseball — and yes, fantasy baseball — is finally back. OK, the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners played two games in Tokyo last week, but the official Opening Day is Thursday, so play along with me.
Speaking of that two-game series in Japan, can you guess who’s currently leading the majors in batting average? None other than Ichiro Suzuki, who gave his countrymen plenty to cheer about by collecting four hits in the opener. Young stars Dustin Ackely and Yoenis Cespedes each hit a home run and drove in two during their short stay in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Here are some other storylines and players to watch this opening week as the 2012 fantasy baseball season gets underway.
Say Hello to Marlins Park
The Cardinals begin defense of their World Series title by helping the Marlins christen their brand-spanking new downtown stadium on Wednesday night. While eyes will no doubt be focused on the Marlins’ new 37,000-seat home, complete with a retractable roof, aquariums behind home plate and outfield glass panels, fantasy owners should also play close attention to the mound.
Josh Johnson will be toeing the rubber for the first time since last May 16 when shoulder issues limited him to a total of nine starts and 60 1/3 innings in 2011. Johnson has pitched very well during spring training and has experienced no setbacks with the shoulder. It also doesn’t hurt that Johnson will be facing a Cardinals line up without Albert Pujols, who’s now in Anaheim with the Angels.
For the Cardinals, Kyle Lohse gets the opening night assignment, as Chris Carpenter has been sidelined with nerve issues in his neck and shoulder. Lohse will be tasked with facing a Marlins line up that now includes Jose Reyes at the top of the order.
No one knows how Marlins Park is going to play just yet, whether it will favor the hitters or the pitchers, but don’t be surprised if new Miami manager Ozzie Guillen gives the green light early and often to his base stealers at the top of his line up. That’s good news for owners who have Reyes (39 SB in ’11), Emilio Bonifacio (40) and Hanley Ramirez (32 in ’10).
AL MVP Ballot on Display in Detroit
Five of the top 10 vote-getters in last year’s AL MVP balloting will be in action in Detroit as the defending AL Central champion Tigers open up against Boston. In fact, the first at bat will feature a match-up of the top two finishers as Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox will step into the batter’s box against Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who took home both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award last year.
Besides Ellsbury and Verlander, the game will have Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez (7th in AL MVP voting in ’11) and Dustin Pedroia (9th), along with Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (5th). Batting behind Cabrera will be new Tiger Prince Fielder, who finished third in the NL MVP voting and will make his Detroit debut. Fielder and the rest of the Tigers will be facing Jon Lester, who like the rest of his Red Sox teammates, will be looking to put last season’s September collapse behind him.
New Citi, Same Results?
The New York Mets will open their season on Thursday against NL East rival Atlanta in newly configured Citi Field. The Mets brought some of the outfield fences in during the offseason in hopes of giving the park an offensive boost. Last season the Mets finished 13th in the National League in home runs with 108 and only 50 of those coming at home.
This opening series against the Braves will be an early indicator to see if the Mets’ sluggers like David Wright, Ike Davis and Lucas Duda will be able to take advantage of the new dimensions or not. Tommy Hanson, who yielded 17 home runs in 130 innings pitched last year, will be on the mound for Atlanta in the series opener, followed by Jair Jurrjens (14 HR in 152 IP) on Saturday and Mike Minor (7 HR in 82 2/3 IP) on Sunday.
For the Mets, Johan Santana gets the Opening Day assignment. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner (2004, ’06), last pitched in 2010 when he went 11-9 with a 2.98 ERA. He missed all of last season recovering from a torn capsule in his shoulder and it will be interesting to see how he fares in his first start in more than 19 months.
Mauer Out to Prove He’s No Ordinary Joe
It seems a lot longer, but it was just three years ago that Joe Mauer was the AL MVP when be won the batting title with a .365 average, hit 28 home runs and drove in 96. Perhaps it’s because in the past two seasons combined he’s hit just 12 home runs with 105 RBIs, while battling a myriad of injuries.
The good news is that Mauer has fared well at the plate during spring training and appears to be 100 percent healthy headed into the season, something he wasn’t last year. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if he’s the 2009 version or something more along the lines of 2010 (.327-9-75).
Mauer’s not the only Twin looking to stay healthy and rebound from a disappointing 2011. Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Francisco Liriano also dealt with injuries last year and saw their production plummet as a result. Lirianio has arguably had the best spring of them all, posting a 33:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 innings.
Span appears to finally be free of the concussion-related symptoms that wrecked his 2011 season, and while Morneau may never be the same player he was from 2006-08, he has looked more comfortable at the plate lately.
It also doesn’t hurt the Twins that they open their season in Baltimore against an Orioles staff that’s not expected to be very good. Target Field has not been kind to the Twins’ power hitters as the team hit more home runs (57) on the road than at home (46) last year. More to the point, Mauer has hit a grand total of one home run in 112 career games played at Target Field while Morneau has just seven in 74 games played there.
- Stephen Strasburg will make his first start of the season in the Nationals’ opener in Chicago against a Cubs line up that has more question marks than clear-cut answers. Strasburg should be a productive starter every time he takes the mound, but owners should not overlook his projected innings cap (around 160) in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals took the same approach with Jordan Zimmerman last season and were more than happy with the results.
- The aforementioned Pujols and C.J. Wilson will make their Angels debuts at home against Kansas City. It will be interesting to see what effect Pujols has on the Angels’ offense as a whole, while Wilson should benefit from no longer having to pitch his home starts in Rangers Ballpark. Last year, Wilson’s home ERA was 3.69 compared to a 2.31 mark on the road. For the Royals’ young hitters like Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, this opening series against Anaheim will be a good test as they will have to face Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Wilson. That trio combined for 50 wins and 596 strikeouts in 697 1/3 innings pitched in 2011.
- Besides being a key NL West series, the Giants vs. Diamondbacks opening three-game set starting on Friday features arguably the strongest collection of fantasy starting pitching. The opener has Tim Lincecum vs. Ian Kennedy, followed by Madison Bumgarner against Daniel Hudson, and ends with Matt Cain vs. Josh Collmenter. With the exception of Collmenter, the other five won at least 12 games and struck out 169 or more batters last season, while all six pitchers posted sub-3.50 ERAs and finished with a WHIP of 1.21 or lower in 2011.