Below I have listed my predictions for the coming year. Many teams, such as the Nationals, Marlins, Angels, Rockies and Diamondbacks are on the rise. Others, such as the White Sox, Giants, Twins and Mets are on their way down. Many things are easily predictable, but others are a mystery. Last year, I and every other expert predicted the Diamondbacks to finish last in their division; 94 wins against 68 losses and a division crown ended up being the case. Message: Nothing is guaranteed, and every team, no matter what Pujols or Fielder-esque additions they made, will have to fight all season long.
American League East
- Red Sox (Wild Card)
- Blue Jays
I hate to say it, but the Yankees are locked and loaded for the coming season. Offense provided by Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson will easily back a pitching staff headed by the likes of C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda and reinforced with ageless closer Mariano Rivera.
The Red Sox look to finish second, counting on Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford to return to form to solidify an offense consisting of Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez. The front four in the rotation — Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard — are set. Boston just hopes they can get results from the five spot. A reinforced bullpen with Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey will help.
The Rays, the most unpredictable team in baseball, again look like long shots to win the division. Despite a very solid defense, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist look like the only legitimate bats, but guys like B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings could end up stepping up. The rotation looks solid with James Shields, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson as mainstays, and Kyle Farnsworth looks to close out the games again.
The Blue Jays would be a very intriguing team if they were not in such a tough division; big bat Jose Bautista leads the offense, but he isn't the only guy putting up the hits. Adam Lind hit 26 home runs last season while J.P. Arencibia added 23 of his own. Together with upcoming Brett Lawrie, the Toronto offense seems to be one of the more underrated in baseball. The starting pitching, headed by Ricky Romero, isn't great, but a reinforced bullpen with Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Jason Frasor solidifies the pitching.
The Orioles aren't in a great spot right now, with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis being the only players they can really call stars. Brian Roberts is fading and the days of Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora are gone. Balitmore has a ways to go before it contends again, even with upcoming players like Matt Wieters, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton.
American League Central
- White Sox
The Tigers are the overwhelming favorite to win the division. With superstars like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jose Valverde, who could argue? Their studded offense is backed by guys like Austin Jackson, Ryan Raburn, and Delmon Young, while Verlander gains support from Doug Fister and Max Scherzer in the rotation.
After Detroit, though, the Central is completely up for grabs. Any of the other four teams could easily snag second, but I picked the Kansas City Royals to grab it. They are an up-and-coming team with young hitters like Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas leading the offensive charge. Their rotation, which is a bit iffy with Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sanchez being the only remotely established pitchers, is still backed with a strong bullpen headed by closer Jonathan Broxton. Even with the loss of superstar Joakim Soria for the season, Kansas City still has youngsters like Aaron Crow and Greg Holland to round out the back end.
Cleveland, another one of last year's surprises, has a few offensive names in Travis Hafner, Asdurbal Cabrera, Chin-Soo Choo and Jason Kipnis, but their real story is their pitching. Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Tomlin round out the big three at the top of the rotation, while Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and lefty Tony Sipp fortify the back end.
The Twins, desperately hoping to rebound from an abysmal 2011, are counting on superstars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to come back from injuries to lead the offense. Management brought in new faces in Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham to back the established bats, but they are also counting on pitching. Carl Pavano and Scott Baker head an unexciting but efficient rotation backed by closer Matt Capps and surprise star Glen Perkins.
The White Sox, who are heading into a "modified rebuilding" mode, have a solid but inconsistent offense paired with a mediocre pitching staff. Paul Konerko is the main bat, but guys like Alexei Ramirez, Adam Dunn, and Alex Rios will have to step up their game to get the White Sox going anywhere. Starters John Danks and Chris Sale head the rotation, while Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain are the only proven arms in the bullpen.
American League West
- Angels (Wild Card)
This was one of the most fun divisions to predict. The Angels and Rangers look to rival the Red Sox-Yankee division title race with the Rangers' big bats against the Angels' all around play. Texas will have hits and home runs abounding from such hitters as Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Michael Young, and its pitching is headed by Yu Darvish and Neftali Feliz. Joe Nathan and Mike Adams round out the back end.
In Los Angeles, the big talk is about how Albert Pujols will lead an offense composed of Kendrys Morales, Torii Hunter and Mark Trumbo. Behind the star-studded lineup is an incredible rotation composed of four aces in Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana. The lone weak spot in SoCal is the bullpen, who outside of closer Jordan Walden, does not look to shine next year with the next best faces being Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins.
The A's and Mariners are about as far out of the race as anybody to start the season, but that does not mean there will be any inner rivalry between the two. Oakland appears to be superior with the offensive likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Jonny Gomes and Jemile Weeks. The pitching does not look as good, with Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, and Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes being the only established pitchers staff-wide. It doesn't help that projected No. 3 starter Tom Milone has pitched all of 26 innings at the Major League level and No. 5 starter Graham Godfrey has pitched even less.
The Mariners, whose dismal but improving offense is lead by Ichiro Suzuki and Jesus Montero, looks to battle it out with Oakland for the bottom of the division. They are counting on youngsters Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak to break out, which could prove to be beneficial to their success this year. Outside of superstar Felix Hernandez, the rotation doesn't look great, as King Felix is followed by Jason Vargas, who in turn sees nothing but the unproven (Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan) or outdated (Kevin Millwood) behind him. Brandon League leads a young but talented bullpen that also includes Todd Wilhemsen and Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma.
National League East
- Nationals (Wild Card)
- Marlins (Wild Card)
This division was both the toughest and the most fun to predict. Four teams all have a legitimate shot at winning the division. Only the Mets aren't heading into 2012 without high expectations. The Phillies, despite injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, still look poised to take the East. A solid offense consisting of Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco can make up for the production lost from Howard (who does not expect to be back until May) and Utley (who is out indefinitely). The pitching is as strong as ever, with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley lining up to set down hitters. Even if a team manages to knock one of these starters out, they have to face star lefty Antonio Bastardo and new closer Jonathan Papelbon.
I admit placing the Nats second may be a bit biased, but there is some validity. The offense is locked and loaded with Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa and Jayson Werth. The defense, with guys like Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Roger Bernadina and Werth, is one of the best in the National League. The rotation also sports a three-headed monster with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, while Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen await in the bullpen.
With all the new faces in Miami, the club is looking solid too. Big bopper Giancarlo (formerly Mike) Stanton backs all-around hitters like Gaby Sanchez, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. The fate of the pitching staff rests on oft-injured but exceptional starter Josh Johnson, who has the potential to win the Cy Young but has often missed parts of or entire seasons. Other competent starters in the rotation include Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco, while Heath Bell and Juan Oviedo head the bullpen.
Atlanta has some big bats, such as Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann, but the infield may be a place to worry about. Chipper Jones will start the season on the DL, which compromises the team, moving Martin Prado to third and giving the left field job to Matt Diaz. With Tyler Pastornicky starting at short, the Braves may opt to trade for an infielder at the deadline. On the pitching side, a very strong and very deep rotation is led by Tommy Hanson and backed by Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, and co. Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty head a very strong bullpen. Even though I picked them to finish fourth, they still have every chance to come out as division winners.
The Mets are the consensus last-place finishers in the East, with not nearly as much star power as the other four in the division. David Wright and Ike Davis will try to lead the offense, but outfielder Lucas Duda is looking for a breakout year. Johan Santana and Dillon Gee will try to hold down the rotation, but the bullpen does not look good either, with just Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch to share closing duties.
National League Central
The World Champion Cardinals took a blow as big as any other team by losing franchise player Albert Pujols, but they signed Carlos Beltran to at least lessen the pain. Beltran, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday will anchor the offense, and if David Freese can finally turn his potential into results, their offense could carry them to first place. In the rotation, they are headed by Adam Wainwright, an injured Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia while their bullpen is composed of young but solid pitchers. Former catcher Jason Motte will handle the closing duties, while Fernando Salas, Kyle McClellan and Mark "Scrabble" Rzepczynski back him up.
They may have lost star closer Ryan Madson for the season, but the Reds still look like a potent team that could win the central. With superstar hitter Joey Votto and All-Stars Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce behind him, the offense is there. The deep rotation includes aces Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos at the top and young guns Homer Bailey and Mike Leake at the bottom. The bullpen took a blow with the loss of Madson, but Sean Marshall and Aroldis Chapman provide solid lefties at the back end.
The Crew may have lost Prince Fielder, but they signed Aramis Ramirez and Norichika Aoki in his wake. Ramirez, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun will pace the offense, while Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum head the rotation. John Axford will return as closer, backed up by colorful set-up man Francisco Rodriguez. They could very easily take the division.
After the big three Reds, Cardinals and Brewers, the Central takes a big drop off. The Cubs, who think 103 years has been long enough since their last World Series, may have to wait until next year to have a true shot. They need big years from offensive leaders Starlin Castro, Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus to have a chance at contending. The rotation isn't quite there, with just Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza to call legitimate starters. Carlos Marmol will head an inconsistent bullpen.
The Pirates, with 18 losing seasons in a row, hope this is the year that the break the streak. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Casey McGehee will have to step up in the middle of the order, and Jose Tabata needs to be a consistent table setter. The rotation is mediocre at best, with Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia left to head it in A.J. Burnett's absence. The bullpen looks like a strong point, with closer Joel Hanrahan and set-up men Evan Meek and Juan Cruz.
The Houston Astros are arguably the worst team in baseball, and despite the influx of young players, still look a few years away from making any noise. Veteran Carlos Lee will head a young offense including Chris Johnson and Brian Bogusevic, while Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris will try to rally an otherwise dismal rotation. Brett Myers will close, with Wilton Lopez and Brandon Lyon setting him up.
National League West
Arizona shocked the baseball world last year, and they are hoping to repeat as champions this year. Justin Upton will again anchor the offense, leading hitters like Miguel Montero, Chris Young and Jason Kubel. The pitching is as good as ever, with Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson again heading the rotation ahead of Trevor Cahill and Joe Saunders, and J.J. Putz is hoping to repeat his success from last year as closer.
The Giants tried to address their offensive woes by trading for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan and signing Ryan Theriot to back up Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval in the lineup. The rotation again looks to consist of a solid five, with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito looking for the victories. Brian Wilson will be back to anchor the bullpen.
The Dodgers offense is depending on a repeat season from Matt Kemp, a bounce back by Andre Ethier, and breakout seasons from Dee Gordon and James Loney. Again, the rotation will be lead by Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, followed by Chad Billingsley and newly signed Aaron Harang. Javy Guerra will head a young bullpen including Kenley Jansen and Matt Guerrier.
The Rockies made some improvements offensively by acquiring Matt Cuddyer and Ramon Hernandez to back big bats like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The pitching, though, is what caused them to drop to fourth in my preseason rankings. Jeremy Guthrie, who has lost 60 games in the last four seasons, is the ace, while 49-year-old Jamie Moyer slots in at No. two, ahead of 25-year-old Juan Nicasio and 24-year-old Jhoulys Chacin. The bullpen looks just as bad, with Rafael Betancourt slotting in at closer ahead of set-up men Matt Belisle and Rex Brothers.
The Padres are still a few years away from contending. Just Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin (injured) have been left to lead the offense, while Edinson Volquez and Dustin Moseley will try to fortify the rotation. The bullpen, however, looks strong despite the loss of Heath Bell, with newly acquired Huston Street taking on closing duties and Luke Gregerson and Andrew Cashner will take care of the set-up role.