By Josh Kramer
The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and spring is here. Come April, it’s time for baseball season. There are few minor changes this year to the playoff system, but have no fear, the excitement will be here come October. Though the first pitch was technically thrown earlier this morning in Japan, the “real” Opening Day will take place next Wednesday when the defending champion Cardinals head to South Beach to take on a rejuvenated Marlins team.
We have not seen a repeat champion since the New York Yankees took home three consecutive World Championships from 1998 to 2000. Do not expect to see a repeat champion this year. St. Louis shocked the world in 2011. Since their amazing October run, they have lost their best player, who also happens to be the best player on the planet, and their very soon to be Hall of Fame manager.
Let’s play ball.
NL West: San Francisco Giants
Welcome back Mr. Buster Posey. The Giants turned many heads with their remarkable run in 2010. Then they disappointed in 2011. With the return of their star catcher, expect this year’s version of the Giants to make San Francisco proud. They say pitching wins championships. Well this division has a lot of it. The Giants have the most though, which will ultimately give them the edge over a tough Diamondbacks team, and a Dodgers team that could surprise despite much adversity. Dodger fans pray that Magic Johnson can help bring some of his winning mentality to a struggling organization.
NL Central: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds made the postseason for the first time in 15 years in 2010. Many expected a repeat performance in 2011. It didn’t happen for a number of reasons. Namely, an underachieving pitching staff and an offense that struck out far too much. Well Reds ownership has gone all in with this team. It is “Win Now” time in the Queen City. Many have called the NL Central the weakest division in baseball. And whatever your opinion is on this, it still does not hide the fact that the two teams battling in the NLCS last year were from none other than the NL Central. With the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, this is Joey Votto’s division now. Look for the Cardinals to play right around 500 ball this season, while the Brewers push Cincinnati to the limit.
NL East: Philadelphia Phillies
Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Many want it, and Philadelphia has it. It is very hard to pick against this Philadelphia team that has now won five straight NL East crowns. Could they win 11 straight like the Braves did from 1995 to 2005? Do not sleep on Miami though. Miami is extremely talented and tends to be a franchise that understands how to win once every ten years. Also, do not be surprised to see the Nationals turn some heads this season with young stars like Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, and Bryce Harper.
NL Wild Card #1: Miami Marlins
The best left side of the infield in baseball (Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes). I have a feeling that the Marlins will start slow, but do not be surprised to see Guillen’s team really catch fire down the stretch and play very loose come crunch time.
NL Wild Card #2: Milwaukee Brewers
This team is not the same team that won 96 games last season. But they are still very good, and they are playing in an even more watered down version of the NL Central this year. Plus, do not be surprised to see Aramis Ramirez return to at least a semblance of the Aramis we came to know and love from 2003 to 2008 batting behind Ryan Braun.
NL Sleeper: Washington Nationals
I really like this team. Solid pitching. A potentially decent lineup. And a great manager in Davey Johnson. Sure this franchise has never finished above 500 since making the move to the nation’s capital (back in 2005). They also have never had nearly as talented of a roster as they have in 2012. If Bryce Harper can live up to an inkling of the hype this year, the Nationals could make some serious noise and nab at least a Wild Card.
AL West: Los Angeles Angels
Sue me. I’m sipping on the LA Kool-Aid. Any guy who hits 445 home runs, drives in 1,329 runs, scores 1,291 runs, and touches 3,893 total bases in 11 seasons has to get you excited. Albert Pujols hands down has had the best 11-year start to a career ever. The Angels won 86 games last year. And they not only improved their lineup immensely with the arrival of Pujols, they also really strengthened an already outstanding pitching staff by adding former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson. Do not worry, Texas will still find a way into the playoffs. The Yankees/Red Sox is and will continue to be the best rivalry in baseball. But the Angels/Rangers rivalry could become pretty special in its own right.
AL Central: Detroit Tigers
In my humble opinion, this is hands down the worst division in baseball. The next best team in the division finished 15 games behind the Tigers. This was not because Detroit was unbeatable either. Do not expect things to change due to the fact that the Tigers got better this off-season with the arrival of the “Prince (Prince Fielder).” Not only does this team have the best lineup in the division, they also have Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in the American League. Many are saying this is the year that Kansas City will turn some heads. I will believe it when I see it considering the Royals have not even finished third in the division since 2003.
AL East: New York Yankees
So much for the Red Sox being the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) last season. They didn’t even make the playoffs. This is once again the best division in all of baseball. New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston could all easily win divisional crowns if they were not in the mighty AL East. The Bronx Bombers not only have a stacked lineup this year, they have also replenished their pitching staff for the first time in a long time. I guess that is what a 209 million dollar payroll will do for you.
AL Wild Card #1: Texas Rangers
Nolan Ryan’s pride and joy are 0 for 2 in World Series appearances. That does not take away from the fact that this team out of Arlington has won two straight AL West titles and is still very talented.
AL Wild Card #2: Boston Red Sox
Bobby Valentine is one of the great baseball minds of our generation. This year, though things may start a little slow in Beantown, he will show why. Do not expect an “October Collapse” this year from the Fenway Crew. Actually, expect an “October Surge” this time around.
AL Sleeper: Tampa Bay Rays
Many of you are probably confused as to how this team could be a sleeper. Well, the Rays made the playoffs by a near miracle last season. They continue to win with a 62 million dollar payroll, led by one of the best managers in baseball, Joe Maddon. But they also play in a division where they are widely considered the third horse. Do not be shocked though to see this team nab the AL East Crown and possibly more come late October.
NL Championship Series: Phillies over Marlins in 6
Miami knows how to win when ownership decides they want to put a contending team on the field. Philadelphia’s playoff experience and outstanding pitching staff will prove too much this time around. There will be no repeat of the 1997 or 2003 Marlins in 2012.
AL Championship Series: Angels over Yankees in 7
This could be one of the all-time great American League Championship Series. Expect a ton of offensive firepower. But the difference will be the Angels superior pitching staff in the end.
World Series: Angels over Phillies in 6
Could you really ask for two better pitching staffs? Unfortunately for the City of Brotherly Love, one team has a “Machine” in their lineup, and the other does not. New team but the same story for Albert Pujols as he claims a second consecutive World Series title.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.