Friday, April 6, 2012

Burning Qs for the 2012 MLB Season (Part 2)

The MLB season has partially gotten underway (16 teams have yet to throw a single pitch as of Friday morning), so to prep, we started our world famous internet renowned popular burning questions for 2012. We launched part 1 back on Wednesday, and here are, what we think, the most important questions from now until October.

Are the Rays the best team in the AL East?
BockerKnocker: No, of course not.

But they will give the Yankees and Red Sox fits, possibly all the way through game 162, just like last year. As everybody knows, Tampa's rotation is one of the best in the bigs. David Price and James (dare I say "Big Game," KOBEsh?) Shields form one of the best 1-2 punches in the game, but it is the #3 and #4 slots in the rotation that has the folks in Florida beaming. Matt Moore is probably the game's brightest prospect right now, including The Bryce Harper Experience. Moore struck out 15 in 9+ innings last year and was credited with the Rays' lone win against Texas in the ALDS. Then again, he struck out 15 in 9+ innings last year. To anoint this guy so quickly is problematic; not only will this be his first big league season, but he will probably be pitching on an innings limit. Following Moore will be an absolute stud in Jeremy Hellickson, who proved that he can win on the big stage last year. Hellickson posted an ERA under 3 in the vaunted American League East on the way to the Rookie of the Year award. Hellickson, however, had an awful spring, allowing an earned run per inning pitched. Veterans are usually able to shake off the effects of a horrendous spring training, but how the young buck deal with it remains to be seen.

Got to get it together, BJ
The pitching will carry the Rays all year. Even if a starter gets injured here and there, the team has some minor-league depth in Wade Davis and Alex Cobb. The problem for the Rays lies with their lineup card. The franchises in New York and Boston will produce hitting clinics all summer, featuring brand names like Cano, Pedroia, Ellsbury, Gonzalez, and Granderson. Tampa struggled to put runs on the board all year, so they did what any bat-starved team would do. They went out and signed Luke Scott, daily golden sombrero candidate and Rays retread Carlos Pena, and Jeff Keppinger. Nice. There are some familiar faces returning in Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. But even if those guys have the years everyone knows they can have, the team will need breakout seasons from B.J. Upton (seriously, B.J., we've been waiting forever for one from you) and Desmond Jennings.

The Toronto Blue Jays have become somewhat of a sexy sleeper pick to make the playoffs with the extended wild-card format. The always dangerous Jose Bautista leads a decent hitting squad, especially at home, but the Jays just don't have the firepower on the mound to make a significant move in this 3-horse race. The Baltimore Orioles round out the AL East, but they don't deserve any more than 1 sentence because they lost to a COMMUNITY COLLEGE team on Tuesday.

Are we in any danger of seeing the Orioles, Pirates, Mariners or Royals ending their years-long futility?
KOBEsh: No, don't be silly Peter Pan. But that doesn't mean there's not signs of life.

There's not a team in that sad bunch of glorified minor league teams that I would guess play for better than third-place in their divisions, and that's partially because the Mariners play in a four-team division.

Out of the four, the O's have the greatest opportunity to continue their tradition of absolute abject suckitude. Looking at their on-paper squad, it's almost as if Baltimore management simply forgot that there's the bottom of the inning. SS J.J. Hardy, 3B Mark Reynolds, OF Adam Jones and C Matt Wieters are all productive offensive players, but the talent on the mound reads kind of like the cast of The Wire; I don't know who any of them are, and every time one of them is on the TV screen, I know something really awful is about to go down. None of the O's starting pitchers have a career ERA under 4.50 (Tommy Hunter), nor thrown more than 177 innings (Jason Hammel). This team should lose 100 games in the AL East.

Hmm, what's that? Oh yes, it's the putrid stink of the Pirates wafting over 8 hours from Pittsburgh. Yet another lost year for the Bucs, and deservedly so. While Pirates management seems to have a better rebuilding plan than any since Barry Bonds left the team nearly 20 years ago, it's still going to be a rough year for the black and yellow. Much like the O's, I know that they'll hit a little (OF Andrew McCutcheon, 2B Neil Walker, 1B Garrett Jones, OF Jose Tabata), but I have no idea who's going to throw the ball every five days. Erik Bedard had a fantastic start yesterday, but like every Erik Bedard season, the doomsday shoulder injury ticker has begun it's countdown. Other than that, they're simply waiting on their bevy of pitching prospects while replacement-level creatures like James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia amaze us with their very believable mediocrity.

The Mariners have the opposite problem as Baltimore and Pittsburgh; they can pitch, but have a historically bad (over several seasons) offense. Other than the ageless Ichiro, they're depending on two players with less than 120 combined professional games under their belts (2B Dustin Ackley and DH Jesus Montero) and other punchless, but strong-fielding, position players. Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas and rook Hector Noesi should be able to hold down the fort on the pitching front, but this team simply doesn't have enough firepower to come close to .500 while playing the Angels and Rangers 38 times.

The Royals are the only team here that has any prayer of coming close to a winning record. Playoffs are pretty much out of the question, barring a Jeremy Lin-like rise from 5 of its players at once, but that doesn't mean that the team won't be competitive. Young hitters like 3B Mike Moustakas, 1B Eric Hosmer, OF Alex Gordon, SS Alcides Escobar and DH Billy Butler are a juggernaut waiting to happen. The bullpen with a resurgent Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera might be one of the best in the division even after closer Joakim Soria went down. The starting pitching staff is feeble today (Bruce Chen? Luke Hochevar?), but the emergence of prospects knocking on the door like Danny Duffy, Felipe Paulino and Aaron Crow could make this team somewhat decent.

In short, none of these teams are going to the playoffs this year, but the Royals, with the combination of young players coming up and a weak division, could be the closest to making noise. The Pirates seem to have a plan going forward, while the M's and O's will still flounder.

Will the defending champs be able to maintain their reign at the top even with the departure of Albert Pujols?

KOBEsh: They could, but I'm getting more skeptical by the day.

The Cards are a really trendy candidate to win the Series (again), but looking at their team, a lot has to go right for them to win the NL Central. Let's take a little gander at their starting line-up:

SS Rafael Furcal: 34 years old, played in an average of 92 games the last 3 seasons
RF Carlos Beltran: 35 years old, played in an average of 96 games the last 3 seasons
LF Matt Holliday: 32 years old
1B Lance Berkman: 36 years old, played in an average of 134 games the last 3 seasons
3B David Freese: 29 years old, riding a monster postseason into 2012, but is a near-replacement level player in the regular season

Those right there are the Cards' 5 most important hitters. Yes, at their best, that is a potent line-up. But it's also one bereft with RECENT injury history and advanced baseball age.

The starting rotation isn't without their questions as well; 37 year-old Chris Carpenter is already on the DL, leaving the pitching load to a fresh off of surgery (but looking damn good in Spring Training) Adam Wainwright, converted reliever Lance Lynn and a very ordinary Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Really, when you look at the team, the bullpen is the only area without any significant questions.

Pujols, for all the criticism the Angels took for such a massive contract, is one of, if not the best hitter in the Majors, along with being extremely dependable and healthy for the bulk of his career. Taking him out of the lineup subtracts a very potent and more importantly, steady bat from the Cards. Will this team win the NL Central? Probably. But I could also see them finishing around .500.

With now two wild-card playoff teams, who are your NL and AL dark horse candidates to make the one-game playoff?

KOBEsh: AL - Chicago White Sox
The White Sox offseason started with GM Kenny Williams having to talk new manager Robin Ventura into taking the job. Despite having virtually no managerial experience, Ventura, best known for being a good teammate, hitting the 5th most grand slams of all time and getting his ass kicked by a 46 year-old Nolan Ryan in 1993, Williams saw Ventura as the best heir for the departing Ozzie Guillen.
In addition, the Sox saw this season as the most fitting time to start a rebuilding process. New closer Sergio Santos, RP Jason Frasor and OF Carlos Quentin were traded, and vets P Mark Buerhle, OF Juan Pierre and IF Omar Vizquel were all allowed to walk.

So...why could they be a playoff sleeper?

In the weak AL Central, you're guaranteed at least 3 series with the KC Royals, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, each of which have plenty of their own flaws. Looking at the Sox themselves, guys like 3B Brent Morel, CF Alejandro de Aza and LF Dayan Viciedo have high ceilings and a breakout possibility in the lineup, while a rotation headlined by the underrated John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Philip Humber and a fantastic (if healthy) ace in Jake Peavy. Most importantly, both Adam Dunn and Alex Rios are looking for gigantic comeback seasons, with Dunn coming off of one of the worst offensive performances in the history of baseball. Obviously this team has to have a lot of things break right to be a wild card team, but at least they have any upside to count on. I wouldn't be surprised to see them playing in game 163 in October.

NL- Washington Nationals
Though they didn't get the player everyone thought they should sign in Prince Fielder, the Nationals decided that they were close enough to compete and made a couple of trades in the offseason. The young, dynamic rotation headed up by Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, this could be the best team the Washington/Montreal franchise has seen since the 1994 Expos. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Mike Morse and Danny Espinosa seem to be in town for the long term, so even if it's not this year, this Washington team is poised to contend for a while.

While the back end of the bullpen is young and suspect, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are all power relievers who could become the best 7-8-9 inning trio in all of baseball. With the ceiling of all these young arms, and a solid offense, this team is poised to contend in the hardest National League division.

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