Over the next couple of months I’ll be posting a lot of MLB 2012 preview material. Eventually I’ll preview each division in depth and offer up thoughts on every single team in the league. Closer to Opening Day I’ll pick division winners, the World Series series winner, individual award winners, etc.
For now I’m just going to rank all of the teams from 1-30 based on all of their off season moves thus far and offer up a brief take on why I have them where I do.
Feel free to offer up your own opinions in the comments section. I’ll go over some of this on Sports Open Line tonight (Friday, 2-10-12). I’ll go in reverse order just for fun…
30. Houston Astros
Former Cards VP Jeff Luhnow sure has his work cut out for him. The Astros have unproven players at 7 of their 8 everyday positions, with Carlos Lee at 1B as the only player with any kind of legitimate track record. I’m intrigued by C Jason Castro, SS Jed Lowrie and LF J.D. Martinez but none project as stars. The rotation could be workable with Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris in the top three slots but after that there is a lot of uncertainty. The bullpen is all kinds of messed up.
29. Seattle Mariners
The M’s have one impact starter (Felix Hernandez), a thin bullpen and no punch in the middle of their lineup. Doesn’t sound so good, huh? I really like the upsides of C/DH Jesus Montero, 2B Dustin Ackley and 1B Justin Smoak but none look like they can carry a lineup just yet. Ichiro Suzuki is in decline as well. They’ll be competitive sooner than the Astros will be but that won’t be in 2012.
28. New York Mets
Their rotation is paper thin and the everyday lineup is below average. The best starter they can count on is Mike Pelfrey and he’s a 3-4 starter on a good team. Johan Santana might be back but I find it hard to believe he’ll be anything like he used to be. Other than David Wright (who has slipped the last couple of years), Jason Bay (who has been a bust as a FA signing) and Ike Davis (coming off season ending ankle injury) the lineup doesn’t offer much. The bullpen might be a strength, though. Good power arms for innings 7-8-9 and potential trade bait later on.
27. Oakland A’s
They have a lot of young, talented pitching up and down the organization but the big league rotation figures to be pretty average in 2012. They have some good arms in the bullpen but nobody who screams “closer” at this point, not even Brian Fuentes. They don’t have a single proven middle of the order hitter but they do have some kids who might eventually emerge (Brandon Allen, Chris Carter). They’re trying to set themselves up for if/when they can get a new stadium built and I think they’re okay in that regard, they’re just not very good right now.
26. Pittsburgh Pirates
I love Andrew McCutchen and both Neil Walker and Jose Tabata are nice pieces but there is no real power anywhere in this lineup unless Pedro Alvarez figures out how to hit something other than air molecules. They have a couple of good arms in the bullpen and some depth in their rotation but no starters that qualify as 1-2 type guys. They’re going to be a Bottom 10 team so long as they lack power and top tier pitching.
25. San Diego Padres
If Carlos Quentin hits, Cameron Maybin takes another step forward and Yonder Alonso emerges as a quality young hitter then the Padres just might be a little better than this ranking. The bullpen is solid and will once again be a strength but I’m not as sure about the rotation. They’ll have decent numbers because of their home park but nobody they have set for the 2012 season is better than a 3-4 starter on a good team.
24. Baltimore Orioles
I’ll give the Orioles this: they have some power. Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy are all guys who can drive in runs and I think Markakis has HR power that has yet to show up. Unfortunately, there are also a ton of strikeouts in that group. I don’t like their bullpen at all an unless some of the young pitchers they’ve been touting bounce back (Zach Britton, Brian Matusz) I see a lot of losses coming their way in the AL East.
23. Chicago Cubs
They don’t have a true ace but the Cubs to actually have some starting rotation depth with Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Travis Wood, Paul Maholm and Chris Volstad. Those guys should at least chew up some innings. They have some really good power arms in the bullpen as well. The problem is that the Cubbies don’t have enough reliable offense. Alfonso Soriano hits some HR’s but that’s about it, Anthony Rizzo hasn’t proven he can hit big league pitching and Ian Stewart hasn’t either. This team is being constructed more for 2013 and 2014 than 2012.
22. Kansas City Royals
This is a team that could move up the ranks if they have a pitcher or two take significant steps forward. Their biggest weakness is top tier pitching. Maybe Jonathan Sanchez can figure some things out and meet his potential, maybe Luke Hochevar will miss a few more bats. If not, they’ll get beat with their starters mostly being 3-4 types. I love their bullpen. They can protect a lead from the 6th inning on with power arms. I love Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas as young sluggers and I also like Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. 2013 could be a really good year in KC but this one will be fairly average.
21. Colorado Rockies
The Rockies have two of the most talented players in the National League in SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez but there are too many question marks for me to rank them higher going into 2012. Michael Cuddyer was a nice addition but he’s more of a complementary player than a core guy and I don’t know what they can expect out of Todd Helton at this stage of his career. Adding Jeremy Guthrie gives them a little more stability in the rotation but there are lot of kids here with something to prove. In a couple of years this rotation could be killer but right now it’s largely an unknown. The bullpen isn’t a disaster but it doesn’t inspire me either.
20. Minnesota Twins
If Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau bounce back and become impact hitters again then the Twins could be a little better than this ranking, but only a little. Outside of those two the only pop on the team comes from Josh Willingham and maybe Ryan Doumit. The starting rotation loaded with 3-4 type starters and no real 1-2 guys, unless Francisco Liriano miraculously returns to being what he was a few years back. The bullpen is average at best, in my opinion. They would need a lot of things to break their way to have a winning season.
19. Los Angeles Dodgers
Their top three players – Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw and Andre Ethier – would be impact players in just about every big league city. The Dodgers have a great core, including Chad Billingsley as well, but they just don’t have the support pieces to be a contender. They don’t have a single infielder that projects as an above average offensive player at his position and the bullpen doesn’t have many proven commodities. The rotation should be pretty good and young righty Nate Eovaldi is one to watch but there just isn’t enough firepower for them to make a run. I only have them this high because of their top end players.
18. Chicago White Sox
I’m not going to lie, I can see this team completely falling apart if a couple of key players struggle. Rookie manager Robin Ventura doesn’t exactly have an easy task in front of him. I do like their starting rotation – John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Phil Humber, Jake Peavy and possibly lefty Chris Sale – even if it doesn’t have a true #1 in the group. Peavy used to be that but I’m not sure he’s physically up to being that anymore. The bullpen scares me and there are holes in the lineup but I think Adam Dunn has a bounce back season and alongside Paul Konerko gives the Sox a solid middle of the order. If either Alex Rios or Gordon Beckham hits well – or rookie RF Dayan Viciedo is the real deal – then the ChiSox will be competitive.
17. Cleveland Indians
This team intrigues me. I think they’re a bit too young to hang in the race with Detroit all year but there are some nice pieces here. I see Ubaldo Jiminez getting back on track this year and with Justin Masterson right there with him at the top of the rotation that have legit 1-2 guys. I like the back end of the bullpen, led by closer Chris Perez, and they have solid producers in Shin Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera. If Grady Sizemore returns to his old form after a couple of injury plagued seasons the Tribe might surprise. They’ll need contributions from C Carlos Santana, 2B Jason Kipnis and 3B Lonnie Chisenhall as well.
16. San Francisco Giants
The Giants have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. They have four strong starters – Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong – and the bullpen, led by closer Brian Wilson, is deep and versatile. But will they hit? Getting C Buster Posey back will certainly help as he is a middle of the order hitter. The outfielders won’t provide much pop, unless Aubrey Huff rebounds and plays out there, so they’ll need Pablo Sandoval to be a stud and they’ll need 1B prospect Brandon Belt to be a much bigger factor than he was last year. If they hit, or if they snag a bat in-season, the Giants could ascend rapidly.
15. Milwaukee Brewers
Talk about a team being in a delicate situation. If Ryan Braun has to serve that 50-game suspension their season is in trouble. The loss of Prince Fielder, who was essentially replaced by 3B Aramis Ramirez, would have been tough enough without Braun possibly missing a third of the season. The only reason I have the Brewers this high is that I like their pitching staff. Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke are legit 1-2 starters – at least Greinke is that in regular season – and the 3-4-5 starters are reliable. The bullpen is deep as well and will definitely be a strength. The keys to their season are Braun’s appeal and Mat Gamel’s bat. The Brew Crew could jump 6-7 spots on this list or drop 6-7 depending on how those two situations play out.
14. Washington Nationals
The Nats are definitely on the rise. They have a ton of pitching depth, so much so that they’ll probably have to deal a starter before Opening Day. With Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, John Lannan, Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang they have a strong staff. The Nats also have a deep, talented bullpen that will protect leads. Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman provide a good bit of punch and C Wilson Ramos is underrated. The keys to their season will be Jayson Werth and prospect Bryce Harper. Werth needs to find his stroke and Harper has Hall of Fame tools. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Nats win the NL East.
13. Florida Marlins
I pretty much flipped a coin between the Nationals and Marlins. They’re both going to be very good this season. The have three elite offensive players (Mike Stanton, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes) plus another who could take big steps forward (Logan Morrison) and they’ve got pitching out the wazoo. If Josh Johnson is healthy – and that’s a bit of an “if” – that rotation will be awfully good. Johnson, Mark Buerhle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano can provide a lot of innings and if Zambrano’s head is on straight that depth will be tough to match. Heath Bell locks down the back end of a talented bullpen and Ozzie Guillen gives them an edge. Just like I said with the Nationals, it wouldn’t surprise me if they won the division.
12. Cincinnati Reds
I see the Reds bouncing back big time this season. Joey Votto is the best 1B in the National League right now and one of the leagues best overall hitters. Brandon Phillips is a weapon too. I see Jay Bruce taking another big step forward this season, raising his batting average while maintaining his 30-35 HR power. Young catcher Devin Mesoraco put up good numbers in the minors and having Ryan Ludwick around (I think he’ll end up being their everyday left fielder) will be helpful too. The Reds might have the deepest bullpen in the National League, especially if Aroldis Chapman stays out there instead of joining the rotation, and while they don’t have truly elite starters they do have quality depth.
11. Toronto Blue Jays
Poor Toronto. They have a really good team but being in the AL East will really make things tough on them in 2012. They’re going to have a home run threat in all 9 spots in their lineup, which is obviously anchored by slugger Jose Bautista, and their pitching isn’t bad either. Ricky Romero is a legit top of the rotation guy, though not quite a true ace, and Brendan Morrow has great stuff. They’ll need Dustin McGowan and Brett Cecil to pitch well to hang in there with New York, Boston and Tampa (which I don’t think they’ll do), though they do have a deep, talented bullpen as a complement to the starters. They won 81 games last year and they’re a better team this year.
10. Atlanta Braves
The Braves could finish anywhere from 1st to 4th in the NL East, depending on the health of their starting pitchers and the consistency of their offensive production. They have 7 legitimate, high end talent starting pitchers. Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor are the most proven starters but youngsters Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado are as talented as any of them. They have so much depth there is buzz about the Braves possibly moving Jurrjens before Opening Day. The Braves bullpen, which wore out last year, is deep and extremely talented (led by closer Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters. To me the key to their season is Jason Heyward. If he plays like he’s capable of playing the lineup should produce enough runs to push for a playoff spot. If he struggles again I’m not sure Dan Uggla, Chipper Jones, Martin Prado and Freddie Freeman give enough help to Brian McCann.
9. Arizona Diamdondbacks
I really like this team, though I admit a slip back to the middle of the pack is certainly possible. Adding Trevor Cahill to the rotation was a smart move and he gives them another young stud to go along with Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy. I like their relievers, especially closer J.J. Putz, though it isn’t the deepest pen out there. Adding Jason Kubel gives them another legitimate threat in the middle of the order to go with Justin Upton. If they can keep Stephen Drew healthy, get a respectable year at the plate out of Chris Young and get some power production from 1B Paul Goldschmidt they should win the NL West again.
8. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have a really strong roster with good pitching depth but key departures (Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan and Albert Pujols) leave some fair questions about what we can all expect in 2012. Barring serious injuries to key players I think they’re the best team in the NL Central coming into the season. They have five solid starters, two of them legit aces in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, they have a deep, versatile bullpen and they have as good a middle of the order as anyone in the division. The keys to the season will be Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran and David Freese in the sense that the Cards need all three to be reasonably healthy. I see a big season from Matt Holliday think that a lot of the guys who were young contributors last season have grown up even more and can be counted on for improvement.
7. Philadelphia Phillies
The only reason I have them this high is the 1-2-3 punch they have in the rotation with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. They’re all legitimate aces and that will keep the Phils at or near the top of the NL this season. The addition of Jonathan Papelbon gives them an even better closer than they had in Ryan Madson last season and the rest of the pen is solid. The lineup isn’t what it was a couple of years ago, especially with Ryan Howard possibly out for the first couple of months. To be a truly elite team the Phillies need Chase Utley to be an impact hitter again plus they’ll need a little more production from Jimmy Rollins than they go last season. Having Hunter Pence in RF all season will help but they need Howard healthy ASAP and they need someone to take the LF job and run with it.
6. Boston Red Sox
If they’re key guys – namely Carl Crawford, David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis – stay healthy all year then Boston will be an elite team. Jacoby Ellsbury has developed into a big-time impact player and Dustin Pedroia is an animal as well. Andrew Bailey has the tall task of replacing Papelbon in the 9th inning but he has a pretty good pen around him. One thing I’m not sure of is Boston’s rotation. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are fine top of the rotation guys but there are health concerns with Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka and the 5th spot in the rotation seems to be up for grabs with relievers Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves with non-roster invitees John Maine and Vicente Padilla possibly in the mix as well. The Red Sox can be elite again this year but they could also take a step back.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
This is a really good team. They have as much starting pitching as any team in baseball, in fact they have 3-4 guys who have 1-2 type talent. David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Matt Moore are all outstanding starters and one of them will have to be dealt or sent to the bullpen come Opening Day. The offense isn’t dominant but I’ll say this: if B.J. Upton figures it out and lives up to his potential as a hitter this lineup will be awfully dangerous. Evan Longoria is an elite masher. Carlos Pena brings a lot more power than they had at 1B in 2011. Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and Luke Scott can all hit too. To me the biggest question here is the bullpen. Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney are the best options for the 9th inning and that’s a little scary but they have the depth of talent to trade for a closer if they need to.
4. Los Angeles Angels
These guys have it all now that they have Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup stabilizing things. With Kendrys Morales back and young studs like Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout emerging this shouldn’t be a mediocre offensive team anymore. Mark Trumbo, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells can all hit the long ball too and Howie Kendrick is an impact bat at 2B. Oh yeah, and they still have Bobby Abreu as well. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana give the Angels a strong 1-4 in the rotation and they have a pretty good bullpen too, anchored by closer Jordan Walden. Lots of depth here and plenty of top tier talent.
3. Detroit Tigers
They made the splash of the offseason, adding Prince Fielder to a team that advances to the ALCS last season. They lost Victor Martinez, which led to the Fielder signing, but it’s pretty clear they’re a better team now than they were in 2011. Fielder and Miguel Cabrera make up the best 3-4 combination in the Majors and there is depth here as well. They have a young All-Star catcher in Alex Avila, a top tier defensive center fielder in Austin Jackson and an emerging bopper in right fielder Brennan Boesch. On top of that you have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander and high end talents like Doug Fister and Max Scherzer backing him up. I think Rick Porcello is on the verge of a breakthrough and prospect Jake Turner just might be their 5th starter, though a few other prospects may push him. On top of all that you have a closer, Jose Valverde, who didn’t blow a save last season and plenty of bullpen depth as well. The only real question is whether or not Caberera will be capable of playing 3B.
2. New York Yankees
The additions of starters Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda made the Yankees a much more dangerous all-around team. Now C.C. Sabathia has more reliable help in the rotation and this team that won 97 games last year got decidedly better. They have a deep bullpen, anchored by future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, and they also have a lineup that sends a threat to the plate in every spot from 1-9. Derek Jeter isn’t what he used to be but he can still hit a bit. Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira are all MVP candidates and A-Rod still has a little gas left in the tank too. If they don’t have a rash of serious injuries they’re going to be in the playoffs this year, no doubt about it.
1. Texas Rangers
The 2-time defending AL champs are as strong as they’ve ever been in 2012. They have a killer lineup led by Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Mike Napoli, plus they have solid complementary players as well. Elvis Andrus can pick it with the best of them at SS and I think Mitch Moreland could hit 20 home runs. Oh yeah, and the have Michael Young who hit .338 last year. They have six candidates for five rotation spots – Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Neftali Feliz and Japanese import Yu Darvish. I am a huge Darvish fan and think he’ll be a legitimate top of the rotation starter from the word “go” in 2012. To me he’s better than any starter they had last year. Joe Nathan was brought in to close but if Feliz doesn’t stick in the rotation Nathan might be a setup man. Toss in Mike Adams and you have yourself a fine back end of the bullpen either way. They may not make it to their 3rd straight World Series but barring a string of significant injuries I just don’t see how they can miss out on a playoff spot.