Sunday, April 22, 2012

Occupy Fenway? Red Sox Nation as a Protest Movement

Here's a fact that would have been unfathomable in the days before social media: after 14 games, Boston is calling for Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine's dismissal. While this would be a foolish overreaction, it's born of a very real problem: they may cost $146 million, but the 4-10 Red Sox aren't playing like it.

The team's struggles famously stretch back to last year, when the Bloody Hose went 7-20 in September and blew a massive Wild Card lead. After the season, Red Sox Nation reacted with unprecedented ferocity, leading to the departure of foundational leaders Terry Francona and Theo Epstein—victims of one of the most unforgiving PR firestorms in memory.

Obviously, when a team is floundering, it attracts its fair share of vitriol. The 2012 Red Sox have picked up just where the 2011 version left off—earlier this week, their lightning rod of a manager was perceived to have slandered one of his players, prompting rebukes and a mini-mutiny from the rest of the clubhouse. There are already columns saying he has lost control of his players and that he's not long for the city of Boston.

But I believe there is a another dimension to the bad press that isn't so ordinary, one that can be teased out from some of the most extreme excoriations of last year's Red Sox. That team struck a chord with Bostonians, and not a good one either. It's a chord that was already sensitive from another event that shared the headlines with the Sox' epic collapse that September and October: Occupy Wall Street.

You see, the 2011 Red Sox were attacked not just for poor performance on the field, nor even for poor managerial decisions. They were attacked for being lazy, entitled, and—most interestingly—rich.

The first rumblings can be seen in a story by Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy from September 23 arguing that the Red Sox were "not worthy" of a playoff spot. "Really, how do you root for these guys anymore? They have the third-highest payroll in baseball," Shaughnessy wrote, rather starkly connecting the two. In a line straight out of the French Revolution, he concluded, "These Sox have simply been too fat and too happy too long."

Then came the post-season post mortem, in which it was infamously revealed that the Red Sox' imploding starting pitchers, including $82.5 million bust John Lackey, were eating chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse instead of hitting the gym to correct the fact that they were out of shape. It's the baseball equivalent of AIG throwing a lavish party two weeks after receiving a government bailout—except instead of revelry funded by taxpayer money, it was sloth funded (indirectly) by the ticket purchases of hardworking Bostonians. (Without that record sellout streak, the Red Sox wouldn't have one of the game's highest payrolls.) In both cases, the recipients of those public monies acted as if they were entitled to the money and/or the attendant indulgence, despite the fact that they used the cash for the opposite purpose for which it was intended (i.e., to do their jobs). Perhaps it would have been different if they had been doing these things while also performing at an acceptable level, but between AIG's role in the financial meltdown and the Red Sox' awful play, neither was showing why they deserved the massive salaries they were making. It is that kind of perceived upper-class greed that Occupy Wall Street was formed in response to.

The article also revealed that the unhappy Red Sox were treated to a night on owner John Henry's luxury yacht as a conciliatory gesture—reminding fans of his own privileged position. In the immediate aftermath of the September collapse, much of the rage in Boston actually centered on Henry, Larry Lucchino, et al. for this very reason. As the organization they had built appeared to crumble and, eventually, implode, Henry was cast as impotent and aloof. Accusations that his attention had turned to his "shiny new toy"—the Liverpool soccer club he recently acquired—at the expense of the Red Sox persist to this day. This, too, is not so different from, say, a noble-purposed investment-banking firm becoming more and more obsessed with profit and forsaking the customers who trusted it.

I believe that the rage against the Red Sox last October—and, perhaps, to some extent this April—was so very tinged with populism because it came from the same place within society as more traditional, "legitimate" social movements. I don't think you would have seen the same timbre of reaction if the economy hadn't been in the tank, or if income inequality hadn't become the issue of the moment. But they were, and Occupy Wall Street was hardly the only protest movement to reflect it. While it sits at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the Tea Party has similar roots: dissatisfaction, anti-elitism, disillusionment, and even desperation—the feeling that the only recourse left open to effect change is getting up and shouting. History is filled with other examples from similarly desperate times: the rise of the pro-silver Populist Party in the 1890s, the Depression-era Bonus Army, and more.

All of these things could also explain the anger against the BoSox. Red Sox Nation, already in a fragile state of mind due to the economy and the Occupy-related turmoil around them, wanted to turn to its baseball team for solace—but instead experienced only more heartbreak. Just like the Occupy protesters, fans grasped for an explanation of what had happened to them, and why something that had seemed so secure did not work out. How did it happen that millions who did everything right—saved for retirement, lived within their means, worked hard at their jobs—still lost everything when the recession hit? How did a team that was supposed to be the Greatest Team Ever suddenly forget how to win? To be clear, I'm not equating the two in importance or severity; I'm merely pointing out that they are different degrees of the same emotion.

When confronted with such confusing and inexplicable realities, an inevitable reaction throughout history has been to lash out at elites, whose success during difficult times has always made them an easy target. For Red Sox fans, instead of Barack Obama or Wall Street bankers, their elites were the owners and the millionaire players, and their proletariat was the most price-gauged fan base in baseball. I'll never forget one conversation I had with a Red Sox fan last October—she practically spat her disgust at the monied interests on Yawkey Way. "These ballplayers are paid millions of dollars to do what, exactly?" she said. "They've completely forgotten about the fans who are paying their salaries." Just replace "ballplayers" with "politicians" and "fans" with "taxpayers," and you have a pretty good summary of the discontent felt all around America these days.

Today, with both Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston evicted from their respective parks and the Tea Party's influence on the wane, the criticism for the Red Sox and Bobby Valentine does not appear to carry the same loaded associations—despite the fact that the political discontent is still very much alive. Perhaps this is simply because the sports media does not find those associations relevant or timely any longer. After all, most of the baseball populism in October originated from columnists and pundits—ironically elites themselves—and then trickled down to the fan base. So is it truly populism, then? Was the Tea Party (led by Senator Jim DeMint and millionaire Sarah Palin)? Was Occupy (whose "intellectual foundation" was laid by a Harvard professor)?

These are questions that may only be answerable with a sociology degree with a special focus on protest movements—certainly a fascinating field at this particular moment in history. Hopefully, such a degree would not ignore how these social movements come to consume other aspects of our daily life, including sports. It may not be as "important," academically speaking (or even practically speaking), but it can teach us just as much about how these movements are birthed and nourished. When the textbook on the Great Recession is written, it would be a mistake not to include a chapter on the 2011 Boston Red Sox.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Predicting the NL West

I conclude my 2012 season preview (about one week into the 2012 season...) with the National League West, where pitching is king. But could the division's one offensive-minded team surprise everyone? Predictions, away!

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74; 3rd playoff seed)
I get the sense that people doubt the Diamondbacks' remarkable 2011 improvement was for real. I don't see how it couldn't be, though, for it was built on an extremely solid foundation. Blowing up the 2010 team's poisonous bullpen, noted bullpen architect and GM Kevin Towers fixed what had been his team's biggest weakness with the additions of relief aces like JJ Putz and Brad Ziegler. Moreover, two of the team's most talented prospects, Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, both realized their potential last year in the starting rotation; it would be more surprising if they regressed this year, considering the promise that was held for them when they were minor leaguers. Sure, their ERAs might rise a couple dozen points—that's only natural—but they're fundamentally still anchors to a rotation that now also includes Trevor Cahill for insurance.

And how can you not like the lineup, centered as it is on Triple Crown threat Justin Upton? Young pillars Miguel Montero, Ryan Roberts, and Chris Young give the middle of the order even more pop. Just as the pitchers have insurance, though, the Arizona offense will benefit from a full year of Aaron Hill, Stephen Drew, and Paul Goldschmidt. One prediction, though: Gerardo Parra will find his way back into the starting nine.

I am forecasting a modest reduction in wins for the DBacks, but that has more to do with the fact that their run differential wasn't so extreme last year anyway. Perhaps more to the point, it would take a miracle for any other NL West team to win 88.

2. Colorado Rockies (85-77)
The Rockies are my pick for 2012's surprise team. The more I look at this roster, the more upside I see, and it all starts with the Colorado lineup. It is, in my opinion, the best in the National League; indeed, it tied for the second-most runs scored in 2011. Excepting a questionable third-base situation, no expected starter had an OBP below .341 last year, while the meat of the order (Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos González, and Michael Cuddyer) all has 30-home-run power. At the top of the order are tablesetters, Dexter Fowler and Marco Scutaro, who actually get on base (imagine that!), and soon to be patching that hole at third base is minor-league slugger Nolan Arenado. In a division light on hitting and heavy on dominant pitching, there's something tempting about thinking that the advantage goes to the one team that breaks that mold.

No one questions the offensive punch, but there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Colorado pitching staff. Nevertheless, I just have a feeling about Colorado's rotation. Jhoulys Chacín is the leader of the staff, with a remarkable 142 ERA+ in 2010 and 124 last year. Juan Nicasio, who infamously broke his neck on a comebacker but is amazingly returning to the rotation this year, was also above average in 2011 and displayed a K/BB ratio (3.22) that implied he'll be even better. And Drew Pomeranz, who came from Cleveland in the Ubaldo Jiménez trade, is one of the most dynamic young arms in the game—I expect him to be dominant over a full season.

Rounding out the rotation will be Jeremy Guthrie and Jamie Moyer, who are easy to make fun of but both of whom I happen to believe in. Moyer earned his rotation spot on merit and guile, and if he could do it at 47, why not 49? Guthrie, meanwhile, has done OK in the AL East for the past couple of seasons and will be no worse of an innings sponge for the Rockies. Finally, ex-ace Jorge De La Rosa returns from surgery in June and could replace a starter who struggles. The talent and depth here is undeniable.

I'm not quite ready to say that the Rockies rotation will form a five-man army that takes the NL West by storm. But it should step up to bring this top-notch offensive team into contention—and the potential is there for much, much more. If things break right, Colorado could run away with the division title.

3. San Francisco Giants (84-78)
That is more than I can say for the Giants, who appear to have hit a ceiling with their two-way low-score strategy. San Francisco can take solace in the fact that they will be an improved ball club in 2012. But wait, they won 86 games last year—how is 84 an improvement? Well, as any Giants fan will tell you, they didn't play like an 86-win team last year—in fact, their Pythagorean record was only 80-82, as they scored even fewer runs than the paltry total they gave up. Bluntly put, the Giants must score more if they hope to even achieve a winning record.

Their best hope to that end, of course, is the return of a healthy Buster Posey, who could create up to 100 runs by himself. The Giants also traded for Melky Cabrera to help set the table, but I believe that he'll revert to his career averages after a stunningly good year last year (.305/.339/.470, with 102 runs scored). However, I am optimistic (though cautiously so) about Aubrey Huff, who has come back from the dead twice before (in 2008 and 2010). I have a suspicion that the even-year trend will continue. San Franciscans better hope it does, too, because Giants management seems hell-bent on not giving fellow first baseman Brandon Belt, who could be a major offensive contributor and a potential solution to their woes, a chance, regardless of Huff's contribution.

The pitching, of course, you expect to be dominant every year. However, with the trade of Jonathan Sánchez, there are potential depth issues. As much as you have to love his story, it strikes me as improbable that Ryan Vogelsong will be able to replicate his 2011 success after four years out of the majors. Meanwhile, Barry Zito (2011 ERA: 5.87) is about as terrible as a fifth starter can be, and there is no one waiting in the pipeline to serve as reinforcements.

Expect the pitching to slack off a little but the offense to improve—marginally. The return of Posey, and possibly of Huff, will provide a four-game bump or so from that should-have-been 2011 record of 80-82. But no team can reach the playoffs with an offense this bad.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (74-88)
The Dodgers have one of the best position players in the game, one of the best pitchers in the game, and little else.

The lineup, in a word, will be bad. Even Matt Kemp probably can't be counted on to repeat his MVP-caliber performance; his 10.0 rWAR was unprecedented since Barry Bonds. Others might point to Andre Ethier and James Loney making up for any lost production from Kemp, but those two are way overrated. Ethier hit only 11 home runs in 2011, representing a multi-year decline in that category, while James Loney is average at a position where more is demanded. Similarly, Dee Gordon has been the topic of much conversation this spring, but he'll never steal a base if he can't get on (his .325 OBP in 2011 was propped up by a .304 batting average, which benefited from a .345 BABIP). And I just feel sorry for a team that donates a lineup slot to Juan Uribe.

In fairness, the rotation has a chance to be half-decent. I believed strongly at this time last year that Chad Billingsley would return to his 2008 form, but he actually regressed; I'm not going to be as easily convinced this time around. That said, Ted Lilly and Aaron Harang kept their ERAs under 4 last year while playing the priceless role of innings eater, and Chris Capuano is someone I'll keep my eye on—he had a 3.17 K/BB ratio in 2011. Still, apart from 33 Clayton Kershaw starts, it's a coin flip whether the rotation gives you a win or spots you a loss. In my coin flip, they're coming up tails.

5. San Diego Padres (72-90)
Just as the Dodgers will be worse than many people are expecting, I think the Padres could be better—pushing the Dodgers for fourth place. (But notice that it's still a bit of a stretch to actually pick them for fourth.) Especially compared to the atrocious Los Angeles lineup, there's some interesting offensive potential for the Padres. Looking at their projected starters, my eye goes immediately to Yonder Alonso, who mashed major-league pitching in two September callups with the Reds the past two years; San Diego and I both expect big things from him. The Padres also traded for Carlos Quentin and locked up Cameron Maybin, who will provide the requisite power and speed, respectively. Of course, the problem is that PETCO Park will always swallow up a respectable percentage of the Friars' offense as tribute.

On the other hand, that also contributes to San Diego's perennial flirtation with the team ERA crown. This year, as in all others, the Padres will go as far as their starting pitching takes them. Like many, I am a believer in Cory Luebke as the team's ace in waiting—can't ignore 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. The rest of the rotation looks good on the surface thanks to PETCO-deflated ERAs but could probably use some work. Dustin Moseley doesn't have the peripheral stats to be a reliable starter, while Tim Stauffer (3.73) and Clayton Richard (3.88) were actually below average according to ERA+. However, for the same reasons, I don't think the loss of Mat Latos will hurt much, and I have a good feeling about his replacement, Edinson Vólquez, for whom PETCO could be a confidence-booster coming from Great American Ballpark. The real source of hope for Padres fans, though, is that electric arms Andrew Cashner and Casey Kelly will be inserted into that rotation at some point in the middle of the season. If they live up to what they're capable of, they'll be the reason I pick the Padres for first in this space in 2015.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Predicting the NL Central

Let's pause for a moment of silence, for 2012 will be the last time that a Major League Baseball team will ever finish in sixth place. Unlike many other divisions, there's not much suspense over who will be the answer to that trivia question. The intrigue in the National League Central is at the top, where its best three teams are so evenly matched that we could see a three-way tie. However, when the dust settles, I suspect the order of finish will look very familiar:

1. Milwaukee Brewers (91-71; 2nd playoff seed)
Milwaukee won 96 games in 2011, but they actually significantly outplayed their Pythagorean record of 90-72. This is the only thing that gives me pause in picking them to repeat, though it bears mentioning that that was still the best Pythagorean record in the division. Contrary to popular wisdom, what propelled them to such heights was not the hitting combination of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, but rather an underrated starting rotation—one that returns intact in 2012. In fact, the Brewers had the division's best pitching staff by far (638 runs allowed; the Cardinals were second with 692). As long as they have this built-in advantage, the offense need only be passable.

That's good, because Fielder is famously no longer with the team, and you can expect a corresponding drop in Miller Park's run proliferation. However, the Brew Crew did sign Aramis Ramírez to plug the hole in the lineup left by Fielder, which should recoup a healthy portion of their offensive losses. Ramírez has a reputation of a player on the decline, but it's looking more and more like he just had a freakishly bad season in 2010; every other year since 2003, he has posted an OPS+ of 126 or higher. Make no mistake, his three-year, $36 million contract was a financial blunder, but that won't show in the 2012 standings.

Otherwise, virtually the entire NL Central–winning 2011 team returns, and so I believe the Brewers are primed for a similar performance in 2012. In a weak-ish division, this should be sufficient for a return trip to the postseason. However, it's close enough that, before the reversal of Braun's suspension for alleged use of a banned substance, I favored my current number-two pick for the division crown.

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (90-72)
That number-two pick, the Cardinals, still has a lot going for it—but they also had a remarkably similar offseason to the rival Brewers, losing their own slugging first baseman. If you're going to knock Milwaukee down a notch for losing Fielder, you should do the same for St. Louis and Albert Pujols; as far as relative placement in the standing goes, the two defections cancel each other out, in my view. It's even more of a wash when you consider that the Cardinals also cushioned their blow with a new free-agent signing of their own: Carlos Beltrán, who is a much better deal at two years, $26 million.

Instead, St. Louis's major offseason addition—and the reason for my original hunch to pick them for the playoffs—was not an addition at all, but rather old friend Adam Wainwright back from the disabled list. Wainwright figured to pair with Chris Carpenter to give the Redbirds a pair of true co-aces that would dominate the NL Central two out of every five days. The problem? Carpenter's old injury woes have flared back up, and it's now uncertain whether he will even pitch before the All-Star Break. Again, it's one step forward, one step back.

Behind Wainwright, I'm surprisingly bearish about the rest of the rotation: I fear the aftereffects of Jaime García's increased 2011 workload, and Kyle Lohse got lucky with his 3.39 ERA in 2011 (it came with career outliers in BABIP—.269, too low—and K/BB—2.64, too high). Neither will be helped by the departure of the game's most wizardly pitching coach, Dave Duncan. (For the record, I don't think Tony La Russa's departure will have a tangible impact on St. Louis's record, but boy is it going to be difficult for new manager Mike Matheny to keep it together under the weight of those expectations.)

The Cards do return the NL's best 2011 offense, although to be honest I'm not sure how they achieved that distinction. They'll have Rafael Furcal's .298 OBP setting the table this year, joined by at least two should-be bench players from the group of Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker, Jon Jay, and Tyler Greene. I expect their run output to decrease to Milwaukee levels, but their pitching won't quite improve enough to reach the Brewers' excellence. They'll miss the playoffs by the narrowest of margins.

3. Cincinnati Reds (86-76)
I'm sorry, but I just don't buy the hype around the Reds. Their trade for Mat Latos was nice, but he's not what I think of when I think of a big-time ace—he was merely average last year (102 ERA+) and will be moving from MLB's most pitcher-friendly park to a very hitter-friendly environment in Cincinnati. He at least will give the Reds a co-ace with the brilliant Johnny Cueto, but the rest of the rotation (Bronson Arroyo, 5.07 ERA; Homer Bailey, 4.43 ERA; Mike Leake, 4.24 FIP) won't scare anyone. In fact, the Reds had the NL's worst FIP in 2011, suggesting a regression from a pitching staff that wasn't very good to begin with (its 4.16 ERA was 12th-best in the NL).

Using the same type of analysis I did to throw water on the Marlins' season, Cincinnati's three major acquisitions this winter were Latos (4.0 fWAR in his breakout 2010), part-time outfielder Ryan Ludwick (2.0 wins in 2010), and closer Sean Marshall (2.8 wins in 2011). Added to the Reds' 79 wins in 2011, that totals 88 wins for 2012. Indeed, in my opinion, 90 is their ceiling. (Even in 2010, they maxed out at 91.)

A still-excellent offense will unquestionably help the Reds and keep them in the thick of the race. But this Reds team is neither as bad as their showing last year nor as good as their overachieving 2010.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)
Although Pennsylvanians may make me twirl three times and spit to say it, this could be the year that the Pirates finally break their streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons. If they do, it will be thanks to their rotation, each member of which is capable—and maybe even likely—to post an ERA under 4.00. The bullpen, led by 40-save closer Joel Hanrahan (1.83), also cannot be considered a weakness any longer. I predict that the Pirates will have the NL Central's second-best pitching, which should at least guarantee that they will remain relevant in 2012.

However, as I wrote in February, the lineup is another matter. Pittsburgh has one established bopper—Andrew McCutchen—and I approve of the Clint Barmes acquisition (his defensive runs saved actually make him, on net, one of the best shortstops in baseball). Beyond that, they need breakout seasons from several youngsters, including José Tábata, Alex Presley, and former first-round pick Pedro Alvárez. (It would also be very nice if Brewers castoff Casey McGehee could rediscover his power.) One of these players could improve in 2012, but the odds of them all doing so are unlikely. Unfortunately, there's no realistic reason to believe that the Pirates will score more runs this year than their division-worst total of 610 in 2011.

The Pirates are sort of the mirror image of this year's Kansas City Royals, who have an undeniably talented offense but must see multiple young arms step up in their rotation to be truly competitive. However, both historically feeble teams should cease being a punchline this year. As long as the Pirates' pitching upholds its end of the bargain, the team will push .500 no matter what the offense does.

5. Chicago Cubs (62-100)
It's remarkable to think that some people picked the Cubs to win the division last year. That certainly won't be the case this year, as there's a new baseball ops department in town that has already set its sights back on the future. Gone from an already-bad 71-91 club are several key offensive weapons, including Aramis Ramírez and Carlos Peña, who accounted for much of the Cubs' scoring in 2011. This year, the only lineup regular who is deserving of his role is Starlin Castro; contact hitter Marlon Byrd may be forced to bat third this year as a result. The cleanup hitter may have to be out machine Alfonso Soriano, as he's the only Cub with power; other options are limited to the unsatisfactory (Darwin Barney's sad .313 OBP) to the unacceptable (Ian Stewart, who couldn't even hit at Coors Field).

The rotation, meanwhile, isn't bad, featuring names such as Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm. The only potentially dominant starter, however, is Matt Garza, who has a reputation as an ace but has yet to put it all together. Even if he does so this summer in Chicago, he's prime trade bait for this rebuilding club, which would obliterate what is perhaps their only strength. (Some would argue that the bullpen is as well, especially if Jeff Samardzija spends the season there, but Carlos Mármol's control problems—he typically gives up six walks per nine innings—are impossible to ignore.)

Still, Chicago's pitching fooled few in 2011, even with Garza, Dempster, et al. Now that they will rank close to last in offense as well, the Cubs are just lucky that there's one team to arrest their fall to the NL Central cellar.

6. Houston Astros (55-107)
That team is the Astros. I've read several season previews in the past month that compared the Astros to an expansion team. As they prepare to take on an entirely new identity with their move to the American League West, Houston's new owners are filling their roster with minor-league players and players discarded from other squads. Like the Cubs, it is a complete mystery where any offensive production will come from; their supposed power threat and likely cleanup hitter, Carlos Lee, could muster only 18 dingers in 2011. Among the lowlights from his supporting cast are Jordan Schafer, a former Braves prospect who has never had an OPS+ above 75, and young José Altuve, whose OBP was only 21 points better than his batting average in 2011 (he walked five times). Others, such as Jason Castro and Jed Lowrie, have promise but must get over the injury bugs that have plagued their careers.

The pitching is at least led by two major-league-caliber starters: Wandy Rodríguez and Bud Norris. As a result, look for them to be traded when the Astros fall out of contention. The rest of the rotation is basically an extended tryout for a couple gifted minor leaguers, such as Jordan Lyles, and some who should have been given up on by now, such as JA Happ, who is now 29 and has enjoyed all of one good season. Their decision to install Brett Myers in the closer's role probably made the rotation even worse, but it's not like Myers was a solution, either.

I'll be much more interested to tune into the Astros during the first Cuomo administration; at least they are a team with talent and not an incompetently assembled collection of washed-up, overpaid veterans. Unfortunately, most of this talent should, in an ideal world, still be playing at AAA. Houston will be completely overmatched this year, and one hopes that this second straight year of triple-digit losses won't go to the organization's head.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Predicting the NL East

Last year, it was the foregone-est conclusion-est division in baseball; nowadays, its parity should satisfy even Occupy Wall Street. It is the National League East, which I am forecasting to be baseball's strongest division in 2012—and probably its most talented. At different points in the offseason, I was convinced that each of the top four teams in this division would end the season as NL East champs. Indeed, there is still a lot of volatility in these standings from one through four; each team is capable of dominating to the tune of 100 wins (yes, even the Nationals), and each team could collapse like a house of cards to below .500 (yes, even the Phillies). The one certainty—and, in my opinion, the safest bet in all of baseball this year—is that a certain team from New York will sink comfortably to the bottom.

One note—I'm not cheating here by making these picks even though the season has started. While it has taken extra time to write up each team's blurbs, my predictions of each team's record were finalized a week ago. (Had to do that to make sure all the wins and losses added up to 2,430.) With that, onto the NL East forecast:

1. Philadelphia Phillies (97-65; 1st playoff seed)
There has been no more overblown narrative in baseball this spring than "Have the Phillies lost their mojo?" I realize that Philadelphia spoiled us all last year with four elite starters, but the proper reaction to the lowering of this number by one isn't "Whatever will become of the Phillies now that they have ONLY THREE elite starters??" Roy Oswalt, the team's only major offseason loss, wasn't a huge part of the 2011 Phillies' success anyway, pitching only 139 innings. Much more crucial was the œuvre of Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01), whom Philadelphia has retained and of whom we can expect potentially even greater things in 2012. (So, actually, the Fearsome Foursome remains, just in different form. Again I ask: Why the panic?)

Yes, the offense is getting older, as many have pointed out. But that was true even last year, when the team occasionally struggled to score. It didn't exactly get in their way, as Philadelphia won 102 games and the division by 13. In fact, their 713 runs scored were second-most in the division—second to the Mets, who are the one team that won't threaten Philadelphia in 2012. Furthermore, it's not clear that Washington, Miami, or Atlanta improved their offense enough that they could outscore Philadelphia in 2012 without a major dropoff by the Phils. In fact, with José Reyes gone from New York, the Phillies will probably have the best offense in the division. (How's that for a kick in the pants?) And, of course, any team that can boast the NL East's best offense and its best pitching will win its crown.

So yes, this is a slightly worse Phillies team than last year's. Yes, with division rivals like Washington on the upswing, this might be the club's final shot at a second World Series title; its window of opportunity closes even tighter after 2012 with the possible departure of Cole Hamels and the continued downspin of Chase Utley's and Ryan Howard's careers. But these are 2012 predictions, and this squad will pick up pretty much where it left off (i.e., dominating everyone). Figure that you take off a couple of wins for Oswalt and a couple for an atrophying offense, and you're still left with a healthy total in the high 90s.

2. Washington Nationals (92-70; 1st Wild Card)
To those who doubt the Nationals, I ask: If a team went out and signed the best, second-best, and third-best free-agent starting pitchers all in one offseason, wouldn't you consider them a playoff favorite? That's essentially what the Nats did, signing free agent Edwin Jackson, trading for Gio González, and getting an ace back from injury in Stephen Strasburg. And while getting three spiffy new starters would constitute a total makeover for any team—i.e., enough to propel even a 100-loss team into the competitive conversation—Washington is building upon a much better start (80-82 in 2011). Along with holdover Jordan Zimmermann (1.15 WHIP, 4.0 K/BB ratio), I don't see how this rotation doesn't add at least nine wins to that total, and possibly as many as 18; six per new starter is hardly farfetched. It could even be better than the Phillies' vaunted staff.

Likewise, the Nats' bullpen is otherworldly, with dominant closer Drew Storen probably only the team's third-best reliever. (Numbers one and two are Tyler Clippard, who hasn't struck out less than 10 per nine innings since 2008, and Henry Rodríguez, who is wild but has the best stuff of the bunch.) Don't be surprised if this staff leads the majors in ERA in 2012.

Unfortunately for the Nationals, they won't lead in runs scored, which could be their Achilles heel. However, there are many sources of potential salvation for 2011's paltriest NL East offense. Jayson Werth is the most obvious; while Washington may never get the $126 million man they signed, he's not as bad as his .232-20-58 batting line last year. The team also has a healthy Adam LaRoche, who before missing most of 2011 was a consistent 25-home-run threat. Then, of course, there's Bryce Harper, whose legendary bat is obviously going to emerge from AAA and hit 80 home runs in August alone. The bottom line is that there may not be a fireworks display at Nationals Park this year (apart from the Fourth of July), but if they reached .500 with that offense in 2011, they can exceed it with a likely-to-be-improved offense in 2012.

3. Atlanta Braves (91-71; 2nd Wild Card)
The Braves may define the uncertainty that haunts this division. Famously choking their way to only 89 wins in 2011, they're a team for which it feels like everything that can go wrong, does. However, on paper, they're also tremendously gifted, with almost literally no weak link on the whole 25-man roster. Injuries—and crippling, prolonged psychological slumps—are this club's only weaknesses, and I'm sad to say that this team has been so snakebitten by these things in recent years that I just can't imagine Atlanta without them anymore.

Go through the Braves lineup and you find a solid bloc of young, 30-home-run potential: Brian McCann, Freddie Freeman, and Jason Heyward. They're joined by accomplished veterans Michael Bourn (61 steals in 2011), Dan Uggla, and Chipper Jones (the last two past 30-home-run hitters). Obviously, if all of this potential is realized, the Braves will have the best offense in the National League. But you could have said the same thing last year, and instead this crew posted the 26th-best OBP in MLB. Could they have similar problems in 2012, with Heyward and Uggla continuing to struggle? Will Jones's weathered body hold up for one more year? Could Freeman be subject to a sophomore slump similar to Heyward's? There are too many questions for Georgians to be able to rely on these bats for deliverance.

Similarly, the Braves might have the game's deepest rotation, but how many injuries can that staff put up with before it taxes the rest of them? Tim Hudson is already on the DL to start the season, while Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson missed significant time at the end of 2011, just as the Braves collapsed in the standings. (To all those who correctly point out that the Braves were the third-best team in baseball for much of last summer, I would point out that they were among its worst after the starters they relied on got hurt.) If injuries strike again for these top three, the pressure will be on top prospects Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado to fill in. That duo is highly capable, but it's a lot to bet a season on. Meanwhile, the overworked bullpen has no such contingency plan if manager Fredi González again runs Most Valuable Relievers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel into the ground.

Ironically, it is Atlanta's two relatively inexperienced starters, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, whom I'm not worried about. They should be excellent and perhaps could be what separates 2012 from the despair of 2011. While I'm not naïve enough to expect the rest of the team to be as good as it is on paper, last year certainly had to be a fluke... Right? As long as things remain so uncertain in the Big Peach, I'll hedge my bets: I've picked them for a disappointing third, but a third that comes with a playoff berth as the second Wild Card.

4. Miami Marlins (85-77)
The winner of the NL pennant for offseason acquisitions, can Miami show similar success on the field? A lot of prognosticators, blown away by the boldness of the Marlins' signings of Mark Buehrle, José Reyes, and Heath Bell, have said yes. Clearly, I am more skeptical. In my eyes, the Marlins did one thing to improve this winter: add a starting pitcher. (Bell, like all closers, is a dime-a-dozen reliever thrust into a strangely sacrosanct role; Reyes is no better than an average shortstop when time lost to the inevitable hamstring injury is taken into account.) A lot of teams added a starting pitcher this winter, and we're not going gaga over them. Indeed, Washington added three, which is a big part of why I believe they'll so convincingly outstrip Miami in 2012.

I know a lot of Marlins fans read this blog, so let's run a quick thought experiment to prove my point. The Marlins won 72 games last year. According to fWAR, Buehrle was worth 3.4 wins in 2011, Bell just 0.5 wins (!), and Reyes 6.2 wins. Add that all together, and you get... let me see here... 82.1 wins. This is an improved team, no question; however, they have so much ground to make up, and they did not improve themselves as much as their impressive hype campaign has made them out to have done.

I said at the top, of course, that any of my top four NL East teams could win the division. In the Marlins' case, this would happen if Carlos Zambrano returns to his 2009 form (adding 3.6 wins), Hanley Ramírez rediscovers his swing (6.1 wins added, based on the difference between his 2009 and 2011 selves), and Josh Johnson remains healthy (4.6 wins, based on the difference between his 2010 and 2011). That puts Miami at 96.4 wins—but this perfect storm of good fortune is also highly improbable. I do believe in the talent on this roster—specifically, I believe that Zambrano and Ramírez will bounce back very nicely indeed—but I worry about injuries. I expect Josh Johnson to miss significant time, which would decimate the Fish rotation and put even more pressure on inconsistent Aníbal Sánchez and mediocre Ricky Nolasco to perform. And I do believe that it is inevitable that Reyes misses about a month with a hamstring injury; he has done so every year since 2008.

5. New York Mets (62-100)
By process of elimination, we arrive at the Mets—and eliminated they will be, by about May 1. In a division where literally every other team has an undeniable strength, the Mets remain in tatters. At least, for once, their front office realizes this and is setting its sights on a longer-term rehabilitation effort.

In a division of scary rotations, this one is led by Johan Santana—which should scare Mets fans. Santana, of course, was the Best Pitcher on the Planet pre–Roy Halladay but hasn't thrown a ball or strike since 2010. At this point, no one should pretend to know anything about the quality of his work if and when he makes it onto a major-league mound. Jon Niese is a sabermetric favorite for his excellent xFIP, but in four major-league seasons he's never had even a league-average ERA. Mike Pelfrey is persona non grata throughout Queens for his questionable work ethic. You see a pattern developing.

The offense has some nice pieces, highlighted by Lucas Duda and Ike Davis, from whom fans of the Metropolitans should be able to derive some positives this year. Jason Bay and David Wright, however, must be the three-four punch of this offense, and neither has been up to it in recent years. New York's home-run leader in 2011 was the departed Carlos Beltrán, who hit only 15. Wright had 14, and the concussed Bay had 12. Nevertheless, they were able to be the top-scoring team in the NL East, thanks in large part to José Reyes's prolific offensive prowess; he, obviously, is gone now. With the exception of starter RA Dickey and, if they're lucky, a healthy Santana, there is simply no longer any place on this team for wins to come from. In such an improved and powerful division, this will hurt them all the more. They may not deserve to lose fully 100 games, but the math may force them to.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Predicting the AL East

Baseball's most feared division will remain so in 2012. Ironically, though, the newly added Wild Card—which seemed tailor-made to at last bring hope to the third-place finisher in this brutal bracket—will bypass the American League East this year. So who will be the unlucky third wheel at the big dance on the East Coast? Read on.

1. New York Yankees (102-60; 1st playoff seed)
Simply put, the Yankees have a chance to be the best at everything in 2012. They won this division on January 13, when, after a theretofore quiet offseason, they acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda within the span of a few hours. Suddenly, their surprisingly effective patchwork rotation from 2011 (including afterthoughts such as Iván Nova and Freddy García) was excellent on paper, too.

That would be impressive enough, but what makes New York so scary is that it has extraordinary pitching depth to go along with that concentrated quality at the top. Phil Hughes (who has looked excellent this spring), García (underrated because of several seasons lost to injury, but he's never been worse than average), and Andy Pettitte (!) give the Yanks seven major-league-capable starters, two of whom will join dominant arms like Dave Robertson and Mariano Rivera in their bullpen.

The Yankee offense, meanwhile, has never been in question—I believe they're going on their 937th straight season of having one of the best lineups in the game. Rather than cite any tired stats from superstars I know you've heard of, I'll leave you with this thought: CC Sabathia (3.00) and Nova (3.74) won 19 and 16 games, respectively, with this offense. Kuroda (3.07) and Pineda (3.74) could reasonably expect the same. The last team with four 20-game winners was the 1971 Orioles. They won 101 on the year.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (94-68; 2nd Wild Card)
Last year, Tampa's offense left much to be desired, with one of baseball's worst team batting averages at .244—yet the Rays still scored an above-average number of runs. This franchise wins by not being flashy, and it showed in how few people picked them for the playoffs last year. I won't make the same mistake this year, as the closer I look at this lineup, the more I find to like in it. The return of Carlos Peña and the addition of Luke Scott supplement the power of Evan Longoria and BJ Upton; this team could actually hit some dingers. Desmond Jennings is a developing star with base-taking and base-running skills—something you don't see a lot anymore (look no further than Scott Podsednik). I even liked the signing of José Molina, who is worth so much more than his bat because of his incalculable benefits at catcher, perhaps the single most important position on the field. I would truthfully venture that, over a full season, he could be worth up to 3.0 WAR based on his defense and pitch-calling alone.

Then again, I don't have to look closely at the pitching to know I really like this team. At first, the lack of big names makes you think that the rotation is another non-flashy but fundamentally sound aspect of the Rays—sort of a Twins-esque assembly of solid innings-eaters from one through five. This would be an incorrect assessment. Both James Shields (2.82) and, of all people, Jeremy Hellickson (2.95) had better 2011s than CC Sabathia; Matt Moore and David Price should likewise have no trouble getting their ERAs under 3. This is nothing short of a dominant rotation that, with Wade Davis in the bullpen and Alex Cobb in the minors, is also seven deep.

The Rays have taught us never to underestimate them—so I won't. Count on this team—which is built for long-term competitiveness better than any in the division—to build itself a dynasty with perennial playoff appearances. This year, only its inability to stack up with the offense in the Bronx will keep Tampa from first place.

3. Boston Red Sox (88-74)
The Red Sox have mastered the offense part of Moneyball. Last year, they led the league in offense with an .810 OPS; in other words, their entire team batted as well, on average, as Chipper Jones or Brandon Phillips. They did so, too, without much production out of left field, right field, and other positions, which is why concerns about their lineup holes at shortstop and right field in 2012 are overblown. (Heck, they don't even need Carl Crawford to return to form, although you can count on his doing so.)

The problem with Boston is that the part of the team that truly doomed them in 2011—the pitching—remains afflicted with the same basic maladies. I'm honestly a little surprised that a team with only two sure-thing starters (Jon Lester and Josh Beckett) is still considered such a league power. Clay Buchholz should be back to full health (and full dominance), but that's not a given; besides, after him, the Red Sox literally have no additional major-league starters. They'll have to strike gold with talented-but-risky Daniel Bard or another roster surprise (Aaron Cook?) in order to avoid being continually embarrassed in pitching matchups with the Rays and Yankees.

Fundamentally, this is the same Red Sox team as last season's controversial iteration. An optimist would say that they were the best team in baseball for four months, and that would be true. But what stands out from the Red Sox' 2011 season was that, when they bled, they could not clot. During the months of April and September, the team played terrible baseball and was incapable of ceasing to do so. (This despite the fact that April and September are the two worst times to stink up the joint, and that the media/fan pressure was crushing to return to form and succeed.) Whether that's a function of a starting rotation not good enough to prevent prolonged skids or some deeper-seated flaw, it doesn't appear that the Fenway brass did anything to change it.

4. Toronto Blue Jays (79-83)
There's a lot of optimism out there about Toronto. I share it, but it's more long-term for me—I just don't see where the wins will come from in 2012. We've been down this road before, remember. Every few years, the Blue Jays appear poised to finally break into the top tier in the AL East, but they've never quite lived up to that promise. Forgive me if I consider the burden of proof on them at this point.

José Bautista has proven himself, for sure—jacking his game up to a .447 OBP and .608 slugging percentage in 2011. But I've already given up on two players who stubborn prognosticators seem to think can co-lead the Toronto offense: Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind. Both are overrated, miscast, and OBP-challenged. Brett Lawrie, Edwin Encarnación, and Kelly Johnson are a solid supporting cast for Bautista, but I'm not sure that they add up to anything better than the Rays' offense.

And they certainly can't touch the Rays' pitching—nor, frankly, even the Red Sox'. While Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz are all elite pitchers, Toronto has only one ace: Ricky Romero. Brandon Morrow, like the Blue Jays as a whole, is always considered a possible breakout star, but it never happens; it may be time to stop hoping. Then, like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays follow up with a number of question marks: three top prospects, in fact, who may or may not be ready for big-league action. (One, Kyle Drabek, has bad memories of the big leagues, while another, Joel Carreño, was expected to be a reliever until, well, this week.)

Like the Royals—with whom I see a lot of similarities, actually—the Blue Jays are one established starter away from making things really interesting. Unlike the Royals, however, they've been rumored to be aggressively seeking one out via trade. If they land a Gavin Floyd or a Joe Blanton around the trade deadline, all bets are off.

5. Baltimore Orioles (62-100)
I picked the Orioles for third place in the AL East last year due to their (what else?) depth of young starting pitching. It didn't pan out; in fact, it failed spectacularly. Still, it's as silly to think that Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, and Jake Arrieta are that bad as it was for me (and others) to think they were good enough to get the O's over .500 in the 2011 AL East. That quartet will improve this year (Matusz in particular has looked great in spring training) and be joined by some intriguing names from Baltimore's shrewd investment in the Far East: Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada. But at least Boston has two sure things in its rotation and Toronto has one; the Orioles have zero. Despite the positive spin I've put on them, Matusz and co. can't be considered any more reliable than the minor leaguers the Sox and Jays are planning on throwing to the wall in hopes that they stick.

On offense, the O's are similarly adequate but shaky. They lack that true impact bat with a flawless swing and a penchant for collecting MVP votes—although they make up for it with fairly consistent quality from the top to the bottom of the order. Their best hitter may be the extremely strikeout-prone Mark Reynolds, or perhaps walk-allergic Adam Jones—both of whom have been mentioned in trade talks. And even with career years in 2011 from JJ Hardy and Matt Wieters—neither of whom is a sure thing to repeat—the Orioles offense was only so-so last year. That bodes poorly for the 2012 lineup, whose biggest addition is DH Wilson Betemit (who, let's be honest, will not remain a starter for long).

I wish I didn't have to put the Orioles down for last place, as they're hardly an atrocious team and have the potential to play some watchable ball this year. Yet, at the same time, Baltimore is the one squad in the AL East that doesn't have anything to recommend it. Among such brutally tough competition, that's enough for it to get beaten down upon for 100 losses.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Predicting the AL Central

The days of the "Comedy Central" are back. Last year, only one team had a winning record in the division, and most of the 2011 American League Central's cast of characters returns this year. I'm genuinely stumped as to what teams will finish in places second through fifth; any order is pretty much possible. However, it's not because of the generally accepted wisdom that they're all so terrible that it's impossible to discern who's the worst; I actually find things to like about all these teams. (Maybe I'm just an optimist.) Rather, in my opinion, the battle for second place is between four teams equally matched in pitch-perfect mediocrity. On with the predictions, then!

1. Detroit Tigers (89-73; 3rd playoff seed)
To be clear: Detroit isn't that good; they're just going to look good by comparison in this division. I see plenty of flaws in the Tigers, and they should be enough to keep the squad from going toe to toe with the Yankees and other true AL greats. It starts with what has by now become a cliché: poor defense. It's not just Miguel Cabrera at third base that worries me, though; it's Prince Fielder at first and Delmon Young in the outfield. This team is sacrificing defense for offense more than any we've seen in recent history, and I think it'll show.

Another concern, believe it or not, is the offense. Detroit scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last year, but I'm still leery about OBP drains such as Ryan Raburn (.297 last year), Austin Jackson (.317), and especially Young (.302); the fact that they all seem to be Jim Leyland favorites likewise sheds doubt on how the team is run. I'm also skeptical that Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila can duplicate their excellent 2011s.

Like the offense, the pitching is good, but not great. It starts with Justin Verlander, who, don't get me wrong, is otherworldly—but there's simply no way he has another season like he did last year. Doug Fister could be—could be—a legit number-two starter, but he's had too many fits and starts to be considered reliable. Rounding out the rotation will be a handful of youngsters (including Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello) whose promise has so far been fulfilled only with ERAs in the mid-4s.

2. Chicago White Sox (77-85)
Surprised? Yeah, me too. But I just have a feeling about the consensus pick for last place in this division. They're not nearly that bad; I for one think they're a lock for at least fourth thanks to Minnesota's futility. The White Sox still went 79-83 last year—16 games better than the 2011 Twins!—which no one seems to remember. The key to Chicago's season lies in its starting rotation, which could be the best in the division. John Danks and Gavin Floyd had down years, but they're both capable of dominating and will likely produce ERAs around 3.50. Jake Peavy, of course, is a former Cy Young winner who has lately been down on his luck, but a still-excellent K/BB ratio (3.96 in 2011!) suggests he remains capable of dominating a lineup. The X factor could be young Chris Sale, virtually the White Sox' only top-shelf prospect. Based on early reports, though, he's good enough to be worth 10 lesser ones. If he can take the league by storm, the rest of the AL Central should look out.

No discussion of the White Sox finishing second would be complete without Adam Dunn, who limped his way to a .159 (not a typo) batting average in 2011. Ironically, Dunn had been Mr. Consistency previously in his career, hitting exactly 40 home runs every season from 2005 to 2008. (Then, in both 2009 and 2010, he hit exactly 38.) That remarkable steadiness makes me believe strongly that he'll be back in 2012. (Another reason to think the White Sox aren't as bad as everyone says: they won 79 games last year despite Adam Dunn sinking their offense almost singlehandedly.) The rest of the lineup is intriguing as well, including two new names in Alejandro De Aza and Cuban defector Dayán Viciedo. (For the record, I have sadly given up on Alex Ríos.)

With only two major subtractions (Mark Buehrle and Carlos Quentin) from last year's team—which, in full disclosure, I picked to win the AL Central—Chicago's fall shouldn't be too steep. However, Sox fans should keep an eye on the trade market this summer. If Kenny Williams decides to go through with his rebuilding plan after all—dealing, perhaps, Floyd or Matt Thornton—they'll find themselves in the cellar very quickly thanks to the game's worst farm system.

2. Kansas City Royals (77-85)
For a while, the Royals were the "trendy" pick to do well in 2012—then everyone started picking them for second and it stopped being trendy. As close readers know, I am actually quite high on the Royals, but I agree with the recent sentiment professed by one AL executive: "The Royals have a ton of talent and no idea how to put it together." This is a team that underachieved last year (based on its Pythagorean record, which says they should have won seven more games than they did), which could either be a sign of bad luck or bad management. With the Royals, I suspect bad management, meaning that underperformance could carry over to this season. The injuries to key players, such as young-stud catcher Salvador Pérez and closer Joakim Soria, have also made me less excited about this team than I once was.

Ultimately, what will doom this upstart Kansas City team will be its starting pitching—or lack thereof. Bruce Chen and Jonathan Sánchez, while plausible components of a playoff rotation, cannot be the leaders of one. Indeed, it's largely the same fraternity that turned in a 4.44 ERA last year. The Royals won't be truly competitive until these old faces are replaced with fresh arms—i.e., in 2013, when Aaron Crow, Mike Montgomery, and Danny Duffy could each be bursting onto the Cy Young scene.

However, the hitting could be really fun to watch; Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas should continue to develop, but count on Jeff Francoeur falling back down to earth. Alex Gordon will be an interesting test case, too; having just signed him to an extension, the Royals need him to put up gaudy stats again. Without Gordon producing, it's hard to see the Royals having a potent enough offense to offset all those runs they'll allow.

4. Cleveland Indians (75-87)
Cleveland got a lot of attention in 2011 by being a decent team for most of the year, but its Pythagorean win-loss record (75-87) reveals that the Indians didn't really deserve the hype. Like the Athletics, this is another club that just seems like a hodgepodge whose whole will fall short of the sum of its parts. It seems like for every talented young player they boast, there's another who's just filler or a former high-ceilinged prospect whom the Indians just can't let go of. For example, standing next to Asdrubal Cabrera (.273/.332/.460) on the diamond will be third baseman Jack Hannahan, a 32-year-old Oakland and Seattle castoff who played in the minors in 2010. Catcher Carlos Santana (27 home runs last year) is offset by Michael Brantley (.266/.318/.384). And while I like the Casey Kotchman signing (he may not hit .306 again, but he's always been underrated; his spectacular defense makes his typical .270 average tolerable), Shin-Soo Choo absolutely must bounce back from a lost season to make the middle of that order scary.

Indians' pitchers count three big names among their ranks—Ubaldo Jiménez, Derek Lowe, and the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona—who are actually pretty bad pitchers these days. Ironically, they should count on getting quality starts out of only one member of their staff—the relative unknown Justin Masterson. If the other three rediscover whatever it was that brought them greatness in the past, watch out. I'm not saying it will happen (and, with a fourth-place prediction, I'm actually saying "fat chance"), but a foursome of Masterson-Jiménez-Lowe-"Carmona," all at their prime, would be a formidable challenge for the Tigers. And, if nothing else, they have a solid bullpen. Too bad that matters the least when determining excellence over 162 games.

5. Minnesota Twins (67-95)
I'll be honest; I have no idea what to make of the Twins this year. I don't even think Twins fans know what to make of them—the face and tone of the franchise has changed so suddenly in the past year. Many picked Minnesota for another division title in 2011 without much thought—and then injuries swept through their clubhouse as contagiously as the bubonic plague. With the Twins returning much of the same talent this year, one is tempted to think that they could just play 2012 as a do-over of 2011. Unfortunately, it never works out that way.

The most compelling argument against the Twins putting up any kind of a fight this year is the lineup's complete lack of power. Of its projected regulars, only four Twins can be expected to achieve double-digit home run totals: Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Danny Valencia, and Josh Willingham. Morneau and Mauer, however, epitomized the 2011 Twins by continuing to be hampered by injuries that have permanently altered their careers. If they miss time again in '12 (and, at this point, you have to assume that will be the case), the Twins will trot out seven power-less sticks in every lineup. (Many of these non-home-run-hitters are also non-walk-takers, resulting in an atrocious team OBP of .306. Heck, even Valencia's power came with a .294 OBP in 2012, raising the question of whether it's even worth it.)

A decent, very Twins-esque rotation (i.e., six number-three starters with no true ace) could be seen as a saving grace. But in order to rescue an offense this anemic, it would need to be six number-one starters. Still, the Twins have won with teams similar to this one in the past. But they've lost big with similar teams too, and much more recently. Until they prove otherwise, in a division where someone has to finish last, Minnesota seems like the safest bet.