Many storylines for 2012 Major League Baseball season

By MIKE KANEN | May 7, 2012

The 2012 Major League Baseball season began last week in Tokyo, and every team will play its first game by this Friday. With this in mind, it's time to roll out The News-Letter's annual MLB preview. A year ago, I picked the Red Sox over the Brewers in the World Series, harping on their respective off-season additions as the keys to what I thought would be their 2011 title runs. And while I'm not straying from that line of thinking again this year, the 2012 World Series will revolve more around the smaller, less media-frenzied moves than the major free-agent signings of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish that transpired this winter. AL EAST The Winner: New York Yankees. Even in baseball's best division - yes, the AL East still holds an edge over the vast improved AL West and NL East divisions - it's tough to argue against the Bombers repeating as division champs. Fresh off a 97-win campaign a season ago, the Yankees addressed their most glaring need this offseason by trading for behemoth right-hander Michael Pineda and signing Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers. They also re-added pinstripe faithful Andy Pettitte, together giving New York what I consider baseball's most productive offseason. New York posted baseball's best run differential in 2011 and hopes for continued growth from Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. The key will be the health and production of the Yankees' older moneymen - Derek Jeter (age 38 in June), Alex Rodriguez (age 37 in July) and Mark Teixeira (age 32 next week) - who need to contribute like they did in their youth. Knockin' on the door: Toronto Blue Jays. To avid baseball fans, the Blue Jays are well known as the best fourth-place team in baseball. Toronto has finished fourth each of the last four seasons, and that's probably where they will fall again this year. It's not because they're not trying, though. General manger (GM) Alex Anthopolous has done a terrific job in his two years at the helm of the organization, becoming a Canadian wunderkind in deals for Jose Bautista, Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, Sergio Santos and others, while also shipping Vernon Wells and Alex Rios elsewhere. He also began to revitalize the Blue Jays once nearbarren farm system, developing the game's largest scouting department, and it has paid dividends through the draft and trades like the Roy Halladay swap. The Jays have proven and promising arms,such as Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, and, although they won't land Joey Votto as expected after this season, they have several pieces in place to contend soon. Breakout candidate: Matt Moore, LHP, Rays. AL CENTRAL The Winner: Detroit Tigers. This division is, without a doubt, the easiest to pick. The Tigers are head and shoulders above everyone else in the division, featuring the Central's top rotation, headlined by reigning Cy Young and MVP award winner Justin Verlander and best lineup, led by Miguel Cabrera and newcomer Fielder. And, although I'm not a huge fan of closer Jose Valverde - his K/9 numbers have decreased every year since 2006, and his WHIP has increased each of the last three seasons heading into his age 34 summer - there is something to be said for a perfect, save percentage, last year. The continued maturation of Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, in addition to resolving their serious defensive questions, will be vital for another Mo- Town celebration. All in all, Detroit has the right pieces to contend for a World Series title in 2012. Knockin' on the door: Kansas City Royals. Going into last season, the Royals' farm system was widely considered one of the best in the history of baseball. The club landed a record nine players on Baseball America's top 100-prospect list. Later in the summer, Kansas City began to see the fruits of several impressive draft classes, as youngsters Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and many others were called up to the Bigs. Since then, GM Dayton Moore has tried to lock up several pieces of this core, beginning with Billy Butler and outfielder Alex Gordon, who finally started to fulfill the promise that once made him the second overall pick in 2005. At the same time, Moore has avoided bad contracts, such as the ones he gave to Gil Meche and Jose Guillen just a few winters ago, something few others in the division have done. Just as important as Kansas City's youth movement, they are just one of two teams in the Central not bogged down by poor long-term deals like the ones handed to Joe Mauer and Adam Dunn last offseason and Fielder months ago. The other, the Indians, have far from the minor league riches that the Royals possess. Yes, things are looking up in KC. Breakout candidate: Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians AL WEST The winner: Los Angeles Angels. I've tossed and turned in my sleep over this division, mulling the differences between the Halos and the two-time reigning American League champion Texas Rangers. But here's why I think the Angels trump Nolan Ryan's herd: pitching wins championships. Don't look now, but the Angels staff - Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, CJ Wilson and Ervin Santana - rivals the Phillies' and Giants' as one of the most talented corps of arms in baseball. As for the Rangers, their rotation is a question mark. They lost their ace, Wilson, and are now counting on Japanese import Yu Darvish, former closer Neftali Feliz, and young lefthanders Derek Holland and Matt Harrison to shoulder a very heavy load. All four of these arms could have breakout campaigns, but Darvish and Feliz will be rookie rotation mates, and the Southpaws are coming off 2011 seasons, in which they both greatly increased their workload - a troubling sign for pitchers 25 years old or younger. Both teams have good, if not great, offenses - I'd take Texas' because Los Angeles is so right-handed - but the difference in pitching will be the difference in the division. Knockin' on the door: Seattle Mariners. I would like to pick the Rangers here. After all, they have one of baseball's richest farm systems, showing time and time again that they are willing to invest in young international talents. But GM Jon Daniels and Texas aren't sneaking up on anyone. Instead, the Mariners just might be. While every other team in the AL West made a big free agent splash this offseason, the Mariners traded for young DH/catcher Jesus Montero and their young pitching should have them back in contention in due time. It won't be this year, and it might not be the year after, but when Albert Pujols begins to age, the heat of Texas wears on the Rangers' young arms, and the A's continue to wait around for their new ballpark, the Mariners pitching staff of Felix Hernandez, Danny Hultzen, Taijuann Walker and James Paxton will becoming into its own. Around the same time, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Montero and prospects Nick Franklin and Francisco Martinez should give Seattle enough juice to chase down the division's powers. Breakout candidate: Ackley, 2B, Mariners. Wild Cards: Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox: Tampa has holes behind the plate and at shortstop, but their young pitching should keep them in the playoff hunt. Boston was the best team in baseball from May- September last year, even without healthy or normal performances from Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford, so I expect them to rebound and battle the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. MVP and Cy Young: Adrian Gonzalez and Jered Weaver. NL EAST The Winner: Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies are far from the shoo-in they were a year ago when they built one of baseball's greatest rotations on paper; the Big Three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels largely lived up to the hype. While those three should dominate once again, Philadelphia's offense is older and even more injury-prone than it was a year ago. Ryan Howard, Placido Polanco and Chase Utley will all start the season on the disabled list, with the season outlook of Howard and Utley extremely cloudy. All said, though, the postseason race will come back to pitching, and even if the $50 million doled out to Jonathan Papelbon this winter may have been a steep price, the Fightin's should feel secure in who they have on the mound in almost any inning. Because of this, it's tough to believe that Phillie fans won't be loving October baseball. Knockin' on the door: Washington Nationals. While it's tough to be a sleeper pick when you play in the nation's Capital and own two of the most highly touted young players in the game in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nats most certainly are a sleeper. Washington hasn't finished .500 since 2005 when they were 81-81 and still played in Montreal. Yet I, and National manager Davey Johnson, expect D.C. to witness postseason baseball this year. Right now, I have them as the National League's sixth best team, just behind the San Francisco Giants solely because their pitching staff is less proven. However, Strasburg coupled with former Division III college baseball star Jordan Zimmermann give Washington a pair of flamethrowers coming off injuries. They also added strikeout machine Gio Gonzalez, by utilizing their bountiful farm system, and Edwin Jackson in the offseason, giving the squad a dangerously talented rotation. The bullpen, led by closer Drew Storen, is also ultra talented, and Ryan Zimmerman's offense should get a boon when Harper is called up in June. First in war, first in peace, last in the National League is a thing of the past. Breakout candidate: Zimmermann, RHP, Nationals. NL CENTRAL The Winner: Cincinnati Reds. Not even two weeks ago, I would have been tempted to call the Reds' offseason the best in the National League. And it still might be because the Reds have a very legitimate chance to advance deep into October this year. Their deal to land Mat Latos, a young, team-controlled potential ace for a host of prospects, whose futures in Cincinnati were blocked by Joey Votto and rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco, was the defining addition of the division's winter. And their one-year deal for closer Ryan Madson was a steal. But then Madson had Tommy John surgery last week, and the Reds risked the future of the franchise with a gargantuan ten-year $225 million extension for Votto on Monday. Even with these circumstances, Cincinnati is primed for the playoffs because of their unquestioned depth around the horn and in the rotation; already their bullpen depth is being utilized, as Sean Marshall will step into the Reds' closer's role for Madson. This, combined with the losses of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder in the division and three teams that have virtually no shot at October, have the Reds in better shape than any of their counterparts. Knockin' on the door: Chicago Cubs. Okay, not entirely. But when else am I going to talk about my beloved Cubbies in a positive light this year? The Cubs farm system isn't all that great - it's highlighted by outfielders Brett Jackson and Matt Szczur and infielders Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, but it lacks a true impact arm - and the team is still hampered by the monster contract given to Alfonso Soriano under the Jim Hendryregime. Thus, 2012 seems like a lost year. However, the addition of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod to the Lovable's front office should make the club relevant again before long. Already, Epstein and Co. have unloaded Carlos Zambrano's albatross salary and ego, foregone the temptation to splurge on any big name free agents like Pujols or Fielder as well as not resign Aramis Ramirez, and managed to trade for Rizzo, the club's best bet for a longterm solution at first-base since Mark Grace. Although things may spiral on-the-field in the near future, the Cubs' new-look baseball operations and scouting departments have the wherewithal to turn things around in due time. Breakout Candidate: Mesoraco, C, Reds. NL WEST The Winner: Arizona Diamondbacks. Surprisingly, few people are as high on Arizona heading into the season as I am. And, although I hear the worries as much as the next guy - predicted down years from pitchers Trevor Cahill and Ian Kennedy in addition to offensive catalyst Ryan Roberts - the Diamondbacks are still the most talented team in the division. San Francisco did not upgrade their offense well, the Dodgers were limited by financial constraints, the Rockies have little to no pitching, and the Padres are rebuilding. Thus, Justin Upton and the D-Backs will prevail, not by default, but because of their young core and rotation depth. Knockin' on the door: San Diego Padres. Shipping Latos to Cincinnati may give the wrong impression to Padre fans, but GM Josh Byrnes does have a plan in mind: to rebuild through the farm system. The Padres have exceptional depth in the Minor Leagues, rivaled only by the Diamondbacks in the division, which should bring the Friars back to relevancy before long. The additions of former UMiami standouts Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal in the Latos trade boosted a system already led by outfielder Rymer Liriano and right-hander Casey Kelly, part of the Adrian Gonzalez-trade, and the duo should make an impact as soon as this year. Breakout candidate: Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Rockies. Wild Cards: Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants: Atlanta, like Boston, will rebound from their collasal collapse late September because of their staggering rotation depth. The Gigantes return plenty of pitching but the Nationals, Marlins, Brewers and Cardinals will be knocking. They need to prove they can hit. MVP and Cy Young: Justin Upton and Roy Halladay. World Series: New York Yankees over Cincinnati Reds.

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