With the 136th season of National League baseball fast approaching, there are many intriguing storylines worth following that have developed following a wild offseason. The winter stove was overheating this year with several high-profile free agents searching for new homes and paydays that would make some developing nations’ GDPs blush.
There was also a makeover in South Florida with the Marlins getting a new stadium, new uniforms, and some new players in an effort to draw in some new fans.
It wouldn’t be a baseball offseason if MLB Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t tinker with the game. Selig decided to add two more wild card teams to the playoff mix, creating a new one-game play-in game which will put more emphasis and reward on a division title. Not exactly a bad idea, but one has to always pause and hope for the best when Selig starts changing things up. As an aside, I would like to make an appeal to Selig to cool it with the early-morning season openers in Japan. I think the game would be better served if this were strictly an exhibition affair. It seems that most of America was unaware that the season had started March 28th when the Seattle Mariners outlasted the Oakland A’s in Tokyo.
Even with two somewhat secretive MLB games already in the books, the rest of the league has left their respective training camps and will begin the long journey that is a baseball season. With all of the changes to the National League landscape this offseason, here are some of the stories baseball fans should be intrigued by this offseason:
Upheaval in the NL Central
While the NL Central couldn’t exactly be mistaken for the strong AL East in recent seasons, there has been some competitive baseball coming out of the division, as well as the defending World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.
Those same Cardinals will have to try to repeat their postseason glory without the services of several key people who no longer call Busch Stadium home. The micro-managing Tony LaRussa decided to call it quits after a successful, 16-year run in St. Louis. LaRussa won two World Series with the Cardinals as he managed to get the most out of his teams when it counted, near the end of the season and in the postseason. Along with LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan has left the team as well. Duncan, considered one of the best pitching coaches in the game, will be missed by a team that has fielded some of the most consistent pitching in baseball for more than a decade.
The big gaping hole on the right side of the infield happens to be from the best hitter in the game leaving town. The big offseason free agent prize this offseason was first baseman Albert Pujols, he of the career 1.037 OPS. Pujols will be slugging in Los Angeles for the Angels, earning a cool $240 million over 10 years with the Angels. His absence also makes life easier for the Cardinals’ division rivals, the Milwaukee Brewers.
Unfortunately for the Brewers, they were unable to offer an attractive deal to their own slugging first baseman, Prince Fielder. Fielder, who is five years younger than Pujols and owns a healthy lifetime OPS as well (.929), has taken his considerable bat and girth to the AL Central. The Detroit Tigers will pay Fielder $214 million over nine years to play poor defense and to hit home runs.
With two of the game’s premier sluggers leaving the division, it should open up some opportunities for the perpetually rebuilding teams, the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. The Houston Astros will be playing their final year in the division before they swap leagues and take their minor league roadshow to the AL West in 2013.
The Cubs and Pirates, however, will remain and as always, will be clinging to the hope that the future holds some success. The Cubs made news this offseason by firing GM Jim Hendry, and raiding the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres’ front offices, bringing in the youthful, yet successful trio of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod. Epstein, who is now serving as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations has already started clearing out the Cubs’ cupboard of under-performing assets while trying to snag some prospects that the team can build around.
The Pirates will look to build on a 2011 where they were actually in first place in June before an expected collapse. They return with some solid pitching and the soon-to-be star outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Were the Diamondbacks a One-Hit Wonder?
One of the surprises of the 2011 season was the Arizona Diamondbacks winning the NL West. The D-Backs won 94 games on the strength of some solid pitching, and timely hitting under the leadership of Mr. Clutch himself, manager Kirk Gibson.
Statistically, the D-Backs were hovering around the league average for hitting and pitching all season. They received some breakout seasons from the likes of Miguel Montero, Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy, and Daniel Hudson.
In his second year as manager in Arizona, Gibson saw his team post a stellar 28-16 record in one-run games, helping them outlast the defending champion San Francisco Giants. The Giants, who boast one of the best pitching staffs in the game with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain leading the rotation, couldn’t hit enough to catch the D-Backs.
Arizona ran out of mojo in the playoffs, losing to MVP Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder’s Brewers in the NLDS. What Arizona did in 2011 was remarkable, improving by 29 games over their 2010 output.
They have their work cut out for them this season as the Giants return with most of their pitching staff intact, as well as new outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. Slugging prospect Brandon Belt will be battling for playing time with Aubrey Huff, and Belt may be the big bat the Giants have been lacking in recent years.
Arizona will counter with their own slugging first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, who posted an ISO of .224 in 177 plate appearances last season with the Diamondbacks. The 24-year-old will be the everyday first baseman for the D-Backs, as they look to hold onto their NL West crown in 2012.
Can The Phillies Pitch Their Way To Another Division Title?
The Philadelphia Phillies are a team built for a monster playoff run. They easily boast the best trio of arms in the majors. Coming off of a 102-win season in 2011, the Phillies rotation is fronted by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Of the three, the highest ERA last season was posted by Hamels. His 2.79 would qualify him as an ace on about 20 teams, but he’s returning as the Phils’ number three.
The problem the Phillies will encounter this year is finding a way to score enough runs to repeat as division champs for the sixth year in a row. The team will be without first baseman Ryan Howard, who has seen his slugging percentage steadily decline the last few seasons. He is battling injury and will likely miss the first two months of the season.
Second baseman Chase Utley, who may have long said goodbye to his peak playing years, is suffering from chronic knee issues, and will miss significant time this season as well. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins has yet to find his 2007 form which led to his MVP award, and isn’t getting any younger at 33. That leaves outfielders Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino as the only reliable producers who will be tasked with sparking an offense that finished seventh in runs scored last season.
While the Phils will likely repeat as division champs, barring any injury to one of their big three stud pitchers, they will struggle mightily to score runs this season unless they get contributions from some unexpected sources.
Miami Marlins: Is that contraption beyond the left-center fences real, or has my coffee been spiked with LSD?
As previously mentioned, the Miami Marlins have re-imaged themselves and will unveil a brand new, mostly publicly funded stadium. Whether that same public comes out to the ballpark all season remains to be seen, as baseball in South Florida has been notoriously slow to catch on since the team’s inception in 1993.
Along with their new digs, and new threads (and new name), the Marlins boast a bevy of new high-priced talent after an offseason splurge which brought in big names such as Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. They also will have a new skipper after Ozzie Guillen left the South Side of Chicago for Miami.
Added to the mix which includes the fiery Guillen and his mostly nonsensical ravings, and the already temperamental and sensitive slugging star Hanley Ramirez, is the repeat offending ragemaster, Carlos Zambrano, acquired by the Marlins in a trade that sent pitcher Chris Volstad to the Chicago Cubs.
Guillen, like Zambrano, was born in Venezuela, and thinks he holds the secret to containing Zambrano who has repeatedly gotten himself in hot water with his hot temper. Regardless of his anger, Zambrano is well past his prime, yet has experience and makes for a decent third or fourth starter. The problem in Miami is if the Marlins don’t live up to the lofty expectations fans have. With Guillen, Zambrano, and Ramirez all in the same clubhouse, it should make for an interesting season, at least in terms of quotes, or tweets. Expect Ozzie Guillen’s social-media-savvy sons to tweet their viewpoints throughout the season, setting up a potential Twitter showdown with last year’s tweeting sensation, Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison.
Will the Washington Nationals do Walter Johnson proud?
The legendary pitcher known as “The Big Train”, Walter Johnson toiled for years with the Washington Senators in the early 20th century, yet became one of the greatest players of all time. Johnson won 417 games with a career ERA of 2.17 while his team, the Senators, routinely finished in the second division, losing more than 85 games seven times during Johnson’s 21-year career in Washington.
While pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg will likely never live up to the greatness of Johnson, he definitely has the talent and stuff to win some Cy Young awards, if he stays healthy. Strasburg took the league by storm in 2010 when he debuted with a 12.2 K/9. Strasburg has since had Tommy John surgery and looks to bounce back in a big way, yet with a strict innings limit in place so the Nationals can preserve their pitching treasure for years to come.
Being bad has its advantages as the Nationals parlayed their futile record since leaving Montreal into draft picks, with another young sensation eventually on his way in the form of 19-year-old hitter, Bryce Harper. Harper will start 2012 in the minor leagues so the Nationals don’t start the clock yet on his major league service time, but he may be called up as early as June. Harper has Strasburg-level hype to go along with his enormous talent. He also apparently has an ego to match, and will likely make headlines when he gets called up to the Show.
With newly acquired pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson complimenting Strasburg, the team and its fanbase think the Nationals can make a run at the NL East, or at least a wild card berth. With sluggers Jayson Werth and Mike Morse also in the everyday lineup, the Nationals won’t be the 100-loss pushovers of 2008 and 2009. They look to be real players in the big East Coast market, and with their young talent ready to hit the scene, they will be an entertaining team to watch for years to come.