Baseball 2012: The Good, The Bad and The National League

28 Mar

Three things happened in 2006.

Okay, no. A lot of things happened in 2006. George Clooney was involved in at least five of them.

But three things in particular. Three things that I can use for my purposes.

First: The TV shows 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip both debuted that year. They were both the tales of the inner workings of a late-night improv show. Tina Fey vs. Aaron Sorkin. Alec Baldwin vs. Matthew Perry. Who knows how that became the It matchup, but while 30 Rock is still going strong (well, it’s still going; the relative strength is a matter of both opinion and willingness to tolerate Jane Krakowski), Studio 60 died that season, a victim of sonorous diatribes and Aaron Sorkin’s personal demons infecting the show.

“Hey, Daniel, what does that have to do with baseball?”

Don’t you question me. I’m structuring this thing; I can talk about TV if I want.

Anyway, what that has to do with baseball is the second thing:

The American League just crushed the National League in interleague play, winning 154 games to the National League’s 98. That’s not just winning, that’s demolishing. That’s beating the National League at the same clip as a 99-win team over a full season. Basically, in 2006, the American League was last year’s Yankees, while the National League was 2011’s Twins.

The American League is on a heck of a roll lately, beating the National League in interleague eight straight years. The National League has increased its output the last four years, sure, but on the other hand, you know who switched to the AL this year? Some guys named Pujols. Fielder. Pena. (In all fairness, Yuniesky Betancourt is also on that list, but oh well.)

In short, if Major League Baseball were a TV network, the AL would be still riding a critic-supported hot streak, while the NL would have met cancellation, and watched its stars go on to…well, not much, really. I hear Matthew Perry has a guest gig on The Good Wife coming up, so good for him, I suppose.

Oh yeah, that third thing that happened in 2006? In April, I predicted the Tigers would make the World Series. And then they did. Apropos of nothing, really, but it makes me feel good about myself. And I do enjoy bragging.

That was a long way of saying that the American League is just leaps and bounds ahead of the National League, in the past and now. If you’ve been paying close attention the past couple days, first, get a life. But second, you will have noticed that I’ve already counted down 13 of the 16 National League teams. Which means seven of this year’s top 10 hail from the American League. The leagues just aren’t comparable.

That doesn’t mean the American League will win the All-Star Game, the World Series, any of that. In a single game, a short series, lots of crazy things can happen. Ron Washington can intentionally walk half of St. Louis if he has to.

What it does mean, though, is that the AL is likely to go all Yankees-Twins on the NL again this year, and that the balance of power lies squarely in the DH Zone.

Oh, and you recall me mentioning having predicted the Tigers surge in ’06? Well, I can’t forecast a World Series berth, but trust me when I say that this year’s second Wild Card? Will be heading north of the border. Welcome to the playoffs, Toronto Blue Jays.

10: St. Louis Cardinals

Projected record: 86-76 (first in NL Central)

What I said last year: “It’s just hard for me to pick them, with Wainwright out, Carpenter aging, and Garcia certain to fall off a notch or two.”

What I say this year: Hey, did you hear these guys lost Albert Pujols? It was kind of under the radar. Okay, here’s my question. Part of the reason they didn’t mind losing Pujols TOO much is that they can shift Berkman to first and clear space for Craig, who really needs a regular spot. Okay. Got it. But then they go out and add Beltran. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was a good contract. But either he plays a lot of center, letting Craig play right and basically punting on defense, or he plays a lot of right and poor Allen Craig still doesn’t get his full-time shot. The team is still going to be good, but I don’t know what the St. Louisians have against that kid.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: Watch out, National League! It’s Holliday season! #MyJokesAreGettingWorse

Make-or-break player: No team has an easier answer to this question. Adam Wainwright. Everyone thought the team had a fatal wound when he was lost for the year last year, but they seemed to manage okay. Well, they wouldn’t be able to withstand a similar blow this year, not with the best hitter in the game now toiling in Anaheim. A lot rides on Wainwright’s surgically repaired arm. And now, with Carpenter out for who-knows-how-long, Wainwright’s arm is bleedin’ crucial.

Relevant link: Are there guys who just sit at home watching all TV channels, all the time, waiting for the moment when they can write a stupid YouTube song? Is that’s what’s happening?

9: Washington Nationals

Projected record: 86-76 (second in NL East, 9 games back)

What I said last year: “Another team that will get better before it gets worse.”

What I say this year: Yeah, getting better for sure. There are still a few weaknesses — I don’t trust the middle infield, Adam LaRoche is way too crucial, and somehow Chien-Ming Wang is in the starting rotation, but Strasburg? Harper? Zimmerman? Zimmermann? (I like that. They should find a guy named Zimmermannn) There are a lot of pieces in place in D.C. And, if he’s healthy, Mark DeRosa can be one hell of a utility guy.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: Jayson Werth? More like Jayson WerthLESS! #CuzHeWasBadLastYear #GetIt? #Clever!

Make-or-break player: Yeah, Jayson Werth is going to be all sorts of vital. He signed that billion-dollar deal, then went in the tank last year. He ought to bounce back this year, and they’ll need him to, especially if they’re trying to move Bryce Harper to center because Werth has already failed to make that move.

Relevant link: Let’s eat!

8: Boston Red Sox

Projected record: 86-76 (fourth in AL East, 11 games back)

What I said last year: “The only spot of bother is that the pitching staff might not be as good as it should, with Lackey and Beckett both wild cards.”

What I say this year: Well, I was write about the possible…I was going to say “chinks in the armor,” but that phrase is rather off limits of late, apropos though it may be. Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Lester, whatever. There’s a LOT of talent playing in Fenway. But they don’t really have a right fielder, don’t really have a shortstop, definitely don’t have a five-man rotation. As much as there is to like, there’s even more to fear.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: I mean…this won’t be a tweet. But how long until they go on, like, a three-game winning streak and every Boston paper runs the headline “Valentine’s Day”?

Make-or-break player: No team has a more difficult answer to this question. Carl Crawford? Clay Buchholz? Daniel Bard? Heck, Mike Aviles? There’s a lot of talent in Boston, but so, so many question marks.

Relevant link: Humans will write bad songs about anything. This is all just one guy, right? I was so confused.

7: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Projected record: 92-70 (second in AL West, 6 games back)

What I said last year: “They might lose 90. Their top couple starters are great, but I hate that offense. Hate it.”

What I say this year: Yeah, Albert Pujols is still the best hitter in the game. But damned if I don’t see how he is going to make full use of his skills. Lineup protection is mostly a myth – the best hitters in the world will get pitched the same regardless who’s behind them (Remember Jeff Kent, hitting behind Barry Bonds? One of the best hitters in the game. Bonds still walked infinity times) Maybe once Mike Trout finds his sea legs, maybe Kendrys Morales really is back to full strength, maybe Vernon Wells can be something other than completely, totally awful this year. But regardless, Pujols is going to be the bright spot, and unless several other things fall into place, he doesn’t have the help he’ll need.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: With that contract, it’s like he has money coming out of his Poo Holes!!!!!! #GraphicJoke

Make-or-break player: Mark Trumbo, though not for the reasons you might think. The only way he can help his team, with the roster currently constructed, is to keep the bench nice and warm. He’s clearly not the first baseman anymore. With Trout, Bourjos, Wells, Abreu, Hunter, Morales — even if Morales is hurt and Trout is in AAA — Trumbo (and his .291 OBP) just can’t be allowed anywhere near regular action. And there’s talk of playing him at third? Because when you have a guy who can’t hit, you really want him to play the field as poorly as possible?

Relevant link: Hey, everyone, Daniel makes a cheap shot now!

6: Toronto Blue Jays

Projected record: 92-70 (third in AL East, 5 games back)

What I said last year: “Contending in any other division, sure. But they’re just wrong place, wrong time.”

What I say this year: I mentioned to my brother that the Blue Jays were going to be my surprise pick this year, and he said that they didn’t have enough offense. Well, Bautista has proven he’s the real deal, Rasmus is going to blossom away from La Russa (he WILL, damnit), and Brett Lawrie is an absolute stud. Yunel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind…there are plenty of bats in Toronto, I promise you.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: How much should they play Colby? RasMus as possible! #NailedIt

Make-or-break player: I forgot one player I had on every fantasy team last year: Brandon Morrow. He’s inspired the phrase “Morrowble” (for horrible) on ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcasts (follow @MatthewBerryTMR), because people have faith in him every year and he never comes through. This year needs to be his year. He needs to back up Ricky Romero strongly if the Blue Jays are going to be what I say they’re going to be.

Relevant link: I thought I was one of the biggest Colby Rasmus fans out there, but this guy. This guy. Colby had to run to Canada to get away from him.

5: Detroit Tigers

Projected record: 88-74 (first in AL Central)

What I said last year: “Cabrera could win the MVP from now until forever, assuming he puts the bottle down.”

What I say this year: For years, baseball organizations have tried to balance all their skills — offense, defense and pitching — only ignoring a facet when they didn’t have any better option. Have a big-bopping third baseman who can’t catch a popup? Pair him with a slick-fielding shortstop who will bat eighth in the order and bunt a lot. A year or two ago, though, the culture with several teams somehow went to “Heck with it, we’ll hit them into submission. We don’t have to catch the ball.” The Brewers tried it last year, and it carried them a long way. But the Tigers, with a potential infield of Fielder, Raburn, Cabrera, Peralta? Delmon Young in the outfield? I don’t know how we got here, but I don’t love it. Everyone is going to think Doug Fister is just awful this year, because any ball that is hit into fair territory will be a baserunner. Sorry, Dougie. And Justin Verlander, though he’s still one of the top five in the game, wildly outperformed his underlying stats last year. He’ll still be elite, but don’t go expecting Super Duper Verlander Guy this year.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: We’ll call them the Etroit Tigers, ‘cause there’s no D! #PrinceFieler #JustinVerlaner #elmonYoung #ougFister

Make-or-break player: Assuming Jim Leyland doesn’t play him 195 games this year, or at least until his knees fall off, Alex Avila is going to be crucial, as this lineup is desperately going to need a decent bat to show up behind Fielder and Cabrera.

Relevant link: Hey, it’s the Tigers’ fielders! Poor Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, Porcello…

4: Miami Marlins

Projected record: 95-67 (first in NL East)

What I said last year: “This has an outside (very outside, but still) chance of being the best rotation in this division.”

What I say this year: I feel like everyone still thinks the Phillies are the top team in the East, and in the NL, but I don’t see why. Josh Johnson is going to be a big question, but even without him, there’s more than enough pitching, and a lineup with Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Logan Morrison, Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez? That’s just about as good as they come. This is the best team in the division, best team in the league, and I don’t even think it’s close.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: The newest stage in human evolution: LoMoSapiens! #JokeCourtesyLoganMorrison Follow @LoMoMarlins (I’m all over the Twitter integration)

Make-or-break player: In a clubhouse just chock full of crazy (Ozzie Guillen, Heath Bell, Morrison, Ramirez), the prize for the craziest pretty much has to go to Carlos Zambrano. But he’s got skill, and everything I’ve read and heard the past couple months seems to indicate he’s on the right track for the season. Maybe I’m as crazy as he is, but I could totally see him making a huge impact.

Relevant link: The downside to all the home runs they hit? You’ll go blind watching this thing go nuts at every home-game homer.

3: Tampa Bay Rays

Projected record: 96-66 (second in AL East, 1 game back)

What I said last year: “They’ll surprise.”

What I say this year: Yeah, because this team needed MORE pitching? Adding Matt Moore to a rotation that has David Price, James Shields and Jeff Niemann is like adding Chuck Norris to The Expendables. Oh wait! That’s happening next. Oh well. Rays pitch good.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: All them pitchers are sure Devilish! …Wait, they aren’t the Devil Rays anymore? Damn. #FiveYearsTooLate

Make-or-break player: When he resigned with the team this offseason, I compared Carlos Pena’s return to Tampa to the Josh McDaniels/Brandon Lloyd reunion in St. Louis this year. It’s the proverbial match made in heaven. Casey Kotchman was fine last year, but Tampa really needs that bopper in the lineup, and Pena has never been as good a hitter when he’s not a Ray. And now he can watch himself in Moneyball!

Relevant link: “See what you hit” isn’t just for baseball, guys.

2: New York Yankees

Projected record: 97-65 (first in AL East)

What I said last year: “There’s just not that much to get excited about with the Yankees.”

What I say this year: The Red Sox and Yankees went into the offseason with huge rotation question marks after their top two (Lester/Beckett, Sabathia/Nova…though, let’s be honest, Nova isn’t exactly a guarantee). Somehow, the Red Sox did almost nothing to improve their lot, while the Yankees added Michael Pineda AND Hiroki Kuroda. Neither one is going to be as good this year as they were last year, but they’ll definitely be better than, you know, Bartolo Colon and Hector Noesi. In other words, Yankees do good, Red Sox do no good. I’m sure they’d still like to have Jesus Montero, but that’s just a tiny price to pay.

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: That Pineda sure seems like a Yankee Doodle Dandy! #JokeCouldWorkForEveryGuy

Make-or-break player: I mean…Russell Martin? I’m really not seeing a lot of make-or-break guys here. Jeter can suck for a while and they’ll be fine. Teixeira, Ibanez, Swisher, Chavez, Rodriguez. Not terribly concerned. Even Rivera. If he goes down, there’s Robertson and Soriano there to pick up the slack. Granderson goes down, Gardner plays center. Losing Cano would hurt, but I think he’s a safer bet than Martin, who hasn’t actually been a truly good player in five years.

Relevant link: This isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is, but it made me think – HOW IS THERE NOT A BARTOLO COLOGNE?!?!

1: Texas Rangers

Projected record: 98-64 (first in AL West)

What I said last year: “If anyone else in the division had done enough, I could easily see them falling. But the others didn’t do much.”

What I say this year: I honestly don’t think I’m a homer to (a) have them this high, or (b) not be devastated by CJ Wilson leaving. I would have liked to keep him, and I would have liked to sign Pujols or Fielder, but I wanted none of those guys for the prices they commanded. I didn’t particularly love the price paid for Yu Darvish, either, but oh well. I tell you what doesn’t worry me — the Angels. For the life of me, I don’t see why so many seem to think Pujols & the Pips will overtake the best lineup in the game, and the Rangers’ pitchers are plenty strong. That said, I really didn’t want to rank them first. They just don’t feel like a “best in baseball” team to me. I had the Yankees here for a bit, but the uncertainties on the pitching staff scared me off. I moved the Marlins up for a bit, but that seemed silly. I even thought about bumping the Rays over the Yankees and putting them in first base, but then I remembered Luke Scott was going to be their starting DH and I shook my head so hard it hurt. So the Rangers it is then!

Lame tweet from guy who likes puns too much: If Chuck Norris pitched for them, he’d be STRIKOUTER, Texas Ranger! #ChuckNorrisJokes

Make-or-break player: It’s Derek Holland, mostly because we aren’t going to be able to ignore him. After his “hilarious” (if you say so) Harry Caray and Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations were showcased during the World Series, we’re going to be bombarded with Holland’s personality at every opportunity this year. Never mind that he might actually be the fifth best starter in the rotation (more likely second or third, but he COULD be fifth). Regardless, he’s still a good pitcher, and the fact that he might be fifth just reinforces my faith in Texas’ rotation.

Relevant link: Okay, here’s my question. Michael Young never got traded! Was this mom just teasing her kid? What the hell?? I hope that kid trades his awful mom.

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