Even though there are a handful of unsigned players and potential trades to come, I think I can safely make some predictions about what we're going to see in 2012 in the ol' MLB. I'm going to project the end-of-season standings for every division, as well as playoff results and award winners over two or three posts. I'll start with the NL. It's all a crapshoot, but these are my best guesses...
1. Washington Nationals - Might as well start off crazy. This is going to be an insanely competitive division that features expanding payrolls and some of the best young players in the game. So why Washington? Well, it starts with the pitching. They finished 6th in the NL in ERA last year, and that included 75 starts by Livan Hernandez, Tom Gorzelanny, Chien-Ming Wang, and Jason Marquis. This year, those starts will be made by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Edwin Jackson. Gonzalez posted a 3.12 ERA in the DH league last year, and #5 starter John Lannan has made 30 starts with a sub-4.00 ERA in three of his last four years. Oh, and Jordan Zimmermann (a former top prospect in his own right), put up a 3.18 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in his first full season after an injury. In the bullpen, they have talented younsters like Drew Storen, Henry Rodriguez, and Tyler Clippard, not to mention Sean Burnett and Brad Lidge. Offensively, they're not as attractive, but remember that Ryan Zimmerman missed a lot of time last season and was never really 100%. Jayson Werth isn't as bad as he played last year, and middle-infielders Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have plus-potential. Michael Morse played like a star last year, and recently freed Wilson Ramos is a fine young catcher. And then there's Bryce Harper, who may also appear at some point in the coming season. They won 80 games last year without a healthy Zimmerman, and they'll be adding Strasburg, Jackson, Gonzalez, and maybe Harper. The future is now.
2. Philadelphia Phillies - Again, it's all about the pitching. Roy Halladay is a future Hall of Famer. He's followed by two of the top 3 lefties in the NL in Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Vance Worley surprised some people last year, but he was a 3rd round pick a couple of years ago, so it's not as though he's just a fluke. They overspent on Jonathon Papelbon, and I find their bullpen as a whole to be decent, but fairly pedestrian. On offense, they have exactly two projected regulars that are under 31: 28-year-old John Mayberry and soon-to-be 29-year-old Hunter Pence. This is an offense on the decline, and they'll be without Ryan Howard until at least May. I'm sure Ty Wiggington will be just as good. The fact is, these guys don't scare opposing pitchers like they used to. The crazy thing is, if they get to the playoffs, even as a Wild Card, they'll probably be the favorites to win the pennant when you consider the starting pitchers at the top.
3. Atlanta Braves - I'm sure I'll catch some flak for this one. A lot of people think this team will win the division and maybe even the pennant, and that shows how strong this division is. On paper, they seem to have assembled an almost Tampa-like collection of talented young starting pitchers. Still, despite being 4th in the NL in ERA last year, I think they have some questions: Can Jair Jurrjens and Tonny Hanson stay healthy? How good is Mike Minor? Can Tim Hudson continue his mid-30's rennaisance? I have a tough time really believing in a staff with so many guys who are either very young or chronically injured. If everything goes according to plan, they could very well win it all, but I'll have to settle them at 3rd for now. Please don't tell anyone in my fantasy league about Brandon Beachy, though. Offensively, they're just kind of "bleh." Jason Heyward doesn't have it together yet, and while Freddie Freeman is a fine young player, it's not like he's even average offensively for a 1B at this point. Dan Uggle is very good at hitting homers and making errors, Michael Bourne is one-dimensional, and Chipper Jones is 746 years old. I still like Brian McCann and, hey, maybe Tyler Pastornicky can give them a boost.
4. Miami Marlins - You see, Jose Reyes's game is entrely predicated on his legs. His power comes from stretching singles into doubles, and his defensive value is tied to his range. He's known mostly for being a great base-stealer. His legs are also frequently injured and he's getting close to 30. I don't understand paying that much money for him. Hanley Ramirez was horrible last year, and now they're making him change positions. Mike Stanton could really go either way this year, but you can't deny that his power is legit. I've always liked Logan Morrison, but he had some problems in 2011. Gaby Sanchez is okay, but nothng more than average at his position. Whether or not this team can compete comes down to the right arm of Josh Johnson. Mark Buehrle, Annibal Sanchez, and Ricky Nolasco are okay, but without the ace in front of them, the rotation is average. This is going to be a project and I don't think that Ozzie has it in him. Carlos Zambrano?
5. New York Mets - This is going to be a tough year. The Metsies have slashed payroll while the rest of the division has drastically improved. Jason Bay, Lucas Duda, and Andres Torres is the starting outfield. Their starting 2B is a utility player, and while Ike Davis and Ruben Tejada have potential, their not ready for their primes just yet. They still have David Wright, but his power has dropped off the table since the move to Citi Field. I guess we'll have a chance to see if Johan Santana can still pitch. The rest of the rotation is below-average, especially relative to the teams in the East and their bullpen is mediocre at best. Frank Francisco? Wow. They should DL him now to save the trouble later. It's gonna get ugly. Well, uglier.
1. Cincinnati Reds - They had a busy offseason, bringing in Mat Latos, Sean Marshall, and Ryan Madson. The rotation is still somewhat sketchy when you consider Johnny Cueto's health issues last year (started and ended 2011 on the DL). Mike Leake is okay, but not what most would consider "above-average," and Bronson Arroyo is coming off of his worst season. That said, they have talent in the bullpen and a pretty solid wild card in Aroldis Chapman. Offensively, they are among the best in the business. Joey Votto is officially the best 1B in the NL now, and Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, and Drew Stubbs provide a variety of offesnsive skills. Youngsters like Devin Mesoraco and Zack Cozart will need to develop in a hurry. It's not very often that a team goes to the postseason with rookies at SS and C. This is a flawed team with flawed manager, but in a down year for the Central, they're the favorites.
2. Milwaukee Brewers - Everyone is down on the Brewers, but I don't really see why. They still have Zack Greinke (2.59 ERA in the 2nd half last year), Yovani Gallardo, Shawn Marcum, and Randy Wolf. They still have John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez closing it out. Corey Hart, Ricky Weeks, and Nyger Morgan are solid offensive roll players, and Ryan Braun will be back in May. Aramis Ramirez is getting older and he still can't field, but he should provide some stability in the lineup. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with Norichika Aoki. He can hit. I know Mat Gamel is no Prince Fielder, but he has a solid pedigree. This team will contend.
3. St. Louis Cardinals - This team features pretty much the entire roster from the 2006 NL All-Star Team. Unfortunately for them, it's 2012. They've effectively replaced Albert Pujols with Carlos Beltran, with the corresponding move of Lance Berkman back to 1st. Can Matt Holliday be the big-time slugger in this lineup? You have to figure Berkman and Beltran will regress from comeback years in 2011. Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia have combined for an awful lot of arm surgeries. What will happen to Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook without Dave Duncan? Can a veteran team win with a young manager? Too many questions here. In the interest of full disclosure, I had them 3rd last season too...
4. Pittsburgh Pirates - After a hot start last year, they reached a new level of horrible in the 2nd half. They have some nice young talent on offense. Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez have loads of potential, even though each is coming off of a fairly disappointing season. Andrew McCutchen collapsed in the 2nd half too after an All-Star beginning, but I'd have to say he's the most promising and exciting young player in this division. As for the pitching, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, and James McDonald all seem like solid candidates for regression. Erik Bedard is in town now, so I hope the Bucs have saved room on their DL. I like the bullpen, led by Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan. I don't know, this team is pretty bad. I only have them in 4th because they have more hope and talent than the other two trainwrecks in this division.
5. Houston Astros - I actually think this team is a due for a decent-sized improvement in their last year in the NL. Then again, when you lose 106 games, it's hard not to improve. They have Major League caliber talent at most positions, including interesting young players Jose Altuve, J.D. Martinez, and Jimmy Paredes. Unfortunately, mediocre roster-fillers like Jed Lowrie, Chris Snyder, and Livan Hernandez will likely be playing major roles for this team. Bud Norris is coming off a breakout year of sorts, as he posted a 3.77 ERA and K'd nearly a batter per inning in his 3rd Major League season. Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers are solid middle-of-the rotation guys, but I think it's likely that one of them will be moved soon to make room for the much cheaper (and maybe someday better) Jordan Lyles. Here's hoping that young catcher Jason Castro can make it on the field at some point. He's got some potential and his injury last year was heart-breaking. This team could win 65-70 games.
6. Chicago Cubs - As a fan of a small-market team, it's going to do my heart good to see the Cubs and Mets combine for 200 losses this year. There's nothing but mediocrity on this team. Anthony Rizzo gives them some hope, along with Starlin Castro (between alleged assaults), but the rest of the offensive roster is either old, or bad, or both. Matt Garza is solid at the top of the rotation, but it's looking doubtful that he'll be a Cub for much longer. Ryan Dempster is old and coming off of a bad year. Randy Wells, Pat Maholm, Travis Wood, Chris Volstad, and Andy Sonnastine will compete in the least exciting roster battle of all time this year at the back end of the Cubs rotation. Like Ma always said: "If you don't have anything nice to say..." It's going to be a trainwreck, but one of a train filled with Cubs fans, so you won't feel too bad...
1. San Francisco Giants - I picked the winner of this division by throwing darts blindfolded. To that end, I'd like to apologize to my wife, who thankfully, should make a full recovery. What it comes down to, for me, is Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner at the top of the rotation, and a dominant bullpen. I don't expect much offensively. Buster Posey will be back, but it's hard to imagine him showing up after a year off and raking like it's 2010. Pablo Sandoval is a nice player, but he's not good enough to build a lineup around. They'll need contributions from young Brandon Belt and newcomer Melky Cabrera. Aburey Huff and Freddy Sanchez might be done being productive. The balance of power towards the American League and the NL East this year is staggering. The Giants win this division by default.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks - You could argue that they have more balance than the Giants do. After all, with Justin Upton, Chris Young, Aaron Hill, and Miguel Montero, they certainly have more on offense. I don't get replacing Gerardo Parra with Jason Kubel. I guess they liked Parra's mediocre offense, but go tired of him playing such good defense, so they brought in someone to fix that. Mark Reynolds, ahem, I mean Paul Goldschmidt has scary power, and even scarier strikeout totals. The starting staff is okay, even though I think Ian Kennedy will regress a bit. I like Daniel Hudson and Travor Cahill, and there ate worse starters than Joe Saunders. By the way, CBS has Trevor Cahill listed as the #3 and #5 starter for this team. He's going to be pretty tired at the end of this year. Is that... that Henry Blanco? Wow.
3. Los Angelas Dodgers - They are here because of Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Dee Gordon can play a little too. Andre Ethier and James Loney are a walking injury and a walking below-average baseball player respectivelly. I should be careful. I wouldn't want to drive Loney to drink... and drive... and face no criminal charges. Their rotation is full of 3s and 4s with Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsly, Aaron Harang, and Chris Capuano. The Dodgers will start Jerry Sands in the minors, presumably because Tony Gwynn Jr. has a famous dad. Meh.
4. Colorado Rockies - I've been high on this team for a long time and all they ever do is let me down. As a punishment, I'm demoting them to 4th. An unpaid low-life moved you down in his projections! Take that multi-millionaire athletes! Blah, blah, blah, Carlos Gonzalez, blah, blah, blah, Troy Tulowitzki, blah, blah Dexter Fowler. This team is pretty okay on offense, but the pitching is going to be an awful, though somewhat talented, disaster. Jhoulys Chacin is going to break out one of these days. He'll have to learn to throw strikes first. I can see why they brought in Jamie Moyer. They don't want incredibly talented future stars Drew Pomeranz and Alex White coming up and... uhh... winning? They got rid of talented, but flawed Ian Stewart to bring in a just flawed Casey Blake. Whatever.
5. San Diego Padres - Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin, Yonder Alonso, and Cory Luebke are all talented players. If you add them all up, they almost equal Adrian Gonzalez. If they can fix Edinson Volquez, I'll be a believer. I'm sure the city of San Diego is brimming with anticipation for the upcoming year.
So that's the NL. I'll do the AL in a few days...