Albert Pujols in SoCal
Pujols is an absolute stud, and exactly 5 years after he retires he will be a first ballot hall of famer. People quote this statistic quite frequently, but it bears mentioning again: for his first 10 seasons, Pujols batted over .300, had at least 30 home runs, and at least 100 RBIs. That is completely insane (last season he just missed the mark finishing with a .299 batting average and 99 RBIs … despite playing the 1st month of the season nursing a broken wrist). This year he’s taking his talents to Los Angeles, and to the superior American League. Learning new pitchers, new ballparks, and the pressure of the huge contract will all weigh on his mind during the first few months of the season. It remains to be seen if he will maintain his decade of dominance, or will age, pressure, and stiffer competition render him a mere mortal for the first time in his career.
The arms race
There has been so much talk in recent years about how pitching has finally caught up to, and now surpassed, hitting. Either MLB is stocked with an array of world class pitchers, drug testing has diluted crop of sluggers, or some combination of both. The usual suspects of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, and CC Sabathia are still up to their usual tricks. The amazing thing is all of the studs 26 years old or younger: Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg, and David Price. I didn’t even mention several stalwarts in their upper 20s like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Cole Hammels. MLB is in a great position for the next 5-10 years as long as most of these guys stay healthy.
The AL East
Since 2008 the perpetual best division in baseball has been won twice by the Yankees and twice by the Rays. The Bronx Bombers will never be terrible because of their national appeal, alluring city, and unlimited money supply. Tampa has a great manager, fantastic farm system, and a litany of young talent. Can they remain a farm system for the big money teams? Will they be able to continue to keep producing world class prospects? If not, their long term success is not very bright. They obviously can’t compete financially or geographically in the minds of free agents with the Yankees or Red Sox. Speaking of the Red Sox, this is a pivotal year for them in Fenway’s 100th year anniversary. After last year’s collapse they have to fight through a new manager, aging stars, and a rash of injuries. Smart money is on a 3rd place finish for the Sox and another division victory for the Yankees.
The comeback Trail
Several important players are making a comeback from significant injury or just a horrid year. Stephen Strasburg came back at the very end of last year from Tommy John surgery. He looked great in limited action, and here’s hoping that he continues to dominate hitters all year long. After a breakout rookie year, Jason Heyward looked like he belonged in double A most of his second season. He played through injury all year long, and displayed very little of the plate discipline and good hitting that made him look so special as a 20 year old. He’s healthy now, so it will be interesting to see if he can look more like a rookie again. The Minnesota Twins were dreadful last season, and that was mostly due to the injuries to their star duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Both are presumably healthy to start the year, but as fragile as they have been recently, I’m sure no one in Minnesota is fully optimistic. Adam Dunn batted .159 with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs last year. He has to play better this season, it’s impossible not to. Lastly, I’m quite curious to see what happens with Ryan Braun in 2012. He had a very sordid off-season, and if he struggles even a little, he’ll hear the taunts of being a roider. Does he have thick skin like Barry Bonds, or does it even matter since he plays in Milwaukee, where expectations aren’t very high?
Two of the biggest stories for the new baseball season actually involve people who will never swing a bat or throw a pitch all season. Bobby Valentine joins a Red Sox team coming off the worst collapse in MLB history. Not only that, they got rid of the GM, Theo Epstein, who was the architect of their two recent World Series championships. Epstein has moved to the Chicago Cubs, so he effectively has Boston Red Sox money without the negative Boston media and fan base. Valentine can be divisive, a drama queen, and he loves to air things to the media. It will be interesting to see how all of his antics play in the media circus in Boston.
Ozzie Guillen and his mouth join the new Miami Marlins. The team is effectively the same, but they have a new name, stadium, uniforms, and city. With so much to do, Miami isn’t known as being a big sports city, but the problem was compounded since they played their home games in a football stadium, had almost no success other than in 1997 and 2003, and finished in the bottom three in attendance for 10 straight seasons. Guillen is a loose cannon, but he’s shown an ability to produce winning teams, culminating with a World Series victory in 2005. It remains to be seen if he can galvanize the fan base and/or turn the Marlins into a winning team.