The general consensus is that the Washington Nationals will start contending in 2013, when most of their young, high draft picks have earned their promotions to the Big Leagues. By next spring, Bryce Harper will start in right, Stephen Strasburg won’t be limited to 160 innings, a new, more capable center fielder will likely be signed, Anthony Rendon will be approaching the majors, Michael Morse will be playing in a contract year, and the winter’s free agent market is loaded with ace pitching. Yes, Washington will field an amazing team in 2013, and the 2012 squad is simply a very promising prototype.
In fact, Washington could a Wild Card spot, or even the division this year.
The only thing getting in the way of Washington’s spot in October are the other NL East clubs (minus the Mets). The Central and West divisions are far weaker and could easily be trounced by the Nationals. The expanded playoff feature (another stain on Bud Selig’s legacy) is beneficial to the young team, and greatly enhances their chances of reaching the postseason.
As a whole, the Nationals are MLB’s most well-rounded ballclub. GM Mike Rizzo has assembled a sturdy rotation with enormous upside, a lineup with an even mix of on-base skills and power, and a bullpen that appears relatively consistent (aside from Brad Lidge, who is the most volatile pitcher in the game. One year he’s lights out, the next he’s riding the DL, and after that he’s just awful. The cycle repeats). Additionally, the entire is composed of an equal combination of veterans and youngsters. For every Jayson Werth there is a Danny Espinosa, for every Drew Storen there’s a Chien-Ming Wang.
The top three starters in Washington’s opening day rotation will anchor the team for years to come. Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez will continue to develop into aces or, in regards to the latter two hurlers, dominant number 2/3 starters. Either way, going forward, the Nationals have three young, promising arms to lead the pitching staff. Edwin Jackson, Wang, and John Lannan, the other three starters on the roster, don’t carry as much force as the former group, but will likely have more drive to succeed. Wang and Jackson are on one-year deals, and Lannan is fighting only for a role with the club. He may be relegated to swingman duty or traded. That would just make the bullpen stronger, which already features Storen, Tyler Clippard, and the newly signed Lidge.
The Nats’ hitting is as good, if not better. Once Harper joins the team (which will likely happen in mid-June), the Nats will undoubtedly see a spike in not only home runs, but also attendance. Comeback seasons from Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche are expected. The veterans are too talented to play at such a dismal level. If Werth regains his 2010 form, Harper might not be needed for a while. The newly extended Ryan Zimmerman also needs to return to form. If healthy, Magnum ZI will reclaim his 7+ fWAR value and prove to be capable of captaining the team. Additionally, Morse has to prove that 2011 was no fluke.
There are a lot of question marks in the lineup, but with all that talent not everyone can fail. As long as the team remains relatively healthy, 2012 is their year.
Lloyd H. Cargo:
I love making bold predictions, trying to identify potential breakouts and busts, skills honed by years of fantasy baseball dominance. Hubris aside, one lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes the things closest to you are the hardest to see. As a result, I never draft Phillies. I try not to put too much stock into spring training. It used to be easy—I expected them to lose, and they obliged. Then all of a sudden a core emerged and since 2007 the Phils have reeled off five straight NL East championships, including two pennants and one glorious World Series. Signing Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, handing Ryan Howard a massive extension two years early—these aren’t the lovable losers anymore. Somehow, the Phillies have turned into a freaking powerhouse.
Despite my previous apprehension, the question nags: When will they fall off? They’ll fall off. Philadelphia sports fans are used to being let down. The Eagles always seemed to fall tantalizingly short of expectations, last years “dream team” included. The Sixers at their modern apex was basically the Allen Iverson show, dooming them to constant underdog status. We aren’t used to being winners, we’re used to being tough losers. All these expectations are confusing.
And people expect the Phillies to falter this year. Chase Utley’s knee is still not okay, no one’s sure when exactly Ryan Howard will be able to play again and the whispers about Cole Hamels leaving in free agency to play for his hometown Dodgers have already begun. The homegrown core responsible for all those banners is aging (and expensive), and what was once the most fearsome line up in the National League decidedly lacked punch last season, relying on a seemingly unsustainable high level of production from the rotation. The window would seem to be closing.
And yet, I think the Phillies are going to be better this year. They may not win 100 games in a very tough division, but several of those (quite rational) reasons for pessimism also have silver linings that lead me to believe they’re more than capable of extending their playoff run and less susceptible to a early round upset.
For one, as much as I love the mighty slugger, Howard’s massive contract hamstrings Charlie Manuel into starting him, even though his struggles against lefties and his subpar defense make him a liability. With so many expensive players, the Phils don’t have the kind of lineup flexibility that propelled the Cardinals past them last year. They can’t bench an Utley, Rollins or Howard in favor of a hot hand and it’s forced them to essentially live and die with the long ball.
With Howard out, the Phils actually have a pretty similar replacement in the ancient (and one of my favorites) Jim Thome, as well as the versatile Ty Wigginton. They’ll be fine in his absence and will hopefully carve out roles they can keep after their return. Michael Martinez is a more significant downgrade at second base, and I can’t pretend to be optimistic about Utley. Let’s move on…
The Phillies also got better at closer, a role both underrated and overrated for its impact on a team. Brad Lidge was nearly perfect in 2010, and it seemed to give the Phillies a psychic edge, even if his peripherals suggested he wasn’t quite as unhittable as it appeared. Sure enough, when he started experiencing inconsistency in 2011 all that confidence evaporated in an instant. Bringing in free agent Jonathan Papelbon is both an upgrade in stuff, and a much needed fresh start. Lidge never seemed psychologically cut out for an often-brutal fan base, but Papelbon has already proven he can handle Boston’s unique brand of insanity—so he should be fine.
They’ve also replaced the fossil of Raul Ibanez with Hunter Pence, added Juan Pierre so the Phillies can play that one line from that one Jay-Z song about him (“I used to run base like Juan Pierre/so I run bass, hi-hat and snare”) when he pinch-runs late in games and finally have the flexibility to work in promising prospects like John Mayberry and, eventually, Domonic Brown.
As for the rotation, it’s hard not to laud Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Hollywood Hamels, and there’s no reason to expect much of a drop off. Vance Worley probably slightly outpitched himself last year, and Joe Blanton is constantly testing Phillie fans’ patience, but I’m a firm believer that staffs led by a master like Halladay, let alone one with three legitimate aces, rise to the caliber of their peers. It used to happen to Atlanta ever year with Maddux and Glavine.
Basically, I’m thinking not only will they not fall off, they’ll actually take a step forward this year, returning to the World Series. And since I’m saying that, you can bet they’ll figure out new ways to implode, and make me look like an asshole by finding a way to finish last in the NL East. Either way, I can’t wait to find out.
I attended my first Major League Baseball game nearly 50 years ago, in an entirely alien United States when black people were routinely (and not derisively) called “colored” or Negroes; the pre-Beatles AM Top 10 was jammed with Tommy Roe’s delightful “Sheila,” the still-vomit inducing “Roses Are Red” by Bobby Vinton and any number of terrific singles from Ray Charles and Sam Cooke; Dobie Gillis, featuring TV’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs, who played bongos and said everything was craaazy, man, was on the tube; it was just months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when my parents spoke in hushed tones about the world ending; and the New York Mets, skippered by Casey Stengel, played their first season.
Going to the Polo Grounds, where the Mets played before Shea Stadium opened in ’64, was a present for my seventh birthday, and the weeks of anticipation of this event had me jumping out of my skin. It’s all a bit foggy now, and it would be splendid if I could recount smelling the freshly-cut grass on the field, the intoxicating vapors of fresh hot dogs hawked by vendors, the crack of a ball hit into the bleachers or a bag of hot peanuts picked up at a concession stand for a dime or 15 cents. But that wouldn’t be accurate: what I remember most from that desultory June day in 1962 was sitting in crummy seats (clutching a mitt), obstructed by a girder, trying to figure out the scorecard, and waiting for Willie Mays, the Say-Hey Kid, to whack a homer. I honestly don’t recall what Willie did that afternoon—but the cheers he received from a New York crowd still smarting from his New York Giants leaving for San Francisco several years earlier were deafening—and, in fact, whether the Mets or Giants won the game is still a mystery.
No, my takeaway from that day, still in 2012, was that I was with my dad, who took a rare leave of absence from the car wash where he worked Monday through Sunday, and it was just us, a “special” that didn’t include any of my four older brothers. Dad was mostly indifferent to sports, and in the morning when the newspapers arrived he took the financial and editorial pages, my brother Doug hogged the comics and I pored over box scores in the sports section. Dad and I went to a few other games by ourselves in subsequent years, before he passed away in ’72, but of course it’s that first one that’s etched in my mind, and really, in the realm of childhood reminiscences, who could ask for more?
Switching gears, and centuries, the most recent ballgame I attended was the last of 2011, when my lifelong favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, choked against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards; minutes later the Tampa Bay Rays improbably erased a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees and they won the Wildcard instead of the faltering Sox. My son Booker and I just looked at each other in bewilderment, as our team, touted at the start of the 2011 season as a wire-to-wire champion, trudged off the field into sports history lore as an epic collection of losers. Then came the recriminations, mostly from the Boston media, which resulted in the disgraceful scapegoating of manager Tito Francona and the revelation, from an unnamed weasel of a source, that some of the pitchers—Jon Lester, John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz—would, when not starting a game, consume fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse. Imagine that! I’d never known that ballplayers, notwithstanding their enormous wealth, gnawed on drumsticks and indulged in bottles of suds. I think those poster boys for gluttony, sloth and greed would’ve fared better in The Boston Globe had it been discovered that they’d been shooting ‘roids rather than drinking and eating.
Two days ago, Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra, typically put the “scandal” into proper perspective:
[The Red Sox] were, for most of the year, the best team in the A.L. And they have almost all of the parts that helped them get that way back and much healthier than they were last season. They have Gonzalez and Youkilis and Pedroia and Ellsbury and Ortiz and a pitching staff that, while not ideal, could easily be the staff of a World Series winning team. They lost their closer. That’s the big loss. And to hear some people tell it, the Red Sox are a mess.
Know what? They’re not a mess. They went and created more drama for themselves than they needed to by firing Terry Francona and bringing in Bobby Valentine—a move that unnecessarily accentuated those late season foibles rather than defuse them—but they are not the sort of disaster area some people like to pretend they are. Oh, yes, your beer and chicken joke is funny. Laugh? I thought I’d DIE!
I ain’t having it, though. The Red Sox will win a lot of baseball games this year. Maybe by the time Mother’s Day rolls around and they’re doing just fine, thank you, more people will remember that they’re pretty damn good.
Even though, as a reverse superstition, I annually put down a sawbuck that says the Sox will win the American League pennant, I’m not as optimistic as Craig that Boston will fare so well in 2012. Their bullpen is atrocious, the starting pitching, either because of injuries or lack of depth, is suspect, their catchers suck, there’s no legit shortstop, and if 84-year-old David Ortiz goes bridge more than 25 times I’ll eat the floppy old man’s hat my son Nicky wears even in his sleep.
My sniffer says that it’s the Year of the Tigers, much like 1984, when Detroit started off the season 35-5 and never looked back. As always, as long as the Yankees don’t win the World Series, the baseball season won’t be a total loss, even if the Sox finish closer to the AAA Orioles than the Rays.
It’s worthless, but a few guesses: Justin Verlander wins a back-to-back A.L. Cy Young, while the Phils’ Cole Hamels, smelling Dodger green in his contract year, takes the award in the Senior Circuit. Miguel Cabrera picks up the MVP in the A.L. and Mike, sorry, Giancarlo Stanton wows his fellow Marlins (and, I hope, sell-out crowds at Miami’s new Marlins Park) and romps in the N.L. I have no clue on Rookies of the Year. And Detroit sweeps the Giants in the World Series.
These are the glory days of the American League East. Last year the division featured four of the top 14 teams in baseball according to Baseball Reference’s Simple Rating System, and three of those teams were in the top nine.
In 2012, the division has four of the eight best teams in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays, widely expected to finish fourth in the division, would be serious contenders to win either the NL West or NL Central.
You don’t have to squint hard to see the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox winning 90 plus games this season. After last year’s September collapse most analysts seem to be discounting Boston, but the team isn’t demonstrably different than last year’s roster, and that rendition was projected to win 95 games. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz form a lethal top three in the rotation and former set-up man Daniel Bard, a fireballer, is set to make the leap to the rotation. The lineup still features former MVP Dustin Pedroia, and mashers David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez, and that leaves out possibly the best hitter of them all in Jacoby Ellsbury. This team can hit, play strong defense up the middle, and pitch. Their problem last season wasn’t talent but injuries. If they can stay reasonably healthy there is no reason they can’t win 90 games. They may just be the best team in baseball.
While last year’s Red Sox can best be described as “what could have been,” the Yankees didn’t collapse. In fact they accelerated. Coming into 2012, at least on paper they’ve managed to improve upon a roster that won 97 games last year. If there was a weak point on last year’s team it was the starting rotation. So the Yankees added the criminally overlooked Hiroki Kuroda and 23-year-old flame-thrower Michael Pineda to a starting rotation that already features C.C. Sabathia. Putting that rotation in front of an offense that missed leading all of baseball in runs scored last season by seven (to the Red Sox) is a strong recipe for success. They may just be the best team in baseball.
Like the Yankees, the Rays return the strongest parts of their roster while adding to it. First and foremost, the addition of super-rookie Matt Moore to a rotation featuring James Shields and David Price can only make them better, but if Moore somehow falters, Jake McGee and Wade Davis are waiting in the bullpen to step in. One important aspect of the 2011 Rays was their best-in-the-AL defense. The Rays turned batted balls into outs better than any other team in the American League, and there is no reason they can’t do it again in 2012. What’s more, they’ve brought back Carlos Pena and added Luke Scott, both legitimate power threats. They’ll join a batting order with Desmond Jennings, perennial MVP candidate Evan Longoria, and perennially under-rated jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist. The Rays may just add scoring runs to the list of things they do very well, a list that already includes defense and pitching. They may just be the best team in baseball.
The oft-ignored Blue Jays are no slouches themselves with possibly the best player in baseball in Jose Bautista, soon to be superstar Brett Lawrie and under-appreciated ace Rickey Romero. Even with riches like those they are likely the fourth best team in the division.
This year’s AL East will likely be the recipient of much press. The Yankees and Red Sox are big names and the Rays are the current poster team for how to best run an organization. The temptation will be there to ignore it as so much media blather and bias. Don’t. The best teams in baseball reside in the East. If you love baseball, this division deserves your attention.
The Baltimore Orioles selected Cubs prospect Ryan Flaherty in the Rule 5 draft during baseball’s Winter Meetings. Flaherty has performed well for the Orioles this spring and appears to have locked up a spot on the Opening Day roster as a utility infielder. The Orioles open the season with question marks at third base, first base, and second base. Flaherty has logged time at all three positions in Spring Training and may be given more playing time that the usual Rule 5 player.
Flaherty was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft. He posted solid but unspectacular numbers in his voyage through the Cubs minor league system. The 2011 season was Flaherty’s best year as a pro. He began the season with Double-A Tennessee where he posted a .907 OPS and hit 14 home runs in 83 games. Flaherty earned a mid-season promotion to Triple-A Iowa where his struggled against more advanced competition. In 49 games for the Iowa Cubs Flaherty hit just .237 and struck out 44 times. The Cubs new front office, led by Theo Epstein, left Flaherty off of the team’s 40 man roster thus exposing him to the Rule 5 draft.
Chicago’s decision could be Baltimore’s gain. Flaherty was part of glut of young infielders in the Cubs system but with the Orioles he is viewed as a top prospect. Baseball America ranked Flaherty as the Orioles seventh best prospect in its annual prospect rankings. Flaherty, a second baseman by trade, has also received extensive playing time at third base and shortstop during his minor league career.
The Orioles have shifted human turnstile Mark Reynolds back to third base for the start of the 2012 season. Reynolds was a disaster at the hot corner last summer but the O’s seem prepared to give him another extended audition. The club holds an $11 million option on Reynolds for the 2013 season. His production doesn’t warrant that kind of payout so the Orioles will once again looking for a long-term option at third base. If Reynolds struggles with the glove, or is traded during the season, Flaherty will likely get an extended look at third base.
The Orioles second base situation is just as murky. Brian Roberts will begin the season on the disabled list as he is still suffering from post-concussion symptoms. Robert Andino will get the lion’s share of playing time at second base in Roberts’ absence but look for Flaherty to get an extended look there as well. As a left-handed hitter, Flaherty presents an intriguing platoon option to the right-handed Andino.
Baltimore hasn’t been an attractive destination for players in recent years but for Ryan Flaherty Charm City is baseball’s land of opportunity. Whether it comes at second, third, or first base Flaherty figures to get the chance to solidify his spot in the big leagues this summer.