Sunday, April 1, 2012

Ten Teams Most Likely to Improve in 2012

The 2011 MLB season will be forever remembered for that outrageously dramatic conclusion - Game 162 - which settled two of the wildest Wild Card races, ever.  That final game capped off epic September collapses for both the Boston Red Sox, in the American League, and the Atlanta Braves, in the National League.

The beneficiaries of these epic collapses - the St Louis Cardinals and Tampa Rays both finished strong, and took care of business in Game 162; the Cards were easy winners with their ace, Chris Carpenter completely shutting down the Astros; while the Rays overcame an eighth inning seven run deficit to beat the Yankees, capped off by Evan Longoria's low-flying walk-off laser down the left-field line which barely had the height requirement to clear the lowest fence in baseball (excluding Little League fences).

Lost in the daily September Wild Card drama that was unfolding in both leagues, building up to that exciting night of baseball known as Wild Card Wednesday - Game 162 - was the contrasting lack of drama in all of the division races.  In case you've forgotten, just take a look at the margin of victory each division champ enjoyed by season's end:

Yankees (97-65) - 6 games
Brewers (96-66) - 6 games
D-Backs (94-68) - 8 games
Rangers (96-66) - 10 games
Phillies (102-60) - 13 games
Tigers (93-69) - 15 games

Not only did these teams play extremely well last season, getting career years from many of their key players; their divisional rivals, for the most part, had unusually bad years, which helped foster a great deal more disparity than normal between the top teams and those on the bottom of the heap.

Many of the teams that struggled last year appear well-positioned to rebound in 2012; some even appear to have playoff-caliber talent after investing in some key free agents and/or making shrewd trades; some teams were decimated by injuries last season but appear to be relatively healthy now; while others have up and coming talent waiting in the wings to emerge as star players right now.  The net effect in 2012 should be a great deal more parity from top to bottom, which should make the division races themselves, much more competitive, and - unlike last year - much more captivating for the fans.

Here are ten teams that should win a lot more games this time around.  For some, those extra wins have playoff implications; for others, it's just a small step towards respectability:

*Chicago Cubs (71-91) - They probably won't make the postseason, but old school new manager Dale Sveum has already had a positive influence in changing the lackadaisical Cub culture; making the players accountable, getting them to hustle and play sound, fundamental baseball; that alone should bring them back to respectability; dishing their number one head-case, Carlos Zambrano off on Miami doesn't hurt.  2012 PROJECTION:  79-83

*Minnesota Twins (63-99) - Had the worst luck with injuries than any other team in baseball last year, losing both Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau for extended periods of time; everything seemed to go wrong with this team last year; however, if they can stay relatively healthy this year, they should come very close to .500 this year - giving them the distinction of easily being baseball's most improved team.  2012 PROJECTION:  80-82

*Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90) - This team played well enough in the first half of last season to spend a day or two in first place in the NL Central; lots of young talent here, featuring center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who keeps getting better every year.  The rotation could be decent, if Erik Bedard stays healthy and AJ Burnett gets healthy and stays healthy while returning to his pre-Yankees pitching form.  Finally, if former-Brewer slugging third baseman Casey McGehee rebounds from a disappointing 2011 to knock in close to 100 runs again (like he did in '10), this could be the year the Buccos play .500 ball for the first time in 20 years; Barry Bonds' last year in Pittsburgh.  2012 PROJECTION:  81-81

*Kansas City Royals (71-91) - Sure, they were dealt a blow when they lost closer, Joakim Soria to season-ending Tommy John surgery, but they'll have Eric Hosmer for a full season with a strong supporting cast, including the slugging doubles machine, Billy Butler, defensive whiz Jeff Francoeur patrolling right field, and the talented Alex Gordon; they'll score a bunch of runs and could reach .500 level with any luck at all.  2012 PROJECTION:  79-83

*Colorado Rockies (73-89) - Many picked the Rox to win the NL West last season; that's how badly things unraveled for them; made many wholesale changes, including signing free agent Michael Cuddyer in the off season; returning to a hitter-friendly environment will help him return to old form, when the Metrodome was his home; throw in the hitting prowess of Troy Tulowitzki along with a healthy Carlos Gonzalez, and this team could lead the league in runs scored.  Pitching may be an issue, but they picked up a reliable starter, Jeremy Guthrie from Baltimore, who should give them 200+ quality innings this year.  Their number two starter is 49-year old Jaime Moyer, who would be the oldest human to ever win a major league game, if he does it; he'll probably do it at least twelve times if his body can hold out all season.  2012 PROJECTION:  83-79

*Cleveland Indians (80-82) - The Tribe got off to a sensational start last season, but gradually faded as the Tigers went on a late season tear; they have a solid pitching staff, but need Ubaldo Jimenez to pitch like he did in Colorado to make a serious run for the division title; Silver Slugger shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera should be even better this year; finally, if the oft-injured pair of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore can play over 100 games apiece, that may help the magic return to Progressive Field all season long this time around.  2012 PROJECTION:  87-75

*LA Dodgers (82-80) - After getting off to a horrendous start last season, LA recovered nicely over the second half, fueled by Matt Kemp's monster near-Triple Crown-MVP-caliber season and the brilliant pitching of Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw.  The offense should be much better, overall, assuming Andre Ethier and James Loney return to form; adding the potent bat of former-Angel Juan Rivera to this lineup should help them score enough runs to win the very competitive NL West.  2012 PROJECTION:  92-70

*Miami Marlins (72-90) - After spending tons of free agent money in acquiring shortstop Jose Reyes, pitcher Mark Buerhle, and aging closer Heath Bell, while importing volatile manager Ozzie Guillen to run the ship, and adding the volatile pitcher Carlos Zambrano to the rotation, this team is expected to be much better; along with changing the team name, they'll occupy a brand-new stadium, but will it be enough to reach the postseason in the competitive NL East?  That's unlikely, but at least they'll escape the cellar.  2012 PROJECTION:  83-79

*Atlanta Braves (89-73) - They were one of the best teams in baseball for most of last season, boasting a young and very talented bullpen which simply ran out of gas in September.  The starting pitching should be good enough, assuming a healthy Tim Hudson returns to the rotation sometime in May, while Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrgens stay healthy and pitch effectively.  Second baseman Dan Uggla, who had a terrible start last year but came on strong at the end, should be able to put it all together for a full season; possibly good enough to earn him his first NL MVP Award; also, expect a healthy and trimmed-down  Jason Heyward to swing the bat much better this year; finally, if Chipper Jones can keep his knee troubles to a minimum in his final season to play at least 120 games, it could be one to remember; yes, they should be able to get past the banged-up Phillies this time around.  2012 PROJECTION:  95-67

*LA Angels (86-76) - When the Halos landed Albert Pujols, they became the best team in the American League, just like that.  Unless he sustains some sort of freak injury, Pujols will have a monster season for his new team, putting up typical AP numbers (last season was an aberration), and become a strong candidate for the AL MVP Award; especially if his new team wins the AL West this time.  Not only will Albert do much damage of his own at the dish, he'll make the rest of the lineup better, with his mere presence, batting third in the order.  Almost lost in all the Pujols hype is the addition of flaky lefty CJ Wilson to an already formidable starting rotation.  2012 PROJECTION:  96-66

These ten teams are projected to win 96 extra games, over last year.  Most of the extra wins will be coming from the 2011 division champions; the end result for 2012 will be much greater parity throughout major league baseball; and that means each division race is likely to come down to the wire this time around, creating even more fun and excitement than last year's Wild Card Wednesday.

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