The Tenth Inning – Week 1 – Part 1

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The Tenth Inning – Week 1 – Part 1 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

By Mike Ivcic

That’s right, folks – the popular column is back for the 2012 MLB season! Each Monday, we’ll present a look at some of the hot topics across the baseball landscape to keep you up-to-speed with our national pastime. And what better way to start it all off than with… you guessed it, a season preview!

Also, each Friday during the season, we’ll produce the “Ultimate Capper Power Rankings” for each league. With a new wild card spot up for grabs, teams will be in the race for more of the season, so we’ll look each week at the likelihood of your favorite team playing meaningful baseball in October.

We begin our spin around the league with the…

NL East
1. Philadelphia Phillies
I won’t be surprised if they don’t make the playoffs at all, but unlike other national pundits who want to go out on a limb in order to look like a genius if their pick pans out in six months, I have learned my lesson. Their starting rotation has the best 1-2-3 in baseball, they have Hunter Pence for a full season, and they have guys like Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino who just know how to win. Injuries and age are definitely a concern, and they might not even win 90 games, but I just can’t see another team in this division overtaking them – this year.

2. Washington Nationals
On paper, the Marlins are better, but for the first time since their move from Montreal there’s some actual juice around this franchise. If Steven Strasburg is fully recovered and can give them 25 starts and Jayson Werth can even be halfway to where he was in Philly, they’ll compete for a playoff berth. Bryce Harper will probably be up with the big club before the end of the year too, so going through a playoff-type grind this August and September will set this club up for some big things in 2013, regardless of how 2012 ultimately pans out.

3. Miami Marlins
New stadium, new manager, new shortstop… and yet I still feel like nothing’s really changed. Remember, despite having won two World Series titles, this is a franchise that has never won a single division title – thank you, Atlanta Braves. With all of the new pieces that somehow need to be assembled properly, I think this team could legitimately finish in any spot in this division, so I’m taking the average. Between the daily Ozzie Guillen watch, the ticking time bomb that is Carlos Zambrano, and the “it’s ok but it’s really not” attitude of Hanley Ramirez regarding his move out of shortstop, this could easily become the biggest summer blockbuster of the year. Just cancel your HBO and watch the Marlins every night – it’ll be the exact same effect.

4. New York Mets
Let me start by reminding you all that I’m a Mets fan. That said, this team was fourth in the National League in runs scored last year without Ike Davis for the full year and without Daniel Murphy for most of the year. Even subtracting Jose Reyes will be offset by moving the fences in, likely helping the power numbers of David Wright and Jason Bay. Plus they’ll be trotting Johan Santana out to start opening day. I’m not saying this team will compete for a playoff berth – that would require the Wilpons to sell the team – but I am saying that this will not be the worst team in the NL East this season.

5. Atlanta Braves
That title will befall this wonderful franchise, which hasn’t seen last place at the end of the year since 1990. But Tim Hudson is not starting the year off healthy, Chipper Jones can barely bend over to pick up a ground ball, Jayson Hayward is still trying to decide between being the next Hank Aaron or the next Roberto Mendoza, and no one is really quite sure what is behind Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens in the rotation. Not good. This team is an injury to (or bad season from) Brian McCann away from playing to empty seats in September… which I’m sure will be much different that playing to empty seats in October.

NL Central
1. St. Louis Cardinals
I promise, you don’t have to be the 101st person to tell me that Albert Pujols didn’t resign with the Cardinals. I know that. But they won a World Series last year after their projected number one starter didn’t throw a pitch all season! Carlos Beltran will help to offset in at least a small way the production of Pujols, and Lance Berkman can move to a more natural (and effective) position of first base. If David Freese can just be a solid everyday player, the Cardinals will have more than enough with Adam Wainwright’s return to the rotation to make up for the loss of the greatest player in the game and win a suddenly weak division.

2. Cincinnati Reds
I waffled between picking this team or the Cardinals first, but the loss of closer Ryan Madson for the year to Tommy John sealed the deal. In a tiny ballpark like Great American, closers that don’t give up homeruns are crucial, and the Reds had one and lost it. Because of that, they will almost surely struggle to finish games, and will probably be a couple blown leads away from watching the wild card playoff game as opposed to playing in it. They also need a solid season from Jay Bruce, who too often has disappeared for lengthy stretches and left Joey Votto as the only real power threat in the lineup. There are some nice pieces here, especially with Mat Latos at the top of the rotation, but also too many holes to think they’re winning the division.

3. Milwaukee Brewers
Say it with me Brewers fans – Aramis Ramirez is not Prince Fielder. Aramis Ramirez is not Prince Fielder. I feel the need to write that only because, for some odd reason, Brewers fans seem to think their team is suddenly being disrespected nationally by being consistently picked third. There is not a single left-handed bat on the team that scares even an average right-handed pitcher, and Ryan Braun, steroids or not, will probably never see a fastball with first base open this entire season. The pitching is good, and they could surely make a playoff run behind those arms, but it just isn’t practical to think their odds outweigh the Cardinals and Reds.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
The time is now for Pittsburgh to make a move. Pujols and Fielder are gone, the Reds lost Madson, Theo Epstein hasn’t had too much of an impact in Chicago, and they still get 15 games against the Astros. It’s all shaping up to be a perfect storm for the Pirates to actually snap the longest streak of losing seasons in professional sports history. Once A.J. Burnett is back, one could make the argument that they are as talented on paper as any other team between Philly and Phoenix. And even with all of that said, I’m still taking them fourth. After all, they are still the Pittsburgh Pirates.

5. Chicago Cubs
There really isn’t a whole lot to talk about on the field for the Cubs. All of the big moves this offseason came off the field with Epstein leaving Boston for the Windy City. The signings of John Lackey and Carl Crawford notwithstanding, this is arguably the brightest baseball mind of his generation, and Cubs fans will be doing backflips in the streets during the 2016 (or 2017, or 2018) World Series parade. But since Alfonso Soriano is still under contract with the Cubs, Theo doesn’t have a whole lot of flexibility right now. Expect the front office to use this season as an evaluation period for the entire organization, and then institute some sweeping changes next November. After all, it’s not like the Cubs are a “win-now” franchise.

6. Houston Astros
Boy, the American League is really getting a marquee franchise in 2013. One of the original NL expansion franchises (1962 as the Colt 45’s, along with the Mets), Houston will play its final season in the senior circuit before joining the DH-league next year. A feisty team with a lot of young and fairly talented players, the Astros are in a tough spot for evaluating that talent, as it will be done largely against teams that will no longer compete with Houston for a playoff spot in future seasons. It’s a no-win situation for Houston fans this year, as another long summer of bad baseball sits on the horizon for the once-proud franchise.

NL West
1. San Francisco Giants
I picked this team first last year on the heels of their first-ever title in San Fran, not knowing that Jonathan Sanchez would fall apart and Buster Posey would miss more than half the season. But with a newly-signed Matt Cain ready to leave the distractions behind, the Giants can now feel very confident in a rotation that also features Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Barry Zito… oh, yeah, and that Tim Linsecum guy. If I’m picking the Phillies to win the East on the backs of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, it would be hypocritical not to do the same with this offensively-challenged team in the West.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
From August 1 to the end of the year, the team with the best record in the entire National League was the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now that their sale has been finalized and they managed to hold on to two of the ten best players in the game through the entire process, LA fans have to feel at least a little swell of confidence as they enter the season with Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, and a new stream of cash to fund any future additions to the club. If Andre Ethier and James Loney can even provide the slightest protection to Kemp in the lineup, this team can hang around long enough to make a move or two and challenge for a playoff spot. That’s not something I would have even dreamed of writing just two weeks ago.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks
Back in 2007, Arizona stunned everyone with a “Baby Backs” team that won the division and knocked out Chicago in the wild card round before falling to the Rockies in the NLCS and then disappearing to the cellar of the NL West for three seasons. I see a similar fate befalling this group, who got an unbelievable season from Ian Kennedy last year and rode a group of young, talented nobodies to the division crown. They won’t crash as far, since no team here is ready to lay claim to the throne like the ’08 and ’09 Manny-led Dodgers were, but they’ll still struggle enough to appreciate just how difficult it is to make the postseason in the major leagues.

4. Colorado Rockies
I absolutely love the duo of Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, but there simply isn’t enough else here – especially in the rotation – to believe that the Rockies can legitimately challenge the three teams above for a postseason berth. If Jeremy Guthrie is your opening day starter and Jamie Moyer – yes, the 49-year-old Jamie Moyer – figures to play even a somewhat prominent role in your team’s season, then you are not a contender. But at least Todd Helton will probably feel like he still has at least another 7 or 8 years left in him hanging around Moyer in the clubhouse.

5. San Diego Padres
The Padres have an absolutely wonderful ballpark. Back in 2007, I traveled cross country for six weeks to visit all 30 major league stadiums, and my favorite experience, without a doubt, came in San Diego, where PETCO Park was simply tremendous. From the mini field out beyond the center field wall to the perfect weather and scenery to the inclusion of the old brick warehouse as part of the structure along the left field line and wall, the venue was the quintessential baseball stadium to which all others – yes, that includes Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and at the time old Yankee Stadium – pale in comparison. Oh, and in 2012, they’re going to play baseball there 81 times, so get your friends together and go see the stadium. It’ll be much more fulfilling to think of it that way than to think of it as going to see the Padres.

Playoff Predictions
Wild Card – Washington over Cincinnati
Divisional Round – San Francisco over Washington, St. Louis over Philadelphia
Championship Series – San Francisco over St. Louis

Coming tomorrow… AL preview and World Series prediction

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