With the season about 2 weeks from opening, it's time for my annual predictions. I had some hits and misses last year (MLB Prediction 2011) if you want to check the track record. Fair to say, my guess is as good as yours. I do live and breathe baseball however so consider these predictions to be based on well informed guesses at the very least. Bold = division winner, italics = wildcard.
AL West: Rangers, Angels, Mariners, A's
AL Central: Tigers, White Sox, Twins, Royals, Indians
AL East: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles
NL West: Giants, Dbacks, Dodgers, Rockies, Padres
NL Central: Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates, Cubs, Astros
NL East: Braves, Marlins, Phillies, Nationals, Mets
AL MVP: Prince Fielder, DET
NL MVP: Joey Votto, CIN
AL Cy Young: David Price, TB
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, SF
AL ROY: Yu Darvish, TEX
NL ROY: Trevor Bauer, AZ
ALDS: Tigers vs Rays, Yankees vs Rangers
NLDS: Giants vs Marlins, Brewers vs Braves
ALCS: Tigers vs Yankees
NLCS: Giants vs Brewers
World Series: Giants vs Yankees
A look at the AL West: Like last year, it's going to be the Rangers and the Angels. The A's traded away all their pitching and while they'll be interesting due to Manny and Cespedes they're not going to contend. The Mariners are still trying to figure it out. The Angels have their shiny new toy in Pujols and depth in their starting rotation due to signing CJ Wilson away from their rival Rangers. Unfortunately for them, the Rangers replaced Wilson with Japanese sensation Yu Darvish who might not only replace Wilson's production but surpass it. The last wildcard spot will be a dogfight between the Red Sox and Angels but the Angels will snag it.
A look at the AL Central: I have the Tigers as being the AL's best team in 2012. They should easily win the unimpressive AL Central. They shouldn't have much competition. The Twins always manage to put together competitive seasons out of nowhere but I don't see them having the pitching depth this year. The White Sox are caught between rebuilding and winning but don't seem like a true threat. The Royals are going to be really entertaining but again, just don't have the pitching. The Indians will be improved and could be a sleeper but I think it'll be a lost year for the Tribe in a division Detroit will feast on.
A look at the AL East: Baseball's toughest division will house three of the league's best teams with the Blue Jays getting close to being legit AL East contenders. The new wildcard format was supposed to help teams like the Blue Jays make the playoffs but I don't think they have all the parts quite yet but they will soon. I've had the Yankees missing the playoffs in my predictions season after season mostly because I was unimpressed with their pitching. Not this year. The Yankees surrounded CC Sabathia with Michael Pineda, Hiroki Kuroda, and unretired Yankee legend Andy Pettitte. And in case one or more of those guys don't pan out, they have Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Freddy Garcia as well. They have a strong line-up and above average pitching. The Yankees should win the division and finally figure out a way to beat the Rangers in October this season. The Rays pitching is better than the Red Sox which is why I see them finishing ahead of Boston, winning a wildcard slot, and keeping the Red Sox out of the playoffs for the 2nd straight year.
A look at the NL West: The Giants return a healthy Buster Posey, arguably the league's strongest rotation, and a strong bullpen. If Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera can be improvements over what the Giants had last year their offense should give the pitching staff enough runs to work with to give the Giants a chance to win the NL West and go deep in the playoffs. The Dbacks rotation is deep with the addition of Trevor Cahill and uber pitching prospects Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer waiting for slots in the rotation. Paul Goldschmidt could become one of the NL's best first basemen and the bullpen remains strong. Arizona has one of the most balanced teams in the NL but I see them missing the playoffs in 2012 by a sliver. Colorado and Los Angeles could finish above .500 but I don't see them challenging for a playoff spot. The Rockies may have a good line-up but their pitching is extremely questionable and while the Dodgers are returning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and runner-up MVP Matt Kemp and finished 2011 on a tear, they don't have enough surrounding Kershaw to be legit contenders. The Padres traded ace Mat Latos and will spend another year trying not to lose 90 games.
A look at the NL Central: I'm very intrigued with the Central as the top three teams all have obvious strengths and warts while the bottom 3 aren't true contenders at this point. The Brewers lost Prince Fielder but some of his production will be replaced by ex-Cub Aramis Ramirez who stays in the division and can almost always be banked on to hit 30 homers with a .300 average. That softens the blow of losing Fielder and the Brewers still have Greinke and Gallardo fronting their rotation. They seem to be the best bet to win the NL Central. The Reds and Cardinals will battle for 2nd place and the wildcard. The Cardinals lost Pujols and Chris Carpenter is injured. However, Wainwright is coming back and the Cards are going to try to replace some of Pujols's offense with Carlos Beltran. Can Lance Berkman continue his renaissance? Can David Freese carry over his October run into the regular season? The Cardinals have a lot of questions but I think with Wainwright and Jaime Garcia, a potential return of Chris Carpenter, and pitching prospect Shelby Miller in the wings, the Cards will win the wild card and have a chance to defend their title. The Reds, even with the Latos addition, will have trouble keeping up with the pitching and it'll cost them in the end. The loss of Ryan Madson compounds the issue. The Cubs, Pirates, and Astros aren't yet close to contention.
NL East: This one was my toughest call. It's hard not having the Phillies in October. Not with Halladay, Lee, and Hamels still in the rotation. But the truth is the Phillies are without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley until who knows when and those are two of their major offensive cogs. Yes, Rollins is still around after testing free agency and Hunter Pence will have a full season in Philly and Shane Victorino is in a contract year but without the big guys, it's hard to imagine the Phillies can win what will be a very tough division. The Marlins were the offseason darlings. They have a new stadium, they have shiny new free agents (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell), and they are going to be the stars of The Franchise this year. But like the Giants realized last year, The Franchise is a blessing and a curse. A distraction. If the Phillies were fully healthy, I'd have them winning maybe not just one of the wildcard spots, but likely the division crown. However, the Phillies are not healthy which will allow the Fish to sneak in as the wildcard behind a healthy Josh Johnson and a revamped line-up. That is, if Josh Johnson and Jose Reyes can stay healthy. Health will play a big part in who winds up with the NL East title as I could see any of the top four teams winning this division. The Braves have strong starting pitching, a superb bullpen, and a balanced line-up and should be the favorite. The Nationals are so very close. They have the pitching now with the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to surround Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. And the line-up seems only to be missing one more thumper. Could that thumper be Bryce Harper come say, midseason? It could. And if he comes up and pulls a Buster Posey, he could propel the Nats right into October. The Mets are a lost cause and could very well finish the season as the worst team in the National League.
Overall, it should be a fun and unpredictable 2012. There are a lot of good teams on paper this year. A lot of perennial bad teams are coming up (Royals, Nationals, Blue Jays) and with the new playoff format, there should be some great excitement in September and October like what we baseball fans were graced with last year. Only two weeks until we see how it all begins to play out! And like always, we'll check back in November and grade out these predictions.