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Baseball is back and "The Stack" is here with the 2012 MLB preview.  Yes, regular season games are already in the books with the Mariners and A's splitting a two game series in Tokyo and St. Louis crashing the Miami Marlins new homecoming party, but today is the day when most every other team begins the season.  And what a season it should be.  New faces in new places.  Let's take a look at some of the bigger ones:

Prince Fielder

Old team: Milwaukee Brewers                       New team: Detroit Tigers

Albert Pujols 

Old team: St. Louis Cardinals                        New team: Anaheim Angels

Jose Reyes

Old team: New York Mets                              New team: Miami Marlins

C.J. Wilson

Old team: Texas Rangers                              New team: Anaheim Angels

Mark Buerhle

Old team: Chicago White Sox                        New team: Miami Marlins

Theo Eptsein

Old team: Boston Red Sox                             New team: Chicago Cubs

 

There are of course many new faces in many other places.  These are a few of the more notable ones.  Now let's get to it and pick some division winners and make a World Series prediction for the 2012 MLB season in "the stack" for today, Thursday, April 5:

American League

East

The best teams are in the AL East.  It's the most competitive division in baseball.  Three legitimate playoff teams with maybe another one sneaking up there right behind them in the Toronto Blue Jays.  I mean, they did have the best record in baseball during spring training.  What were they like 25-5?  Success in spring training though doesn't necessarily translate to regular season success, but the Blue Jays surprised a lot of people last year and poised for an even bigger breakthrough season this year led by slugger Jose Bautista.  After last year, he's proved that he's just not a one year wonder when it comes to slugging one deep into the seats.  

The Boston Red Sox suffered a bit of turmoil this offseason losing their general manager Theo Eptsein to the north side of Chicago and the Cubs while also firing Terry Francona and getting former New York Mets manager and ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine to take over.  Speaking with a Red Sox fan, he's not particularly happy with Valentine in there.  Thinks the focus is going to be more about him and not the team which may rub some people the wrong way.  Then the bad news came yesterday that closer Andrew Bailey will be out until the all-star break after having surgery to repair a broken thumb.  The organization was hoping he would fill in nicely after letting Jonathan Papelbon leave town.  Big early season injury.

The New York Yankees are the New York Yankees.  And they welcome back an old friend as Andy Pettite to the pitching staff.  He says he feels good, but how many innings he'll be able to hold up is the big question.  Maybe the bullpen will be a good spot.  Joba Chamberlain returns after missing all of last year with an injury.  He'll be counted on, along with C.C. Sabathia to carry a ptiching staff that was a little suspect last year and may very well be again this year.  No one questions the Yankees offense though with Alex Rodriguez and they have a friendly stadium to hit homeruns in.  We'll have a stat on the Yankees here a little later on on why you may as well pencil them in as World Series champions.

The Tampa Bay Rays may have the best pitching staff in the division led by David Price.  On offense Evan Longoria is one of the best players in the game.  And manager Joe Maddon will keep the clubhouse light and in good spirits even in the bad stretches of the season.  He's a very good manager.  Look out for the Rays.

The Baltimore Orioles have to wonder why they are in this division with three of the top teams in baseball and a sleeper team in Toronto.  It never feels like they make progress.  Expect another long year in Baltimore.

AL East predicted standings

1. Tampa Bay

**2. New York

3. Boston

4. Toronto

5. Baltimore

**Indicates wild card

I will not be surprised if the Blue Jays are higher.  They have a very solid team.  Boston I fear may struggle this year.  And New York's pitching staff is a concern which makes me question why I'm not putting Toronto higher.  This will be a very close race I feel all the way to the end of the season.

 Central

Really, it all begins and ends with the Detroit Tigers.  Barring an unforseen collapse, the Tigers will win the Central pretty easily.  They have Fielder.  They have Miguel Cabrera.  Those are two really big bats.  Then you have AL Cy Young and MVP award winner Justin Verlander throwing heat and it's game over.  Surely Verlander can't repeat another dynamic season like he did last year can he?  The answer is a resounding no.  That would be one of the best run in sports we've ever seen from an individual.  There's just no way Verlander can do it again.  But if he pitches like the ace he is, he'll have another very good season.

The rest of the AL Central, what else is there to talk about?  The Cleveland Indians started off hot last year, but tailed off.  They do have Ubaldo Jimenez, but moving from the NL to the AL can be a struggle for pitchers.  Still the Indians may hang around this race for a while.

The team that is on the rise the most I feel in the central is the Kansas City Royals.  I love what this team has done to bring in young talent through the draft and trades.  Now can it just translate to wins on no mid-season fire sales?  Hello Alex Gordon.  Hello Eric Hosmer.  Hosmer is the most exciting, because of the flashes he showed last year.  If the Royals can just get some consistent contribution from their starting pitching staff, they will get third if not second and maybe make the Tigers sweat a little bit.

The Chicago White Sox, do they really know what they're doing?  I don't think so.  They dump some big salary only to add some more and there doesn't seem to be a real vision to their ways.  They do perhaps get rid of a distraction in manager Ozzie Guillen who left for Miami, but this is still a team looking to find its way.  They have some talent in place to make a run and be decent, but I just don't see it.

Finally the Minnesota Twins.  Injuries hurt this team last year which at times looked like a triple-A squad.  Gone are the likes of Michael Cuddyer (Colorado) and Jason Kubel (Arizona).   That's a lot of offense that's left.  Unless Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau can get back to yester year when they were two of the best offensive talents in the game, the Twins may be sunk this year.  Add to it a very suspect bullpen that lost Joe Nathan (the loss I'm most sad about) and an inconsistent starting lineup and the Twins may not even win 70 games this year.  Then again, when everyone expects them to fail, the Twins surprise.

AL Central predicted standings

1. Detroit

2. Chicago

3. Kansas City

4. Cleveland

5. Minnesota

 

West

Finally we head to the west where this will be the last year the division has only four teams thanks to Houston joining them in 2013.  Yeah!!  Back to business now.  It's a two horse race, Anaheim and Texas.  Anaheim has the two big acquisitions in Pujols and Wilson.  The Rangers did add pitcher Yu Darvish who has many people talking.  But how will his success in Japan translate to the major leagues?  I think he'll be just fine.  I don't see Daisuke Matsuzaka in him.  

But Anaheim, given what they went through last year and the way that pitching staff performed with Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver, adding Wilson makes them that much more dangerous and Pujols has the purest swing in the game.  What an addition these two will be for the Angels.  Of course everyone will praise manager Mike Scioscia for the job he does with the team this year that should win at least one hundred games.  Too much credit if you ask me.  He always does.  This is the Angels division to lose and I don't think they will though Texas is a very talented team that will make this a dog fight til the end of the season.

Seattle and Oakland?  They're nice stories, but they can't compete with either of these two teams.  Next...

AL West predicted standings

1. Anaheim

**2. Texas

3. Seattle

4. Oakland

**wild card

 National League

East

Just like the AL East, I could see one of three or four teams win.  The most intriguing is the Miami Marlins given the total franchise transformation they've undergone since the end of last season.  Sure the floundered last night against the defending World Series champions as the christened their new building, but that is to be a little expected.  Still with the new ballpark (beautfiul by the way, love the unique features around areas of the park), new uniforms, new name, new logo and a new commitment to winning as evidenced by signing Reyes, Buerhle, Heath Bell and others, the Marlins will make a push for the division title.  And hopefully bring in more than ten thousand fans per game.  This is a team a lot of people have high hopes on and while that sounds good and everything, I think expectations for this team are exceeding what they can and will actually achieve.  World Series people?  Come on man!  Not this year.

The Philadelphia Phillies are once again loaded in the starting rotation with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.  Think about if Hamels goes down.  While that is a big injury, the Phillies will just say, oh well at least we have Halladay and Lee as a one-two punch.  That's pretty salty.  The trick for them is whether the offense can stay healthy.  How will Ryan Howard respond from the Achilles injury he suffered in the playoffs?  The Phillies are aging on offense which is not a good thing.  Still, this team does have the potential to score runs in bunches and with that pitching staff, you may not need a ton of runs to win games.

The Atlanta Braves, much like Boston Red Sox, want to redeem themselves after falling apart down the stretch and missing out on the playoffs.  Had the Braves not completely melted down, the Cardinals would have never gotten in and won the World Series.  Yet that is what the Braves have to live with.  While making no major offseason acquisitions, the Braves still have a good team led by pitcher Jair Jurrgens, outfielder Jason Heyward and company.  Chipper Jones is making his farewell tour and wouldn't it be nice to see the Braves back in the postseason, especially for Chipper's sake?

The Washington Nationals are a very interesting team.  Pitcher Steven Strasburg should be back to full strength and ready to go.  He was dynamite in his rookie season before having to undergo Tommy John Surgery and not doing anything last year.  There is a lot of excitement around the club, but Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth aren't going to be enough to get the Nationals to thie top this season.  Next year maybe.  They will hang around though this season for a while and make the NL East very interesting.

The Mets are a joke.  They're a mess.  Last place is reserved for them. Don't care if the Bernie Madoff case is over.  This team is still not very good.  Not even David Wright and Johan Santana will be able to save them.

Predicted NL East standings

1. Philadelphia Phillies

**2. Atlanta Braves

**3. Miami Marlins

4. Washington Nationals

5. New York Mets

**Wild card team

Again, I could really see the Marlins or Nationals win the division or make the playoffs.  That's how fluid the NL East is.  There's that many good teams.  Two teams should make it and it is going to be fun to see just how everything unfolds.  This race will be among the better races in the baseball this year.

Central

The World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals reside in this division, but losing the best player in the game hurts the team.  Yes they won last night, but do Cardinals fans really expect this year to be as good as this last year without Pujols?  I would hope not.  But at the same time, it's not as though there is any team that is head and shoulders better than the Cardinals.  The Brewers could have been had they not lost Prince Fielder and the whole Ryan Braun fiasco could be a lingering issue with this team at least to start out the season.  The most intriguing team in the division is the Cincinnati Reds.  They just signed all-star Joey Votto to a ten-year extension worth $225 million and they have other offensive pieces in place to make a run.  They're pitching staff is not bad and the central is weak enough where they could make a run.  I like the Reds a lot.  Watch out for them.  Yet at the same time, they always seem to disappoint.  And in a year where the division seems to be theirs for the taking, they may struggle with the expectations.

The Pittsburgh Pirates should take another step forward this year.  They made strides last year, but fell apart the last two months.  Still, if Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett can stay healthy and lead that starting rotation, the Pirates have the pieces in place to make the NL Central race interesting.  I would personally love to see this team come back and get at least above .500.  After so many years of futility, Pirates fans deserve something to cheer about and this team may give them reason to hope not just now, but into the future.

The Cubs made the big spash by landing front office man Theo Epstein, but could not land any big name players in free agency.  Maybe this is part of Theo's longterm plan, but as it pertains to this year, the Cubs won't be very good.  Speaking of not very good, the Houston Astros fit that bill.  This is the farewell tour for them before they move to the AL West.  And it won't be pretty.  Maybe better than last year's abysmal season, but still not good.

Predicted NL Central standings

1. Cincinnati

2. St. Louis

3. Milwaukee

4. Pittsburgh

5. Chicago Cubs

6. Houston

West

How will the NL WEest be won?  Most people thought it was going to be with pitching and indeed it was but not by the San Francisco Giants.  They had pitching, don't get me wronb, but their best went cold for long stretches of games, once catcher Buster Posey went down with leg injury that cause him to miss the rest of the season.  No, Arizona shocked everyone with their pitching and their offense in route to the division title.  Arizona?! Really?  Yup.  And the Diamondbacks are back for more.  They've added another bat in Jason Kubel, signing him away from the Minnesota Twins and adding to an already impressive team.  Most people probably wouldn't be able to name you more than three Diamondbacks on the team, but they do have talent.  Ian Kennedy and Joe Saunders lead the pitching staff.  Stephen Drew is a talented shortstop and we got to know first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.  This team is good enough to repeat as NL West champs.

The Giants will have something to say about that.  They have great pitching, we know that.  Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain form a dynamic one-two punch.  Their bullpen is good thanks to the beard of Brian Wilson.  The question with this team is can they hit?  Having Posey back in the lineup is huge for the success of this team, but someone else needs to step up.  What about the panda?  Pablo Sandoval has shown that he can do it and the Giants will need him again this year.  But outside of those two, who will step up and be consistent in the lineup?  Until another bat or two steps up, the Giants will fall into consistency issues and that may lead to another year at no division title.

The intriguing team is the Colorado Rockies.  They were supposed to contend last year, but were among the disappointments in baseball.  They have a star in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.  And they have one of the best stories in baseball in 49-year old Jamie Moyer working his way into the starting rotation as the second guy if I'm not mistaken.  That's what could spell doom with this team.  Moyer's good, don't get me wrong, but if he is being relied upon that much, what does that say about the rest of your pitching staff?  Maybe he is just that unbelievably good, I don't know.  That's what could slow down Colorado this year.

San Diego and Los Angeles, thanks for playing.  Don't have the talent to compete with the others.  The Dodgers have more talent with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw is among the league's best pitchers, but I don't think they'll be able to contend this year.  It will be nice not having the whole Frank McCourt cloud hanging over their heads this year.  Magic Johnson and the ownership group will do a lot with this team.  But next year is the year for that to happen.

NL West predicted standings

1. Arizona

2. San Francisco

3. Colorado

4. Los Angeles Dodgers

5. San Diego

 

So it's time now for the World Series prediction.  I'm switching it up from previous predictions and I'll take Anaheim against Atlanta in the world series, because I just think Atlanta will do something special this year and in the end, Albert Pujols will win his second straight World Series with two different teams.  I like Anaheim to win it all this year.

Thank-you for reading "The Stack's" 2012 MLB preview.  We are off on Friday, but will be back Monday with plenty of Masters reaction plus the other top headlines from the sports weekend.  We'll have an NHL playoff preview next week so stay tuned for that.  Until then, have a great Easter holiday.

Coming up Monday: Masters reaction plus other sports headlines from the weekend

Comments and suggestions on what to write about are always welcomed and appreciated.

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