- Keith Law, ESPN Insider
As usual, I've sketched out my win-loss predictions for all 30 teams and winners for the six major postseason awards. Usually, I find it's easy to pick a few teams I think will run away from their respective packs -- which isn't to say I've had any great success in doing so -- but this year feels more compressed than the typical season, especially in the two East divisions. It likely won't play out that way, of course, but I could make compelling arguments for four teams in the AL East to win their divisions, and at least three in the NL East to do the same. Awards predictions follow the division picks.
Here are the picks for 2012:
Aside from Baltimore -- not a 90-loss team in any other division but this one, and still featuring enough interesting players that you want to watch them -- the biggest gap between any two teams in this division is between the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox/Tampa Bay Rays, which isn't that big of a gap to begin with. I like the Blue Jays' depth, I think their rotation is a little underrated, I see plenty of bounceback candidates up and down that roster without many big regression candidates, and I think the front office is motivated to add talent during the season if they're close to a playoff spot. As for the top three clubs, even with Michael Pineda's spring struggles, the New York Yankees still line up as the best team top to bottom, and all the focus on Pineda has meant the addition of Hiroki Kuroda has flown under the radar. The Red Sox have the most questions and the least depth of the contenders here, and I'm also skeptical of Daniel Bard's ability to turn over AL lineups three times, especially those with a lot of left-handed hitters.
The Detroit Tigers seem to me to be the team most likely to run away with its division, even with a top-heavy roster that doesn't give them a lot of options if any major piece in the lineup or rotation should miss a significant chunk of time; there just isn't another club in the division that's close to them. The Kansas City Royals' run prevention should improve this year thanks to the best defense they've run out there in ages, and I think Eric Hosmer is primed for a big breakout season. The Cleveland Indians had a lot of things go right last year that won't repeat in 2012, but their falloff will be mitigated by improvements from two of Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, and Michael Brantley. The Minnesota Twins' performance this year largely hinges on the health of their two best players, which is a better question for the doctors (or Stephania Bell) than it is for me. The White Sox aren't a 95-loss team on paper right now, but I expect they'll look to move another veteran or two as the season goes on and things could get ugly on the South Side.
Bottom line: The top two teams here will make the playoffs, the bottom two won't. I like the top of the Los Angeles Angels' roster better than I like the Texas Rangers', but the Rangers have a lot more pitching depth to get through the season; the Angels have four MLB-worthy starters in their entire organization right now, and they need 120 or so starts from them. The Seattle Mariners have made some progress, and I think their offense will get out of the "worst of all time" discussion with a full season of Dustin Ackley, a healthy Justin Smoak, and the arrival of Jesus Montero, but there isn't much more help coming from the farm this year. The Oakland A's have Yoenis Cespedes and a lot of fun young arms, but they're back at the start of another three-year rebuilding cycle.
I see flawed baseball teams. The top three teams in this division all look like hollow contenders -- they have the right shell, but once you crack that open there's less inside than you expected to find. The Philadelphia Phillies have three aces in their rotation and far less offense than any roster they've run out there since their run of contention began. The Atlanta Braves have stars and depth in their rotation, one of the majors' best bullpens, and a few breakout/bounceback candidates in the lineup (Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward in particular), but several incurable holes in the lineup and a lot of risk after that 'pen was overworked last year. The Miami Marlins' attempts to buy a contender with public money might work, but the whole looks like less than the sum of its parts to me, due again to lack of depth and nothing ready to help from the farm this year. The Washington Nationals are a popular darkhorse, and in the NL Central I might buy it, but they need a lot of breaks to hang with the three teams ahead of them and aren't in a position to push Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmerman too hard in the second half. The New York Mets are the Orioles of the NL in one aspect -- their division makes them look worse than they actually are -- although I think they're two years from their next winning record.
I wouldn't trust Dusty Baker to manage a convenience store, but he's got a substantial amount of talent at his disposal this year, enough to win a weakened division where the Cincinnati Reds' two main rivals lost major offensive cogs this winter. I shaved three wins off the St. Louis Cardinals' total for the injury to Chris Carpenter and my expectation that Adam Wainwright's workload will be limited in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, but the front office there has done enough to survive the loss of Albert Pujols. The Milwaukee Brewers seem primed for a fall in offense and run prevention; would they consider moving any of their impending free agents --such as Zack Greinke -- at midseason, even with the reduced prices they'll get under the new collective bargaining agreement? That rule change plus the extra wild card spot creates some strong incentives for teams that should be selling to stay the course or even buy. The Astros won 56 games last year and are worse up and down the roster, even assuming they keep Wandy Rodriguez all year, with no immediate help coming from the farm; it's going to be an ugly summer in Houston, and I don't just mean the traffic and humidity.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are far from invincible, and they'll have to survive some self-inflicted wounds (Jason Kubel over Gerardo Parra, Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders over Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs), but I'll still take them over the San Francisco Giants and their own self-inflicted wounds (locking Brandon Belt in the dungeon). That San Francisco offense is going to be among the worst in baseball again, and the D-backs don't have a weakness that glaring but have the depth to make some midstream changes if need be.
AL MVP: Evan Longoria
I admit I mention Longoria in this space just about every year, but here's a vote for him to finally stay healthy enough to show off all his skills in one season. He can field, get on base, and hit for power; last year's drop in batting average was fluky, and if that returns to at least his previous norm he'll be a top-three player in the league.
NL MVP: Justin Upton
Upton was pretty close to Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun for about two-thirds of the 2011 season, but couldn't quite keep pace and finished fourth in the NL MVP race last year. He's just 24 years old, though, and he's still getting better.
AL Cy Young: Yu Darvish
This is partly based on the potential for a narrative if Darvish dominates early and "leads" Texas to 90-plus wins, as if they were incapable of doing that without him the last two years. But I do think Darvish has all of the ingredients -- velocity, location, an out pitch (a hard slider), durability, feel -- to be among the top-five starters in the league, along with Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, and the underrated Dan Haren.
NL Cy Young: Cole Hamels
You can see the headlines now, right? Hamels wins the Cy Young Award in early November, and a week later signs a seven-year, $150-million deal with the Dodgers. He's the third man in the Phillies' rotation but I think he's poised to leapfrog Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee -- both also serious contenders for this award -- and establish a new level of performance for himself going forward.
AL Rookie of the Year: Yu Darvish
See above. Matt Moore would be a close second for me, with Jesus Montero third (as I fear Safeco will tamp down his unadjusted stat line). Mike Trout could win this if the Angels get him back to the big leagues early enough this year.
NL Rookie of the Year: Devin Mesoraco
Of course, when Mesoraco goes 1-for-14 in the first week and Dusty decides to bench him for a month, this pick won't look so hot, but the competition in the NL, at least among players who currently have major league jobs, is really thin, with Mesoraco's teammate Zack Cozart, former teammate Yonder Alonso (whose superficial numbers will be hurt by Petco), and whoever Atlanta names its starting shortstop the only other rookies with solid holds on jobs. This could just as easily go to a midseason callup like Trevor Bauer or Bryce Harper.
Keith Law takes his annual shot at picking all division records and player awards. There are definitely some surprises, including a rookie for the Cy Young Award.