Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 3

Predictions are a dime a dozen; for a wild and disparate collection of them, check ESPN’s roundup. Here are mine for the NL.

Miami
Philadelphia
Washington
Atlanta
New York

The NL East has had a clear marching order for the last several seasons, but all you really have to do to shake things up in baseball is wait for time to pass. In this instance, it’s time for the Marlins to combine some free-spending (on Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, and Jose Reyes) and renewed commitment to fans, in the form of a new ballpark. Whether new manager Ozzie Guillen helps build a Latino fan base or infuriates players and customers alike remains to be seen, but the team taking the field includes an almost ideal mix of rising stars and proven talent with a little bit more to prove. This is a buy low-sell high pick.

It is age that will unseat the Phillies. The rotation remains formidable, and I have no trouble imagining 20 wins from either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but they need some runs to drape the W’s on. With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard struggling with injuries that defy return timetables, the lineup has guys like mighty Ty Wigginton in for placeholder duty. The full season may allow an offense to gel, but age and decline haunt nearly every Philly hitter now.

What would Nat Fever look like? Please don’t describe it in detail, but it might include a lot of enthusiasm for a rotation that could be remarkable. Imagine Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and new acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson all having great seasons at the same time. It’s not only possible, but likely. There’s less to be enthusiastic about on the offense, and Bryce Harper can’t fix all that on his own, if he’s called up at all. But Washington goes above .500 for the first time in the curly W era.

The Braves can curse all they like about the massive missed opportunity that was 2011. They not only fell during that amazing day when the season ended in a wave of upsets, they may have used up their bullpen getting as far as they did. But even if Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters aren’t plagued by the results of overwork, the rotation may show some cracks, staring with Tim Hudson missing much of April from injury. Atlanta’s fate may turn on Jason Heyward’s ability to bounce back from a sad sophomore season and Chipper Jones’ ability to rally himself, and his mates, to a fine finale for his long career.

They’ve moved in the fences at Citi Field, but that is not going to keep the Mets from sinking to the bottom of the NL East. David Wright, Lucas Duda, and Ike Davis may pound along, but don’t expect Johan Santana to come back from a lost season.

Cincinnati
St Louis
Milwaukee
Pittsburgh
Chicago
Houston

In this division, it’s a matter of the last man standing, since every team took some hits in the offseason—mostly from AL plunderings. Cincinnati has the best returning squad, which may even have learned a few lessons about overconfidence from last year’s finish. Joey Votto and Brandon Philips lead the offensive charge, while new arrival Mat Latos may click along with Johnny Cueto to handle defense. The loss of Ryan Madson in the bullpen could have serious repercussions, but recent baseball history is littered with surprise closers stepping up. Aroldis Chapman could be the next one.

It’s safe to bet against World Series winners repeating unless they happen to live in the Bronx. The Cardinals still have some solid offense post-Albert, but there are serious stamina questions about the rotation. I always admired Mike Matheny as a catcher steering a game, but I’m afraid St Louis has given him an impossible managerial job, spent in a season-long contrast with Tony LaRussa’s success. It’ll be too bad if Matheny is a pawn in a little “don’t blame me”/”what did you expect” experiment by the Cards top management.

The Brewers still have too much talent for the loss of Prince Fielder to deflate the balloon entirely. All eyes will be on Ryan Braun, who may be asked to pee into a cup by the fans when he rounds third base. I think we can all see a stats falloff coming. But the pitching crew features five double-digit winners, two of whom—Zack Greinke and Yovanni Gallardo—could easily top 20 this year.

The Pirates flirtation with first place last season was always described as a freak accident, but look again. This is a young, exciting team that seems to need some coaching and some goals to convert its raw talent into wins. But there’s also a good case for regression—not only is “fluke” possibly the best explanation for 2011, the addition of Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett does not look like the solution to the rotation’s numerous holes. Bedard has been tried in a host of contexts and the luster is wearing off (though I retain stubborn optimism about him); Burnett is most probably the wrong kind of diva for this squad.

Chicago gets a break this year. Instead of crushing fans’ hopes by ladling out the dollars for a ill-fitting group of costly free agents, the teams gets to call it a rebuilding year while Theo Epstein attempts a second big magic trick. Let’s step aside, give them time, and settle for a Starlin Castro bobblehead day.

When a team loses 100 games, they do so at an average rate of 17 a month. The Astros are a team fully equipped to lose at just such a clip. The only curiosity about this team is how bad they can be in their final turn as a member of the National League.

Colorado
San Francisco
Arizona
Los Angeles
San Diego

Let’s just allow for the usual wackiness in advance, shall we? The Rockies always sneak up on us, and this time I want to be ready. They have a powerhouse in Troy Tulowitski, a potential lefty gem in Drew Pomeranz, and what could be a bounce-back year for Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, there’s an oversupply of creaky veterans, almost as if the GM thought a mentoring program for the triple A squad was key to victory. This pick assumes a few implosions for the other teams in the division, but I’m standing behind it.

It’s a little scary how precisely San Francisco conducted its experiment concerning the value of Buster Posey. Add him in as a rookie, World Series win. Subtract him with a nasty leg fracture, nuthin’. As awesome as the rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner may be, they didn’t get the job done without Posey. He’s added back into the mix this year, so we’ll now complete the next phase of Posey-testing.

Arizona might have seen the best season Ian Kennedy can produce in 2011, but the 21-game winner and the other worthies in the rotation will keep the Diamondbacks in the race. The problem? Counting on Justin Upton to be responsible for nearly all the offense.

Clayton Kershaw may be just the kind of pitcher to match his gorgeous 2011 (a sub-one WHIP, 21 wins, and a Cy Young). Then again, it’s a tall order. And he’ll need Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to contribute enough runs, which perhaps deserves 50-50 odds. Shaking off Frank McCourt’s ownership drama may alone be worth 10 wins. But the Dodgers have demonstrated a firm ability to resist seeing themselves as a cohesive team.

San Diego fans, brace yourselves for another season at the bottom of the standings. This time, you can lean back and watch Cameron Maybin grow.

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