March Madness: 30 teams in 30 days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Cleveland Indians

Team: Cleveland Indians

Manager: Manny Acta

2011 Record: 80-82

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Justin Masterson (4.9 WAR)

What happened last season: The Cleveland Indians were the biggest surprise team in baseball in the first half of last season. By the beginning of June, they had the best record in the majors. Unfortunately, they could not beat the dog days of summer as injuries piled on the Tribe, and a midseason trade for Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez could not help, as he went just 4-4 with a 5.10 in 12 starts in Cleveland.

The lone bright spots on the team in the second half were catcher Carlos Santana (25 home runs, 124 OPS+), Asdrubal Cabrera (25 home runs, 92 RBIs), closer Chris Perez (36 saves) and Justin Masterson (3.21 ERA in 216 IP. Masterson, of course, was a throw-in in a 2009 trade that brought switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez to the Boston Red Sox.

What they did in the offseason:  The Indians were quiet on the free agency and trade market during the winter, only making headlines with the “Fausto Carmona” false identity controversy and yet another injury to Grady Sizemore. The team also traded for Derek Lowe, who was absolutely horrible with the Braves last season, losing 17 games and having a 75 ERA+.

Projected starting lineup:

Catcher: Carlos Santana

First Base: Casey Kotchman

Second Base: Jason Kipnis

Third Base: Lonnie Chisenhall

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera

Left Field: Shelley Duncan

Center Field: Michael Brantley

Right Field: Shin-Soo Choo

Designated Hitter: Travis Hafner

Rotation:

RHP Ubaldo Jimenez

RHP Justin Masterson

RHP Derek Lowe

RHP Josh Tomlin

RHP Jon Garland

Closer: Chris Perez

Outlook for 2012:  The Indians this year look to be relatively the same average team they were last season. Without any notable improvements to the offense, rotation or bullpen, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that they could be legitimate contenders with the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. The biggest factors are the health of Travis Hafner and Sizemore, as well as to have Jimenez to return to his dominant form we saw in Denver.

Regular Season Prediction: 82-80, 4th in AL Central

March Madness: 30 teams in 30 days. 2012 MLB Season Preview- Cincinnati Reds

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Team: Cincinnati Reds

Manager: Dusty Baker

2011 Record: 79-83

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Joey Votto (6.9 WAR)

What happened last season: After being the surprise team of baseball by winning the NL Central in 2010, the Cincinnati Reds struggled in 2011, a 3rd place finish behind the Cardinals and Brewers. With injuries to Scott Rolen and struggles of leadoff man Drew Stubbs (205 strikeouts!), the offense stumbled from the best in the NL to the middle of the pack. The pitching staff was putrid, 12th in ERA in the NL. However, hope was shown with a shortened but strong breakout season from righty Johnny Cueto, a 169 ERA+ in 24 starts. Mike Leake also improved, going 12-9 with a 3.86 ERA.

What they did in the offseason: The Reds had one of the biggest off-seasons in the majors. In December, GM Walt Jocketty dealt prospect slugger Yonder Alonso to San Diego for righty Mat Latos, who looks to be an excellent counterpart to Cueto in the rotation. The Reds also revamped their rotation by trading for Cubs LOOGY Sean Marshall, whom lefties have a career .227/.300/.363/.663 line against, as well as signing former Phillies reliever Ryan Madson to be their closer. Madson saved 32 games for the 102 win Phillies last season and looks to continue that success.

Projected starting lineup:

Catcher: Ryan Hanigan

First Base: Joey Votto

Second Base: Brandon Phillips

Third Base: Scott Rolen

Shortstop: Zack Cozart

Left Field: Chris Heisey

Center Field: Drew Stubbs

Right Field: Jay Bruce

Rotation:

RHP Johnny Cueto

RHP Mat Latos

RHP Bronson Arroyo

RHP Homer Bailey

RHP Mike Leake

Closer: Ryan Madson

Outlook for 2012: With a reloaded pitching staff and what’s arguably the best lineup in the National League, the Cincinnati Reds look to return to their 2010 form and return to the postseason for a shot at the World Series. With the departure of Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, that pathway looks a lot easier for them. Look for them to be the favorites in the NL Central and be series contenders in 2012.

Regular Season Prediction: 94-68. NL Central Champions

March Madness- 30 teams in 30 days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Chicago White Sox

Team: Chicago White Sox

Manager: Robin Ventura

2011 Record: 79-83

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Alexei Ramirez (4.9 WAR)

What happened last season: The Chicago White Sox started off 2011 with great expectations, having been only a few games out of first at the end of 2010 and signing monster slugger Adam Dunn.  However, the team never got off and struggled for much of the year. Dunn was a colossal bust, batting just .159 and striking out 177 times in just 496 plate appearances. The offense, despite playing in bandbox U.S. Cellular Field, finished in the bottom half in most offensive categories. The pitching staff was also mediocre, finishing 8th in the AL in ERA but also finishing second in the majors in WAR.

What they did in the offseason: The White Sox lost a lot in the offseason, first letting manager Ozzie Guillen leave for Miami at the end of the season, replacing him with former Sox all-star Robin Ventura. Long time Sox ace Mark Buehrle would later join Guillen in Miami. All-star outfielder Carlos Quentin was dealt to San Diego for prospects.

Projected starting lineup:

Catcher: AJ Pierzynski

First Base: Paul Konerko

Second Base: Gordon Beckham

Third Base: Brent Morel

Shortstop: Alexei Ramirez

Left Field: Dayan Viciedo

Center Field: Alejandro De Aza

Right Field: Alex Rios

Designated Hitter: Adam Dunn

Rotation

LHP John Danks

RHP Gavin Floyd

RHP Jake Peavy

RHP Phil Humber

LHP Chris Sale

Closer: Matt Thornton

Outlook for 2012: The White Sox are a talented team, but how far can that take them? They have underachieved for the last two seasons, and they lost their ace and one of their best hitters. If Danks and Floyd pitch to what their talents may suggest, and Dunn finally snaps out of his funk, then the Sox could be a contender with the Tigers. However, they don’t look good enough right now.

Regular Season Prediction: 84-78. 2nd in AL Central

March Madness- 30 teams in 30 days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Chicago Cubs

Team: Chicago Cubs

Manager: Dale Sveum

2011 Record: 71-91

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Matt Garza (5.0 WAR)

What happened last season: The Chicago Cubs continued to wallow in mediocrity in 2011. They finished with the third worst record in the National League, mostly because their pitching staff finished with the third worst ERA in the National League. The offense also struggled, middle of the back in the NL in most categories. All of this added up to a 5th place finish in the NL Central, behind the Pittsburgh Pirates!

What they did in the offseason: The Cubs had a big offseason to start what looks to be a long and painful rebuilding process. The team first cleared house in management by firing long time GM Jim Hendry and first year manager Mike Quade. Replacing them are former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and Dale Sveum. But perhaps the most important move of the offseason was the ability to finally unload the cancer known as Carlos Zambrano onto the newlook Miami Marlins.

Projected starting lineup:

Catcher: Geovany Soto

First Base: Bryan LaHair

Second Base: Darwin Barney

Third Base: Ian Stewart

Shortstop: Starlin Castro

Left Field: Alfonso Soriano

Center Field: Marlon Byrd

Right Field: David DeJesus

Rotation:

RHP Matt Garza

RHP Ryan Dempster

LHP Travis Wood

RHP Randy Wells

LHP Paul Maholm

Closer: Carlos Marmol

Outlook for 2012: The Cubs look to continue to rebuild. It will be quite some time before they return to the team they were in 2003, 2007 and 2008. Epstein will keep trying to unload players, particularly Alfonso Soriano, who has three years left on his deal and Matt Garza, a free agent after next season. This is all in an effort to build towards eventually ending the Curse of the Billy Goat. Until then, the Cubs are not a very good baseball team at all.

Regular Season Prediction:  61-101. 5th in NL Central

March Madness- 30 teams in 30 days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Boston Red Sox

Team: Boston Red Sox

Manager: Bobby Valentine

2011 Record: 90-72

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Jacoby Ellsbury (9.4 WAR)

What happened last season: 2011 was supposed to be a historical season for the Boston Red Sox. Many believed that they not only had the talent to win it all, but also establish themselves as possibly the greatest team ever assemble in baseball history. Indeed, the offseason additions of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Carl Crawford created all the hype in Boston, and many felt they would easily run away from the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

After a horrid 2-10 start to the season, the Sox would grab the AL’s best record by the end of May, and led the AL East in front of the Yankees for much of the summer. The offense was the best in baseball. Adrian Gonzalez easily lived up to the hype, finishing with a .338 average and 117 RBIs. CF Jacoby Ellsbury had a big time breakout year, hitting 32 HRs, batting .321 and finishing with a .928 OPS and was the runner-up for American League MVP,

However, leaks were shown throughout the season. The pitching staff was too top heavy and had little depth, as John Lackey had the worst season in Red Sox history and Clay Buchholz was sidelined for much of the year by a back injury. A deadline deal for lefty Erik Bedard was for nought, as the pitching staff continued to struggle. This glaring weakness in the battle station would ultimately lead to their demise, as they famously blew the division and a nine game lead over the Rays for the wild card in a 7-20 disaster which many call the worst September collapse of all time.

What they did in the offseason: The Red Sox went under a complete overhaul in management. Manager Terry Francona was immediately let go and GM Theo Epstein resigned to take a similar job with the Chicago Cubs. Francona was replaced by former Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who quickly attracted attention by declaring his hatred for the New York Yankees. Epstein was replaced by former Dan Duquette protégé Ben Cherington.

The team itself made several minor moves to prepare for 2012. Former set-up man Daniel Bard was promoted to the rotation to replace the Tommy John-bound Lackey. After closer Jonathan Papelbon departed for Philadelphia, the Sox traded for former A’s closer Andrew Bailey, who has 75 saves and 206 ERA+ in a three-year major league career.

Projected starting lineup:

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

First Base: Adrian Gonzalez

Second Base: Dustin Pedroia

Third Base: Kevin Youkilis

Left Field: Carl Crawford

Center Field: Jacoby Ellsbury

Right Field: Cody Ross

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz

Rotation:

LHP Jon Lester

RHP Josh Beckett

RHP Clay Buchholz

RHP Daniel Bard

RHP Alfredo Aceves

Closer Andrew Bailey

Outlook for 2012: The Red Sox are undoubtedly a very talented team, one of the more talented teams in the majors. However, there are gaping holes at very important spots, and the rotation in not strong enough to be a serious World Series contender, especially if Buchholz is not healthy and Beckett reverts to the mediocre even year trend. They could easily win it all or miss the playoffs yet again. That’s how bipolar this team is.

Regular Season Prediction: 87-75. 4th in AL East

March Madness- 30 teams in 30 days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Baltimore Orioles

Team: Baltimore Orioles

Manager: Buck Showalter

2011 Record: 69-93

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Matt Wieters (5.0 WAR)

What happened last season: The Baltimore Orioles came right out of the gate at the beginning of the month of April, winning six of their first seven, including a series opening sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays. However, after facing the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees, they immediately came back to earth and became the same old Orioles, finishing 69-93, last in the East and third worst record in the AL.

The offense did manage to improve a lot in 2011, especially All-stars Matt Wieters, Adam Jones. However, the new additions to the left side of the in-field led the charge, as all-or-nothing slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds contributed thirty-seven home runs and eighty-six runs batted in. Shortstop J.J. Hardy had thirty and eighty, respectively. The dreadful pitching staff is what led to the Orioles demise, despite boasting several young talents like Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, and Brian Matusz.

The ultimate highlight of the Orioles’ season would come on that fateful final day, facing off against the train-wreck Boston Red Sox. After a long rain delay, the O’s staged a ninth inning comeback against closer Jonathan Papelbon, stunning the Sox and ending their season a few minutes later when Rays third baseman Evan Longoria walked off to clinch the wild card.

What they did in the offseason: The Orioles were indeed active during the offseason. The team let team president Andy MacPhail go and replaced him with former Red Sox Dan Duquette as head of baseball operations. The team also unveiled new uniforms, reintroducing the famous cartoon bird on the cap logo. They also went international in the free agent market, signing lefties Wei-Yin Chen of Taiwan and Tsuyoshi Wada of Japan, both of whom are expected to be apart of the starting rotation in 2012.

Projected starting lineup and rotation:

Lineup:

Catcher: Matt Wieters

First Base: Chris Davis

Second Base: Brian Roberts

Third Base: Mark Reynolds

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy

Left Field: Nolan Reimold

Center Field: Adam Jones

Right Field: Nick Markakis

Designated Hitter: Wilson Betemit

Rotation:

LHP Brian Matusz (when healthy

LHP Zach Britton

RHP Jake Arrieta

RHP Jason Hammel

LHP Wei-Yin Chen

Closer Jim Johnson

Oulook for 2012: The Baltimore Orioles are a young and talented team that would be very competitive in other divisions. Unfortunately, they play in the brutal American League East and they are much too inexperienced to beat the Yankees, the Rays, Blue Jays, or Red Sox. Expect improvements for the O’s, but right now it won’t be enough to run with the big dogs. Give them another year to continue to grow and they will eventually thrive.

Regular Season Prediction: 73-89, 5th in AL East

March Madness- 30 teams in 30 Days. 2012 MLB Season Preview: Atlanta Braves

Continuing the series with:

Team: Atlanta Braves

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez

2011 Record: 89-73

Playoff Result: No playoffs

Top Player: Brian McCann (4.2 WAR)

What happened last season: Overshadowed by the media hoopla surrounding the collapse of the Boston Red Sox was how the Atlanta Braves fell apart at the end of the 2011 season. The Braves were not as hyped up as much as the Red Sox had been during the year, but they were considered one of the elite teams in the majors.  All season, they were forced to chase the Philadelphia Phillies for the NL East division crown.

The Braves, like the Phillies, boasted one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball.  The overall staff finished fourth in the National League in ERA, but the true strength lied in the bullpen. Led by NL Rookie of the Year closer Craig Kimbrel (2.10 ERA, 46 saves, 181 ERA+, 14.8 K/9) and assassin lefties Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, the Braves easily finished with the best reliever ERA in baseball. But more importantly, they established a deadly 1-2-3 punch that on most nights shortened the game to six innings.

The Braves rode the success of these reliever as well as a solid rotation filled with veterans (Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe) and youth (Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor) and entered the month of September at 80-55 and had an 8.5 game lead in the wild card chase with division title hopes still alive.

What went wrong? The Braves simply stopped hitting. The team had already been victims of inconsistency and health, particularly the important pieces of the lineup, Jason Heyward, Dan Uggla, Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, and Brian McCann. A deadline deal for Astros CF Michael Bourn could not stop the bleeding, as the team would hit a horrid .235/.300/.357/.657 line during a month in which they would go 9-18, including a season ending five game losing streak. The collapse eliminated the Braves and got the eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals into the postseason.

What they did in the offseason: Unlike the previous offseason when second baseman Dan Uggla was acquired from the Marlins and Fredi Gonzalez replaced Bobby Cox as the manager, the Braves were relatively quiet during the winter. They were finally able to unload the contract of Derek Lowe, who struggled during his three years in Atlanta. Another major move made was the return of the cream colored jerseys from their time in Milwaukee and the early days in Atlanta. The team also promoted shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and expect him to be the starter for 2012. He is the latest product of one of the best minor league systems in all of baseball.

Projected starting lineup and rotation:

Catcher: Brian McCann

First Base: Freddie Freeman

Second Base: Dan Uggla

Third Base: Chipper Jones

Shortstop: Tyler Pastornicky

Left Field: Martin Prado

Center Field: Michael Bourn

Right Field: Jason Heyward

Rotation:

RHP Tommy Hanson

RHP Tim Hudson (upon return)

RHP Jair Jurrjens

LHP Brandon Beachy

LHP Mike Minor

Closer: Craig Kimbrel

Outlook for 2012: Despite the disastrous ending to last season, the Atlanta Braves should continue to be one of the elite teams in the National League. They still boast a loaded bullpen. Their rotation should continue to be a strength, although ace Tim Hudson will miss the first month of the season due to rehab following back surgery. The team is mixed with experienced veterans (Hudson, McCann, Jones) as well as a cast of rising stars (Heyward, Freeman, Beachy, Kimbrel) and this balance should lead to success in 2012.

Regular Season Predicition: 95-67, NL Wild Card