Why Your Baseball Team Sucks, 2012 Edition

Spring training has arrived, and with it comes the barrage of features from your favorite beat writers about how good certain players look, how people coming off injury look 100%, how so-and-so looks to be in the best shape of his life, and how one of your younger players looks primed for a monster season.

If you’re an optimist, that’s all well and good. But frankly, 29 teams are going to fail this season, and 20 of them (or 22 of them, depending on whether or not Bud Selig can make up his mind) aren’t even going to get the chance to play in the postseason. So despite all the sunshine and rainbows that are shining upon your favorite team right now, something is inevitably going to go wrong for them at some point. So, amidst the barrage of “the ballclub looks great!” articles you’re sure to see in the coming weeks, including the ones where various Houston Astro players tell reporters that they feel as if they can contend if a few things break their way, I offer this pessimistic alternative: Why Your Baseball Team Sucks.

Granted, this is pretty much a collection of everything that could possibly go wrong, and these complete worst case scenarios will not happen for every team (plus, unexpected things will inevitably go right, too). But hey, it’s better to shatter illusions now, isn’t it?

If you remember this post from last year, expect something similar to that.

And so, without further ado, the second annual Why Your Baseball Team Sucks. Optimists are advised to read on at their own risk.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: So Arizona stormed in last year and pulled off the biggest surprise division win in the National League last year, aided largely by the fact that their closest rival chose not to field an offense for a large portion of their games. The bullpen is going to have to match its output again, which is a lot to ask. Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson are going to have to be fantastic again, because the fact of the matter is Joe Saunders is terrible. Will Aaron Hill remember how to play baseball? Will any of the guys who had surprisingly good seasons last year regress? The answer is probably. I mean, after all, if Chris Young was anything other than inconsistent, everything I know would be a lie.

ATLANTA BRAVES: The Braves should still be sending an edible arrangement a day to Fenway Park to thank the Red Sox for overshadowing the Braves’ epic collapse at the end of 2011. You might as well pencil in Chipper Jones for 50 days on the DL, and you’re going to have to hope that Dan Uggla remembers what made him a feared hitter with Florida, and you’re going to have to hope that Jason Heyward regains the swing that made him one of the top prospects in baseball. The Braves rotation is young, Jair Jurrjens has shown inconsistency, Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson have battled their health, and Fredi Gonzalez will probably run the bullpen into the ground by August (again). In a stronger NL East, the Braves might not even need an epic collapse to miss out on the postseason this year.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES: Well, you don’t need me to tell you that the Orioles are going nowhere fast, and the fact that they gave Wilson Betemit of all people two years guaranteed to play third base would seem to confirm that. Jeremy Guthrie is gone and the rotation is terrible unless Brian Matusz remembers how to pitch, Chris Tillman remembers why people once regarded him as a good prospect, and their Asian imports pitch decently. And hey, even if that all goes right, they might eclipse the 70 win mark. Prepare for another year of being the choice punching bag of American League East teams everywhere! Congratulations on accomplishing something.

BOSTON RED SOX: Oasis are one of my favorite bands, and they once did a song entitled “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” I’m fairly sure that certain people associated with the Red Sox are still so shellshocked, they still haven’t figured it out. The Red Sox, of course, are still a good team, but in the AL East, that’s not necessarily good enough in any given year – although a second wild card, if instituted, can only help them – as long as Bobby Valentine stops giving off the impression that he cares more about a play Derek Jeter made in 2001 than his spring camp, but that’s a whole other story.

Nevertheless, Boston can still roll out their two-headed monster at the front of the rotation – provided they’re not busy in the clubhouse flagging down the Popeyes delivery man – but after that, Clay Buchholz comes with injury concerns, Daniel Bard’s transition to the rotation may not be a smooth one, and Aaron Cook/Andrew Miller/Clayton Mortensen/Vicente Padilla/whoever else wins that fifth starter job simply isn’t very good. Daisuke Matsuzaka is far from a guarantee either. In the AL East, that lack of rotational depth is alarming to say the least. While they added Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon to the bullpen, they’re moving Bard out and haven’t done a whole lot else to fix up the middle relief – so if the starters fail, they might have a hard time bridging things to the 8th inning. The lineup isn’t as fearsome as it once seemed either and drops off after the fifth spot (or the fourth spot, if this turns out to be the year David Ortiz finally sucks). And get excited, because they still owe Carl Crawford $128 million. He should probably consider trying to earn that. Is Boston really any better than the team that failed to do what was expected of them last year? More importantly, will Bobby Valentine sneak around the dugout with a fake mustache?

But hey, they did ban alcohol in the clubhouse. Problem solved. This has been sarcasm.

CHICAGO CUBS: Yes, Theo Epstein has arrived, but the only way the Cubs could’ve contended this year would be if he’d have brought the core of his Red Sox team with him. The fact that they managed to pawn Carlos Zambrano off to an unsuspecting Ozzie Guillen might be the biggest victory they’ll have all year, unless they find an even dumber taker for Alfonso Soriano. The offense is a combination of reclamation projects, overpaid dead weight, and unproven youngsters, and the pitching staff isn’t a whole lot better in that regard. Quite frankly, the 2012 Cubs aren’t going to be very good. And Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar aren’t walking through that door. (Neither is Mark Prior. Too far?)

CHICAGO WHITE SOX: Ken Williams wakes up daily with a different organizational strategy. They traded Sergio Santos, under cheap club control through 2017, to Toronto for next to nothing, signifying that rebuilding was under way on the South Side – and then signed John Danks to a long-term contract, which pretty much indicated the White Sox have no idea what they’re doing. Paul Konerko remains the only true established hitter in their lineup – unless you’re counting on a grand resurgence for Adam Dunn, who, despite making $12 million to hit under .200, managed to be only the second worst contract on his team (thanks, Alex Rios!). The White Sox have little choice but to hope Dunn remembers how to make contact with pitched baseballs, and hope that A.J. Pierzynski, Brent Morel, and Gordon Beckham remember how to hit. Tall order. On the pitching side, Danks is back to anchor them, accompanied by Gavin Floyd, who everyone swears will finally figure it all out this year, in addition to pumpkin Phil Humber and Jake Peavy, who really promises he’s healthy this year! The bullpen is loaded with prospects, plus Matt Thornton, who was bad enough to have the closer role taken from him last year. Oh, and their farm system is brutal. These guys are in for a fun decade, and I look forward to Hawk Harrelson’s angry rants about a mediocre Sox team continuing for years to come.

CINCINNATI REDS: Remember that one time the Reds made the playoffs and then got no-hit? Hasn’t quite been the same since. That said, they have an impressive stabled of talented but flawed players. Drew Stubbs comes to mind – he might hit home runs, or he might strike out 200 times – as does Johnny Cueto, who is undoubtedly having nightmares about Dusty Baker ruining whatever’s left of his arm. Their marquee add was Mat Latos, who has a narrative surrounded him of a guy with composure issues, and many wondering why the Padres would deal a player of his caliber. Odd, but more importantly, he won’t be pitching in Petco anymore, either – instead, he’ll be joining one Bronson Arroyo, who managed to give up 46 home runs last year, an extraordinarily impressive feat in itself. Scott Rolen is old, Zack Cozart is unproven, and there’s a long way to go in terms of seeing how the bullpen shapes up. And they still employ Miguel Cairo, which should be an automatic red flag.

CLEVELAND INDIANS: The 2011 Indians won 30 of their first 45 games – then the real Indians showed up and they managed to finish below .500. The front office has responded by signing a bunch of guys to minor league contracts and hoping that Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner stay healthy and regain their prime form this year. Relatedly, I’m hoping that I win the lottery, but neither are exceedingly likely (and Sizemore’s already DL bound, so I guess we’re off to a fine start here). Offensively, the marquee addition to an offense that fell stagnant from June onward last year is Casey Kotchman. Feeling that they had an opening, they sold the farm to acquire Ubaldo Jimenez, who managed to pitch worse in Cleveland than he was doing in Colorado. The rest of the rotation is filled out by studs such as Derek Lowe, Kevin “I’m Not Pitching Out Of The Bullpen But Girls Still Love Me” Slowey, and Captain Regression Josh Tomlin. The bullpen, the true strength of the team last year, is talented, but their success was partly fueled by some luck on balls in play. Don’t be shocked if they regress some next year. The 2012 Indians will be far closer to the team whose wheels fell off as the weather warmed up last year than the team that charmed Cleveland by going 30-15 early in the season.

COLORADO ROCKIES: The Rockies have taken the curious approach of loading their rotation with fly ball pitchers despite the fact that they play in Denver at Coors Field. I don’t care how many humidors you own, this is not going to end well. One of them, of course, is Civil War veteran Jamie Moyer. I know he might not make the team, but how can I possibly be expected to write this article without mentioning it? Anyway, the Rockies “ace” now is, I suppose, Jeremy Guthrie, or maybe it’s Jhoulys Chacin, but the moral of the story is that Colorado is a bit lacking in the pitching department. The lineup is a tad better, but if I’m a Rockies pitcher right now, I’m on my knees praying to the God of Humidors and hoping it will bail me out this season. Because if I’m a Rockies pitcher, I’m probably not terribly good. Don’t worry, though, you’ll always have ROCKTOBER!

DETROIT TIGERS: If you are a fan of good defense, do not watch the Detroit Tigers play this year. With Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera manning the corners, ground ball pitchers such as Doug Fister and Rick Porcello could have a lot of headaches this year (and Delmon Young backing them up in left field doesn’t help much either). And admittedly, you have to wonder about a pitching staff that has some questions behind Justin Verlander. Jose Valverde will almost assuredly not replicate his miraculous 2011. There’s reason to believe Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta won’t replicate their 2011 seasons either. And their leadoff hitter, Austin Jackson, struck out 181 times last year – even more than Adam Dunn did (admittedly, Dunn got benched, but still, we’re just putting things in perspective here). Yes, the Tigers are favored in their division, but yes, this could also blow up hilariously on them. 2008 – never forget.

HOUSTON ASTROS: Hopeless for many, many, many reasons that you probably do not need me to outline. There is no need for me to pile on. Try again next year.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS: The Royals have a window in the AL Central, but for the moment, it’s jammed shut by the fact that no team relying on Luke Hochevar and Jonathan Sanchez is meant to succeed (nor is any team employing Yuniesky Betancourt in any role whatsoever). Jeff Francoeur may also fall into that category. The Royals are in for the same growing pains that always befall these sorts of teams, as guys like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Johnny Giavotella adjust to being full-time major leaguers. The aforementioned rotation, though, simply is not very good, and even if the Royals are good offensively, they’re going to give up their fair share of runs, even if Joakim Soria remembers how to pitch and Jonathan Broxton doesn’t physically self-destruct (the former is possible, the latter probably isn’t quite as possible). Hard to see an opening for the youngsters from Kansas City this year, and if I had to guess, I’d say the most important game Kauffman Stadium will be hosting this year is still going to be the All-Star Game and not any sort of September divisional battle – despite the fact that they have the incomparable Bruce Chen on their side.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIMIFORNIASTAN: What does $250 million in one offseason buy you? Still the second best team in the AL West! You can talk all you want about Albert Pujols, but he’s still surrounded by also-rans such as Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells (I assume the Blue Jays send the Angels front office a thank you card every day for taking the Wells contract off their hands). Though they have Pujols, the rest of the lineup really doesn’t come terribly close to matching that of Texas. The rotation is good, of course, but just how good depends upon how you feel about Ervin Santana and how you think they’ll handle the fifth spot. You can also make a case that their bullpen isn’t that great, depending on how you feel about Jordan Walden and Jason Isringhausen (really, Jason Isringhausen is still alive). Don’t let the monster acquisitions of Pujols and C.J. Wilson into thinking the Angels have passed anyone in the AL West. Playoff team? Maybe. But they still have their fair share of question marks. Good thing they traded Napoli to a division rival to clear space for Jeff Mathis.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS: If anyone associated with the Dodgers is reading this, congratulations on being able to pay your bills! Now that we’ve gotten the obligatory bankruptcy snark out of the way, the Dodgers decided to spend their money this winter on a bunch of 4th starters and middling position players. They could have had Prince Fielder; instead, they offer Mark Ellis, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano…if these names don’t excite you, man, I guess you just don’t have a pulse. The simple problem for the Dodgers is that, even in a relatively weak division, they simply do not bring a lot to the table aside from Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, and the occasional Andre Ethier sighting. They are a .500 team at best that is currently pretty much rudderless at the top. Vin Scully, you deserve better, my friend. We can only hope for another year of Emo Juan Uribe.

MIAMI MARLINS: Are the Marlins the NL Offseason Champions? They might be, but they’re still in for a long slog this year. Josh Johnson has health questions, Ricky Nolasco has never had the good season everyone is still expecting from him, Mark Buehrle is just getting older, Anibal Sanchez is…alright, and Carlos Zambrano is a living, breathing powder keg. Not difficult to see how that could go wrong. As for Heath Bell, his declining strikeout totals from last year could prove a bit disconcerting. The Marlins have improved their lineup with Jose Reyes, but he too brings a wealth of injury concerns with him. Will Hanley Ramirez let his simmering hatred of third base (hyperbole is fun) affect his offense? Will Logan Morrison ever shut up on Twitter long enough to become the major league hitter people thought he would be? Will anyone be able to spell Giancarlo Stanton right on a consistent basis? And more importantly, how long until Ozzie Guillen and Jeffrey Loria engage in a steel cagematch for total control of the team? It’s coming and you know it is. This is still a tough division to play in, and the Marlins, while exciting, are not clear favorites at all. And really, who among us doesn’t want to see Carlos Zambrano self destruct and dive into their weird fish tank backstop in a rage-fueled fit after he gets ejected by Bob Davidson or something like that? Popcorn, please.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS: Let’s start with the elephant in the room – or some might say the elephant that has left the room – Prince Fielder is gone. Ryan Braun’s suspension being overturned saves them from being in a really compromised position, and if you’re a wild conspiracy theorist, you might argue that Braun will stink this year now that he isn’t taking THE ROIDZ!!! I don’t subscribe to this point of view, but hey, might as well give a voice to the nutty people. Replacing Fielder by overpaying Aramis Ramirez and hoping that Mat Gamel will be a passable first baseman probably isn’t gonna do it, and Alex Gonzalez isn’t there for his bat. The rotation that completely fell apart in the postseason returns as well, and while I’d like to believe that Randy Wolf will pitch well forever, he won’t. The bullpen has a decent back end, but will they successfully get the ball there? Yet another team that has taken a step down from where they were last year. Don’t expect another cakewalk in the NL Central – they might not even be the division favorites.

MINNESOTA TWINS: The 2011 Minnesota Twins were the ultimate example of Murphy’s Law, and it’s hard to imagine things going quite as badly this year, but things might not be that much better for them. Until Justin Morneau, Denard Span, and Joe Mauer – who is well on his way to becoming a horrendously overpaid first baseman –  can prove that they can remain not only healthy but effective, it’s hard to envision the Twins competing in the AL Central. The rest of the lineup is better, but the offense remains lacking in depth, a problem that the onslaught of injuries exposed last year in a huge way. If players start dropping like flies again (a very unfortunate but real possibility for concussion victims Morneau and Span) things could get ugly again quickly. As far as the pitching staff goes, the rotation is anchored by such pitch-to-contact also-rans Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, and Jason Marquis, the enigmatic Francisco Liriano, and good-but-not-great Scott Baker. It’s not a playoff rotation, and once again, injuries could make the situation even worse. The bullpen, which was a huge problem last year, has barely been addressed this year, with Joe Nathan being allowed to walk and essentially being replaced by talented but perpetually injured Joel Zumaya, which turned out to be an ill-advised choice as perpetually injured Zumaya is already lost for the season again. Matt Capps was an absolute disaster area last year but has been handed the closer’s job this year. Other luminaries such as Anthony Swarzak and Alex Burnett probably shouldn’t be relied upon to get key outs. And – once again – it’s a bullpen that lacks depth. The Twins had so many problems last year that they’re forgiven for not being sure where to start, but the fact that the rotation and bullpen remain highly unfortified makes it hard to envision a contending Twins team in 2012, and I will be laughing every time that bullpen blows a lead. Because it will happen.

NEW YORK METS: It looks like the biggest addition to this year’s Mets (or, dare I say, Debts) is going to be Sandy Alderson’s Twitter account. Though they’ve touched up the bullpen, the rotation is full of question marks – including the injured Johan Santana – and moving in the fences isn’t going to be enough to salvage the lineup. I mean, can we get past the narrative that Andres Torres is good? The most exciting thing about the Mets this season will be which Jason Bay related total is higher – his home runs or his salary this year, in millions (16, by the way – he has 18 homers as a Met). Catch the fever.

NEW YORK YANKEES: It looked for a while like the Yankees were going to hold their noses and dive into the regular season with a rotation containing the likes of A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia again, but Brian Cashman is a ninja and went out and got Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda (and even managed to pawn Burnett off on an unsuspecting Pittsburgh Pirates organization – seriously, nobody should ever call for Cashman’s ouster…ever). All well and good, of course, but hey, with a slider-reliant youngster like Pineda who may have been helped some by Safeco Field in a decidedly not-heavily-offensive division, what could possibly go wrong? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Kuroda has a better 2012 than Pineda does.

As for the offense for the 2012 Offseason Champions, Derek Jeter is going to be 38. While he saw a bit of rejuvenation in last year’s second half, whether that holds remains to be seen (he also played below 140 games for the first time in his career, not counting his cup of coffee in 1995). Alex Rodriguez continues to decline and age, and injuries remain an issue with him as well. Nick Swisher’s batting average dropped back to career norms last year, Russell Martin frankly offered little offensively aside from some pop, and Mark Teixeira’s average took a nosedive (though whether that lasts is a valid question). Raul Ibanez at DH doesn’t solve much either. They’ve done a good job staying reasonably healthy the last few years, and they have the bats to cover for a minor injury here or there, but the older Yankee players (the A-Rods and Jeters of the world) can’t afford too many DL stints – there’s not a ton of depth involved. The Yankees are, of course, a talented team, but don’t act like things can’t go wrong (especially if they see Detroit in the postseason again! Seems to be a trend there…).

OAKLAND ATHLETICS: We can only hope the names on the back of Oakland’s uniforms are nice and clear and readable because nobody is going to know who any of these guys are. Gone is their entire 2011 rotation except for Brandon McCarthy, replaced by the likes of Bartolo Colon and a gaggle of prospects (Tom Milone, Brad Peacock, and Jarrod Parker) with the surgically repaired Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson waiting in the wings. The pitching staff was Oakland’s strength last year and there will be growing pains in 2012 – which doesn’t help the pathetically punchless offense, who saw their arguably best hitter in Josh Willingham take the money and run to the Twins, as well as their starting third baseman – no offensive powerhouse himself, Scott Sizemore – ruled out for the season due to injury. There’s no guarantee that Yoenis Cespedes will get it right away, and there’s even less of a guarantee that Manny Ramirez will be anything close to a useful major leaguer. Oh, and Brian Fuentes may well be back in the closing role. Just shut your eyes and wait for that shiny new stadium in San Jose, folks. It’s going to be a long, uncomfortable ride. In the meantime, perhaps we can film another Moneyball movie about how Billy Beane, greatest GM in the history of sports, traded Carlos Gonzalez for two months of Matt Holliday, or hope that you can peddle Manny away in July for prospects that will never amount to anything, or on days that he doesn’t pitch, have Bartolo Colon fill two of the empty seats in the Coliseum. I know, that was mean.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: Do you remember last year when the Philadelphia Phillies were, for all intents and purposes, awarded the National League pennant in March? Seven months later, they and their fans watched in horror as the St. Louis Cardinals, 12 games behind them in the regular season, celebrated their NLDS victory on the field at Citizens Bank Park as Ryan Howard sat helplessly on the ground near first base having just torn his Achilles. That, my friends, is the reason Why Your Team Sucks is relevant even for the heaviest of favorites.

The Phillies have their issues again this year. Howard’s health is in question, of course (and that 5 year, $125 million contract extension finally starts this year! What a fine investment that was), and so too is Chase Utley’s, who is now 33 years old and hit just .259 after returning from injury last year. The fact is, the only .300 hitter the Phillies can boast is Hunter Pence, who hit .324 after coming over from Houston last year. Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins appear to be on the wrong side of their career peak, and there is a very real chance they will start the likes of Laynce Nix in the outfield. The Phillies’ offense is getting older and their production is going down.

It’s good, then, that their pitching is as good as it is, as it may well keep them afloat. No questions asked about Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels (although they’re down from FOUR ACES!!!! to just THREE ACES!!!), and Vance Worley will probably regress some, but could still remain a solid contributor. Joe Blanton, meanwhile, barely pitched last year. The Phillies overpaid for Jonathan Papelbon to fortify their bullpen, and it will be a good bullpen (though I’m hesitant to say that – Dontrelle Willis is in it, for God’s sake). The Phillies are lucky they have great starting pitching – it will keep them near the top of an improved NL East – but I’d take last year’s Phillies over this year’s crew, and last year’s group didn’t win a playoff series. Do with that what you will. As the incomparable Kevin Kaduk from Big League Stew tweeted in November, “I’m not saying this is the beginning of the end for the Phillies, but I think I just heard the start of the piano coda from Layla.”

PITTSBURGH PIRATES: Do I have to? I don’t even need to do this. Their highest paid player is Clint Barmes. CLINT BARMES! There are AAA teams that have players who deserve to be higher paid than Clint Barmes. Look at your life, Neal Huntington, look at your choices. The fact that they miraculously contended into July last year still confounds me and I wouldn’t count on anything like that again.

SAN DIEGO PADRES: San Diego has a weak offense in a park that is capable of stifling good offense, so it’s pretty obvious that, once again, San Diego won’t be scoring a lot of runs this year. The Mat Latos trade leaves them without a real ace pitcher as they now stock their rotation with stalwarts such as Dustin Moseley and Clayton Richard, although the Petco Factor will probably get them by. The pitching staff is going to need to do a lot more than get by, however, if they want to contend and cover for the offense. Latos and Heath Bell are gone, effectively replaced with the not as good Edinson Volquez and Huston Street, plus they traded their best positional prospect in Anthony Rizzo for no real reason, so there’s no reason to believe the Padres aren’t going to suck again, further proving that 2010 was a definite fluke. The NL West really is pretty brutal sometimes.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: Over $130 million on the payroll and they still can’t buy an offense, even after trading their top pitching prospect for two months of Carlos Beltran (and then making next to no effort to retain Beltran on the open market) and essentially replacing Beltran with the living legend that is MELKY CABRERA!!! (look out, Willie Mays, there’s a new sheriff in town!). Aubrey Huff predictably tanked last year, and outside of Buster Posey and maybe Pablo Sandoval, there’s nothing to fear here, because we know that Bruce Bochy will ensure that Brandon Belt, superior to at least half the lineup, will spend plenty of time becoming acquainted with the bench while weird San Francisco fans bring plush giraffes to games to wave around in protest. Seriously, the Bay Area is even weirder than we give it credit for. The pitching is good, but don’t count on Ryan Vogelsong to be that good again – this is, after all, Ryan Vogelsong we’re talking about. Oh, and the shortstop is Brandon Crawford. Get ready to give up three runs and lose a lot, Giants – although you should be used to that by now. Oh, and stop talking about torture. You won a World Series, your ballpark is gorgeous, you have cute Panda hats, so please, you lose the right to complain for at least five years.

SEATTLE MARINERS: I have said before that Seattle Mariners games not pitched by Felix Hernandez would make for a rather decent method of torture, and that may well ring true again this year. As Seattle still tries to squeeze every drop of usefulness out of Chone Figgins (the next drop they get would be the first – made even funnier by the fact that they plan to use him as their leadoff man), they continue to search for offense anywhere. Ichiro appears to be on the decline, they still don’t have a premier hitter (at this point, it might be Jesus Montero). Plus, this is a team that might actually entrust a rotation spot to Kevin Millwood. Case closed.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: The Cardinals have apparently made it practice that they can squeak into the playoffs with what, on paper, looks like a mediocre team and proceed to win the World Series in most unlikely fashion. Of course, this year they’ll have to come up with a way to replace noted trader (sic) Albert Pujols (whom Cardinals fans continue to allege took the money and ran, despite the fact that if that were true, he’d be a Miami Marlin right now – but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good narrative), and the Cards seem content to do it with the ever-not-durable Carlos Beltran and hope for the best. Not exactly a winning strategy, but who am I to judge? The rotation hopes to get a boost from the return of the surgically repaired Adam Wainwright, and we’ll see what kind of shape he’s in, but the rotation isn’t exactly deep and Dave Duncan might not be around to turn Kyle Lohse into a passable pitcher again. The bullpen is still the same weird group as last year – though we’ll see how they’re managed – though don’t be surprised if they miss Octavio Dotel. Not as good a team as they were last year, especially due to the loss of the heart and soul of the team, Nick Punto. What, you thought I was gonna say Pujols?

TAMPA BAY RAYS: How many times can the Amazin’ Rays throw crap at the wall and have it stick? Who knows, but their bullpen is essentially the same. Last year it worked, this year it might not (the 2008 and 2009 Rays could tell you all about fickle bullpen performance being the difference between playoffs and third place), and adding the likes of Fernando Rodney to the mix isn’t going to make me feel any better about their chances of being excellent again. They also have arguably the weakest lineup of the three big AL East contenders (although they did last year too, and it didn’t seem to matter). If they don’t hit enough and the bullpen takes a step back, they’re going to have a hard time in the division no matter how good their highly-touted rotation turns out to be. The Rays are still swimming upstream against the rest of the AL East (hooray forced metaphors) and there are valid questions about whether they will hold up again in the division. Plus, Tropicana Field is still horrendously ugly, and as long as that remains true I will continue to mention it at this point every single year.

TEXAS RANGERS: Your AL Champs could be World Champs if Nelson Cruz played a better right field, but that notwithstanding, it’s quite the interesting group from Texas this year. Yes, the offense is great, but Mike Napoli will be hard-pressed to have a 2012 as good as his 2011. If the Rangers don’t get as far as they did last year, it’ll be because of the pitching – Neftali Feliz in the rotation is still an open question, Derek Holland still needs to be more consistent, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison are mid-rotation guys, and Yu Darvish has never thrown a pitch in the majors, good as he may be. The rotation is still in flux. And as good as Mike Adams is, surgically repaired Joe Nathan is approaching 40 in the bullpen and Koji Uehara was terrible in the postseason last year. The Rangers offense stacks up well against anyone. Whether the pitching staff does, especially in that ballpark and against the teams they’ll need to beat in the playoffs, remains very much in question.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS: The Blue Jays are just in the wrong division for this stuff. Jose Bautista is good, but we’re still waiting on Colby Rasmus to make something out of himself. Eric Thames and Kelly Johnson don’t scare anyone, the back of their rotation is either young or injury prone, they lack depth, and they’re in the best division in baseball. But they’re really awesome at finishing fourth. I mean, they’ve cornered that market.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS: People seem really confident about these guys all of a sudden, so let’s see how I can go after them. Well, first, Jayson Werth’s got a long way to go before he starts earning that contract of doom. Second, Michael Morse might not repeat that season he had last year. Third, the rest of the lineup, Ryan Zimmerman and his gigantic new contract excepted, simply isn’t that great. The rotation is good to start with, but Stephen Strasburg is a fragile pitcher at this point, Jordan Zimmermann has been hurt before, Gio Gonzalez is pretty wild and doesn’t get to pitch in that cavernous trash place in Oakland anymore. Edwin Jackson is enigmatic as well. They were thin in the bullpen, so they brought in…Brad Lidge? Yeah, no. This is a tough division, and the Nationals simply are not there yet, so stop getting your hopes up and go back to worrying about Phillies fans invading your ballpark.

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