With 2011 drawing to a close, and 2012 about to begin, it's time for the 30 teams in Major League Baseball to make their New Year's resolutions. On Tuesday I made suggestions for the 14 American League teams. Today, I offer my suggestions for the 16 National League clubs...
The Philadelphia Phillies resolve to avoid becoming the Mariners. There's no real risk of that, of course, but the Phillies offense has been in decline over the last two seasons, will be another year older in 2012 and will be without Ryan Howard for at least the first month of the season due to the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered on the final play of the Division Series. Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz will all be 33 in the coming season. Placido Polanco will be 36. The one big bat they added this offseason, Jim Thome, is 41 and has played just four games in the field in the last six years and none in the last four, limiting him to part-time work in the non-DH league. The team's only regulars under 30 will be in the two outfield corners, where a full season from Hunter Pence (29) and larger contributions from Domonic Brown (24) and John Mayberry Jr. (28) will be essential to keeping the Phillies creaky attack upright.
The Atlanta Braves resolve not to remind anyone about 2011. So much attention was paid to the Red Sox's collapse and the Cardinals' surge in the wake of the 2011 regular season, that the Braves collapse, which didn't rank far behind Boston's on the list of the worst in regular season history, sort of got swept aside. The Braves had a nine-game lead in the NL Wild Card race on August 26, which put their chances of making the playoffs at 98.99 percent according to former Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport, and blew it, largely because of an offensive collapse that saw them score just 3.2 runs per game in September. The Red Sox collapse resulted in a firestorm of press and the departures of the team's manager and general manager. The Braves have been comparatively quiet. Their biggest move was jettisoning their worst pitcher from an overstuffed rotation, and they look as strong heading into the coming season as they did going into the last, if not stronger thanks to the deadline addition of center fielder Michael Bourn. If Jason Heyward and Martin Prado can bounce back from weak seasons, Dan Uggla can get his bat going earlier and Freddie Freeman can show some natural growth at the plate as a sophomore, the Braves, with Bourn in the leadoff spot, could have a much stronger lineup in 2012, and without Derek Lowe, their rotation could be better as well.
The Washington Nationals resolve to keep the Marlins in their rearview mirror. The Nationals finished eight and a half games ahead of the Marlins in 2011, and though the Marlins made three big additions via free agency, the Nationals are adding Stephen Strasburg, back from Tommy John surgery, and Gio Gonzalez to their rotation, and, at some point this season, the top prospect in all of baseball, teenage slugger Bryce Harper. Throw in a rebound from right fielder Jayson Werth in the second year of his big contract, second-year improvements from second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos, better health from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Adam LaRoche, and right-hander Chien-Ming Wang, and a full season of manager Davey Johnson at the helm, and the Nationals could well keep ahead of even the new-look Marlins.
The New York Mets resolve to make peace with their situation. The Phillies and Braves are good. The Nationals and Marlins are getting better fast, with the help of Davey Johnson and Jose Reyes, no less. The Mets are just ... the Mets. It's nice to have Sandy Alderson around, but fixing a team that is both broke and broken is no easy task. Don't be surprised to see the Mets sink to last place in 2012 for the first time since 2003. There's no point in getting upset about it. It is what it is. Just remember, Mets fans, the Mets went from worst to first in three years the last time they sunk to the NL East cellar.
The Miami Marlins resolve to swim with the big fish. Not mentioned in the Nationals comment above is that the Marlins were actually a game better than Washington in 2011 according to third-order wins, which judged the Fish to be roughly a 79-win team rather than a 72-win team. Add shortstop Jose Reyes, lefty starter Mark Buehrle, and closer Heath Bell to that team, factor in healthy seasons from Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, and further maturation from third-year outfielders Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, and there may be more to the hype in Miami than new uniforms and big spending, though my guess is that this team will go only as far as incumbents Johnson and Ramirez take it.
The Milwaukee Brewers resolve to make Ryan Braun's positive test a non-issue. Though the odds are against him, Braun may yet be absolved of the doping charges he currently faces. Yet, even if he is, if he fails to repeat his MVP performance of this past season, or the Brewers fail to return to the playoffs, even though Prince Fielder's inevitable departure will surely have played a large role, Braun's positive test will be identified as one of the reasons for the decline.
The St. Louis Cardinals resolve to make Albert Pujols' departure a non-issue. They're well on their way to doing that with Adam Wainwright coming back from Tommy John surgery and Carlos Beltran replacing Pujols in the lineup via Lance Berkman's move to first base, but anything short of a postseason berth will have Redbird fans rending their garments again over the lost of Prince Albert.
The Cincinnati Reds resolve to take advantage of the losses suffered by the Brewers and Cardinals. Trading their former ace and three top prospects to the Padres for potential ace Mat Latos made it quite clear that the Reds are viewing the 2012 season this way. The Cardinals have lost Pujols, one of the greatest players in major league history. The Brewers may lose their own slugging first baseman and could lose the defending NL MVP for 50 games as well. The Reds, meanwhile, have retained much of the team that won the NL Central in 2010, have added Latos, lefty set-up man Sean Marshall from the Cubs and have rookies Zach Cozart (.310/.357/.467 at Triple-A in 2011) and Devin Mesoraco (.289/.371/.484 at Triple-A this season) ready to contribute at shortstop and catcher, respectively.
The Pittsburgh Pirates resolve to lock up Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates 72 wins in 2011 were their most since 2004 and second-most since 1999 (tied with two other seasons). Still, 72 wins are just 72 wins. The Pirates are improving as an organization, but they're a long way from contending. Their chief selling points remain their ballpark and 25-year-old, five-tool center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who has one year left before he's eligible for arbitration. Signing McCutchen to an extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh into his early 30s should be a priority.
The Chicago Cubs resolve to give Jed and Theo a grace period. In Theo Epstein's first season as the general manager of the Red Sox, Boston got within five outs of the World Series. The next year, they won their first World Series in 86 years. Of course, the Red Sox had won 93 games the year before Epstein arrived in Boston. The Cubs won 71 games last year, so things are a little different this time. Besides, Epstein isn't the GM, Jed Hoyer is. Any expectations based on Epstein's success with the Red Sox are unrealistic. This won't be a quick fix and ownership and the fans both need to show patience as Hoyer and team president Epstein try to pull the Cubs out of their three-year nose-dive.
The Houston Astros resolve to be the Orioles of 2012. The Astros are a lame-duck team running out a Triple-A lineup. Their only chance to make an impact in 2012 will be to do as the Orioles did in 2011 and play the spoiler, a feat they nearly pulled off this past season when they rallied to beat the Cardinals in ten innings in the opener of their season-ending series, only they lost the next two games 21-6 and the Cardinals made the playoffs anyway. In September 2012 they'll play the Phillies four times mid month, the Reds five times prior to that, the Cardinals six times after that, and six of their final nine games come against St. Louis and Milwaukee. They won't be able to impact the final three games of the regular season in October, as they'll be playing the Cubs, but they have a lot of opportunity to spoil things in September.
The Arizona Diamondbacks resolve to stop shooting themselves in the foot. By my estimation, the Diamondbacks have had a terrible offseason thus far. Beyond seemingly mindlessly re-signing all of their free-agent infielders (second baseman Aaron Hill, lefty first baseman Lyle Overbay, utility men Willie Boomquist and John McDonald, even veteran quadruple-A organizational filler Cody Ransom, who got a minor league deal), they effectively traded pitching prospect Jarrod Parker and lefty starter Joe Saunders for A's righty Trevor Cahill by including Parker in the trade for Cahill then non-tendering Saunders (given the choice, I'd take Saunders and Parker over Cahill without much hesitation), then they handed a $15 million contract to an outfielder, Jason Kubel, who doesn't represent an upgrade for them at any of the three outfield positions. To make matters worse, the Diamondbacks don't have nearly the advantage in their division they think they do. They won the West by eight games this past season, but by third-order wins, the top four teams in the West were separated by just five games and the Diamondbacks were a game worse than the Dodgers.
The San Francisco Giants resolve to give Brandon Belt a starting job and leave him alone. You're a pitching-rich team that struggles to score runs. Out of nowhere, one of your 11th-round draft picks emerges as an offensive stud in the minors, climbs the ladder to Triple-A in one season and looks to all the world like he's ready for the majors. So what do you do? If you're the Giants you give him three weeks at first base then send him back to Triple-A on his birthday to make room for Cody Ross to come off the DL. Then let him burn off 49 games in Triple-A before finally bringing him back for good in mid-August. To be fair, Belt didn't hit much in his small opportunities, but neither did the guys blocking him. In fact, Belt out-hit first baseman Aubrey Huff on the season, posting a 101 OPS+ to Huff's 90. Belt now has a .343/.457/.596 career line in the minors, including a .291/.436/.535 line in Triple-A. The Giants need that bat in their lineup, no matter how long it takes Belt to translate that Triple-A performance to the majors.
The Los Angeles Dodgers resolve to surprise some people. In 2011 the Dodgers had the Cy Young award winner in lefty Clayton Kershaw and the deserving MVP in center fielder Matt Kemp (though Kemp ultimately lost the award to Braun), yet finished 11 games out of first place. That wouldn't seem to bode well for their chances in 2012 given likely regressions from those two stars, but by third-order wins the Dodgers were actually the best team in the West in 2011 and there's no reason they couldn't turn that into a reality in 2012. The West is wide open. Kershaw will be just 24. Kemp is at his peak age of 27. The back of the rotation has been solidified by league-average innings eaters Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. Mark Ellis could turn out to be a nice addition at second base if he reverts to his pre-2011 patience at the plate and plays his usual strong defense. The team still needs a catcher and to commit to sophomore Jerry Sands in left field, and, yes, there is ample opportunity for upgrades elsewhere on the roster that likely won't be made, but there's no reason the Dodgers -- under sophomore manager Don Mattingly -- couldn't be the best team in a weak division in 2012.
The Colorado Rockies resolve to learn how to hit on the road. As I wrote in the Rockies essay of this past year's Baseball Prospectus annual, it turns out that the problem with mile-high baseball isn't pitching in Denver, it's hitting elsewhere. For whatever reason -- some suggest it could be a lack of movement on pitches at home, less so the proper breaking stuff than fastballs and changeups that lose their tail, sink, drop, rise, or run -- the gap between the Rockies' run scoring rate at home and on the road has always been larger than the gap in their run prevention. It happened again in 2011. The Rockies allowed 5.3 runs per game at home against 4.3 on the road, but they scored 5.4 runs per game at home against a pathetic 3.7 on the road. As a result, the Rockies have had a losing record on the road in all but one of their 19 seasons, going 41-40 on the road in 2009, not coincidentally the season in which they set a franchise record with 92 wins and made just their third playoff appearance. Until they figure out how to keep their bats from going cold away from the Mountains, the Rockies will always be longshots for the postseason.
The San Diego Padres resolve to hit a little. Petco Park is an extremely difficult place to score runs, and the Padres in the wake of the Adrian Gonzalez trade had perhaps the least qualified lineup to do so. Even after adjusting for their ballpark, the 2011 Padres had the lowest team OPS+ in the league (85), raking ahead of only the miserable Twins and Mariners in the AL. They were also dead last in the majors in home runs. But with a healthy Kyle Blanks in left field and Yonder Alonso taking over first base with Anthony Rizzo and Jesus Guzman as backups/alternatives, the Padres will have some real power in their lineup. It's not much, but it's something.
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