We're coming to the end of a fascinating year of baseball, with tremendous comebacks, a surprise World Series winner, one of the great single days in the game's history and the news that we'll have labor peace for years to come. Can 2012 top that? Perhaps. Here are 10 things I think I think about the upcoming year:
1. The Marlins won't get a playoff spot for their money. The Marlins committed $191 million over six years to Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, then fell short in their pitches to C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols. That may be costly. The Marlins are certainly better for adding the three; however, they currently project to win about 84-85 games, making them no better than the third-best team in the NL East. As in 2011, their 2012 fate may be decided by the health and effectiveness of Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez -- as well as whether the latter embraces his new position. All things considered, the Phillies and Braves are still a bit better than the Marlins.
2. B.J. Upton is the next Matt Kemp. The Dodgers' Kemp combined his experience and raw talent to take a huge step forward at age 26, nearly winning the NL MVP award. Tampa Bay's Upton has long shown similar skills -- he just had his second 20/20 season -- but a very high strikeout rate has prevented him from hitting for average and getting on base at high rates. As with Kemp, though, Upton, 27, has years of experience as he reaches his peak, and will take a big step forward next year, cutting his strikeouts, hitting .290 and pushing for the AL MVP award, while getting the Rays to the postseason again.
3. David Price is the next Clayton Kershaw. Like the 2011 Dodgers, the Rays will watch two young stars take big steps forward. Price quietly had a better year in 2011 than he did in his "breakout" 2010, striking out more hitters and walking fewer while carrying the highest workload of his career. Like Kershaw, Price will build on this improvement to be the best starter in his league and win the Cy Young Award.
4. An even number of teams will make the playoffs. What that number will be, we still don't know. MLB has a plan in place to expand the postseason by one team in each league, setting up a one-game playoff between two wild-card teams that would then advance to the Division Series. As we enter 2012, though, we don't yet know whether this will come to pass next season or in 2013. That's important information for teams such as the Blue Jays, as they try to decide how much they can invest in a playoff push in the short term. MLB's dallying over this decision is one of the lingering problems with the celebrated new CBA.
If the playoffs do expand, the biggest beneficiaries will be the teams trapped behind the two scary monsters in the AL East -- the Jays and Rays. The Angels and Rangers will also benefit, with an additional spot to fall into for the loser of their escalating war for the AL West crown. It's less clear in the NL, where there's significantly more parity, but the teams that finished around .500 last year -- the Nationals, Dodgers and Reds -- have to feel better about their chances if the door to the playoffs opens wider.
5. Fred Wilpon is, unfortunately, the next Frank McCourt. The Mets' owner hasn't quite raided the till quite so blatantly, but it's becoming clear that like the Dodgers, the Mets are a large-market team in name only. Despite owning their own regional sports network and playing in a taxpayer-funded ballpark just 3 years old, the Mets will cut their payroll by $20 million or more in 2012, and they seem resigned to penny-pinching over the short term as the team gets its finances back in order. The Mets have won one postseason series since 2000, and that streak won't change next year.
6. Yu Darvish will have a better debut season than did Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Japanese right-hander is better suited to make the transition to U.S. baseball than was Matsuzaka, with better velocity and a more MLB approach to pitching. He's also set to face a somewhat easier slate of opponents. The Rangers will sign Darvish, just before the Jan. 18 deadline, to a five-year deal worth $60 million, and they will be happy to pay the money, because Darvish should be able to beat Matsuzaka's rookie-season 4.40 ERA in 204 2/3 innings -- though he won't win the AL Rookie of the Year.
7. Attendance at Hall of Fame Weekend will languish as just one living Hall of Famer is inducted. Barry Larkin was a complete player, one of the most high-efficiency basestealers ever, an excellent defensive shortstop and even a gold-medal winner in the 1984 Olympics. He's also likely to be the only player sent to Cooperstown by the writers next year, and despite his greatness, he's not someone who will bring huge crowds to the small town. Ron Santo's election by the Veterans Committee may help, but electing men who have passed away doesn't bring big crowds, either. With Hall elections about to become dominated by PED discussions and the election process potentially gummed by a backlog of candidates, look for Hall directors to begin asserting themselves to ensure that their cash-cow weekend remains an attraction.
8. Replay will get calls right, but be cumbersome. MLB's decision to expand replay to more calls is well-intentioned -- trap plays and fair/foul calls will now be reviewable. The process, however, is too limited and flawed by the use of the NFL model in which the on-field arbiters make the call. MLB needs to expand replay to other critical plays -- safe/out calls being the most important -- and institute the college-football system in which a single replay official makes all the replay calls. The sight of umpires walking off the field just calls attention to a delay that is always longer than it needs to be. The college model creates good jobs for veteran umpires and is the best implementation of replay in any sport.
9. The A's, and their ongoing attempts to relocate to San Jose, will be the big off-field story as the team loses 100 games. By trading Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey, the A's have made it clear that they're pushing competitiveness forward again. They have to get out of the O.co Coliseum and on to San Jose, a move that has been blocked time and again by the Giants, who claim the area as theirs. Commissioner Bud Selig has pushed any number of mediocre ideas through by claiming they would help the game. It's time he used that power to do something that actually would. By invoking his best-interest powers to broker a settlement between the A's and Giants -- as he did to placate the Orioles when the Expos were moved to Washington, D.C. -- he would strengthen one of the AL's original franchises and cut off the real possibility that the A's would embark on a Pirates/Royals run of futility.
10. The Reds will win the World Series. The AL has, arguably, the five best teams in baseball. The NL has that kind of parity at the top, though at a lower level of performance. In a short series, though, that doesn't really matter -- and we'll see that again in 2012, as the Reds, winners of a weak NL Central, ride the bats of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce into the World Series, where rookie catcher Devin Mesoraco and a deep bullpen dispatch Texas in six games. The Rangers, winners of 94 regular-season games and the AL West, become just the third team -- and the first since 1913 -- to lose three straight Fall Classics.