Oakland Athletics Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 74-88 Manager: Bob Melvin

The Athletics are embarking on yet another rebuilding job on-the-fly. The A’s were hoping to be a surprise contender last season with a good, young starting staff high in potential, but that staff was beset by injuries and never realized their potential. With the Angels and Rangers gearing up for a huge showdown in the AL West, GM Billy Beane has recalibrated the A’s roster with an eye on hitting the ground running in 2013.

Player in the spotlight: Yoenis Cespedes CF

The A’s uncharacteristically broke the bank in signing Cuban defector Cespedes in the winter to a 4-year, $36M contract. Cespedes brings some big power to the table and has good speed. He stands to be a major contributor and all-star candidate for years to come. He’ll be the key to a rejuvenated lineup that Beane hopes will be ready to compete next season.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Manny Ramirez DH/Flake

Manny’s back and he’ll join the A’s after sitting out 50 games after getting his 100 game suspension shortened. Who knows what Manny has left, but the A’s are a perfect last chance for his career and if he proves that he can still hit well, then Beane might be able to swing him for a borderline prospect at the trade deadline.  Otherwise, Ramirez will just get in the way of the development of the A’s younger players who need major league at bats.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Brandon McCarthy

McCarthy enters 2012 as the ace of a depleted starting staff that consists of retreads and prospects. McCarthy was able to rejuvenate his career last season after not pitching in the big leagues since 2009. The A’s need McCarthy to make his starts consistently and hold down the fort until Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden comes back. McCarthy will be a free agent at the end of the season so that means that he could be moved somewhere to help this team retool for 2013.

Biggest pitching question mark: Tom Milone

Milone came over from the Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez deal where he won 12 games in each of the past 3 minor league seasons. Milone also added another win in his decent September call up last year. His development is in the spotlight because he might be the only starter among the current staff that will be around when they’re ready to compete for the AL West title next year or 2014.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Jarrod Parker SP

Parker was the key piece of the Trevor Cahill deal with the Diamondbacks in the winter. Parker was the D’backs top prospect before the trade. The A’s should have Parker in the rotation by midseason at the latest. .

Prediction: 3rd in AL West

This is an intriguing group of players that Beane has assembled. They’re not built to win this year, but who knows?  Beane has put together overachieving rosters before. But if all goes as planned, this team should get Braden and Anderson back and develop a couple more starters while getting their young lineup experience for next year. Then they should be looking at an 85 win team going into next season with the potential for more if things go well. This year, .500 is a more realistic goal.

Seattle Mariners Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 67-95 Manager: Eric Wedge

The Mariners once again struggled to score runs last season and decided to trade their rookie all star pitcher Michael Pineda to get one of the best hitting prospects in baseball, Jesus Montero. For this lineup to improve and get this team back to .500, Montero and their other young prospects need to grow up in a hurry.

Player in the spotlight: Ichiro Suzuki RF

Ichiro drops to the #3 spot in the batting order as he starts the season at 38. For the first time in his MLB career, Ichiro failed to amass 200 hits on the season. His unbelievable string of 10 consecutive 200 hit seasons ended. With 2428 career hits entering 2012, Ichiro is only 572 hits away from immortality at 3000 hits. That’s an incredible accomplishment for a player who didn’t get his first hit until he was 27 years old.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Jesus Montero C/DH

Montero is the headline acquisition for the Mariners in the offseason. The M’s thought so highly of him that they trade a pitcher coming off an all star season as a rookie. That makes the expectations for Montero pretty high. He’s expected to develop into a 30+ HR hitter, but what position will he play? He’s still average on his best days behind the plate and one wonders if he’ll ever settle into an everyday role in the field. Perhaps he’ll end up like former Mariners great Edgar Martinez and have a great career as a DH.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Felix Hernandez

The King wasn’t as dominating in 2011 as he had been previously. Perhaps he felt pressure to throw a shutout each game because of the poor run support. Felix enters this season at 26 and remains an annual candidate to win the Cy Young Award. With some of the new offensive talent, maybe Hernandez can pick up a few more wins this season.

Biggest pitching question mark: Hector Noesi

Noesi was the second piece of the Pineda-Montero deal in the winter. Noesi gives the Mariners a chance to really win this trade in a big way if he’s able to develop into a good major league pitcher. If he does it this season, the Mariners have a decent chance of getting to .500 on the season.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Vinnie Catricala 3B/1B/OF

Catricala has a pretty good power bat and is versatile enough to play a few positions. If he adjusts quickly to AAA, he could end up in Seattle by the end of the summer, especially if Chone Figgins doesn’t revive his career.

Prediction: 4th in AL West

The Mariners are an intriguing mix of young hitting talent and a pitching rotation that could develop into a top 3 rotation in the AL. But that’s probably a year away at the soonest for the Mariners faithful. This season, the M’s will need to find a way to gradually improve their offense and develop a core of 4-5 everyday players who are going to lead this team into the future. If they do that and pitch well, this team could surprise some and get to around .500. If their offense doesn’t start to come around, the Felix trade rumors will begin en force and the Mariners front office will begin to feel the heat for a rebuilding effort that is going on 10 years with only 2 winning seasons.

Houston Astros Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 56-106 Manager: Brad Mills

The Astros have a new owner, new front office people, and next year, a new league as the Astros will move to the American League next year. As a National League fan living in Texas, that stinks, as the closest NL team to Texas is either St. Louis or Denver. Billings, Montana and Fargo, North Dakota are closer to National League baseball than most people in Texas. Think about that.

Player in the spotlight: Carlos Lee 1B

Lee is quite simply, the only recognizable name in the everyday lineup for the Astros on opening day. Lee is now famous for his albatross contract that has essentially anchored him in Houston with very little chance of being traded. Lee is due $19M this season and only near the trade deadline might a market develop to acquire Lee’s bat. If the Astros are to avoid another 100 loss season, Lee will have to hit like he did near the beginning of his contract from 2007-2009.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Jed Lowrie SS

Lowrie would be another “name” in the Astros lineup if he wasn’t, surprise, injured again. Lowrie comes over from the Red Sox DL where he occasionally came off and played for weeks at a time. When healthy Lowrie is a good defender and a decent bat for a shortstop, but those days are few and far between. The likely outcome here is that the Astros try to rehabilitate Lowrie’s image durability-wise and move him for some more prospects. He certainly won’t be the cornerstone of a playoff team.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy represents, possibly, the only tradable commodity that Astros haven’t moved in the past two seasons. It would be shocking if he were to be in Houston when August 1st arrives. But until then, he’ll be the cornerstone of a young, developing pitching staff as they try to avoid 100 losses again.

Biggest pitching question mark: Brett Myers   Closer

Wait, there’s another pitcher who could be moved. Myers moves back to the bullpen for reasons unknown. It’s hard to believe that Myers will be more tradable as a reliever than a starter. For a team that should treasure each opportunity to win games and will need to finish those games strong, Myers will have to be good in those rare opportunities.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Jonathan Singleton 1B

This is a little bit of a stretch to expect Singleton to impact this year, but he should get a chance in September if he continues to progress as expected. Singleton came over in the Hunter Pence deal with the Phillies last summer and gives the Astros fans some hope for the future.

Prediction: 6th in NL Central

The goal for the worst team in baseball is avoiding 100 losses for the second consecutive season and for only the second time in club history. Unlike 1991, there aren’t any Craig Biggio’s already on the roster and it’s doubtful that they have Jeff Bagwell ready to burst upon the scene. This rebuilding job is going to be a long, hard slog. They acquired a boatload of prospects over the past two seasons, many from the Phillies, and they will need to have a solid success rate to get this team back into contention by 2014, at the earliest. The goal here is to find optimism with a team, and the Astros look like a winner by 2015. Other good news, this will be their last 6th place finish until MLB expands again.

Colorado Rockies Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 73-89 Manager: Jim Tracy

The Rockies started last season with some lofty expectations. But injuries and disappointments in the pitching staff led to the season unraveling early as they only won 8 games in May. With a loaded lineup and a younger (mostly) and retooled starting rotation, the Rockies could be a surprise playoff participant if things go well.

Player in the spotlight: Troy Tulowitzki SS

Tulo is always going to be in the MVP race, especially if the Rockies are competing for and making the playoffs. Write him down for his .300, 30, and 100 with the potential for more. No worries here as the Rockies have the best shortstop in the game.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Todd Helton 1B

Todd Helton looked like his career was coming to an end a few years ago with his chronic injuries that seemed to keep him out of the lineup all of the time. But playing most of last season, getting spotted occasionally, Helton continued to hit over .300 and have an OPS over .850. But he’ll turn 39 in August and his creaky body will eventually give out. The Rockies just hope it isn’t this year. They also signed Mike Cuddyer to play right field, but he’ll likely spot Helton against many lefties.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Rafael Betancourt   Closer

The Rockies traded Huston Street to San Diego and gave the closer’s role to Betancourt. Betancourt has been really good since coming over from Cleveland in 2009 and should transition seamlessly to the 9th inning. In all likelihood, Betancourt is holding down the closer’s role until lefty flamethrower, Rex Brothers, is ready for the full-time role.

Biggest pitching question mark: Drew Pomeranz

Pomeranz headlined the Ubaldo Jimenez deal with the Indians last summer and the 2010 1st round pick is going to be expected to pitch well this year. The Rockies have a number of young starters and their playoff aspirations lie with the ability of Pomeranz and the others develop over the course of this season. The earlier they have success, the more likely the Rockies will be playing important games in September.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Nolan Arenado 3B

Arenado starts the season in AA and should be on the fast track if he continues to mash like he did in A ball last year. If he masters AA quickly, Arenado could find his way to Denver before August.

Prediction: 3rd in NL West

The Rockies are competing in a winnable division as the Giants lack great hitting to run away with the division and the Diamondbacks have some holes as well. So if the Rockies can get some early, sustained success out of their young starters, they have the best lineup in the NL West and should be able to remain in the hunt all season long. But that young rotation is the key and Coors Field is a tough place to develop pitchers which is why they are predicted to be 3rd here. With slightly below average starting pitching this is a 78-80 win team, but can get to 85 wins with average starting pitching and stay in the race to the end.

Tampa Bay Rays Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 91-71 Manager: Joe Maddon

The scrappiest team in baseball, the Rays are a tough matchup because of their talent, but also their overall tenacity. That comes from Maddon, who might be the best manager in baseball. Their starting rotation might be the best in baseball and they have a solid, if not spectacular lineup. There is good reason for the high expectations on the Gulf Coast.

Player in the spotlight: Evan Longoria 3B

Longoria got off to a slow start last year, partially due to injuries, but he ended the season strong and went over 30 HRs again. He’s the everyday face of the franchise and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be a MVP candidate again.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: BJ Upton CF

Upton annually teases the Rays and fans alike with his immense talent. Especially since younger brother Justin’s performance in Arizona has been so impressive. But Upton probably enters his last season with the Rays as he will become a free agent at the end of the season. If he is able to finally put it all together with a big contract as motivation, the Rays lineup suddenly becomes deep with high quality hitters and they could top triple digit wins.

Pitcher in the spotlight: David Price

The big, hard throwing lefty is an annual Cy Young candidate and after a slightly disappointing 2011, Price should be really good this year. If he can keep his ERA back under 3.00, Price should win 20 games for the first time in his career.

Biggest pitching question mark: Kyle Farnsworth   Closer

Part of this concern is due to Farnsworth starting the season on the DL. But expecting consecutive stellar seasons at 36, including a season starting trip to the DL, might be too much. Expect to see one of the other solid bullpen arms like Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta to get some looks at the closer role. Maddon might decide to go with a committee for the first half of the season before they settle on one option for the ninth inning.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Alex Torres SP

Torres is a major league ready, high quality 24 year old lefty starter. Only the Rays can keep a talent like this in AAA due to the incredible starting pitching depth. Look for Torres to be the trade bait to either upgrade the lineup or to get a closer.

Prediction: 2nd in AL East and wildcard

The Rays are primed to give the Yankees all they can handle in the AL East. This could be a great two-team battle for first that goes down to the final week. The division title means more now with the added wildcard team setting up that one game playoff so teams are much better off getting in as a division winner. The Rays should win at least 95 games and could possibly win triple digits for the first time in club history. As long as they can find a solution for closing out ballgames, the Rays could become the favorites to win the AL.

Minnesota Twins Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 63-99 Manager: Ron Gardenhire

Name it, if it could have gone wrong in Minneapolis, it went wrong during the 2011 season. Gone are some old mainstays in the outfield, Mike Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, and also Joe Nathan. Unfortunately, they left in free agency instead of getting some decent prospects in a trade deadline deal. So now Terry Ryan is back at GM to straighten things out.

Player in the spotlight: Joe Mauer C

Great hair and a great swing. But pneumonia and other assorted issues have sidelined or affected Mauer for the past two seasons. He’s at the beginning of his megadeal that will net him over $180M and the Twins can’t afford any more seasons like last year. They need 150 games and his typical top 5 hitting season to give this team any kind of hope for this season.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Justin Morneau 1B/DH

It’s been a season and a half since Morneau suffered that concussion in July of 2010. Since then Morneau hasn’t been the same with problems from post-concussion syndrome and other physical issues. If he can climb his way back to being an average middle of the order hitter to go along with a healthy Mauer, the Twins could climb back over .500. That’s a lot of ifs, and only with two players.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Francisco Liriano

Most potential contenders would have already given up on the enigmatic, yet extremely talented LIriano. But the Twins are still hoping against hope and they need a season like 2010 out of Liriano if they have any chance to compete this year. If he doesn’t start showing the kind of consistency they are looking for, expect Liriano to be wearing a new uniform by the end of July.

Biggest pitching question mark: Scott Baker

The oft-injured Twins best pitcher from 2011 was Baker. Now he’s on the shelf with some elbow problems and he’ll be getting a second opinion next week. The Twins need a healthy Baker to contribute if they hold any hope of returning to the postseason.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Joe Benson OF

It’s just a matter of time for Benson, who will start the year at AAA. Denard Span has been rumored to be traded for a little while now and he’ll probably get dealt for some pitching health when Benson is ready.

Prediction: 5th in AL Central

Ron Gardenhire is one heck of a manager. That’s the only real reason for optimism for this edition of the Twins. He’s been able to stabilize some of the most challenging situations over the years and he’s a primary reason for hope this season. Of course, it helps if Mauer and Morneau are able to bounce back and if the pitchers can stay healthy and pitch well enough. They should be better than last year, of course. But how much better? If everything goes right, they could surprise and win 85-88 games and compete for the wildcard. But that’s a HUGE if. More likely is a season with less injuries than last year but where there’s a lot of turnover on the pitching staff and a season spent looking for the right mix in the lineup. It feels like a 75-78 win team that will compete with Kansas City more than Detroit in the standings over the season.

Baltimore Orioles Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 97-65 Manager: Buck Showalter

The Orioles seemed to stall in the driveway last year with their young guns starting pitchers struggling out of the gate and disappointing performances across the board. Only Matt Wieters and Adam Jones seemed to develop in the way this club expected coming out of spring training. They’ll need a lot more development of their young talent this season if they are to get the locals excited in the Inner Harbor.

Player in the spotlight: Adam Jones CF

Adam Jones has gone from a tremendous defensive centerfielder to one who can hit as well. Jones is now a solid 25 HR type of hitter with an average around .280. If he’s able to continue to improve and the Orioles get some production ahead of him, Jones could become a 30 HR and 100 RBI producer in the next year or two.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Brian Roberts 2B

Roberts is suffering from post-concussion syndrome and his return is unknown. He hasn’t played a full season since 2009 and at $10M per season through 2013, the Orioles have some valuable resources being tied up in a player who is a huge unknown. If Roberts is able to get healthy and regain his pre-injuries form, the Orioles will have a great leadoff hitter who can help the young pitching staff gain an early lead in games.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Tommy Hunter

Hunter was acquired from the Rangers last year where he was unable to crack the rotation after a very solid 2010 season. He’s only 25, but he’ll be asked to provide veteran stability to a staff that traded away mainstay Jeremy Guthrie in the offseason. If Hunter is able to revert to his 2010 level of performance, the O’s will get closer to lining up a respectable staff this year.

Biggest pitching question mark: Zach Britton

Britton starts the season on the DL with some shoulder trouble. He’s expected to return but the date is unknown. Britton had a solid rookie campaign in 2011, winning 11 games and looked poised to take over the role as staff ace. If he’s unable to pitch or pitch well this season, the O’s face another huge uphill climb to respectability. That puts a lot more pressure on the rest of the young pitchers led by Jake Arrieta, who got the opening day start.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Joe Mahoney 1B

The O’s lack top level prospects with a chance at breaking in over the next season and a half, but Mahoney is probably the one who could make it up. Mahoney will start in AAA Norfolk and could get the call up if he does well and the Orioles start slipping out of contention (a cynic might say they will never be in contention).

Prediction: 5th in AL East

The Orioles need their young pitchers to develop at the major league level. Then they can go out in the offseason and find some solid starters to hold the fort until their top prospects can arrive in 2014. It’s always an uphill battle in the AL East, but it’s even more so when seemingly all of the O’s prospects turn into journeymen type players. Unless Jones and Wieters become superstars, the O’s next hope comes with SS Manny Machado in September of 2013.

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