Kansas City Royals Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 71-91 Manager: Ned Yost

The hitting batch of uber-prospects has made it to Kauffman Stadium. Now they wait on the pitching. But in the meantime, the Royals will have games where they just pound the ball and this will be a tough team to beat with mediocre pitching. While their pitching leaves a lot to be desired, this lineup could end up being one of the better ones in the AL this year.

Player in the spotlight: Eric Hosmer 1B

Hosmer might be the best Royal since George Brett. He came up early last season and hit really well in the second half. He’s got Triple Crown type of hitting ability and the sooner he develops his 35-40 HR power, the sooner the Royals can be a better than .500 team. With Hosmer and a bunch of other 28 and under potential stars, the Royals are slowly preparing for a major run in 2014.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Alcides Escobar SS

Escobar is an extremely talented fielder and has an intriguing bat that hasn’t come around yet. The Royals will probably be content with his mediocre bat as long as he continues to field well, but if Escobar can take a step towards getting his average closer to .300, then the Royals lineup can develop some great length to it that can put pressure on opposition pitchers all night long.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Jonathan Sanchez

Sanchez comes over from the Giants with a ring and a no-hitter. He’s also got a lot of untapped potential and Bruce Bochy’s frustration is now Ned Yost’s. Sanchez is capable of winning at least 15 games and being a solid #2-3 starter. He’ll be asked to anchor this rotation until the Royals young arms are ready to pitch at the big league level and Sanchez’ performance could be the difference in the Royals achieving their first winning season since 2003.

Biggest pitching question mark: Jonathan Broxton   Closer

Joakim Soria hurt his elbow early in March and underwent Tommy John surgery. Fortunately, I think, the Royals had taken a chance on Broxton with a one-year deal to set up Soria. Now he’ll likely be called upon to close. He had a procedure on his elbow to clean it out last year and if he’s able to pitch like he did a few years ago, the Royals might be able to lock down games late. Nothing can hurt a team’s confidence like battling for 8 innings, getting the lead, and blowing it in the ninth. Broxton can help solidify them in the 9th and facilitate the development of this rising team.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Mike Montgomery P

Montgomery is a lefty starter who ranks at or near the top of their list of prospects and he’ll be in AAA to begin the season. Once he’s proven his ability at AAA, the Royals will probably bring him up around midseason.

Prediction: 4th in AL Central

The Royals are coming. Probably not this season, but if they’re able to get some unexpected pitching performances, this team could surprise the AL Central and push 85 wins. That’s the upside. But if they continue to struggle with their pitching, they could remain around the 71 wins they had last season. Overall, they appear to be a team that will finish between 77-82 wins. The high end would give them their first winning season since 2003 and set them up for a run at the wildcard next year.

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Los Angeles Angels Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 86-76 Manager: Mike Scioscia

Like the Red Sox a year ago, the Angels won the mythical Winter World Series during this past offseason. They added the best hitter, Albert Pujols, and arguably the best pitcher available, CJ Wilson. They now boast three pitchers who won at least 16 games last season and the always enigmatic Ervin Santana. Will all of the big spending pay off?

Player in the spotlight: Albert Pujols 1B

Here an obvious selection. Pujols leaves St. Louis and the world champion Cardinals for the bigger money of Southern California. What Pujols might not be prepared for is a bigger, more pitching friendly park. He’ll also have to learn a group of pitchers that he’s never faced and at 32, his persistent back problems aren’t likely to go away. This is a move for the present for the Angels and Pujols is on the spot to produce immediately.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Mike Trumbo 3B

Poor Mike Trumbo got moved over to third base to accommodate the newest Angel, Pujols. Trumbo at third base could become an adventure all season long. Scioscia will undoubtedly have flashbacks to the Pedro Guerrero years at third for the Dodgers in the 80’s. Pedro had the best line, “I hope they don’t hit it to me and I definitely hope they don’t hit it to Sax (2B Steve Sax who was having problems throwing to first).”

Pitcher in the spotlight: Jered Weaver

After teasing us for years, Weaver finally put it all together last season. He was able to hold the opposition to a 2.41 ERA and won 18 games. Certainly a Cy Young quality season. He’s in his prime, signed a below market extension for 5-years and $85M, and has a lineup that is sure to give him plenty of support. There are a bunch of worse picks for this year’s Cy Young than Weaver.

Biggest pitching question mark: Jordan Walden   Closer

Walden led the AL with 10 blown saves a year ago after taking over the job after Fernando Rodney blew up during the first week. Great teams need somebody to lock down the ninth and it will be interesting to see how patient this “win now” team handles Walden and the closer’s role if he gets off to a slow start. There are other potential contenders with closer issues, so it might be prudent to strike quickly when upgrading the bullpen this season.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Mike Trout OF

Trout got a brief look last season and will spend as much time as possible in AAA as the Angels can afford. The Angels are deep in the outfield, especially if Trumbo gets back into the mix, so Trout might need a couple of players to get hurt or struggle to get a shot before August.

Prediction: 2nd in AL West and wildcard

If there was a manager made for a team of high priced free agents and big personalities, it’s Mike Scioscia. This team could end up like the Red Sox last season, but with better starting pitching, the best hitter in baseball, and unbelievable depth, the Angels should be able to withstand the burden of expectations. Throw in their laid back fan base, in comparison to the lunatics in Red Sox Nation, and the Angels will be able to work through most issues this season without the 24-hour microscope on them by the local and national (think mouse ears) media who can’t get enough of them. That’s why this team will be in the playoffs and a tough out with their rotation. The bullpen could be a problem but the Angels have the cash and the prospects to deal for the best closer on the market. With some good fortune, Pujols could have his personal back-to-back championship. Otherwise, a nice playoff run would still beat the past two Octobers when the Angels were left out.

Washington Nationals Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 80-81 Manager: Davey Johnson

The Braves collapsed down the stretch last season and, as a young team, it will be interesting to see how they respond. The key will be their lineup as the pitching should be good all season. The lineup is extremely left-handed and it lacks an All Star bat, except catcher Brian McCann. As the Giants and Twins learned last year, it’s tough to rely on your catcher to be your best player considering the wear and tear of the position.

Player in the spotlight: Ryan Zimmerman

The franchise’s first pick remains the face of the franchise and will be that until Bryce Harper comes up and becomes established. Zimmerman is one of the best third basemen in the game and a return to good health will a key reason why the Nats could compete for that second wildcard in the NL. Zimmerman is now locked in with a new contract that will take him through 2019. He’ll be the rock on the best teams in club history that are to come.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Ian Desmond SS

Depending on the day, you can see the brilliantly talented Desmond who combines speed and some pop while making some good plays in the field. Then the next day Desmond seems to be detached when he’s on the field and makes some poor decisions on the bases and in the field while striking out four times. It’s what the Nats see on those good days that keeps them hoping that Desmond can become a star. But how much longer are they going to wait?

Pitcher in the spotlight: Jordan Zimmerman

Wait, not Stephen Strasburg? Well, Zimmerman is about a year ahead of Strasburg on the Tommy John recovery plan and he’s the one who will be counted upon to help this team make the playoffs and still be able to pitch if they get there. The innings limits should be off and if he continues to improve the way he has, the Nats have a formidable top 3 in the rotation for the future.

Biggest pitching question mark: Drew Storen

Boy, Storen can be really good. But he starts this season on the DL and there were times last season after his great April that he seemed to get flustered. The Nats have a bunch of arms that can close in the bullpen and a manager who believes that he has a playoff team. It will be interesting to see if when Storen stumbles, if Johnson were to change closers and go to either Brad Lidge or Sean Burnett. No bullpen needs that uncertainty so Storen needs to get off to a strong start.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Bryce Harper OF

If you don’t already know who Harper is, welcome to planet Earth. It’s just a question of when does Harper get called up? The prediction here is he’ll be up by Cinco de Mayo.

Prediction: 4th in NL East

Despite the raised expectations for the Nationals, the inning limits on Strasburg will end up holding this team back from reaching their potential this season. That’s probably why they won’t rush Harper to the bigs. This is going to be a good team this season. They should get to 85 wins, but unless they are in a great position to make the playoffs in July and they decide to make a couple of deals, they will probably settle in behind the Big 3 teams ahead of them. That said, the Nationals will enter 2013 as the favorite to win the NL East.

Toronto Blue Jays Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 81-81 Manager: John Farrell

The Blue Jays are becoming a trendy pick in the AL East to jump up and maybe make the playoffs. That might happen, but the Jays still have a ways to go to win those 8-10 more games than last season to compete for the AL East or, more probable, the wildcard.

Player in the spotlight: Jose Bautista RF

Fool me once, you’re bad, fool me twice… Well, he did it again. Bautista now has to be considered one of the top 4-5 hitters in baseball after another amazing season last year. The homers dropped, but that was expected with the increased scrutiny that all pitchers had to give to Bautista. It won’t be out of the question to now expect Bautista to hit over 40 homers and drive in 100 runs while hitting .300. If they somehow make the playoffs, Bautista probably wins his first MVP.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Colby Rasmus CF

Rasmus is out of St. Louis where he seemed to be an annual disappointment. He’s only 25, but extraordinary results that were expected as a top prospect haven’t materialized. If he’s able to harness his talent in Toronto, the Jays have a great chance to move up and compete this season for that second wildcard spot.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Ricky Romero

Romero continues to improve annually and made his first all star game last season. He’s gone from 13 to 14 to 15 wins; that means he’s due for 16 this year, right? But if he’s able to make the jump up to 18-20 wins and the Jays are in the playoff chase until the end of the season, Romero could be in the Cy Young hunt. The Jays just need the rest of the rotation to fall in behind him.

Biggest pitching question mark: Kyle Drabek

Three years after the Roy Halladay trade, Drabek is still trying to nail down a spot in the Jays rotation. Drabek was expected to have more than 18 starts with a 5.83 ERA at this point in time. This is probably the season where the Jays decide if Drabek is going to continue to be a part of their future. If he’s not entrenched in the rotation by the summer, Drabek might get traded.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Travis D’Arnaud C

Here’s another piece of the Roy Halladay trade that projects as a future all star. D’Arnaud tore up AA last season, winning the Eastern League MVP and could make it to Toronto by July when he masters AAA pitching.

Prediction: 3rd in AL East

The Blue Jays appear heading to great things. They have a wealth of young talent and arguably the best power hitter in baseball. Their pitching has the potential to rival the best in the AL and it’s a matter of whether they can get there this season. If so, the Jays could be a surprise playoff entry. Their young talent probably doesn’t all get here this season and to be a major player in the AL East, you have to have all of your guns. This team looks like they’ll be a few games over .500 with an upside of close to 90 wins if some of their question marks step up and a prospect or two are able to come up and give them a boost in the summer. Next year is the year where the Jays become a full-fledged contender.

San Francisco Giants Opening Day Primer

 

2011 Record: 86-76 Manager: Bruce Bochy

The Giants championship hangover along with a bad injury to Buster Posey left them 8 games behind Arizona last season. With better health and focus, the Giants rotation should get a chance to scare the rest of baseball with another trip to the postseason.

Player in the spotlight: Pablo Sandoval 3B

The Kung-Fu Panda is one of the great pure hitters in the game. After an inexplicable 2010 average, he got back up to .315 last year and will win a batting title one of these years. He also slugs; over .550 twice in the past 3 seasons. For a team that lacks pop, Panda’s extra base power stands out and will be the key to the Giants scoring enough to support their dominant pitching staff.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Buster Posey C

Posey suffered that horrific leg injury last May and should be ready to go for the Giants this year. But until he plays a regular season game, we won’t know if he’s all of the way back for sure. If healthy, Posey makes this team the frontrunner for the NL West title.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Matt Cain

Cain just signed a huge deal to remain with the Giants for 6 years and $120M. Cain is as consistent as any good pitcher in baseball and one day, might win as much as he deserves. He’s an automatic 220 IP and a 3.00 ERA, give or take a few runs. Along with Tim Lincecum, the Giants might have the best 1-2 starter combo in baseball.

Biggest pitching question mark: Brian Wilson Closer

The “Beard” is a human rollercoaster coming out of the bullpen and would probably come under more scrutiny if not for his tremendous 2010 regular season and postseason. He kind of pitches like a right-handed Mitch Williams with all of the walks. All of the wildness can grind away at a team and manager. It will be interesting to see if the Giants commit long-term to Wilson after this year.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Heath Hembree RP

Hembree is moving through the system quickly and could make it up to the big club by midseason. Some of that might be predicated on how the rest of the bullpen is doing but Hembree is good enough that he might force the Giants’ hand.

Prediction: 1st in NL West

The Giants should get the chance to chase another World Series this year. With arguably the best rotation in baseball and a solid bullpen backing them up, the Giants are a matchup nightmare in October. The key will be returning to October and that will be contingent on how well the lineup produces. They might have to go out and acquire another bat or two to shore up some holes in the lineup to have enough to beat out the D’backs. If they get back to October, it could be a repeat of 2010 when nobody had an answer for the great pitching that the Giants have. Look for the Giants to return to the World Series and fall short this time.

Arizona Diamondbacks Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 94-68 Manager: Kirk Gibson

The Diamondbacks jumped up and surprised everybody last season. They had 48 comeback wins and the key was their biggest weakness in 2010: the bullpen. They completely revamped their bullpen and discovered that they had two top of the rotation type of pitchers in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. With a farm system oozing great arms, this rotation has a chance to be like the old 1990’s Braves.

Player in the spotlight: Justin Upton RF

Upton doesn’t turn 25 until late August? Wow! Upton looks like he’s developing into one of the best players in baseball as he enters his 5th season. Upton is on the verge of becoming a 35+ HR, 100+ RBI and .300 hitter every year. Players like him don’t come around too often.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Chris Young CF

The Diamondbacks went out and signed Jason Kubel to take over for Gerardo Parra in left field even though Parra won the Gold Glove last season. But the player who might be affected the most by this signing is Young. Unless Young can start hitting better than the .236 that he put up last season, Parra is going to see more and more time in center field.

Pitcher in the spotlight: Ian Kennedy

The Diamondbacks didn’t know if they had an ace on the roster and then Kennedy and Dan Hudson vied for the role. Kennedy got the nod with his 21-4 record and a 2.88 ERA. With a plethora of prospects who are projected to be top of the rotation starters, the D’backs are going to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quality pitching soon.

Biggest pitching question mark: JJ Putz

Putz helped anchor a bullpen that completely changed the complexion of this team in the late innings. The D’backs bullpen seemingly blew a save per night in the 2010 season, but was able to turn it around in 2011. The question now becomes, can they do it again? If they can, this team will be the favorite to repeat in the NL West.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Trevor Bauer P

Bauer was the 3rd pick in the 2011 draft and has progressed quickly. He almost made the rotation coming out of spring training and could be in the D’backs rotation by midseason.

Prediction: 2nd in NL West

The Diamondbacks go from the hunted to the hunter. They should be near the top of the division all season long, but fall short in the end. It just seems highly unlikely that they can repeat their comeback wins of a year ago. But this is a team that might be the team to beat in 2013 in the National League if they are able to break in a couple of their young starting pitchers. Offensively, their infield has too many questions and Justin Upton can’t drive in runs if his teammates aren’t on base. If they are able to add an impact bat, preferably someone on the left side of the infield, then they might have enough to catch the Giants. It’s now up to GM Kevin Towers to change this prediction.

Milwaukee Brewers Opening Day Primer

2011 Record: 96-66 Manager: Ron Roenicke

The Brew Crew has transitioned from an offensive team with multiple MVP candidates to a team built on pitching. They come into this year looking to replace Prince Fielder, but they took steps towards doing that when they acquired Zach Greinke and Shawn Marcum to bolster their pitching staff a year ago. Those pitchers will be the key to the Brewers making a return visit to the playoffs as they won’t be able to outslug the opposition as often.

Player in the spotlight: Ryan Braun LF

When you become the first player to successfully appeal a suspension for PEDs, you automatically get the spotlight treatment. When you’re the reigning NL MVP as well? The “Teflon” Braun is going to face a lot of hostile environments for the foreseeable future and maybe for the rest of his career. If he’s able to stand the attention and added pressure that he inevitably will feel, then the Brewers should be able to transition into the post-Fielder era as smoothly as could be expected.

Biggest question mark in the lineup: Mat Gamel 1B

Mat Gamel takes over for Prince Fielder at first base and Aramis Ramirez takes over in the middle of the order. Between the two of them, they are being asked to approach the combined efforts of Fielder and Casey McGehee (and others) provided last year. Gamel hasn’t been able to stick in the various opportunities that he’s been given. His questionable glove at third kept him from being given an extended look there and he’ll have to hit a decent amount to justify being in the lineup at first. It’s possible that if Gamel struggles, that you could see Ramirez move over to first and highly regarded prospect Taylor Green come up and play third.

Pitcher in the spotlight: John Axford Closer

Axford is the back end of a very strong 8/9 combo to close out games with single season saves king Francisco Rodriguez. After a slow start to the season, Axford was lights out in leading the NL with 46 saves. If anything happens to Axford or if he suddenly becomes ineffective, K-Rod is waiting in the wings. This is one position that is almost guaranteed to be a major strength for the Brewers this year.

Biggest pitching question mark: Zack Greinke

Greinke enters the final year of his contract after an up-and-down debut season in Milwaukee. Greinke started slow because of injuries, pitched well when he got stretched out and then fizzled in the postseason. Greinke is going to want big-time money, but are the Brewers going to pay him? His personal history makes him unlikely to end up with a big market team like the Yankees or Red Sox, but you never know. The biggest question surrounding Greinke is going to be how he responds in his walk year.

Prospect with a chance to make an impact this year: Taylor Green 3B/2B

Green hit .270 in a brief call-up last September after hitting .336 in AAA last season. As noted above, he could be called upon if Gamel struggles at first or if Ramirez’ injury history comes back to bite him. His ability to play second also helps if Rickie Weeks were to go down for an extended period.

Prediction: 3rd place in NL Central

While the champs lost Pujols and the Reds lost their closer a few weeks ago, the Brewers arguably lost the most when Prince Fielder left. Only time will tell if their new 1B-3B combo can hit enough, the rest of the lineup’s questions make this team hard to judge here at the beginning of the season. This is a team that appears to be one big bat away from winning the division again. Will they be able to produce enough internally or will they go out and acquire a rental bat? How they address this need will determine if they can exceed these expectations and return to the playoffs. Without any moves, this year’s Brewers appear to be an 88 win team that will fall short by a few games of another trip to the playoffs.