With the 2012 Major League Baseball season about to be fully underway, we will take a look at the teams that are most likely to surprise us all come season’s end. Sure, you have the movement of Pujols to Anaheim and you have Fielder shifting gears in the Motor City, but we all know their teams are expected to do well and lead the way heading into the playoffs. We will be looking at the teams who are overshadowed by the hype of these contenders.
Last year, you had the likes of Tampa Bay capturing the nation’s attention when they climbed back into the playoff hunt while Boston slowly lost grip on a 9 game lead. Cleveland came out and surprised a lot of people last year when they came together in the middle of the season and started winning. Yes, they tapered off at the end of the season, but not many took into consideration what that team is capable of. St. Louis snuck into the playoffs and ultimately won the World Series.
The teams to watch for are the teams who flew under the radar last year; the teams who haven’t made news or headlines with any of their moves or deals. These teams have led the way in producing considerable talent over the last few years and are now looking to take the league by storm for years to come.
Kansas City Royals – The Royals have been building for what seems to be forever. They haven’t fielded a contending team since the early 1990’s when their team owner Ewing Kauffman passed away. The Royals have finally gotten back to a place where they can compete and possibly contend. If all the pieces come together for the Royals, they can be a contender not only 2012 but for years to come.
The Royals have made it onto this list primarily because they have built through the draft and have added a few key pieces for the 2012 season. Coming into the season, the Royals have two of the most highly regarded prospects in Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Mike Moustakas. Hosmer had a decent 2011 campaign batting .293 with 19 home runs and 73 runs batted in in only 128 games. Hosmer is predicted by many to be a break out player and can potentially be a representative of the Royals for the All-Star game. Moustakas batted .263 with 5 HR’s and 30 RBI’s in only 89 games and actually had a 15 game hit steak at one point in time. Salvador Perez is one of the most highly touted catching prospects in the league. He went for .331 with 3 HR’s and 21 RBI’s and had an OPS of .834, second on the club to Alex Gordon. All three of these guys combined with returning outfielders Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, first base/designated hitter Billy Butler, the Royals will surely have a remarkable offense. The 2011 season proved that the Royals can get it done offensively, ranking in the top 10 in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
Defensively, they were in the bottom five in pitching and were 12th in fielding percentage. The Royals have added a couple veteran pieces to their livestock of pitching. Jonathan Broxton came over from the Dodgers to help bolster the bullpen and provide setup for Joakim Soria. However, Soria just sought opinions on his elbow and elected to have Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career, which forces him out for much of, if not all of the 2012 season. Broxton is a contender to be the closer right now but could compete with Greg Holland or Aaron Crow for the job. The rotation is the biggest question mark for the Royals. They have added veteran Jonathan Sanchez to the mix. Bruce Chen has been slated to pitch on Opening Day. He led the team in wins last season with 12 and had a career year. However, if you are counting on a guy like Bruce Chen, one can suggest that your rotation is not a strength.
Look for the Royals to possibly add one or two more pitchers over the course of the season to make that push towards the postseason.
Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers ended up getting the short end of the stick in the Prince Fielder deal, but have no worries here. The Brewers are a surprise pick because they have excellent pitching and still have a boisterous lineup without Fielder. Many have already written the Brewers off for the division title because of Fielder’s departure but look for the Brewers to keep it tight in the NL Central. The division also has gotten a little easier to play in with the Cardinals’ free agency loss (Pujols) and their pitching staff’s injury concerns. The only team to really be concerned about here are the Cincinatti Reds, but Milwaukee can definitely compete with these teams.
The rotation is led by Yovani Gallardo who had his best year last year. He posted 17 wins with a 3.52 earned run average. He also had his best strikeout-to-walk ratio as a professional, striking out 207 batters while only walking 59. He gave up 27 home runs last year, a career high. This number can be a little concerning, but given his ERA, majority of those blasts could have been solo shots. Zach Greinke fills the number two spot in the rotation. He went 16-6 last year with a 3.83 ERA. Those are pretty good numbers considering it was his first year in the National League. If Greinke can stay away from pickup basketball games, he should be able to post Cy Young numbers in 2012. All five starters in the rotation reached double digit victory totals last year and could surpass that to be even better this year. A lot depends on the offense and their run support.
Now that Ryan Braun has gotten the suspension issue out of the way, he is looking to lead the squad back to the postseason. A lot of people question the offense now that Fielder is gone, but the lineup can still get it done with a different approach. Obviously, you won’t see the power numbers as high without the big guy in the middle of that lineup, but Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart, and Mat Gamel should be more than capable of posting big numbers. The Brewers still reside in Miller Park so home run numbers are less of a concern as people think. The home runs will come. The issue falls into the hands of the hitters as they look to drive runs in. It will be up to Braun and those guys to bring in Rickie Weeks and Nyjer Morgan once they are on base. Fielder left a huge void in this department as he consistently posted over 100 RBI’s each year he was in Milwaukee. Many forget that Corey Hart is only one year removed from a 30 HR, 100 RBI season. It is time now for these guys to prove they can hit without Fielder’s protection. They have done well in Spring Training, but the numbers need to translate into the regular season.
Once the offense has the lead, the bullpen can and will shut the door. Led by John Axford, the Brewers have more than what it takes to close out games. The only concern lies in the hands of K-Rod, Francisco Rodriguez, and whether or not he can return to his early form and help setup Axford. Jose Veras and Manny Parra have been around and know what it takes to provide solid middle relief. The rotation will be able to consistently hand leads over to the bullpen. If there is anything that the Brewers have shown, its that they can close games out. Axford has greatly improved his closing abilities posting career highs in saves with 46 and a 1.95 ERA.
The Brewers could look to add a bat or two during the season, but they really don’t need much. The 2012 season could be a great one as long as Braun or their aces don’t go down with long-term injury.
-Will Fairbanks is the owner and contributor to The Educated Sports Fan, a blog offering analysis and opinion for all things MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, and NCAA.