Considering the date Iím always inclined to do a little Aprilís Fooling and predict, say, that my beloved Oakland Athletics will return to the World Series, but letís be serious. I will be delighted enough if the Aís finally get the go-ahead to build their new stadium in San Jose, although for me, since I lived within 10 miles of the Coliseum and would be 50 or 60 miles from any new ballpark, it would be bittersweet, but still better than watching this great, storied franchise suffer in its current unendurable digs.
OK having gotten that out of my system, we will look a the Junior Circuit (doesnít that seem an antiquated formulation today?) and see what we should expect in this first year of newly-expanded playoffs, which I am convinced will add to the drama and excitement of the 2012 season.
American League East: Was it just last season that the Boston Red Sox were going to win the World Series? Instead there was a terrible September implosion, fried chicken, beer and video games in the clubhouse, and now a totally new regime. None of this is going to help the BoSox return to the post-season. Their lineup is formidable but their pitching is sketchy and their bullpen looks to be a borderline mess. I will take the smartest small-market franchise around, the Tampa Bay Rays, and anoint them as my favorite to win the division. They will do it with stout pitching and just enough offense. They will edge out the Yankees, who will claim the first Wild Card spot. The improving Toronto Blue Jays strengthened themselves and will contend and finish third. The Red Sox, alas, will tumble to fourth but the division is so strong that still means a likely 86 or so wins. In last, as usual, the Baltimore Orioles who have returned the cartoon bird that graced their caps in their last World Series year of 1983, to no avail. This team still lacks essential talent.
American League Central: All praise to Detroit Tigersí owner Mike Illitch, who took stock after his fine DH Victor Martinez went down with a season-ending injury, whipped out his checkbook, and signed slugger Prince Fielder to a mammoth, $214-million dollar deal. I still have questions about the top and bottom of their lineup, but the middle is super-solid with Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, and the pitching, led by Cy Young and MVP winner Justin Verlander is capable. The Tigers should cruise to a repeat. The Kansas City Royals have some good emerging talent; I like them to finish second, and the Cleveland Indians, who flirted with contention last year, should be respectable. It looks like dark days on the South Side of Chicago for the White Sox, and the Minnesota Twins, in their sparkling and spacious Target Field had better hope for bounce-back years from former MVPs Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer or else the cellar beckons.
American League West: Arte Moreno grew tired of the upstart Texas Rangers claim-jumping his LA Angels of Anaheim (is there a worse moniker in sports?) and, bolstered by a gigabuck TV contract, spend over $300 million to get the best free agent, Albert Pujols, and the best pitcher C.J. Wilson. The Rangers themselves with a resolved ownership situation and their own flush TV contract, grabbed the top international talent, Japanese league stalwart Yu Darvish. By all accounts he is the real deal and will make up for the loss of Wilson. There are questions in the Rangersí bullpen, thatís why they wonít be hoisting a World Series flag in Arlington on Opening Day, but they have a terrific lineup and formidable pitching, enough, I think, to hold off the Angels, who will claim the second Wild Card spot and make for a boffo play-in game in Yankee Stadium. The woebegone Athletics and the Seattle Mariners will provide cannon fodder for the two alpha dogs of the pack.