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Touching all the bases . . . story lines and players to watch for Baseball 2012

By Tod Palmer, McClatchy Newspapers –

FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH

1. Zapping wildness from the wild card

Much has been made about the final day of last year’s regular season when Tampa Bay and St. Louis squeaked into the playoffs as Boston and Atlanta wrapped up wretched collapses. Some have gone so far as to call the drama unmatched in baseball history, but under the new format with two wild cards from each league, that night would never have happened. The Red Sox might have petered out in the race with the Rays, but Boston remained a comfortable four games ahead of the Angels. Meanwhile, the Braves would have made the playoffs by a three-game margin over San Francisco. . . Yawn . . . Nobody is writing any book about a night like that.

2. Upheaval in the NL East

Don’t look now, but the best team during the regular season last year might find the going a lot rougher in 2012 — and it has nothing to do with Philadelphia’s own roster. For starters, pay attention to the Nationals. No, really, we’re not kidding. The lineup needs an upgrade, but Bryce Harper is coming. Meanwhile, manager Davey Johnson’s rotation could be as good as any around if Stephen Strasburg is healthy, Gio Gonzalez adjusts to a new league and Edwin Jackson continues to develop. Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan are a formidable pairing at the back end as well. The Miami Marlins also made an offseason splash, bringing in Ozzie Guillen as well as steady southpaw Mark Buehrle (who followed Guillen from the White Sox) and shortstop Jose Reyes.

3. Yankees win arms race

Stockpiling arms is never a bad strategy in baseball, and nobody stashed away more pitching during the winter than the Yankees. Deep and talented up and down the lineup, the Pinstripes added depth and talent behind ace CC Sabathia, who has averaged nearly 20 wins and 200 strikeouts in three seasons in New York. The Yankees signed veteran Hiroki Kuroda, who posted a 3.07 ERA last year with the Dodgers, and traded for Michael Pineda, who will open the season on the disabled list, to bolster a starting group that already included Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia and Andy Pettitte.

4. Cardinals move on without Pujols

St. Louis is the reigning World Series champion but lost manager Tony La Russa and MVP Albert Pujols during the offseason, prompting many to write off the Cardinals. That may be premature. The lineup remains potent with Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran . Ace Adam Wainright returns from Tommy John surgery and has been dominant this spring. Chris Carpenter will begin the season on the disabled list but ought to be back by summer.

5. Does defense matter?

Consider Detroit a sabermetric experiment. The Tigers, whose lineup is likely to feature Prince Fielder at first base with Miguel Cabrera at third and Ryan Raburn at second, might comprise one of the worst-fielding infields in baseball history. Yet, Detroit is also the overwhelming favorite to win the AL Central. Of course, with flamethrowers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer racking up strikeouts, who needs defense?

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FIVE TEAMS TO WATCH

Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68 in 2011)

A surprise playoff participant last season, the young Diamondbacks have some questions in the bullpen and will have to weather another month or more without shortstop Stephen Drew, who is recovering from a gruesome ankle injury suffered last July . The key for Arizona might be getting repeat performances from its rotation, which collectively put together a career year in 2011 with Ian Kennedy (21-4, 2.88 ERA), Daniel Hudson (16-12, 3.49), Joe Saunders (12-13, 3.69) and Josh Collmenter (10-10, 3.38).

Boston Red Sox (90-72 in 2011)

After last September’s meltdown, the Red Sox are starting over with a new general manager (Theo Epstein left to take over the Cubs and was replaced by Ben Cherington) and new manager (Terry Francona fell on the sword for the collapse, giving way to Bobby Valentine). The club also let closer Jonathan Papelbon walk but remains among the most talented AL squads led by Jon Lester (15-9, 3.47 ERA) and Josh Beckett (13-7, 2.89) in the rotation and Adrian Gonzalez, who batted .338 with 27 home runs and 117 RBIs in his first season with the Red Sox, and former MVP Dustin Pedroia, who batted .307 with career highs in home runs (21) and RBIs (91).

Kansas City Royals (71-91 in 2011)

It’s hard to argue that the Royals aren’t one of the most intriguing teams entering the season. Based on run differential, the Royals, who finished fourth but were better in that category than Cleveland or the White Sox, were a bit unlucky last season. Learning to win on the road, where manager Ned Yost’s bunch went 31-50, will be critical. The club should continue to score runs but needs to cut down on the 4.7 runs allowed per game to contend. That will happen only if Luke Hochevar and Jonathan Sanchez emerge atop the rotation.

Los Angeles Dodgers (82-79 in 2011)

It’s not as if the Dodgers don’t have talent. The rotation is headlined by reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, a dominating southpaw who went 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts in 2331/3 innings. At the plate, there’s Matt Kemp. Many thought he deserved the ML MVP last season after he batted .324 with 39 home runs, 40 stolen bases, 115 runs and 126 RBIs. But the biggest development for the Dodgers might be stability now that Frank McCourt has sold the franchise.

Philadelphia Phillies (102-60 in 2011)

It is easy to point to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and call the Phillies a World Series favorite. Still, with significant injury concerns already swirling around Ryan Howard, who is out indefinitely after rupturing his Achilles’ in the NL Division Series, and Chase Utley, whose numbers have nose-dived as injuries mounted the last two seasons, there are definite chinks in the armor. Depth isn’t exactly Philadelphia’s strong suit, and a significant injury to a frontline starter could be disastrous.

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FIVE OLD FACES IN NEW PLACES

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Prince Fielder

Royals fans might get sick of seeing Fielder, who signed a nine-year contract worth $214 million with the Detroit Tigers in the offseason. In Milwaukee, he averaged 38 home runs and 108 RBIs in six full seasons and will be paired with perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera through at least 2015 in the heart of the Tigers’ lineup.

Jonathan Papelbon

During six seasons as Boston’s closer, Papelbon never saved fewer than 31 games and posted a 2.30 ERA with 475 strikeouts in 3951/3 innings. The Phillies signed him to a four-year, $50 million deal despite the fact he has struggled — by his standards — the last two seasons.

Albert Pujols

Many are ready to anoint him as the greatest player of the modern era, and his first 11 seasons stack up favorably against anyone in baseball history. He is the only active player with a career OPS higher than 1.000 (1.037). Of course, Pujols left St. Louis, where he powered the Cardinals to World Series championships in 2006 and 2011, for the southern California sun and surf, signing a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.

Jose Reyes

Considering that he has averaged fewer than 100 games per season since 2009, many observers believed the Miami Marlins overpaid in signing Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal to be their shortstop. Concerns about the impact caused by shifting talented but volatile Hanley Ramirez to third base also arose, but there is little doubt that Reyes is one of the most dynamic forces atop a lineup when healthy.

C.J. Wilson

Signing Pujols overshadowed the other major offseason acquisition for the Los Angeles Angels, who stole ace left-hander Wilson away from the division rival Rangers. Wilson, who was 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA the last two years for Texas, signed for five years and $77.5 million and joined a rotation that already included Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana.

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FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

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Ryan Braun

Mired in a steroid scandal during the offseason, Braun won an appeal of his 50-game suspension on a technicality. But the incident is bound to cast a cloud over Braun, the reigning NL MVP, throughout the season and might derail Milwaukee’s bid to repeat as NL Central champion. That task was made tougher by Prince Fielder’s departure and won’t be helped if Braun regresses from batting .332 with 33 home runs and 111 RBIs last season.

Yoenis Cespedes

The Cuban defector — a 5-foot-10, 210-pound slugging center fielder — signed with the Athletics during the offseason, a move that shocked baseball pundits. There is almost universal agreement, however, that Cespedes has the tools to become an All-Star. He set a Cuban league record with 33 home runs last season and delivered a two-run blast Thursday in his second big-league game, a 4-1 win against Seattle at the Tokyo Dome in Japan.

Yu Darvish

The Rangers are banking on Darvish, a Japanese sensation, to replace C.J. Wilson at the front of the rotation and broke the bank to get him. They paid the Nippon Ham Fighters a $51.7 million posting fee and then signed Darvish to a six-year, $56 million deal. He was 19-6 with a 1.44 ERA last season, striking out 276 and walking 36 in 232 innings.

Adam Dunn

Fortunes for the aging White Sox, who must replace stalwart Mark Buehrle in the rotation, might hinge on Dunn’s ability to avoid a repeat of last season’s epic failure. From 2004 to 2010, Dunn averaged 40 home runs and 101 RBIs, and his 107 walks largely offset the 180 strikeouts per season. The slugger didn’t approach those numbers during his first season with Chicago, batting .159 with only 11 home runs and 177 K’s in 122 games.

David Wright

A cornerstone for the Mets since 2004, Wright has batted .300 and averaged 24 home runs with 21 steals, 38 doubles and 98 RBIs the last seven seasons despite mounting injuries. He also brings Gold Glove-caliber defense to the hot corner, but his time in Queens might be coming to a rapid end. Wright is likely to be dealt before the trade deadline July 31.

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MILESTONE METER TO WATCH

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660

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is within striking distance of several milestones, but most notably he is 31 home runs shy of Willie Mays for fourth place all-time. A-Rod is also five doubles from 500 for his career and 107 RBIs from becoming the fourth player in history with 2,000 RBIs.

1,071

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, 42, should establish a record for most appearances by a right-handed pitcher. Already at 1,042 career games, Rivera could join three left-handers — Jesse Orosco (1,252), Mike Stanton (1,178) and John Franco (1,119) — as the fourth player with 1,100 games pitched. Dennis Eckersley (1,071) owns the record for righties.

2,500 x 2

Seattle right fielder Ichiro Suzuki needs only 72 hits to reach 2,500 for his career. With a hot start to the season, he could become the second fastest to that mark, trailing only George Sisler. Meanwhile, Colorado announced Friday that Jamie Moyer, who turns 50 in November, had earned a spot on its staff. He is only 95 strikeouts from 2,500 and could become the oldest pitcher to record a win.

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