The top storylines of the 2012 season

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We have used the word “storylines” around here a whole lot lately. Sorry about that. Until the games start later, it’s all about the narrative.  We can get back to our more natural state — reacting to cool stuff that happens rather than speculating about what will — not long after the Cardinals and Marlins get going down in Miami this evening.

But for now, here are the storylines that seem like they’ll dominate the 2012 season.  I went with five because there are only so many of these things that truly sustain themselves once teams meet in battle. These, I think, will sustain themselves:

1.  The second wild card:  Remember all of that craziness on the last night of the 2011 regular season? Yeah, that was great. So it makes perfect sense that Major League Baseball has instituted something that would have utterly mooted it.  Yes, two teams in each league will win the wild card going forward, and that definitely lowers the stakes for teams that were heretofore on the playoff bubble.

But it certainly raises the stakes for teams fighting for the division, as the wild card winners will now be at a sharp disadvantage in the form of being thrust into a one-game playoff to kick things off while division winners avoid it.  Whether this works to enhance the allure of winning the division and causes managers to really go for it, or whether it simply means that teams will change their tactics and coast late in order to set up favorable pitching matchups for the one-game playoff, will determine how cool this new setup really is.

2. The sure-to-be brutal AL West race:  The Rangers have won the American League pennant two years running.  The Angels have just signed the best hitter in Albert Pujols and (arguably) the best pitcher in C.J. Wilson from the free agent market. They will also see the return of the man who was once their best hitter, Kendrys Morales.  That probably closes the ten-game gap between these two teams from last year, and sets up what should be a humdinger of a race.

3. The return from Chokesville: The Red Sox and the Braves each gagged away what looked to be certain playoff appearances last year. In Boston the collapse dominated the news and lead to front office and managerial upheaval. In Atlanta it barely registered and the Braves stood pat. Watching how each team responds in 2012 will be like a cool experiment to see what method works best to address dreaded choking.

4. The departed sluggers:  Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have abandoned the NL Central. Their production will, in part, be replaced by Carlos Beltran on the Cardinals and Aramis Ramirez on the Brewers. There’s something pretty cool about each team’s post-megastar-loss damage control plan being the determining factor as to who wins the division.  At least if the Reds don’t sneak in.

5. Moneyball: No, I’m not talking about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. I’m talking about the new world baseball teams seem to have suddenly found themselves, flush with cash and enhanced franchise value due to skyrocketing television rights fees. It’s what allowed the Angels to sign Albert Pujols. It allowed Frank McCourt to sell the Dodgers for $2 billion too.  Other teams — the Reds with their Joey Votto signing and the Giants extending Matt Cain — are making bolder financial moves now too, either because they anticipate their own improved financial prospects or because they feel pressure by the competition.  The upshot: teams may rush to lock up young talent now, before the market gets too out of control, and that could lead to a number of mid-season deals.

So those are the five I’m watching. But like I said before, the games change everything. Once pitches start being thrown in anger — and once guys start breaking unwritten rules and getting into fun little in-season controversies — the importance of these preseason storylines diminishes.

Play ball.

Marcus Stroman named World Baseball Classic MVP

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United States starter Marcus Stroman was named Most Valuable Player of the World Baseball Classic after helping lead the U.S. to its first ever WBC title on Wednesday night in an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico. Stroman flirted with a no-hitter through six innings, but gave up a double to lead off the seventh before being relieved by Sam Dyson.

Stroman also pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Dominican Republic in Pool C play on March 11. He struggled in Pool F play against Puerto Rico last Friday, surrendering four runs in 4 2/3 innings.

The WBC MVP award understandably goes to a player of the winning team. However, Wladimir Balentien of the Netherlands deserves special mention. In 26 at-bats during the WBC, he hit a double and had a WBC-high four home runs, 12 RBI, and 12 runs scored while putting up a .615/.677/.1.115 batting line. That’s MVP-esque as far as this tournament is concerned.

U.S. blanks Puerto Rico 8-0 to win first World Baseball Classic title

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The United States handed Puerto Rico its first loss in the World Baseball Classic, winning 8-0 for its first title in the fourth iteration of the tournament.

Puerto Rico starter Seth Lugo was matching Marcus Stroman zero-for-zero through the first two innings, but the U.S. broke out for a pair of runs when Ian Kinsler deposited a two-run home run just beyond the fence in left-center at Dodger Stadium. The U.S. tacked on two more in the fifth on RBI singles from Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen, pushing the lead to 4-0.

Meanwhile, Stroman was dealing. The right-hander, normally seen in a Blue Jays uniform, held Puerto Rico hitless through his first six innings, giving up just a lone walk. The U.S. put together a long rally in the top of the seventh, scoring three runs on three hits, two walks, and a hit batter. Stroman came back out for the seventh but immediately served up a double down the left field line to Angel Pagan. U.S. manager Jim Leyland immediately lifted Stroman from the game, bringing in Sam Dyson who escaped the inning without any further damage.

Pat Neshek allowed a leadoff single to Yadier Molina to begin the eighth, but induced a double-play, then worked around a two-out walk by striking out Kenny Vargas to end the frame.

In the ninth, David Robertson took over. He induced an infield pop-up from Enrique Hernandez. After Pagan singled up the middle, Francisco Lindor sharply grounded out to Eric Hosmer at first base for the second out. Finally, Robertson closed it out, inducing Carlos Correa to ground out to third base, making the U.S. 8-0 victors over Puerto Rico to win the World Baseball Classic.

Puerto Rico had an admirable run, defeating Venezuela, Mexico, and Italy to get out of Pool D undefeated. Then, in Pool F, it beat Venezuela again as well as the U.S. and the Dominican Republic to move to the semifinals. It narrowly edged Netherlands 4-3 in the semifinals to get into the finals.

The U.S. lost to the D.R. but beat Canada and Colombia to get out of Pool C. In Pool F, the U.S. lost to Puerto Rico and defeated the D.R again as well as Venezuela. The U.S. took down Japan in the semifinals to advance to the finals to play Puerto Rico.

The U.S. joins Japan (twice, 2006 and ’09) and the Dominican Republic (2013) as countries to win the World Baseball Classic. The 2017 tournament was a rousing success, setting attendance records, drawing over one million fans to ballparks to take in the games. It will hopefully encourage commissioner Rob Manfred and others to make a concerted effort to make the 2021 tournament bigger and better.