DENVER—The Cardinals won the World Series last October. But the defending champions are far from the same team this spring.
The focal point of the offseason was the free-agent departure of Albert Pujols, who proved by signing with the Angels that the top dollar was his No. 1 priority.
The true losses in St. Louis, though, were manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who stepped down after the World Series. La Russa and Duncan are difference makers, and with the loss of those three iconic figures in Cardinals history, it is hard to see them repeating as World Series champions, even if they somehow manage to get back to the playoffs.
And with the Brewers losing Prince Fielder to free agency and dealing with the PED mess of Ryan Braun, the stage is set for the Reds to bounce back from a down year and reclaim the National League Central.
Last year the Diamondbacks were baseball’s sleeper. The year before that the Rangers ended the Angels’ run in the AL West, and wound up losing the World Series to the Giants. The Rockies were a surprise NL wild card in 2007 and 2009, and the Rays stunned all of baseball by advancing to the World Series in 2008. And their postseason run last season may have been even more surprising.
Which team will be the surprise of 2012? What about Cincinnati?
The Reds were already blessed with an explosive lineup built around Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, and then they put together a package to land Padres ace Mat Latos, who goes into Cincinnati’s rotation in the No. 2 spot, and bolstered the bullpen by signing free-agent closer Ryan Madson.
And don’t overlook the impact the February signings of Ryan Ludwick and Jeff Francis can have. Ludwick provides a solid righthanded bat, and Francis showed he was healthy again last year in Kansas City. Given the Reds’ defense and offense, Francis could easily win 12-15 games this season.
How Much Will Fielder Help?
• The Tigers are definitely the team to beat in the American League Central, but did they really improve that much with the signing of Prince Fielder? No.
No knock on Fielder, but the Tigers didn’t add offense with Fielder as much as they replaced offense because they will be without Victor Martinez in 2012. And what little edge they may gain in offense with Fielder over Martinez, they lose with a defense that will feature subpar infield corners: Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera at third.
Agent Scott Boras found the perfect place for Fielder. Even though general manager Dave Dombrowski balked at pumping up the payroll, Boras worked on owner Mike Ilitch, who wants a World Series more than the four Stanley Cups his Red Wings have won, and was willing to blow up his budget to land Fielder.
• San Francisco has chipped away at its strength to add marginal offensive help. First it sent premium pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the Mets last July for outfielder Carlos Beltran, who did not provide enough offensive help to push the Giants into the playoffs and then left as a free agent. This offseason, the Giants shipped lefty Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals for journeyman outfielder Melky Cabrera.
Are the Giants hoping to salvage something out of that seven-year, $126 million deal they gave lefty Barry Zito? Zito is 43-61, 4.55 the last five years, and appeared in 13 games (nine starts) a year ago. To his credit, he has been extremely professional in handling his diminishing role on the team, and has never backed off working to find a solution to his failures.
• Will a change of scenery provide a bump for righthander Jeremy Guthrie? The Rockies hope they found their veteran workhorse in Guthrie, who has worked 200-plus innings each of the last three seasons. They look at his limited pitching experience in his youth as a bonus, feeling his arm is actually fresher at age 33 than many pitchers at 27. They also are counting on the fact that Guthrie, having had to survive in Camden Yards, is a rare breed who will find Coors Field more friendly than his previous park.
There also is the curiosity of how much he will benefit from moving to the NL West, where he will pitch in more pitcher-friendly parks against less imposing lineups.