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The 2012 MLB season boasts many contenders, leaving title race wide open

By Tom Gallagher
On April 7, 2012

 

It was the third pitch of his third at-bat. Off-speed; a junk ball.
 
Still, Yoenis Cespedes kept his hands back, waited for the break, took a swing, and connected. Touch 'em
all.
 
Cespedes certainly got his major-league career off to a fast start in just his second game since signing
a contract with the Oakland A's. In the back half of the season-opening Tokyo Series, the international
sensation hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning to lead the A's to a 4-1 victory over Seattle inside
the Tokyo Dome.
 
Whether or not he will continue to produce remains to be seen, but Cespedes' quick start did beg one
question with the "official" opening day of the 2012 MLB season looming: Is this a sign of things to come
for baseball figures in new cities?
 
Several big names, be it players or coaches, changed zip codes during the offseason. Heavy prices were
paid for players and coaches that changed the direction of organizations.
 
The two largest of names to change teams over the winter were Albert Pujols, who left the defending
World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, and Prince Fielder, who parted ways with the Milwaukee
Brewers.
 
Pujols, a three-time NL MVP, signed the second-richest contract in baseball history with the Angels in
December. For the Angels to contend, the contracts they handed to Pujols and fellow free agent signee,
former Texas Rangers southpaw C.J. Wilson, have to play in their favor.
 
Meanwhile, the power-hitting Fielder signed a nine-year deal to play in Motown. Adding to the 2011 All-
Star Game MVP to a Tigers' lineup that already features Miguel Cabrera should scare AL Central pitchers.
 
Pujols' departure wasn't the only one of note for the defending champs. Manager Tony La Russa retired
following the team's seven-game World Series victory over the Rangers. He managed 5,097 games in his
career and ranks third all-time in wins with 2,728. Needless to say, his successor, Mike Matheny, who
has never managed a game in MLB, has big shoes to fill.
 
The Cardinals will likely struggle in their quest to repeat. Likewise, the departure of Fielder leaves a big
void in the thick of the Brewers' lineup. The NL Central is very much up for grabs.
 
Robin Ventura joins Matheny as the only rookie managers in the league this season. Ventura is now the
bench boss for the Chicago White Sox, replacing the outspoken Ozzie Guillen. Guillen was released by
the White Sox at the end of last season and now manages a revamped Miami Marlins squad.
 
Guillen gives the Marlins an identity - one they haven't had since their 2003 World Series win. They
added starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell, both reliable pitchers, to the staff. Buehrle will be
slotted behind ace Josh Johnson, who can be dominant if healthy.
 
The team had trouble scoring last season, but on paper, the offense is stacked this season. They signed
shortstop Jose Reyes, who will lead off, giving opposing pitchers the inconvenience of facing the 2011 NL
batting champion right from the get-go.
 
If Hanley Ramirez returns to the excellent form he showed a couple of seasons ago, he will give the
Marlins two great players in the top half of their lineup.
 
As per usual, the perennial-contender Yankees made headlines during the offseason for personnel
moves. Most recently, in a move that surprised most of the baseball world, Andy Pettitte came out of
retirement to re-join the team. Though he won't be ready for opening day, all indications are that he'll
become a regular in the team's starting rotation eventually.
 
The addition, or re-addition, of Pettitte gives the Yankees something they haven't had in several years:
depth in starting pitching. The team also signed 37-year-old starter Hiroki Kuroda and traded top
prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle for starter Michael Pineda. C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and
Freddy Garcia round out the team's starting pitching, leaving manager Joe Girardi with tough decisions
to make, but convenient options to have.
 
Having Alex Rodriguez back healthy is sure to help the Yankees. A-Rod's numbers dipped to 16 home
runs and 62 RBIs in an injury-shortened 2011 season. It was the first time he hit fewer than 30 homers
and batted in less than 100 runs since the 1997 season. His return to prominence should bolster the
middle of the Yankees lineup.
 
For as sure as the Yankees are to contend in the AL East, the tweaked Boston Red Sox are equally
sure to rival them. Following their late season collapse in 2011 that saw the team miss the playoffs,
manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein parted ways with the organization. Bobby
Valentine has stepped into Francona's role while Epstein's assistant, Ben Cherington, stepped into the
GM position.
 
The team lost the heart of its squad, captain Jason Varitek, and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to
retirement. Closer Jonathan Papelbon left Boston for greener pastures in Philadelphia. J.D. Drew was
not retained; Marco Scutaro was traded.
 
Despite all of the aforementioned changes, the Red Sox will field a team with a good core of their
squad returning. Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez are terrific. The starting rotation
still features Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. If Clay Buchholz can return to form after an injury-riddled
performance in 2011, the rotation is even stronger.
 
The Tampa Bay Rays mounted a stellar September comeback last season to pass the Red Sox and make
the playoffs. They return a very good pitching staff and will contend for AL East glory as well.
 
All three teams in the AL East are sure to agree with the league's newly adopted playoff format. Each
league will have two wild-card teams in addition to the division winners. The wild-card qualifiers will
meet in a one-game round to determine who moves on.
 
Essentially, all three aforementioned AL East clubs could make the playoffs. Though unlikely, the
possibility is there. We're throwing things at the wall; just tossing out some junk balls.
 
And if Cespedes has shown us anything in the early going of this 2012 MLB season, it's that any junk ball
can be hit out of the park.
 
Tom Gallagher can be reached by email at gallagher.record@live.com.

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