By Sean Gagnier
As Spring Training hits its stride fans across the country are examining their teams and the hope of a post season berth springs eternal - and with the new wild card system, even more teams could make it to Oct. baseball.
American League - East
New York Yankees
In Jan. the Yankees made a trade that could very well keep them in the playoffs for years to come - they traded away their future backstop Jesus Montero in return for the phenom from Seattle, RHP Michael Pineda. Pineda made waves as a Mariner and had shown that he has the stuff it takes to be a big league starter. He will benefit from having the luxury of not having to be the ace of the staff in New York and will continue to develop into one of the most imposing pitchers in the league.
Three days after the Yankees traded for Pineda they reached a deal with veteran RHP Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda wasn't the biggest name on the market, but he gives the Yankees some much needed veteran experience on their rotation and can eat innings as a fifth starter. He drew interest from several other clubs but New York made the right moves and landed Kuroda for 2012. GM Brian Cashman wasn't done with the Yankees pitching and in Feb. made a deal that sent oft-maligned starter A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh for prospects. Burnett had struggled in the last few years in New York and was in need of a change of scenery, although that change in scenery ended up with him fracturing his orbital bone in batting practice.
The East is, as always, the toughest division in baseball with most of the teams having improved vastly over their 2011 rosters. Boston was sent reeling in the wake of the worst collapse in the modern era and allegations of drinking in the clubhouse, new manager Bobby Valentine has since tried to change the culture in the clubhouse and has encountered resistance from players. As good as the Red Sox are, they may not fully buy into the Bobby V philosophy. Tampa Bay made some minor additions but haven't improved much. Baltimore threw their hats into the ring on several big name free agents, but failed to land any of them. Toronto has made the most improvement and continues to make excellent moves that could propel them to contention in the division.
American League - Central
When Martinez tore his ACL, it caused many Tigers fans to get sick to their stomachs - for about a week. Owner Mike Illich had his eyes on the free agent market like every other baseball fan and like most other baseball fans his eyes were drawn to Prince Fielder. Dombrowski had stated that he didn't believe the Tigers could afford Fielder and that he wouldn't fit into the lineup. But like Tigers fans know, what Illich wants, Illich gets. The deal had all the markings of an Illich deal that went over the head of Dombrowski and brought Fielder to Detroit for 9-years $215M.
The move gave the Tigers the most fearsome 3-4 hitters in the game - with both players averaging 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI per season. Miguel Cabrera was forced to shift across the diamond back to his original position of 3B, a move that has many Tigers fans concerned about team defense. But in the off season Cabrera has shed more than 20 lbs. and he still possesses one of the strongest arms at the position, something that was hidden while he was at first.
The Central got substantially weaker in the off season; Chicago is going hard into a rebuild, Minnesota is still dealing with injuries to Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, Kansas City is on the rise but is relying heavily on rookies while Cleveland attempted to beef up their roster but ended up adding C-list players. Detroit will run away with the division in 2012 and win their second straight division championship.
American League - West
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Pujols, one of the most prolific hitters in the history of the sport will fit right into the 1B spot in Anaheim and should have no trouble adjusting to American League pitchers. Many players that have made the switch between leagues have struggled in adjusting to the new pitchers, but when you're as good as Pujols you can hit anything you want.
Wilson was the ace of the Rangers team, but he will serve as the fourth or fifth starter for the Angels - a position that he is more suited to. The Angels locked up Wilson for five years and landed themselves a solid pitcher and in the same swing they dealt a blow to the Rangers pitching staff. Anaheim already boasted a formidable pitching staff, but the addition of Wilson makes the Angels one of the best pitching teams in the league.
The West will be a dog fight between the Rangers and the Angels with entire way down the stretch. Oakland had made strides to be in the hunt, with GM Billy Beane finally being able to spend money and land Cuban superstar Yoenis Cespedes and signed Manny Ramirez. But a season ending ACL tear to 3B Scott Sizemore could derail any hopes Oakland had. Seattle in the meantime, continued their habit of trading away talent before it can benefit them and will finish in the basement in the West.
The battle in the West will be fierce, but with the addition of Japanese sensation Yu Darvish to their rotation and the retention of the corps of the offense the Rangers will make a run at the AL West but come up just short and will have to play in the MLB's inaugural American League play-in game for the playoffs.
Toronto Blue Jays