It is finally, for real this time, baseball’s Opening Day. Yes, we’ve had the Japan Opening Series last Wednesday and Thursday, and the new-look Miami Marlins introduce their state-of-the-art ballpark last night against the Cardinals in MLB’s Opening Night, but today we actually have DAY baseball and 13 of the clubs finally playing games that count. The remainder of the clubs will open tomorrow, and on Saturday we will have the first day of the regular season where every major league squad is in action. Opening Day is one of the most special days on the baseball fan’s calendar, as it is the first chance to see your favorite players play in live action, and actually play real baseball as opposed to the practice that spring training games provide. For instance, during spring training players are primarily working on fundamentals and getting back in shape mentally and physically, but once these games count in the standings and player statistics the approach to the game changes and production becomes the name of the game. Also, for the fans, Opening Day is the one day where optimism is highest, spring is back, and expectations are high for every team. Reality starts to set in by the end of the month as teams begin to shape up and settle in to the season, but for one day fans of lesser talented teams can have their hopes for playoff grandeur. Opening Day is also a day where teams have their best pitchers throw (for the most part) and it provides an excellent opportunity to see the aces of staffs match up against each other.
Best Games of the Day
Boston (Lester) vs. Detroit (Verlander), 1 PM ESPN2: The first pitch of today’s action will be thrown by the 2011 American League Cy Young Award recipient, Justin Verlander, to the man who probably would have won the American League MVP Award if chicken and beer hadn’t played their part in the Red Sox historic collapse last September, Jacoby Ellsbury. This game is a heavyweight clash and also a debut for Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and prize Detroit acquisition Prince Fielder, so it is worth checking out if you have the chance.
Atlanta (Hanson) vs. New York Mets (Santana), 1 PM MLB.TV: Just like the Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves are trying to put a brutal collapse behind them, and they start with a tough assignment in Johan Santana and the Mets. Santana missed the entire 2011 season recovering from shoulder surgery, so it will be interesting to see how he does facing major league hitters for the first time since beating the Braves 4-2 on September 2, 2010. Tommy Hanson gets the ball on Opening Day as Braves ace Tim Hudson is expected to miss the first month of the season rehabbing from back surgery, so this is a chance for the 25 year old Hanson to prove himself as a dominant major league pitcher.
American League East: The American League Eastern Division will be the most highly competitive division that we’ve seen in a long time. Everyone knows about the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, but in recent years the Tampa Bay Rays have become a mainstay in the division and wild card races. This year expectations are very high for a fourth team, the Toronto Blue Jays, who finished 81-81 last season despite leading the American League in blown saves with 25. The Jays improved their bullpen over the off-season and some publications have moved them up to second in the projected standings, so it should be fun to see how things pan out in this division. The only known is that the lowly Orioles will finish in last place. My projected finish: Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles.
American League Central: The Detroit Tigers ran away with this division in 2011, finishing 15 games over second place Cleveland, and I am expecting much of the same this year. Justin Verlander was by far the best pitcher in the AL last season and with the improved line-up that the Tigers have this year I expect the other pitchers to pick up the slack and help Detroit win 95 games again this season. My projected finish: Tigers, Indians, Royals, White Sox, Twins.
American League West: Last year the Texas Rangers won this division by 10 games on their way to the World Series, but the team that made the biggest off-season splashes also happen to reside in this division. On December 8, 2011 the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made two HUGE signings, picking up 9-time All-Star and 3-time MVP Albert Pujols to play first base, and 2011 All-Star pitcher C.J. “Str8edgeracer” Wilson for the top of their pitching rotation. In my opinion these two acquisitions made the Angels the favorite in this division, but with Texas being the two-time defending American League champions that race is certain to be entertaining. My projected finish: Angels, Rangers, Athletics, Mariners.
American League Wildcards: This year the new Wild-Card rules take effect, where instead of only one wildcard team, the two teams with the best records that don’t win their divisions will play game 163 to get into the dance. I have the Red Sox and the Rangers playing in that game this year, so it will probably come down to which team has the better starting pitcher available for that one-game playoff.
American League Cy Young: Justin Verlander has to be the favorite to repeat his title as Cy Young Award winner. He was the unanimous selection in the American League last year and with the improved offense in the Tigers lineup the pressure is off Verlander a bit. Another guy who I feel has a decent shot at winning is Red Sox ace Jon Lester, who finished 2011with a 15-9 record, 3.41 ERA, and 11th in strikeouts.
American League MVP: Albert Pujols. This will be his first year in the American League and the chance to play designated hitter on days when the Angels don’t want him playing the field should only help Pujols stay healthy and productive throughout the season. He is already one of the best hitters in the game and he should have no problems getting used to his Angels teammates.
National League East: The Phillies won this division by 13 games last season, and I expect them to repeat as division champs. They went out and got Jonathan Papelbon from Boston to close out games and have the best top of the rotation in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, so there is no reason to expect the Phillies to falter this year. The Washington Nationals are an improving young team and it will be awesome to watch Stephen Strasburg be the ace of that staff and Bryce Harper make his debut at some point this season, but I think the Braves will be able to hold on to second place in that division. My projected finish: Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins, Mets.
National League Central: Last year Milwaukee won this division by 6 games, but the Cardinals slipped in to the wild card and eventually won the World Series. This year I expect the Cardinals and first year manager Mike Matheny to over-take the Brewers and win the Central. Ryan Braun, the left fielder for the Brewers and reigning NL MVP, will need to have a great season to overshadow the rumors and controversy surrounding a drug test positive for enhanced testosterone levels, so look for increased scrutiny on just about everything Braun does this season. The Astros sit at the bottom of this division and it will be intriguing to see if they can improve and try not to lose 100 games against this season. My projected finish: Cardinals, Brewers, Reds, Cubs, Pirates, Astros.
National League West: The Arizona Diamond-Backs took this division last year and still look to be the favorites this season. The 2010 World Series champions get their cleanup hitter and catcher back in Buster Posey, who missed most of last year with ankle and fibula injuries suffered in an at-the-plate collision, and if that offense can score runs they will be a formidable competitor in the National League. The Los Angeles Dodgers and their new management team will be exciting to watch as well and with a couple personnel moves that team has a chance to move up in the standings and have a shot at the division or a wild card berth. My projected finish: Giants, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rockies, Padres.
National League Wild-Cards: I have a feeling the Brewers and Braves will be playing game 163 out in the National League this year. A team out in the NL West might have a chance for it to, it will probably come down to whatever team makes the best trade during the course of the season.
National League Cy Young: Last year Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers won the award and I expect him to have another solid year, but my favorite for this award has to be Roy Halladay of the Phillies. He’s already won the award twice over the course of his career and he is a pitcher that you almost expect to go all nine innings every time he steps on the mound. This year with Papelbon as his closer he won’t be asked to do so as much, and the 2.35 ERA Halladay put up last year is sure to get him the award if he can repeat those kind of numbers.
National League MVP: Ryan Braun won this award last year amid controversy of performance enhancing drugs. This year Reds first baseman Joey Votto is the pre-season favorite, and after agreeing to a 10 year, $225 million dollar contract, I expect the power hitter to live up to that deal.
World Series: I hope I’m wrong about this, but my pre-season favorites to be playing October baseball are the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies. Once you make the playoffs pitching becomes the name of the game even more so than during the regular season, and the top of these two rotations are just incredible. I wish I could put my Red Sox into this projection but it may be a rough year for the Sox. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did make it into the Series, but then again I wouldn’t be surprised if they missed the playoffs entirely again, so for today’s column I’ll put in the Tigers and Phillies.