Despite spring proclamations of hope and what could be possible, not every team has a serious chance of capturing the World Series title this year. For some clubs, the lack of talent on the field makes that an unrealistic goal for 2012. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a successful season, especially if they set their sights on things that they can accomplish this year. So, let’s take a look at outcomes for nine expected non-contenders that would make 2012 a worthwhile campaign, even if it doesn’t end with a run at the playoffs.
Baltimore – Develop Several Good Starting Pitchers
The Orioles group of highly rated young arms have gone off the tracks, with Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton all struggling to turn their minor league success into solid Major League performances. Their starters ended 2011 tied with Pittsburgh for the lowest WAR of any team in baseball (+5.7), and they traded rotation stalwart Jeremy Guthrie over the winter. While the Orioles have a few good young position players in the organization, they desperately need to develop a couple of quality starting pitchers. Britton has shown the most promise, but for the organization to take a step forward, they’ll need Matusz to rebound or free agent signing Wei-Yin Chen to blossom into a quality starter. If they can get good performances and full healthy seasons out of two of those three starters, they’ll finally have the foundation of a real rotation in place for the future.
Oakland – Settle On a Regular Outfield
Over the winter, the A’s acquired Seth Smith, Josh Reddick, and Colin Cowgill via trades, signed Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Jonny Gomes as free agents, and then capped off their winter by signing Manny Ramirez to a deal that could make him their DH come early summer. There’s only four line-up spots for those seven players, and it’s not clear how exactly the A’s are going to deal with the logjam they created for themselves. The significant salaries for Cespedes and Crisp mean that they’re likely going to play everyday, but the team will have to sort out who plays right field and designated hitter between Reddick, Smith, Gomes, and Cowgill, and then figure out which one will lose playing time if the team adds Ramirez to the mix in June. There’s enough interesting talent in the group to potentially form a quality outfield, but the challenge for the A’s will be getting the right group for the long term into position to build around.
Seattle – Add Two Young Arms to the Rotation
You’d think a team with as many offensive problems as the Mariners would have would need to be focused on scoring runs, but there’s not much the team can do on that side of the ball besides hope that young hitters like Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero live up to their minor league hype. The real chance to add talent to the roster comes on the pitching front, where the team has two premium left-handed pitching prospects who are both knocking on the door to the big leagues. If both Danny Hultzen and James Paxton pitch well in the first half of the season, the Mariners would do well to give both an second half audition for the 2013 rotation, where they could team with Felix Hernandez to create a trio of electric young arms. The Mariners offense isn’t likely to be good any time soon, so a return to legitimacy is going to have to come on the backs of the team’s pitching staff. With Hultzen, Paxton, and the looming arrival of Taijuan Walker, the team has the makings of an elite staff – they just have to get that talent integrated into the big league roster.
Houston – Make Several Veteran for Prospect Swaps
Jeff Luhnow is taking over a team with a significant talent shortage, and there’s not much he can do to help the Astros win in the short term. The team simply needs an influx of useful players from other organizations, and their best chance to acquire those guys is to make their veterans as marketable as possible. They’ve already begun that process by shifting Brett Myers to the closer’s role, as the hope is that a move to the bullpen will give his numbers a big boost and make him a more attractive asset to other clubs in July. The team also needs to maximize Carlos Lee‘s value and do what they can to showcase Wandy Rodriguez in the first half of the season, as these three veterans could all potentially bring back some talent in return if traded at the deadline. Luhnow will almost certainly have to be willing to pick up some salary in all three cases if he wants impact players in return, but the Astros total lack of high-end players should motivate the team to do exactly that.
Chicago Cubs – Help Their Starters Live Up to Their Potential
Over the winter, Theo Epstein essentially built a starting rotation around the idea of ERA being a poor predictor of future performance. He acquired Chris Volstad (4.89 ERA, 3.64 xFIP in 2011) and Travis Wood (5.08 ERA, 4.64 xFIP) and plans to team them up with Ryan Dempster (4.80 ERA, 3.70 xFIP) behind Matt Garza (3.32 ERA, 3.19 xFIP) in the rotation. Nearly their entire rotation posted solid walk-to-strikeout ratios, but were plagued by giving up too many hits on balls in play. By putting a team of quality defenders behind this group, the Cubs could see breakthrough performances across the board. Garza gets enough strikeouts that they might be able to sacrifice a bit of defense when he’s on the field, but with Volstad and Wood especially, the key will be to make sure that the team’s best glove guys are on the field as often as possible. If they can turn some of their starter’s potential into actual production, the Cubs could be better than people expect, and give their fan base some hope that this rebuilding process might actually be fun to watch.
Pittsburgh – Sign Andrew McCutchen to a Long Term Contract
The Pirates got their fan base involved in the franchise again with their first half run success last season. Their strong play and interesting young talent reinvigorated the city, and gave the Pirates long-needed legitimacy once again. That can all be quickly undone, however, if they lose superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen. While he’s under team control for four more seasons, it’s only going to get more expensive to lock him up, and with the emerging trend of long term deals for young stars, the Pirates refusal to buy out McCutchen’s free agent years could send a bad signal to the fan base and create a lot of negative talk that the organization simply doesn’t need. The Pirates have a true franchise player in their center fielder, and they don’t want to risk getting into a Joey Votto situation if they only buy out his arbitration years. The team should do whatever it can to get McCutchen signed to a long term deal that will assure the fans in Pittsburgh that, this time, their star player isn’t going anywhere.
San Diego Padres – Identify a Core of Players to Keep Long Term
While the Padres aren’t expected to be contenders, they didn’t exactly set out on a youth movement this winter, bringing in veterans like Carlos Quentin and Huston Street who are in the last year of their contracts. The team also has walk-year veterans at shortstop (Jason Bartlett) and second base (Orlando Hudson), and has yet to settle on which young players besides Cameron Maybin and Yonder Alonso are part of the foundation that they’re going to build around. Is Chase Headley is going to be their long term third baseman, or do they trade him to create a spot for top prospect Jedd Gyorko? They’ll have to choose between giving playing time to Will Venable or Jesus Guzman, but the Quentin acquisition will keep them from playing both. Should they begin shopping catcher Nick Hundley now that they’ve acquired Yasmani Grandal? Depth is nice, but the Padres will need to clearly identify which players they’re going to keep and which ones they’re going to trade, because the roster doesn’t yet fit together all that nicely.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Get Bought by the Right Owner
We’re cheating a little bit here, as this has nothing to do with the team on the field, and the baseball operations department can’t make this happen, but nothing that happens with the Dodgers in 2012 will be more important to their future success than ensuring that the right owner wins the bidding for the franchise. The 2012 team put together a roster of players that are essentially short-term rentals, so the new owner will be able to instantly come in and implement his vision for returning the Dodgers to contenders in the NL West. Given the intense interest in the franchise and the expected influx of available cash to the franchise upon ownership transfer, the Dodgers shouldn’t have any problem luring the best and brightest front office personnel in the game to Los Angeles to help right the ship. If the right ownership group emerges, the necessary changes will likely be made, and the Dodgers can follow the Cubs model of getting on with a proper reshaping of a storied organization.
New York Mets – Figure Out What They Have On Offense
With Jon Niese, R.A. Dickey, Mike Pelfrey, and the potential return of Johan Santana, the Mets pitching staff could actually be okay. However, in looking at the position players, the Mets should use 2012 to figure out exactly what they have in house. Is Daniel Murphy really an everyday second baseman? If he is, that’s a big piece they can cross off the future shopping list. Can Lucas Duda be capable enough in the outfield to allow his bat to stay in the line-up, or do they need to trade him to a team with an opening at first base or designated hitter? Or, if Ike Davis‘ injury problems persist, do they need to keep Duda as insurance at first base? Can Josh Thole hit left-handed pitching, or is he simply a platoon guy who needs to share the job with another player in order to be a valuable asset? The Mets have more questions than answers when it comes to their young hitters, and they can take advantage of a year with low expectations to get some of those questions answered. Once they know what they have, they can better assess what kinds of players they should acquire to get the team back on track in the National League East.
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