The 2012 National League Will Be Dramatically Different

In the Beginning
Opening Day of the 2012 MLB season will provide a dynamic first look at the revised, rebooted, and reconstructed National League of Professional Ball Clubs– commonly referred to as the NL. There have been few moments in the League’s history when the start of a single season featured the kind of warp speed changes that will ultimately lead to sweeping new bases of power, dramatic franchise revivals, and a restructuring of what it takes to build a playoff contending team.

Say Hello to My Little Friend Jeffrey 
On Wednesday April 4th a starting pitcher for the former Florida Marlins will throw the first pitch of the season in the first game at Marlins Stadium, the new home of the newly rechristened Miami Marlins. The Marlins’ opponents will be the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, who recently lost the best hitter of the 21st century from their roster. This is an appropriate starting point for our tour of the redesigned and fully loaded 2012 National League.

The first game of the 2012 Baseball season is all about the renewal of the Marlins and the ability of the Cardinals to sustain their Championship dominance. That game will likely showcase the return of two of the National League’s elite pitching aces– the Cards’ Adam Wainwright, who missed the 2011 season with Tommy John surgery, and the Marlins’ Josh Johnson, who was shut down halfway through the season with elbow problems.

After winning the 2003 World Series the Marlins have spent eight years wandering aimlessly around the National League East, finishing as high as second place only once. Now owner Jeffrey Loria has a new ballpark, a newly opened wallet, and intentions to refit his team with the latest playoff specs.

Loria’s near-simultaneous offers to top free agents Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, C. J. Wilson, and who knows how many others, was a clear message that the Miami owner was planning to watch a number of post season games from his newly built skybox in October 2012.

A Feast in the NL Central
In the NL Central Division kitchen, the St. Louis Cardinals are looking to cook up consecutive World Series appearances, but they’ll have to do it with fewer ingredients in the cupboard. Take last year’s Championship season, now subtract the best manager in baseball (Tony La Russa) and the best player in baseball (Albert Pujols) from the 2012 recipe. Now add large amounts of steaming Milwaukee Brewers, generous portions of the newly spiced up Cincinnati Reds’ starting rotation (the Mat Latos trade), and fill your glass with a flagon of reconstituted Cubs. Shake well and open carefully.

Whose NL Central cuisine will reign supreme? If Dusty Baker can put his distracting player reclamation projects into the deep freeze and keep his focus on the main ingredient, the Reds could cook up a feast in 2012.

90% is Genius. The Other Half is 50% Toughness.  
Charging into the National League with multiple rotating spent titanium ammo guns blazing in 2012 will be two of the game’s most dynamic and intelligent executives: Theo Epstein and Sandy Alderson. Their jobs will be to resuscitate two of the League’s biggest franchises, both on life support with health care benefits running out and both bleeding payroll for years: the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets.

Sandy Alderson’s MLB career has been outstanding and historic: General Manager of the Oakland A’s during the resurgent 1980 and 1990 eras; the tough and creative executive in the Baseball Commissioner’s Office who in 1999 accepted the resignations of MLB umpires who thought they would shut the game down as part of a union negotiation strategy; and most recently the CEO of the San Diego Padres. If the owners are smart, and the fans are lucky, Alderson should be the next Commissioner of Baseball.

As the new General Manager of the Mets, Sandy Alderson will bring sanity to a franchise in multiplicities of disarray, enforcing the kind of smart business and fiscal acumen that other MLB franchises will soon envy. Alderson has a commitment to professionalism and excellence that only an ex-Marine can bring. Look for the New York Mets to swing that 500,000 ton supership slowly back into the MLB fast lane. Then watch the hell out.
                    
Theo Epstein did what 86 years of various Red Sox front offices could not do: he finally got Boston into the World Series and won it all. And Epstein did it twice: in 2004 and 2007. Theo Epstein is the new President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs and his first move was to bring the brilliant Padres GM Jed Hoyer back to Epstein’s team. Hoyer worked as Epstein’s Assistant GM in Boston from 2005 to 2009, and they have a unique relationship that works on a professional and personal level.

Here’s an easy bet to make the next time you’re in Atlantic City, Reno, or Vegas: take the Cubs to go all the way for the first time since 1908, maybe by 2014. And that’s a mortal lock. With both of these baseball icons now personally directing National League teams, the NL will never be the same again.

The Upside
The San Francisco Giants are not going anywhere. Long-tenured GM Brian Sabean may be the Grizzly Adams of National League GMs but apparently he’s learned a few things along the way. The Giants’ outstanding starting and bullpen pitching is actually stronger than it’s ever been and the Giants’ front office improved the offense to the point where National League pitchers may have to actually pay attention to them in 2012. If there is one team in baseball that could really grab the League by the scruff and soar next season it is this San Francisco team.

The Philadelphia Phillies are the war horse of the National League: wily veterans, RBI producers, individuals who have been around the block a few times, and starting pitching rivaled only by the Giants. Take this team for granted, or poke them, and you will regret it, your family will regret it, and everyone you’ve ever known will regret it.

Did I mention the Arizona Diamondbacks? The bad news for other NL teams is that the Snakes have improved over the 2011 team that won the National League West Division. Seems they added Oakland A’s ace Trevor Cahill and improved an already decent bullpen. Oh, and the front office seems to be doing well: the brilliant Kevin Towers is GM and 2011 National League Manager of the Year Kirk Gibson is still the Manager. Well, well, well… 
       
The Downside
Three damaged NL franchises will celebrate their local 50th anniversaries in 2012: the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Houston Astros, and the New York Mets. The Dodgers are in a deep hole without a paddle, but the right new ownership should be able to get the LA brand out of hock and back into elite territory in the next few years. Good news for the somewhat moribund Giant-Dodger rivalry.    

The Mets have been going down a bad road for a long time, highlighted by one post season appearance in the last 11 years (lost the 2006 NLCS) and the careless investment of huge payrolls in underachieving management and players. Here’s just the past three years of the Met’s payroll, their MLB payroll ranking, and the results:

2011: $120.1 million, 4th highest in MLB, 4th place NL East;
2010: $143.4 million, 5th highest in MLB, 4th place NL East;
2009: $147.4 million, 2nd highest in MLB, 4th place NL East.

Through 2014, the Mets owe chronically-injured starter Johan Santana and apparently over-the-hill outfielder Jason Bay $106 million.

Say goodbye to the Houston Astros, serial underachievers who were told to leave the National League after next season and never return. They will be joining the American League West Division just in time to be pummeled by the Los Angeles Angels and Albert Pujols for at least the next fifteen years. Quick recap: in the past 25 years the Astros made the post season just six times– and were eliminated each time. Why President Obama forced them out of the National League I will never understand…

What It All Means
National League baseball will be one of the most fascinating and complex stories in professional sports over the next several years. You might want to be there.

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