Power shift tops MLB season of changes
NEW YORK - ReutersA power shift that could darken the prospects of the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and threaten the Texas Rangers’ American League dominance is one of many changes in store for the 2012 Major League Baseball (MLB) season.
The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics launch the six-month regular-season marathon with a two-game series starting today in Japan’s Tokyo Dome before the campaign gets underway in MLB’s home parks starting on April 4.
The climax of the season will have a new layer of suspense with the addition of a second wildcard berth for the playoffs in both the American League (AL) and National League (NL), bringing the number of postseason teams to 10 from eight last year.
That should provide hope for more teams at the finish, and will produce one-game showdowns for advancement to the best-of-five divisional playoffs. It will also add urgency for teams to win a division in order to avoid the one-and-done scenario.
On the diamond, the biggest changes came with a pair of blockbuster free-agent signings.
Albert Pujols, a three-time NL Most Valuable Player (MVP), joined the Los Angeles Angels while the Detroit Tigers landed Prince Fielder in a hijacking of two of the NL’s top sluggers.
Pujols, who hit .299 with 37 homers and 99 runs batted in last season for the Cardinals, signed a massive 10-year, $254 million deal with the Angels in December, six weeks after wining the World Series in St. Louis.
The weakening of the Cardinals, who tried to offset the loss of Pujols by adding former Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, and the Brewers flung the door open for the Cincinnati Reds to join the Central race after a big trade that added starter Mat Latos.
Texas countered by spending $111 million to acquire young Japanese pitching ace Yu Darvish, paying his Japanese team $51 million for his rights before agreeing to a six-year $60 million deal in January.
NL East success may be hard to come by given the formidable pitching of the Philadelphia Phillies. But Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee may not have as many runs to work with as injuries were piling up on the veteran squad.
In the NL West, the Arizona Diamondbacks look to build on their impressive 2011 season in which they won 94 games, while pitching-rich San Francisco Giants try to recapture the magic that carried them to the World Series title two years ago.
The AL East once again looks like the toughest division in the major leagues, with an improving Toronto Blue Jays team wondering what they have to do to move up in the standings.
The Yankees fortified their pitching by signing free agent Hiroki Kuroda.
Boston hopes to rebound from a September swoon that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to overtake them for a playoff berth with comeback years from Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis, who were both hampered by injuries last season.