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Monday, January 23, 2012
The biggest baseball offseason storylines

By By Amanda Rykoff

Pitchers and catchers report to major league spring training camps in approximately 30 days (depending on the team). In honor of this monumental occasion, espnW presents its own 30 for 30: 30 facts, observations and questions about all 30 teams.

American League East

Baltimore Orioles: New Orioles general manager Dan Duquette held the same position with the Red Sox from 1994-2002. Skipper Buck Showalter managed the AL East rival Yankees from 1992-95. The two are teaming up to attempt to break a streak of 14 straight sub-.500 seasons and emerge from the AL East basement. Good luck.

Boston Red Sox: Fenway Park opened April 20, 1912 and will turn 100 years old this year. It's the oldest park in the majors and will be the first to celebrate the century milestone; Wrigley Field joins it in 2014. The Red Sox have a new GM (Ben Cherrington), manager (Bobby Valentine) and closer (Andrew Bailey). How will the Red Sox celebrate the centennial?

New York Yankees: Remember just a few weeks ago when the Yankees were desperate for pitching? Yeah, that's not an issue anymore. Following the arrival of stud pitcher Michael Pineda from Seattle via trade (farewell Jesus Montero) and Hiroki Kuroda via free agency, the Yankees now find themselves with -- gasp! -- too much pitching. It looks like spring training will be a battle between A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia for the fifth spot in the rotation. Yankee fans don't know how to handle this information.

Tampa Bay Rays: From 1998 to 2007, the Devil Rays had an average winning percentage of .399 and never finished higher than fourth place in the American League East. Since dropping the word Devil in 2008, the Rays' average winning percentage is .568. They've also won the AL East twice and made the playoffs three times. They've got one of the best pitching staffs in the game. Perhaps it pays to not have a deal with the devil.

Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays' slugging right fielder Jose Bautista has hit 97 homers the past two seasons (54 in 2010 and 43 in '11). He's the first player to lead the major leagues in home runs in back-to-back seasons since Mark McGwire in 1998 and '99. A third straight major league home run title would be the first three-peat since Mike Schmidt in 1974-76.

American League Central

Chicago White Sox: After eight seasons with Ozzie Guillen at the helm, Robin Ventura makes his managerial debut with the White Sox. He will become the 39th manager in franchise history and the 17th to have played for the team -- he was the third baseman on the South Side from 1989-98. Fun fact: Ventura, 44, actually played on the 2002 AL All-Star team with White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

Cleveland Indians: Not many bullpens have a nickname, but the Indians' does. Last year, the relief pitchers, who make up one of the most surprising pitching corps in baseball, dubbed themselves the "Bullpen Mafia." It's a nickname that started on Twitter and Tribe closer Chris Perez helped promote. No word yet if VH-1 is planning a "Bullpen Mafia Wives" reality show.

Detroit Tigers: Here's something entertaining to distract Tiger fans from the fact Victor Martinez will miss the 2012 season with a torn ACL. Ace pitcher Justin Verlander recently appeared on "Conan." The reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner revealed the secret to his success: The night before every start he eats at Taco Bell. "Three crunchy taco supremes, no tomato. Cheesy gordita crunch. And a Mexican pizza, no tomato." Do not try this at home.

Kansas City Royals: The Royals will have the youngest team in the majors and none of the young players stand out more than first baseman Eric Hosmer. Though he didn't win AL rookie of the year, his .293 batting average, 19 home runs and 78 RBIs in 128 games made him a strong contender. He led the majors among first-year payers in runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, slugging, total bases and extra-base hits. Should Royals fans be worried about a sophomore slump? This kid is the real deal. And he even got offseason batting tips from Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

Minnesota Twins: 99. 42. 27. No, that's not some mystical sequence of numbers. It is the number of losses (99), games started behind the plate by Joe Mauer (42) and times the Twins used the disabled list last season (a major league high 27 times for 16 different players). The most important number not listed here is one. That's the number of home runs Joe Mauer has hit at Target Field in two seasons.

American League West

Los Angeles Angels: The Angels made the biggest news of the offseason, landing the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, and poaching lefty C.J. Wilson from AL West rival Texas. But even with these huge moves and a fat new contract for ace Jered Weaver, you'll never guess who has the highest 2012 salary on the team. Yup, it's Vernon Wells. The team took on Wells and his albatross of a contract last season after a trade with Toronto and will pay him $21 million in 2012. Albert Pujols will be paid $12 million. That is not a typo.

Oakland A's: General manager Billy Beane (no, it's not really Brad Pitt) has completed yet another roster makeover. Goodbye Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Josh Outman, Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui. Hello Josh Reddick, Bartolo Colon and Seth Smith, just acquired from the Rockies. Here's your fun fact: Smith was Eli Manning's backup quarterback at Ole Miss.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners' offense has been, well, offensive for the past two seasons. In 2010, the M's mustered just 513 runs, worst in the majors. They followed up with another league-worst output -- 556 runs. The M's traded pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for power-hitting catcher/DH Jesus Montero in hopes of turning things around. Another anemic year and the team would be the first to finish last in runs scored in three straight seasons since the San Diego Padres from 1973-75.

Texas Rangers: The two-time AL champions lost C.J. Wilson but acquired Japanese sensation Yu Darvish (six years, $60 million plus a whopping $51.7 million posting fee). The 2010 and '11 Rangers were the first AL team to make back-to-back World Series appearances since the Yankees dynasty of 1998-2001 and would be the first since then to make three consecutive appearances. On the flip side, the Rangers were the first team to lose two consecutive World Series since the Atlanta Braves in 1991-92.

National League East

Atlanta Braves: No, I'm not going to talk about Atlanta's epic collapse that allowed the Cardinals to make the playoffs and eventually win the World Series. Instead, I'll talk about closer Craig Kimbrel. The unanimous NL Rookie of the Year finished 2011 with 46 saves (most ever by a rookie and tied for the most in the National League) and 127 strikeouts (more than any other Braves reliever in history). He had a ridiculous stretch in which he made 38 straight appearances without giving up a run. Sure, he blew the save in the final game of the season to cap the collapse, but I said I wasn't going to talk about that.

Miami Marlins: Lots of players took their talents to South Beach this offseason: shortstop Jose Reyes, pitcher Mark Buehrle, pitcher/Gatorade cooler smasher Carlos Zambrano, closer Heath Bell and manager Ozzie Guillen. Add in a brand new ballpark complete with the horrifying "Miami Marlins Energy Team," it's no wonder the club is close to a deal to be featured in the next installment of Showtime's "The Franchise." This team sounds like it was built for TV just as much as it was built for baseball.

Cole Hamels
Cole Hamels will likely strike it rich on the free-agent market next offseason, making this year a do-or-die season in Philadelphia.

New York Mets: The team traded Carlos Beltran midseason. Jose Reyes departed to division rival Miami. Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch have arrived. Owner Fred Wilpon continues to alienate season-ticket holders. But the biggest on-field story will likely be the new dimensions at Citi Field, designed to help the Mets' offensive output, particularly from David Wright and Jason Bay. Outfield walls will be moved in and the left-field wall will be lowered from 16- to 8-feet high. It's worth a shot, though whether anybody will be at the park to see it is another story entirely.

Philadelphia Phillies: Yes, the Phillies have two of the best starters in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. But with starter Cole Hamels set to become a free agent after this season, it's go time for the five-time NL East champions. New closer Jonathan Papelbon is a key part of the plan. He helped make the Dropkick Murphy's "Shipping Up to Boston" an anthem at Fenway. He'll need a new song at Citizens Bank Park. Perhaps Philadelphia Freedom?

Washington Nationals: While the world waits to see if Prince Fielder lands in Washington, let's take a moment to appreciate outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse. And I'm not just talking about his glorious beard. Morse, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 pounds, finished his breakout 2011 season with 31 HR, 95 RBIs, a .303 batting average, .360 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage. Beyond his performance on the field, Morse quickly became a fan favorite at Nats Park, choosing A-Ha's "Take On Me" as his walk-up song. Any player who can generate impromptu singing of this 1980's classic is OK by me.

National League Central

Chicago Cubs: Theo Epstein has arrived. Carlos Zambrano is gone. I don't think anything else matters much to Cubs fans these days. The Cubs have a new ad campaign called "Baseball is Better" and that seems to be the feeling these days on the North Side. There's always next year in Wrigleyville, but maybe, just maybe, this will actually be true with new management in town.

Cincinnati Reds: There doesn't appear to be any Latos intolerance in Cincinnati. New starting pitcher Mat Latos (acquired via trade from San Diego) will anchor the starting rotation. In a tiny 14-inning sample size at Great American Ballpark, Latos has a 1.93 ERA, .50 WHIP and 4.5 strikeouts/walk. And Latos is not a product of pitcher-friendly Petco. His career numbers on the road and at home are remarkably similar: 1.16 WHIP, 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings at home and 1.15 WHIP and 8.6 strikeouts per nine on the road.

Houston Astros: On June 24, 2011, the Astros became the first team in modern baseball history (since 1900) to use three pitchers with the same last name in a single game. Wandy Rodriguez, Aneury Rodriguez and Fernando Rodriguez are all on the roster heading into spring training, so we could see history repeat itself.

Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers went 39-42 on the road last season and still won the NL Central by six games thanks to their otherworldly home record of 57-24, by far the best in baseball. Only three NL teams (the 1975 Reds, 1977 Phillies and 1977 Phillies) won more home games than the Brewers in any season. But with Prince Fielder gone, MVP Ryan Braun suspended 50 games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and Craig Counsell retiring, the ability to continue this home dominance is a legitimate concern for the Brew Crew.

Pittsburgh Pirates: PNC is one of the best ballparks in all of baseball. But without a winning team (19 straight years of sub-.500 finishes), fans have not flocked to see the Pirates. With a resurgence toward relevance last season, thanks to a strong first half, the Bucs did win one title -- the largest bump in attendance in the National League from 2010 to '11. The team saw attendance increase 4,337 a game to 24,255. Can the team avoid a 20th straight losing season and keep that upward trend going in 2012?

St. Louis Cardinals: Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (who replaces retired Tony La Russa) is the sixth manager in baseball history to take over the defending World Series champion. It's the first time the reigning World Series champion will have a new manager since 1972 when Bill Virdon took over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks: The D-backs surprised the majors in 2011 with an unexpected worst-to-first story. The team's 48 come-from-behind wins led the majors. But the biggest story was the turnaround of the bullpen. In 2010, the Diamondbacks had one of the worst bullpens in history -- the group's 5.74 ERA was more than one run worse than the 29th ranked bullpen. In 2011, the ERA dropped to 3.71 (in the same number of innings) and the team recorded an NL-best 58 saves. And now they've added veteran relievers Takashi Saito and Craig Breslow. Look out NL West, these snakes are on your plane ... or something like that.

Colorado Rockies: Colorado has spent much of the offseason trading for pitching and revamping the lineup (Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez and Casey Blake highlight the new faces). But one component of the team has remained constant: Todd Helton. The Rockies first baseman enters his 16th season with the team. Among active major league players, only Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Chipper Jones have spent more seasons with one team (Jorge Posada was on the list before he retired). Helton holds franchise records in more than 10 offensive categories.

Los Angeles Dodgers: In the midst of the Dodgers' nightmare 2011, Clayton Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award and center fielder Matt Kemp had a dream season. Kemp became a first-time All-Star, garnering a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove and finishing second in MVP voting to Ryan Braun. Kemp's 39 home runs, 126 RBIs, 115 runs, .324 batting average and .399 on-base percentage all led the team. Kemp also had 40 stolen bases, finishing one home run shy of becoming the fifth player to join the 40-40 club. Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million extension in November and promised to be the first to go 50-50. It's good to be young and rich and good at baseball.

San Diego Padres: With Heath Bell and his 134 career saves (all with the Padres) departed for Miami, new Padres GM Josh Byrnes moved quickly to trade for closer Huston Street. The former A's and Rockies closer has 178 career saves. Street could really benefit from the move away from Coors Field to pitcher-friendly Petco, where his numbers are nothing short of ridiculous. While he won't be facing the Padres, of course, here they are: 11 games, 11.1 IP, eight saves, 17 strikeouts, five hits, three walks, two runs and zero home runs. I hope nobody in my fantasy league is reading this.

San Francisco Giants: Instead of talking about how the 2011 Giants scored only 570 runs, second-worst in the majors, let's talk about Ryan Vogelsong. Who? That's probably what you would have said in 2010, when he was a journeyman pitcher in Japan, a former major league pitching prospect who didn't quite pan out. That was before he came back to the states and somehow reinvented himself as Ryan Vogelsong, All-Star, finishing the season 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA. The 33-year-old signed a two-year, $8.3 million extension with the team. This would have sounded insane at the start of the 2011 season. Yet another reason why you can't predict baseball.