It's a whole new ballgame

From Pujols in L.A. to playoffs to Marlins Park, 2012 season has a different look

Originally Published: March 28, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

What's new?

Once upon a time in baseball, that used to be a harmless little question, kinda like: Who's pitching tonight? But not anymore. Not this year, as the 2012 season comes roaring at us.

If you ask, "What's new?" this year, the answer you get back might be something along the lines of: "Sheez, ya got an hour so I can fill you in?"

What's new, huh?

Wow. Where do we start? New ballpark in Miami. New owners (soon) in L.A. New managers in four of the most high-profile cities in America.

New labor deal. New wild-card teams. New homes for two of baseball's most world-famous mashers. And that's just the half of it.

So what's new, you ask? Holy cow. It feels like just about everything.

"Nothing," said the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, "can stay the same forever. That's just the way it is."

But that's not merely just the way it is. It's what makes baseball great. Its axis is constantly spinning.

So what's new? If you really want to know, you've come to the right place. Sit back, grab a refreshing beverage and let us fill you in on exactly what's new in baseball in 2012.

New faces in new zip codes: Albert and Prince

It cost more than 460 million bucks just to sign them up -- which comes to $200 million more than their new owners once paid to buy their respective teams. So Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder can't be only baseball players anymore.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Pujols
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireAlbert Pujols impacts the Angels as both a player and a presence.

They have to be franchise changers.

With Albert heading from St. Louis to Orange County and with Prince relocating from Milwaukee to Detroit, we asked a bunch of scouts and executives these two burning questions:

(A) Which of these two men will make the bigger impact on his new franchise? And (B) which of their two former franchises will feel their absence more?

Now … the envelopes, please:

Who will make the bigger impact? Prince got some votes -- but not as many as Sir Albert, a guy whose arrival on the Angels' scene should really be measured on the Richter scale.

"He's really given them a lift this spring," said one NL executive. "It's not just their team. Their whole organization is fired up. This is huge for them."

"Prince's team was better to begin with," said another NL exec. "So Albert's presence on that [Angels] team will take them to another level. If this was strictly about numbers, obviously Prince is going to put up numbers and help protect [Miguel] Cabrera. But from the whole team's standpoint, it's got to be Albert. That guy just has a presence about him."

But one scout issued this word of caution: "There's more of a burden on Albert, because Albert's club doesn't really have the same history or the same foothold that the Tigers have. They're both impact players. But I think Albert is supposed to have a greater impact. And that isn't always easy."

Meanwhile, Pujols used to be the clear face of the franchise on the Cardinals team he left behind. But surprisingly, Prince was a unanimous choice as the player his old club would miss more.

"When I've watched the Cardinals this spring," said one scout, "they're doing exactly the same things I've always seen them do in spring training, even without Albert and Tony [La Russa]. It's like they haven't missed a beat. But I can't say that about the Brewers. If [Mat] Gamel can't cut it at first base and [Ryan] Braun gets off to a bad start after an awful spring, or people start pitching around him, all of a sudden that team is really going to feel Prince's absence in a big way."

"Both teams will feel it," said an NL exec. "But strange as it may sound, Prince looks now like a bigger part of [the Brewers'] dynamic than Albert was of the Cardinals' dynamic. I feel like St. Louis is still going to be a similar kind of team. But in Milwaukee, between the Braun cloud and Prince's departure, there's a whole different feel to that team now."

How these two deals look five years from now -- or nine years from now -- is a whole different question. But for the 2012 season, no newcomers in baseball will rewrite their teams' scripts more than these two guys.

Next five most important additions
1. Yu Darvish, Rangers
2. Andrew Bailey, Red Sox
3. Jose Reyes, Marlins
4. Mat Latos, Reds
5. Michael Pineda, Yankees

New guys in the dugout: Ozzie and Bobby V

They're not just familiar faces. They're familiar voices. You don't just see Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Valentine coming. You hear them coming.

[+] EnlargeOzzie Guillen
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireOzzie Guillen has brought a new attitude to his new club in Miami.

So which of these two high-profile, high-volume managers will be the better fit on his new team (Ozzie in Miami, Bobby V in Boston)? We went into this spring thinking it would be Valentine. We're not so sure anymore.

The Ozzie Show seems to have worked in South Florida exactly the way it was supposed to. He has run a fun, upbeat camp. He has connected with Hanley Ramirez, who told us recently Ozzie is "a great man." And from all appearances, this journey from Chicago to Miami hasn't only been good for his team. It's been good for Oswaldo Guillen.

"After the things that happened in Chicago," said one longtime friend, "I think this is what he needed. A clean break was the best thing that could have happened for him."

"If they just let him be Ozzie, everything will be good," said another old friend. "If you just let him do his thing, you get the energy and guys feed off it. If you try and rein him in, he loses what makes him great. And so far at least, it seems like it's a great fit."

We should remember, of course, that it started out this way on the South Side, too. And then, well, stuff happened. So who knows how this act will play over the long haul in Miami? But over Guillen's first month and a half in this gig, "it looks like his honesty has been appreciated," said one baseball man who has seen the Marlins a lot. And we're not sure you can say that about Bobby Valentine and his new team.

This felt like a tremendous marriage the day an emotional Bobby V was introduced to the media and the masses in Boston back on Dec. 1. But that day "seems like eight years ago now," Valentine said this spring.

"It was a good feeling," the manager reminisced. "I haven't had that feeling in a long time. So you enjoy it for a couple of minutes. Then reality sets in."

And that reality, it turns out, hasn't been quite so euphoric -- to the point that scouts covering the Red Sox are already worried about Valentine's fit for this job. Listen to the words of one scout who once worked with Bobby V in a prior incarnation:

"He's a brilliant baseball guy," the scout said. "It's just, the other stuff gets in the way of the brilliance so easily. … His intellect gets in the way. He's always trying to win that chess match. Everything has to be a tug o' war."

Valentine is so different from Terry Francona, everyone knew this mix could turn tense at some point. But "I just didn't think it would happen this fast," the same scout said.

"I hate to say it, but these players could stick it to him," he went on. "It'll be all or nothing. I don't think there can be anything in between with this bunch. If things don't start out all rosy, I worry that he could lose control of that club quickly. He's dealing with some high-maintenance guys. They proved that last year. And they're just not used to a guy who can be this honest. He's been The Story too much this spring. And these players could easily get tired of it."

We still think Bobby Valentine was the right choice for the Red Sox in this time and place. But we agree with the scouts who have warned us all spring: "This thing bears watching."

New guys in the dugout: Matheny or Ventura?

Meanwhile, on the other end of the new-manager seesaw, you'll find Mike Matheny (Cardinals) and Robin Ventura (White Sox). Here's what's unique about them:

The two managers they're replacing (Tony La Russa and Guillen) have managed a combined 6,392 games in the major leagues.

[+] EnlargeMike Matheny
Scott Rovak/US PresswireNew Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will get plenty of on-the-job training in 2012.

And they've managed zero … in any leagues.

So which guy will make this transition more easily? The buzz leans toward Matheny, who at least has spent time around both the Cardinals' major league and minor league clubs as a special assistant in recent years. But both men have plenty of admirers.

"I think the world of Mike Matheny," said one baseball exec whose team once employed him. "He's one of my favorite players I've ever been around. And I always thought he'd be a manager someday.

"But here's what I wonder: As a player, he could be really hard on himself, so he certainly has an understanding of how tough it is to play the game. But I wonder how he'll handle it when they go through a losing streak. He won't be able to beat himself up like he did as a player. And the other part of the St. Louis equation is Dave Duncan not being there [as pitching coach]. At least Ventura has still got Don Cooper with him."

The rest of Ventura's staff, however, consists largely of bright, energetic men who, like him, haven't spent time in a big league dugout, or on a big league staff, in several years. And that's a development that has raised eyebrows. But people in the game who know Ventura still think he's got the Right Stuff. He just might need time to grow into the job.

"Robin is one of the smartest guys I've ever been around in baseball," said one former teammate. "I hear people say the game's going to go too fast for him. But he's too smart. He'll figure it out. The other thing is people saying he's too nice, so players will take advantage of him. Well, let me tell you something. Robin didn't get to be a leader in all those clubhouses for 15 years because he was always nice to everybody. If he sees things he doesn't like, he's going to let you know about it."

Five other prominent "new guys"
1. Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer -- new Cubs president/GM
2. Dale Sveum -- new Cubs manager
3. Jerry Dipoto -- new Angels GM
4. Ben Cherington -- new Red Sox GM
5. Dan Duquette -- new Orioles GM

The new Octoberfest: Wilder than ever

We've never lived on a planet with four wild-card teams before -- not in this sport, anyway. So trying to predict how that will change the world is a dangerous line of work.

But the more we've talked to folks around the sport this spring, the more convinced we are of two things:

1. This will restore the meaning of finishing first and discourage teams from cruising through September, content to be a wild card. And that was by design.

2. This won't help teams trying to fix what ails them at the trading deadline. And we're not sure anyone thought much about that.

But first things first, literally -- because first place matters again, just months after another wild-card team (the Cardinals) won the World Series.

I love the fact that it puts the focus back on winning the division a little bit more -- actually, a lot more.

-- Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos on the expanded playoff format

Take a club like Toronto, for instance. The Blue Jays have been widely portrayed as the kind of team that stands to benefit most from the extra wild card in the AL, if only because they now know they can make it to October even if they don't outwin the Yankees or Red Sox. But their GM, Alex Anthopoulos, says that even for them, this hasn't changed anything.

He's grateful that 92 wins might get his team into the tournament now instead of, say, 98. But "that," he said, "is just to get to a one-game playoff." So thanks but no thanks.

"The importance of winning your division now is huge," Anthopoulos said. "Knowing you can go all season and get bounced in a one-game situation if you don't get the right starter lining up -- no one wants to take that chance. So I love the fact that it puts the focus back on winning the division a little bit more -- actually, a lot more."

And it isn't only the front office that has gotten that memo. Every manager we've talked to this spring says he'd go all-out down the stretch to finish first -- even if his team was three games out with three to play, even if he knew his club would be a wild card if it didn't win. And if that's how this works out, hey, mission accomplished.

But July could be a different story. With an extra playoff berth out there in each league and the memory still fresh of two teams making the postseason after finding themselves at least 9½ games out in August, there may not be much to trade for at the deadline.

"If this gives more teams hope," said Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, "it would probably mean more teams in July will try to buy -- or at least not sell -- because they feel they have a chance. And that could definitely play out to create a more difficult environment to retool in the middle of the year."

How right he is. If we'd had a second wild card in each league last year, you know how many teams would have been more than 10 games out of a playoff spot at the All-Star break? Exactly five: Orioles, Royals, A's, Cubs and Astros. That's it.

Now maybe teams like the Padres (Mike Adams), Mariners (Doug Fister), Nationals (Jason Marquis) and Rockies (Ubaldo Jimenez) would have chosen to sell anyway last July, for reasons other than the standings. But that extra wild-card spot will give every potential seller incentive to think twice as the deadline approaches. So remember that in a few months when you're rummaging through Rumor Central, OK?

The new labor deal hits home

Five big changes you'll see this year, thanks to baseball's new labor agreement (besides that expanded postseason):

1. The deadline: A team that trades for an impending free agent will have to make that deal just for baseball reasons, because it can no longer get a draft pick in return for a free agent who didn't spend a full season with his most recent team.

2. The amateur draft: Teams will be working with a strict "bonus pool" for signing top picks, with stiff penalties if they spend more than they're supposed to. Expect some furor over that rule. Also, drafted players have to sign by mid-July, a month earlier than in the past. No more major league contracts to the next Stephen Strasburg or any other drafted player. And the only way a team can get a draft pick for losing a free agent is to tender him a "qualifying offer" that would make him one of the 125 highest-paid players in the game. So set-up relievers need not apply.

3. All-Stars: Players will be "required" to attend the All-Star Game -- unless they're hurt or "otherwise excused by the Office of the Commissioner." They can thank Derek Jeter for that rule.

4. PED alert: Blood testing for HGH began in spring training, with more than 1,000 players being tested. But there will be no in-season testing in 2012, as baseball studies the feasibility of that scenario.

5. And say hello to the 26-man roster: For the first time, teams can call up an extra player for day-night doubleheaders -- as long as those doubleheaders are scheduled with at least 48 hours' notice.

New guys in the owner's box: More Magic in L.A.

We've known for 30 years that Magic Johnson could run a fast break. But can he run a baseball team?

That's now a relevant question, amazingly enough, because, for a mere $2 billion, a group led by the Magic Man and former Braves/Nationals president Stan Kasten is about to become the proud owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

We know that in Southern California, all most people really care about is that the new owner won't be named "Frank McCourt." But now that McCourt has chosen his designated successor, the fun can really start.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Magic and Kasten won't be assuming command in the next 30 seconds. First, McCourt's favorite bankruptcy court has to approve his choice of buyers and dollar signs. Then comes a mad scramble to close the sale by the end of April -- since McCourt owes his ex-wife, Jamie, $131 million on April 30 as part of their ever-amicable divorce settlement.

That April 30 target date looks "very ambitious," says one baseball source. But whenever this sale is finalized, we still can predict that at some point this season, the Dodgers' new Not McCourt era will finally begin.

What will that mean? Unfortunately, it will mean more in the long term than the short term. But according to baseball sources who have stayed in the loop in this process, we should see three aftereffects of the sale before this season is over:

1. There will actually be money in the baseball budget again. (What a concept.) So the Dodgers figure to be extremely aggressive at the trading deadline if they're in contention, especially if there's a team looking to dump a big salary that cares more about payroll relief than getting a big player haul back.

2. The Dodgers are likely to begin a major push to get back involved in Latin America and the international talent market. Once, the Dodgers were the dominant franchise in those circles. And their current front office has been trying for several years to re-establish that dominance. But ownership consistently shot down those efforts. And the result, according to Baseball America, is that the Dodgers ranked dead last in the major leagues in international signings last year, at just $177,000. No other franchise was within $600,000 of them. That'll change.

3. One baseball official predicted the new owners would move quickly to "revitalize" Dodger Stadium, which has deteriorated almost to embarrassing depths under McCourt. No construction projects would begin in-season. But expect immediate enhancements to stadium security and ambiance.

And that, thankfully, will be just the beginning. The goal of the new owners will be this: To transform this team back into being one of this sport's elite franchises. About time.

The new fish tank: A ballpark rises in Miami

No more nightly rain delays. No more "crowds" of 312 people. No more baseball games played in a stadium where the most prominent retired numbers belong to Dan Marino and Larry Csonka.

[+] EnlargeMarlins Stadium
AP Photo/J Pat CarterMarlins Park will be open for business in 2012, but with a closed roof much of the time.

Finally, in season No. 20 in the life of the Marlins, it's time for real baseball -- in a real ballpark. And it isn't only Gaby Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco who can't wait.

Marlins Park will be a ballpark unlike any other -- modern, artsy, cool and tropical. And have we mentioned it comes complete with every Floridian's most beloved invention, a retractable roof, that might make watching baseball in July actually bearable?

The future of this franchise depends on the magnetic appeal of this park (not to mention Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and the team that plays in it). And we know lots of people outside of South Beach are skeptical. But you should know that …

1. This team thinks it could average 30,000 customers per game. Which would be 11,000 more than it averaged officially last year in Sun Life Dolphin Pro Player Joe Robbie This Space Available Stadium, in case you're curious.

2. It won't be only Opening Night that sells out (for a change). The Marlins believe they could sell all 36,000 seats multiple times before the end of April. Last year, they sold out zero games after the opener.

3. The roof will be closed for an estimated 70 of this team's 81 home games. But since it figures to be open next Wednesday on Opening Night, keep in mind that Marlins hitters reported the ball was flying with the roof open when they took batting practice before an exhibition game earlier this month.

4. Whether the roof is open or closed, it's still possible you'll be able to hear Ozzie Guillen from Coral Gables to Alligator Alley. And if you listen closely, you'll hear him say: "The stadium is for the fans, not for the players. Are the players excited to play in that ballpark? Yeah. They are. But the excitement comes from wins. I don't care how good the stadium looks. I don't care who we bring. If you're winning, that's excitement."

And as usual, right he is. So ultimately, the success of this park will be judged not on the quality of its architecture but on the quality of the baseball team. And, fortunately, that's one thing about baseball -- the 2012 edition -- that hasn't changed.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com