The big things to follow closely in 2012

Originally Published: January 1, 2012
ESPN.com

The calendar has flipped to 2012. And with that, ESPN.com dives right into the new year. Our analysts gaze into their very own crystal balls and offer up what the big things will be to keep an eye on in baseball.

Story to watch: Baseball's newest, hottest rivalry

Yankees-Red Sox? Been there, done that, and the Rays may be the best team in the division anyway. Giants-Dodgers? Wake me up when the Dodgers are relevant again.

David Schoenfield

Nope, the story to watch in 2012 will be baseball's newest, hottest rivalry -- the Rangers and Angels. The Angels owned the American League West for years, but the Rangers became division kings in 2010.

And that ticked off Angels owner Arte Moreno. He fired his general manager. He signed Rangers ace C.J. Wilson to fill out an already superb rotation. Then he signed a little free agent named Albert Pujols. Yeah, I wanna see how that plays out.

But Nolan Ryan always did like to knock hitters on their behinds every now and then. He countered by winning the rights to Yu Darvish. Yeah, I can't wait to see him pitch.

And neither can you. It's game on in the AL West, and I suspect it will be 162 games of fun, hate, drama and memorable moments.
-- David Schoenfield


Team to watch: The Angels

If you're going to put your money on a team to watch, it might as well be the group that spent $331.5 million before breakfast on the closing day of the winter meetings.

Jerry Crasnick

The Los Angeles Angels have plugged Albert Pujols into the middle of their batting order. They've added C.J. Wilson to a strong starting rotation. And let's not forget, they still have Mr. Congeniality, Torii Hunter, and a kid named Mike Trout, the best position player prospect this side of Bryce Harper.

The Phillies' pitching is still terrific, and Bobby Valentine will inject some spice into that Red Sox vs. Yankees rivalry. But we'll take the Angels versus the Rangers in 2012.
-- Jerry Crasnick


Player to watch: Jose Reyes

Last year, the best catalyst in Major League Baseball was Jose Reyes.

Doug Glanville

He stole bases, he turned routine doubles into triples, and everyone held their breath every time he ran wondering, "Is the hammy going to hold up?" He created havoc all over the field and off it in the world of speculation.

How he produces as a Miami Marlin will determine whether the Marlins have enough to break the stretch of National League East dominance by the Phillies. He is one of the most exciting players in the game, even when you wonder if he can play an entire season.
-- Doug Glanville


Pitcher to watch: Yu Darvish

Yu Darvish is the next great pitcher to come out of Japan (he's a combined 76-28, 1.72 ERA, .890 WHIP in the last five seasons). Will he fare better than Daisuke Matsuzaka?

Jim Caple

That partly depends on how he responds to pitching every five games rather than once a week. Another question is how his mid-90s heat will hold up to the 100-plus Texas heat.

Darvish is accustomed to pitching in the climate-controlled Sapporo Dome, as well as other domes, where temperatures are a comfortable 70 degrees or so. But the Dallas-Fort Worth area had 71 days above 100 degrees last summer, including 40 in a row.

Better keep the Gatorade handy.
-- Jim Caple


Rookie to watch: Bryce Harper

Just when you thought a Nationals rookie couldn't generate more anticipation or command more attention than Stephen Strasburg did in 2010, we've got Harper right around the corner.

Christina Kahrl

An object of adulation in scouting circles long before Washington made him the first overall pick of the 2010 draft, Harper torched the Sally league but broke stride at Double-A, nevertheless producing a combined .297/.392/.501 season in the minors.

Between game-breaking power at the plate, speed, excellent plate coverage and a top-grade arm that would already rank among the best, his physical gifts are incredible. And what he does with them already commands awe -- manager Davey Johnson sounds like he can't wait to start penciling Harper into the Nats' lineup.

But will he make the Nationals' Opening Day roster, and where will he fit into their outfield? Watch, wait and see.
-- Christina Kahrl