Forget about March Madness, Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow. The real professional sports begin in just a few short days.
The 2012 Major League Baseball season will open then with the christening of one ballpark, a 20th-anniversary celebration of the ballpark that changed everything and the hope of another World Series that will end no later than October.
The Cardinals and Miami Marlins will begin the season with the opening of Florida's new ballpark on Wednesday, April 4, followed by six openers the following day. The regular season will conclude on Wednesday, Oct. 3.
You read the above paragraph correctly. The MLB franchise in Miami has followed the lead of their Floridian "cousins" in Tampa Bay and changed their name. You might remember that when Tampa Bay changed their team nickname from the Devil Rays to the Rays a couple of years ago, they suddenly became a much greater success on the field than they had been. Well, the Florida Marlins are now the Miami Marlins, and rather than just assuming that a new name and a brand-new stadium will bring them greater success on the field, the Marlins turned into the South Beach version of the New York Yankees over the winter.
Among the new parts in the "Miami makeover" are a new color scheme (orange, yellow, blue, black and silver replacing teal); a new retractable-roof stadium, complete with fish tanks behind the on deck circles; the reigning NL batting champion, former Met Jose Reyes, now stationed at Shortstop for Miami; a new All-Star closer, former San Diego Padre Heath Bell, signed as a Free Agent; a workhorse left-handed starter, former White Sox Mark Buerhle, also signed as a Free Agent; and a new manager, the also-quotable Ozzie Guillen, who gladly signed on after the White Sox parted ways with him. Returning stars include starting pitcher Josh Johnson and Henley Ramirez, who moves to third base due to the Reyes signing. One other returning starter, who apparently likes the idea of all the changes taking place in Miami , is power hitting outfielder Mike Stanton, who now goes by the name of Giancarlo Stanton - I kid you not. Well, actually Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton. Whatever you call him, the 22-year-old 6-5, 250 lb. Stanton clubbed 34 homers last year in his first full season in the majors after hitting 22 dingers in 100 games in 2010. The Marlins are a team to watch in the tough NL East, where the perennial Division champion Phillies, with their All-Star rotation, are slight favorites. The Phils will be without All-Stars Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to start the season, however, so there's not a whole lot of firepower to support the pitching of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Atlanta is also expected to challenge for the Division title, but another surprise team this year, along with Miami, might be the Washington Nationals, who certainly have a number of promising prospects, including pitcher Stephen Strasburg and power hitting outfielder Bryce Harper. Harper, however, has already been sent down to the minors to get some more seasoning and increased maturity. The Cardinals, of course, made a great run at season's end last year and ended up as the World Champions. All they have to do this year is replace a Hall of Fame Manager (Tony LaRussa) and future Hall of Fame hitter (Albert Pujols). Former Cards catcher Mike Matheney takes over his old lub as the manager. Look for Cincinnati to take the NL Central, depending on how Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, last year's MVP, reacts to the departure of his slugging teammate, Cecil Fielder, and the continued questions about his failed drug test.
In the NL West, look for the Giants and Diamondbacks to battle it out, One interesting subplot will be the effectiveness of the Giants' All-Star catcher Buster Posey, who returns following his injury in a home plate collision.
The Dodgers appear to be continuing their soap opera ways going into the season, as owner Frank McCord deliberates over who the team's new owner will be.
In the American League,Texas looks very tough to beat as they go for their third straight title, having added Japanese ace Yu Darvish to an already imposing pitching staff. The Angels should challenge them in the West, though, providing that Pujols, the best hitter in the game for the last decade, if not of all-time, hasn't lost any of his skills or has truble adjusting to a new league and pitchers. The Tigers again look to be the team to beat in the Central, if not the AL as a whole. With Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander, among other solid players, in their lineup, the Bengals should be the cream of the crop in the Central Division.
That leaves us with the division which is annually deemed as "the best division in baseball." - the American League East. Boston's Bobby Valentine is among the many new skippers in MLB this season, and he might just want to keep that fake mustache disguise he once donned in the dugout, when he was the Mets' manager, handy - it might be a long season in this 100th year of the venerable Fenway Park. Tampa Bay, with their "looks like a school teacher" manager Joe Maddon would appear to be a more likely challenger to the Yankees for the AL East crown this season. The Yanks have a real solid lineup from top to bottom, and - providing that age doesn't catch up to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez - not to mention the suddenly un-retired Andy Pettitte - they should win, provided that some of the starting pitcher candidates come through to help out CC Sabathia. 75 year-old reliever Mariano Rivera will continue to come to the mound in the 9th inning (on his Hoveround?) to save games for the Bronx Bombers.