Baseball had a little fun last week, and cashed a big check courtesy of the Japanese, by sending Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners to Tokyo to play a couple of regular season games against the Oakland Athletics. Now it’s back to this side of the Pacific and the real start to the 2012 MLB campaign.
Phase 2 of MLB’s Opening Day couldn’t have a better matchup. Wednesday night finds the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals beginning defense of their crown against the Miami Marlins who are the very definition of new as we head into the new season. The Marlins have a new name, new stadium, new manager, new uniforms and several new players from a year ago. However, it’s a big bat that won’t be in the Cardinals lineup and a Marlins hurler coming back from a major injury that are in the spotlight and driving the early MLB odds.
With so many changes in Miami, it would be easy to get bogged down talking about them all. We’ll gloss over Ozzie Guillen taking the managerial reins plus free agent acquisitions Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell for now, and focus a bit more on the new stadium and the return of Josh Johnson.
Marlins Park sits on the old Orange Bowl site, with the most obvious and significant change from Joe Robbie/Sun Life Stadium being the retractable roof. Capacity will wind up in the 37K to 38K range, and the early notion is it will play to the advantage of the pitcher. All of the dimensions except the right-field line are deeper than the former park; Sun Life was 340’ down the line in right whereas Marlins Park is 335’. The left-field line in the new stadium is 340’ before moving out to 384’ in left-center, 416’ in the deepest part of center field, back down to 392’ in right-center and then 335’ at the foul pole in right.
Whether or not it proves to be a pitchers park remains to be seen. It certainly didn’t play that way Sunday when the Marlins hosted the Yankees for an exhibition game. New York prevailed 10-8 and cracked seven doubles plus a homer in the contest. Granted, it was an exhibition game, but the Fish did also get to CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano and Cory Wade for eight runs in seven innings. The game was played with the top shut and the AC on, and that’s probably the way at least 75% of the regular season games will be played. Wednesday evening’s forecast calls for mostly clear skies and temps in the low-80s at first pitch, so the roof may be open. The line from home plate to the left-field pole is south-to-north, and SSE winds at 8-12 mph are in the offing. Expect prevailing Southeast or East winds going forward at this locale.
Not to describe myself as chic, but Miami is a very chic pick in the NL East this year and theMarlins are indeed my bet to win the division. One reason is the expected return to form by Wednesday’s starting pitcher, Josh Johnson. The big right-hander is returning from shoulder surgery that cut his 2011 season short after just nine starts. He looks ready to go after six spring outings with a 2.42 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 22.1 IP. The Marlins are 3-2 in his five career starts vs. the Cardinals.
Guillen can be both a blessing and a curse, but the old ChiSox field boss should be very comfortable managing in Miami and he’s got a great roster to get things started. The lineup keys are newcomer Reyes at shortstop and leading off, and Hanley Ramirez getting comfortable over at third base. Other than Johnson, the other four starting hurlers (Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Carlos Zambrano) each suffered through tough springs, for what that’s worth. But the bullpen should be among the best and anchored by Bell who saved 132 games for the Padres over the past three seasons.
The Cardinals have also gone through a lot of huge changes since topping the Texas Rangers in the 2011 World Series. Like the Marlins, they have a new manager in Mike Matheny. Like the Marlins, they have a strong roster and are expected to contend for a division title. Unlike the Marlins, they lost the biggest free agent this past winter instead of signing three big names.
It’s going to be strange not seeing Albert Pujols striding up to the plate every 2-3 innings for the Cardinals, that trademark sneer directed towards the poor soul on the mound. There are certainly some sticks that can help make up for Phat Albert’s loss in the lineup, but will they succeed? Lance Berkman takes over at 1B for the Redbirds after a resurgence last year, free agent pickup Carlos Beltran is a strong candidate to win the NL Comeback Player Award that Berkman garnered last season, and David Freese could be on the verge of finally putting up big numbers after a phenomenal postseason performance.
St. Louis will once again open with some questions on the mound, just as the Cardinals did a year ago. Adam Wainwright is returning from an elbow injury that cost him all of 2011, and postseason hero Chris Carpenter is on the shelf with a shoulder injury to begin 2012. Getting the Opening Day nod from Matheny is righty Kyle Lohse off a 14-8, 3.39 ERA campaign last year. Lohse also enjoyed a very strong spring with a 2.81 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in nearly 26 innings.
Taking a Chance: As mentioned, it’s going to take some time to see exactly how Miami’s new park will play. The Yanks and Fish followed their 10-8 game with a 5-2 New York win on Monday in which no homers were struck. The new stadium does have a lot of outfield to cover, however, so while balls may not fly over the fences with any ease, that doesn’t mean offense will be in check for the long haul. My pick for Wednesday will be OVER 7 (+105).
Make sure and check back Thursday when we proceed to Opening Day Phase 3 at SBR with a preview of the Red Sox in Motown where Prince Fielder debuts for the Tigers.