By Josh Brown, Sports Editor
Spring break has ended, and the calendar flipping to April means one thing — the start of the Major League Baseball season.
Opening Day is right around the corner, and plenty of new story lines add intrigue to this coming year. Drama surrounded the MLB last year when the wild card spots for both the American and National Leagues were decided on the last day of the season.
During the offseason, the MLB front office proposed adding an extra wild card spot for each league, and in early March the MLB and the Players Association reached an agreement to increase the playoffs from eight to 10 teams this year.
Now the drama of a one-game playoff, which could have been the case last season, is a lock every season as both wild-card spots now will play a one-game playoff to see which team will continue in October.
Other than expanded playoffs, the biggest news in the MLB this season revolves around the free agent signings. Arguably the best first basemen in baseball right now, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, both left teams they had been with their whole careers and signed blockbuster deals with American League teams.
What does that mean for the game?
On one end, it means that the National League will have an even harder time winning the All-Star game. Some may laugh at this first point, but baseball is the only sport where the All-Star game counts for home-field advantage in the World Series. On the other end, it gives the American League even more competition, and that leads to the following predictions.
The Texas Rangers won the AL West by 10 games last season over the Los Angeles Angels and eventually went on to win the ALCS and lose in the World Series for the second year in a row.
Look for the AL West to be a much closer race this year with the Angels’ additions of Pujols and C.J. Wilson.
The Detroit Tigers should cruise in the AL Central with the addition of Prince Fielder and a returning MVP Justin Verlander on the mound.
The biggest toss-up division in the American League is the AL East. This is a stacked division. The New York Yankees will look to take the AL East again behind ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia while the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox are sure to be close on their heels.
In the National League it is a different story, especially in the NL Central. In recent years the NL Central has been criticized as the weaker division in the National League, and with the losses of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, criticism will most certainly remain. However, one thing the NL Central does have going for it is the reigning World Series Champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.
The NL Central is wide open for the taking more likely between the Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers. But with the addition of Carlos Beltran, depending on whether he stays healthy, and the return of ace pitcher Adam Wainwright from Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals are poised for another championship run.
The Philadelphia Phillies won 102 games and the NL East last season, and with that pitching staff they can do it again. However, with the new look and the Miami Marlins’ additions — which include NL batting champion Jose Reyes, All-Star closer Heath Bell and starting pitcher Mark Buehrle — the fish will set out to prove that they have much more going for them than just new uniforms and a new ball park.
The NL West is an intriguing division because no one had the Arizona Diamondbacks taking that one last year. However, the Diamondbacks have a great shot at it again with a young lineup full of power and a 21- game winner last season, Ian Kennedy.
By the end of this MLB season, look for the Detroit Tigers to come out as World Series Champions, defeating the Phillies in a well-pitched seven-game series, and Prince to be crowned with his first World Series title in his first year with Detroit.
A fun World Series matchup to see would be the Cardinals against the Angels. Pujols going up against his former team and the reigning world champions going for back-to-back titles would be something to see.
That is probably wishful thinking, although if there is one lesson the MLB taught us last year, it is that anything can happen.
One thing is for sure: If the end of the regular season and the playoffs are anything close to last year’s, baseball fans will not have many reasons to complain.