Q: Who will be this year's surprise team, ala the 2011 Diamondbacks? Do you view the Pirates and Nationals as candidates this season?
-- Alan Quellmalz, Lapeer, Mich.
A: The Diamondbacks' 29-game improvement — from 65 wins in 2010 to 94 in 2011 — is quite rare, and I don't think any team will make that big of a leap in 2012.
To me, the Marlins have the best chance for major improvement from their 72-90 finish in 2011. Several factors are working in their favor, led by the signings of shortstop/leadoff hitter Jose Reyes, No. 2 starter Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell.
Next, look at how little they received from their two stars in 2011: Ace Josh Johnson made only nine starts and pitched only 60 1/3 innings, while Hanley Ramirez batted only .243 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs and a .379 slugging percentage in 92 games.
Plug in typical seasons from those two, and the impact in runs prevented and runs scored could be dramatic. The Marlins finished with a -77 run differential in 2011, fourth-worst in the NL.
It's also reasonable to expect increased production from emerging young sluggers Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison — especially with Reyes, underrated Emilio Bonifacio and Ramirez probably hitting in front of them. Throw in Gaby Sanchez and a potential return to form by Chris Coghlan, and the lineup is filled with a combination of power and speed, although light in on-base percentage.
It's impossible to know how the new stadium will play, but there's little doubt that at least for a season, there will be a new buzz and excitement for Marlins' home games, and that has to have a positive affect.
Lastly, we'll see the impact that Ozzie Guillen has on the club. Nothing against Edwin Rodriguez or Jack McKeon, but there are increased expectations with Guillen's presence. There also is a volatile mix of personalities in the clubhouse, and that could either work or backfire.
In the American League, the Central is wide open after the Tigers, so I could see the Royals making a significant jump in wins. Their 2011 run differential of -32 suggested a better record than their 71-91 finish — perhaps an additional 6-7 wins — and they played just a shade under .500 in the second half.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
I do like what the Nationals have done in adding Gio Gonzalez to emerging Jordan Zimmerman, and what we hope will be a healthy Stephen Strasburg. Ryan Zimmerman missed 61 games in 2011, so expect a big numbers jump from him, but they still seem to be a bit short offensively. The other factor working against them is how good the NL East should be, with only the Mets in a rebuilding phase.
The Pirates' horrible second half of 2011 scares me off them as far as making a significant jump to well above .500 — although the NL Central is ripe for movement with the Brewers likely to fall back. It also won't shock me if the Dodgers are serious contenders in the NL West, after how Don Mattingly held things together in a 41-28 second half amidst all the ownership chaos.
Q: Could the Giants send Barry Zito, Aubrey Huff and utilityman Emmanuel Burress to the Angels for Torii Hunter? The Angels would get a fifth starter, a left-handed-hitting 1B/DH to spell Albert Pujols and a switch-hitting IF/OF. The Giants would get a legitimate defensive player, right-handed hitter who could play CF or RF in AT&T Park. Could it work?
— Robert Pyper, Phoenix
A: My guess is you're a Giants fan, Robert, because this would be one-sided in their direction. Although the Angels do need a fifth starter, nobody will take Zito's contract ($46 million guaranteed remaining) unless the Giants pay a significant portion of it.
The Angels already have a backlog of 1B/DH types in Pujols, Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo — not to mention OF/DH Bobby Abreu — so there's no need for Huff. In fact, if Morales is healthy enough to contribute this season — and we won't know until spring training — the Angels probably will have to move Abreu.
Although Hunter's contract also is pricey, 2012 is the final guaranteed year at $18 million, and the Angels are built to win now, so he won't be going anywhere this season. He's a key component both on the field and in the clubhouse.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.