Opening day: It’s a special time of year.
Hot dog vendors are open for business, employees everywhere are calling in sick to work and fathers and sons are making lifelong memories watching their favorite team begin the season anew.
All 30 teams start with a clean slate, and every fan believes their team has a shot to be competing in October — yes, even Cubs fans.
That dream of reaching the postseason became even more real this season, as the MLB added an extra wild card slot, meaning that five teams from each league make the playoffs instead of four.
But realistically, there are only a few teams from the National League and the American League that have a shot at a ring each fall.
The American League is wide open, with up to six teams with real pennant aspirations. Offseason moves have altered the landscape of the league, and the balance of power has shifted to the AL with the moves of a pair of superstar first basemen to the AL — Prince Fielder to the Tigers and Albert Pujols to the Angels.
The usual subjects in the AL East will be in contention: New York, Boston and Tampa Bay, each of which has loaded pitching staffs and dangerous lineups. The AL Central on the other hand should be clear-cut, as the Tigers have the reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander and a scary one-two combination of Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in their lineup.
The AL West is top-heavy this season with the two-time AL defending champs, the Texas Rangers, returning the most potent lineup in baseball while adding Japanese import Yu Darvish to lead the rotation. The Angels also made a splash, inching closer to the Rangers with the signing of the best player in the game, Pujols, and adding former Ranger C.J.
Wilson to an already stacked rotation.
In the National League, the picture is just as murky.
Perennial powers like the Phillies and World Series champions the Cardinals each lost key pieces this offseason, and each have questions about their ability to score runs.
The other two playoff teams from last season, the Brewers and the Diamondbacks, aren’t exactly sure things, either.
The Brewers lost their hefty star slugger in the offseason, and they will have to contend with the hard charging Cardinals and Reds for the NL Central crown. Arizona, a young squad, has questions whether it can repeat its success of last season while continuing to improve. The Diamondbacks will also have to deal with a talented San Francisco team that returns stud catcher Buster Posey from injury. That’s without even mentioning the Miami Marlins or the Atlanta Braves, two very improved teams that will be players in the race for the postseason.
While it’s tough to predict what will happen 162 games down the road, that’s part of the beauty of opening day. Everyone is even in the standings, and the broad picture is still fuzzy.
So, baseball fans sit back and enjoy the American classic that is opening day. Besides, how many other days of the year can Cubs fans say they were in first?
Printed on Thursday, April 5, 2012 as: Pennant race wide open in 2012