Philadelphia, PA – With the 2012 Major League Baseball season getting under way in earnest this week, let's weigh in on early answers to a few key questions on fans' minds.
Will the Miami Marlins' new state-of-the-art ballpark bring an end to the team's attendance woes?
Those who have seen Marlins Park have confirmed that it's an architectural marvel, and the team plans to play 70 of its 81 home games with the retractable roof closed. Those factors, as well as the Marlins' legitimate playoff hopes, should bolster attendance greatly in 2012.
The real question is, when the novelty of the new ballpark wears off, will fans still support the team? Call me skeptical. When the Marlins entered the league in 1993, they averaged 37,838 fans per game - roughly double their attendance last season. In 1994, they averaged 33,695. Never again have they averaged 30,000 per game, although they came close in 1997 (29,190), when they won their first world championship.
Attendance will probably be at an all-time high this year. Like in most cities, though, winning will be the only way for the Marlins to keep those figures lofty in the future.
What effects will the new Magic Johnson ownership group have on the Los Angeles Dodgers this year?
A group that just spent $2.15 billion to buy the club isn't likely to start pinching pennies now. With the 2012 roster practically finalized, though, changes aren't going to happen right away. If the Dodgers can contend in what figures to be a pretty tough NL West race, they will be a big player at the trade deadline (David Wright, anyone?).
The new owners will probably make their presence felt much more next offseason. Will the 2013 Dodgers field a lineup with the likes of Juan Uribe, Mark Ellis, A.J. Ellis and eternally disappointing James Loney? Not likely.
After losing the past two World Series, will the Texas Rangers get over the hump and win in 2012?
Clearly one of the top teams in baseball, Texas would probably be favored over any potential NL opponent should it return to the World Series. The tougher task will be getting there. Even with an additional wild-card playoff berth available, the Rangers have a tough road.
The Los Angeles Angels, with Albert Pujols and ex-Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson on board, will challenge for AL West supremacy. To nab a wild card, they'd need to beat out at least one of the AL East heavyweights (New York, Boston or Tampa Bay).
Still, one year after they were twice one pitch away from their first world title, the Rangers look like the preseason favorite. They lost Wilson, but added Japanese import Yu Darvish and moved former closer Neftali Feliz into the rotation. Texas is the team to beat.
Can the Philadelphia Phillies' offense produce with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley opening the year on the disabled list?
It depends how long the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters will be sidelined. The current timetable for Howard's return from a ruptured Achilles is late May or early June. Utley's projected return from patellar tendinitis in his right knee is anybody's guess.
Right now, the primary fill-in players are expected to be Ty Wigginton at first base and young Freddy Galvis at second, although the versatile Wigginton also could play second and aging slugger Jim Thome could make occasional starts at first. The Phillies also could also move John Mayberry from left field to first base and play Juan Pierre in left.
Can any of those combinations approach the production of a healthy Howard and Utley? Not by a long shot. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels won't have much margin for error.
Will the Pittsburgh Pirates post their first winning season since 1992?
Frankly, too many things would have to go right for Pittsburgh to end the drought. Sure, the NL Central isn't a rugged division, but the Pirates lineup, barring an increasingly unlikely surge from struggling third base prospect Pedro Alvarez, just doesn���t have enough power to scare anyone.
So, if Alvarez blossoms, if A.J. Burnett returns from injury in late April and becomes the Burnett of 2008, if Erik Bedard makes at least 28 starts for the first time since 2007 ... well, you get the idea. Pittsburgh's roster is just too iffy to get to 82 wins.
Is there any chance the rebuilding New York Mets or Chicago Cubs will be able to compete for playoff berths?
Not really, and it's probably going to take a couple of years until either of them will. Both squads are still at the stage of trying to shed big contracts before their rebuilding projects can take full flight.
For the Mets, being in a rebuilding phase couldn't have come at a worse time, since the other four NL East teams all figure to be contenders, and the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are young and are only going to get better.
The Cubs play in an NL Central in which 88 wins might be enough to take the division, but they might fall as many as 20 shy of that number.
These teams will probably be most interesting at the trade deadline, when big names like Wright, Johan Santana, Carlos Marmol and Alfonso Soriano could be dealt to contenders to bring salary relief and/or building blocks.
How successful will Ichiro be while batting No. 3 in the Seattle Mariners' lineup?
He's one of the greatest pure hitters of his generation, but Ichiro is hardly the prototypical No. 3 hitter. He's collected more than 200 hits in 10 of his 11 seasons, but he's only hit double digits in home runs three times. Last year, his slugging percentage was an anemic .335.
The Mariners probably won't score many runs no matter how they configure their lineup. Ichiro is a career .321 hitter with runners in scoring position. So, even though he mostly hits singles, he'll probably deliver enough of them with men on base to put up a respectable RBI total.
The lineup changes won't mean much, though, if leadoff hitter Chone Figgins repeats his 2011 batting average (.188).
Will Andy Pettitte contribute much in his return to the Yankees?
Until Pettitte actually starts pitching in minor-league games this month, it's difficult to know what to expect from him. The left-hander turns 40 on June 15 and he sat out 2011.
When he made 21 starts in 2010, though, he went 11-3 with a 3.28 ERA.
Pettitte probably won't be quite as effective as the 2010 version, but the good thing for the Yankees is that he might not have to be. A rotation of C.C. Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, with Michael Pineda eventually coming off the DL, ought to be good enough to take the Yankees to the postseason.
Pettitte provides a potentially solid insurance policy, and any contribution would be a plus.
How will Mike Matheny do in his first year as the St. Louis Cardinals��� manager?
After leading St. Louis to 2,591 wins, two World Series titles and three NL pennants in 16 years, Tony LaRussa retired. One of his favorite players during his Cardinals tenure, Matheny, has replaced him.
Matheny has never before coached or managed in organized baseball. He won���t have pitching coach extraordinaire Dave Duncan on hand, either. Duncan has taken a leave of absence this year while his wife battles cancer.
Replacing a managerial legend and entering the season as the defending world champion will put plenty of pressure on Matheny, but he should be able to keep the Cardinals' veteran roster in contention.
Can the Kansas City Royals find enough pitching to contend for a playoff spot?
Kansas City's offense is ready for prime time, but its pitching probably is not. Unless Luke Hochevar, Felipe Paulino and former San Francisco Giants left-hander Jonathan Sanchez finally find consistency, and unless young Danny Duffy takes a big step forward, the Royals will find it tough to compete with favored Detroit in the AL Central.
If the Royals are in contention at the trade deadline, it will be interesting to see if they'd consider dealing any of their younger minor-league prospects to add a proven rotation anchor.