What you should watch for in 2012

Almost every big name is off the board, and pitchers and catchers will report soon enough. That means we’re turning our attention to actual baseball and what the 2012 campaign might have in store for us.

That, in turn, means questions. Burning questions, to be exact. So here’s what’s on our mind — here’s what we’re asking — as the season approaches:

 

1. Will Albert Pujols live up to his new contract?

 

Pujols, famously and infamously, inked a whopping 10-year, $240-million pact with the Angels this offseason. Needless to say, whether or not Pujols earns that money will have much bearing on the franchise’s hopes in the coming years.

Pujols, while still highly productive in 2011, is nonetheless coming off the “worst” season of his career, and it’s possible that, at age 32, he’s in his decline phase. Considering the breadth of their investment, the Angels had better hope not. How he fares will be telling, both for the 2012 AL West race and the Angels’ future.

 

2. Will Yu Darvish live up to the hype?

 

The Rangers this winter made the decision to let C.J. Wilson sign with a division rival and to invest more than $100 million in the ballyhooed Darvish.

There’s no doubting Darvish’s stuff and record of success in Japan. But how will he adapt to facing MLB lineups, in the withering heat of Arlington and in a ballpark that drastically aids the hitter? We’ll find out soon enough.

 

3. What will become of Ryan Braun?

 

Understatement: The suspension of NL MVP Ryan Braun for use of a banned substance was shocking. If the suspension holds up, you can expect lethal doses of moralizing and righteous hand-wringing from those who subsist on such things.

More importantly, you can expect that the NL Central race will be affected. Can the Brewers, stripped of Prince Fielder and without Braun for almost one-third of the season, repeat as division champs? Or, as some have speculated, will Braun’s suspension be overturned?

 

4. How will the AL East shake out?

 

The Yankees have a revamped rotation and a potent offense. The Red Sox still have a wealth of talent on the roster. The Rays, rather quietly, may be the best team in baseball on paper. The Blue Jays continue to improve and still boast the best hitter on the planet.

Who’s left standing in the end? And, because of the war of attrition that is the unbalanced schedule in the toughest division, can the East claim two playoff spots for the sixth straight season?

 

5. Can anyone in the AL Central challenge the Tigers?

 

Last season, the Tigers barged to the AL Central title by a full 15 games, and this winter they’ve notably added Prince Fielder to the fold.

While the Indians and Royals are young and on the rise, there’s seemingly no chance that they’ll overtake Detroit.

Can someone surprise in the AL Central? A Midwest miracle will be required.

 

6. Will the new-look Marlins contend?

 

The rebranded Marlins have a new ballpark, new uniforms, new forms of silliness, and — most important — new players.

Can the likes of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and Carlos Zambrano (in tandem with productive incumbents like Mike Stanton, Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson) lift the Marlins from worst to first?

Probably not, at least in a division that houses the Phillies and Braves. Still, the Fish figure to be substantially better in 2012, and they’ll have a puncher’s chance at the postseason.

 

7. What milestones will be reached?

 

It’s highly unlikely that anyone will reach august benchmarks such as 3,000 hits, 500 homers or 300 wins in 2012, but a number of other milestones are within varying degrees of reach.

Here’s a partial list: Roy Halladay and Tim Hudson and 200 wins (need 12 and 19, respectively); Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Vlad Guerrero and 500 doubles (need five, eight and 23, respectively); and Alex Rodriguez and 2,000 RBI (needs 107).

Bonus milestone: If Adam Dunn can manage to whiff 191 times this season (something he’s done on three other occasions), then he’ll become the fastest ever to 2,000 strikeouts.

 

8. Who will own the Dodgers?

 

No tears will be shed when ownership passes from the mercilessly corrupt Frankie Parking Lots to the winner of the ongoing auction, whoever that winner may be.

What’s certain is that the next owner won’t possibly be as much of a saboteur as McCourt has been.

So will it be Magic Johnson? Joe Torre? Orel and Garvey? Whoever takes the bidding will likely pay more than $1 billion and be tasked with restoring honor to one of the game’s great franchises. Know hope, Dodger fans.

 

9. Will the Pirates break the streak?

 

Pity the Pirates and their supporters. Not since 1992 have the Buccos mustered a winning season, and not since 1999 have they finished higher than fourth in the division.

In fact, the Pirates hold the all-time record for consecutive losing seasons.

Any chance the streak ends in 2012? Well, the Pirates improved modestly last season, and they continue to develop some impressive young talent.

If they’re to do so, then they’ll need to avoid last year’s second-half collapse.

 

10. Can Mike Matheny defy the odds?

 

New Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny has never managed a game at the professional level.

Now consider the circumstances into which he strides: He’s replacing one of the five greatest managers in history, he’s taking over the reigning champs, and he’s tasked with leading them back to the playoffs without Albert Pujols and pitching coach Dave Duncan.

Matheny could have the best season of any manager and still wind up falling short of those ultimate goals. Baptismal by fire it is. Can he handle it?