Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 2/10/12
Last year Arizona was baseball's sleeper, a preseason pick to finish in last place that emerged as the NL West champion. The year before, Texas ended the Angels' run in the AL West, and wound up losing the World Series to San Francisco. Colorado was a surprise NL wild card in 2007 and 2009, and Tampa Bay stunned not only the AL East but all of baseball, advancing to the World Series in 2008. Which team will be the surprise of 2012? What about Cincinnati? With spring training about to open, the Reds are looking good and the two teams to beat in the NL Central suffered major offseason losses. Already blessed with an explosive lineup built around Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips, the Reds were able to put together a package to land San Diego ace Mat Latos -- who goes into Cincinnati's rotation in the No. 2 spot -- and anchored the bullpen by signing free-agent closer Ryan Madson. Don't overlook the impact the signings of Ryan Ludwick and Jeff Francis can have. Ludwick provides a solid right-handed extra bat, and Francis is a sleeper. Having shown he was healthy again last year in Kansas City, given the Reds' defense and offense, Francis could easily win between 12 and 15 games. Yes, St. Louis won the world championship last year, but the Cardinals suffered three losses that can't be offset. In addition to Albert Pujols' free-agent signing with the Los Angeles Angels, manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan retired. Milwaukee, meanwhile, lost Prince Fielder to free agency, and could be without 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun for the first 60 days. Even if Braun wins his appeal of the suspension for testing positive for a PED, the controversy of the drug-test failure would be a distraction. NOTES Detroit is definitely the team to beat in the AL Central, but did it really improve with the signing of Prince Fielder? No. No knock on Fielder, but the Tigers didn't add offense with Fielder as much as they replaced offense, because they will be without Victor Martinez in 2012. The truth is, what little edge they may gain in offense with Fielder over Martinez, they lose with a defense that will now feature sub-par infield corners -- Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera at third. San Francisco chipped away at its strength to add marginal offensive help. First it sent right-hander Zack Wheeler, its No. 1 pitching prospect, to the Mets last July for outfielder Carlos Beltran, who not only did not provide enough offensive help to allow the Giants to win the NL West, but then left as a free agent. Then, this winter, the Giants shipped lefty Jonathan Sanchez, who has been inconsistent but overpowering, to Kansas City for journeyman outfielder Melky Cabrera. Are the Giants hoping to salvage something out of that seven-year, 126 million deal they gave lefty Barry Zito? Zito is 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA the last five years, and managed to appear in only 13 games (nine starts), a year ago. To his credit, he has been extremely professional in handling his diminishing role on the team, and has never backed off working to find a solution to his failures. Can a change of scenery provide a bump for right-hander Jeremy Guthrie? The Rockies, needing a workhorse, acquired Guthrie, who has worked 200-plus innings each of the last three seasons. They look at his limited pitching experiences in his youth as a bonus, feeling he is actually fresher at age 33 than many pitchers at 27. They also are counting on the fact that Guthrie, having had to survive in Camden Yards, is a rare breed in that he will find Coors Field more pitcher-friendly than the park he's accustomed to, and will benefit from a markedly better defense with the Rockies than he has ever had behind him before. There also is the curiosity of how much will he benefit from moving out of the AL East, where Baltimore faces the offensive machines in Boston and New York 18 games each per season. The NL West, meanwhile, is noted for pitching, and Guthrie could make as many as three starts each in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are at the top of the list of pitcher-friendly parks. Guthrie was 30-48 with a 4.39 ERA overall the last three seasons -- 4-13 with a 5.46 ERA against the Red Sox and Yankees and 26-35 with a 4.13 against all other teams. He was 2-6 with a 6.59 ERA at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium the last three seasons. Bryce Harper is one of the game's most talked about prospects, and even though he has yet to have an at-bat in a big-league game, Harper's biography, "The Last Natural," is being published. Harper has a ton of ability, but is the hype going to create a crushing pressure? Time will tell. He made his pro debut last year, splitting the season between low-A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League, and Double-A Harrisburg. His combined stats were a .297 average, 17 home runs and 58 RBI in 109 games. Hopefully he will be allowed a chance to develop, acclimate and not be rushed.
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