Pujols and Fielder didn't just get paid, they stuck with teams who may easily play in October.

I don’t like watching Sportscenter (I have been sober from Sportscenter, PTI, Around the Horn, and ESPN News for over a year now) so I peeked over to SI.com and Yahoo! Sports to get a feel for what the top stories are this week on the national stage.  Yahoo! had a story on Bobby Valentine and the Red Sox while SI was going with the indomitable Tim Verducci’s Three Strikes on their front page.  With the Super Bowl behind us, I realized that baseball is officially back in the sports consciousness until October.  Now, for us Orioles fans (even if you hate the Orioles it only means you still care) this is not a happy time of year.  The optimism of last year (and the year before) is not around in 2012, and for good reason.  After a decade and a half of convincing ourselves that “this year is different” we know that this year won’t be.  Football may be king, but baseball is America’s pastime for a reason (that’s another, far more sentimental column).  This season there are plenty of storylines as we approach Spring Training that have nothing to do with the Orioles but will make this season one of the more interesting in recent memory.

Living in Michigan I cannot help but mention the Detroit Tigers, who have fashioned themselves a lineup that I would put against any in the league.  They possess the best #3 hitter in the majors in Miguel Cabrera and one of the top #4 hitters in the majors in Prince Fielder, with emerging star Alex Avila and veteran Jhonny Peralta coming of their best seasons ever.  If they can find a leadoff man or hope that Austin Jackson has a bounceback season, this could be the most explosive offense in the league.  Their problem, however, is that Austin Jackson can’t play all 9 positions on defense.  Cabrera will be shaky at third, Fielder has never been a truly plus defender, and Peralta and Santiago are hardly shut-down up the middle.  This team could afford to have a sub-par infield when Brandon Inge was manning the hot corner and making up for mistakes, but Inge doesn’t look like much more than a late-inning replacement at this point.  Add in some uncertain spots at the back of the rotation and this is a team that could be another one-and-done in the postseason.

It seems that every year we wonder if this is the year that the Mariners or Athletics challenge the top of the division, and every year we are greeted with teams that have decent or even stellar pitching but absolutely awful offenses.  With Albert Puhols in Los Angeles it looks like the Angels will continue to at least tread water, but the Mariners will be relying on a troop of unproven (but highly touted) prospects in Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Jesus Montero to lift them offensively.  Personally I don’t trust a core of young position players to carry the load right away; I feel like they need veterans to take it on at first- and I don’t mean Mike Carp and Franklin Gutierrez in run-producing spots in the lineup.  The Athletics are as they have always been, except with a little less in the rotation than usual.  The Mariners will be intriguing with all their young talent and the Angels will be fascinating just to see if Puhols can continue lifting the play of his teammates out west.

Speaking of Puhols, the team he left behind still looks like the class of the NL Central, especially with the Brewers having lost Prince Fielder and the Cubs and Astros in full rebuilding mode.  The Reds should be interesting, having gone all in on Mat Latos and Sean Marshall, dealing away a host of talented young prospects.  If anyone can unseat St. Louis it will be Cincinnati, having taken the opening created by the loss of top sluggers to bolster their staff and lock up top talent.  I wonder whether they will have enough around Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to generate runs as the season wears on.

Add in the annual hopes for someone to tune in to watch the Washington Nationals, Phili and San Francisco’s dominant pitching staffs, the Marlins’ big investment in Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes and the always-wide-open NL West race, and this season will have a lot of things to follow besides the tiresome Boston-New York hype.  Even if the Orioles don’t show up to the ballpark, it should be a hell of a season.