Changing of the Guard in MLB

- By Scot Jordan

The early-going of the 2012 Major League season suggests a changing of the guard in baseball! Only the Texas Rangers are leading their division in 2012 after having done so in 2011, every other division features a new face at the top. There has been a complete divisional overhaul across the league and a passing of the torch has begun.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are leading the charge and are off to the league's best start. The roster is a mixed bag for the Dodgers; youth with collective experience. Expectations have not been met in recent years but the team’s new ownership, Guggenheim Baseball Management, is moving the Dodgers forward into a new era. Mark Walter will be the controller alongside Stan Kasten, who will act as CEO. Magic Johnson, part of the management team and the new face of the franchise, shed tears of joy over being a part of the acquisition because the team has such a great chance to emulate its glorious past.

Pitching has been the team’s strong suit. The Dodgers have a 3.20 team ERA, good for second in the major leagues. The main catalyst has been Clatyon Kershaw, the 24 year old ace putting together a strong case for his first Cy Young award. Kershaw has managed a beatific 1.97 ERA in nine starts this season, winning just under half of them and setting the tone for the rest of the team. Closer Javy Guerra ranks in the top 20 in saves and he hasn't had as many opportunities as the rest of the league's leaders because of the Dodgers’ run. Overall, it's been a collective effort from the Dodger's pitching staff. Their starters 1-5 are leading the league in quality starts this year. This year's strong lineup has certainly appreciated it.

On the hitting side, 27 year old NL MVP Matt Kemp picked up right where he left off at the end of last season. He is on pace for over 40 home-runs and 100 RBI while keeping his average over .350. Kemp has attributed his strong performance to his supporting cast and the Dodgers’ hitting is built around him mashing in the middle of the order. The team has added pieces like Bobby Abreu and given prospects like AJ Ellis and Dee Gordon more playing time, which will create a potent lineup that has the potential to get even better over time. Plus, with the 4th overall batting average in the league, it's easy to see why the team has gotten off to such a hot start.

The Washington Nationals, once the laughing stock of Major League Baseball, are off to a great start as well. The two-headed monster Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, consecutive first round draft picks and future Hall of Fame level talents, are stealing many of the headlines. Few would have predicted the 4.5 game lead that the Nationals currently possess over the last place Philadelphia Phillies. They've done it with solid technique, small ball, and great pitching.

Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper
May 18, 2012; Washington, DC, USA: Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (34) bats during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Nationals Park. The Orioles defeated the Nationals 2-1. Photo Courtesy By: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE.

The pitching has been particularly critical as the Nationals have endured injuries to hitters Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth while staying at the top of the heap. Leading the league in ERA with an impressive 2.92 as well as leading the league in WHIP and opposing batting average, they are a threat for a shutout every time they send a pitcher out to the mound. And, it’s not just Strasburg, much of the credit should go to pitching coach Steve McCatty, who took over in 2009 and created a winning environment, and sensational acquisition Gio Gonzalez.

Not to be outdone is the American League equivalent of the Los Angeles Dodgers: the Baltimore Orioles. Just one game back of the Dodgers for best record in the Major Leagues, the Orioles have done it with a youth movement. Leading the majors in home runs, the power swing has been a great barometer of success for the team. Adam Jones is currently flirting with the team's triple crown, batting .309 with 14 home runs and 31 RBI. These gargantuan stats are only the tip of the iceberg because he is also leading the team with 8 steals. In a tough division, such a strong start from a team that largely underachieved last year was difficult to call but it is not difficult to see why the season has played out this way. However, the Orioles’ success may be short lived: if I had to predict a team to fall off it would be the team that lives and dies by the long ball.

It has been a rather unpredictable year thus far, with teams that have generally been in the bottom half of the league over the last few years now standing atop their respective divisions. Will the trend continue? That's not easy to say but it was also not easy to say that these teams would be in their current positions this late in the 2012 season. They have the pieces to keep on winning, it's just a matter of concentration. Can the young players maintain focus and continue to dominate? Only time will tell.

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