We have yet to witness the first pitch of the Grapefruit and Cactus seasons -- let alone the regular season -- and yet already, either because of last year's results or a little Hot Stove hype, favorites have emerged. In the American League, the Yankees and Red Sox always duke it out in the AL East, and the low-budget Rays are once again poised to try to spoil the party. The Tigers ran away with the AL Central last year and now have Prince Fielder on board. The Rangers and the Albert Pujols-aided Angels are considered the Yanks and BoSox of the West.
In the National League, the Phillies' juggernaut rotation remains a force to be reckoned with in the NL East, but the Marlins and Nationals were both aggressive in their winter pursuits, generating optimism for the year ahead. The Cardinals, Brewers and Reds are the Central's three-headed monster (and now that Ryan Braun has won his appeal, the cloud of gloom-and-doom that had presided over the Brewers' offseason has been lifted). Finally, the D-backs and Giants are both in position to pursue the NL West crown. Hey, it's all well and good to have favorites, because, without them, we wouldn't have underdogs.
And in that spirit, I present to you half a dozen teams that enter 2012 as a "sleeper" you ought not completely overlook, especially given the still-lingering possibility of added Wild Card spots in 2012. Atlanta Braves This team won 89 games last year and was arguably one of baseball's best for five of the season's six months. So, why are the Braves a sleeper? Well, it's simple, really. Their relative lack of activity this offseason had some wondering whether they went into hibernation. The NL East was bustling with energy this winter, with the Miami Marlins changing not only their name and logo but also their free-agent spending identity and the Nationals aggressively augmenting their rotation to bolster a burgeoning core. Even the Mets' plummeting payroll was at least eye-catching for all the wrong reasons. The Braves, meanwhile, just seemed to sit still, content to count on internal improvements as they dealt Derek Lowe and watched Alex Gonzalez depart in free agency. If that seems awfully brave of the Braves, given their September collapse, well, that's because it is. But their rotation depth and the way they played over the vast majority of 2011 can't be ignored, either. What has to go right: Jason Heyward has to rebound from his sophomore-year slump and turn in a junior-year rejuvenation, and the bullpen -- led by the shutdown trio of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty -- must remain a strength. What absolutely cannot go wrong: The injuries that ate away at the rotation in the second half of last season can't crop up again. Already, the Braves know they'll likely be without Tim Hudson (back surgery) for a month, and the conditions of Jair Jurrjens (knee) and Tommy Hanson (shoulder) will be monitored closely, as well. In Randall Delgado, Julio Teheran and Kris Medlen, they have youthful depth, but they'd feel much more comfortable with the more veteran arms at full strength. Toronto Blue Jays One of these days, the Jays could have the financial resources to become the AL East's third juggernaut. For now, their contention hopes lean decidedly more toward conjecture. Still, one can't ignore that this club finished a respectable 81-81 last year despite blowing 25 saves. And so the Blue Jays' aggressive augmentation of the bullpen this winter (Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver were all acquired) could make them a Wild Card contender. The lineup could be elite, thanks not only to superstar Jose Bautista but the fact that stud prospect Brett Lawrie will be on hand for a full season. And perhaps this is the year Colby Rasmus blossoms. What has to go right: The rotation, beyond underrated ace Ricky Romero, simply must become more reliable. The Jays ranked ninth in the AL in starters' innings last season and want to see the quantity and quality of those innings improve. Brandon Morrow and Brett Cecil are the keys. What absolutely cannot go wrong: Any serious or sustained injury to Bautista could be devastating. Because while the lineup is high on power and upside, it is still low on track record. Kansas City Royals Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Royals have a ton of young talent on the rise from one of the game's most highly regarded farm systems. Whether a club of 20-somethings can mount a serious contention effort in a division in which the Tigers are such clear-cut favorites remains to be seen. But with youth, there is always hope and possibility. The Royals made their biggest offseason move months ago, dealing Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez, the hard-throwing lefty who occasionally flirts with brilliance. They also signed Jonathan Broxton to set up closer Joakim Soria. Other than that, the Royals are waiting for the fruits of their farm system -- most notably star-in-waiting Eric Hosmer -- to ripen. And if that happens in 2012, the Royals are going to make much more noise than we're accustomed to them making. They host the All-Star Game this year and hope to have more than just their usual token entry. What has to go right: Aaron Crow's transition to the rotation and Sanchez's transition to the AL must be successful ones, because the Royals' starting pitching was putrid last year. The development that third baseman Mike Moustakas displayed in the last couple months of an otherwise questionable rookie year must carry over into the new year. It also wouldn't hurt if Soria reclaimed his former status as a truly elite ninth-inning arm. What absolutely cannot go wrong: From a contention standpoint, growing pains are not a luxury the Royals, who will field a lineup with an average age of about 24.5, can afford. They might, however, be inevitable. Cleveland Indians Speaking of potential AL Central surprises, what the Indians are really trying to do is go from sleeper to keeper. Nobody envisioned them starting off 30-15 last season, but just about everybody outside of Cleveland figured they would fall back. Sure enough, with special thanks to a wide-ranging array of injuries, that's what happened, and the Tigers ran away with the division by 15 games. Knowing their window to contend is at hand while the likes of Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez are still on hand, the Indians enter 2012 with a certain sense of urgency, though their bargain-basement budget didn't exactly allow them to scream it. Their replacement for the oft-injured Grady Sizemore? The oft-injured Grady Sizemore -- and he's already injured again. Their free-agent upgrade at first base? Defensive specialist Casey Kotchman. Their veteran addition to the rotation? A 38-year-old Derek Lowe, coming off his worst season. In the last few days, the Indians have announced Sizemore is likely out for Opening Day because of a strained back and closer Chris Perez could be out for Opening Day because of a strained oblique. So already, injuries are attacking the Indians yet again. But they surprised us a year ago, and they could surprise us again, if their young pieces play to their potential. What has to go right: The 2010 model Jimenez simply must show up, Choo must prove his disappointing 2011 was an aberration and top prospects Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall must mature into dependable big leaguers at second and third base. What absolutely cannot go wrong: If Sizemore's back injury lingers too long or one of his knees gives out again, well, fugghedaboutit. Colorado Rockies What do you make of a team that lost 89 games and then decided to get older? Hard to say, really. As a result of their winter pursuits, the Rockies have the potential to either be drastically improved or mind-numbingly bad -- and perhaps that dual identity is appropriate for a club known for its drastic home/road splits. What I do know is that there is enough potential here to at least cast a vote for the Rox in the "sleeper" category, even if that just means some members of their decidedly graying roster are taking cat naps in the clubhouse. The Rockies will have a 38-year-old first baseman in Todd Helton, a 32-year-old right fielder in Michael Cuddyer, a 38-year-old third baseman in Casey Blake, a 36-year-old second baseman in Marco Scutaro, a 35-year-old catcher in Ramon Hernandez, a 36-year-old closer in Rafael Betancourt and a 41-year-old pinch-hitter in Jason Giambi. Oh, and they might make way for 49-year-old Jamie Moyer in the rotation. Maybe all that experience adds up to something meaningful. What has to go right: The rotation must deliver quality innings, and that would mean some combination of smooth and successful transitions for Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood and Guillermo Moscoso, fewer walks from Jhoulys Chacin, a return to health for Juan Nicasio and Jorge De La Rosa and the emergence of Drew Pomeranz. What absolutely cannot go wrong: One of the game's most inconsistent offenses (5.4 runs scored per game at home last year, 3.7 runs per game away) can't afford to be so, well, inconsistent. That begins with Carlos Gonzalez, whose wrist issue last year might have contributed to a regression from his MVP-type effort in 2010. Los Angeles Dodgers Admittedly, this one might be a stretch, even among stretches. The Dodgers got a Cy Young season out of Clayton Kershaw and a legit MVP-worthy season out of Matt Kemp last year and were still nothing more than mediocre. Furthermore, they lost Hiroki Kuroda from the rotation, and any external upgrades made this winter have been minimal, at best. So, why include them here? Three reasons: 1. While the D-backs have depth and the Giants have a robust rotation, there is no clear-cut, hands-down favorite in the NL West (and that's why the Rockies are also in this discussion). 2. The Dodgers, for all their faults, did play hard for rookie manager Don Mattingly, going 34-20 in the season's final two months to salvage a winning season. 3. Once new ownership is aboard (and that's happening soon), they'll likely have the resources to take on salary at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, should they be any sort of factor in the race. Stranger things have happened. What has to go right: Well, another Cy for Kershaw and Kemp making good on his goal of going 50-50 wouldn't hurt, nor would a dynamic walk year from Andre Ethier, post-knee surgery. New starters Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano must account for the void left behind by Kuroda. What absolutely cannot go wrong: A young bullpen fronted by Javy Guerra and Kenley Jansen can't implode.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.