All Things Being Equal: Our Baseball Picks for 2011
This Great Game's fearless forecasters look through soothsaying eyes and deliver their best guesses for baseball's 2011 regular season.
By Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio, This Great Game
Posted March 27, 2011
It’s come to that time of the year when we sit down, examine the winter that was and decide on who will arrive, thrive, dive and die in the coming baseball season. The hope is that, six months from now, we won’t be wondering to ourselves, “What were we thinking?”
Our picks last year weren’t the greatest; I picked two World Series occupants (St. Louis and Boston) that ended up not even making the postseason. But there were other, more prescient brain cells at work; I gave the Atlanta Braves wild card love in advance, sniffed out the Seattle Mariners as too good to be true, and whispered that the San Diego Padres could actually make some unexpected noise. Even better, Ed presaged the San Francisco Giants winning the West and managed to pick one World Series contestant (the New York Yankees) that actually did survive the regular season and register for October duty, albeit not all the way.
So now comes 2011. Who are we foolish enough to go with, to diss, to opt for as surprises this year? There’s some very interesting action that went down this past winter that’s changed the major league landscape, so here’s our best shot at guessing how it will all end up at the end of September. All things being equal, of course. —Eric
NL East: Ed's picks
NL East: Eric's rebuttal
NL Central: Eric's picks
NL Central: Ed's rebuttal
NL West: Ed's picks
NL West: Eric's rebuttal
AL East: Eric's picks
AL East: Ed's rebuttal
AL Central: Ed's picks
AL Central: Eric's rebuttal
AL West: Eric's picks
AL West: Ed's rebuttal
Postseason/Awards: Eric's and Ed's picks
Who’s going to be able to beat the Philadelphia Phillies with that amazing pitching staff this season? With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels (58 combined wins in 2010), I’m reminded of the 1971 Baltimore Orioles (Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally—all 20-game winners), the 1954 Cleveland Indians (Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia) and the 1993 Atlanta Braves (Greg Maddux, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz). If this team hasn’t clinched by September 15, I’ll eat my weight in cheese steak sandwiches, and I promise. Chase Utley (.275 average, 16 home runs and 65 RBIs), who missed nearly two months to injury last year, will have a monster season, if he can rebound from early season injuries. I know Utley is currently hurt, but fear not—take him in your fantasy team if he’s available, because he will shine this season. The names are major and their stats speak for themselves: First baseman Ryan Howard (.276-31-108), second baseman Jimmy Rollins (.243-8-43 last year while injured); outfielders Raul Ibanez (.275-16-83) and Shane Victorino (.259-18-69) and catcher Carlos Ruiz (.302-8-53). With a strong bullpen led by closer Brad Lidge (27 saves) and set-up man Jose Contreras, this duo will protect late-game leads, which will be many. Only question is, do they play Ben Francisco or John Mayberry Jr. in right field while mega-prospect Dominic Brown waits in the wings? (Predicted 2011 W-L finish: 110-52 and first place in the NL East).
Featuring a sweet mix of old grizzled vets and young fresh talent, the Atlanta Braves will improve on last year’s trip to the playoffs to go deeper into the postseason. The only thing to prevent them from reaching the World Series is the Phillies, and that’s why they’ll finish second capture the wild card in a close race with the Reds. What can you say about future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones? (.265, ten homers and 46 RBI while injured in 2010). Other vets to watch in awe are second baseman Dan Uggla (.287-33-105), starting pitcher Derek Lowe (16-12, 4.00 ERA, 136 Ks) and Tim Hudson (17-9, 2.83 ERA, 139 Ks). Now let’s talk about the youngsters, including last year’s super-rookie Jason Heyward (.277-18-72) and new first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose numbers and intangibles have sportswriters salivating over him (I’m drooling all over my keyboard right now!) Add in guys like outfielder Nate McLouth and catcher Brian McCann, and the Braves’ offense is primed for battle. The team’s starting pitching is equally impressive, led by the aforementioned Hudson and Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.33 ERA, 173 Ks) and Jair Jurrjens (7-6, 4.64 ERA, 86 Ks). The bullpen is anchored by their new closer Jonny Venters (4-4, 1.95 ERA, 93 Ks) and Craig Kimbrel (4-0, 0.44 ERA, 40 Ks). Atlanta’s bullpen was spectacular last season and it should still be lights out when they’re leading going into the seventh through ninth innings. (Predicted 2011 finish: 93-69 and second place in the NL East).
The Florida Marlins’ business model has been very successful with two world championships in just 17 years of existence. (Eat your hearts out, Cub fans—your team’s been waiting since 1908.) It’s called “build and break” and it’s a smart move. Why pay big salaries when your top players will eventually flee for big-market teams the first chance they get? The fish are stocked and Florida is ready to win and then dismantle their team as soon as they do it. Big-time heat thrower Josh Johnson (11-6, 2.30 ERA, 186 Ks), Ricky Nolasco (14-9, 4.51 ERA, 147 Ks), Anibal Sanchez (13-12, 3.55 ERA, 157 Ks), Chris Volstad (12 wins) and Javier Vazquez (ten wins) make up a deep and skilled staff. Closer Leo Nunez lost his finisher’s role to Clay Hensley (7 Saves, 2.16 ERA) late last season, but he now has a new slider which the experts are praising while the batters are whiffing on it. Everyone knows that shortstop Hanley Ramirez (.300-21-79) can do it all—but does he have an attitude problem? Second baseman Omar Infante (.321), first baseman Gaby Sanchez (.273-19-85) and outfielder Mike Stanton (.259-22-59) will get better as they play more and more at the MLB level. Florida is maybe one season away from being the next Tampa Bay. In 2012, their motto is “Bring in the trophy and then watch the players fly out of town.” (Predicted 2011 finish: 86-76 and third place in the NL East).
Just a few years ago, everyone was talking the New York Mets in the World Series. Now all they talk about is the Bernie Madoff controversy and players slapping their girlfriends’ fathers. This team is probably five years away from being competitive again, because they’re a mixture of oft-injured veterans and newbies that are unseasoned and not yet ready for the Big Show on the Biggest Stage in the World. Mike Pelfrey (15-9, 3.66 ERA, 113 Ks), Jonathon Niese (9-10, 4.20 ERA, 148 Ks) and R.A. Dickey (11-9, 2.84 ERA, 104 Ks) are followed by two promising (but still unproven) arms, Chris Young (2-0, 0.90 ERA) and Dillon Gee. Closer Francisco Rodriguez (4-2, 2.20 ERA, 25 Saves) can throw punches, but he’s also tough to beat in the ninth inning. Stars include David Wright (.283-29-103) and shortstop Jose Reyes (.282-11-54, 30 steals). Then there are a couple of former all-stars who need to recapture their old magic: Jason Bay (.259-6-47) and Carlos Beltran (.255-7-27 while injured). If it all comes together, they could surprise—but I’m doubtful. (Predicted 2011 finish: 79-83 and fourth place in the NL East).
Slightly improved from their 69-93 season last year, the Washington Nationals are still several years from being competitive. They’re building primarily through their minor league system, knowing full well that stocking a team with pricey free agents is a short-term fix and makes it more difficult to create team chemistry down the road. First baseman Adam LaRoche (.261-25-100 with Arizona), third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.307-25-85), and outfielders Jayson Werth (.296-27-85), Nyjer Morgan (34 steals) and LF Rick Ankiel are decent players but the Hall of Fame isn’t reserving spots for any of them (except maybe for maybe catcher Ivan Rodriguez.) Then throw in the fact that your top hurler is Livan Hernandez (10-12, 3.66 ERA, 114 Ks), and you’re already in big trouble. (Predicted 2011 finish: 72-90 and last place in the NL East).
Ed, myself and the rest of the living universe are in agreement that the Phillies should win the East. But Ed, c’mon—110 wins? Not even the sunniest prognosticator in Philadelphia (yes, you, Jimmy Rollins) is going that far. This team is vulnerable and already banged up, as injury woes hound Chase Utley, Brad Lidge and the one young hitting talent in Dominic Brown (broken hand). Ed says that the Phillies’ stats speak for themselves, but the parenthetical numbers he gives are less WOW, more WTF. The everyday lineup shows an emerging generation gap, and that will quash any chance that this team becomes a juggernaut. But it all comes back to the pitching and you simply can’t ignore that the Phillies have three-and-a-half genuine aces (my love only goes halfway for Cole Hamels); as such, the rotation is the insurance policy that will blunt the disabled list blues and help the Phillies claim their divisional title.
If any team has the potential to knock the Phillies out of first, it’s the Florida Marlins. The hitting could very well be the strongest in the division (and very possibly in the NL) should sophomore boppers Mike Stanton and Gaby Sanchez continue to emerge alongside Hanley Ramirez. Dan Uggla is gone, but Omar Infante has a better glove at second base and should provide quality top-of-the-order action in advance of the power hitters. The rotation is sound with ace Josh Johnson and Javier Vazquez, who’s happily back in the NL (to say nothing of obscurity) after another failed stint with the New York Yankees. Yes, the Marlins are not perfect; they lack experience and a decent bullpen that could hound their ability to protect leads. But manager Edwin Rodriguez is so confident, he’s on record saying that his team will be the last one standing in this division come October. If these Marlins grow up fast, he just might be right.
The Atlanta Braves, not led by Bobby Cox for the first time since the Bush 41 administration, are a team in flux. This isn’t all about Cox; the team has an inexperienced (yet potentially wicked) group of relievers, an infield that’s defensively shaky, a starting center fielder (Nate McLouth) who’s been down-spiraling over the last few years and a top star, Chipper Jones, who turns 39 this year and is coming off major injury. This is not to say the Braves are sinking overall; Jason Heyward should only get better, and joining him this year is young first baseman Freddie Freeman, who everyone seems to be high on; the rotation is one of the best in the league, so long as it stays healthy; and the team has additional pop with first-year Brave Dan Uggla and catcher Brian McCann. It’s a good group, but I just don’t see the horsepower like I did last year when I (successfully) predicted the Braves to win the wild card spot.
They’re already waiting ‘til next year in Washington for the Nationals. For now, patience rules as Stephen Strasburg recovers from Tommy John surgery and hitting phenom Bryce Harper maturates in the minors. Until then, this is a team on the rebound; the Nationals replenished their power base (and improved their defense) by adding Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to make up for the loss of Adam Dunn, and although the Nats remain seriously inferior on the pitching front, overall this is a squad that feels a good vibe for the near future. And that’s a sort of performance enhancement that won’t get you suspended.
Any thought of good vibes is currently a vastly foreign concept for the New York Mets. This team is like an Irwin Allen movie: An all-star cast working with a big budget and a really bad script. Everywhere you look within the Mets, there’s disaster. Carlos Beltran is a shadow of his former self; Jason Bay is struggling to come back from concussion problems; Johan Santana (shoulder surgery) will likely come back later than sooner, leaving behind an underwhelming rotation; and Francisco Rodriguez will be forced to play the role of the bad guy after his pugilist activities last year. Looming far above this prologue is ownership that is being sued for a billion dollars because of its accused doings with pal/scam king Bernie Madoff. The Mets were desperate enough to boot brooding former stars Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo and still be on the hook to pay them a combined $18 million; that’s only good news in that it won’t make conditions worse. The state of this franchise is so depressing, the few Met fans daring to show up this year must be looking at Citi Field like it’s the Poseidon. For their sake, let’s hope they can find their way back up to the bottom to escape.
In a division where every team has serious flaws of some sort, I have to stick with the one team that looks the most capable of rising above the issues and prevailing at season’s end. That team is the incumbent, the Cincinnati Reds. The defending divisional winners are not overpowering, but they have that potential; there’s still much flowering taking place with outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs, starting pitchers Mike Leake, Travis Wood and Homer Bailey, and the 104-MPH fastball of Aroldis Chapman; if could even be argued that the best is yet to come from reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, who’s still just 27. So there’s a lot of upside that makes up for the lack of sound veteran presence. The Reds’ most important sage is invested in manager Dusty Baker, who’s seen a lot of postseason disappointment—but at least he’s been there. Bottom line: In a division reeking with weakness, the Reds stink the least.
Everyone’s high on the Milwaukee Brewers, whose shrewd offseason moves and bold messaging that the future is now made them become this winter’s Seattle Mariners. Hopefully for their sake, they won’t become this summer’s Seattle Mariners (61-101 in 2010). With power first baseman Prince Fielder’s contract expiring at the end of this season—he’s not expected back in 2012—the Brewers went for broke and deepened an iffy rotation by acquiring former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from Kansas City and Shaun Marcum from Toronto to help compliment an already gifted offense led by Fielder, Ryan Braun and Casey McGahee. Will the Brewers’ roll of the dice pay off? The bullpen is a sore point with a closer (John Axford) who’s proven his value for only half a year, and the defense—which finished last in the majors last year in total chances—has limited range and is error-prone. Throw in the presence of a rookie manager (Mike Scioscia protégé Ron Roenicke), and it’s a true stretch to suggest that the Brewers will own the NL Central.
John Mozeliak, the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, might want to consider putting a top crisis management consultant on speed dial. Albert Pujols is playing in what very well could be his final year with the Cardinals. Ace pitcher Adam Wainwright, who was worth his weight in Cy Young gold compared to Roy Halladay last year, is out for the year after Tommy John surgery. The team’s other top pitcher, Chris Carpenter, is also feeling more pain that he wants this spring. Lance Berkman’s in town, but how much does he have left? The vibes just aren’t right in Cardinalland, and anyone’s a fool to think the team will glide through the year without thinking of all the off-field distractions of if, when and how. The Cardinals need a quick start to stay in good spirits and, just as importantly, together; with Pujols, Carpenter, All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, closer Ryan Franklin and manager Tony La Russa all not cemented under contract for 2012, look at the likelihood of a reset next year.
Are the Chicago Cubs exhausted? Look at the roster and you get lots of veteran ballplayers who’ve seen better days. But the thing is, a lot of these guys aren’t that old, and yet they’re playing like they have one foot in the retirement home. From Alfonso Soriano to Geovany Soto to Aramis Ramirez to Carlos Zambrano, one can’t help but be seduced by the promise that this team has. And yet, these players find a way to turn the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field angry with underachieving performances. The head scratching gets itchier with the Cubs signing a .197 hitter (Carlos Pena) to a one-year, $10 million fee. If that doesn’t bring a smile to the faces of player agents nationwide, nothing will. The Cubs were an enigma last year, with the majors’ worst home record (yes, at Wrigley) the second worst bullpen ERA despite some pretty good arms stashed away in the corner, and a near monopoly on internal skirmishes (something that’s continued into spring training). The new manager, Mike Quade, has a last name that rhymes with karate—and he may need some of Pat Morita/Jackie Chan’s techniques to survive a full year with this strange bunch.
The Houston Astros got off to an absolutely wretched start last year, and with the rest of the season to phone in, they dealt away their two biggest names in Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman. So what happened? The Astros started to win. We didn’t get it either. Chemistry sometimes evolves in the strangest of ways. We’re still trying to find the mirrors that led to Houston’s late-season success, and others aren’t convinced; Baseball Prospectus picked the Astros to have the worst record in the majors this year. That’s right—worse that Pittsburgh. The Astros do have some emerging talent in Hunter Pence and sophomore third baseman Chris Johnson (who statistically impressed late last year), but otherwise this team has the look of a unit that played well over its head in shooting from certain death to fourth in the division, even surpassing the clueless Cubs. Yes, further improvement is a fairly tall order for the Astros, but in this mess of a division, anything can happen.
Looking at the roster for the Pittsburgh Pirates is like checking out the characters in the last Star Trek film in which all the young Starfleet students had to grow up fast and save the universe. Will these Pirates boldly go where no man has gone before—or accomplish what no Pittsburgh team has been able to do for nearly 20 years, which is to simply finish above .500? Think about this: The projected top four guys in the Pirate order this season—Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez—enter the year with a combined total of 586 games’ worth of major league experience; Russ Ohlendorf, the likely Opening Day starter, won only one of 12 decisions last season; and the staff’s best arm is said to belong to Charlie Morton, who dangerously flirted with a season ERA of 10.00 last year. Is baseball’s version of Captain Kirk, Spock and Sulu waiting in the wings within this group? Let’s just hope that the team’s new manager Clint Hurdle—the proverbial Captain Pike—won’t end up battered and scarred from the experience and be resigned to a box beeping his responses to the press.
Eric is right—this is a damaged division with holes so large that actress Kristie Alley could waddle through with little trouble. Here’s a breakdown of the broken down:
The Cincinnati Reds have no veteran leadership, which Eric pointed out. And I agree that Aroldis Chapman will have an amazing Rookie of the Year season. In addition, Mike Leake, Travis Wood and Homer Bailey can throw heat. But, can they consistently throw strikes and are the Reds totally insane to rely on these young arms for an entire season? (I say yes.) They’re just too many question marks here, including fairly new names like Drew Stubbs and shortstop Paul Janish, and I believe Closer Francisco Cordero is extremely hittable. I see the Reds finishing second—maybe.
My pick to finish on top of the NL Central in 2011 is the Milwaukee Brewers, and not just because my namesake (Mark Attanasio) owns the team. This team’s young stars will remind many of us of Harvey Kuenn’s Wallbangers teams from the early 1980s (with names like Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Cecil Cooper) when Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee shine in a big way this season. Eric, you also forgot to mention some of Milwaukee’s ascending talented young players, such as second baseman Rickie Weeks, power-hitting shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and stalwart stopper Yovani Gallardo. The New Brew Crew is coming at you—with gallons of intoxicating power and enthusiasm to spare.
When the St. Louis Cardinals lost starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, their pitching staff took a major hit. And when Albert Pujols didn’t sign a new contract with the team, it was a bad sign. St. Louis is an example of great hitting, spotty pitching. Do they really think starting pitchers like Kyle McClellan, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook can win enough games to make a difference? The Cards need too many things to converge at the same time to make a run for the division title. If they do, Tony La Russa will get the credit; if it doesn’t, it could be 12-21-12 one year too early.
The Chicago Cubs can no longer blame the Curse of the Goat, Bartman or day baseball. Now they may have to accept the truth that they’re a lousy team. The Cubs feature some astronomical ERAs in their bullpen and big questions surround daily players like outfielder Kosuke Fukudome and third baseman Aramis Ramirez. I am tired of picking the Cubs to finally win the division, because every season they figure out a way to decompose. Carlos Pena won’t help the offense and new manager Mike Quade will be posting his resume on CareerBuilder.com before the Ides of September.
Why should I waste my time even writing about the Houston Astros and the Pittsburgh Pirates? Oh well, I owe it to the two dozen fans who still follow these perennial embarrassments.
The Astros are under-equipped to play .500 baseball, because they lack a name I can even remember. Poorly assembled and shoddily run—it’s a whining formula for the Astros, and the main reason why they’ve never won a World Series.
I’m so tired of over-touting Pirates’ prospects year after year. When your home run/RBI leader (Garrett Jones) hits 21 and 86 respectively and your ERA leader (Ross Ohlendorf) goes 1-11 with a 4.07, you know you’re in bad, bad shape. The Pirates play like their forefathers, the 1887 Pittsburgh Alleghenys, with small mitts, stump bats and all-dirt fields—but that won’t win many games in 2011. The statue of the late Willie Stargell located in front of PNC Park obviously doesn’t move, but it can hit for better average than this Pirates’ team and the cellar is where they will dwell once again.
The Colorado Rockies are primed and will finish high atop the mountain in the NL West for many reasons. They’ve got some of the hottest young hitters in the game today, mainly NL batting champion Carlos Gonzalez (.336 average, 34 home runs, 117 RBI, and 28 steals) and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (.315-27-95)—two players where adjectives like “sensational” and “multi-skilled” don’t even do them justice. Then throw in probably the best (and getting better) NL pitcher in Ubaldo Jimenez (19-8, 2.88 ERA, 214 Ks)—move over Lincecum and Greinke—and it’s easy to see that if the Rockies can re-capture their success in 2009, this team could contend into the battles of October. Colorado is maybe the only team that will provide the Phillies with any challenge and might prevent them from running away with the league title. The rest of their pitching staff is exemplary, with Jorge de la Rosa (8-7, 4.22 ERA, 113 Ks), Jhoulys Chacin (9-11, 3.28 ERA, 138 Ks), and closer Huston Street (4-4, 20 Saves). The Rockies were ranked first in the NL West in batting average, runs and homers last year and they may be even tougher to beat, as this squad will thrive in the high-mountain thin air by scoring in double figures in more than 30% of their games, I believe. With this formidable offense they won’t need great pitching—but they’ll have it anyway! (Predicted 2011 finish: 102-60 and first place in the NL West).
Last year the San Francisco Giants peaked at the perfect time, backed by one of the best pitching staffs in recent history, consisting of Tim Lincecum (16-10, 3.43 ERA, 231 Ks), Matt Cain (13-11, 3.14 ERA, 177 Ks), Jonathan Sanchez (13-9, 3.07 ERA, 177 Ks) and Madison Bumgarner (7-6, 3.00 ERA, 86 Ks) with Brian Wilson (48 saves) handling the hairy ninth innings with dyed beard, style points and panache to spare. San Francisco’s long-awaited championship was syrupy sweet, because they did it when everyone least expected it. Many were crying that the Padres handed the Giants the division by choking during the last two weeks of the season, but you can’t deny that the Giants seized the moment and surprised the world! But, let’s take a closer look at how I believe this team will perform in 2011. First off, what are they going to do with Barry Zito (9-14, 4.15 ERA, 150 Ks)? If he can’t rebound, will his high salary and inability to throw strikes hurt the team? Can catcher Buster Posey (.305-18-67) get even better? (I say yes.) Will first baseman Aubrey Huff (.290-26-86) carry the team’s power load again this season? (I say no.) And can third baseman Pablo Sandoval (.268-13-63) shed enough poundage to get the job done in September? (I say maybe.) I think players like outfielders Andres Torres (.268-16-63) and Cody Ross (.269-14-65) won’t come close to what they did in the Miracle by the Bay last season, but hey—I could be wrong and when it comes to these season forecasts, I usually am. (Predicted 2011 finish: 93-69 and second place in the NL West).
The San Diego Padres traded away their best hitter, their best player and their number one draw when they dealt Adrian Gonzalez (.298-31-101) to Boston. So what are the fans supposed to get in return for a team that won’t hit, rarely pitch and lose most of the time? Promotions on the Padres schedule will undoubtedly pull in the fans, like Padres Garden Gnome Giveaway Day or Padres Sport Watch Day (on September 25 vs. Los Angeles—they can use the watches to start thinking about next season.) Sure, San Diego has some young promising pitchers, like Mat Latos (14-10, 2.92 ERA, 189 Ks), Clayton Richard (14-9, 3.75 ERA, 153 Ks) and Tim Stauffer (6-5, 1.85 ERA, 61 Ks). The Padres also have a few outfielders that might go on a hitting mission at some point during the long season, such as Will Venable (.245-13-51) and Cameron Maybin, who came over from the Florida Marlins. Sure they have a good closer (Heath Bell) but they won’t need his services enough to make a difference. But until this organization decides what to do (build through the minor system or spend some money to get top free agents) the Padres’ fans will have to settle for enjoying their great stadium (Petco Field) and the surrounding bars in the Gaslamp Quarter, because good alcohol and high-grade nachos might just be enough to keep them satisfied, for a while. The only reasons San Diego won’t finish dead last are the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks, two teams that are worse than the poor Padres. (Predicted 2011 finish: 78-84 and third place in the NL West).
The Los Angeles Dodgers are handicapped by the Big D—divorce! Frank McCourt broke the number one rule of owning a professional sports team—don’t let the wife mess up what’s happening on the field (it’s called the Georgia Frontiere clause). Sure this squad has some good blossoming talent, including Andre Ethier (.292-23-82), Matt Kemp (.249-28-89) and James Loney (.267-10-88), but Manny Ramirez is gone, off to the Tampa Bay Rays. Ethier was having a Triple Crown-like season before breaking his pinky; Kemp dated his own ego (and the singer Rhianna for a minute) before they both dumped him, and Loney is inconsistent and has no power. Potential stopper Clayton Kershaw (13-10, 2.91 ERA, 212 Ks) has a great attitude and sizzling stuff, but he walks too many batters and Chad Billingsley (12-11, 3.57 ERA, 171 Ks) lost it somewhere in 2009 and he hasn’t been able to get it back. Bullpen stalwarts Hong-Chih Kuo (3-2, 1.20 ERA, 12 saves) has wicked cheese and Jonathan Broxton (5-6, 4.04 ERA, 73 Ks) is erratic and self destructs in the ninth inning. Add in some fading stars like shortstop Rafael Furcal and third baseman Casey Blake and iffy new additions like second baseman Juan Uribe and catcher Rod Barajas and the Blue (along with tears) will flow all over the field this season, causing the blasé Dodgers fans to leave games even earlier than the seventh inning. (Predicted 2011 finish: 77-85 and fourth place in the NL West).
The Arizona Diamondbacks play in Spring Training Land, and they’ll be playing at that level once the real games start. Outfielder Xavier Nady is a pass-around whose days of mediocrity are long gone. A pitching staff with names like Joe Saunders, Barry Enright and Ian Kennedy surely won’t scare many NL hitters, even those playing for the lowly Dodgers and Padres. Starting pitcher Daniel Hudson (8-2, 2.45 ERA, 84 Ks) has some potential, but this team won’t be able to provide him much run support. Chris Young (.257-27-91, 28 steals), Justin Upton (.273-17-69, 18 steals) and Kelly Johnson (.284-26-71) all have their best years ahead of them, and Young and Upton can be consistent 20-20 players, but all this team will teach them is how to lose consistently. Closer J.J. Putz (7-5, 2.83 ERA, three saves) had great seasons in Seattle, but knee and elbow problems caused him to be shuttled between the White Sox and the Mets like an annoying teenager in a broken home. All I can say is poor manager Kirk Gibson—he won’t be able to hit the game winning walk-off shot like he did against Dennis Eckersley in Game One of the 1988 World Series and I don’t believe he’ll sit on the bench for very long and stomach this level of baseball for an entire season without retching in his spittoon. (Predicted 2011 finish: 70-92 and last place in the NL West).
I agree with Ed that the Colorado Rockies will provide superior competition to the San Francisco Giants this year. But here’s what I also think: The Giants will be better.
Consider this about the Giants: The nucleus of the team that won it all a year ago is back, so the championship chemistry is firmly intact. Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, their major league baptisms behind them, are bound to improve and strengthen the team. Pablo Sandoval, who bulked up in the worst way last year and phoned in a lousy season, has lightened up and scared himself straight toward regaining his 2009 brilliance. Mark DeRosa, who missed practically all of last season, returns and gives the roster critical depth. And yet another solid prospect, the power-hitting Brandon Belt, is winning raves at spring training and could be a factor by midseason if not sooner. Gone are the days when Barry Bonds stifled the clubhouse atmosphere with his regal, performance-enhanced ego; these Giants are about as tight-knit a unit as you’ll find in the majors. Yes, there are caveats to consider. The stellar pitching staff, the majors’ best, could succumb to injury after staying remarkably healthy last year; Aubrey Huff, whose up-and-down career went up in 2010, could go back down; and if called upon, Belt could become the next Willie McCovey—or the next J.R. Phillips. But the vibe is too good for this team not to repeat, especially in a division with few serious challengers.
The one big threat to the Giants’ reign is, indeed, the Rockies—who might have snuck in last year were it not for badly-timed injuries to Troy Tulowitzki and closer Huston Street. (It’s also intriguing how the Rockies suddenly flattened out once the Giants accused them of sneaking in non-humidor baseballs at Coors Field when in need of a rally.) The team is well balanced and has All-Star quality players at every critical position, from the infield (Tulowitzki) to the outfield (Carlos Gonzalez), to the mound (Ubaldo Jimenez—back after enjoying, by far, the best year ever by a Rockie hurler) to the bullpen (Street). The wild cards for the Rockies’ postseason chances will be found in the rotation, where third-year pitcher Jhoulys Chacin has the potential to become another Jimenez, and with new additions Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton, proven hitters who could get that Coors Field bump and look like reborn stars on paper. Better avoidance of the disabled list at the wrong moment wouldn’t hurt, either.
As a Giant fan, I find it odd to be an annual apologist for the Los Angeles Dodgers after Ed slams them year after year. That lack of faith seems to be inherent within the Dodger organization, which has struggled to brush off the Machiavellian shenanigans and legal tribulations of the McCourt ownership. It must be said, though: General manager Ned Colletti, using limited funds, has done a good job of shoring up some of the Dodgers’ weaknesses; he strengthened the rotation by adding Jon Garland and re-signing Ted Lilly, brought in at second base Juan Uribe from the Giants (if for anything else, because he kept beating them with clutch homers last season), and signed reliever Matt Guerrier, a terrific set-up man at Minnesota over the last few years. Yes, there are established Dodgers (Matt Kemp, closer Jonathan Broxton and starting pitcher Vicente Padilla) in need of getting their heads screwed on right, but that could be remedied by invading the medicine cabinet of either McCourt and pulling out some strong pills—because when your owner’s debt-to-revenue ratio is 13:1, you just gotta know that there’s some serious stuff sitting on the shelf.
The San Diego Padres came within one day last year of going worst-to-first in the West. Now they’re ready to go from worst-to-almost first-to-almost worst. With Adrian Gonzalez packed up and absorbed into the riches of Red Sox Nation, that leaves the Padres with Ryan Ludwick as their biggest offensive threat. That’s right. Ryan Ludwick, who several years ago put up impressive numbers in St. Louis. Of course, batting in front of Albert Pujols will do that. Batting in front of Brad Hawpe or Chase Headley won’t. This Padre unit reminds me a lot of the Giants of three years ago: Solid pitching with almost no discernable hitting talent. The only reason the Padres won’t be atrocious is that the team’s staff—buoyed by Petco Park’s tough hitting conditions, a rotation full of gifted young arms (led by Mat Latos) and a bullpen that may be the NL’s best—will give San Diego a chance to win even when the offense can manage one, two or three runs per night. The Padres have proven that they’re capable of overachieving, but to win this division they’ll have to overachieve many times over. It’s simply too much to ask of these guys this time around.
When Kirk Gibson came to the Dodgers in 1988, he was stunned to see how slothful and immature the players were compared to his former teammates back in Detroit. He then led by example and, seven months later, the Dodgers were champions. Now Gibson’s the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he’s laid down the law once again: Shape up, stop texting in the clubhouse and be a team. Even if the D-Backs respond and embrace the Gibson Way, it doesn’t hide the fact that this is a roster with many holes, including an absolutely abysmal bullpen that was far and away the majors’ worst last year (with a 5.74 ERA) with little if any improvement for 2011—unless you somehow believe that J.J. Putz, pieced back together after a myriad of injuries, magically returns to the stud form that made him the AL’s best closer five years ago. Arizona does have emerging talent in the rotation with Barry Enright and Daniel Hudson (7-1 with an eye-opening 1.69 ERA in 11 starts after a trade from the Chicago White Sox last year), but to ask these guys to take over as the heart and soul of your staff is a tall order at this point. On offense, getting rid of Mark Reynolds (good power, but no glove and lots of whiffs) did well toward removing the stigma of the Diamondbacks’ lineup as all-or-nothing, but picking up Xavier Nady and Melvin Mora—two guys who’ve seen far better days—is no advance. Gibson wants discipline. He really needs a miracle. Game One of the 1988 World Series doesn’t happen twice.
The Boston Red Sox missed the postseason last year, but it was worse than that; there was a sense, as New York and Tampa Bay slugged it out for divisional bragging rights, that the Sox became irrelevant, like a battered former champ starving for attention. So the Sox went out and forged numerous in-your-face moves with the audio force of a megaphone at full blast; they signed productive outfielder Carl Crawford, traded for star slugger Adrian Gonzalez and shored up the bullpen with former Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Jenks to back up Jonathan Paplebon—just in case. Suddenly, the Red Sox look awfully tough to beat, especially as the Yankees and Rays showed decline in the winter. Gonzalez is coming off shoulder surgery, but if he’s anything near 100%, he’s bound to have an MVP-type year; after all, he’ll no longer play half of his games at voluminous Petco Park (which deadened his stats) and he’ll be surrounded in the lineup by names such as Crawford, Youkilis and Ortiz—not Headley, Torrealba and Ludwick. The rotation is potentially deep with, oddly, more trust invested in the younger, less pricey guys (Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) over expensive veterans Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, all three of whom need to step things up after subpar efforts last year. Only at catcher do the Red Sox look weak, giving up more steals than anyone last year and with an inexperienced backstop (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) taking over the everyday role. A lot of folks have already said this, and so will I: This is the Red Sox’ division to lose.
The grins on the faces of 29 baseball owners must have been palpable this winter as one ace pitcher after another said thanks but no thanks to the New York Yankees, feverishly trying to fill their one gaping hole by rounding out the rotation. The cold shoulder came from Cliff Lee, who went to Philadelphia for less money; Zack Greinke, too shy for the big city; and Andy Pettitte, who retired. Desperate, the Yankees have gone to baseball’s equivalent of the Goodwill store to pick up second-hand castoffs Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Mark Prior in the hope that one or more of them might possibly come back to life. Anyone would be welcomed for a projected rotation that includes the one sure thing in CC Sabathia, followed far behind by Phil Hughes—18-8 last year thanks to the most generous run support in the majors—and free agent dud A.J. Burnett, bruised and battered on the field and off it. (Hey A.J., care to talk now about that mysterious shiner around your eye in Baltimore last summer?) The one prime new face in New York is closer Rafael Soriano—but the Yankees already have someone at that spot named Mariano Rivera, who’s 41 but showing no sign of slowing. This is not to say the Yankees are in trouble; they still have one of the most potent offenses in the league (they led the majors in scoring last year) with players like Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano still at the top of their game, but otherwise this is a roster playing on borrowed time, with age creeping up on Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and even Alex Rodriguez (36 this July). The Yankees will contend as they always do, but they made no advance with their roster while the archrival Red Sox cleaned up. And that’s troubling news in New York.
No team suffered a roster exodus worse than the Tampa Bay Rays, incarcerated in the one major league market that simply should not belong after three years of stunning indifference to a winning baseball team and terrific organization. The resulting lack of revenue led to the wintertime departures of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza and almost the entire bullpen, the AL’s best last year. Big names in Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon have come on board, something that would have been swell if this were 2001—but we’re ten years past that. To replace Rafael Soriano, the Rays are pinning their ninth-inning hopes on Kyle Farnsworth, a life-long middle reliever with 27 saves—over 12 years. Garza will be replaced in the rotation by young Jeremy Hellickson, who did look sharp in his debut late last year. All totaled, the offseason losses for the Rays will provide more pain than the gains will more healing; manager Joe Maddon did an excellent job forging another AL East flag out of the Rays last season, but he’s really got his work cut off for him this time; this is the year we find out just how good of a manager he is.
How bad has it gotten for the Baltimore Orioles? Not even the St. Louis Browns—the early, historically ridiculed incarnation of this franchise—managed to suffer 13 straight losing seasons as the Orioles now have. Relatively few people pay as much attention to the O-No’s plight as they do to the Pirates (18 straight losing years and counting), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Orioles email the Pittsburgh front office every year about this time exhorting the Bucs to keep it up. Will the Dust Bowl of Baltimore baseball finally come to an end? It might; an offense that limped last year was fortified with the additions of veteran sluggers Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds. It might not; little has been done to address a troubled pitching staff that blew a league-high 27 save opps, and the addition of Justin Duchscherer to the rotation will mean nothing if his injury problems continue (as they have in camp). Manager Buck Showalter did a fantastic job taking over a team destined for 100 loses after the All-Star break and churning out a winning mark under his watch; but this is still the AL East, where a third of the Orioles’ schedule is comprised of dates with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays. They’ll improve, but they’re quite not yet back to .500.
I predicted doom for the Toronto Blue Jays last season and boy, did I eat my words. Who would have thought Jose Bautista would hit 54 homers and everyone else would hit 20? So skepticism was followed by surprise, which now has been followed once again by more skepticism. The Jays purged more players (16 in all) during the winter than even the Rays, the most bittersweet farewell being that of Vernon Wells and his $20 million in annual wages—traded to Anaheim for Juan Rivera and less debt. As the ice thaws on a winter’s worth of transactions, we see a Toronto roster with a much younger (if not promising) rotation, a sturdy bullpen that lacks a true closer, and a batting lineup that can’t possibly duplicate last year’s power surge. Then you have a catcher (J.P. Arencibia) who had a smashing debut last summer with four hits including two homers, but was 1-for-30 afterward; he’s projected to be the starting catcher this year. John Farrell takes over the Jays’ managerial reins after four years as Boston’s pitching coach; he’s about to find out how spoiled he was at Fenway.
Yes, we agree on Boston, but are we justified for hopping so enthusiastically on the Beantown Express? Oh yes—oh surely yes! The Red Sox will win 100-plus games, with a deep roster stocked with more talent than a Saturday night at the Playboy Mansion. New additions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez will flourish in Fenway and the rest of the crew is just as stellar, which means teams won’t be able to pitch around their new additions. If any of their questionable pitchers, like John Lackey, Josh Beckett or Dice-K steps up, it will make this team even more unbeatable, if that’s possible.
Eric likes the Yankees to finish second in the NL East, but I strongly differ. This team’s mid-rotation pitching is horrendous and the Bronx Bombers will be blowing up in the fifth-to-seventh innings all season long. The names on this staff remind me of some of the terrible pitchers of the 1967 Yankees, the first team I ever rooted for. Those were forgettable glass arms, like Fritz Peterson, Fred Talbot and Steve Hamilton. Whom exactly is Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova anyway? Sure, this offense will score a ton of runs, but the Highlanders’ pitching will provide a series of low lights and excruciating late-inning losses all season long.
I can’t believe that Eric blew off the Tampa Bay Rays. Even though they shipped off a long list of top-tier players, the Rays will still shine in the AL East this season for several reasons. For one, they still have the best pitching in the division, led by David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and my Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson. And was Eric careless by not even mentioning my 2011 AL MVP shoo-in 3B Evan Longoria? Also throw in emerging stars like outfielders B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist just to name a few, and Tampa Bay will take the wild card and then anything can happen in the playoffs, right?
This Baltimore Orioles team won’t make anyone forget names like the Robinsons (Brooks and Frank), Jim Palmer, Paul Blair, Boog Powell, etc.—but this team will be much-improved and should be able to hit their way around some awful pitching.—mainly theirs. With Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds in the mix, it’s a nice blend of old dogs and over-anxious puppies, and with a smart field leader like Buck Showalter at the helm, this squad will surprise a few teams along the way. Watch out for outfielders Adam Jones and Luke Scott—they’re both fantasy league sleepers and the real thing.
Toronto hasn’t improved enough to contend in this mega-talented division. Promising arms like Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow are two-to-three years away from contributing at the MLB level, and Jose Bautista is an all-star, but other than that there’s not much there. But remember, Canada is a hockey country and the Blue Jays will do a good job to keep the NHL on the headlines while this squad flounders in 2011.
Led by grizzled old skipper Jim Leyland, and stocked with hitting, pitching and fielding to spare, the Detroit Tigers are growling mad about not winning this division last year. With Miguel Cabrera (.328 average, 38 home runs, 126 RBI), Magglio Ordonez (.303-12-59), catcher Victor Martinez (.302, 20 HR, 79 RBI) and third baseman Brandon Inge (.247-13-70), Detroit is driving a big luxury sedan that won’t get great mileage, but will exhibit some spectacular power and performance when called upon. Young upcoming stars like outfielders Ryan Raburn and Austin “Action” Jackson will provide enthusiasm and ESPN-worthy highlights all year long. And the Tigers’ sensational stopper (and my pick for the 2011 A.L. Cy Young) is Justin Verlander (18-9, 3.37 ERA, 219 Ks), who I predict will win 22-25 games and carry the team’s pitching staff. Throw in improving Max Scherzer (12-11, 3.50 ERA, 184 Ks) and Rick Porcello (10-12, 4.92 ERA, 84 Ks), and you’ve got a series of strong arms to keep opposing runners off the bases. Closer Jose Valverde (2-4, 3.00 ERA, 26 saves) will save 40 and Detroit will be in the postseason. (Predicted 2011 finish: 94-68 and first place in the AL Central).
Hallmark should create a special series of Get Well cards for the Minnesota Twins, because they’re hurting more than Bristol Palin after seeing Kathy Griffin’s recent comedy special. These aren’t role players who are injured, these are the stars, including Justin Morneau (.345-18-56), who missed 78 games to injury last season when he had a concussion; catcher Joe Mauer (.327-9-75), who was having a monster year when he hurt his knee, and former classy closer Joe Nathan, who had Tommy John surgery and has back problems as well. Even with explosive talent throughout their roster, including outfielders Michael Cuddyer (.271-14-81) and Delmon Young (.298-21-112), and starting pitchers Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75 ERA, 117 Ks), Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62 ERA, 201 Ks), Kevin Slowey (13-6, 4.45 ERA, 116Ks), Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62 ERA, 78 Ks), the Twins will need a medical intervention or a holistic healer if they hope to contend this year. Mother Teresa is long gone, so how about calling Dr. Oz? (Predicted 2011 finish: 88-74 and second place in the AL Central).
With tons ‘o power (177 HR last season, first in their division) but spotty pitching (a 4.09 ERA, seventh in the AL), the Chicago White Sox will again score runs in bunches and give then give them up at an equal rate. If manager Ozzie Guillen can avoid controversy, he might be able to keep his team in the race, but I believe they’ll fade like white socks that have gone through the wash one time too many. First baseman Paul Konerko (.312-39-111) will hit well, but his best days are long gone. Outfielders Alex Rios (.284-21-88) and Carlos Quentin (.243-26-87) are going to get better, but won’t be effective enough to carry this squad. The White Sox’ pitching starts out impressively with Mark Buehrle (13-13, 4.29 ERA, 99 Ks), Edwin Jackson (10-12, 4.47 ERA, 181 Ks) and John Danks (15-11, 3.72 ERA), but after that, you’d better duck—because balls will be flying up against and over walls throughout the AL. The 2005 season, when the Chisox won it all, seems like a far, faraway land, and they surely won’t re-find it in 2011, I believe. (Predicted 2011 finish: 82-80 and third place in the AL Central).
For the Cleveland Indians, it’s wait ‘til next year—again. After several years of constantly rebuilding, waiting until next year again eventually becomes a hollow promise rather than a statement of anything close to what the Tribe call reality. The Indians are in the purgatory stuck between contending and pretending. Jacobs Field isn’t a new ballpark anymore, and sure it’s a great stadium, but pretty soon Cleveland will get snarky about all of the city’s teams losing in a big way (see the Cavaliers and Browns). Outfielder Grady Sizemore (.211-0-13) hopes to rebuild from serious injuries; Shin-Soo Choo (.300-22-90) is a rising talent, and the two dueling Cabreras in the infield (shortstop Asdrubal and second baseman Orlando) are equally forgettable. The Indians’ semi-stopper Fausto Carmona (13-14, 3.77 ERA, 124 Ks) looks like Bob Gibson one day and Babba Booey the next. Closer Chris Perez (2-2, 1.71 ERA, 23 saves) is spotty but on the rise, unlike this team. (Predicted 2011 finish 78-84 and fourth place in the AL Central).
If you stock up on some great draft picks that are still years away, while trading off your top pitcher, Zack Greinke, will the Kansas City Royals improve or de-compose? Is it a formula that will work in K.C.? Just wait five years and re-visit this question. Outfielder Alex Gordon (.215-8-20) needs to step up and fulfill some of the potential we’ve been hearing about for way too long. Melky Cabrera (.283-1-14), SS Alcides Escobar (.235-4-41) and a group of castoffs who can be categorized as wannabes, once-was’s and never were’s such as Jason Kendall, Jeff Francoeur and Wilson Betemit will fill roster spots, but can they contribute to a slowly sinking ship? Pitchers Bruce Chen (12-7, 4.17 ERA, 98 Ks), Luke Hochevar (6-6, 4.81 ERA, 76 Ks) are the best the Royals can offer in the rotation, and Joakim Soria (1.78 ERA, 43 saves) is a decent closer to protect those rare occasions when the Royals have a lead in the ninth inning. If I was a K.C. fan this season, I’d start getting into “American Idol” or “Jersey Shore,” because Snooki and Mike “The Situation” will undoubtedly be much more interesting than this team. (Predicted 2011 finish: 68-94 and last place in the AL Central).
I’m going with Ed on the Detroit Tigers to take down the AL Central. But Miguel Cabrera, arguably the best pure hitter in the game, needs to behave in order for this team to stay alive in October. Put the ignition-interlock device in his car. Barricade his hotel room door. Close the bars as well as the concession stands after the seventh inning. Just keep him sober throughout the season, and that will help put the Bengals over the top. Detroit did well to bulk up this past winter (while shedding payroll on bad contracts that expired), bringing in another pure hitting talent in Victor Martinez (who’ll likely do more DH than catching duty), shortstop Jhonny Peralta, starting pitcher Brad Penny and set-up reliever Joaquin Benoit to replace the oft-injured Joel Zumaya. That, plus the expected emergence from a glut of fine young outfielding talent (Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells), gives the Tigers multiple facets of strength. Perhaps the biggest question mark is the depth of the rotation beyond ace Justin Verlander; Max Scherzer has great stuff but has been erratic, as has Penny—and who knows what will come out of Rick Porcello, a sharp rookie in 2009 and a sophomoric bust in 2010. But overall, the Tigers own the division’s most balanced roster—and has the best shot at winning.
All Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire wants for Christmas is a postseason conquest of the Yankees, who have been his foil time and time again in October. Problem is, he needs to get to the postseason first. That will be a challenge in a division where the Tigers and White Sox look stronger. The Twins’ roster is dotted with unknowns. Tsuyoshi Nishioka takes over at second base from Japan, but is he the next Ichiro or the next Shinjo? Closer Joe Nathan returns after sitting out last year with elbow surgery, but he’s 36 and who knows if he’s still has electricity. Justin Morneau, an AL MVP candidate before a midseason concussion, is taking baby steps to return to form. And can Jim Thome, now 40 years of age, sustain his bounceback success of last season? Spiritually, the Twins were lifted last year by a new ballpark filled by one sellout after another. That bump will flatten out in 2011, though it remains to be seen as to what extent. I’m betting it will fall short of Detroit—but a wild card could be the Twins’ consolation prize.
The collection of talent is there once again for the Chicago White Sox, but like last year, the chemistry isn’t. There’s so many disparate parts to this team, with slow power (first-year White Sock Adam Dunn), fast power (Alex Rios), oft-injured power (Carlos Quentin), steady arm (Mark Buehrle) and flashy arm when healthy (Jake Peavy). Some say diversity is a good thing, but I just keep looking at this roster and can’t help but see a puzzle with a bunch of pieces that just don’t fit right. Manager Ozzie Guillen, the reality-TV cameras now off him, must face the true reality of somehow trying to gel this melting pot of baseball styles together. He’s also gotten rid of closer Bobby Jenks and happy about it (the feeling is mutual), and is banking the protection of his ninth-inning leads on Matt Thornton, a career set-up man (albeit a sharp one of late). The White Sox are an enigma—a good enigma, but an enigma nonetheless. Enigmas usually don’t make it to October.
Here’s an idea for the Kansas City Royals, who’s said to have the best crop of minor leaguers in baseball: Have the prospects play against the current big league roster, and whoever wins takes over as the A-listers. Everyone’s talking about how the Royals are biding their time to bring up a bevy of hot young players who, in the next three years, are expected to turn the franchise around. For now, barely a trickle of that impending surge has taken place, leaving the current roster bloated with castoffs like Jeff Francoeur, Wilson Betemit, Melky Cabrera, Jason Kendall and Jeff Francis. There is some hope in first baseman Kila Ka’aihue, a young power hitter from Hawaii, and Alex Gordon’s tear-em-up spring has Royal fanatics hoping that this is finally the year he reaches the star potential burdened upon him four years ago. But when Billy Butler is your only sure thing at the plate and Luke Hochevar is your Opening Day starter, hope—as Morgan Freeman said in The Shawshank Redemption—is a dangerous thing. In Kansas City, that is. At least for the time being.
It was pointed out last year that the majors’ two youngest teams last year—Tampa Bay and San Diego—played so well because baseball’s ban on amphetamines has made it tough for the older players to keep up. So now we find the Cleveland Indians checking in as this year’s youngest team in the majors—but before Indian Nation begins dredging up memories of Bob Feller at 17, a serious reality check is in order. Outside of Shin-Soo Choo, the Indians have no one—I mean, no one—that will scare opponents, unless talented yet inexperienced catcher Carlos Santana (yes, Black Magic Woman to you, too) can successfully answer the call at the clean-up spot with a mere 150 career at-bats behind him. Basically, this is an Indian team that’s dead on arrival. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, so good four years ago, are mere shells of their former selves. The rotation, beyond Fausto Carmona, is a yawn. The bullpen is okay if you can get emerging closer Chris Perez out there in the ninth. Problem is, he’ll have few leads to save. Bottom line: The Indians are a team with little talent, little direction, and—for the moment—little future.
The Texas Rangers replaced one Cy Young winner (Cliff Lee) with another; the problem is, the one they got (Brandon Webb) hasn’t thrown a competitive pitch in two years and likely won’t be ready to throw another one until well after Opening Day. It does serve to remind that the Rangers won the AL West mostly without the aid of Lee, who came to the team in August—but also, they likely wouldn’t have won their first AL pennant if not for his presence. The existing rotation looks more exposed without Lee, but that issue could get resolved if closer Neftali Feliz makes the switch to a full-time starter. Of course, that begs the question: Who takes his place in the ninth inning? If the Rangers run into pitching trouble, they have an easy fix thanks to Michael Young, the second baseman, er, shortstop, er, third baseman, er, designated hitter, er, soon-to-be former Ranger. The ultimate trade bait, Young could easily be dealt to land the Rangers a pitcher that can provide more than just band-aid help to the staff if needed. And Young is considered a spare tire on a loaded Ranger lineup that’s easily the best in the West, with reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton, free agent signee Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz (when he’s healthy). In a division unsettled at the top, I think the Rangers have the most horsepower and flexibility to repeat.
Everyone’s buzzing about the Oakland A’s after general manager Billy Beane sensed weakness in the division and decided he’d go for broke making a move. Several moves, actually: New in Oakland are veteran DH Hideki Matsui, outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, and relievers Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour (punching up a bullpen already considered one of the best in baseball). The staff ERA of 3.56 last year was the AL’s best thanks not just to the pen but a young and exciting rotation that could become one of the more fearsome in the game. In the Bay Area, many are looking at the A’s as last year’s Giants. But before someone in the Oakland clubhouse breaks out the Kelly green-and-gold thong, this needs to be said: The Giants won by staying virtually healthy from wire-to-wire, while the A’s lost an incredible 1,500 days of manpower to the disabled list last year, easily the highest in the majors. The A’s fired their trainer as if that would solve the problem, but c’mon—there’s so many players on this squad with extensive histories of pain, you can’t possibly pin them all on the doc. If the A’s do somehow manage to stay healthy this season, then yes, they have a good shot at unseating the Rangers. But I wouldn’t bet the hospital on it.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim certainly have the most experienced roster in the division, with a solid rotation led by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, veteran leadership from outfielder Torii Hunter and one of the game’s best managers in Mike Scioscia. But there are cracks aplenty in this foundation. Star hitters Hunter and Bobby Abreu are entering their late 30s and are starting to show signs of permanent wear and tear; catcher Mike Napoli, who led the team in home runs last year, is gone and has been replaced by Jeff Mathis—a .199 career hitter; Vernon Wells has been added from Toronto, but his up-and-down life in the majors can’t guarantee an instant payoff; The re-pluralized Kendrys Morales, the best thing the Angels have to a prime bona fide slugger, is struggling to regain form after his walk-off broken leg of last year; and the bullpen lacks an experienced closer. Owner Arte Moreno couldn’t snag any of coveted free agents he wanted and complained about how much other teams paid for them—then assumed Wells’ $20 million-a-year contract. Go figure. Some may see the silver lining in that the Angels, despite an 80-82 record last year, were 35-22 against AL West opponents. The Angels will be in the mix and could make it a three-team race to the wire, but there likely will be too many internal obstacles to clear until then.
The Seattle Mariners have done little to rise from the ashes of their nightmare season of 2010. They finished dead last in virtually every major offensive category—and if the M’s believe than Jack Cust, Miguel Olivo and Brendan Ryan are upgrades to the departed Russell Branyan, Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman, then a serious reality check is in order. For the Mariners to truly improve at the plate, they desperately need to count on a pain-free season (both physically and emotionally) from Milton Bradley and quick maturity from young slugger Justin Smoak, generously given away from Texas last year as part of the Cliff Lee deal. On the mound, the Mariners do have Felix Hernandez and, uh, well…they have Felix Hernandez! Beyond the reigning AL Cy Young winner, Seattle’s rotation is unstable at best and the bullpen makes for one big shrug, especially with closer David Aardsma out through April after hip surgery. What this team needs is the cheerleading equivalent to Tug McGraw, someone who can crash the stress of a dysfunctional clubhouse and implore his teammates to believe. If that does take place, here’s hoping for the Mariners’ sake that the players don’t shake their heads, turn away and resume texting to their agents.
Sorry Eric—Texas is a big state with a bunch of big problems. First, they mishandled the Michael Young situation and they need to trade him today to avoid more issues once the season starts. You don’t push around your best player and that’s exactly what the front office did. Secondly, losing Cliff Lee was huge. Their pitching staff features a few guys that pitched well last year, but they’re still green and the Rangers aren’t in a position to mentor them and wait until they blossom. C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter and Colby Lewis are prime examples of “let’s wait and see if they can do it again”. Other intangibles are outfielder Julio Borbon, first baseman Mitch Moreland and shortstop Elvis Andrus (no power and batting in the .260-ish range.) The Rangers will lose a few games by scores of 12-11, because they can hit, but little else.
I’ve got the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim back on top in 2011, because I like their manager, their pitching staff and their overall lineup. Next to Terry Francona, I believe that Mike Scioscia is the best. And I agree with Eric that starting hurlers Weaver, Haren and even Ervin Santana (Eric failed to mention him) can lead a deep and talented pitching staff to the promised land. Fernando Rodney is ready to take on the team’s closer role full-time and I believe he’ll get it done, because he has to get it done. Take a look at some of the Angels’ up-and-coming youngsters such as outfielder Peter Bourjos and third baseman Alberto Callaspo (who won’t collapse) and add them into a mix with their proven stars, and the Angels, if healthy, will win the AL West by a short margin over the Rangers.
The Oakland A’s and Billy Beane have pulled prospects out of his fanny pack for more than a decade, but that magic ends here. Brad Pitt is going to play Beane in the film version of Moneyball, and the movie might be watchable, but the A’s season will still be the pits, because this team is inexperienced, oft-injured and underfinanced—a bad combination as they enter 2011. At their best, Beane’s teams are great regular season performers that fold like origami in the playoffs. At their worst, his teams aren’t much better than a very good Triple-A minor league team. This squad is full of promise, the experts say, but I anticipate an under-.500 team of pretenders, because Moneyball doesn’t work without at least some money.
I picked the Seattle Mariners to win this division a few years ago and they disappointed me, because they lacked cohesion and character. This team is the same old coffee re-heated, with no pitching, a thin bench and no veteran leadership. They should do a reality team about the Mariners and call it “King Felix and the Court of Jesters.” Milton Bradley plays more games off the field than on, and closer David Aardsma is not going to have many leads to protect. The Mariners will be underwater by July and drowning by August—count on it!
We’ve both bought the hype that the Boston Red Sox are just too good not to win it all this year. They’re well armed both at the plate and on the mound, and the only obstacles on their path to the championship podium would be an epidemic of injuries and/or unexpected self-destruction. We do split on who’ll they’ll beat at the Fall Classic; Ed thinks the Philadelphia Phillies, with their 110 wins, will provide the competition, while I think the San Francisco Giants’ championship season of 2010 is only the beginning of a highly successful run for them. Check back with us in November to see if we’re bragging—or in hiding. —Eric
NL: Philadelphia Phillies (East), Cincinnati Reds (Central), San Francisco Giants (West), Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies (wild card)
NL Champion: San Francisco Giants
AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Detroit Tigers (Central), Texas Rangers (West), Minnesota Twins (wild card)
AL Champion: Boston Red Sox
World Series Champion: Boston Red Sox
NL MVP: Buster Posey, San Francisco
AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez, Boston
NL Cy Young Award: Josh Johnson, Florida
AL Cy Young Award: Jon Lester, Boston
NL Rookie of the Year: Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati
AL Rookie of the Year: Chris Sale, Chicago
NL Comeback Player of the Year: Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco
AL Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Nathan, Minnesota
NL: Philadelphia Phillies (East), Milwaukee Brewers (Central), Colorado Rockies (West), Atlanta Braves (wild card)
NL Champion: Philadelphia Phillies
AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Detroit Tigers (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West), Tampa Bay Rays (wild card)
AL Champion: Boston Red Sox
World Series Champion: Boston Red Sox
NL MVP: Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado
AL MVP: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay
NL Cy Young Award: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia
AL Cy Young Award: Justin Verlander, Detroit
NL Rookie of the Year: Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati
AL Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay
NL Comeback Player of the Year: Chipper Jones, Atlanta
AL Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Nathan, Minnesota
The 2011 Midseason Report Card Our annual look at the best, worst and most unexpected during the first half of the 2011 major league season.
Fun Facts About Your All-Time Hit Leaders So you think you're smarter than the next trivia buff when it comes to major leaguers at the top of numerous hit lists? Here's 22 questions for you to prove it.
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