Thursday, March 31, 2011

MLB 2011: Season Preview -- Play Ball!!!

2011 Major League Baseball – Preview

When the winter nights were their darkest and the hot stoves blazed, as the winter player auctions settled down, two teams emerged as huge favorites to dominate in 2011, Boston in the American League and Philadelphia in the National League. The Phillies may have come back down to earth, but they could have a historic rotation. The moves that weren’t made are also big stories. The Yankees did not improve their starting rotation settling for a boost in the pen. The Cardinals did not secure a long term deal for perhaps the best player in the game, Albert Pujois.

After years of frustration, Mid-Atlantic baseball appears on the upswing as the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles both look poised to get out of the cellar perhaps headed for winning records in 2011.

The Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s make it look like small market teams can stand up against the giant war chests of Boston and New York, but with teams playing each team in their division 18 times, they face much weaker opposition than in the American League East. If anyone can determine what kind of voodoo the Major League schedule maker uses to determine when and how often teams play teams outside their division and in interleague play is a mystery to all. A team could face the Red Sox six times or twelve times with no apparent formula that balances it out year to year. Organizational matters are pure chaos for Major League Baseball.

Conversely, one has to wonder if teams like the Kansas City Royals who do have a good farm system or the Pittsburgh Pirates who only recently showed any willingness to invest in quality draft prospects can possibly do to give their fans signs of a bright future. Nowhere does the inequity in baseball finance seem more apparent in Tampa Bay. Here’s a team that has been right in the thick of it with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, but not only is Tampa-St. Pete a small market, that they play in what looks like a revival tent on the southern tip of St. Petersburg, one would think that Tampa Bay area residents think of baseball more in terms of all the teams that have spring training camps in their area. The team that fought the Texas Rangers for the AL Pennant had to give tickets away to attempt to have a decent crowd on hand when they clinched their playoff berth. With no financial base and limited resources for payroll, four players including one of the league’s top left fielders, Carl Crawford, their closer, their first baseman, and a quality starting pitcher are gone. Such decisions await the Minnesota Twins in the near future.

Three teams are facing ownership calamities; the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers. While those teams get who has the checkbook straightened out, their programs are in limbo. Additionally, MLB's last round of expansion in 1998 proved a terrible move. The Phoenix Arizona market is certainly worthly of a baseball team. Tampa Bay is now a fine team in a horrible market. Oakland has failed repeatedly to find a stadium deal somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area. Teams that don't have new stadiums in weak markets make contraction once again sound like a great idea. To think there was talk of conracting the Twins and the Montreal Expos. The potential litigation associated with contraction would be enormous, but perhaps the best move would be to identify unstable organizations in large markets like the New York Mets entangled in the Bernie Madoff mess, disolve those teams, and then move in the teams in dead end markets. Returning to 14 teams in each league would also be a huge plus. The 14 teams in the AL versus 16 teams in the NL is ridiculous, but baseball is fixated on having interleague play isolated to two unique schedule blocks another reflection on the lack of organizational intelligence at the highest levels.

What will be the major story lines of baseball in 2011? As always, there will be tremendous talk about the have’s and have-not’s. Teams like Baltimore, Washington, and Florida are teams looking to move up the ladder. Last year was considered by many, the Year of the Pitcher.” Not since the late 60’s and early 70’s has pitching looked so strong remembering Bob Gibson’s 1968 season destroying the National League leading to the mounds being lowered and then in 1973 the American League adopting the designated hitter rule. Perhaps this is what the outcome is of the steroid era being over. Artificial homeruns are gone.


American League

AL East
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay

AL Central
Chicago White Sox
Kansas City

AL West
Los Angele Angels

Wild Card: New York Yankees

AL Champ: Boston

National League

NL East
New York Mets

NL Central
St. Louis
Chicago Cubs

NL West
San Francisco
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego

Wild Card: Artlanta

NL Champ: Philadelphia

World Series:
Boston defeats Philadelphia

American League East

The Boston Red Sox will rule supreme and could possibly run away with the division if they’re healthy. One of their prime contender’s loss is their gain picking up five tool star, Carl Crawford to patrol left field. Adrian Gonzalez gives them a first rate first baseman who will help solidify the heart of their lineup. Boston’s starting rotation is the best in the American league. Bobby Jinx joins the bullpen after being a superb closer with the White Sox. The Red Sox were contenders in 2010 until injuries took their toll. Should they escape such difficulty this year, they could win their 3rd championship in ten years.

The New York Yankees were supposed to be the team to beat last year, but their starting rotation suddenly looked shabby, Derek Jeter had a bad year, and thus down the stretch the Yankees lost their edge, finished the season a game behind Tampa, and were handled easily by the Twins in the playoffs. The usually free-spending Yankees found the market low on talent in the offseason failing to lure Cliff Lee to join their rotation. C.C. Sabathia is their ace with Phil Hughes next in line but beyond that, starting pitching is a mystery. A.J. Burnett was dreadful last year especially down the stretch, 10-15 with a dreadful 5.26 ERA. The Yankees upgraded their bullpen adding Tampa Bay’s Raphael Soriano who had 45 saves in 48 opportunities and he’ll be a setup man for Mariano Rivera. If the starters can finish seven innings with a lead, it could be lights out. Jorge Posada moves from behind the plate to DH. Russ Martin comes from the Dodgers to be the team’s backstop. The Yankees signed Kevin Millwood, not good enough to stick with the Orioles, to a minor league deal late in Spring Training. If the Yankees can’t get good results out of the 3rd and 4th spot in the rotation, they could fall to 4th place in the division, but the first quality starter that becomes available, the Yankees will attempt a deal. They’re still good enough to be a wild card. It’s difficult to see another divisional foe, the White Sox, Tigers, or Athletics doing better.

The Tampa Bay Rays still have a core of good talent; they lost two from their lineup, an important starter, and their closer. Worse, Carl Crawford, their all-star left field is still in the division going to Boston while their closer, Raphael Soriano is now with the Yankees. Matt Garza takes a 3.91 ERA and 15 wins to the Chicago Cubs along with homerun hitter Carlos Pena. An aged Johnny Damon comes to town to play left field. The most focus, no doubt, will center on their new designated hitter, Manny Ramirez. Were he to restore himself to old form, be happy, and not cause trouble, the Rays could be formidable. If Manny’s just being Manny where his attitude sucks the life out of the clubhouse, the results could be a disaster. The Rays could finish anywhere from first to fifth. To their credit, they have a lot of young talent. Still, they’ve lost a lot. They’ll be more worried about the Orioles catching them than their ability to catch the Yankees and Red Sox.

The Baltimore Orioles are a team on the rise. Adding J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds, Derricke Lee, and Vladmir Guerrero should make the Orioles line up rival the best teams in the game. Suddenly, fellows like Nick Markasis, Luke Scott, Matt Wieters, and Adam Jones much better hitting situations. Of course, Brian Roberts as the lead off batter can set the stage for mighty thunder later. However, one of the team’s real questions is will be remain healthy. The Orioles starting rotation is unproven. Veteran Jeremy Guthrie is the #1 starter who can look brilliant at times but is hardly a true #1 starter. Beyond that it’s the kiddy corps. Brian Matusz looked like he was maturing into a fine pitcher in the final stretch of 2010. He’s the lone lefty. Jake Arrieta is not quite as far along but has incredible stuff. Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman are works in progress with Tillman both the one with the highest ceiling but also needing the most work. Meanwhile, Zack Britten will be down in Norfolk waiting for the phone call. Signed as a bit of an experiment, Justin Duchscherer starts on the DL but could quickly move into spot four or five once healthy. The starters will have a much stronger bullpen to hand off to with pitchers able to fit more into their traditional roles with a good closer, Kevin Gregg. Michael Gonzales, a lefty, and Koji Uehara will serve as setup men; however, with a young staff, it might be the long relievers who make the difference. The Orioles “X” factor could be their manager, Buck Showalter, could be the real difference maker. He too a team headed to well over 100 losses last year to having the best record in the division during the last two months playing Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay frequently. Truthfully, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, this team could finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th.

The Toronto Blue Jays dumped salary and experienced manager, Cito Gaston retired replaced by John Farrell. Gone to the Angels is star centerfielder, Vernon Wells, along with 1st baseman, Lyle Overbay heads to Pittsburgh while two pieces of their bullpen, Kevin Gregg and Jeremy Araccado left for Baltimore. Toronto does develop talent from within, but the losses in production and experience are huge this year. They’ll likely finish last. This does not look like a .500 or better team in the AL East.

American League Central

Many have chosen the Chicago White Sox, but the Twins were darned good last year and are healthier this year. They were the strongest team in the Central last year and eliminated the much favored Yankees from the playoffs with two of their most important players injured gone for half the season, 1st baseman, Justin Morneau and right fielder, Michael Cuddyer.

The White Sox signed free agent Adam Dunn, a free swinging power guy to add some serious swat to their line up. With hopes Jake Peavy fully recovers giving them a deep rotations, the White Sox are built to fight the Twins for the Central. They’ll do so having lost their closer, Jinx, to Boston promoting Matt Thornton to the job.

The Tigers add Victor Martinez to serve primarily as DH to add power to a rather weak scoring lineup. They have a strong starting rotation, but their 2010 offense was not that of acontender.Miguel Cabrera, a true superstar keys the offense having hit 38 homers with 126 RBI's. Beyond that, the Tigers' production was horrible with only three players with double digit home runs, the highest just 15. Besides Cabrera, their next three RBI guys hit 70, 67, and 62. With such a week offense, it's a wonder the team played .500 ball!

Cleveland is in rebuilding mode. They’ve been in rebuilding mode. How difficult it must be for Indians’ fans to see what could be the foundation of an awesome rotation pitching elsewhere with C.C. Sabathia now the ace of the Yankees and Cliff Lee pulling his new teams into the post season. Victor Martinez has now landed in their division. What will happen if Grady Sizemore is healthy? How long will he be around? Cleveland is back to what they were before the Jacobs Field explosion where they were one of the American League’s top teams in the 1990’s – a farm team for the big markets. Between the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers, it’s little wonder Cleveland fans have such chips on their shoulders.

Kansas City is rated as having one of the top farm systems in baseball. They raise them up and ship them out as witnessed by Zack Greinke headed off to the Milwaukee Brewers. Kansas City is faced with how the current financial structure of baseball leaves small market teams, few smaller than KC, out in the cold.

American League West

Despite not being successful in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, Texas is still the team to beat off of the franchise’s first ever trip to the World Series. Deep in homegrown talent, Michael Young moves to DH to free up left side spots for younger players. He replaces the veteran presence of Vladmir Guerrero who will DH for the Orioles.

The Oakland Athletics probably play the small small market game better than any other team. Buried in a stadium that was completely mutilated to add seats for the return of the Raiders and unable to get a new stadium deal, the Coliseum is a dreary cavernous stadium not conducive for fan support, but the organization excels at playing “money ball” filling in roll players with home grown talent, rising to a playoff contender frequently. They’re still too young and inexperienced for 2011, but should Texas falter, the A’s could be there.

The Angels add Vernon Wells to add some power and RBI’s to a lineup that had difficulty scoring in 2010. The Anaheim (er uhm Los Angeles) gang is working to get younger with many of the players who helped them win their first World Series and be the toughest team in the west have departed or are showing age.

The Seattle Mariners hired Eric Wedge to lead a gutted team through the rebuilding process. Manager, Don Watkamatsu was dismissed in mid-season last year having totally lost the team with Daren Brown filling out the interim. While the team rebuilds, northwest fans will continue to enjoy the mastery of Icharo Suzuki, a true world class star.

National League East

The Philadelphia Phillies looked unstoppable when they signed Cliff Lee giving them one of the hottest rotations in baseball history. Imagine facing Cliff Lee, second to Roy Halladay with Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Jeff Blanton rounding out the rotation. Just about any one of them would be a number one starter on most teams. On offense, they’ll miss Jayson Werth. Ben Francisco will have to take his place. Their high hopes were lowered with closer Brad Lidge out for the start of the season and his status unknown. Chase Utley is having knee problems and won’t start the season. Placido Palanco reports a twisted left elbow. What looked to be a sure bet in December could look like the mighty Phillies have let the Atlanta Braves burst on the scene.

The Braves continue to rebuild to their once mighty form where they dominated the 1990’s and early 2000’s returning to post season last year. How strange it will seem without manager, Bobby Cox, whose next stop is Cooperstown. Fredi Gonzalez manages a strong rotation and a mixture of old, Chipper Jones, and new, Dan Ugla as a team that should surely be in contention this year.

The Florida Marlins have been one of the most successful teams building their own talent and this will be obvious in 2011 as they build toward finally having their own home, a new stadium where the Orange Bowl one stood next year. They’re not ready yet, but they’re close.

The Washington Nationals could finally break out of the cellar with the addition of Jayson Werth. Adam LaRoche takes over first base. While not quite the homerun hitter Adam Dunn was, LaRoche will be more consistent and better fielder. They’ll have to wait to next year for phenom starter, Stephen Strasburg to anchor their rotation, plus they have some exciting talent nearing the majors coming along. They’ll be nobody’s doormat in 2011.

The New York Mets are a franchise mired in turmoil, their ownership entangled in the Bernie Madoff scandal. Their finances are tied in a knot with many player moves needed. David Wright is their legit superstar. Carlos Beltran has been hampered by injuries the last two years while Jason Bay’s move to the Mets was a disaster last year. The Mets have had serious organizational issues which translate to trouble on the field. Once the ownership issues are stabilized, they can begin the process of rebuilding. New manager, Terry Collins has much to do in his first year.

National League Central

The Milwaukee Brewers are loaded for the post season in 2011 picking up Zack Greinke to anchor their rotation, but he starts on the disabled list. This could be the last hurrah for the Brewers should slugger, Prince Fielder leave at season’s end.

Tony LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals won’t escape from talk about whether Albert Pujois will return next year. Adam Wainwright starts on the 60 day DL Still, the Cardinals are a solid, well-run team. They can never be written off.

The Cincinnati Reds made it to the playoffs for the first time in ages in 2010 with a talented young team. They’ll probably fall back a notch as they won’t surprise anyone. If Joey Votto is as hot as he was in 2010 and a couple other players get in the groove, all bets are off. The Reds could top the division.

The Chicago Cubs have a  roster out of balance but made two impact moves to help.The influx of talent from Tampa, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza won’t be enough to bring the Cubs around. Mike Quade seems well-suited to replace Lou Pinella as skipper. The Cubs have much to prove.

The Houston Astros are still in the thick of rebuilding. The golden days of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are history. In 2011, fans will look for the signs of a new nucleus emerge.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992. How old would a young fan from Pittsburgh have to be to remember when they were once a proud franchise?  Pittsburgh produces some of the most incrediby loyal fans for the Steelers, but to most of them, PNC Park is little more than a building on the parking lot for Heinz Field, but behind those walls is one of the loveliest stadiums in the business a long home run to right to the Alleghany River with the Pittsburgh skyline as the backdrop. Now all they need is a team. To say the Pirates are better than last year doesn' t mean much until they are a winning team again. Clint Hurdle takes over as manager and the Bucs will improve but hardly enough to improve in the standings. Perhaps, Hurdle will get some hustle back in the team and draw some fans again.

NL West

The San Francisco Giants are best positioned to win the NL West but keep an eye on the Colorado Rockies. The Giants were not a strong offensive team until something lit their fire in the post season last year. Looking to improve their offense, they’ve added Miguel Tejada at shortstop. This move could back fire. Since the Giants depend on superior pitching adding a possible defensive liability at a crucial position could hurt them. Tejada was definitely losing range during his first tenure in Baltimore. Much time has past since then. They need the big power guy in the middle of their order. They have some moderate power hitters but not the real game breakers. It’s all on the shoulders of their starting pitching and closer, the bearded bad guy, Brian Wilson.

The Colorado Rockies enjoy Coors Field as a hitter’s paradise but a pitcher’s nightmare. Led by Todd Helton, the hitting attack will be sharp with the multitalented Ty Wigginton the first bat off the bench. The pitching staff must keep their opponents from launching rockets into the light Denver atmosphere while the fielders must make contact turn into outs. If the Rockies can make their home field the house of horrors for their opponents, they’ll be around for October baseball.

The Los Angeles Dodgers simply never seem to stablize looking for the right roster to sustain winning ways. Donny “Baseball” Mattingly gets his first managing experience taking over for Joe Torre who retires. The Dodgers are borderline team. A little more plus, they could be good. A little less, they stink. They made no blockbuster moves in the off-season. They go into 2011 appearing a weaker team on paper with starting catcher Russ Martin gone to the Yankees, a solid roll player like Gabe Kapler gone. The Dodgers needs are many. It will be a rough initiation for Don Mattingly.

The San Diego Padres weren’t supposed to be a contender last year but held in the race until the very end of the season. They lost their best offensive weapon, the one huge threat they had, Adrian Gonzales to the Red Sox or possibly lose him to free agency at the end of 2011. Once again, they’re the young team, putting things together, with a bright future, but can they make their pumpkin an elegant carriage again in 2011?

The Arizona Diamondbacks dream is that their team will take on the character of their new manager, Kirk Gibson. They’re a young team. Most of the dead-end veterans who had no place in their future are gone. Now, it’s working in the pieces to form the team of the future that matters.


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