I’m a huge baseball fan, and for the last couple days I’ve had nothing to do but job hunt and wait for the ground and gravel pile to thaw so I can continue with the fencing project. So I’ve been catching up on all the offseason trades and acquisitions. Here are my predictions for the upcoming season, none of which have anything to do with farming. What do farmers do in the offseason? They think about baseball.
American League East
1. BoSox – Boston had 2 major signings in Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Crawford pairs with Ellsbury to give the Red Sox game-changing speed at the top of their order, something no one else in the division has. The addition of Gonzalez slides Youkilis over to 3B, which he’s played before and will be fine. They’ve still got Pedroia and the Captain, so leadership will not be an issue. John Lackey has reported to camp 15 pounds lighter, showing he’s ready to regain his form on the mound. Lester and Buchholz have been dominant at times. If Beckett, Matsuzaka, or Papelbon return to their career averages, Boston will be potent on the mound as well as at the plate. This team battled injuries to almost everyone and down seasons from most last year and still managed to win a whopping 89 games. Look out. This could be baseball’s best team in 2011 if they can avoid the injury bug.
2. Yankees – I know they won’t like to hear this, but there’s no way the Bombers catch the Sox this year. The Yanks have the best offensive infield in the game with A-Rod, Jeter, Cano, and Teixiera but are weak in the outfield and, most notably, in the starting rotation. There was a reason the Yanks were so keen to get Cliff Lee. After Sabathia, they have a bunch of question marks. Hughes had a great 2010 at 18-8, but had a ERA north of four. He’s got to prove his success was not a fluke. Burnett is a head case and Novoa and Mitre are not going to cut mustard in the AL East, even as back-end starters. Joba Chamberlain appears to have gained a significant number of inches on an already-not-too-trim waistline, which means he might not be in shape to compete for a starting role. The Yanks only chance is to get a lead early and hand the ball over to the best bullpen in the division with Soriano and Rivera at the back end. If they can’t do that, the Yanks are very vulnerable this year.
3. Rays – Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Rays lost a lot in the offseason. Crawford’s gone (within the division even). Peña and Garza went to play for the Small Bears. But there is still a lot to like here. Even with Garza gone, the Rays will likely have the best rotation in the division. They bought a little time for their farm system to replace their key losses by grabbing Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Both are older, but both can still play and will enjoy competing against New York and Boston. Evan Longoria can flat-out mash, and he will be surrounded by lots of young talent aching to prove they belong in the big leagues. Tampa’s issue this year will be the pen. Farnsworth has shown he can’t close games, and he’s the Rays best option at the moment. If they can figure out their bullpen, they may flip spots with the Yankees.
4. Orioles – A lot of bats made their way to Baltimore this offseason. Derrek Lee, Vlad Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, JJ Hardy. They even took a chance on some former All-Star arms like Justin Duchscherer. It won’t be enough to make a run at the postseason, but they did turn themselves into a team that the top tier teams in the league must take seriously. This will be a more potent offense in 2011, but they won’t pitch well enough to overtake the top three teams in this division.
5. Blue Jays – This team might even be able to win some of the other divisions in baseball (they won 85 games last year). But the Blue Jays are clearly in “development” mode and dealt away Vernon Wells and Shaun Marcum. They’ve still got Romero, Morrow, and Cecil on the mound with Kyle Drabek in the pipeline. The bullpen is a question mark and their offense won’t be as good this year. JP Arencibia looks like an up-and-coming offensive catcher, but Buck was already established. Jose Bautista blew away his career high with 54 home runs last year. Aaron Hill’s average dropped to .205. This team relied on 257 taters to score runs last year, and they won’t hit that many this year.
American League Central
1. Twinkies – Detroit and the ChiSox are the sexier picks right now, but you can never discount the Twins. They always seem to put together a team that is more than the sum of its parts. Mauer is a top talent behind the plate, and the rest of the team feeds off of his leadership. Morneau, Kubel, Span, and Cuddyer provide the offensive fireworks. Casilla and Nishioka are new improvements up the middle. Delmon Young is an emerging superstar in left. Their pitching isn’t as good as Detroit’s, but is good enough to help this offense take the division. Liriano is a legitimate ace, Pavano was re-signed, and Baker, Duensing, Slowey, and Blackburn will compete for the back end spots. Capps showed he’s a capable closer when he’s on a competitive team, and they’ve still got Joe Nathan if Capps falters.
2. Tigers – On paper this is the best team in the division, but on paper the Twins have never been the top team and they’ve been there year after year at the end of the season. Miguel Cabrera is the best offensive player in the game after that Pujols guy, Austin Jackson had a great first full season, and Ordoñez still has some punch. The Tigers also made a big splash with the acquisition of Victor Martinez. Their starting pitching is a tremendous group of flamethrowers. The bullpen also has a number of strikeout artists. That is good, because these pitchers are going to have to K a lot of batters to overcome this defense, especially up the middle. Victor Martinez is not a great defensive catcher. Peralta and Guillen lack range in the middle infield. This team will compete for the division and the wild card, but the defense will come up short.
3. White Sox – The most misnamed team in baseball will contend in the Central, but doesn’t have the talent to hang with Detroit and the Twins down the stretch. Maybe if they would actually wear white socks, their fortunes would change. The Sox have talent, but I’m not sure they made the right pick-ups in the offseason. They added Adam Dunn’s home runs (and strikeouts) to a lineup that already had a lot of both. Konerko, Quentin, and Rios all provide pop and supplemental air conditioning to the lineup. Juan Pierre returned to form in ’10 but I don’t expect that to continue, leaving the Sox without a leadoff hitter. The starters are solid (Buehrle, Floyd, Danks, Peavy, and Jackson). They’ve got a choice to make with potential Rookie of the Year Chris Sale. He could begin a long career as a starter this year or be the team’s closer. I suspect the latter, knowing Guillen’s track record with trusting young pitchers.
4. Royals – This is the year KC makes it out of the cellar. Greinke is gone, but so is his attitude and lack of focus. Hochevar is ready to step into the role of staff ace and the other young pitchers will continue to develop with the veteran Jason Kendall behind the plate. If they can get the game to Soria with a lead, game over. He’s the best closer in baseball not named Rivera. Billy Butler is a legitimate offensive threat who doesn’t get the attention he deserves because the Royals have been so bad for so long. But unlike the Pirates, the Royals appear to have a plan. They Royals have a young Opening Day roster and lots of talent lurking in Double-A and Triple-A that will arrive at Kauffman Stadium this year. They don’t have enough to compete for the division, but they definitely have enough talent to outplay Cleveland.
5. Indians – Hafner, Choo, and who? The Fighting Braves of the Cuyahoga have way too many holes to be taken seriously this year. Travis Hafner has some pop and Shin-Shoo Choo is one of the most underrated players in the game, but Cleveland has no other proven impact offensive players. Cabrera is fine, Santana has potential, but that’s it. Fausto Carmona heads up a staff filled with youngsters and question marks. Cleveland is definitely in rebuilding mode, and 2011 is likely to be very ugly. As Harry Doyle says, “There are a lot of new faces in Chief Wahoo’s tribe this year, and we hope to have some of the names that go with those faces before their first at-bat.” Hopefully they’re not trying to relocate to Miami like in the movie. The Marlins are already there and not drawing much attendance.
American League West
1. A’s – This is the best starting staff in the American League. Cahill, Braden, Anderson, McCarthy, and Gonzalez will succeed no matter what order the rotation goes in. Rich Harden was picked up as insurance against injury. This staff led the league in ERA last year, and I expect a repeat performance in 2011. The offense was the issue is 2010, but it has been improved with offseason acquisitions like Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, and Josh Willingham. They don’t have to score a ton of runs to support a pitching staff this strong. The bullpen is solid with Bailey, Fuentes, and Balfour. They’ve got a legit speed threat in Crisp and are solid defensively. All this means the Ranger’s reign is likely to be short-lived.
2. Rangers – This will be the best offensive team in the division. Josh Hamilton may be the all-around offensive threat in the AL, but can he be healthy for a full season? He won the AL MVP last year even while missing most of September. Nelson Cruz has a ton of power. New third-sacker Beltrè will absolutely love hitting in The Ballpark. Andrus and Kinsler are a great young middle infield combo. Moreland may or may not win the first base job, but the Rangers picked up Napoli from division rival LA (via the Blue Jays) to help out at catcher, DH, and first base. The two flies in the ointment are Michael Young and the starting pitching. Texas has young, enigmatic pitching that succeeded in 2010, but has to prove that the first-time success was not a fluke. The starting pitching has enough question marks to warrant discussion about moving closer and 2010 Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz into the rotation. Michael Young is in limbo right now. If the Rangers can’t trade him, things could go one of two ways. He could provide outstanding offense at DH or 1B. Or he could be an unhappy clubhouse cancer that wrecks the chemistry that carried the club to the pennant last year. The big question mark for the Rangers will be Brandon Webb, on whom they took a chance and signed to an incentive-laden contract. If Webb pitches in 2011 anywhere near the way he did before his surgery, then the Rangers might have the staff leader to vault this team back to the top of the division over the A’s.
3. Halos – A club on a precipice. The Angels are either a couple of good front-office decisions from returning to prominence in the AL West or a couple of bad front-office decisions away from a major rebuilding project. 2011 will decide which course the club will take. They will get better offensively this year with the pick-up of Vernon Wells and the return of Kendry Morales. Wells, Bourjos, and Hunter are one of the best defensive outfields the game has ever seen, but the infield is understaffed, the aging Abreu is at DH, and they don’t have a clear choice at catcher yet. The starting pitching got a lift in 2010 with the emergence of Weaver, but the rest of the starting staff is only mediocre with Haren, Santana, Pineiro, and the enigmatic Kazmir. The bullpen has Rodney on the back end but may have trouble bridging the gap between him and starters who don’t tend to go too deep into games. This is an aging team with big holes. Will they parlay some of their aging and/or disappointing talent (Abreu, Kazmir) into prospects at the trade deadline or ride these same horses into the ground? 2011 will tell the tale and set the stage for the next few year for the Halos.
4. Mariners – Even a royal decree from King Felix might not get the M’s out of the cellar this year. Beyond Hernandez, the pitching staff seems to be in disarray. Ichiro will have yet another outstanding season this year, but the rest of the lineup is light on run production. Justin Smoak, the key piece in the Texas deal for Cliff Lee, has the most potential to make an offensive impact. Chone Figgins is solid, but doesn’t provide the power a corner infielder needs. The middle infield are NL Central refugees Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan. The Mariners lost 101 games last year, and triple-digit losses are in the near future for them again.
5. Brewers – reserved for the BrewCrew whenever their former owner and current commissioner Bud Selig decides to stop with the nepotism and return them to the American League where they belong.
National League East
1. Braves – What?!? No Phillies in phirst place? We’ll talk more about them in a second, but for now please recall who the Phillies had to pass in mid-September to claim the division – the “rebuilding” Atlanta Braves. Atlanta should be even better this year. They’ve still got Chipper and McCann playing well and have surrounded them with Heyward, Prado, Gonzalez, and McLouth. Freddie Freeman will break into the bigs this year following his buddy Heyward, and look for him to be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. The Braves (as usual) have a whole stable of pitching, but there are worse problems in baseball than having to choose 5 starters out of D-Lowe, Hudson, Jurrjens, Hanson, Minor, and Beachy. Plus, that strong group gives the Braves something they can deal at the trade deadline to acquire some extra help – something the Phillies probably won’t be able to do. It’ll be a close race, but look for the Braves to edge the Phils at the end.
2. Phillies – Probably everybody in the world but me has the Phillies phinishing phirst. They will have a strong team, but they’ve got some issues the Braves don’t have. There’s no question that Philadelphia has been the class of the division and the league for the last 3-4 years. But even though they’ve added a top-shelf starter for 2011, this team is getting older and lacks depth in the bullpen and on the bench. The rotation, of course, will be an area of strength. Halladay shows no sign of slowing down. Oswalt should be rejuvenated now that he’s no longer saddled with the offensive woes of the DisAstros. Cliff Lee will pitch well, but he is not the Messiah that the media portrays him to be. His career path predicts that he will win 13-15 games in a typical season. I’ll take it, but from the reports on MLBTV and ESPN they are counting on 25 wins each from Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels. Not gonna happen. Things never work out on the field like they do on paper, and I’d like to see on paper where these guys have won all the time anyway. Halladay has done the best, averaging 17 wins over the last 6 seasons. Lee has averaged 14, Hamels 12, and Oswalt 14. That’s great, but total up their average seasons over the last 6 years and you expect 57 wins from the Big 4. That’s wonderful, but a far cry from locking up the division before play begins. The lineup is formidable, but is heavily left-handed and lacks depth in case of injury. all the Phils major starters (except for the right field platoon) are over 32 and have at least some injury history. The pre-Lidge bullpen is also very suspect. The Phils will be phormidable this year, but they won’t beat out the charging Braves at the wire.
3. Fish – The Marlins run in cycles. They tend to build up for 2-3 year-long competitive “windows.” They aren’t quite in that window yet. They have one of the best players in the game in Hanley Ramirez. Mike Stanton looks to be chock-full of power. They imported John Buck from Toronto to sit behind the dish. Offensively, they will be better in 2011. Once the offense gets to mediocre or better, watch out! This team has a lot of young, talented starting pitching. Johnson, Nolasco, Volstad, Vazquez, and Sanchez are a starting fivesome that should only get better over the next couple of years. As for 2011, the Fish have enough in their tank to pass up the Mets and Nats but not enough to play with the big boys.
4. Mets – The Metropolitans are an enigma. They should be better than they are. But for some reason the bright shining stars they import at exorbitant costs seem to fade quickly against the NYC skyline. Johan Santana, Frankie Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, and Jason Bay have all seen their stock plummet in the Big Apple. Jose Reyes hasn’t been anywhere else, but that may change soon. This is the last year of his contract and he’s got to prove that he can stay healthy for a full season. The Mets are in limbo. Their ownership can’t spend any more money (and might have to sell a major stake in the team) pending the outcome of a lawsuit from the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. For the Mets to get better Beltran, Bay, Santana, Rodriguez, and Reyes must return to form. Ike Davis must avoid the sophomore slump. David Wright must play out of his mind. And the Mets will have to patch up the back end of their rotation. That’s not all going to happen, and the Mets might have to watch out for the Nationals in their rearview mirror.
5. Nats – The Nationals made a big push to get better in the offseason, making major offers to almost every prime free agent on the market. The bad news is that almost no one took them seriously. They did manage to sign Jason Werth to a huge contract that will hamstring them with a major monetary commitment to a player several levels below greatness in a few years when they might actually be good, so while that will make their offense better now they will regret that move 2-3 years down the road. They picked up Adam LaRoche to man the first sack. He and Werth may combine for over 300 strikeouts in 2011. Zimmerman is always productive and Rodriguez will help their pitching staff. But when Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny are your 2nd and 3rd starters, you need more help than Rodriguez can give. The Nationals just don’t have enough offense or pitching and they were the worst defensive team in the league last year. All of that points to a last place finish, but they may get out of the cellar if they play above expectations and the Mets get distracted by all of their issues.
National League Central
1. Redbirds – As a Cubs’ fan, picking the Cardinals to finish first pains my soul. The Reds won last year and the BrewCrew got better in the offseason, but the Cardinals (hopefully for one final season only) have the 2 best hitters and the 2 best pitchers in the division. The Cardinals added Berkman to the lineup, which probably won’t hurt or help. At this point in his career he’s a mediocre offensive corner outfielder who is below average defensively. Yadier Molina completely shuts down opponent’s running games, but the rest of the defense might not live up to the usual Cardinal excellence this year. Freese, Theriot, and Schumaker are not the world’s best infield. Look for new acquisition Nick Punto to play his way into a starting role at 2B, SS, or 3B before the All-Star break. The Cardinals big assets are Pujols, Holliday, Rasmus, the best rotation in the division, and a manager/pitching coach combo who get the best out of their personnel year after year. Look for the Cardinals to spoil the Reds’ repeat.
2. Reds – The Reds didn’t make a whole lot of noise in the offseason, but that was their plan all along. Any baseball fan could see the Reds getting better and better for several years, and all of their young talent came together last year (probably a little ahead of schedule) and topped a pretty weak division. The Reds will be better this year than they were last year. The problems for them will be that the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs will all be better this year too and that things hardly ever go according to plan twice in a row. The Reds have enough starting pitching to seriously consider getting Mike Leake some minor league experience this year. Edinson Volquez is healthy and will head a rotation featuring Cueto, Arroyo, Bailey, and either Leake or Travis Wood. That’s a nice dilemma to have at the back end of your rotation. They picked up perpetual postseason performer Edgar Renteria to man shortstop. Everyone else in their lineup is a year older, which at this point in most of their careers means that they are one year closer to the prime of their career. If the Reds can keep this group together they will be good for many years. The team seems to be aware of this, as they spent all of their money this offseason locking up their own young players to long term deals. Pittsburgh, pay attention. This is how you build a ballclub.
3. Brewers – They are the sexy pick to click right now with the big acquisitions of Greinke and Marcum. They have a narrow window to win, because they gave up most of their top prospects to grab those pitchers and because they have a number of free agents (Fielder, et al) at the end of the season. The Brewers will be much better in 2011, but they won’t be good enough to catch the Redbirds and the Rednonbirds. Here’s why. The Brewers can mash. It seems like every player in their lineup can hit 20 home runs. Do you know why? It’s because they play in a launching pad instead of a baseball stadium. The visiting teams hit a lot of home runs in Miller Park too. Greinke, Marcum, and Gallardo are all top line starters, but they will be somewhat neutralized by their home field. Greinke is also a bit of a mystery. Which Greinke will show up? The one who won the Cy Young or the one who was “bored” last year and didn’t compete? They also aren’t sure who is going to be catching all of those pitchers, either. The Brewers will make a push, but they won’t make the postseason until they understand that (even in a zero-gravity stadium) defense wins championships.
4. Cubs – It could be another really long year for a club saddled with aging players and their large contracts. But instead of retooling for an extended run in a couple years, the Cubs emptied their farm system to trade for Matt Garza from the Rays. Now Garza is an established Major League pitcher with 3 years of club control left, but the Cubs gave up 3 of their best prospects to get him. Garza now leads a rotation that has a good upside but a ton of questions. When will Dempster start pitching his age? Which Zambrano will show up? Who starts after those three? The bullpen has gone from a weakness to a point of strength with the acquisition of Kerry Wood, the emergence of Marshall, and Marmol settling into the closer’s role nicely. Now to the offense, or lack thereof. The Small Bears were offensively offensive last year, and they may not be any better this year. Carlos Peña could return to form or take his .196 batting average straight out of the Major Leagues. They don’t know who is going to play second base or whether Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano are still interested in playing baseball. Kosuke Fukudome has one more year to save face, or else he’s headed back to Japan. This club could finish fourth if everything works out for them or they could be looking up at the DisAstros. On the bright side, if the Cardinals actually let Pujols become a free agent, the Cubs will have a lot of contracts coming off the table next year and an opening at first base.
5. Astros – The DisAstros are paying the price for a long series of bad contract decisions by their ownership and are in full rebuilding mode. Thanks to the black hole of ineptitude that is the Pittsburgh Pirates however, the Astros will not have to be the Lastros in 2011. They need to parlay some of their remaining aging talent into good young prospects by the trading deadline. Hunter Pence is a good young player to build around, but Carlos Lee, Bill Hall, and Clint Barmes need to be dealt to contending teams. In general, the pitching is young and has potential. They won’t be ready to compete this year though, and the offense is too inept to win games. When you play in a bandbox you’d better have more firepower than your opponents, and the DisAstros definitely do not.
6. Pirates – I’ve run out of things to say about the Pirates. As much as I’d like to root for their success, at this point they may be the worst franchise in Major League baseball. They’ve been in “rebuilding” mode since their first-to-worst 1993 campaign. However, most teams rebuild by developing good young players and then keeping them at least through their arbitration years. The Pirates, on the other hand, seem to trade their talented young players as soon as another team shows a glimmer of interest. I fully expect their one star, Andrew McCutchen, to be dealt by the trade deadline. Just think of the team the Pirates could have if they’d held onto some of their good players: McCutchen, Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, Xavier Nady, Freddie Sanchez, Aramis Ramirez, Jose Guillen, and Jack Wilson. That would be a competitive starting lineup. But alas Pirate decision-making protocol prohibits putting together a competitive team. They blame it on their small market. Makes sense, right? They can’t compete because no franchise can afford to field competitive teams in Pittsburgh. Just ask the Steelers. They haven’t been successful at all.
National League West
1. Giants – This one will be close, but I think the Giants will repeat over a surging Rockies team at the wire. They’ve got more pitching and a better defense than Colorado. Pitching and defense win championships. See 2010. The Giants’ young rotation will continue to get better for the foreseeable future. Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, and Bumgarner can compete with Philadelphia’s Big Four. Zito pitched better last year, but anything they can get from the one-contract wonder will be a huge bonus. Buster Posey will continue to improve. The Panda reported to a press conference last week a lot lighter than he was last year. That’s key. The Giants got big upgrades at shortstop in Miguel Tejada and with a healthy Mark DeRosa. Pat Burrell will help out and they’ll have a full season from Cody Ross. All in all, this team is put together to win from top to bottom. They’ll have enough talent to fend off a spirited challenge from the Rockies.
2. Rockies – The Rockies are getting better and better. They also locked up Tulo and CarGon to long term deals this offseason, which means that the Rocks will stay competitive for a few years. Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are two of the top offensive players at their positions in the National League, and the rest of the Rockies’ lineup can put a charge into a baseball as well. But everyone can hit in Colorado. The question with the Rockies will always be their pitching. Can they develop enough pitching talent to win and then hang onto those pitchers when they become free agents and might want to pitch in a place where curveballs will actually curve. Last year was a breakout season for Ubaldo Jimenez. They Rockies are hoping that he can get some support from De La Rosa, Cook, and Chacin. Their pitching will be fine in 2011, but it’s not as good as the Giants’ staff and that will be enough to keep Colorado in second place.
3. Dodgers – The Dodgers have decided to let their fans choose which throwback uniforms the team will wear during weekday home games in 2011. Unfortunately, that is the only decision that seems to be getting made baseball-wise in LA this offseason. The ownership divorce saga continues and the club is unlikely to spend any money or invest in high-priced draft picks until that situation gets resolved. That leaves the Dodgers treading water. They did manage to re-sign Ted Lilly, who when added to Kershaw, Billingsley, and Kuroda, gives to Dodgers an above-average rotation. Broxton is a top-flight closer, but bridging the gap between the starters and Broxton will be problem with an untested middle relief corps. The team did add Juan Uribe with a perplexing $21 million contract. Uribe had a career year in ’10 and he is unlikely to repeat it. Furcal is aging and his health is always up in the air. Loney has yet to have his break-out season, but Ethier and Kemp are bonafide stars. I expect this team to follow the lead of its ownership in 2011. They will tread water.
4. Padres – The Fathers had an unexpectedly good season in 2010. There was a reason it was unexpected. This year the Padres will return to Earth and finish fourth. There are reasons to be hopeful. Matt Latos is a fine Number One. The team retooled the infield by adding Bartlett from the Rays and Hudson up the middle. Unfortunately, they also retooled their infield by trading Adrian Gonzalez to Boston for prospects. Gonzalez was the big thumper in the middle of the San Diego lineup and Headley and Hawpe won’t be able to make up for his production. This team did not score a ton of runs last year and they will score even fewer in 2011.
5. Diamondbacks – They’ve finished last 2 years in a row and, although they’ve retooled over the offseason, I see no reason for that trend to cease in 2011. A lot of the strikeouts in the lineup are gone with the departures of Reynolds and LaRoche, but so are 60 home runs, which were the predominant manner in which the D’Backs score runs. The rest of the team is riddled with question marks. Can Upton stay healthy? Is Daniel Hudson for real? Can Xavier Nady’s rebuilt arm handle a starting spot in the outfield? Can Melvin Mora rebound? Can JJ Putz still close? Who are these guys sitting in the bullpen and can they throw strikes? Can Gibson manage? If the answers to some of those questions are “yes,” then the Snakes might bite the Padres. If many answers are “no,” then it’s going to be a long season in the desert.