Boston Red Sox New Favorites in a Changed Playoff Picture

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Boston Red Sox New Favorites in a Changed Playoff Picture
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Last year, the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers missed the playoffs entirely.  The Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees made the playoffs, but sat the World Series out while the San Francisco Giants met up with the Texas Rangers for baseball’s biggest series.

At the end of the 2010 season, ranking the top teams based on their finish would have looked something like this:

1.  San Francisco Giants
2.  Texas Rangers
3.  New York Yankees
4.  Philadelphia Phillies
5.  Tampa Bay Rays
6.  Atlanta Braves
7.  Minnesota Twins
8.  Cincinnati Reds

The 2011 offseason has changed the landscape of baseball dramatically from the end of last year. 

Theo Epstein, the Red Sox GM, must have despised watching the hated Yankees make it to the ALCS while his ball club sat at home.  The Red Sox offseason, which seemed close to disaster when Victor Martinez jumped ship, suddenly shines as maybe the best offseason a team has ever had. 

The flurry of moves they made started out with the biggest splash of the early offseason (except for Jayson Werth’s $126 million contract with Washington) when the Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez from The San Diego Padres.  Gonzalez is one of baseball’s best hitters, since 2007, he has hit 137 home runs and hit .284. 

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While that would be enough for most teams, the Red Sox were not finished.  They then inked Carl Crawford to the second-richest contract ever signed by an outfielder, at $142 million dollars over seven years.  It was also the only nine-figure deal ever handed out to a player who has never hit 20 home runs in a season.  Crawford owns a career .296/.337/.444 line, with an average of 54 stolen bases a season.  He will bring an incredible spark to the top of the line up and surely score many runs behind Gonzalez. 

The Sox also acquired former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks for the next two years on a $12-million deal.  Look for him to replace Jonathan Papelbon as closer in 2012.  Boston also added Matt Albers, Andrew Miller and Dan Wheeler.  The Red Sox are surely baseball’s most improved team for 2011 and might even be the all-out World Series favorite.

The second-most improved team has to be the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Brewers weakness the last couple seasons has been starting pitching.  To start the offseason off they acquired a talented young arm from the Toronto Blue Jays in Shaun Marcum.  Marcum pitched to a 3.64 earned run average and won 13 games in 2010. 

Also, the Brewers went out and made a trade comparable to the Red Sox addition of Gonzalez by acquiring Zack Greinke, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball for a package of prospects and Alcides Escobar.  Greinke won the Cy Young Award in 2009 and in the last two years has thrown 449.1 innings, won 26 games and struck out 423 batters with an ERA of 3.14, not to mention he is only 26 years old.  The Brewers offense was already stacked with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, and now they have a great rotation with the additions of Marcum and Greinke.

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The Detroit Tigers started the offseason with a bang by resigning a number of their players; including Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge and now Magglio Ordonez.  Also, the Tigers added a number of free agents that should put them over the top of last year’s American League Central division winner the Minnesota Twins. 

First, the Tigers stole catcher/first baseman/designated hitter Victor Martinez from the Red Sox.  Martinez is a great hitter, who is especially valuable when he is behind the plate.  Next, the Tigers got reliever Joaquin Benoit and started a trend of relievers getting three-year contracts.  Benoit pitched 63 games of 1.34 ERA ball in 2010 and, while never being that good before, is going to make the Tigers bullpen that much better.

The next most improved team is the Philadelphia Phillies. They only made one addition for the 2011 season, but it was the most surprising move of the last few years.  They re-signed starting pitcher Cliff Lee, who they traded during the 2009 offseason to the Seattle Mariners.  Lee went on to mow down the Yankees in a Texas Rangers uniform just like he did in the 2009 World Series. 

The reason this signing was so shocking was the fact that it came out of left field. 

All offseason, everyone had expected Lee to sign with either the Yankees or the Rangers, he even expected to pitch for one of those two clubs.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Cliff Lee signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for five years and $120 million.  This was also surprising because it is less money and years than the Yankees or Rangers offered. 

The Phillies will go into 2010 with the best rotation of all time because Cliff Lee joined Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have to also be considered among the most improved.  They have re-signed Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla.  They added starting pitcher Jon Garland (3.47 ERA) and reliever Matt Guerrier (3.17 ERA).  The Dodgers also stole one of the key players from division rival San Francisco’s World Series-winning team in Juan Uribe.  In 2010 Uribe smashed 24 home runs and was solid at three different infield positions (short stop, second base and third base).

The St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland Athletics are two other ball clubs that are greatly improved.  They both have a lot of ground to cover before they can be considered in the playoff picture for 2011, though. 

On the other hand, the New York Yankees are virtually unimproved from 2010.  They added Russell Martin, but they lost Lance Berkman and Kerry Wood.  It could be worse, though, because the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays are worse off than they were at the conclusion of the 2010 season.  Texas lost Cliff Lee, and the Rays lost almost the entire top of their line up in Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena.  That's not it, either, as the Rays lost the core of their bullpen in Dan Wheeler, Joaquin Benoit, and eventually Grant Balfour.

At the end of the 2011 season, I see the top eight teams looking like this:

1.  Boston Red Sox
2.  Philadelphia Phillies
3.  Milwaukee Brewers
4.  New York Yankees
5.  Detroit Tigers
6.  San Francisco Giants
7.  Los Angeles Dodgers
8.  Texas Rangers

No matter how it turns out, 2011 should be dominated by the all the teams listed above, who have greatly improved.

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