There are currently 30 contenders to win the 2011 World Series, but half of them won’t last through the summer.
There are 15 teams who stand out from the rest and on each team there is one player who can tip the scales for or against them.
They are not the best players on their teams, but they play a pivotal role in a title run and a role that no one else on the team can fill. They are also not safe bets. These are players who could go either way and we wouldn't be surprised.
So in whose hands does the fate of the world rest?
The Bronx Bombers will put runs on the board. They led all of baseball in runs scored in 2010, they were third in home runs, first in RBIs, third in slugging percentage and second in OPS. Offense is not going to stop them.
The addition of Rafael Soriano gives them a strong bullpen, and CC Sabathia is a clear ace. Phil Hughes is emerging as a young, but solid No. 2.
The questions come after that.
AJ Burnett was 10-15 with a career-worst 5.26 ERA in 2010. If the Yankees can find his 2008 version, who won 18 games with a 4.07 ERA in 221 innings, they’ll have enough pieces to challenge anyone in the American League. Offense can get you into the playoffs, but it takes three starters to win a seven-game series, such as the World Series.
The Red Sox weakness is the same as the Yankees. They have plenty of offense. They have an established ace in Jon Lester. Clay Buchholz is Beantown’s version of Phil Hughes, a young starter, thrust into the spotlight with a huge 2010, now expected to shoulder his share of the load.
The question comes after that, and Josh Beckett is the key. If he can revert to 2009, when he was 17-6 over 212.1 IP, the Red Sox will have enough pitching to support the mammoth lineup their front office has put together.
If Beckett can’t stay healthy and give them quality starts, they could be forced to give Tim Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka more innings than planned. Neither of which would give Boston great confidence.
The Twins always seem to end up in the discussion, even though their lineup doesn’t boast the big names or eight-figure salaries that pepper those of the AL East.
One thing a serious title contender needs is an ace (i.e. Sabathia, Lester). You have to have a guy who can get you a win every fifth day. Liriano has been that at times for Minnesota, but he has yet to recapture the magic of his injury shortened 2006 when he was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA after 16 starts. He has also yet to log 200 innings in a season, which puts extra strain on the bullpen.
It’s time for Liriano to join the elite starters in baseball, or watch the Twins settle into the rut of the perpetual almosts.
Does anyone else look at the White Sox lineup and shudder?
Carlos Quentin, 26 HR in 2010. Paul Konerko, 39. Adam Dunn, 38. Alex Rios, 21. They have an impressive rotation with Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Jake Peavy and Edwin Jackson. The odd man out is mega-prospect Chris Sale.
Right now, Sale is listed as the setup man. If he performs, he could find himself in the rotation, or in the closer role. Either way, Sale is the unknown commodity in Chicago. They have a lineup full of proven players (minus, perhaps, Gordon Beckham), they have a rotation of established quality starting pitchers, but they don’t have the energy of a young budding star exploding on the scene to make opposing hitters look silly.
That’s the kind of thing that can push a veteran team over the top. As much as it is said good hitting is contagious, a young pitcher on a tear can light a fire under an aging stable of arms.
They can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Magglio Ordonez take care of that. But a team that lives by the long ball is doomed to die by lack of long ball. Just ask the Yankees.
Austin Jackson gives the Tigers a new dimension. Jackson stole 27 bases in his rookie year and scored 103 runs. Out of his 181 hits, 133 of them were singles, but Jackson was active on the basepaths, finding ways to get in scoring position. A runner like Jackson can throw off a pitcher’s focus, force the defense out of position and create runs that a pure power team would miss out on.
If Jackson grows into a mature baserunner, and continues to wreak havoc on the bases, the thumpers behind him are more than able to bring him in.
With Cliff Lee gone, the Rangers are back to having to outscore everyone.
It is impossible to measure the effect of a man with the skill set of Ian Kinsler on such a team. In 2009, Kinsler hit 31 home runs and stole 31 bases. So he was a threat to go deep, but if he didn’t he was still creating problems for opposing teams on the bases. The ability to plug in 30-HR power at the top of a lineup, and not sacrifice speed is a luxury few enjoy and none take for granted.
If Kinsler can stay healthy, he will again provide Texas with that dose of versatility that could be the difference between first and third place in the tight AL West.
When Kendry Morales broke his leg, ironically on a home run, the Angels offense was crippled. Even with Mike Scioscia’s “small ball” approach, there has to be a run producer in the middle of the lineup.
Vernon Wells will provide some protection, but there is no question who lights up the Halo in Los Angeles. The Angels scored 4.52 runs per game before the All-Star Break. They were down to 3.78 in the second half. Kendry led the team in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. Morales was sixth on the team in home runs at the end of the season and he only played 51 games.
With the speed and pitching around him, a fully healthy Morales could carry the Angels deep into the playoffs.
If the A’s are going to make the playoffs, their young pitching will get them there.
Brett Anderson was supposed to be the ace-in-training when his 2010 was shortened by injuries. 23-year-old Trevor Cahill did an admirable job, but there was nothing consistent after him. If Anderson grows into the potential scouts have raved about since he was drafted, the A’s would have a 1-2 punch to rival any in the big leagues.
In 19 starts last season, Anderson registered a 2.80 ERA, 1.193 WHIP, and 6 K/9. They will need him if there is going to be a run at the wide-open division title.
They have the best rotation in baseball. They have one of the better lineups, top to bottom. The only real question is if they can slam the door. With the offense aging, the Phillies won’t be blowing people out as often, and the one thing that could derail this team is another Brad Lidge meltdown.
The starters will have this team out in front a lot. But no one in Philly has forgotten 2009, when Lidge was 0-8 with a 7.21 ERA, 1.807 WHIP and allowed almost two home runs per nine innings pitched. If he can’t hold the leads handed to him by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, then the Phillies will fall short of their potential. But if he can finish games like 2008, when he converted all 41 save opportunities, there is little that can stop them.
Atlanta can pitch. Their rotation features veterans Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, along with young studs in Tommy Hunter, Jair Jurrjens and Mike Minor. The question will be the offense.
Chipper Jones is old. Brian McCann’s bat comes and goes through the season. Jason Heyward is still growing into an Andruw Jones-like skill set. But if the Braves want to go from a wild card to a title contender, they will need the bat of Freddie Freeman.
Freeman batted .301 in four minor league years. He averaged 12.5 HR and 65 RBI in that time, with a solid .835 OPS. In 24 at bats at the major league level last season, Freeman batted just .167 with eight strikeouts. But if he finds a groove, and can knock in all the runs available with Martin Prado, Jones, Heyward and Dan Uggla ahead of him, the Braves offense should roll.
The Marlins are very young. A lot of things have to go right for them to contend for a championship. However, with Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco at the top the rotation, and Clay Hensley and Leo Nunez at the back of the bullpen, the Marlins biggest concern is their offense.
Hanley Ramirez is a beast, but the Marlins will need one of the young outfielders to step up as a run producer, and the guy best suited to do that is Mike Stanton.
Scouts have raved about his power since he was drafted and he should fit nicely into the middle of that lineup. Stanton hit 22 HR in just 100 games of major league ball last season while batting .259. If he keeps finding the seats, this season, 100 RBI is within reach, and so is a playoff birth.
The Reds live and die by their offense. Joey Votto established himself as a top-tier first baseman last season, but it was Drew Stubbs, 22 HR and 30 SB, that brought the energy to Great American Ballpark.
Votto and Jay Bruce are capable of putting the ball in the stands on any swing, but Stubbs gives the Reds flexibility in the lineup because he can bat at the top, get on base and get in scoring position, or he can be plugged into the middle and provide some protection for Votto and Bruce.
If Stubbs can keep improving, he is capable of 30 home runs and 30 steals in the season and could put the Reds right back into the postseason.
We know about Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, but Colby Rasmus presents an unknown commodity for the St. Louis lineup.
Last year, Rasmus batted .276 with 23 HR and 12 SB, while being caught stealing eight times. If he is smarter on the bases, he could regularly score 100 runs per season. If Rasmus grows into a 30/20 player, that offense will be even more difficult to pitch around, because, while you don’t want Rasmus to take you deep, putting him on base can be hazardous to your health.
If Rasmus stops running, and tries to become the all-or-nothing type, then the Cardinals will become just another team that needs the long ball to win. Rasmus' baserunning allows them to produce runs. That's how you beat playoff level pitching.
With Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder in town, the Brewers will put runs on the board.
The question is, can they keep runs off. The addition of Zack Greinke gives the team two apparent aces, but you have to wonder if Greinke’s anxiety issues are behind him. If he was anxious pitching in Kansas City, how will he do in a playoff race? Or in the playoffs?
If 2009 Greinke shows up with his 2.16 ERA, 1.073 WHIP and 242 strikeouts, the Brewers have one of the best 1-2 combinations in baseball and could put serious pressure on the Cardinals in the NL Central.
If 2010 Greinke comes to town with a 4.17 ERA, 10-14 record, and 181 strikeouts, the Brewers could fall out of the race early. And if he falls apart under pressure, the move to get him will be looked back on as a disaster for the Brewers, and heads will roll in Milwaukee.
Of course, they can pitch. But can they score? Last year, Aubrey Huff came out of nowhere to lead the offense, and this year, Buster Posey figures to only get better. But if the Giants want to score enough to take full advantage of their dominant rotation, they will need Pablo Sandoval, circa 2009.
Sandoval batted .330 with 25 HR and 90 RBI in 2009, and then crashed back to Earth in 2010 to the tune of .268, 13, 63. If Sandoval becomes the dominant run producer in the middle of that lineup, the Giants have a chance to claim another divisional crown, and perhaps have a shot at repeating as champions.
If not, Posey won’t be able to carry the offense alone. You can only win so many 1-0 games in a season. If Sandoval finds his stroke, they could be kissing The Commissioner's Trophy once again.