2010 turned out to be another in a string of Major League Baseball seasons filled with myriad surprises, none bigger than the eventual World Champion, San Francisco Giants.
The Padres, Reds, even the Texas Rangers played much bigger than we expected them to, and heading into 2011 the New York Yankees find themselves in the odd position of hoping to do the same —surprise — while they attempt to overcome this seasons near consensus choice to emerge out of the A.L. East, their arch rival from New England way, the Boston Red Sox.
A near perennial choice to grab the division and at the very least challenge for a spot in the World Series, it seems only those bleeding Pinstripes view this years potential twenty five man group in a similarly lofty light.
Heading into Spring Training the Yankees are hardly a finished product while the Red Sox look tight after a busy off season that saw All Stars Adrian Gonzales and Carl Crawford agree to make their bones in Beantown for 2011 and well beyond.
Those two moves alone had the Boston faithful crowing and even Yankee GM Brian Cashman — at least the Bizzaro version we've been getting a load of the past couple of months — declared the Yank's most despised rival the odds on favorite to take the division as the teams, just beginning to receive pitchers and catchers now in their respective Florida camps, prepare to embark on another six month, 162 game, regular season adventure.
To be sure the Yank's will need something of a revival if they hope to challenge the 'Sox in 2011. With the exception of second baseman Robbie Cano — who should be set for a massive 2011 — the zillion dollar infield badly underproduced in 2010, at least by the heady standard of numerous seasons prior.
A-Rod hit .270 with 30 HR & 125 RBI, not entirely implausible numbers but there were endless stretches last Spring & Summer when he went darker than the witchiest hour and even in 137 games it still felt like his run production fell far short of what it could or even should have been, (and that's setting aside the $25 million dollars per season, about half the total salary number of nine MLB franchises.)
But that perspective was surely magnified by Texiera's terrible start — and playoff finish — Jeter's career low everything, and Jorge Posada's injury plagued, minimum impact 2010.
While Nick Swisher was steady throughout the regular season — but another playoff flameout — CF Curtis Granderson was invisible over the first three months and in LF, burner Brett Gardner, plagued with a wrist injury, fell almost entirely off the map in the post All Star Game part of the schedule.
But these two, Gardner and Granderson may represent the Yankee's best chance to have a dynamic lineup in 2011. The former is an on base maverick with the ability to manufacture runs, something the Yankee's sorely need and would love to have at the top of the line up with Jeter dropping down to the two spot where he had much success in the years when Johnny Damon roamed left field for the Bombers and batted lead off.
Granderson was on fire over the last 45-50 games finally showing the stuff that made him one of the league most impressive players in 2008 when he threw up the kind of wet dream, roto numbers .302, 122 runs, 38 doubles, 23 triples, 26 stolen bases the Yankee's would love to see only in part in 2011.
With a raging Gardner up top, better form out of Jeter, A Rod and Texiera, Cano just being Cano and Granderson strutting optimum stuff out of the six or seven hole the Yankee's will have no problem scoring runs, something the Red Sox are counting on as well with their reconfigured 1-9 looking something like:
Carl Crawford LF .307 110 runs 19 HR 90 RBI & 47 stolen bases in 2010
Dustin Pedroia 2B .305 career hitter, clutch as they come.
Adrian Gonzales 1B .285 35 HR 105 RBI since 2007, numbers that can only go up in Boston
Kevin Youkilis 3B .307 77 runs 19 HR 62 RBI in an injury shortened 2010
David Ortiz DH .270 32 HR 102 RBI after a deathly slow beginning to the 2010 season.
Which makes for a neat run of left, right, left, right, left and then some combination of J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury — flip flopping between center and right, Varitek and maybe Saltalamacchia behind the plate with steady Marco Scutaro or last years surprise at 2B, switch hitting Jed Lowrie —moving over — and splitting time at short.
Advantage? Despite all the off season hype If the Red Sox have a slight offensive edge on paper heading into the Spring of 2011 it's negligible.
Which brings us to the arms race.
Both Bullpens are solid. The Red Sox picked up former Yankee Alfredo Aceves, Tampa's Dan Wheeler, and Chicago's Bobby Jenks to help them get to closer Jonathon Papelbon.
The Bombers added steady Met lefty Pedro Feliciano and Tampa's occasionally enigmatic Rafael Soriano to their already reasonably solid mix, and of course the great Rivera is back for another season which onto itself is the greatest of comforts to the ever wide Yankee Universe.
What will ultimately decide things between these two teams are their respective starting rotations.
Right now the Yankee's are C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and a host of question marks, including massively over paid A.J. Burnett who right now figures to slot in at the three.
The Yanks will probably take a long look at youngster Ivan Nova who pitched pretty well in the five spot after his call up in August, Joba Chamberlain, (who would no longer be burdened by crazy comparisons to Roger Clemens and the like), and we kind of have a good feel for off season pick up Freddy Garcia who finally seemed to bounce back from myriad shoulder woes last year starting for the White Sox where he went 12-6.
But that's a stop gap at best. At some point in 2011 one of the hard throwing members of the Yankee kid corps figures to make an appearance, either 6-10 Andrew Brackman or 6-8 Dellin Betances, both right handers, likely to be choices 1 & 1A.
On the Red Sox side they're set in terms of their ultra impressive front four, Lester, Lackey, Bucholz, and Beckett and the team will hope for a continuing return on their Dice K investment, maybe even a return to 2008 form when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA.
If not there's always ageless knuckler Tim Wakefield, though his 4-10 record in 2010 makes him a less viable option at the back end of the rotation then in prior seaons.
Again, on paper, the edge goes to the Red Sox — if it turns out to be slight the two teams will battle down to the wire. If not, if the Red Sox starting pitching far surpasses the Yankees, they could run away with the division and leave the New Yorkers in a position to mine Wild Card gold only.
Best of the rest in AL East?
Tampa Bay Rays: Because even without Crawford they've still got quality starting pitching (though they'll miss ace right-hander Matty Garza) and it's not like they scored a host of runs last year anyway en route to 96 wins.
Figure they'll play fundamental baseball and manage to hang around to at least challenge for a Wild Card — bounce back seasons from Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez would certainly help and barring injury you can count on an MVP type season out of third baseman Evan Longoria.
Toronto Blue Jays: Who could finish better than fourth and even challenge for a Wild Card in 2011 if their young starting pitching picks up where it left off last year.
Baltimore Orioles: Who won't be terrible either under Manager Buck Showalter, though getting out of the basement in the brutal A.L. East may be a little much to ask for in his first full season in Maryland.
Minnesota Twins: They get Morneau and at some point closer Joe Nathan back and there's every reason to believe they'll end up running away with the division come August as they did in 2010.
Chicago White Sox: They added slugger Adam Dunn, need another huge year out of toothy veteran Paul Konerko and a return to form out of starter Jake Peavy who lost most of 2010 to injury.
Detroit Tigers: Even if everything goes right in their universe, Cabrera has another monster season, Magglio Ordonez holds up for 162 games, closer Joel Zumaya returns to dominant form they'll be hard pressed to win more than 85 games.
Kansas City Royals: Even with, Zack Greinke, K.C. couldn't tap 70 wins. We'll still pick them over the Cleveland Indians though, who at this point are almost as laughable as the Major League film version of the team immortalized by none other than baseball funny man, Bob Uecker.
"These guys stink!", he once exclaimed before his head hit the table in a drunken morass, and that more than likely will be the Spring & Summer long motto for the real life, 2011 version of the team who don't figure to go on a fantasy laden, season ending run like Uecker's bunch did in the 1989 big screen baseball classic.
If they stay healthy there's no team in the West that can stick with the powerful Texas Rangers who added slugging third baseman Adrian Beltre in the off season.
The A's and Angels are of course optimistic — who isn't at this point? — the former because of their young starting pitching and they hope the addition of a capable veteran bat, Hideki Matsui, and the latter because their line up is still formidable with Abreu, Hunter & Morales up the middle though the Angels lack the arms in the starting rotation to really make any kind of a plausible season long run.
They'd make a helluva team if you put them together though.
As for the Mariners in 2011 — King Felix Hernandez and a helluva lot of punting.
Philadelphia Phillies: The only question is whether or not they can win 110 games with Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels fronting the rotation
Braves: They have solid starting pitching, second year talent, Jason Heyward, and a highly productive shortstop - second base combo in Alex Gonzales and Dan Uggla ready to start the season. Avoid protracted dips and there's no reason the Braves can't win around 90 games.
Mets: If some of the question marks, Beltran, Bay, Reyes, etc. turn into answers and the starting pitching — Santana, Pelfrey, Niese, Dickey, a replacement for Takahashi — is as good or a little better than last year the Mets under new Manager Terry Collins can challenge for a Wild Card spot in 2011.
Marlins: Even with Hanley Ramirez their line up looks as anemic as it's been in years — and that's saying something. Potentially great starting pitching though with Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volsted, Javier Vasquez and last years lefty comebacker, Anibal Sanchez.
Nationals: They lost Dunn and it doesn't look like Strasburgh will make an impact in 2011. It won't be pretty in Washington this summer.
Brewers: They grabbed Greinke from the Royals and tough righty, Shaun Marcum from the Jays and that along with one of the leagues most explosive offensive attacks puts the Brew Crew in great position to handle the NL Central.
The Reds are what they were last year and are already being discounted as one season wonders. If starters Bronson Arroyo, Edison Volquez and Johnny Cueto maintain form they'll continue to be highly competitive in 2011.
The Cardinals feature Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter on the pitching side, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday on the offensive side and not much else. It probably won't be enough to get them back to the playoffs and 2011 might be the last the team sees of Pujols in a Cardinals uniform.
The Cubs, even with Matty Garza, Ryan Dempster and nutty Carlos Zambrano heading their rotation, the punchless Houston Astros, and particularly the disbandable Pittsburgh Pirates will bring up the division rear.
Figure the Giants break right out of the gate in 2011 and dominate this division from day one with a capable offense and the kind of starting pitching — Cain, Lincecum, Sanchez, Zito and Bumgarner — that evokes memories of the great Giant and Dodger teams of the 1960's — Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal, Gaylord Perry, that lot.
The up and down Colorado Rockies seem to do everything in streaks but cannot be discounted from at least challenging for the Wild Card as long as superstar Troy Tulowitzki continues to toil at short, Venezuelan LF Carlos Gonzales keeps hitting bombs, and Ulbaldo Jiminez pitches to form out in front of a fairly promising young staff.
The Dodgers will hope for an offensive revival under rookie Manager Don Mattingly and they'll probably need it as throwing it across the plate and getting outs might be a problem once Donnie Baseball looks past young lefty Clayton Kernshaw, veteran lefty Ted Lilly and maybe free agent pick up Jon Garland who will look to squeeze another productive major league season out of his much disabused right arm.
The Padres should be able to pitch it about as well as they did in 2010 and without slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzales in the lineup they'll need to as the team had enough trouble pushing runs across the plate when it counted during last years stretch run.
And that's it for our Major League baseball pre season review, only a couple of weeks 'till Spring Training kicks off in earnest,