A magical time of year, to say the least, MLB spring training is now in full swing.
With a plethora of offseason transactions, some teams have opted to go "all or nothing" in 2011, while others have chosen to either rebuild for the future or remain the same as years past.
Either way, we're assured of a marvelous 2011 season.
So as we look forward to a promising regular season chock-full of surprises, let's take an early look at how things will shape up this season with an examination and prediction for each division.
The balance in young, talented power has shifted dramatically this offseason in the AL East, baseball's most competitive division without question. An offseason when the Yankees failed to sign the "big name" adds confusion and befuddlement to the equation as well.
But Boston's resiliency to acquire two of the most recognizable talents in the game (Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez) will almost certainly result in a postseason wrecking machine.
With Tampa Bay releasing a plethora of adolescent talent for conceivably nothing in return, Joe Maddon's crew could unfortunately be in for a letdown-type season.
In addition, with an improving Baltimore team on the rise under forceful manager Buck Showalter, the Orioles could be a surprise team in 2011.
As the earth-shaking distortion that is the AL East sets to commence, newly added talent will contribute to how the division will shake out. The key to how the division will finish will be how both Crawford and Gonzalez perform on a day-to-day basis. If they can produce consistently, Boston will wrap up the AL East rather handily.
2. New York (Wild Card)
3. Tampa Bay
After yet another early exit in postseason contention, you have to wonder how antsy Minnesota's fanbase must be regarding the club's approaching future.
A season in which the Twins accumulated 94 wins is productive enough to make the playoffs. However, the lack of experience and/or lack of postseason efficiency will lead to more playoff blunders by Ron Gardenhire's ball club.
However, to Minnesota's enjoyment, neither the Tigers nor the White Sox (in exception to Adam Dunn) have stepped up to make that divisional-changing trade this offseason.
Miguel Cabrera must once again rely on himself to carry a lagging offensive attack in Detroit, and the Royals are set up to build for the future once more.
The Twins should take the division, but don't be surprised if the under-the-radar White Sox take a stab at the AL Central crown in 2011.
Last season, Ozzie Guillen's White Sox made up significant ground in the AL Central title race, and they have been known to be a bit of a "streaky" team in years past. Should they harness the capability to consistently play sound baseball, the White Sox can conquer the division. Whether or not they have the dexterity to do so is another question entirely.
5. Kansas City
The Rangers soundly ran away with the AL West last season with an impressive 90-72 showing while furnishing a 32-25 record against divisional opponents. Although progress is expected from Josh Hamilton and the Texas offense, the loss of Vladimir Guerrero will have an enormous impact in the Rangers' success in 2011.
Take that into account with an under-the-radar Oakland Athletics ball club that maintains one of the most under-appreciated starting rotations and bullpens in the league, and power in the AL West could potentially sway away from the Rangers.
As much as we'd all love to see the Angels improve from a disappointing 2010 season, their fortunes are not likely to change in the near future.
Regarding Seattle? Well, I think you get the idea.
With all due respect to the defending American League champions, the AL West will be decided by how well Oakland's pitching staff can duplicate their 2010 performance. Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey are all young, talent-filled pitchers capable of taking the division by storm.
3. Los Angeles
As we've become so accustomed to, the Phillies save their best baseball for late in the regular season while stinking up the joint in the early going of the year. But this season—unlike any other we've seen—could prove to be the exact opposite.
The addition of Cliff Lee to the National League's most potent starting rotation will bring even more of a dexterous, dominating style of pitching we've come to know of Lee. What the season holds in store for Philadelphia may not be definite; however, we should take into account that an array of talent can never be in a position to disappoint.
The rest of the division can be summed by a few choice words: unpretentious, genuine and sincere. This means that Atlanta, New York, Florida and Washington are beginning to accept the fact that Philadelphia can (and probably will) steal the division will ease.
Slowing down Philadelphia will prove to be quite the task for the rest of the NL East. With the pieces in place, the talent consumed and the expectations higher than they've ever been, the Phillies will be destiny's darling at the end of the regular season—that is, unless someone is willing to step in and make a difference.
That difference could well be Atlanta's successful pitching from a season ago. With the third best team ERA in the majors last season (3.56), the Braves have proved they can win with the arms. Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens must step up as they did in 2010 to make this a two-team race in 2011.
3. New York
Notable offseason aggressiveness has reinforced Milwaukee's needing pitching staff, making the Brewers early favorites to strip the divisional title from the Reds in 2011.
Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Takashi Saito will have a lasting impact on the Brewers' playoff chances heading into the regular season, as they look to improve from their team ERA of 4.58. With the offensive power already in place with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, it's conceivable that Milwaukee could run away with the division.
Still, the Reds are the defending NL Central champions, and they'll look to repeat as champs with the same core group of players they did it with last season. With Joey Votto at the plate and Aroldis Chapman awaiting his inevitable shot to become a dominating starter, Dusty Baker's crew will be a tough out for any team this season.
But for the once proud Cardinals? We'll just have to wait and see. Albert Pujols could be entering his last season with the club, and with no true superstar talent beyond Pujols and Matt Holliday, the Cardinals are as lacking on offense as they've ever been.
Snatching Carlos Pena and Matt Garza will prove vital for Chicago's playoff hopes this season as new manager Mike Quade gets things settled in the Windy City.
With the talent Milwaukee has implemented on the mound, it's hard not to love the Brewers' chances this season. Thus, as I'm sure you're well aware, the key for Milwaukee to wrap up the NL Central will be to be as concise with their pitches as possible. If the Brew Crew can get their plethora of pitching talent to complement their hitting, they are arguably the most complete team in the majors.
Nevertheless, the NL Central will be a tight race to the finish between four potential playoff-bound teams.
3. St. Louis
The fact that the Padres finished a mere two games behind San Francisco—the eventual World Series champions—at the end of the regular season says wonders about what a talented and adept starting rotation and bullpen can do.
The fact that San Diego maintained consistency both at home and on the road a season ago (45-36 at home and on the road) affirms that these guys are as seasoned as ever. But can they get over the hump this season?
It will prove to be a formidable test, as both San Francisco and Colorado are likely to contend for the division this season.
San Francisco still maintains the best team ERA (3.36) and starting rotation in the majors with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez, as well as the most concise closer in the majors, Brian Wilson.
What most aren't aware of, however, is the fact that at 35 years of age, Aubrey Huff led San Francisco in HR (26), RBI (86), BA (.290) and H (165) last season. If the Giants want to contend once again, they'll need more diversity in their offensive production.
As for the "streaky" Rockies, both Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez must be able to produce as much as they did just a season ago. If Troy Tulowitzki can harness the arsenal of offensive production he was able to maintain last season, the Rockies will be just fine.
For the Dodgers, though, a return to greatness under Don Mattingly after one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory will prove to be a much taller task than previously thought. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney were inadequate in their offensive and defensive performances in 2010.
Unlike any other division in baseball, the NL West can say it maintained the top two pitching staffs in the league in ERA last season (San Francisco and San Diego), which can only mean that offense may be severely limited in 2011.
However, Brian Wilson is the one thing that separates the two staffs, unlike San Diego, which doesn't maintain the so-called "dominating" closer that the Giants possess. Look for Wilson to play a gigantic role in who wins the NL West in 2011.
1. San Francisco
2. San Diego (Wild Card)
4. Los Angeles