MLB 2011 Preview: American League Predictions
It's official—the 2011 Major League Baseball season is right around the corner. Don't believe me? Just ask the groundhog. Or maybe the fact that the next edition of Major League Baseball video games are primed for release will convince you. No? Ok, the Super Bowl is over and so is another season of the National Football League. Pitchers and catchers have reported for Spring Training. Yes, the 2011 season is swiftly approaching.
With nearly all of 2011's top free agents signed, it's time to evaluate how all 30 big league teams did this offseason, and predict where they will finish in their respective divisions in this rendition of MLB 2011 Predictions. Concluding now with the American League.
AL West, 1st Place: Texas Rangers
The 2010 Texas Rangers were three wins short of their first World Series championship. And while just making it to the Fall Classic was a thrill, the taste of watching the San Francisco Giants celebrate on their home turf still lingers. The Rangers are hungry to get back to the World Series, and finish what they started.
But to do that, they'll have to figure out how to win without one of the best pitchers in the game. Cliff Lee, who pretty much pitched the team to October, signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies. Though his presence is more or less irreplaceable, they made no effort to add another ace to that staff. They did sign a former ace—Brandon Webb—who is coming off of multiple surgeries and has pitched a total of four innings since 2009.
Be that as it may, the Rangers have a very good team. They lost Vladimir Guerrero to free agency, but signed Adrian Beltre, acquired Mike Napoli, and still have the likes of Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton and (for now) Michael Young in what is a very solid lineup.
Closer Neftali Feliz has been a real bright spot for the Rangers, and he should continue to shine for years to come. Even with out Lee, they still have a good rotation, with C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter.
They have the desire to get back to the Fall Classic. They have the tools to do so. The Texas Rangers are team with a chip on their shoulder, and there's no reason not to expect them to be tops in their division.
AL West, 2nd Place: Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim
It may be a while until first baseman Kendry Morales pounces on home plate after a walk-off home run. But it may not be that long until the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are back on top of the AL West.
The Angels had a disappointing season in 2010. It marked the first time since 2006 they did not finish in first place in the division (they finished in third place last season), and the first time since 2003 they ended with a less than .500 record (80-82 in 2010).
Morales, who suffered a season ending broken leg after a celebratory jump-and-fall following a walk off home run in May, will be back to start the 2011 season, and won't the Angels be happy. Last season, Angels first basemen combined to hit 29 home runs. Morales hit 34 in 2009.
But the Angels have more than one reason to be optimistic. They added Vernon Wells' bat (and hefty contract) to the fold to go along with Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Howie Kendrick.
They still have a solid rotation, led by ace Jered Weaver. Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir are all established pitchers who have shown flashes of brilliance throughout their careers.
The Angels most certainly were not happy with the results of their 2010 campaign. They made very few moves this offseason, which drew quite a bit of criticism. But with the team they have now, one can understand why they were hesitant to make very many moves, and should be able to compete in 2011.
AL West, 3rd Place: Oakland Athletics
The Oakland A's finished 2010 with an 81-81 record, good for second place in the division, which shocked many including myself. Were they really good, or was the rest of the division really bad? That's debatable.
But what isn't debatable is that Billy Beane's bunch was one of the busiest teams this offseason and improved many facets of their ballclub.
They brought in Brian Fuentes to shore up the back end of the bullpen. They added some power bats by acquiring Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham. They still have a fresh young rotation, including Brett Anderson, "Mr. Perfect" Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez.
They are probably still a year or two away from serious contention. But make no mistake, this team has gotten better, and will continue to get better. The 2011 campaign can be a huge stepping stone for this squad.
AL West, 4th Place: Seattle Mariners
There's no question the Seattle Mariners have a bunch of talented players on their roster. But somehow, that talent hasn't been enough to bring them to the top. All appears status quo for them in the 2011 season.
The problems the Mariners are facing are that Felix Hernandez can't pitch everyday and Ichiro Suzuki can't play everywhere.
That's not intended to be a knock on the rest of the team, but thus far no one else has really performed up to the standards set forth by the rest of the division and the league. There are players who are certainly capable however.
Chone Figgins has led the league in stolen bases and can play virtually anywhere in the infield. Franklin Gutierrez is blossoming into a nice center fielder with all the tools necessary for an All-Star career.
But for the most part, the M's are comprised of players who have either yet to prove themselves (Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda) or are past their prime (Miguel Olivo, Jack Cust, Jack Wilson to name a few).
They have some work to do. But surprise teams and Cinderella teams have shocked the world before. Maybe the 2011 Seattle Mariners are next.
AL Central, 1st Place: Chicago White Sox
The American League Central division has recently turned into a three-headed monster. The Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox have annually duked it out for tops in the division. For the past decade, those three teams (along with the occasional appearance of the Cleveland Indians) have been going back and forth for a playoff spot.
For 2011 though, look for the Chicago White Sox to be on top of this ever changing division.
Though the Twins and Tigers have bettered themselves in the offseason, the White Sox made themselves better by making just a few moves. They added slugger Adam Dunn, and re-signed Paul Konerko, which gives the South Siders a heavy-hitting 3-4 portion of the lineup. Alexi Ramirez, Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios and A.J. Pierzynski add nice compliments to this solid batting order.
The pitching rotation is deep and talented. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson are a formidable staff. Jake Peavy is working his way back from season ending shoulder surgery, and is hoping to be ready for the start of the season. But if he is not, Chris Sale should provide an adequate fill-in until Peavy is ready.
The White Sox had one of the quieter offseasons in the American League. But they also had very few holes to fill. So with the moves they did make, the White Sox to me are the team to beat in the AL Central.
AL Central, 2nd Place: Detroit Tigers
The Detroit Tigers could easily be the number one team in the AL Central division in 2011. They made moves this offseason that made their good 2010 team even better.
They added Victor Martinez, which gives them another power bat to go along with Miguel Cabrera, Brandon Inge and the returning Magglio Ordonez. Austin Jackson is developing into one of the top lead off hitters in baseball (perhaps the next Ricky Henderson?).
The pitching staff is a tad worrisome—more specifically, the starting pitching. Of course Justin Verlander is one of the top-notch pitchers in the game. But behind him are Max Scherezer, Rick Porcello, and Phil Coke, all of whom are still finding their footings on the mound. They added Brad Penny to the back of the rotation to add some veteran leadership. But by doing that, they also added a medical liability, as Penny has taken multiple trips to the DL over his career.
There's no question the Tigers will hit the baseball and score runs. If the young rotation can hang through the entire course of the season, the boys from the Motor City could be clawing there way to the top of the division in 2011.
AL Central, 3rd Place: Minnesota Twins
Every spring it seems on paper that the Minnesota Twins don't have what it takes to get into the playoffs. But then each fall, there they are, fighting for that playoff spot. It looks like it will be the same ol' story in 2011.
Indeed they have a star-studded roster. Joe Mauer is slowly becoming the new face of the sport. Francisco Liriano has ace quality stuff. They've got two All-Star closers in Joe Nathan (who is coming back from Tommy John surgery) and Matt Capps. Justin Morneau (as long as he is completely healed from the concussion-like syndromes that plagued him in 2010) is pretty much a lock for 30+ home runs.
But the supporting cast is rather suspect in my opinion. Delmon Young is just that...young. He recently turned 25, and had a breakout campaign in 2010 while posting career highs virtually across the board. But the Twins will need him to improve on those numbers to help carry this team to glory. The same holds true for veterans Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome.
The Twins are always there. No matter how down they may seem, there they are. When you have Ron Gardenhire at your helm, it's hard to argue against. They very well may be there again in 2011. But it will not be easy and they will have to fight hard for the top spot in the division.
AL Central, 4th Place: Kansas City Royals
For most teams, fourth place in the division is not considered an improvement. But for the Kansas City Royals, fourth place may just be the beginning.
Since 2003, they have finished in last place every year, with the exception of 2008 (fourth place). It is difficult to contend as a low budget team going against teams in Detroit and Chicago. Yet, 2011 could be the start of something new for the Royals.
Though they traded away their ace pitcher (Zack Greinke), they made a series of acquisitions in the offseason that, at least on paper, makes them look (dare I say it) good. They brought in Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur to add some veteran leadership to their outfield. The Greinke deal retooled their farm system, and also gave them two big league ready players—shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain—that should boost their offense.
Youngsters Alex Gordon and Billy Butler will have to step up to the plate and become the team leaders the Royals have been expecting for the past several seasons.
It will be difficult to replace Greinke in KC, which will likely cause the Royals to wait a few years before seriously contending. For now though, they will have to hope that former first overall draft pick Luke Hochevar can anchor a rotation that also includes Jeff Francis, who has been battling injuries through his career.
The Royals have been living in futility for most of the past decade. They are ready to break out of that shell and get back to winning. In a few years, they very well may be there.
AL Central, 5th Place: Cleveland Indians
It's been a rough go of it for quite a few years now for the Cleveland Indians. They haven't finished higher than third place in the division since they won the division back in 2007. Things haven't gotten much better either.
There is light at the end of the tunnel however. They have some real bright spots on their roster. Catcher Carlos Santana has been highly touted, and was on track towards a fantastic rookie campaign in 2010. But an August collision at home plate tore his lateral collateral ligament and forced him to miss the rest of the season.
But Santana has recovered from surgery and should be ready to go on Opening Day. Along with him, the Tribe boasts youngsters Matt LaPorta, who came over from the Brewers in the C.C. Sabathia deal and has yet to break out the way the Indians were expecting. Asdrubal Cabrera has been a solid middle infielder and should be able to hit .300 on a regular basis.
The keys to the Indians' success in 2011 will be Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. These two men have carried this team before, but perhaps due to the weight of the team, they have been plagued by a number of injuries over the past couple of seasons. Sizemore is a prime candidate to be dealt at the trade deadline if the Indians are out of contention.
There's no question that the Indians do have some potential. But the lack of stability in their rotation and their bullpen may leave them to look towards 2012 before 2011 even begins.
AL East, 1st Place: Boston Red Sox
The American League Eastern division may be the toughest of all the divisions in baseball in 2011. But, any division that includes the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees makes the top two choices rather clear.
2011 may very well be the Red Sox's year to return to glory. General Manager Theo Epstein has re-tooled the bullpen by adding a slew of relievers (highlighted by Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler) to a staff that already included closer Jonathan Papelbon, future closer Daniel Bard, and Hideki Okajima.
They also added one of the best slugging first baseman in the game, Adrian Gonzalez. They acquired Gonzalez in a trade with the San Diego Padres at the beginning of the offseason, and at that moment they became a favorite to win the AL East.
But that wasn't enough for Epstein. He later signed the speedy Carl Crawford to a seven year mega-deal, which gives the Sox one of, if not the most, fearsome lineups in baseball. The two newcomers join the likes of incumbents Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia.
And of course, the starting rotation is very deep. Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz comprise one of the very best rotations in the game today.
From all aspects and all angles, the Red Sox seem to have an edge over the rest of their opponents in the American League. They have an extremely loyal fan base and will look to reward their fans with another fine season in Beantown.
AL East, 2nd Place: New York Yankees
Some things in baseball are unpredictable. One thing that IS predictable, however, is another chapter of the never ending Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees rivalry. This next chapter will commence starting on April 8, when the Bombers visit the Sox in Boston.
From that point on, the two are expected to be dog fighting their way to the top of the division, and only one team can come out on top. With all due respect to C.C. Sabathia, it seems that the Yankees' rotation will not be enough to stand up to Boston's offense in 2011.
The Yankees lost out on Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte called it quits. So aside from Sabathia, the boys from the Bronx have Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and Sergio Mitre in their rotation. Also joining them in 2011 will be 24 year old Ivan Nova, who appeared in 10 games (seven starts) in 2010—his only big league season.
Of course, they will still boast one of the highest scoring offenses in the game, led by Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano.
They may have enough to get them into the playoffs. But I argue that the Red Sox will have their number in the division standings...and that number is one.
AL East, 3rd Place: Baltimore Orioles
What should make the American League Eastern division so tough this year is the quality of the teams that aren't from Boston or New York—more specifically, the ones that are from Toronto and Baltimore—in 2011.
It's been a long time since Baltimore Orioles fans have had something to be excited about. 2011 could be the start of something big for the O's.
Like the Toronto Blue Jays, they are currently blocked by the rival Red Sox and Yankees in the division. So no matter how talented this team gets, they will always have to contend with the teams upstairs.
But this team IS talented, and they are becoming more talented year after year. The 2011 Orioles may be the best Oriole team since they last made the playoffs (1997), from top to bottom.
They brought in Mark Reynolds, Derek Lee and J.J. Hardy to give some legitimacy to their lineup. They signed Kevin Gregg for more stability in the back end of their bullpen, which already consists of Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara.
Their rotation is still young and fresh. They signed Justin Duchscherer, who's appeared in just five games since 2008, to provide some veteran leadership. But they still lack that bona fide ace. If they are able to shape Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman or Brian Matusz into that ace, the Yankees and Red Sox could be feeling the O's right on their heals sooner than later.
AL East, 4th Place: Toronto Blue Jays
It has to be frustrating to be a Toronto Blue Jays fan. For years now, the team has put together what should be winning teams. But then, how can you be expected to win when playing in a division that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and (more recently) Rays. Not much is expected to change for 2011.
The Jays once again have a solid lineup. Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Travis Snider are all coming into their own as big league hitters. Jose Bautista led all of baseball with 54 home runs a season ago.
Their bullpen will likely be one of the most underrated, but most effective in the league. They acquired Frank Francisco from the Texas Rangers to become their new closer. Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch signed on to add depth to that back end. Holdovers Shawn Camp, Jason Frasor, and Casey Janssen have given the Jays some quality relief for several years now.
The problem may lie in the rotation. Ricky Romero, Brendan Morrow and Brett Cecil have all shown flashes of light in their careers, but none have shown ace like material so far. With no more Shaun Marcum (dealt to the Brewers), one of them (if not more than one) will need to step up and be that ace.
They are buried in the AL East. But it may not be long until they claw their way to the top and supplant the Red Sox and Yankees from the top spot.
AL East, 5th Place: Tampa Bay Rays
Could it be that the Tampa Bay Rays' string of contention has come to an end already? Perhaps. The issue here is, the rest of the division got better during the offseason, while the Rays, well, didn't.
They lost several key players to their recent success to free agency and trades. Carl Crawford (Red Sox), Jason Bartlett (Padres), Rafael Soriano (Yankees), Matt Garza (Cubs), Joaquin Benoit (Tigers), Grant Balfour (A's), Carlos Pena (Cubs) and Dan Wheeler (Red Sox) will all be wearing different uniforms in 2011.
The holdovers are talented enough to win some games, but looking at the rosters of the other teams in their division, the Rays seem to be outmatched. Evan Longoria is one of the fine young players in the game, with a bright future ahead of him. B.J. Upton has all the talent in the world, if he can manage to stay healthy and stay focused.
Their pitching staff is chock full of young talent. David Price, Wade Davis, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson all have ace-like stuff.
The personnel loss may be insurmountable for the Rays. They brought in Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to add some offensive punch but both are on the downside of their careers and may not provide the type of impact the Rays seem to expect.
The Rays may not be cellar dwellers for as long as they were early in the decade but 2011 may be a rough year for this team—a team that recently has gotten used to winning.