2011 MLB Season Preview: Top 10 Storylines Heading Into the Season
Opening day is still a little over a month away but it is never too early to talk a few storylines that MLB fans will keep their eye on.
Superstars switched leagues, other stars expressed their frustration and the next generation looks to cement their name as the game's best.
Here are the top 10 storylines to pay attention to once the season starts.
10. Zack Attacking the National League
Zack Greinke’s request was granted and he was traded this past offseason. A very unique player who been labeled as a bust, been sent to the bullpen, won a Cy Young in 2009 and watched his ERA double last year.
His nasty repertoire of pitches was still on point last season. Bad luck and the likely frustration of playing on a continuous rebuilder affected Greinke. He now is ready for a fresh start with a potential contending team while also taking his talents to the NL.
The days of him dealing with depression seem to be long behind him and it is absolutely clear he wants to win. With a good, underappreciated staff around him and a lineup that will give him run support (for the first time in his career), the NL is going to see a dominant pitcher this year.
His 2009 statistics of 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA, on a team that won only 65 games, could get shattered this year. Greinke has the potential to win 20 games for the Brewers.
9. New Skips Replace Old Legends
The 2011 season will showcase 11 new managers (including interim managers becoming permanent) in hopes of leading their respective team to the promise land.
- Freddi Gonzalez replaces one of the greatest coaches/managers in sports history after Bobby Cox announced his retirement. In 2008, Gonzalez was named Sporting News Manager of the Year while leading the Florida Marlins.
- Mike Quade also replaces a legend as Lou Piniella retired from the game. Quade won over 1,000 games as a minor league skipper.
- Keeping with the theme of outstanding managers retiring, Don Mattingly replaces Joe Torre in Los Angeles. Mattingly won the 1985 AL MVP while playing first base for the New York Yankees.
- Cito Gatson retired after 2010 with a few World Series rings on his fingers. The new Toronto skip will be John Farrell. He previously worked as the pitching coach of their division rival Boston Red Sox
- Ron Roenicke replaces Ken Macha as Milwaukee’s new skipper. Roenicke was on six different teams as a player and takes over a team with high expectations in the NL Central.
- The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992 and John Russell accumulating 299 loses in 3 seasons did not help. Clint Hurdle takes over managerial duties and he brings World Series experience to a young team.
- Four other interim managers take over as permanent skippers for the 2011 season. Kirk Gibson with the Diamondbacks, Ned Yost with the Royals, Buck Showalter with the Orioles and Edwin Rodriguez with the Marlins. Eric Wedge replaced interim Daren Brown as the Mariners head man.
Some of the best managers that ever coached the game have retired. Umpires surely will not miss Lou or Bobby, who notoriously made trips out of the dugouts to have their voices heard. Even if the new skippers do not have the unbelievable success that Torre, Piniella or Cox did, there is a lot of entertainment value and fierceness that needs replaced.
8. The Young Who Is Restless
Michael Young publicly stated that he wanted out of Texas when the team brought in Adrian Beltre. It appears that he will not be traded and Young will play the season as a Ranger, and probably play well.
This organization is no stranger to early year distractions after last year’s incident with manager Ron Washington and some nose candy. They put that situation behind them and persevered to the World Series.
Young has been the prototypical professional his entire career and being asked to change positions yet again seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. He has played great defense all over and with an inexperienced (but talented) infield, he may see some significant field time if the kids struggle. Until then, which most likely will not happen, Young will make his transition to first base and DH.
One of the franchise’s most beloved and successful players will not be a distraction as the season looms. That will not stop the media from a making a story out of it for the entire season. Young is too outspoken and honest to just keep quiet.
The season is too long, so a hitting slump is inevitable which will persuade the questions back to his offseason disappointment. It appears that the Rangers will again contend for a pennant again this year, but if they drastically underachieve, maybe Young could be a player to watch around the trade deadline. Either way, Michael Young will be a back page story for the 2011 season.
7. Pinstrip Pitching and Beyond
Andy Pettitte did not pull a “Brett Favre” and retire without leaving the Yanks curious too deep into the offseason. Cliff Lee’s wife was probably one happy woman when he decided to sign with the Phillies, but disappointed Yanks fans.
That leaves CC Sabathia, who also made headlines by publically stating that opting out after the 2011 season is possible. Reports out of New York are saying that Sabathia took it easy on the chocolate chip cookies this offseason and lost weight. If he is even debating on opting out after this season, that means he is expecting to put up league leading numbers this season. An in-shape, motivated Sabathia bodes well for New York, but could it only be for this season? Also, he is only one starter. AJ Burnett must regain his old form to give the Yankees another dependable starter and his 2010 ERA of 5.26 undoubtedly will not get it done.
That still leaves backend of the rotation questions and will not tone down the colossal expectations that the Yankees always have. The lineup has issues of its own with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira all looking to rebound from sub-par seasons.
If the Yankees struggle out of the gate, there is no doubt the league’s most cherished franchised will make a splash near the trading deadline.
And I’m sure nobody will have to remind Cameron Diaz to bring the popcorn.
6. A Few New Sox
The Boston Red Sox arguably had the best winter of any team and are the leading contender to win it all. They acquired Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler. Just as significant is the fact the team has a lot of key contributors returning from injury.
Gonzalez will excel in Bean Town. Over the last three seasons, here are his season averages:
.285 BA 33 HR 109 RBI .900 OPS
All while playing his home games in the canyon that is PETCO Park. Now he will be protected in the lineup and have the opportunity to put up MVP type numbers in Boston.
Good luck trying to drop a ball between Carl Crawford and Jacob Ellsbury. This might be the most electrifying duo in the outfield today. Crawford will also be disruptive on the base pads and score a lot of runs while hitting on top of the Red Sox deep lineup.
The new additions and a healthy roster easily make the Red Sox the best team on paper. Unfortunately for them, championships are won on the field. Win or lose, the Red Sox will be the most stimulating team to watch in 2011.
Keeping with the always highly publicized AL East theme, the Rays made a few splashes with arrivals and departures. Against popular belief, expect a bounce back season from Manny Ramirez, who is healthy entering the season. He hit .298 in an injury plagued season last year and has the protection he needs to put up Manny type numbers one more time in his career.
The Baltimore Orioles should make some noise with their young guns this year. Possibly back to relevance and Buck Showalter certainly will not settle for unsatisfactory play.
East Coast Bias will be in full effect again this year with a lot of headlines to be made in the AL East.
5. Giant Killers
No matter the sport, it is always intriguing to see what the previous season champions have planned for an encore. It makes it even more interesting when the champs were simply a family of misfits.
Their ace looked like he should be in the X-games and not winning Cy Young awards. Their stud rookie looked a week older than Justin Beiber. And the Giants had a lock down closer that featured a beard that was only two notches below Brett Keisel on the facial hair Richter scale.
But they were a team in every sense of the word and took care of business on the diamond.
The pieces are still in place to make a run at the extraordinary back-to-back World Series championship. They signed veteran Miguel Tejada to replace Juan Uribe and have a tremendous balance of young and old talent. The difference this year is that they are the radar and not under it. Can they perform as well with the added pressure?
Bruce Botchy will no doubt use few words to have his team prepared for the long haul back to October.
4: The Yearly Milestone Watch
Let’s face it, baseball is statistical driven sport and every year a few players approach the golden numbers (3,000 hits, 500 home runs, etc.). Here are a few potential milestones that we may see in 2011.
Derek Jeter is only 74 hits away from 3,000. Vladimir Guerrero needs 73 hits for 2,500. Albert Pujols and a half dozen others will reach 2,000 hits this season.
Jim Thome needs 11 home runs to reach 600 for his career. He would be only the 8th player in history to reach that mark.
There are plenty of other milestones that can be reached and records that can be broke. Alex Rodriguez will look to pass Ken Griffey Jr. on the all-time home run list; Mariano Rivera needs 42 saves to catch Trevor Hoffman for number 1 on the saves list and the Atlanta Braves organization will reach the 10,000 win mark as a franchise.
3: Young Bucks
Last year, Buster Posey helped lead the Giants to a championship at the tender age of 23. This year, there are an abundance of youngsters that have the talent to make some serious noise in 2011.
The Oakland Athletics have a handful of players that are nearly underage, but heavily underrated. Their pitching staff features Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill who are both under the age of the 25, but have ace quality stuff.
The Pittsburgh Pirates enter 2011 with the hopes of a momentous season, which means they won 82 games! Their .500 hopes will depend much on the improvement and production of 2nd year player Pedro Alvarez. At times during his rookie campaign, Alvarez made Ryan Howard look like a contact hitter. If the strikeout numbers stay reasonable, Alvarez has the potential to be an elite hitter in the league. Could 2011 feature a Pirate hitting 40 long balls for the first time since Willie Stargell hit 44 in 1973? With a young and talented top half a lineup surrounding him, the possibility is there.
Desmond Jennings has big and speedy shoes to fill in Tampa Bay with departure of Carl Crawford. He has all 5 tools and encompasses the rare skill set of power, speed and average. This kid will be a fun player to watch for a long time.
Other youngsters that may have a significant impact this season include Daniel Hudson of the Diamondbacks, Aroldis Chapman in his new reliever role for the Reds and Mike Stanton of the Marlins.
Jason Heyward’s sophomore season will certainly sell some tickets and turn some heads as well.
2: Aces Full
Philadelphia’s rotation is absolutely malicious. Cole Hamels will likely have to wait until game 4 until he makes his 2011 debut, which means the Phillies 4th starter had an ERA a clip above 3 last year. The starting 5 has a little bit of skill
Roy Halladay: 21-10 2.44 ERA
Cliff Lee: 12-9 3.18 ERA
Roy Oswalt: 13-13 2.76 ERA
Cole Hamels: 12-11 3.06 ERA
Joe Blanton: 9-6 4.82 ERA
The top 4 starters could potentially win 15-20 games and Jimmy Rollins has already stated that the Phillies will win 100 games. Well Jimmy, the potential 100 win season might have a lot to do with whether the lineup holds up their end of the bargain.
Jimmy Rollins: .243 BA and 41 RBI in 88 games
Chase Utley: .275 BA and a .445 SLG in 115 games
Ryan Howard: .276 BA, 31 HR and 108 RBI in 143 games
With the departure of Jason Werth (even with the high expectations of Domonic Brown) there is a lot of pressure on the top half of this lineup.
The Phillies have invested a lot of money in their starting rotation which will also put a lot of demand on the bullpen as well. Hopefully for the Phillies, they do not have as much pressure as coming up with a slick nickname for the top 4. R2C2 and the Four Horsemen are not cutting it.
1: Welcome To The Prince Albert Show
Contract negotiations between Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals have been suspended for the 2011 season. The 3 time Most Valuable Player and future Hall of Famer will be the most sought after free agent in recent memory.
He is seeking a 10 year contract, which seems extreme for a player on the wrong side of 30, but Pujols is nicknamed The Machine for a reason. The league’s best hitter has hit at least 32 home runs and 103 RBI in all 9 of his playing years. The frightening aspect is that the league might see his typical numbers explode to an extraordinary level. Contract years for superstars tend to showcase a mysterious rise in production.
And if Pujols wants a record breaking deal, he might go ahead and break a record or two in 2011.