The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers (by virtue of being the defending AL champs) Philadelphia Phillies, and San Francisco Giants (by virtue of being defending world champs) can be considered the early favorites to play in the 2011 Fall Classic.
But who else? There are five teams in each league that aren't being talked about as much, and should be.
If Brian Matusz matures into a reliable ace, and the rest of the pitching is decent (Guthrie, Duchscerer) this team could make a run a la 2010 Texas Rangers, offense first.
The lineup is stacked. Derek Lee and Mark Reynolds on the corners combined for 79 HR in 2009. Brian Roberts and JJ Hardy up the middle had 33 HR and 40 SB in 2008. Vladimir Guerrero is coming off a 2010 in which he hit .300, 29 HR, 115 RBI.
We have also yet to see Matt Wieters and Adam Jones fulfill their sizable potential.
Their rotation is good. No doubt. I mean REALLY good! If they get offensive production from Kouzmanoff, Barton, and Matsui, they could be this season’s San Fran Giants.
Granted, that's a big if. But Hideki Matsui had 21 HR and 84 RBI in 2010. Kouzmanoff had 16/71 and still has room to grow. Coco Crisp is still one of the fastest and smartest baserunners in baseball. Kurt Suzuki hit 15 HR, with 88 RBI and 74 runs scored at 25 years old. This offense has potential to be good enough to support the outstanding pitching.
Mike Scioscia always has this team in a position to win. If Kendry Morales steps carefully on home plate, the offense should rebound well and the pitching is underrated. I shouldn't say this, because there is no reason to expect anything, but keep half an eye on Brandon Wood.
He showed so much pop in the minors, if he somehow broke out, and provided Kendry some protection, this lineup suddenly looks formidable, and this team, which already has stellar pitching, becomes a serious threat to the American League Pennant.
If Justin Morneau is healthy, the offense with Mauer, Span, Young, and Cuddyer should be fine. They need one of their young SP to step up behind Liriano, but Baker is perfectly capable of doing that.
There isn't any one thing in particular to be excited about with the Twins, but year after year Ron Gardenhire seems to have them in a position to challenge for the division. Expect no different this season, with an underrated lineup and rotation. If Joe Nathan is 100%, the bullpen is solid and this is a team that could surprise a lot of people.
They added Victor Martinez. But Miguel Cabrera’s recent DUI is a problem. Verlander and Scherzer make for a dominant 1-2 punch and I am one of few who expect Rick Porcello to return to 2009 form, if not better.
This pick depends greatly on Miguel Cabrera's legal status, but if he can stay out of bars and out of court, he might creep up on Albert Pujols as the scariest hitter in the big leagues. .300, 40 and 130 is a reasonable line for a healthy Miggy this season. Also keep an eye on for Joel Zumaya. If he ever could stay healthy, the guy has an absolutely electric arm.
Tampa Bay Rays- You brought in an old outfielder and an old DH. Ask a Rays fan for his projections for Hellickson and Jennings this season and enjoy the laughs. I'm not buying. They will be fortunate to hang onto third in the AL East ahead of Baltimore.
They have a top-10 rotation, and mix experience with youth very well. They have players in key positions to explode this season. If Heyward begins to grow into his potential, the offense could score enough to support the pitching staff.
Much will depend on Venters and Kimbrel, the young back end of the bullpen. If those guys can hold onto the leads they will often be handed by Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens, then this team could win 95 games and the NL East crown.
This team might be young enough to not know they aren’t supposed to win playoff games. Teams built like this tend to get hot and stay hot because they believe in themselves more than anyone else.
Chris Coghlan, Logan Morrison, Mike Stanton and Gaby Sanchez could take a big step forward. And Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad and Anibal Sanchez could combine for a ton of wins. I know I used the word "could" twice there. This is totally a boom or bust scenario.
A lot of things would have to break right for them to make the playoffs, but there is the combined talent and potential upside to do it.
People don’t appreciate what Shaun Marcum adds to the rotation.
We know about Greinke, but Gallardo, Greinke and Marcum makes for a frightening 1-2-3 and the offense, if they can keep Prince in town all season, is thunderous, with 100+ HR coming from Fielder, Braun and Weeks combined, let along McGehee and the speed of Carlos Gomez in center field.
This team would not be a surprising NL Central champion, and they have the one MUST for a successful playoff team, three good starting pitchers.
I’ve written before about the rotation’s depth. Five sub-4 ERA and four sub-1.3 WHIP means they have a chance to win every single day. With Furcal leading off for the likes of Kemp, Ehtier, and Loney, they have the bats to support the pitching.
They will need Jansen, Kuo and Broxton to be reliable in the 7-8-9. This offense is likely to have its ups and downs, which means a ton of close games, and that bullpen is capable of winning them more often than not. The NL West isn't going to be very strong. A Dodgers team that sneaks into the playoffs with the division crown could shock some people with their playoff trio of Kershaw, Billingsley and Lilly.
Carlos Gonzalez won’t hit .336 again. But he is still the catalyst for a lineup including budding stars Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart and elite shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
The pitching could be awesome with Jimenez and Chacin at the top, although there seem to be a ton of doubters on Jimenez. This is another team that could be helped by their youth, providing energy late in the season when the NL West is still up for grabs.
St Louis Cardinals- I see the Pujols situation hanging like a rain cloud over the entire season, although Albert has been a perfect professional about it. I could see Chris Carpenter dealt by the All-Star Break, with the team more committed to keeping #5 than winning this season.