2011 AL East Preview: 10 Bold Predictions for the Toughest Division in Baseball

Shaun McPartlinCorrespondent IIIFebruary 22, 2011

2011 AL East Preview: 10 Bold Predictions for the Toughest Division in Baseball

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    The beauty of sports is the unknown. No matter what the spreads are or who has the better roster on paper, there is still that element of chance that keeps fans on the edge of their seats. 

    Some players break out while others stumble, teams fall short of their expectations while others come out of nowhere. Trying to predict what will happen in 2011 is a crapshoot, but making a call and seeing it come to fruition is a thing of beauty. 

    The 2011 MLB season is fast approaching and it is time to make some gut calls and bold predictions surrounding the AL East.

10. Baltimore Orioles Make a Playoff Push

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    Is this finally the year that the Orioles make their way out of the AL East cellar? 

    After retooling the team with some offseason moves, the Orioles will get over the hump and burst onto the playoff scene in 2011. When Buck Showalter took over the team on August 3 of last season, the Orioles went on to finish with a 31-23 record. Pretty impressive since they were a mere 35-73 before he stepped in. Nothing in the lineup changed, but Showalter brought a new attitude and an appetite for winning.

    Now with Vlad Guerrero and Mark Reynolds making their debut, the O's seem to be ready for a breakout. Up and coming stud Brian Matusz pitched fantastically during the latter half of the season, winning his last five decisions and never allowing more than three runs.

    With young studs like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Matusz being guided by the likes of Brian Roberts, Guerrero and Showalter, this O's squad is ready to make a push for the playoffs.

9. Jose Bautista Reverts to His Old Ways

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    Jose Bautista slugged 54 home runs in 2010. That was 20 less than his career total up to that point. Looks like an outlier to me.

    Bautista is a great hitter and since correcting his swing in the 2009 offseason to get more lift on the ball, he's made pitchers pay. In 2011, Bautista will not have even close to the same success. 

    Pitchers and coaches will be able to better prepare for him, since his power is no longer a secret. They know his weaknesses and how to get him out. 

    I am predicting 20 home runs for Bautista and that is on the high side. His power surge was a complete fluke and after signing an extension with the Jays, his incentive to duplicate his stats is thrown out the window.

8. Red Sox Fail to Make the Playoffs

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    On paper, this team looks unbeatable. With Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia, it seems as if they are in the fast lane toward a World Series victory. Red Sox fans are already preparing for their parade.

    Not so fast.

    What I have learned from watching baseball is chemistry and cohesiveness are just as valuable as a star-studded lineup. This club lacks that "team" feel. 

    With new players joining the team, and the pressure that is mounting from signing monster contracts, this Red Sox bunch will come short of the playoffs. 

    Over the course of a long season, being a close-knit family and not just a team will help to propel you over the bumps and bruises that you are sure to encounter. With so many new faces and larger than life egos, the Sox will have have to wait another year to hoist a World Series trophy over their heads.

7. Jeremy Hellickson Wins the AL ROY

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    Jeremy Hellickson might have a baby face, but he has the skills of a grizzled veteran. In four starts with the Rays in 2010, Hellickson went 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA and a 33:8 K/BB ratio. He also held hitters to a .232 BA.

    With Matt Garza now clad in a Cubbies uniform, Hellickson already has earned a spot in the Rays starting rotation. He proved he was ready last year and will make a case for ROY honors.

    He excelled in Triple-A by posting an 18-4 record over the course of two seasons. Let's not forget his 2.47 ERA as well.

    He is a smart pitcher who has drawn comparisons to the great David Cone. Like Cone, Hellickson will not overpower you, but can locate his fastball and work in masterful off-speed pitches.

    The Rays knew they have something special in Hellickson, making the Garza trade an easy decision. He will shine in 2011.

6. A.J. Burnett Returns to Dominance

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    Burnett had a horrific second year in pinstripes. He finished with a 10-15 record and a 5.26 ERA. He lost all of his confidence and became a complete head-case. 

    With the worst behind him, Burnett is poised for a return to his dominant self. He has a fantastic fastball with incredible movement coupled by a curve that falls off the table. It just seemed that his pitches would move laterally, directly into a hitters wheelhouse in 2010. New pitching coach Larry Rothschild will be looking to work out the kinks this spring.

    When on, Burnett is one of the deadliest pitchers in the majors. We are not looking at a 20-game winner here by any means, but a mid-threes ERA with a high K/9 is a reality. Look for Burnett to be on his game when his name is called in 2011.

5. Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury Combine for 120 Steals

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    Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford will be looking to burn up the basepaths in 2011. Having two of the fastest men that the MLB has to offer on the same roster is a scary situation.

    Ellsbury might have missed nearly all of 2010, but he will be looking to leave his mark this season. Both he and Crawford have 60+ steal potential and I can see them both finishing near that total in 2011.

    The combination of these speed demons will strike fear into the hearts of pitchers and catchers alike. 

4. The Blue Jays Top Three Starters are the Best in the East

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    Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek will establish themselves as the best 1-2-3 punch in the AL East.

    Romero, at 26 years old, had a fantastic 2010 campaign finishing with a 3.73 ERA and a 14-9 record. He became the dominant lefty that Alex Anthopoulos knew he would be. He has nasty off-speed pitches that help to pile up the K's that make him the ace of the staff.

    Brandon Morrow was shut down toward the end of the season which gives us the sign that the Jays know that he is something special. His 4.49 ERA is less than desirable, but his upside is off the charts. This flamethrower can mow down hitters with the best of them. His one-hit, 17 K performance against the Rays is enough to drive that point home. Just like Romero, Morrow is only 26 years old and is finding his stride at the right time.

    Kyle Drabek is ready to burst onto the big league scene. After being looked at as an untouchable prospect in the Phillies' farm system, he became the centerpiece for the Jays in the Roy Halladay deal. It is time for this move to pay dividends. His 22-11 record in Double-A over the last two seasons has given him a shot to break the Opening Day roster. He will do more than just make the rotation, but will establish himself as force to be reckoned with on the rubber.

3. Mark Teixeira Nixes His Annual April Slump

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    Mark Teixeira is notorious for starting off the season with a dud. Over the past three season, he has hit a dreadful .215 over the course of April. Last season, he seemed to never really get out this funk and finished with a career low .256 BA.

    With extra work this offseason along with finally being healed from foot and hand injuries, Tex is looking to come out of the gates on fire and rid himself of this trend. He will be looking to get back to his MVP-caliber play as soon as Opening Day comes around. 

    I am predicting a near .300 BA with 35 home runs.

2. Clay Buchholz Wins the AL Cy Young

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    Clay Buchholz had a phenomenal 2010, finishing a 17-7 record and a 2.33 ERA. With big names crowding the Red Sox rotation, Buchholz sometimes falls to the wayside. Not in 2011. 

    Buchholz is a dark horse to take home the Cy Young honors this season and he has the skill set to do so. A 20-win season is a reality and if he can keep his ERA at the minuscule number it was this past year, you might as well send the award to his front door step now.

    Jon Lester might be the early favorite from this Sox staff to take home the award, but when it is time to name the winner, Buchholz will hear his name called.

1. Derek Jeter Has an MVP-Type Season

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    After hitting .270 in 2010, many have written off Jeter saying he is on the wrong side of 30 and is an old man playing a young man's position. I can't disagree with the first argument, but he will head into 2011 with a chip on his shoulder.

    He has the ability to hit well over .300—he did just that in 2009 posting a .334 BA—and there is nothing to say he can't do that again.

    With the elimination of the stride in his swing, he will be able to once again feast on inside pitches and utilize his inside-out swing to drive the ball to right field. 

    Another 200-hit season is within grasp for the 36-year-old Yankee captain and a .300 BA is plausible as well. Despite all of the criticism, Jeter is poised for a run at bringing home MVP honors.