Now that all of the free-agent signings and major trades have gone down and teams have started cutting down their rosters to resemble those that will take the field on Opening Day, all we can do is look forward. Which major free-agent acquisitions will lead their teams to the promised land, and which ones will fall flat on their faces?
As teams work out in spring training, they paint an interesting picture. In the Cactus League, the San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Royals lead the way, but will any of those teams remain when the field is narrowed to eight in October? Down in Florida, the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers and Washington Nationals lead the way, but how many will be bound for postseason glory?
The following power rankings should give us a good idea of each teams' chances, as I'll list the best teams in baseball, in order. In order to understand the ranking, it's important to understand how each team was evaluated. The first thing I considered was the strength of each team "on paper." Looking at their lineups, benches, rotations and bullpens, which team has the best chance to win the World Series?
There are also a number of variables that must be taken into consideration as well. For example, injuries could play a part. Where will the Cardinals land without the pitching of Adam Wainwright? I'll also take a look at a few minor details, like divisional strength and personnel changes.
So with that in mind, let's get to ranking!
New Pirates' skipper Clint Hurdle talks things over with Ross Ohlendorf, Pedro Alvarez looming in the background.
It seems like the Pittsburgh Pirates end up at the bottom of these rankings every single time. After close to two decades of cellar dwelling, you wonder why the Pirates haven't shown any sort of improvement. For the longest span of time, the team struggled in the draft and wasted money on stop-gap free agents—a Major League Baseball recipe for disaster. Though they've improved in that regard in recent years, the Buccos' still have quite a way to go before they are legitimate contenders.
On the bright side, talented, exciting players are finally making their way into the black and gold in Pittsburgh. Top prospects like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez could make the Pirates an interesting offensive threat in the near future, but for now, they lack the overall talent to compete with some of the NL Central's top competitors.
When your rotation is anchored by James McDonald, you know you have problems. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer, McDonald showed signs of his potential last season, but with little depth behind him and not much outside of Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek in the bullpen, the Pirates' pitching staff is in trouble—at least until top talents in the mold of Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie appear.
Though fielding a Major League Baseball team is not a simple task, many believe that by adding free agents like Lyle Overbay and acquiring players like Chris Snyder, the Pirates have taken a step in the wrong direction. The real saviors are a few years away, but could put the Buccos' back on the map.
I went back and forth between the Pirates and Kansas City Royals for a few minutes before selecting the Royals ahead of the Pirates—and it was very, very close. On paper this season, the Royals have the look of a minor league squad. The first two franchises on this list have been very similar for quite some time, so it isn't strange to see many parallels between the two. However, Dayton Moore and the Royals' front office have been leaps-and-bounds better than the Pirates' front office, and that puts them ahead.
When Opening Day rolls around, the Royals likely won't have many offensive threats. Outside of designated hitter Billy Butler, whose contract was recently extended, the Kansas City club will be relying on a number of un-guaranteed options to deliver a bit of offensive firepower, including first baseman Kila Ka'aihue, third baseman Alex Gordon and right fielder Jeff Francouer, while their younger talents develop.
Perhaps the scariest part of the roster is the Royals' pitching staff. Outside of Jeff Francis, who is looking to rebuild some value before hitting free agency again next fall, the Royals have very few appealing options in both their rotation and bullpen. The rotation will be anchored by former top selection Luke Hochevar and filled with names like Bruce Chen, Vin Mazzaro, Sean O'Sullivan and Kyle Davies. In the bullpen, only All-Star closer Joakim Soria's name pops off of the list.
All hope is not lost, however. Though it will probably be too late to salvage their season, the Royals could be introducing a number of top prospects to their roster later in the season, including slugging corner infielders Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and top pitching prospect Mike Montgomery. That alone puts them above the Pirates.
The main difference between the Royals and Cleveland Indians is the time line on which their seasons will progress. While the Royals will begin the season with a weak roster that could gradually gain strength, the Indians will begin the season with a slightly stronger roster and no immediate help on the way. That will likely allow them to battle it out for the AL Central cellar with the Royals, but come out just slightly better.
The Tribe have a few offensive options that are flying under the radar this spring, and that may or may not be good for the team. Former All-Star Grady Sizemore is expected to be healthy for most of the season, even if he is not ready to go by Opening Day, and that in and of itself is good news for the Indians. Along with a healthy Travis Hafner, the Indians could have their eye on two productive first halves and nice hauls come the trade deadline.
Unlike the first two teams ranked, the Tribe will have some interesting arms both in their rotation and in the bullpen. The subject of trade speculation over the past few seasons, Fausto Carmona, will anchor a young rotation, followed by promising talents like Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco. In the bullpen, Chris Perez emerged as a legitimate closer last season, and looks to build on that success in 2011.
The main story-line for the 2011 Indians will be whether or not some of the top talent they've acquired through their fire sale over the last few seasons can contribute. Names like Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Lou Marson, Carlos Carrasco and Jason Donald will all have to contribute to some extent this year.
The Arizona Diamondbacks play in a tough division with very talented pitching, and if you don't have the type of offense that can put up some runs on a consistent basis, you aren't going to fare well in the NL West. New general manager Kevin Towers spent a lot of time revamping his bullpen this offseason, but you wonder whether or not he left the offensive side of the ball high and dry.
Don't get me wrong—the D'backs have some very talented players on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Young shortstop Stephen Drew has been targeted by several teams looking to add some offense at that position, and they have one of the most promising young outfielders in the game in Justin Upton. Outside of those two, the offense is not all too threatening, however.
Center fielder Chris Young had a down season last year, and it may be too early to project the young outfielder. After trading third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Baltimore Orioles, they added replacement offense in Xavier Nady, Juan Miranda and Russell Branyan, which probably won't be enough to excel in this division.
After many years of having one of the best one-two punches in baseball lead their rotation, the Snakes' have lost Brandon Webb and Dan Haren and replaced them with a few interesting names. At this point in time, Joe Saunders will anchor their rotation, but that could change with the emergence of Dan Hudson, who was acquired in a deal with the Chicago White Sox.
In the bullpen, which Towers has spent much of his time re-tooling, there are a few interesting names to watch. While JJ Putz takes over the role of closer, the D'backs will have more than a few young arms trying to pitch their way to success—much like the bullpen Towers created when he was the general manager of the San Diego Padres.
From a personal standpoint, I am a huge fan of what the Baltimore Orioles have done in the offseason, revamping their offense, defense and parts of their bullpen. In that regard, it is almost disappointing to see them this far down in the ranking. On paper, they are a team that may be able to put up a good fight in another division, maybe earning a Wild Card berth. However, they just aren't ready to be contenders in the AL East, and that moves them way down the list.
General manager Andy McPhail did an excellent job of adding players that fit his and manager Buck Showalter's system this offseason without sacrificing much of the team's future. Through trades and free-agent signings, McPhail completely re-tooled the O's infield, adding a veteran first baseman in Derrek Lee and two affordable infielders in Mark Reynolds and JJ Hardy—each of whom could have a huge impact on both sides of the ball.
In the bullpen, the Orioles have three relievers that have closed games in the past. Along with free-agent signee Kevin Gregg, the O's will boast a bullpen that features former Atlanta Braves' closer Mike Gonzalez and vastly underrated Japanese-import Koji Uehara.
The biggest hole on the roster is probably the starting rotation as a whole. In a division that features lineups that can completely mash, the O's are looking quite weak. Jeremy Guthrie will be the staff ace, and following him will be Justin Duchscherer, looking to rebuild some value after two injury-plagued seasons, and youngsters Brian Matusz, Jake Arrietta and either Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman.
Truth be told, I'm not as down on the Seattle Mariners as some folks around baseball are. When everything is said in done, two things remain clear—they have one of the best pitchers in baseball and play in one of the most pitching-friendly ballparks in baseball. If they can play defense and find a way to generate some offense, it isn't out of the question to see the Mariners contend in the AL West.
The M's made a couple of under-the-radar moves this offseason, picking up a few interesting role players. On the defensive side of the ball, they upgraded even further up the middle by adding a Gold Glove-caliber defender in former St. Louis Cardinal, Brendan Ryan. While he won't add much offensively, he will team up with shortstop Jack Wilson to create one of the better double-play combinations in the game.
We know that Ichiro is going to be Ichiro, but if the Mariners want to put up some offensive numbers, they'll need some of their younger guys to compete. Acquired in the Cliff Lee trade last season, Justin Smoak was relatively disappointing in his first go-around with the team. They'll need him to show some pop and make better contact. Along with Smoak, guys like Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders, Chone Figgins and Jack Cust will need to put some runs on the board.
From a pitching standpoint, the M's don't appear to be all that deep. After Felix Hernandez, who do they have? One guy to keep an eye on is top pitching prospect, Michael Pineda, who could break spring training with the major league club. They'll also look to a couple of under the radar guys like Doug Fister and Erik Bedard to pitch well.
They'll probably have their biggest problems finishing games. David Aardsma, the team's closer, will open the season on the disabled list after having offseason hip surgery. While they have a few former closers in camp, like Chris Ray, the M's will give guys like Brandon League a look as they decide who'll be finishing games when the regular season rolls around.
It seems like ever since the New York Mets moved into their new ballpark, Citi Field, their club has taken a turn for the worst. Not only are they stuck in the middle of a terrible financial situation, but their on-the-field product has taken a hit in the last couple of seasons. That said, however, the Mets are still a team that could make some noise in the NL East.
When the Mets had signed Jason Bay a couple of offseasons ago, the move was not exactly welcomed with open arms around the game. Bay, who already had a history of knee injuries, was not expected to be able to cover the spacious left field, and he proved the critics right in 2010. Now away from the friendly Green Monster in Fenway Park, Bay's power suffered as well.
In some regards, that seems to be the story for the Mets' offense. With Bay, Carlos Beltran and others on the mend, can they stay healthy and be productive? They'll field an offense with many question marks. Can David Wright and Jose Reyes continue to be productive players? Who's on second? Luis Castillo? Can Angel Pagan repeat his 2010 season? One thing is certain—the Mets will need young players like Josh Thole and Ike Davis to have nice seasons if they want to compete.
With Johan Santana on the shelf to begin the season, the Mets' pitching staff isn't all too intimidating. One of the most underrated signings of the offseason, Chris Young could return to form and be very effective at home in that ballpark, but at the same time, he'll also have to stay healthy. RA Dickey will need to recapture his 2010 success, and Jon Niese and Mike Pelfrey will have to be consistent as well.
The Houston Astros are another team that could surprise a few people when the regular season rolls around. Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, who were added via free agency and a trade this winter, respectively, should shore up the middle infield, and young corner infielders like Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson could benefit from their second seasons in the major leagues.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Astros have the weapons to put some big numbers together. They'll feature one of the best outfields in baseball, anchored by Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence, and have players around the diamond that can hit for average and power.
The Astros will also feature a surprisingly deep pitching rotation. Anchored by veterans Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, the 'Stros will also be relying on a number of younger arms, including JA Happ, Budd Norris and journeyman starter/reliever Nelson Figueroa. The bullpen is their weakest area, and they'll be relying on Brandon Lyon to stay healthy and convert saves.
Had Stephen Strasburg not had Tommy John Surgery last season, we could be talking about a completely different Washington Nationals team right now. While the story of the offseason has been the outlandish contract that they rewarded outfielder Jayson Werth, the Nationals already had a core of talented players in place and developing prospects on their way, both with the major and minor league clubs.
With Werth now in the fold, the Nats will feature a very strong middle of the order. Despite losing one of the game's top power threats in Adam Dunn, the Nationals managed to add an underrated first baseman in Adam LaRoche to complement their prized third baseman and face of the Nats franchise, Ryan Zimmerman. Along with that talented middle of the order, the Nationals are also relying on a couple of talented middle infielders in Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond, and expect a break-out type season from outfielder Mike Morse.
As for their pitching, things aren't as rosy. After learning of Strasburg's injury, the 2011 outlook became immediately darker. The staff will be anchored by veteran Livan Hernandez, and the rotation's greatest potential this season is in the form of Jordan Zimmerman, who missed significant time with injury last season. In the bullpen, the Nats will be expecting a repeat performance from Tyler Clippard, and will be keeping a close eye on the development of their closer of the future, Drew Storen.
Although the Chicago Cubs have been a bit of a train wreck over the last couple of seasons, heading into 2011 you get the feeling that they're being vastly overlooked. While some of their veterans have struggled to get going and contribute, the Cubbies have been steadily introducing young talent on to their major league roster, adding a couple of other wily veterans through both trades and free agency. Their division will be tough this season, but the Cubs could make some noise.
The Cubs have some big names in their lineup who can put together some runs if they can show a bit of consistency. Kosuke Fukudome will need to show some signs of life this year, and the Cubbies won't be able to tolerate sub-par years from the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Marlon Byrd if they want to compete. Geovany Soto, who has been one of the NL's better catchers in years past, will look to rebound and young, budding stars like Starlin Castro are looking to build up impressive rookie seasons.
One of two major moves this offseason by the Cubs, Carlos Pena will look to add a little thunder to the lineup this season, as he rebounds from a down, injury-plagued season. He signed a one-year deal with the Cubbies this off-season, giving him a little incentive to have one of his best years before he hits the free agent market with other elite first baseman in the mold of Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.
The starting staff will be anchored by one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball, Ryan Dempster. The Cubs' second big move this offseason brought one of the AL's toughest pitchers to the NL Central, when they struck a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, bringing Matt Garza to Chicago. If Carlos Zambrano and Carlos Silva can show their best stuff this season, the Cubs could have one of the better rotations in the NL.
The bullpen could be equally as tough, but a bit wild. Kerry Wood signed a very cheap one year deal to come back to Chicago, and he'll be the set-up man for young closer Carlos Marmol. These two could combine to form one of the better late-inning bullpens in baseball.
The Los Angeles Angels have had one of the more interesting offseasons, but not for the best of reasons. After a disappointing season where they finished in second place to the Texas Rangers, people around baseball expected the Angels to go out and acquire some of the biggest names on the free-agent market. Baseball scribes predicted that they would, in fact, go after all of the big names outside of Cliff Lee—Carl Crawford, Adrian Beltre and Rafael Soriano. Of course, they wound up with none.
That doesn't mean that the Halos wound up with nothing this winter, however. In another highly criticized move, they struck a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays to acquire outfielder Vernon Wells for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. Though they should have been able to acquire him at a discounted rate, Wells is an upgrade from Rivera in the lineup and in the outfield. He'll play left field and join speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos and former center fielder Torii Hunter in a very defensively capable outfield.
The biggest hole in the Angels' lineup will come from third base, where former top prospect Brandon Wood has yet to show signs of his potential. Kendrys Morales will return from injury, and that in and of itself should add a boost to their lineup.
The Halos' biggest strength is their starting rotation. Anchored by the 2010 strikeouts champ Jered Weaver, top talents like Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir will line up to throw behind him.
The Angels also made a move to bolster their bullpen this off-season when they signed free agent set-up man, Scott Downs, to a three-year contract. He'll join closer Fernando Rodney in the bullpen, along with another free agent acquisition in versatile left-hander Hisanori Takahashi.
So, the Tampa Bay Rays roster took quite a hit this winter. They lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls and Grant Balfour to free agency. They also traded away one of their best starters in Matt Garza. Reading that intro alone, you'd be hard pressed to believe that the Rays could be competitive this year as they re-tool for the future—but not so fast.
Looking at the Rays on paper, they have plenty of names on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball that could help them contend in a tough AL East. They have one of the best overall third baseman in baseball manning the hot corner in Evan Longoria. If they do want to contend, however, they'll need to find some consistency in their younger players.
After signing outfielder/second baseman Ben Zobrist to a contract extension, he had a down year. He'll start the season in right field, along with Matt Joyce, as former top Angels' prospect Sean Rodriguez handles second base. They'll need all three of those guys to contribute at some level. Though they'd like to see some offense out of shortstop Reid Brignac, they'll be happy if he continues to play good defense.
The real story is the free-agent package that they signed over the winter. While many believed that the Rays would be comfortable with fielding their younger talent, they proved them wrong by going out and signing both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. While both players are just shells of their former selves, both will add a little offense to the depleted Rays' lineup.
Even after trading Garza, the Rays will boast a very talented pitching staff heading into the 2011 season. Lead by one of the game's best young pitchers, David Price, the Rays will throw a starter with World Series experience in James Shields and three of baseball's better young pitchers in Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson.
The bullpen will be their biggest area of focus. After losing three very good relievers on the open market, the closer's job is up in the air. A few possible options are J.P. Howell, who is recovering from injury, Jake McGee, and hard throwing right hander Kyle Farnsworth.
A lot of people around baseball believe that, after trading All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to the Boston Red Sox, the San Diego Padres will have a tough time competing this season. Allow me to respectfully disagree. General manager Jed Hoyer has done an excellent job of building a club that fits into that spacious park in San Diego, and the Padres could turn a few heads this season.
After losing Gonzalez, people wondered how the Padres would generate offense. Completely revamping their infield is a start. Along with Chase Headley at third base, the Friars will feature a completely new double play combination after acquiring Jason Bartlett and signing Orlando Hudson. Replacing Gonzalez at first base is not going to be possible, but the trio of Brad Hawpe, Jorge Cantu and Kyle Blanks is an OK start.
In the outfield, the Padres hope that Ryan Ludwick will be able to supply most of the lineup's power, though he didn't show much pop in a half season with the Padres last year. He'll join Will Venable and former top prospect Cameron Maybin in the outfield, where the pitching staff should keep this defensive unit on it's toes.
Pitching was the Padres' strong suit last season, and they've made some under the radar moves that may have bolstered their starting rotation. The Friars signed former Cincinnati Red, and San Diego native, Aarong Harang to a major league deal. Harang, who gets most of his outs via the fly ball, should be able to pitch very well at home this season. He'll join a couple of young arms in Mat Latos, Clayton Richard and Tim Stauffer, as well as a couple of fifth starter hopefuls in Dustin Mosely, Corey Luebke and Wade LeBlanc.
In the bullpen, the Padres will feature one of the best closers in baseball—Heath Bell, as well as a very good set-up man in Luke Gregerson. They'll look to fill out the rest of the bullpen this spring, much like they have done in seasons past.
I like the Oakland Athletics a lot, however, they're in the same boat as the Seattle Mariners. They play in a very big ballpark and I'm just not sure that, even with the improvements they've made to their offense, they can generate enough run support for one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball. That said, the only place they can go from this spot on the ranking is up.
Three of those additions I was talking about are Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Hideki Matsui. The best of the group is Willingham, who was injured for a good portion of last season. While DeJesus and Matsui are both very good offensive players, the A's will be relying on DeJesus to put the ball in play like he usually does, and expect Willingham and Matsui to provide some power, which may be tough in that ballpark. Along with promising first baseman Daric Barton, the A's could put up some numbers.
The real strength of this team is the pitching, however. One through five, the A's have a very deep starting rotation. While none of their starters are elite pitchers—yet, Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarthy all have very good stuff.
To bolster their staff even further, the A's also added to an already strong bullpen. Anchored by former AL Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes provide veteran leadership to a young bullpen that could shut a game down. Look for the A's to be a pleasant surprise this season.
One thing I've learned over the last couple of seasons is to never count the Colorado Rockies out. Playing in one of the better home parks in all of baseball, they should be able to generate a ton of runs and as long as their talented pitching staff holds up its end of the bargain, the Rockies should be in the playoff hunt once again this season.
The Rockies made some noise this winter when they extended a couple of their core players, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. Both guys are rare talents that the Rockies never want to see dressed in another uniform, and for good reason. They'll anchor a strong lineup that also features talented corner infielders Ian Stewart and Todd Helton, who will need to stay healthy, and one of the game's better offensive catchers, Chris Iannetta.
The Rockies will need to get some production out of a few interesting names this season if they really want to contend. Dexter Fowler and Ryan Spilborghs will round out the outfield and newly acquired second baseman Jose Lopez could provide some pop in Coors' Field.
The pitching staff is the biggest question mark. Outside of the front three men of the rotation, which is shaping up to be Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin, the rotation could be in some trouble. Some of the most popular names to round out the rotation are Aaron Cook, Jason Hammel, Felipe Paulino and Esmil Rodgers.
The bullpen should be a bit more consistent. If Houston Street can stay healthy, he should continue to be one of the better closers in baseball. Setting him up will be Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt, and former Houston Astro, Matt Lindstrom.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have all of the tools to be a good team this season. The one roadblock standing between new skipper Don Mattingly and his team's success will be inconsistency, which has plagued the Dodgers over the last couple of seasons.
A major part of that inconsistency last season was center fielder Matt Kemp. After a breakout season the prior year, Kemp slumped through the entire 2010 season. The Dodgers expect him to have a much better season in 2011, and I think baseball as a whole does as well. He'll join Andre Eithier and a platoon of Marcus Thames and John Gibbons in what could be one of the better outfields in baseball.
On the infield, the Dodgers seem to have downgraded at the catcher's spot by playing hardball with Russell Martin. Instead, they'll go with Rod Barajas to form half of their battery. Adding Juan Uribe should add a little pop to the lineup, as he joins James Loney, Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake.
The greatest strength of this Dodgers' staff is a very deep starting rotation. Lead by young ace Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers have six very capable starting pitchers, though Vicente Padilla will be sidelined for some time after having arm surgery. Following Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly and Jon Garland will round out the rotation.
The bullpen is another potential strength. Entering the season, Jonathan Broxton will be the closer, and if he returns to the Broxton of old, could be one of the better closers in baseball. That would allow Hong-Chih Kuo to return to his more comfortable role of set-up man. The Dodgers also added former Minnesota Twin Matt Guerrier this winter, providing some depth.
Though they finished in fourth place in the AL East last season, the Toronto Blue Jays wound up as one of the most surprising teams in baseball after displaying good, young pitching and putting on an offensive show. Though they'll be working under a new manager in former Red Sox's coach John Farrell, the Jays have the talent to make some noise this season.
Though they'll field a team very similar to the one that put up huge offensive numbers in 2010, Vernon Wells and John Buck will suit up in different uniforms.The extent to which they'll be missed is still unknown, however. Top catching prospect JP Arencibia is ready to step in at the Major League level and Juan Rivera, who was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels, could add some pop to the lineup.
Other than that, the Blue Jays expect to be even better than last season. They have one of the most talented infields in baseball, anchored by home run champ Jose Bautista at third base. Joining him will be Yunel Escobar, Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. In the outfield, the Jays will field Travis Snider and Rajai Davis, along with Rivera, and the defense out there could become a little sloppy.
It's the young pitching staff that most people are looking forward to, however. They'll be lead by developing ace Ricky Romero, followed by the promising arms of Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Kyle Drabek and Jesse Litsch.
In the bullpen, the Jays will feature a number of veteran arms, including new closer Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Jason Frasor.
The Florida Marlins are easily one of the most underrated teams in baseball, and to be honest with you, I'm not sure why.
On the offensive side of the ball, though they lost Dan Uggla, they have some of the best power hitters in the National League. They added John Buck via free agency, and have several other players with, at the very least, 20-home run potential, including Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, Hanley Ramirez, Gaby Sanchez, and possibly, rookie third baseman Matt Dominguez.
By my count, that's six potential power threats in the Marlins' lineup. Scary. They'll also feature a couple of threats at the top of the lineup, including new second baseman Omar Infante and center fielder Chris Coghlan.
They also have an incredibly deep starting rotation. Lead by Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson, the Marlins' will throw several tough starters at the opposition, including Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, Javier Vazquez and Chris Volstad.
The bullpen, which was their greatest weakness last season, is also improved. Joining closer Leo Nunez will be a number of new faces, including Ryan Webb, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate and Mike Dunn. They have a young bullpen that could throw up some impressive numbers.
After Miguel Cabrera has dominated the headlines out of camp for most of the spring, the Detroit Tigers hope that it's their winning ways that get them there during the regular season. On paper, they have the team to do it. Though they play in a surprisingly tough division, the Tigers have the personnel that, with a few good breaks, could push them out on top.
If each player can show some consistency this season, the Tigers can field an offensive powerhouse. Along with triple-crown candidate Cabrera, the Tigers will benefit from the return of outfielder Magglio Ordonez and newly-signed designated hitter Victor Martinez. While they're still figuring out their middle infield combination, with Carlos Guillen the most likely player to start at second base, Johnny Peralta is continuing his transition back to shortstop. Joining Ordonez in the outfield are a couple of young talents in Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch.
After trading the almost perfect Armando Galarraga prior to spring training, the Tigers will feature a strong, young rotation. Anchored by ace Justin Verlander, the Tigers hope that Brad Penny will be able to rebound from injury without a hitch, and join young hurlers Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello and Phil Coke.
In relief, there aren't many bullpens that throw harder than the Tigers'. Jose Valverde will return as the closer, and Detroit hopes that fire-balling reliever Joel Zumaya can manage to stay healthy throughout the season. Those two will be joined by new set-up man Joaquin Benoit, as well as Ryan Perry and Daniel Schlereth.
The St. Louis Cardinals have had one of the toughest springs to date. First, they dealt with the whole Albert Pujols signing, and after weeks of negotiations, learned that their star first baseman would become a free agent at season's end. Once spring began, they got an even tougher pill to swallow, as ace Adam Wainwright was shut down for the season after learning he'll need Tommy John surgery.
All is not lost for the Cards, however, as they will still field one of baseball's better teams. Despite becoming a free agent in just a few months, Pujols will still suit up for the Cardinals this season and join fellow sluggers Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman in the Cards' lineup.
Young third baseman David Freese will also return to the lineup and, after trade winds blew his name around for months, Colby Rasmus will field center in St. Louis.
Even after losing Wainwright, the Cardinals have one of baseball's better starting rotations. If he can stay healthy, Chris Carpenter is an ace among aces. He'll be joined by an emerging star in Jaime Garcia, as well as veteran starters Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse. The likely fifth starter, at this point in camp, will be former reliever Kyle McClellan.
The bullpen will be the Cardinals' biggest area of concern. The closer will be veteran reliever Ryan Franklin, but outside of that, there aren't many familiar names. The Cards' hope to see some positive strides from future closer Jason Motte, as well as a good year from veteran reliever Trevor Miller.
After missing the playoffs last season, you kind of got the feeling that the Chicago White Sox wanted to do something big in the offseason. After several attempts to acquire the Milwaukee Brewers' Prince Fielder last season, the White Sox held on to their prospects and instead signed free agent slugger Adam Dunn to be their designated hitter.
Dunn will join a suddenly thunderous lineup. Around the diamond, the White Sox will feature several players with above average power, including Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios and Paul Konerko. They have one of the most diverse lineups in the game, though. Juan Pierre, Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez can all hurt you in different ways. The true question mark in the lineup is at third base, where rookie Brent Morel is currently slated to start.
Their pitching staff, on the other hand, has very few flaws. The White Sox will throw one of the game's deepest rotations, lead by long-time ace Mark Buehrle. As Jake Peavy continues to recover from injury, he'll join Buerhle in that "ace" class, and Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Edwin Jackson round out that squad.
In the bullpen, the White Sox are another hard throwing club. Matt Thornton will take over the role of closer, and joining him in the bullpen will be rookie sensation Chris Sale. A couple of free agent pick-ups in Will Ohman and Jesse Crain should give the Sox great late inning options.
The Milwaukee Brewers had one of baseball's most productive off-seasons over the winter, and not just because of some of the household names they acquired. With the moves they've made they should be able to leap over the Cardinals and challenge the Cincinnati Reds for their division title.
The offense will feature some of the big names that have lit up National League pitching over the last couple of seasons. Entering a contract year, many people around baseball expect an exceptional year out of big first baseman Prince Fielder. That doesn't mean that he's the only hitter in the lineup. He'll join Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart in a tremendous offensive force.
The area of the ball club that was sorely lacking last season was the starting pitching, and they've upgraded by leaps and bounds. Though it wasn't surprising to see him moved, Zack Greinke winding up in Milwuakee was a bit of a surprise. With a legitimate ace in the fold, the Brewers also went out and got Shaun Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays to join Yovanni Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson in the rotation.
After John Axford broke on to the scene last season, the Brewers wanted to go out and get a set-up man, and they got one of the best in the game in former Atlanta Brave Takashi Saito. He'll join LaTroy Hawkins, Zach Braddock and Kameron Loe, in what could be a very surprisingly good bullpen.
Some people may be surprised to see the Minnesota Twins, who finished with one of the best records in the American League last season, at eighth on this ranking. In large part, that has to do with the strength of some of the other teams on the list, and the fact that I am skeptical of their pitching staff, which I'll explain below.
Offensively, the Twins should be getting an internal boost when first baseman Justin Morneau returns to the field after missing most of last season with concussion symptoms. He'll join the rest of a "good hands" infield that features young players like Joe Mauer, Danny Valencia, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexei Casilla. A productive outfield of Delmon Young, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer will return for the 2011 season. One of the better designated hitter platoons of Jason Kubel and Jim Thome will also appear in the lineup.
It's their pitching staff that worries baseball scribes like myself. Francisco Liriano is one of the game's better young pitchers, so there isn't much to worry about there. However, it is the overvaluing of Carl Pavano, who doesn't show top of the rotation statistics, and a mediocre supporting cast of Scott Baker, Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn.
The bullpen also took a major hit as several key pieces of a successful bullpen from 2010 left Minnesota via the free agent market. Joe Nathan, who has looked good this spring, will return from injury, which should give the Twins a boost, and Matt Capps was good after the Twins acquired him from the Washington Nationals last season. But outside of those two guys, the Twins have some sorting out to do.
Though they've been overshadowed by the offseason of another NL East counter-part, the Atlanta Braves have the veteran presence and young talent to make a ton of noise in their division, and flying under the radar shouldn't bother them any.
On offense, staying healthy will be a key for the Braves if they want to keep pace with teams like the Phillies and Marlins. Along with one of the best offensive catchers in baseball in Brian McCann, the Braves' will feature a few notable sluggers in Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones.
Martin Prado, who made the NL All-Star team as a second baseman, will transition to left field, joining Heyward and Nate McClouth in Atlanta's outfield. One name to keep an eye on as spring training and the regular season progress is rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman, who will step in for Derrek Lee.
The Braves also have a deep pitching staff that will need to stay healthy to be successful, though they have major-league caliber arms ready to step in should an injury pop up. The staff will be lead by a couple of wily veterans in Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, as well as a rising star in Tommy Hanson. Rounding out the rotation will be Jair Jurrjens and promising rookie Mike Minor.
In the bullpen, the only real question mark is to what effect the Braves' youth will have on it's performance. Though they are loaded with replacement level veterans, new closer and Rookie of the Year contender Craig Kimbrel will set off on his maiden voyage as the bullpen's anchor, accompanied by first mate and fellow young gun, Jonny Venters.
For some reason over the course of the off-season, I've heard several people say that the Cincinnati Reds were "lucky" last season. The only reason that they won their division and appeared in the postseason was because the Cardinals struggled with injuries late in the season. I couldn't disagree more. The Reds are a good team built to stick around for a long while.
Joey Votto is the type of offensive player that pushed a team up the list on his own, along with the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton. A year after winning the NL MVP Award, Votto will have his work cut out for him as he aims to recapture his title and he's up for the challenge. Aiding him in his pursuit will be a number of promising young players and wily veterans. Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce are budding stars, and players like Scott Rolen, Brandon Phillips, Ramon Hernandez and Brandon Phillips know how to win.
From a pitching standpoint, the Reds are incredibly deep. Over the offseason, I silently pushed for them to acquire a pitcher like Zack Greinke, who's presence as one of those "elite" pitchers would have given them one of the top rotations in baseball. Though Greinke wound up with a rival, the Reds still have a great staff. Over the last few seasons, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez have been a stable in Dusty Baker's rotation. Joining them will be two of three young arms—Homer Baily, Travis Wood and Mike Leake.
The Reds also have a formidable bullpen, thanks in large part to the presence of two late inning relievers. While Francisco Cordero will start the season as the team's closer, it would surprise no one to see phenom Aroldis Chapman take over those duties sometime during the year. The Reds could also benefit from good years by Billy Bray, Nick Masset and Jose Arredondo, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
When the defending AL champions are only ranked fifth, you know that we're in for an interesting season. One of the biggest curveballs in ranking the Texas Rangers is the placement of Neftali Feliz. Obviously, wherever he goes gets a nice boost. If he's the closer, the Rangers could have a dominant bullpen in the late innings. If he's a starter, they'll be maximizing his value. For now, I'll take a look at both scenarios, though early reports indicate that Feliz will be a member of the starting rotation come Opening Day.
One thing is certain, however—the Rangers are going to score runs, and lots of them. Headlined by AL MVP Josh Hamilton, the Texas squad has one of the most prolific offenses in baseball. He'll be surrounded in the lineup by names like Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli, Ian Kinsler, Mitch Moreland and Michael Young. The offense seems to be perfectly fine.
The pitching staff has a few questions, however. After losing out on prized free-agent starter Cliff Lee, the Rangers went after another former Cy Young and signed Brandon Webb, who is rehabbing from injury. If he can return to anything close to form, the Rangers should have themselves quite a consolation prize. The rotation doesn't need many "what ifs," however.
Even with Feliz in the rotation, the Rangers will be relying heavily on repeat performances from former reliever CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis. Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman and Derek Holland will battle it out for the fifth spot.
Obviously, if the whole rotation thing falls apart, Feliz will be the closer for the Rangers. That doesn't seem likely. Early indications out of Rangers' camp suggest that Mark Lowe, who was acquired in the Cliff Lee deal last season, could become the team's closer when healthy. Other options include Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver. Needless to say, the bullpen isn't the Rangers' strongest suit.
Before I even started this ranking, I knew that there would be some people out there who live by a more traditional rule of thumb—if you win the World Series the prior year, you're the best team in baseball. That said, I'm not much of a traditional kind of guy. Many things have happened since the World Series ended. Rosters have changed. Players have improved. While the Giants aren't the best team in baseball, they are one of the best, and you can't take that away from them.
Heading into last season, the biggest concern facing the Giants was the state of their offense. Minus some timely hitting late in the season, their offense was an area that could be improved upon. Calling up Buster Posey early in the season provided a boost, and while the team could do the same with Brandon Belt, there's just nowhere to put him right now. The Giant's do have depth, though.
With Mark DeRosa set to return from injury, Pat Burrell will be relegated to pinch hitting duties. The team replaced Juan Uribe with Miguel Tejada, and range is a definite concern on that side of the diamond. They should be able to score enough runs to support their pitching.
Speaking of pitching, there aren't many better rotations in baseball. Anchored by two-time Cy Young-winner Tim Lincecum, the Giants will try to pitch their way into the World Series once again this season. He'll be followed by Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez, whom the Giants would like to see some more consistency out of (not in that order).
The bullpen was another strong suit for the world champions, and that hasn't changed much. Brian Wilson will return as the team's closer, as well as integral parts of the bullpen including Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez.
A lot of people have pointed the finger at the New York Yankees this offseason and, in particular, general manager Brian Cashman, for not cashing in on one of the big name free agents the market had to offer, especially Cliff Lee. Despite not upgrading in the obvious Yankee manner, Cashman kept his team among the best in baseball by taking a different approach and keeping his young talent in the fold.
Offensively, the only thing that will keep the Yanks' from being an offensive juggernaut once again this year are injuries and inconsistency. If they can avoid those cripplers, there is simply no reason that players like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and the rest of the crew aren't hanging crooked numbers.
Defensively, the Yanks' upgraded behind the plate by adding Russell Martin, while Jorge Posada slides into the role of designated hitter. It will also be interesting to see how manager Joe Girardi works catching phenom Jesus Montero into games, with back-up catcher Francisco Cervelli starting the season on the disabled list.
It's the pitching staff that will give the Yankees and new pitching coach Larry Rothschild fits. With top prospects still a few years away, the Yanks' had to get creative in finding competition for the back of the rotation. While CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes are locks to make the rotation, a mix of young arms and crafty veterans like Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon will battle it out for the final two spots.
To make up for the shortcomings of their rotation, Cashman and the Yankees upgraded their bullpen to the extreme. Already housing the greatest closer of all-time in Mariano Rivera, the Yanks' added a second closer, Rafael Soriano, to take over the role of set-up man. He'll join Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano, David Robertson and Boone Logan in one of the best bullpens in baseball.
The Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies are very interchangeable teams, in my opinion. While the Yankees will be an offensive juggernaut with a good bullpen, the Phillies will be a pitching juggernaut with a bullpen that isn't too shabby in it's own right. In the long run, when comparing leagues and divisions, the Phillies get a slight nod over the Yankees on this list.
Heading into spring training, the biggest question mark in the Phillies' lineup was who was going to take over in right field for Jayson Werth, who left via free agency. After Domonic Brown suffered an injury that required hand surgery, the job is as good as Ben Francisco's. Now the Phils' will have to figure out how to deal with injuries. Chase Utley's status is uncertain, and that could have an effect on their lineup. Regardless, the rest of the lineup has had a solid, healthy spring. They may not be the elite offense that we have come to know and expect out of Philadelphia, but they can generate runs for their starting staff.
Speaking of that starting staff, we've heard a ton about them already, just midway through spring training. There isn't much more you can say outside of they are really, really good. Two Cy Young winners, three 20-game winners, two NLCS MVP's and a WS MVP. As they made clear at various points over the last two seasons, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels should have no problem taking down the competition this season, and even Joe Blanton has had his share of success in Philadelphia.
Though it's been the subject of some questions, the Phils' will also boast a pretty strong bullpen. Over the last few seasons, Ryan Madson has developed into one of the best set-up men in baseball, and when paired with a healthy, consistent Brad Lidge, the Phillies could be dominant from a pitching standpoint. Finding a situational lefty among the likes of J.C. Romero and Antonio Bastardo will go a long way in strengthening that bullpen even further.
When it comes down to ranking teams entering the season, there is no better team on paper than the Boston Red Sox. They've received nothing but praise after upgrading several areas of their club. Like several other clubs on this list, they'll need to stay healthy to reach their full potential, but if they do, look out. There isn't much stopping the Red Sox this season.
When the Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez, people around baseball started picking their AL MVP front-runner, and for good reason. The man completely destroyed much better pitching in the National League in a much more spacious ballpark. Now, he's moving into a ballpark seemingly tailored for his swing.
Of course, the Sox weren't done there. After speculation that the team was courting Jayson Werth, they turned around and signed Carl Crawford to an even larger deal. They'll join a lineup filled to the brim with All-Star caliber players, including Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkillis, David Ortiz and JD Drew, as well as speedy outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who missed most of last season with injuries.
If there is a weak spot, it may be the Red Sox's rotation. While Jon Lester continues his path to becoming one of the best pitchers in baseball, there are some question marks surrounding Clay Bucchholz, who is entering just his second full season, and veterans Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been inconsistent over the last few seasons, will round out the rotation.
Last year's greatest weakness is not much of a weakness any longer, as the Sox spent most of the off-season completely revamping their bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon will be the team's closer, but presumably on a short leash, with closer-material relievers like Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks ready to step in. Along with those three, veteran relievers Tim Wakefield, Dan Wheeler and Hideki Okajima will be entering games for the Red Sox.