2011 MLB Predictions: The 10 Most Compelling Stories of the Season
We're just a couple short weeks away from meaningful baseball.
All the offseason moves, the talk from experts and promise of young prospects will come to a head and we'll once again be reminded of why we not only love this game, but hate when it isn't around.
The most compelling for me is Opening Day. I love it. I make the jaunt to Seattle every year to watch my Mariners embark on another campaign, even though I know the outcome may not make me do back flips.
On a national level, though, there are so many intriguing stories.
Of course, you end up with surprises like last year's no hitters and (almost included) perfect games. You have milestones and injuries. Breakout stars and steady hands.
Let's look at what we think, and hope, will be interesting this season.
Seattle Mariners at Florida Marlins in Seattle
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
While the actual baseball played on the field may not be spectacular, this is a truly unique event that unfortunately will only be enjoyed by several thousand people in the Pacific Northwest.
It's compelling, though, and something that I think could potentially lead to some rules changes down the road.
Baseball has supposedly kicked around the idea of flip-flopping the AL and NL rules for some interleague games. Though it has never happened, and I have reasons for not wanting it to, we're going to get a taste of it this year.
Thanks to the Marlins preferring the sure money of a U2 concert over the uncertainty of their fans showing up, the three-game interleague series has been moved to Safeco Field. National League rules will be in place, meaning the Mariners will bat first, and their pitchers will have to hit.
I plan to go to at least one of the games, as this will be the first time I've had the chance to see National League rules live. Sure, I've watched enough of it on television, but something about experiencing things live is far more compelling.
Plus, Felix Hernandez might jack one!
Kansas City's Improvement
Rob Tringali/Getty Images
The Royals have the best farm system in baseball, and we may start to see some of the cream rise to the top.
They have some extremely talented pitching that could start to find its way to the majors in the next couple of years, and that pitching has received a bunch of the attention, among them being Danny Duffy, Michael Montgomery and John Lamb.
On the position player side, you have Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer at the corners of the infield and Wil Meyers behind the dish.
From top to bottom, their top-20 prospect list is mighty impressive.
We won't see all of it this season, but Moustakas should make his way onto the team early on, and others should, at the very least, get September auditions.
While next year may be the real year to watch, we should start to see some of these guys this year and see if the hype is for real.
A once proud franchise that has been near the bottom of the league for so long now has a farm system that is the gem of baseball. It's very likely that Royals are primed to be really good for a long time.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Baseball fans love records. We love to glorify them and put asterisks on them all the same.
While there may be a shortage of some of the most glorified milestones this season, there could be a nice sprinkling of players achieving things few others have.
Derek Jeter is 74 hits shy of the magic 3,000. Even with another off-year at the plate, he shouldn't have a problem getting there. It's mostly interesting, because in the tremendous history of the Yankees, with all their superstars and Hall of Famers, Jeter will be the first to reach this plateau.
Ichiro set the record for most consecutive 200-hit seasons, but he still needs one more to break the tie with Pete Rose for most overall. Perhaps, the thing I find most interesting about that is if Ichiro were to land exactly 200, he'd remain 566 hits shy of 3,000 and 1,812 shy of Rose. He'd need to average 200 hits at just over nine more seasons to catch Rose. Even without the time he spent in Japan, you have to wonder if he could have done it.
Should Matt Stairs make the Nationals roster, he'll hold the record for the most clubs played for, 13.
Having swiped 63 bags last season, Juan Pierre is actually within reach of 600 for his career. He needs 73 to join an elite list of bag burglars. If he does it, he'd still be 806 shy of Rickey Henderson. He'd have to play 13.4 more years (until age 46) averaging 60 per season to catch Rickey.
Jim Thome is 11 homers shy of becoming the eighth member of the 600 club. Manny Ramirez needs 45 to reach 500. Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are both within reasonable reach of 400. Bobby Abreu needs 24 for 300.
With 18 dingers, Alex Rodriguez will move past former teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. for fifth place, and 48 would get his total beyond Willie Mays for fourth all time.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
While the NFL, NHL and NBA all have issues looming, it appears as if baseball has relative peace between their clubs and unions.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires in December, and unlike the woes with the NFL, it isn't something we've seen coming for three years.
Both club profits and player salaries were at record highs last season. While there may be a few minor issues being discussed, there isn't a single major hanging point that has to be addressed, according to union head Michael Weiner.
Last time around, there was talk of contracting a couple clubs (thought to be Minnesota and Oakland). Not only is that sort of talk an act of war since it would eliminate 50 players jobs, but the Twins just opened a brand new ballpark and are proving that small market teams can succeed.
So, for now, this might not be so interesting. However, baseball history is littered with examples of how these talks can break down. Next thing you know, we're stressing out about a work stoppage.
If only because of what the past has taught us, this is compelling and worth watching.
Don't let us down, baseball.
Exciting New Rookies
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
There's a pretty good crop of young players on the horizon.
The Royals have several, with Mike Moustakas the most likely to see time and make an impact at some point this season.
The Mariners have a pair in Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley.
The Angels could have a great one on their hands in Mike Trout. The Rays have Jeremy Hellickson who projects very well.
There's Domonic Brown from the Phillies, Aroldis Chapman of the Reds, Jesus Montero in Gotham and so many more.
I can't list them all because, honestly, there are a ton of promising youngsters who will all see varying amounts of playing time. That's precisely what makes this compelling.
Derek Jeter and His Contract
Al Bello/Getty Images
The Yankees decided to give Derek Jeter more money than most felt he was worth.
Worth, however, is a relative term. We can't tell the Yankees how they should feel about spending their money. Even though it's obvious that Jeter's skills on both sides of the ball are declining, a case can certainly be made about the PR impact had they watched him walk away.
Would he actually have ever signed elsewhere, even if offered more money? No clue, but the posturing on both sides lead to the Yankees blinking first.
That said, how will Jeter's play be this season and will public opinion change if he bombs?
I can tell you, from personal experience with the Ken Griffey Jr. ordeal, he's likely to remain highly loved by New York fans regardless of performance.
Firstly, because of how long he's been there and how much he's done. Secondly, because the media just isn't likely to cast him in a negative light. Coaches still thought highly enough of him to award him a Gold Glove last season. While ESPN hinted at times that it was undeserved, mainstream media largely let it slide.
On the other hand, New York fans are known to be fickle. The guy who was just jeered for two weeks straight while in a slump, is now asked out for a curtain call after a big home run.
Hey, that's their call. It's what makes New York baseball so unique. I had a chance to catch a game in old Yankee Stadium, and it was an extreme experience compared to the laid back hydro-plane-cheering fans at Mariners home games.
I'm highly interested to see how Jeter does and (since I expect decline) how the Yankee fans receive him.
How Good Will Boston Be?
J. Meric/Getty Images
The Red Sox had the type offseason we generally see from their arch rivals in Gotham.
It might be interesting to see how things turn out, though.
Carl Crawford's speed and range might not be maximized in left field thanks to the Monster. A lot has been said about how they may benefit from swapping Crawford and JD Drew, and I think that makes sense.
Losing Adrian Beltre probably won't end up hurting them as a healthy Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez could be the best corner infield in baseball. While confirmation bias tells people that Beltre's surge was from moving out of Safeco Field, Beltre was actually far better on the road also. He had an all-around better season and could regress. I'd feel more comfortable with Youkilis.
Having a healthy Dustin Pedroia back is obviously huge and not much needs to be said there.
A couple other small moves here and there, coupled with the Yankees expected pitching woes and the Sox should be considered the favorites.
I'm highly interested to see what this lineup can do in all facets. They should have fantastic defense and offense, along with good pitching.
At the end of July, with a little luck, we could see an epic matchup between this lineup and the Phillies rotation.
The Phillies Rotation
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
So much has already been said, though what really actually needs to be said?
Quite obviously, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hammels represent one of the better rotations we've seen in the past decade. Comparisons will be made to the Braves in the 90s, the Dodgers in the 60s and others.
Of course, the games have to be played. All four guys have to remain healthy and consistent. With pitchers, neither of those two things are certainties.
What this rotation does have on its side, from a could-be historical standpoint, is that even if one of them has an off year or gets hurt, there are still three legit front-of-the-rotation guys there to pick up the slack.
It should be fun seeing what kind of run this rotation can make.
What Will Happen with Prince Fielder?
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Prince Fielder is likely entering his final season in Milwaukee.
I always hate to see big names leave a place, but that's what the free-agency era has done. Teams don't stick together, players seek the most money possible and agents like Scott Boras fan the flames.
Well, it is a business after all, and Fielder has to do what's best for him. That probably doesn't include staying in a small market.
There will be teams in on his services, but they're likely to target Albert Pujols first. Fielder, at the advice of Boras, will probably wait to see how Pujols' negotiations go as his value will go up after Pujols signs.
There are two big issues that most teams looking at him will encounter. He has little defensive value and guys with his body type don't traditionally age well.
Rejecting the $100 million five-year deal from the Brewers tells us what kind of money he's looking for. He's going to gun for that Ryan Howard type deal, and while some team may give it to him, it probably won't be a good investment at the back end.
Surely, Fielder has a skill set that would fit some teams and their parks extremely well. One example would be the Mariners, who could use a big slugging lefty that projects as a DH soon. Their financial limitations may get in the way of making that happen, though.
Before the season is over, though, the Brewers are sure to explore trade options since they just don't figure to retain him after 2011.
If they do, a team I'd keep in mind as a surprise partner would be Oakland. If they're hanging in the race come July, Billy Beane is a guy who will get creative.
They aren't a team who would likely keep him past 2011, but Beane has been willing to give up a couple prospects knowing he can get top draft pics as compensation when a guy signs elsewhere as a Type A free agent (think Matt Holliday).
The Albert Pujols Saga
Marc Serota/Getty Images
This is sure to be a season-long thing, where Pujols' every move will be sliced, diced and put under a $300 million microscope for review.
I still think the Cardinals know how crazy they'd be to let their franchise icon walk, especially considering the payroll flexibility the Cubs have created. They'll likely get something done, but it'll be talked about all season thanks to the impasse of this spring.
There are a lot of theories out there about how players perform in contract years. Generally speaking, people who do so employ confirmation bias. You just don't remember the guy who left after a horrible season because, well, you were happy he left.
Pujols shouldn't be part of that conversation because he is apparently incapable of having a poor season. He's been the best player of the past decade, which is the reason for all the ballyhooing about this situation to begin with.
So be prepared fans. Anything that can be said about Alby is going to be said. Then, said again and again for good measure.