2011 MLB Predictions: Each Team's Key to a Successful First Month of the Season
Opening weekend was just a little screwy. The Orioles and the Royals both lead their division, while the Mariners, Mets and Pirates are sitting above .500.
Two popular teams heading into 2011, the Red Sox and Brewers, are a combined 0-6. The defending champion Giants are 1-3, sitting comfortably at the bottom of their division.
While the first part of the season doesn't always give us the clearest picture of which team is going to finish where, the games still count in the final standings.
Getting the season off on the right note is the goal of every single big league club. There isn't a team out there who is thinking, "Let's shoot for fourth place!" So, let's take a moment to examine these goals.
Dan is a Boston Red Sox featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @dantheman_06.
With both Justin Duchscherer and Brian Matusz sidelined until late April at the earliest, the Orioles are going to have to find pitching from somewhere.
But, it’s going to be tough for the O’s. Other than Jeremy Guthrie, the staff is relatively inexperienced.
Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton–while talented–have only 41 combined Major League starts. The O’s are facing some savvy offenses early on in the season, and they’ll have to get sublime performances if they want to keep themselves relevant beyond April.
If there’s anything the Red Sox need, it’s starting pitching. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have routinely struggled in April, and John Lackey and Clay Buchholz didn't exactly deliver awe-inspiring first performances (unless you're a Rangers fan, of course).
The Sox won’t have trouble scoring runs, but they'll need their starters to step up in order to keep pace with the New York Yankees, who are seeing fast starts from Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
For the Chicago White Sox, a good start might be as simple as playing up to their potential. The White Sox have a talented team, but talent doesn’t mean anything without production.
The Sox will need the Edwin Jackson they got for 11 starts last year, not the pitcher the Diamondbacks had for 21 starts. They’ll need Alexei Ramirez, who made noticeable improvement last year, to keep improving and playing well.
Perhaps most importantly, they’ll need 24-year-old Gordon Beckham to finally live up his potential and justify the large leash he’s been given by Ozzie Guillen.
The Twins are still good and the Tigers are better than they were last year. The Sox don’t have to wow anyone, they just have to win games and keep pace with their division rivals.
The success of the Cleveland Indians hinges on three men: Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco (I know, doesn’t inspire much hope).
Carmona will have to do what he did best last year: avoid the longball (0.73 HR/9 last season, well below the league average of 0.96).
The Indians will have to figure out whether Masterson is best suited a starter or a reliever. His ability to put the ball on the ground (2.41 GB/FB last year) made him at times dominating as a reliever, but he’s yet to transfer that success into the starter's role.
Carrasco is the least experienced of three, and he showed potential during his seven starts last year, but a poor spring and a poor first start doesn’t bode well for the Tribe.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, their biggest challenge in starting the season off on the right foot has nothing to do with on the field circumstances.
After an ugly offseason that saw Miguel Cabrera have yet another alcohol-related run in with the law, the Tigers are going to need sobriety from their star player.
In all honesty, Miggy might be the best offensive player in the American League. If he’s not performing at his highest level or if he’s creating a distraction in the clubhouse, the Tigers are a mediocre team.
After finishing 20th in the league last year in runs (676), the Royals need some offense.
Billy Butler, 24, has shown great contact ability and plate discipline, but he’s yet to grow into the power that many have predicted. Kila Ka’aihue has shown great power throughout his minor league career, and he’s going to have the opportunity to play every day, splitting time between 1B and the DH spot.
The Royals offense will ideally revolve around these players in 2011. As they go, so do the Royals.
The Angels will need to solidify the back end of their bullpen if they want to avoid falling into a deep hole in the AL West.
Closer Fernando Rodney’s job status is in serious doubt after his most recent performance against the Royals, where he walked three and allowed two runs before finally being removed from the game.
Scott Downs is on the DL and unable to come to the rescue. The Angels may have no choice but to turn to the likes of Kevin Jepsen or Jordan Walden in the ninth if Rodney continues his magical volatility tour.
No matter who gets the ball, the Angels will need some consistency at the end of games.
After a rough spring filled with questions concerning the health of his shoulder, Franciso Liriano didn’t get his season off on a good note at all.
In his first start, he allowed four runs on four hits and five walks over just 4.1 innings. His velocity was consistently down, and he threw just 44 of 90 pitches for strikes.
The Twins will need Liriano to be the Liriano of 2010 if they want to start the season on the right note. If he goes down for any extended portion of the season or if his effectiveness drops, the Twins will find themselves without the necessary depth to win a dogfight race in the AL Central.
Phil Hughes admittedly just hasn’t been himself this year. His velocity is hovering in the upper 80’s, instead of the 92.5 MPH that was his average fastball velocity last year.
The Yankees have enough to worry about in their starting rotation without labeling Hughes as a question mark, and they’ll need their young starter to revert to his first half form of 2010 if they want to continue their early success.
The theme of the 2011 season is quickly becoming “where will the runs come from?” They have a top third rotation and some decent options at the end of the ‘pen, but they’re currently ranked 23rd in the Majors in runs (11) after finishing last year at the same rank.
New imports Josh Willingham, who's always displayed some decent pop (career 4.0 home run percentage) as well as David DeJesus and Hidecki Matsui will be the ones who make the A’s offense go this year.
The situation isn’t optimal, but it’s all the A’s have. Willingham has gotten off to a nice start, but DeJesus (one hit in 13 plate appearances) and Matsui (one hit in 11 plate appearances) have yet to find their groove.
For the M’s, it’s all about O. They need runs.
However, the Mariners are in a precarious position. The keys to their offense are in the hands of Justin Smoak, a talented, albeit unproven 24-year-old; Jack Cust, a 32-year-old DH who provides little upside at this point; and Milton Bradley, who’s well…Milton Bradley.
They need some semblance of production from the middle of their order if they to come close at sniffing success early on this year, even in a weak division.
When Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon inked one year deals with the Rays this offseason, many scoffed at the signings.
But with Evan Longoria down for the count (could miss at least three weeks with a sore left oblique), his production will have to be replaced, and the former Boston duo are prime candidates for that role.
Damon and Ramirez are the only new faces to the Rays lineup, and they also happen to be the biggest question marks. Simply by the fact that no one really knows what the Rays will get out of them, they remain the most important factors in a Tampa Bay offense that is up in the air.
The Rangers offense smacked around the Boston Red Sox pitching staff during opening weekend, knocking in 11 home runs and 26 runs while posting a .775 SLG percentage and a 1.183 OPS (all four figures are the best in the league).
We know they can hit, but can they stay on the field?
Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler–cornerstones of the Rangers offense–failed to play full seasons last year. Adrian Beltre also has a history of injury.
The biggest factor in the Rangers’ success will be their ability to avoid lengthy periods of injury from any of their most important players.
The Blue Jays will need the production of young catcher J.P. Arencibia if they want to sustain any early run that they put together.
Last year, the 25-year-old was MVP of the Pacific Coast League, driving in 32 HR and 85 RBI in just 459 plate appearances.
He’s as raw as they come, however, and the Blue Jays will need him to continue to improve his plate discipline and his gamecalling abilities behind the plate if he’s going to have a major impact in 2011.
Last year, the Diamondbacks finished with a team ERA of 4.81, good for the 28th lowest rank in the majors and the second worst in the National League.
This year, similar questions will hang around the Diamondbacks. Will Daniel Hudson develop into an ace this season as many expect? What will the D’Backs get from Ian Kennedy and the rest of the rotation? Will David Hernandez and J.J. Putz be the one-two punch that the bullpen was missing last year?
In all likelihood, Arizona needs a fast start from Hudson and Kennedy and a glimpse of what Putz previously gave Seattle at the end of games.
Last year, the Atlanta Braves committed 126 errors as a team (one of the league high) and were the owners of a minus-5.9 UZR/150 (fourth worst in baseball).
The Braves went out and added Dan Uggla to the fold this offseason, a good hitter in his own right but one of the worst defensive infielders in the league. Uggla committed 18 errors and posted a minus-7.4 UZR/150, second and third worst among full time second baseman.
Chippers Jones doesn’t provide much defensively either, and the Braves aren’t looking like a team who will wow anyone with their defensive wizadry.
But defense doesn’t contribute as much to the game as other areas. The Braves just need to raise their defense to the point where it isn’t detracting from their pitching and offense, which figure to be fairly good in 2011.
There are many things to point to with the Cubs, but one of the most important keys is the performance of new additions Carlos Pena and Matt Garza.
Pena’s .196/.325/.407 slash line last year was just flat out bad no matter how you spin it, and the Cubbies will need an improvement from him to justify the $10 million that he got this offseason. He’ll still walk at a very high rate and hit for good power, but actually putting the bat on the ball became a daily struggle for him last season.
Garza has the stuff of a top of the rotation pitcher, but consistency has always been an issue for him. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get off to a hot start, especially since Garza is a better first-half pitcher.
Edinson Volquez has pitched just 112.1 innings over the last two seasons, and his season started poorly as he allowed three earned runs over six innings of work, including back-to-back homers to start the game.
The Reds have a nice collection of middle-class starters, but they don’t have anyone they can call their ace. Volquez rebounding from his poor start would mean a great deal to the reigning NL Central Champs, who are facing stiffer competition for the division title this year.
Jorge De La Rosa will at least have to be healthy for the Rockies if they want to start the season off right. Beyond Ubaldo Jimenez, there are a whole lot of question marks for the Rockies, and De La Rosa is the best candidate to provide some relief.
Sure, Jhoulys Chacin has upside and Jason Hammel is a decent fourth or fifth option, but neither can be counted on to deliver a consistent season.
If De La Rosa can revert to previous form, the Rockies will be solid behind Jimenez and a top-notch offense.
Assuming that Josh Johnson remains an ace and Ricky Nolasco remains a decently inconsistent No. 2 or 3 starter with upside, the Marlins could put together a squad capable of winning 80-85 games.
A big key to this and their potential to start fast is the performance of Javier Vazquez, who is returning to the NL after an unsuccessful 2010 campaign with the Yankees.
After all, it was only two years ago that Vazquez posted a strong 2009 with the Atlanta Braves (reinforced by a very good 2.77 xFIP), but age and a rather significant dip in velocity last year raises the question of whether or not he can return to form.
The Astros will need Wandy Rodriguez to perform a complete 180 if they want to turn April into a positive month.
His spring wasn’t great, and his first start against the Phillies was atrocious. His fastball velocity was nearly a full MPH lower than his 2009 average, and he just doesn’t seem to have the necessary arm strength built up.
They could also use a strong start from JA Happ, who is slated to make his first start of the season Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Dodgers ought to bust out their mathematical theory textbooks, because the law of averages is in their favor.
Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Jonathan Broxton are just three Dodgers who underperformed last season. Both Kemp and Ethier are off to fast starts, so the onus falls to Broxton to follow suit.
His season so far has been rocky. He’s allowed home runs in two of his three outings, and he hasn’t yet shaken off the combustibility that plagued him last season.
The Dodgers need their big fella at the back end of the ‘pen performing like he’s capable of.
The goal of the offseason was to bolster their pitching staff. On paper, the Brew Crew did just that, adding Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to the fold.
However, the pitching has yet to show up, and the Brewers will have to right the ship if they want to avoid falling into an early hole.
Shaun Marcum pitched poorly in his first outing, and he’ll have to be better especially until Greinke returns.
Closer John Axford has a 27.00 ERA and 3.75 WHIP after two appearances, and needless to say he’ll have to improve. Maybe the ‘stache isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
Would it be too much to ask for just a little bit of health?
Jason Bay is down for the count with a ribcage injury, and Carlos Beltran is running like a 60-year-old. Getting these two back to their productive selves will be a tall, but necessary task if the Mets want to avoid seeing their April go by the wayward.
With Brad Lidge down for the count, the biggest weakness for the Phillies is their bullpen. Jose Contreras seems to be the favorite to handle closing duties in Lidge’s absence, despite the fact that he has only four career saves to his name.
The Phillies now have little choice but to stretch what was already just a mediocre ‘pen out further. The early part of the season could very well go as the bullpen goes; if they perform well, the Phillies will keep winning.
Let’s assume for the moment that Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata have the breakout seasons that many expect.
Let’s assume that both Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm remain consistently average starters capable of providing 30-plus starts a year and eating up innings, and that James McDonald lives up to his billing as a legitimate big-league strikeout pitcher.
Normally, optimism for some level of success wouldn’t be totally out of the question. But, the Pirates are the Pirates, the team who hasn’t had a winning season since 1992.
The biggest key for the Pirates in starting fast will be forgetting their history as one of the most miserable teams in sports over the last 20 or so years.
When the going gets tough (and it will), the, “Well, we’re the Pirates, what did you expect?” attitude isn’t going to get this team anywhere.
After trading away Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres lost the centerpiece of their offense.
They’ll need someone to drive in some runs, whether it’s Jorge Cantu, Jason Bartlett, Orlando Hudson or somebody else.
No one on this team strikes a particularly threatening pose, so the Padres will have to be incredibly efficient when it comes to things like baserunning. They can’t afford to waste outs, and they’ll have to, in all likelihood, get a bit lucky and ride some offensive streaks.
Relying solely on Buster Posey to drive in runs might not be the best strategy for the Giants. They’ll need someone else to hit in case Posey goes through a sophomore slump.
The best candidate is Pablo Sandoval, who is coming off a poor 2010 but a very productive offseason, which saw him lose nearly 40 pounds. So far, Sandoval has been off to a fast start. 2011 could see the return of the Panda in San Fran.
With Adam Wainwright out for the season, the rest of the Cardinals rotation will have to pick up the slack.
Yes, that means Kyle Lohse has to not only pitch well but stay healthy, something he hasn't done since 2008. Jamie Garcia will also have to give the Cards more of what he gave them in his first start if they want to make the playoffs this year.
No Strasburg? That's OK, because the Nationals have high hopes for another young pitcher, fresh off Tommy John Surgery. His name is Jordan Zimmermann.
The now 24-year-old tore his pitching ligament 16 starts through his 2009 rookie season. His 9.1 K/9 and his 2.9 BB/9 were just hints of his ace potential.
Now, Zimmermann is healthy and ready to go. With an offense featuring Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmermann and Adam LaRoche, the Nats might not be half bad at the plate this year. But they'll need someone in the rotation other than the studs that are John Lannan and Livan Hernandez if they want to compete. Zimmermann is that guy.