MLB Predictions: Albert Pujols' Future and 50 Key Questions for the 2011 Season

Zachary BallAnalyst IMarch 29, 2011

MLB Predictions: Albert Pujols' Future and 50 Key Questions for the 2011 Season

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    This Major League Baseball season has the potential to be one of the greatest in a very long time.

    The state of the game is rock solid, which is more than can be said for both the NFL and NBA.

    The game is full of exciting young talent just bursting at the seams. Young players like Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Mike Stanton are the future faces of the game, and MLB couldn't have found three more impressive talents to slap that label on.

    We're heading into some rare air, with the careers of Derek Jeter, Paul Konerko, Vlad Guerrero and Jim Thome drawing to a close.

    And baseball has never been more exciting, with up-and-coming teams like the Giants, Reds, Rays and Rangers primed to make big runs in 2011 and beyond.

    Aside from Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg, the player injury meter is very low when it comes to elite talent on the shelf.

    Still, that doesn't mean we don't have questions about where the 2011 season is going to take us. What are the Cardinals going to do with the whole Albert Pujols situation? How are the Yankees going to compete with a rotation that finishes with Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia? And how the hell is Aroldis Chapman going to keep his arm from falling off?

    These are just some of the questions that will cover the expanse of the 2011 MLB season, from Opening Day and the All-Star break to the first-year player draft and the playoffs.

    Let's dig in and examine the top 50 questions heading into the 2011 season.

How Do the Yankees Expect to Compete with Their Current Rotation?

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    The Yankees are heading into the 2011 season with 24-year-old Ivan Nova and 12-year veteran Freddy Garcia holding down the final two spots in their rotation.

    That's no knock on either pitcher, especially Nova, who had an outstanding spring. Garcia has 133 career wins. But it's not exactly the most promising news for a team competing in the lethal A.L. East. And I am not sure how the team expects to compete with a rotation that ends with two big question marks.

    Just compare New York with Tampa, which has 13-game winner Jeff Niemann returning as its fourth starter and potential Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson rounding out the rotation. Boston has 2010 breakout star Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka filling the last two spots.

    The extra pressure will fall to the Yankees offense to make up for the inexperience of Nova and the uncertainty of Garcia. But even that looks harder now that every team in the East has made huge offensive additions.

    The Red Sox added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, while the Rays are bolstered by the arrival of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. And don't forget about the Orioles. They added Vlad Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, Derrek Lee and J.J. Hardy.

    Winning a slug-fest won't always be a viable option.

    I just don't see anyway that the Yankees current rotation thrusts them past the Red Sox or the Rays.

    Get ready for a third-place finish, Yankees fans. 

What Are the Long-Term Implications of the Yankees Inability to Sign Cliff Lee?

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    Clearly the Yankees would be in better shape had they been able to convince Cliff Lee to join their rotation.

    And now, not only have their plans for the 2011 season been dramatically altered, but it also looks like their inability to bring Lee home to the Big Apple will have some lasting impacts on both the Yankees and their standing in the A.L. East.

    But notice I didn't say it was a bad impact.

    For years the Yankees have gotten by on the arms of free-agent starters, and their track record hasn't necessarily been the best (see Carl Pavano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Weaver). For the first time in a long time, the team is having to consider in-house options, like newly appointed No.4-starter Ivan Nova. Even if Nova falters, the Yankees still have one of the most impressive stockpiles of pitching talent in the minors they can turn to.

    Prospects Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos have the look of top-of-the-rotation starters, and Andrew Brackman and Adam Warren appear every bit as capable.

    Things worked out pretty well the last time the Yankees turned over a rotation spot to a homegrown player. Phil Hughes had a breakout season in 2010, and he looks every bit like the front-end starter the Yankees envisioned.

    Another huge ramification of Lee signing in Philly instead of New York, and sorry, this one is a negative, is that it's been made clear that money isn't always going to make New York the most appealing option anymore. Lee took a pay cut to pitch in Philadelphia, and don't think he's going to be the last to do what he did. Not only is he a part of a better team, but he's pitching under less pressure. And he's still making a boatload of money.

    So why bother with the daily beat down that is living and working in New York?

    The Yankees better keep that in mind the next time they're pursuing another big-name free-agent player.

Can the Yankees Fix A.J. Burnett and Joba Chamberlain?

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    The Yankees would also be in a much better spot if A.J. Burnett could work out his inner demons and Joba Chamberlain could finally figure it out.

    Not only does New York have to deal with two huge question marks at the back of the rotation, but they also have to wonder if Burnett is going to produce the same kind of season he did in 2010, when he was all over the place, losing 15 games and posting a 5.26 ERA as the team's No. 2 starter.

    If they expect to dethrone the Rays and hold off the Red Sox, a team that has four legitimate No. 1 starters (Lester, Lackey, Beckett and Buchholz), they're going to need to figure out how to fix Burnett, who again enters the season as the team's No. 2 option.

    They're also going to need to see more from Chamberlain. 

    Yes, the Yankees probably screwed up one of the most talented pitching arms to come along in quite some time, but there's still hope that Joba can be an effective piece of a championship squad. First, the team needs to settle on a role for the youngster. They now have the prospects, so they can afford to leave him in the bullpen long-term, and it looks like that's what they're going to do.

    Next, if they want him to respond favorably, they're going to have to challenge him. He's too talented to be wasted in blowouts or extra-inning games. He still has set-up man stuff. I know it will be harder for him to find a definite role with the addition of Rafael Soriano, but he can still help the Yankees in a big way.

Can the Rays Claim Their Third Division Crown in Four Years?

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    If the Rays want to lay claim to their third AL East crown in four seasons, they're going to have to overcome some big obstacles.

    As if losing Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena wasn't enough, the team also lost Matt Garza to a trade with the Cubs, and huge pieces of their hugely successful 2010 bullpen (Randy Choate and Joaquin Benoit) departed as free agents.

    The Rays will also have to look forward to competing on a regular basis against former members of their organization, Carl Crawford in Boston and Rafael Soriano in New York.

    So is it plausible to think that the Rays could once again beat the odds and triumph over the Red Sox and Yankees?

    I think so, and here's why.

    Yeah, the Rays lost huge pieces of their 2010 division-winning team, but they also replaced those pieces with more impressive parts than most of their division rivals. Thanks to the Rays' stellar farm system, they have shored up holes in the bullpen (Alex Torres and Jake McGee), the rotation (Jeremy Hellickson), and that huge hole in left field (Desmond Jennings) where Carl Crawford used to roam.

    Now what did the Yankees add to make up for not signing Cliff Lee? Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon? Yikes!

    What about Boston? Yeah, they added Crawford and Gonzalez, but they are also looking to replace Victor Martinez with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Not exactly the best swap.

    Check out the talent that the Rays have on their roster. David Price is in the prime of his career and is the best pitcher in the A.L. East. James Shields is solid, and the Rays have three of the best young starters in the division in Hellickson, Niemann and Davis.

    Their lineup is bolstered by the additions of Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, and did I mention that they have the best farm system in the division? Prospects like Chris Archer and Matt Moore are just a phone call away.

Will Desmond Jennings Be Enough to Make Rays Fans Forget About Carl Crawford?

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    Desmond Jennings won't be a part of the Rays' Opening Day roster, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to play a huge part for the big-league club in 2011.

    The toolsy outfielder is partly the reason the team was OK with letting Carl Crawford join the Red Sox.

    Jennings is the top prospect in the organization, and he's arguably one of the more talented position prospects in all of the minor leagues. His speed is top notch, arguably better than Crawford's, and he looks like a threat to steal 40-to-50 bases per year. His bat is also pretty special. He won't hit for as much power as Crawford, but he should be comparable in terms of average.

    And his defense will also be on par with what Rays fans are used to. Jennings has the ability to play center field, but like Crawford, he could be moved to a corner.

    Hitting at the top of the lineup, Jennings should provide a spark and be a catalyst for the Rays whenever he gets the call, likely a month or two into the season.

How Long Will It Take for Manny Ramirez to Implode in Tampa Bay?

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    All that being said, you really have to wonder how long it's going to take Many Ramirez to implode in Tampa. When he does, how far down is he going to bring the organization?

    The Rays have taken the complete opposite of the quick-fix route in recent years, and the signings of Damon and Ramirez are already concerning in that respect. Take into account Ramirez's Terrell Owens-like track record of leaving teams in ruin wherever he goes and it makes the move all that more questionable.

    Now, I don't know if you've been to Tampa before, but it's not exactly Chicago or New York. The city is dull and the lifestyle is more laid back. Hopefully that's something that Ramirez finds appealing. If the Rays are stuck in third place behind the Yankees and Sox come July, and he finds his playing time shared with top-prospect Desmond Jennings, we might get to see him force his way out of another organization.

Are the Blue Jays Good Enough to Turn the Big Three into the Big Four?

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    While the Red Sox were busy acquiring two of the best hitters in baseball (Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez), there was much activity in the AL East. The Yankees were trying to convince Cliff Lee to pitch in New York, the Rays were adding Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, the Orioles were bolstering their lineup with Mark Reynolds, Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee and J.J. Hardy, and the Blue Jays were hard at work making moves too.

    They shipped Shaun Marcum, one of the team's best starters in 2010, off to Milwaukee and 31-homer hitter Vernon Wells off to Los Angeles. But the Jays got better, too.

    But did they get good enough to challenge the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees for AL East supremacy?

    Only time will tell, but it looks like the Blue Jays are at least on the right track. In dealing two of the franchise's better players, the team picked up a franchise-cornerstone infielder (Brett Lawrie) and a potential closer (Frank Francisco). And while both players won't be on the team's Opening Day roster (Francisco will start 2011 on the DL), both should be big contributors down the line. Lawrie could see time as early as this summer, and Francisco will be the fall-back option if Jon Rauch struggles closing games in the brutal AL East.

    Look around the diamond at the Blue Jays roster and you'll see a very talented squad. Jose Bautista, he of the 54 home-run season in 2010, returns, as does Aaron Hill, who hit 26 homers. Shortstop Yunel Escobar hit nearly 40 points higher in Toronto than he did in Atlanta last year, and he could be a candidate for a breakout year.

    Right-fielder Travis Snider could also join him in that category and speedy center-fielder Rajai Davis has the best speed in the entire division. He's practically a shoe-in to steal 40 bases. And the Jays have a budding superstar in first baseman Adam Lind, who hit 35 homers in 2009, and 23 more last year.

    The Jays rotation is vastly underrated.

    Brett Cecil and Ricky Romero return after winning a combined 29 games last season. Joining them will be Brandon Morrow, who struck out nearly 11 batters per nine innings last year, rookie Kyle Drabek, one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, and Jesse Litsch, who is coming back from hip and Tommy John surgery.

    The bullpen, while not as good as last year, should be better than adequate. Jon Rauch is the anchor at closer. He is joined by Octavio Dotel, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, David Purcey and, when he returns from the DL, Frank Francisco.

    The Jays might need a little bit more from their outfield, but if their rotation can pitch as well as they did last year, they can turn this three-team race into a four-team frenzy. 

Will Baltimore or Pittsburgh Break Their Consecutive Season Losing Streaks?

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    The Baltimore Orioles haven't posted a winning season since 1997, when Cal Ripken and Mike Mussina were cornerstones and Davey Johnson was at the helm.

    The Pirates haven't tasted the air above. 500 since 1992, the third consecutive season in which they made it all the way to the NLCS, only to fall at the hands of the Braves (1992 and 1991) and the Reds (1990).

    Both teams made strides this past offseason. While becoming competitive, so to speak, is still a long ways off, both teams have legitimate shots at posting their first winning seasons since the 1990s, especially the Orioles.

    Baltimore bolstered its lineup and bullpen with trades and free agents, in an effort to shore up its status in the brutal American League East. The additions of Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy should drastically improve the offense, and give the Orioles a fighting chance against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. And the up-and-coming rotation, led by Brian Matusz and 2011 rookie Zach Britton, will give O's fans hope that they can engineer the kind of turnaround that led the Rays to the World Series in 2008.

    The O's also solidified their bullpen with the additions of Jeremy Accardo and Kevin Gregg, who should emerge as the team's closer.

    The Pirates might have a harder time inching their way back toward respectability, but at least they don't have to play in the AL Beast. Like the O's, the Pirates are in the midst of a youthful uprising. Last year, they saw the ascension of Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. All should be major players in the Pirates' resurgence, and the group will be bolstered this year by a group that includes Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris and possibly even Tony Sanchez.

    The Pirates will also benefit from a weakened division. The Cardinals just lost Adam Wainwright for the next 18 months, the Cubs are the Cubs, and the Astros could be the worst team in baseball. The Brewers are looking strong with the additions of Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke, but there's not anything left in their farm system to bolster the club, leaving many to think that the Pirates are the team best primed for the long-term future in the division.

    While both might get close in 2011, there's not too much confidence from this guy that either team hits the 80-win mark.

Is 2011 the Year That Matt Wieters Finally Breaks Out?

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    The 2010 season was supposed to be the year that Matt Wieters broke out and joined the elite catchers of baseball.

    Instead, he hit for a pedestrian .249 average, he hit only 11 homers and drove in only 55 runs. That is not exactly setting the world afire.

    Wieters did, however, look like a new hitter after the arrival of Buck Showalter, producing some of his best offensive numbers in the final two months of the season.

    Even more impressive was his work with a very young Orioles pitching staff, which posted the best ERA of any team in baseball over the final two-and-a-half months.

    That's the kind of thing that the critics don't take into account when panning Wieters' development so far.

    I'm pretty sure that 2011 will be the year that he comes into his own and makes the Orioles pleased with his bat, not just his work behind the plate.

Which AL Central Addition Will Have the Biggest Impact on the Division Race?

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    Few divisions experienced as much of an influx of talent as the AL Central this offseason.

    Not only did the White Sox nab prized free-agent Adam Dunn, but the Tigers also lured catcher/designated hitter Victor Martinez away from Boston.

    Both players fill huge holes on their respective teams and they put both in positions for a division-title run. But which move will put which team at the top when the season is done?

    If I had to put my money on it, I'd say V-Mart to Detroit makes the Tigers the prohibitive favorite. While both teams feature some very powerful lineups and very comparable rotations, I think Martinez's ability to hit for average will greatly outweigh the 40 or 50 homers that Dunn will provide the Sox with. Keep in mind that Dunn only hit .260 last year, and struggled to keep his average above .240 for the final two months of the season. He also struck out nearly 200 times (199 to be exact).

    Martinez, on the other hand, hit over .300 with 20 homers and 79 RBI. He struck out nearly one-fifth of the times that Dunn did, and he should only be more productive with less responsibility behind the plate in Detroit.

    The White Sox also benefited greatly from a career year from Paul Konerko, who is 35 and entering his 14th season in the league. I don't see him swatting another 39 homers, and I definitely don't see the Sox getting too much offense from rookie third baseman Brent Morel, outfielder Juan Pierre (aside from some steals), or catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

    For my money, I'd rather have Austin Jackson, the consistent Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Brandon Inge and, of course, Martinez.

    And the one-two punch of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer is hard to ignore.

What Will the Twins Do with Francisco Liriano?

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    The Twins have been all over the place in regards to Liriano this offseason.

    First, he was untouchable. A few months later he was on the table, if the price was right. And now he looks like he's going to remain a Twin, with several forecasting his most impressive season yet.

    So what's the deal with him? Is he going to stick around in Minnesota? Will he last the season? Or will he find his way to a contender if the Twins fall out of the race?

    As of right now, Liriano is the ace of a very underrated rotation that includes Carl Pavano, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. 

    Assuming the Twins can stay in contention in a very top-heavy division, it makes sense to hang onto him. He is arguably the best pitcher in the division and easily has the most electric stuff of any pitcher in the AL Central. A Cy Young-caliber season from him could be the difference that puts the Twins over the top.

    On the other hand, if the Twins falter down the stretch, it might make the most sense to try to deal Liriano. The Twins have some capable arms down in the minors, including Kyle Gibson, who could step in and fill the rotation spot. Minnesota could likely get three or four prospects for the 27-year-old left-hander, possibly even more if a team like New York or Tampa is in a bind come August.

Can Joe Mauer Find His Power Stroke at Target Field in 2011?

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    The splits are staggering.

    Joe Mauer hit only one home run at Target Field in 2010, the inaugural season of the Twins new stadium. His other eight jacks came on the road, signaling a major reversal of his career numbers.

    In 2009, Mauer hit 16 of his 28 homers at home, and in 2008, seven of his nine came at the friendly confines of the Metrodome. In fact, you have to go back to an injury-riddled 2007 season to find the last time Mauer hit more homers on the road than he did at home.

    So what's the problem?

    Is it really the new field that's the issue or should the Twins be worried that Mauer is on the decline. He did lose nearly 40 points from his batting average in 2010, and his homer total dropped from 28 to nine. His on-base percentage was at a three-year low and he struggled down the stretch last year to hit with any authority, notching only one home run in September and October and only six RBI.

    Hopefully for the Twins, Mauer was just struggling to find his stroke at Target Field, and he'll be able to regain the form that produced a career year in 2009.

How Bad Will the Royals Be and When Will the Influx of Prospects Begin?

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    All you have to do is check out the Royals ESPN.com depth chart page to know this season is going to be rough on the city of Kansas City.

    Not only is Bruce Chen (seriously?) a member of the rotation, but also Melky Cabrera appears to be the team's projected starter in both center and left field. That might be worth traveling to see.

    Still, you get the gist. The Royals are going to be bad...again. They maybe even historically bad, and while it's most likely going to be another 100-loss season, at least there's some hope, in the form of the greatest stockpile of big-league prospects in baseball...and possibly in baseball history.

    The influx should begin this season, possibly as early as Opening Day, when rookies Tim Collins and Aaron Crow will join the Royals roster. It should continue in May or June with the ascension of former first-round pick Mike Moustakas, who is arguably the top power-hitter in the minors. And it could continue with the promotion of 2008 first-rounder Eric Hosmer, who could join the team after the All-Star break.

    And while the team will likely scuttle to another terrible finish, there will at least be some hope over the horizon, with likely graduations of John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Christian Colon, Wil Myers and Chris Dwyer all within the next two or three years. 

Will Any of the Aging DHs Have a Meaningful Impact in 2011?

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    For those of you baseball fans out there who appreciate good defense and error-free baseball, be glad that the American League has the DH position.

    This year the league welcomes Adam Dunn and Manny Ramirez, adding to the already defensively-challenged group that includes Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Jack Cust and Travis Hafner.

    This could be a banner year for designated hitters, assuming they all forget how old they are. Guerrero is 36 and entering his 15th season in the league. Thome is 40. Ortiz is 35 and has been plagued by slow starts in each of the past three seasons. Damon and Ramirez are 37 and 38 respectively, and they are almost shadows of their former selves. Dunn is only 31, but he is one of the least athletic players in the league.

    So this begs the question: Will any of these aging stars offer any sort of value in 2011?

    You can bet that Dunn will be a big-time yes. He's still capable of 30-to-40 homers. But after him, who knows?

    Guerrero had a bit of a career resurgence in 2010, as did Thome, but they're both so far over the hill that they're walking injury time-bombs.

    The same could be said for Ortiz, Damon and Hafner.

    And don't even get me started on Cust. He couldn't even make an Opening Day roster last year. 

Will the Rangers Decision to Keep Feliz at Closer Hinder Their Playoff Chances?

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    The Rangers bullpen became instantly better when the team announced that it was going to leave Neftali Feliz as its closer. A trial run as starter didn't pan out exactly as everyone had hoped.

    Unfortunately, that leaves the Rangers rotation very thin heading into the 2011 season, and any hopes of a repeat run to the World Series could be a pipe dream for Texas fans.

    Staff ace C.J. Wilson had a career year in 2010, but after pitching as a reliever for the previous five seasons, you have to wonder if he'll be able to keep up his stamina, or stay healthy, for the entire 2011 season. Same goes for Colby Lewis, who pitched 201 innings last year, after pitching only 56 innings from 2004-2009.

    Factor in bottom-of-the-rotation starters Matt Harrison and Derek Holland and the always injury-prone Brandon Webb and I'd say the Rangers could have used a guy like Feliz, who throws as many as three above-average pitches, in their starting five. They have a pitcher more than capable of closing games in Tanner Scheppers.

    Only time will tell if leaving Feliz at closer will hinder the team's ability to challenge for the division crown.

    My guess is it won't affect their ability to win the division, but it will severely handicap them come playoff time.

How Long Will King Felix Remain a Mariner?

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    The Mariners have stated on numerous occasions that Felix Hernandez, the 2010 American League Cy Young award winner, is not available.

    Let's see how long that lasts, as the M's head into the 2011 season as one of the worst teams in the league. 

    Seattle made very few moves, none of them significant, that would lead one to think that they're going to be competitive in 2011, or even 2012 for that matter. They should get help in the form of Dustin Ackley, who should arrive at some point this season and lock down an everyday spot. Monster right-hander Michael Pineda, who has impressed everyone this spring, earned a spot in the Mariners rotation.

    After Ackley and Pineda, the drop-off in prospect talent is considerable. Last year's selection, Taijuan Walker, is at least four years away from making an impact, and there are very few prospects with even the chance to be above-average regulars aside from Nick Franklin.

    My point is that if the Mariners can use Hernandez to help build their farm system, they should do it. If they could get close to what the Royals got (and some feel K.C. didn't get enough) for Greinke, they would be in much better shape.

    By dealing him to, say, a desperate Rangers squad in July, the Mariners might be able to scoop up a Jurickson Profar or Martin Perez, and also a few secondary pieces like Robbie Ross and Engel Beltre.

    They would also benefit from freeing up some salary, of which King Felix demands a large chunk. 

    And if Pineda blossoms this season like expected, the team has a top-of-the-rotation starter in place to guide the team through it's rebuilding phase. 

Can Ichiro Top 200 Hits for the 11th Consecutive Season?

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    Ichiro's decade-long run of consecutive 200-hit seasons is impressive. It's even more eye-popping when you consider that the outfielder spent the first nine seasons of his career playing professionally in Japan. 

    But while Ichiro seems to be the same reliable speedster that he was when he entered the league back in 2001, it's easy to tell that he's slowing down. His stolen base totals have fluctuated over the past few seasons, and there's little chance that he tops the 42 bases he stole last year. You can also see a decrease in speed by checking out his double and triple totals. He's grown into a doubles machine over the past few seasons, while his triple totals have decreased. 

    All signs are pointing to a slow down. I'd expect to see a slightly-below typical season from Ichiro. He'll still hit above .320, but he'll rack up at least 40 doubles this year, and focus less on the triples. He'll steal 30 bases at the most and maybe show a little more pop than usual. And while that might be enough to keep him in the upper-echelon of AL outfielders, I don't think it will be enough to continue his streak.

    I think 2011 is finally the season Ichiro doesn't reach 200 hits.

    It won't help that he's once again going to be the main attraction for a team that is filled with aging vets (Jack Cust, Miguel Olivo, Jack Wilson and Chone Figgins) and young players with as-of-yet unfulfilled promise (Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez). 

Are the Angels Closer to the Ceiling or the Basement in the AL West?

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    When you check out the moves that the Angels made during the 2010 offseason, it makes them look like they're moving backward. They traded for Vernon Wells, but gave up Mike Napoli in the process. Now they have a crowded outfield situation and a starting catcher who hit .195 last year.

    When you check out the moves they didn't make, most notably not signing Carl Crawford or Cliff Lee, their offseason looks even worse.

    Now you have to wonder whether they're going to put up any sort of fight in 2011, or if they're free falling all the way to the basement of the American League West. 

    The Angels still have a talented pitching staff and a solid bullpen, and you can't discount a team that has Torii Hunter. But the rest of the lineup is filled with below-average power guys (aside from Wells) and low OPS guys like Maicer Izturis, Erick Aybar and Reggie Willits.

    To me, this looks like a team that's going to be fighting for third place in an incredibly top-heavy (and by that I mean one good team) division.

Does Oakland Have a Shot at Dethroning Texas?

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    This might seem like an incredibly stupid question, but if you stop to give it more than three seconds of thought, and then do some research, it's actually incredibly plausible that the A's could be the breakout team of the American League this year.

    If the A's have any hope to compete this year, it will be on the strength of their pitching, especially their rotation, which includes two future studs in Trevor Cahill, who won 18 games in 2010, and Brett Anderson, who was on his way to a breakout season when he was felled with two separate elbow injuries.

    The A's also have Gio Gonzalez, who went 15-9 last year with a 3.23 ERA and eclipsed 200 innings.

    And don't forget that No. 3 starter Dallas Braden tossed a perfect game last year.

    As good as their pitching is, the A's will only go as far as their underwhelming lineup takes them. Their best offensive players are first baseman Daric Barton and catcher Kurt Suzuki and the other six positions are filled with underachieving middle-aged players or aging vets.

    Not too much young talent to get excited about.

    Still, if everything breaks right for the A's, and everything goes bad for the Rangers, this is a team that could sneak into the postseason.

What Rule Changes Will Be Hammered out During the 2011 Season?

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    There's plenty to keep even the most casual fan interested regarding off-the-field rule changes that will inevitably be discussed and approved over the course of the 2011 season.

    First up, changes to the playoff structure.

    It's all but guaranteed that the playoffs for the 2012 season will include two additional teams, one from each league, expanding the playoff field from eight to 10. Also in talks is the possibility of expanding the division series from five to seven games.

    In addition, and in direct response to the playoff structure change, the Players' Union is looking to reduce the schedule from 162 to 154 games. That might not fly as well with the owners or MLB, who would stand to lose a considerable amount of revenue in those eight lost games. 

    Another highly-debated topic that will be front and center revolves around the first-year player draft. Much like other sports, especially football, bonuses are spiraling out of control in baseball, and they are threatening to leave smaller market teams, which can't afford to pony up big bonuses, in the weeds.

    While the draft has allowed teams like the Royals and Pirates to even the playing field over the past few years, it has also negatively affected teams like the Mets and the Astros, teams that often refuse to give in to bonus demands and stick closely to the bonus guidelines mandated by MLB.

    This brings into play the possibility of a rookie wage scale that would prevent teams from spending as much, but it would also negate the advantage the Royals have and, in all honesty, needed to exploit to get back to being competitive.

    Other draft-related topics will include the potential addition of international prospects to the draft pool, possibly expanding the draft pool to include Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, as well as possible changes to the signing deadline, which currently sits at more than two months after the draft itself.

    Other hot topics during the season will be expanded use of instant-replay and the possible addition of safety netting.

What Changes Can We Expect at the 2011 MLB Draft?

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    The 2010 MLB Draft brought numerous changes to the format.

    Instead of spreading the picks out evenly between three days, the league took advantage of the added attention and picked only Round 1 and a supplemental round on Day 1. They then split the rest between the final two days.

    That and Bryce Harper-mania brought record crowds to the draft, and draft coverage spread across multiple sites, ranging from ESPN to Baseball America to the MLB Network.

    This year there won't be too much to deal with. The format will still work the same way, and unlike the NFL and NBA versions, most of the players drafted in the first round will not be in attendance.

    Just about the only thing you can expect to change is the added coverage. ESPN will surely dedicate more of its manpower and energy to the event, as will MLB.com and Baseball America, which have thrived due to the annual event.

    The draft will be held June 6-8. 

How Will the Stupendous Rookie Class of 2010 Fare in Their Sophomore Campaign?

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    There's no denying that the rookie class of 2010 was special.

    Jason Heyward, Buster Posey, Ike Davis and Mike Stanton have already etched their names in franchise lore. Several others, such as Brian Matusz, Neil Walker, Austin Jackson, Madison Bumgarner, Mike Leake, Pedro Alvarez, Starlin Castro and Gaby Sanchez, have parlayed their 2010 success into starting roles for the 2011 season.

    And don't forget that Strasburg fella.

    While he'll miss the entire 2011 season and possibly a good chunk of 2012, he has arguably the highest ceiling of any player in baseball right now.

    Still, for the former rookies, now stellar sophomores, what will they have in store for us in 2011?

    For Heyward, Posey and Alvarez, they will be the faces of their franchises, and these three, more than any others, seem most likely to avoid sophomore slumps. Heyward is one of the most complete packages of any player in baseball, Posey should challenge for a batting title, and Alvarez and Stanton should challenge franchise records for home runs.

Which Under-the-Radar Rookies Will Be Major Factors in the ROY Race?

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    Nobody could have projected that Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin, Jaime Garcia or Brennan Boesch would have reached the majors, played at a near All-Star level, and garnered Rookie of the Year consideration last year, much less do all three.

    But they did, and this year will be the same. There will be some rookies on rosters throughout the league who rise to the occasion and have tremendous seasons. Some will be no-names, like Boesch, who hit .256 with 14 homers and 67 RBI and would have been the AL Rookie of the Year had the season ended in June. And some will be fresh faces like Castro who, at age 20, most felt was too young and too raw to have the kind of success that he did, hitting . 300 in his debut season.

    So who are they going to be?

    Here are a few candidates:

    1) Craig Kimbrel, ATL

    Kimbrel will succeed Billy Wagner as the closer in Atlanta, and he'll likely be successful. Not only does he have the stuff to pitch out of the back of a bullpen, he's also got the mentality. The experience he gained last year late in the season will be invaluable.

    2) Zack Cozart, CIN

    Cozart was just reassigned, meaning he won't be on the Reds Opening Day roster. But considering he offers more offensive upside than current shortstop Paul Janish, it should only be a matter of time before Cozart dethrones him. The 25-year-old plays steady defense and he has excellent pop in his bat. He averaged 12 homers over his past three seasons in the minors, and he hit 17 last year.

    3) Andy Dirks, DET

    If you're looking for the next Boesch, look no further than Detroit's own Andy Dirks, who lit up spring training pitching. Dirks hit 11 homers in 98 games in Double-A last year and hit .375 in a late promotion to Triple-A. He's headed back there and he could be back in Detroit if the outfielders the Tigers did keep (Boesch and Casper Wells) falter.

    4) Leslie Anderson, TB

    The 29-year-old Cuban defector might not fit the prospect bill to a perfect T, but he's still eligible. With Carlos Pena playing in Chicago Tampa's first-base duties fall to Dan Johnson. If he can't handle it or doesn't produce enough, the Rays could turn to Anderson, who is exceptional at hitting for average and who won a Gold Glove in Cuba for his defense. 

How Dominating Will the Phillies Rotation Be?

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    Let's do some math, shall we?

    Based on their 162-game average from Baseball-Reference.com, these are the typical-year projections for the Phillies starting five: Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton.

    Lee: 16-9, 3.85 ERA, 218.0 IP, 168 K, 54 BB

    Halladay: 17-9, 3.32 ERA, 235.0 IP, 175 K, 50 BB

    Oswalt: 16-9, 3.18 ERA, 221.0 IP, 183 K, 51 BB

    Hamels: 14-10, 3.53 ERA, 216.0 IP, 205 K, 57 BB

    Blanton: 13-11, 4.30 ERA, 212.0 IP, 137 K, 59 BB

    You can tell a few things from those numbers. 

    One is that Blanton is in way over his head with these other four guys, especially the big three.

    Second, this could be the most impressive pitching rotation in MLB history. Combine all the numbers and you get 76 victories. That's already 80 percent of the 97 wins that the Phillies posted last year. 

    So, how dominant do you think that the Phillies will be this year?

    I'm betting that Lee wins more than 16 games as the team's fourth starter, and that Halladay wins at least 20. That should put the Phillies in the 100-to-105 range in terms of victories, making them the runaway winner of the National League East.

    For further proof that the City of Brotherly Love is in for something really special this year, check out this awesome piece from the Phillies website.

How Will the Braves Perform in Year One Post-Bobby Cox?

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    On April 1st, for the first time since 1989, the Braves will start the season with someone at the helm not named Bobby Cox.

    The long-time manager and sure-fire Hall of Famer stepped down after 29 seasons with the Braves, and assistant Fredi Gonzalez was hired to replace him.

    The switch isn't too much of a change for most of the Braves players, who knew Gonzalez from his time as a minor-league manager in the Braves system.

    Most of all, the change shouldn't affect the team too much, because this is a really talented squad that should not only challenge for a Wild Card spot, but could also give the Phillies and their super rotation a run for it's money.

    The Braves rotation features Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy, who led all minor leaguers with a 1.73 ERA last season. In their lineup, they have Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Alex Gonzalez, Dan Uggla, Brian McCann, and rookie Freddie Freeman, who is regarded as one of the top prospects in all of baseball.

    And their bullpen, which was the team's greatest asset in 2010, should be even better in 2011. Craig Kimbrel has ascended to the closer's role, and he is supported by Pete Moylan, Scott Linebrink and Johnny Venters. 

What's Going to Happen to the Mets?

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    You might as well call them the New York Mess.

    The other team from New York has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this offseason, with everything from poor ticket sales and player injuries to financial ruin and uncertainty about their future as a franchise.

    Just as news broke that the team lost $50 million in 2010, reports surfaced that the team could stand to lose just as much in 2011.

    And considering the team is pretty much the same as last year, the productivity on the field shouldn't be too much more impressive. It's hard enough that the Mets have to try to dig themselves out of the NL East, but it's even harder that they have to do it with the team they have now. 

    Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes are healthy...reportedly. Johan Santana is out...indefinitely. The pitching rotation consists of two young studs (Mike Pelfrey and Jon Niese) coming off of breakout seasons, and two other broken-down vets (Chris Capuano and Chris Young). And second base and catcher are huge question marks.

    Luckily for the Mets, they still have David Wright and 2010 breakout rookie Ike Davis. They also have some help down the pipeline with Matt Harvey, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Reese Havens, as well as a very impressive group of international prospects (Wilmer Flores, Jenrry Mejia, Cesar Puello).

    And with Sandy Alderson restoring some order to the front office, it looks like things might finally be looking up for the Mets. But remember, according to Harvey Dent, the night is darkest just before the dawn...and I don't think dawn is coming to Shea for at least another year or two.

Will Jayson Werth Crumble Under the Pressure of His Ridiculous Contract?

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    Admit it, you chuckled when you saw it.

    And by it, I mean Jayson Werth's contact figures on the new deal he signed as a free agent with the Washington Nationals: seven years, $126 million.

    Ha!

    Ha ha ha!

    The front office swears Werth's deal is all part of the master plan to turn the Nats into a contender, but what I see is a team loading itself down with a Denny Neagle/Mike Hampton-like deal.

    It's not like they gave a seven-year deal to a 25 or 27-year-old. 

    Werth is 31 and plays the game aggressively, meaning he's just an injury away from costing the Nats a truck-load of money.

    That said, he better have one hell of a year in order to justify a good chunk of that coin. If he doesn't hit .300 with 35 homers and 115 RBI, I'd say that's a major disappointment. 

How High Will Bryce Harper Rise?

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    We know this much: Bryce Harper will start his pro career in the Low-A South Atlantic League.

    Where he goes from there is anyone's guess.

    My guess, however, is that he'll split time between the Sally League and High-A Carolina League, before seeing about 20-to-40 late-season at-bats with the big-league club.

    Hopefully he loses the He-Man war paint look by then.

What's Going to Happen with Albert Pujols?

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    So much to say...so little to say.

    This one is going to dominate the headlines for the majority of the season, especially in St. Louis, and especially if the Cardinals fall out of contention.

    And for good reason.

    It's not often I side with the players, but Pujols deserves just about whatever he wants. He's worth more than A-Rod and he deserves more than A-Rod, and if the Cardinals are too dumb or blind to see that, then they don't deserve to have him.

    There will be no team-friendly deal here. The Cards are lucky that they've been able to have him in uniform for as long as they have for what he's making, which is a good amount, but much less than he's ultimately worth.

    I'm pretty sure that this one will get worked out. Pujols is just one of those players who you can't see in another uniform.

How Many Home Runs Will Mike Stanton Hit?

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    Between Double-A Jacksonville and the big-league club, Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton hit an incredible 44 home runs last year.

    The fact that he hit 22 in just 359 big-league at-bats is incredible in itself, and it leads you to wonder just how many home runs he's capable of hitting in a full 162-game schedule. Well, we'll all get the chance to see in 2011, when Stanton is an everyday player for the Fish, and one of the few exciting baseball-related things going on in South Florida.

    I'd set the over-under at 38, and I'm probably taking the over on that one. 

    Another interesting side bet would be how many strikeouts he racks up, but I'll try not to focus on the negative here.

How Will the Cardinals Cope with the Loss of Adam Wainwright?

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    The Cardinals have already entered into life without Adam Wainwright, and any hope that former ace Chris Carpenter will ascend to his old throne in St. Louis seems tenuous at best.

    Carpenter is already an injury waiting to happen, and the rest of the Cardinals rotation is ill-equipped to deal without one, much less both, of them.

    Jake Westbrook is a decent addition, but he's a middle-rotation guy and nothing more. The same can be said for rookie star Jaime Garcia. And Kyle Lohse and Kyle McClellan are back-end starters.

    Clearly the Cardinals need some help.

    They might get some in the form of a 20-year-old fire-baller named Shelby Miller.

    The Cards have sworn that the loss of Wainwright and the potential of losing Carpenter won't alter their development plans with Miller, but if you have a team with a lineup that includes Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Colby Rasmus, you're gonna have a hard time thinking about next year.

    Enter Miller, a flame-throwing right-hander who touched 98 mph with his fastball and has a plus curveball and a potential above-average changeup. Scouts say his fastball is big-league ready right now, and that could be too tempting for the Cards to resist if they think he could make an impact in the majors.

    Other in-house options include Lance Lynn, who posted a 13-10 record at Triple-A last year, and P.J. Walters, who has seen time with the big-league club during the past two seasons. 

Can the Reds Repeat?

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    Winning the NL Central title in 2010 was quite a shock for the Reds and their fanbase.

    Winning it again in 2011 will require more than just a fast start and a loaded schedule against the Pirates and Astros.

    Not only do the Reds have to deal with their own expectations this year, but they also have to deal with the Brewers' addition of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Milwaukee is in win-now mode and doesn't look like it is going to take its foot off the gas. The Cubs also improved greatly and could be a sleeper, much in the same way the Reds were last season.

    The Reds certainly have the team to win the division again. NL MVP Joey Votto returns, as does breakout candidate Jay Bruce. The Reds have arguably the best rotation in the division, with Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo leading the way. Mike Leake returns as the third starter after a stellar rookie campaign, both on the mound and at the plate, and the rotation is filled out by Travis Wood and Sam LeCure.

    And even if the Reds sustain a major injury, they have the depth to maneuver some pieces and keep on rolling. They have Yonder Alonso, Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier and Chris Valaika in the upper levels of their minor league system, and each has the ability to hold their own in the majors.

    The Reds also have something that no other team can claim: Aroldis Chapman's left arm. 

When Will Aroldis Chapman's Arm Fall Off?

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Which begs the question...how long until Chapman's arm falls off?

    I mean, seriously, how long can a guys arm last throwing 103-to-105 miles per hour bullets. As someone wise once said, pitching is an unnatural act. Throwing 95-to-98 miles per hour can have a definite effect on the health of a pitcher's arm, meaning throwing as hard as Chapman does puts him at an even greater risk.

    I'd hate to see Chapman fall from grace like Mark Prior did, but with his lighting up the radar guns at close to 106 miles per hour, it's hard to envision him with any other fate.

How Big of an Impact Will Greinke Have in Milwaukee?

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    With the injury to Adam Wainwright, it looks like the Brewers are the main threat to the Reds' second-straight division crown.

    Milwaukee ransomed their farm system and got Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in return, and the Brewers are now hoping that's enough to transform one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball last year. 

    Greinke should help immensely, though he is sidelined with an injury currently. Pitching in the NL should do him some good, and he won't face any added pressure like he would have had he been dealt to say...New York or Boston. 

    Marcum was one of the most underrated pitchers of the year in 2010, and the Brewers had to give up a costly piece, star prospect Brett Lawrie, in order to get him. He should give the Brewers a solid one-two-three punch, with Yovani Gallardo filling out the second or third spot.

    For the most part, the Brewers lineup is stacked. They feature heavy hitters Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart. They'll be lucky if they can get a repeat performance from 2010 breakout star Casey McGehee, but would greatly benefit from a bounce-back season from Rickie Weeks.

    Much of the Brewers season could rely on the improvement of Carlos Gomez in center field and Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop. If they can keep their on-base percentages up, the Brewers could have a chance to overtake the Reds.

How High Should Cubs Fans Get Their Hopes?

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Cubs fans are not only eternally damned with the worst luck in major league history, but they're also blessed with the most undying belief that "this year" is the year for their club.

    And I've got news for you Cubbies...this very well could be the year.

    I'm not crazy enough to think that the Cubs can go all San Francisco on us and win the whole thing, but I think this team they've assembled is certainly talented enough to challenge the Reds for the division crown and to be a major player in the Wild Card chase.

    The Cubs overhauled their rotation this offseason, adding veteran innings-eater Matt Garza and releasing Carlos Silva in favor of youngster Andrew Cashner, who was a revelation pitching out of the bullpen in 2010.

    They have a talented lineup that was bolstered by fellow former-Ray Carlos Pena, who should be good for at least 30 homers in a hitter-friendly park like Wrigley.

    Moreover, the Cubs have a new direction, with new managerial blood in the form of Mike Quade. This team will have Quade's fingerprints all over it and will be a harder working, more disciplined squad than Cubs fans are used to.

    And maybe, just maybe, the team can squeak out a division title. 

Who Will Pittsburgh Select with the First Overall Pick in the 2011 MLB Draft?

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    For me and for most Pirates fans, the middle chunk of the season (June-August) will be more notable for the team's off-the-field endeavors, such as what they're going to do with the No. 1-overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, and then whether they going to be able to sign whoever they select.

    The money right now is on Rice's Anthony Rendon, a franchise cornerstone in the mold of Evan Longoria. You might be thinking to yourself that the Pirates already have one of those (Pedro Alvarez), but Rendon's game is so all-around good, that he would likely force Alvarez over to first base.

    Another likely option is UCLA's Gerrit Cole. Cole is the top pitcher available, high school or college, and features nasty mid-to-high 90s heat and a bevy of secondary pitches that all grade out as average or above-average. The Pirates favored the top pitcher over the legendary Bryce Harper last year, and could go the same route if they feel the same way about Cole.

    Other alternatives include Bubba Starling, a five-tool multi-sport star outfielder from Kansas, Daniel Norris, the top high-school pitcher, or Sonny Gray, the second-best college pitcher available.

    Even after the Pirates select, the drama doesn't end. Then they have to sign their top pick which, over the past few years, has cost the team with the No. 1 pick anywhere from $6 to $15 million, a huge number that the MLB is trying to bring down.

How Bad Will the Astros Be?

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    Word on the street is that the Astros could be the worst team in baseball in 2011.

    And you know what that means?

    Lots of celebrating in Pittsburgh, because if that comes true and the Astros finish dead last in the NL, then it would be the first time the Pirates didn't finish in last since 2006.

    The Astros are in the throes of a rebuilding process, one that is going to be more lengthy and more painful because their farm system is nowhere near where it needs to be for a team that is turning its reins over to youth.

    Houston has some good pieces in Hunter Pence, J.A. Happ, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Wallace, and some capable veterans in Brett Myers and Carlos Lee. Both Myers and Lee could find their way out of town as the season winds down and as teams start looking for that extra piece that could get them to the promised land. 

    Houston needs all the help it can get. 

    With the fifth-worst rated farm system in baseball, it's going to be quite a long rebuilding process for the Astros. 

Who Will Be the Surprise Team out of the National League West in 2011?

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    It seems like every season there's a surprise team in the National League West. 

    Last year it was the Padres for 161 games, coming out of nowhere with a less-than-stellar lineup, but a historically excellent bullpen and overachieving rotation. For the last game of the season and all of the playoffs, it was the Giants, with their blend of youth and experience, and the best rotation in baseball.

    So who's it going to be this year?

    The Dodgers seem like the likely choice, just because they fell the hardest in 2010, but there are still so many off-the-field issues going on in LA that it just seems too unlikely to be likely.

    That said, I'll settle back with one of 2010's breakout clubs...the Padres.

    The team added Jason Bartlett, who should excel at Petco Park, as well as speedy Cameron Maybin, who will cover a good chunk of the outfield playing in center. Its bullpen is still awesome, and their rotation should be bolstered by the addition of Aaron Harang.

    Mat Latos returns after a sensational rookie campaign, as does Tim Stauffer, who was a revelation as a starter/reliever last season, posting a 1.85 ERA. They'll be joined by Clayton Richard (14-9, 3.75 ERA) and Dustin Moseley, who could be a place-holder until one of the Padres pitching prospects, like Casey Kelly, Cory Luebke or Simon Castro, is ready to take over.

    It may seem even more improbable that a team so pedestrian looking on paper could challenge for a division crown once again, but I think they have the spirit about them to try and succeed in 2011.

Will 2010 Breakout Star Mat Latos Break Down in 2011?

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    As mentioned in the previous slide, Mat Latos returns as the ace of the Padres rotation, after a stellar rookie campaign that saw him post a 14-10 record and a 2.92 ERA. He struck out 189 batters and posted one of the top WHIPs in the National League.

    Latos also pitched a career-high 184.2 innings, roughly 60 more than he pitched in 2009, and 60 more than what he combined to throw in 2008 and 2009.

    By my count, that seems to make him quite an injury risk heading into 2011.

    The Padres realized this too late last season, and tried to keep him on a strict pitch count as they wound down their season. And while it may have preserved Latos' arm, it may have cost the team a shot at the playoffs.

    It also doesn't help that Latos is a really big guy (6'6", 225 pounds) and big guys tend to have trouble repeating their mechanics, sometimes leading to overcompensation, which leads to injury. He's also a pretty big player on the party scene, admittedly so, so that's worth keeping an eye on as well. 

    Update: Latos just went on the DL with a sore shoulder. Let it begin.

Will Pablo Sandoval Bounce Back from a Sub-Par 2010 Season?

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    The 2010 season was notable for Pablo "Kung-Fu Panda" Sandoval for two reasons.

    One, his average dropped from .330 in 2009 to .268.

    Two, his weight ballooned to close to 260 pounds, as he struggled with conditioning and weight work.

    Don't think the two aren't related.

    This spring, Panda arrived at camp looking svelte and fit, and at least 30 pounds lighter than his 2010 playing weight. The Giants are banking on the fact that he figured out how to tame his portly frame, and they are hoping he can rebound with a big season for them.

    Just think: The Giants won the World Series without the best efforts of the team's best player from 2009.

    Just imagine how talented they could be if Sandoval can revert to his 2009 form.

Which Rookies Will Have the Biggest Impact Come September?

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    In the final months of the 2010 season, there were some rookies who were clutch when it mattered. The Giants had two of the best in Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, but they weren't the only ones.

    For the Rangers, Mitch Moreland was a huge piece of their playoff push, and their run through the Rays and Yankees on the way to the World Series, where the 24-year-old hit .462.

    And over in Atlanta, Johnny Venters was un-hittable, striking out eight batters in 5.1 postseason innings. 

    Expect more of the same this season, as a new class of rookies breaks in and plays pivotal roles in late-season pennant races and the playoffs. Here's my bunch to watch:

    • Devin Mesoraco, CIN: This catcher offers much more offense than any of the Reds current backstops
    • Chance Ruffin, DET: The 2010 first-rounder has yet to make his debut, but should reach Detroit by the summer
    • Kyle Gibson, MIN: Especially if the Twins end up dealing Liriano, they have an excellent replacement in Gibson
    • Dellin Betances, NYY: He could contribute out of the bullpen if the Yanks are in the hunt.
    • Thomas Neal, SF: One-time top prospect for Giants has serious power and could be a solid role player
    • Rex Brothers, COL: Rockies reliever has moved quickly and could reach Coors Field sometime late in 2011

Who Will Be the Biggest Names on the Market at the Trade Deadline?

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    Last year, there wasn't any huge splash around the trade deadline, but there were a lot of solid big leaguers who packed their bags and headed for greener pastures.

    Among them were Lance Berkman, Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood, Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth.

    So who are the likely names to be on the move come trade season?

    You first have to think about who the big buyers are going to be. Figure that Boston, New York, Tampa, Detroit, Chicago and Texas will all be in the hunt in the AL. In the National League, you're looking at Philly, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Colorado and San Francisco.

    That makes everyone else a potential seller.

    I could see names like Vlad Guerrero, Chone Figgins, and Felix Hernandez moving from cellar-dwellers to contenders, with a slurry of other mid-level guys joining them

Who Will the Breakout Hitters of the 2011 Season Be?

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    Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

    Last year, baseball got unexpected boosts from all sorts of hitters, young and old.

    In Toronto, some bench bum named Jose Bautista exploded for 54 home runs, almost eclipsing his career total in just one season.

    In Boston, the Sox received some pretty big impacts from two seasoned minor-leaguers, Darnell McDonald and Daniel Nava, both of whom made late-game heroics their calling card.

    In Colorado, Carlos Gonzalez, a former top prospect in three different organizations, finally landed in a big way, almost winning the NL MVP.

    Other breakout stars included: Omar Infante, Colby Rasmus, Jay Bruce, Martin Prado, Angel Pagan, Jeff Keppinger, and Casey McGehee.

    So who's primed for a breakout year in 2011?

    Let's check out the most likely candidates:

    1) Adam Jones, BAL

    Jones could have been on this list last year. He was one of many Orioles who played like a different person under Buck Showalter. The boss will be riding him hard this year and Jones should have a solid all-around season.

    2) Carlos Santana, CLE

    Santana had a great debut last season with the Indians, and with a full season ahead of him in 2011, he is primed to join the elite catching group in the American League.

    3) Logan Morrison, FLA

    Baseball America guru Jim Callis loves Morrison more than he does Freddie Freeman, and since Freeman is one of the likeliest candidates to take home the NL Rookie of the Year, it seems like a good bet that Morrison is ready to breakout. 

Who Will the Breakout Pitchers of the 2011 Season Be?

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    The 2010 season also featured some big breakout seasons from pitchers, in particular the Mets' R.A. Dickey, LA's Clayton Kershaw, San Francisco's Jonathan Sanchez, Oakland's Gio Gonzalez, the Rangers' C.J. Wilson and Oakland's Dallas Braden.

    My bets for breakout pitchers are as follows:

    1) Daniel Hudson, ARI

    You could say that Hudson broke out last year, posting a 7-1 record with a 1.69 ERA after coming over to the Diamondbacks from the White Sox. He should continue to roll in 2011.

    2) Brian Matusz, BAL

    I hate to be all Oriole friendly, but Matusz was arguably one of the top-five pitchers in baseball towards the end of last season. He could be a dark-horse Cy Young candidate.

    3) John Axford, MIL

    You could argue that Axford had his breakout in 2010, forcing Trevor Hoffman into retirement and saving 24 games for the Brewers. Milwaukee has added Greinke and Marcum, meaning Axford could reach 40 saves in 2011.

    4) Jhoulys Chacin, COL

    Chacin pitched quite well in 2010, posting a 9-11 record and 3.28 ERA pitching for the Rockies as a rookie. Just imagine the kind of line he can put up with a full season's worth of starts and one year of experience under his belt.

    5) J.A. Happ, HOU

    It's going to be hard for Houston to avoid being passed over by Pittsburgh as they sink their way into the basement of the N.L. Central, but Happ is going to shine regardless. He was awesome after being dealt in the Oswalt trade, posting a 5-4 record and 3.75 ERA for a terrible team.

Which Stars Will Slump in a Big Way in 2011?

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Nobody could have expected this group of players to perform so badly in 2010.

    • Jeremy Bonderman, DET: 8-10, 5.53 ERA (worst in the majors)
    • A.J. Burnett, NYY: 10-15, 5.26 ERA
    • Joe Saunders, LAA/ARZ: 9-17, 4.47 ERA (led the Majors in losses)
    • Mark Reynolds, ARZ: .198, 211 strikeouts (ML record)
    • Chone Figgins, SEA: .259, two triples, .340 OBP
    • Matt Kemp, LAD: .249, 170 strikeouts

    Sadly, that's a part of the game. Promising talent that either can't put it all together or suffers some sort of injury (physical or mental) that combines for one ugly duckling of a season.

    Who are 2011's best slump candidates?

    I thought you'd never ask.

    • Jose Bautista, TOR: No way he can repeat on his 2010 season
    • Paul Konerko, CHW: Getting up there in age, ready for a breakdown
    • Miguel Cabrera, DET: Can't spend all your time out drinking and expect to not feel it
    • Jayson Werth, WAS: Can't see him justifying $126 million, no matter what kind of season he has
    • Ubaldo Jimenez, COL: Way too many walks to keep winning at the rate he did in 2010
    • Mark Buehrle, CHW: Getting up there in age, low velocity and too few strikeouts

What Are the Coolest or Strangest Promotions to Look Forward To?

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    This question is courtesy of my wife, who had the brilliant observation to examine off-the-field but still inside-the-stadium nuances of the 2011 baseball season.

    Every team has the let-kids-run-the-bases night and the promotional bobble-head giveaway night, but what I'm more interested in are the one-of-a-kind, original promotions, ones that would make Bill Veeck roll over in his grave, and minor league promotion lovers everywhere proud.

    Taking that into account, let's check out some of the top promotions/giveaways:

    1) April 3rd: The Dodgers will be one of many teams to give away team-themed Snuggies this year, but they get the early jump on the market in the team's second game of the year.

    2) April 22nd: The Pirates are giving away reusable coffee cup sleeves, sponsored by Waste Management. I wonder what kinds of materials were recycled to make the sleeves in the first place. Ew!

    3) April 24th: The Pirates will be honoring kids 14 and under with a Build-a-Bear Bunny decked out in a Pirates jersey. 

    4) May 14th: The Reds will be honoring long-time manager Sparky Anderson by handing out bronze statues to the first 14,000 fans.

    5) May 25th: I'm not quite sure what the Indians are hoping to accomplish with this one, but their contest on this Weather Education Day includes a Weather Curriculum Book giveaway. Hold me back!

    6) July 23rd: Before, during and after a mid-summer tilt with the Rockies, the Diamondbacks will be honoring Native Americans with a day of recognition sponsored by Gila River Casinos. Ouch.

    7) September 17th: A must-have for all Rays collectible fiends...the official Evan Longoria cereal bowl and spoon set. Yes!

Who Will Be the First Player from the 2011 MLB Draft to Reach the Majors?

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    While it's not generally common for a player drafted to make his big-league debut in the same season, MLB is averaging about one player per season doing just that.

    Last season, Chicago's Chris Sale, the 13th-overall pick in the 2010 draft, made his big-league debut on August 6th, less than two months after signing.

    And he wasn't just a publicity stunt. Sale pitched lights-out for the Sox during their division chase of the Twins.

    This season, after one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, will feature a very large group of college pitchers vying for this honor, and in the end, I think it will likely come down to one or two guys.

    My picks?

    I'll take Virginia's Danny Hultzen, who is one of the most polished college arms in the draft and who likely won't let negotiations drag on until the deadline in August. Another solid bet would be Louisville's Tony Zych. A full-blown reliever, Zych could probably stand to make the transition fairly easily and could be a second-to-third round pick. 

Who Are Favorites to Reach/Win the World Series?

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    J. Meric/Getty Images

    According to Las Vegas, these are the top teams favored to win the 2011 World Series:

    1) Phillies: three-to-one

    2) Red Sox: nine-to-two

    3) Yankees: five-to-one

    4) Giants: 15-to-one

    5) Cardinals: 20-to-one

    5) Rangers: 20-to-one

    5) Twins: 20-to-one

    8) Rays: 25-to-one

    8) Reds: 25-to-one

    8) Braves: 25-to-one

    8) Rockies: 25-to-one

    The bottom dwellers of the odds pool are Kansas City and Cleveland at 200-to-one.

Who Are the Favorites to Win the Major Awards?

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Here are the odds-on favorites to win the major awards in both leagues, according to bodog.com.

    AL MVP

    1) Miguel Cabrera: 11-to-two

    2) Adrian Gonzalez: six-to-one

    3) Alex Rodriguez: 10-to-one

    NL MVP

    1) Albert Pujols: three-to-one

    2) Joey Votto: 11-to-two

    3) Ryan Braun: eight-to-one

    AL Cy Young

    1) Felix Hernandez: seven-to-two

    2) CC Sabathia: 11-to-two

    3) Jon Lester: six-to-one

    NL Cy Young

    1) Roy Halladay: four-to-one

    2) Tim Lincecum: four-to-one

    3) Cliff Lee: seven-to-one

What Big Milestones or Records Do We Have to Look Forward to in 2011?

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    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Here are a few statistical categories to pay attention to in 2011, and a few players who could hit some major milestones in their career:

    3,000 hits

    Derek Jeter: currently sitting at 2,926, only 74 base hits away

    500 doubles

    Chipper Jones: sitting at 493

    Johnny Damon: sitting at 487

    Scott Rolen: sitting at 480

    Alex Rodriguez: sitting at 474

    Derek Jeter: sitting at 468

    100 triples

    Jimmy Rollins: sitting at 98

    600 homers

    Jim Thome: sitting at 589

    400 stolen bases

    Johnny Damon: sitting at 385

    Ichiro Suzuki: sitting at 383

    Bobby Abreu: sitting at 372

    200 wins

    Tim Wakefield: sitting at 193

    300 saves

    Francisco Cordero: sitting at 290

    Francisco Rodriguez: sitting at 268