Every MLB season seems to catch us by surprise. Young players reach stardom before we can even say their name. Injuries derail players and teams. Age finally catches up with veterans. Some “risers” never rise. And Cinderella teams give us something to root for.
So what will be this year’s surprises?
Here are 50, count ‘em, 50 bold predictions that will grab our attention in 2011.
We might as well get the bad news out of the way first. Every year, some players have seasons they would soon rather forget. Injuries, poor performance, bad luck, voodoo from an old flame, whatever the case may be, the year becomes a disaster.
First up on the list is New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera. Rivera is the most dominant reliever this generation has ever seen. No reliever has ever been this good for this long as Rivera. But the warning signs have been coming for a couple of seasons now. Rivera is only a one-inning pitcher. His innings have decreased for three consecutive seasons.
Rivera is still dominant. But the words that will be added to that sentence this season will include “when healthy.” DL stints will shorten the Yankees closer's season, as the going on 42-year-old finally breaks down.
Don’t get me wrong, Joe Mauer is still a great player. But as catching continues to take a toll on Mauer’s body, it will be hard for him to maintain the offensive side of his game. One of baseball’s premier two-way, all-around players is not slowing down as much as baseball is seeing an emergence of quality catchers.
San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey emerged on the scene last year en route to the Giants World Series run. Before an injury ended his season, Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana showed why he was considered a top prospect. Add in the Atlanta Braves’ Brian McCann and Mauer has plenty of competition.
If looking at fantasy baseball, you can get a better “deal” than Mauer, with even more production.
The argument has been made and should be made that there is not another team in baseball that has ever assembled a rotation like Philadelphia has put together. Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels form the best top-four rotation in the MLB.
There’s just one problem. The rest of the team is struggling to hold up their end of the bargain.
Brad Lidge has left a huge hole in the bullpen, as he will open the season on the DL. Star second baseman Chase Utley will be joining them. Touted prospect Dominic Brown doesn’t appear ready. Jayson Werth was overpaid to leave the Phillies. Raul Ibanez is just overpaid. No one knows how Jimmy Rollins will perform following an injury-riddled year.
If the Phillies can make it to the playoffs, their rotation makes them the team to beat in a short series. The problem is they may not have enough to get them there.
To further alienate myself from the East Coast, the New York Yankees do not make my playoff predictions. And before you say "he hates the Yankees" and want to call me every name in the book, just hear me out.
The pitching rotation is in shreds. And before you say "what in the name of Freddy Garcia is going on here," just remember who you are relying on for 60 percent of your season: A.J. Burnett. Ivan Nova. Freddy Garcia.
Mark Teixeira is coming off a down year, although his 2010 numbers would be career numbers for many. Derek Jeter is showing signs of age. If any of the Yankees' veteran core sustain major injuries, their offense may not be able to withstand carrying their pitching for a full season.
It was hard to argue with their moves. In fact, they were applauded. Milwaukee finally went out and added not one, but two top-of-the-line starters to their rotation. They have always had the bats. Now, they would finally have the pitching.
Until Greinke decided to pick up a basketball in the offseason.
Milwaukee already has plenty of reasons to hate basketball (see the Milwaukee Bucks, for example), and Greinke’s ribcage injury is one to add to the list. Marcum’s shoulder soreness could also be a sign of things to come.
Papelbon had the worst season of his career in 2010, prompting Theo Epstein to address the bullpen this offseason.
Rumors had the Red Sox trying to see if anyone would be interested in taking Papelbon off their hands, only to find no takers. With former closer Bobby Jenks on board, and promising Daniel Bard waiting in the wings, there will be a short leash on Papelbon to begin the season.
If he blows a couple of games in April, he probably will not be in the ninth come May.
The Cubs clubhouse already appears shaky, and the season hasn’t even begun.
And what makes it so strange is how Carlos Zambrano isn’t even involved. Quade has a tough job in the Windy City, and he also has antsy new ownership. It may seem extreme to not be given even a full season, but if Quade appears over his head, new ownership will not hesitate to make another move.
You may not have heard much about Josh Willingham’s trade to Oakland. And it’s quite possible you may not hear much out of his West Coast adventure.
But Oakland has upgraded their offense to match their pitching. Willingham is a major part of this offense. Added along with former Kansas City Royals outfielder David DeJesus and designated hitter Hideki Matsui, Willingham adds some much-needed punch to the middle of the Athletics order.
Look for a 30-HR season from Willingham.
Pena struggled through a rough 2010 season with the Tampa Bay Rays, failing to hit above .200. Despite that, Pena somehow managed to hit 28 HRs and keep a patient eye at the plate.
While Pena will always be a swing-and-miss kind of player, look for more swing and less miss as Pena takes advantage of the friendly confines.
Now that Crawford has the spotlight to go with his $142 million deal, many people will finally see just how good Crawford is.
Look for Crawford to be the engine that drives the Red Sox offense this season. That’s high praise for a guy who will be working with Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. And he’ll earn it this season.
The Nationals knew they were going to have to overpay to get a bat in who could support the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman.
And now, the National fanbase has 126 million reasons to hope Jayson Werth can be that bat. These are the same fans who saw Werth help their division rival’s rise to the top over the past several seasons. Now, they hope Werth can do the same in Washington.
Batting in front of Zimmerman will only help Werth. Look for Werth to live up to his contract with a 30-30 season in 2011.
This comes hardly as a surprise, as Dunn has surpassed the 40-home run mark for multiple seasons. And yet, Dunn always seems underrated and underappreciated.
Dunn will be a major reason why the White Sox are thinking playoffs in 2011.
While many in the media were stunned at the ability of the Toronto Blue Jays to get rid of what was considered an “unmovable” contract—the Angels believed they were getting exactly what they needed. When Kendry Morales finally returns from injury, the Angels will finally have a lineup that can keep pitchers up at night.
The Angels believed Wells was a better deal than what it would have cost for Adrian Beltre. Look for Wells to post better numbers than Beltre in 2011.
The Braves have not had this type of power since the prime years of Chipper Jones. Uggla adds a power element to the Braves offense that can take them to the next level.
Atlanta might finally have the offense it needs to support its young pitching.
While many are concerned about Bautista being a one-hit wonder, many fail to realize Bautista’s homer surge actually began during the second half of the 2009 season. A change to his stance allowed Bautista to get more lift on the ball, and in doing so, Bautista started to drive the ball with more authority.
Don’t look for that to stop in 2011.
They’ve been saying it for the last two seasons. And so far, Bruce hasn’t lived up to the expectations. That hasn’t stopped people from believing it’ll happen soon.
Still under 25, Bruce now has a couple of seasons under his belt. Having a good idea of how pitchers are trying to attack him, Bruce will strike back and garner his first 40-HR season.
It’s amazing how quickly players become yesterday’s news. If you have one bad season, suddenly you are a blip on the radar screen. Out with the old. In with the new.
One of the rebound candidates you should keep an eye on is Brandon Webb. Webb signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason and will most likely start the season on the DL. But look for Webb, a two-time Cy Young winner who looks healthy for the first time in nearly three years, to have the biggest impact of any pitcher in the second half of the season.
The talent has always been there. The body, unfortunately, has not. The Mariners gave up Adam Jones and Chris Tillman to acquire him from Baltimore in what seems like many moons ago.
Now healthy, Bedard may finally give the Mariners what they have been waiting for.
As a member of the Seattle Mariners bullpen, Putz was one of the best relievers in the game, saving 76 games in 2006-2007—until he hurt his elbow.
Putz finally regained his form as a setup man with the Chicago White Sox last season. Having earned another opportunity to close, look for Putz to post another 40-save season.
As with all Manny Ramirez parties, they never last as long as you hoped, and they never come with a parting gift. And you always leave wondering if it was worth the trip. But that first hour is always the best.
The Tampa Bay Rays don’t have to worry about the party fizzling out. On a one-year deal, with everyone watching, Ramirez knows he’s got to be on his best behavior if he wants to continue to play baseball in 2012. Motivated, slimmed down and healthy, Ramirez will remind every pitcher he faces why he is the best right-handed hitter of his generation.
All signs have been good so far this spring, as Morneau continues to make his way back towards a major league field. And even if he doesn’t start out right away in the majors, Morneau will show signs of his old self, en route to another 30-HR season.
Having lost over 30 pounds, Pablo Sandoval was determined this offseason to show the San Francisco Giants they could count on him.
After bursting onto the scene in 2009, Sandoval struggled last season, with weight-related and batting average-related problems. Both appear to be in great shape for 2011.
Every year you see someone like Carlos Gonzalez emerge as one of baseball’s rising stars. In the next four slides are players who are well on their way.
It’s been a long time since Pirates fans have had something to bring them to the ballpark. Young outfielder Andrew McCutchen is a very good reason. McCutchen already is considered one of the best outfielders in the National League.
Look for him to take the No. 1 spot this season.
After a quiet feud between Rasmus and LaRussa, Rasmus appears on the verge of a breakout.
Hitting in front of Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols, Rasmus has many good pitches to hit. He started to take advantage of that last year. Look for a full-fledged breakout in 2011.
Already playing great defense, Gardner moves up to the top of the Yankee lineup this year. And don’t expect him to leave that spot anytime soon.
With 50-stolen base capability and more, Gardner will represent the best start any team can ask for on offense.
Despite the considerable injuries, many teams would love to have Gallardo at the top of their rotation. Only 25, Gallardo could be a 20-game winner for Milwaukee.
I’d settle for 18.
A lot would need to bounce the Blue Jays' way, but they have the talent to do it. If the young pitching can come together like it did for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, watch out.
This is the year the AL East becomes four deep.
It’s surprising how, despite playing for a big-market team, Youkilis is underrated. When having conversations about the best hitter in the American League, Youkilis’ name does not come up often enough.
This season will put him in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton.
Sporting a K/9 of over 10, Thorton will make sure White Sox fans do not miss Bobby Jenks. And he might just be able to keep Ozzie Guillen from having too many profanity-laced tirades.
Sometimes things happen in a season that are just unexplainable. You don’t know how it happened. It just happened.
I think the Mets will give me this feeling when they someone manage to finish the season with a winning record.
Lily produced great numbers with the Dodgers after the trade, which is a sign of things to come. With a little more offensive support, Lilly could have been a 15-game winner last year.
He’ll get that support and then some this year.
Everyone knew it could happen. And everyone kept waiting. And waiting. And now, people wonder if it’s ever going to happen.
When the Tampa Bay Rays need him the most, Upton will produce. Only to start the trade rumors going into 2012.
Hardly a surprise, Hellickson shows poise unbecoming of a rookie and finishes the season as the best pitcher not named Price in the Tampa Bay Rays rotation.
The Atlanta Braves thought highly enough of Kimbrel that they didn’t try to find a replacement for Billy Wagner in the offseason. They felt they already had one in house.
Look for Kimbrel to follow the success of the rookie closers and become the next Neftali Perez or Andrew Bailey.
With veterans like Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez protecting him in the lineup, Longoria adds the next piece of hardware to go along with a Rookie of the Year and a Gold Glove—an MVP trophy.
Ramirez has already put up numbers that are worthy of being an MVP. He’s hit over .300. He’s hit over 30 HRs. He’s driven in over 100 RBI. He’s stolen over 30 bases.
Look for Ramirez to get the accolades that go with his gaudy numbers this year.
This Detroit Tigers pitcher was an 18-game winner last season. He’s continued to improve, and with an improved offense and a better team record, Verlander gets the award for being the AL’s best pitcher.
Everyone has seen just how good Lee is over the past couple seasons.
He almost took down New York in the World Series single-handedly. He got the Rangers past the Tampa Bay Rays in a Game 5 do-or-die situation. With the move to the National League, Lee will move past even his own teammate, Roy Halladay, to earn the NL Cy Young in 2011.
The former Boston Red Sox batting coach has stepped into a great situation in Toronto. And he will be credited with his team’s rise back to importance for the first time since the mid 1990s.
Gonzalez helps the Braves continue where they left off, continuing the long line of dominance Bobby Cox has displayed. He does a great job trying to fill the very large shoes Cox leaves behind and shows his new team they made the right choice in picking Cox’s successor.
Oakland already boasted the best rotation in baseball last year (led the majors in quality starts), and with the upgrades to the offense and bullpen (added both Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes), Oakland surpasses the Cliff Lee-less Rangers for the top spot in the AL West.
Even with Jake Peavy on the shelf, the White Sox have built themselves a team that can compete with the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins.
The addition of Adam Dunn and his impact cannot be understated. Over the past few seasons, general manager Kenny Williams has made some bold moves, adding Juan Pierre and Alex Rios.
The addition of Dunn will put the Sox over the top.
Boston is the heavy favorite, after all their upgrades.
The crazy part is, even without their upgrades, they still could have been the favorites just on the strength of getting people back from injuries. Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkilis and many others spent considerable amounts of time on the DL. Getting them back healthy will have just as big of an impact as all of the additions they’ve made this offseason.
Maybe it’s just the homer in me, but the Tampa Bay Rays still have a very competitive team.
A rotation led by David Price. An offense led by Evan Longoria. The Rays will find a way to garner their third postseason appearance in four seasons.
With the one-two punch of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, along with the re-emergence of Pablo Sandoval, the Giants have a core they can grow with for many seasons. And add many more division titles.
The team with the least amount of questions in the NL Central, the Reds will take advantage of their competition's major injuries (Cardinals’ Adam Wainright, Brewers' Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum) and post back-to-back NL Central title victories.
With an offense headed by Hanley Ramirez and new prodigy Mike Stanton, and Josh Johnson returning healthy from an injury, the Marlins work their small-market magic again to win the NL East.
The Braves have a perfect blend of veterans and youth.
Young stars such as Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Tommy Hansen. Veterans such as Chipper Jones, Tim Hudson and Brian McCann. The Braves will put it all together this year and make it back to the big dance.
This year’s small-market series may be bad for ratings but great for baseball. It’s not about how much money you have to spend. It’s how you spend it.
And both of these teams have done a great job in developing talent from their farm system pipeline.
Crazy, huh? Unbelievable, you say? Well, I would agree with you. But in 2008, you would have been crazy to say the Tampa Bay Rays would make it to the World Series.
This offseason, you would have been crazy to think the New York Yankees wouldn’t end up with Cliff Lee. Or that Philadelphia would end up with Cliff Lee. It’s always surprising before it happens.
Whether right or wrong, this season will be full of surprises. It’s time to find out what surprises 2011 has in store.