MLB Predictions 2011: 20 Keys To Winning the Crowded AL East
The AL East is baseball's toughest division. This is not a bold statement.
Every team in the division has a chance to win a pennant. This is a bold statement.
From the New York Yankees to the Toronto Blue Jays, every team has a chance to win this division. The following are the ways each team can actually win against the best competition in the world.
Boston Red Sox Must Limit Injuries
Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury combined to miss a total of 231 games in 2010. This was one of, if not the main reason Boston missed the playoffs last year.
In order for the Sox to win the division, they must remain healthy. Boston has the best lineup in the AL East—on paper. However, the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez will significantly help out in the event of injuries. The BoSox should be able to put together a great season in 2011, barring any catastrophic breakdowns.
Saltalamacchia Must Fix "The Thing'
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a better starter than Jason Varitek at this point in his career, aside from one "thing."
Saltalamacchia is a solid catcher with almost pinpoint accuracy on his throws to every position in the infield—except the pitcher.
Reminiscent of Rube Baker in "Major League 2," Saltalamacchia has had trouble throwing the ball back to his pitcher and has been known to bounce the ball back to the pitcher or hurl the ball into center field.
He has been working in the offseason with Sox catching coach Gary Tuck and has shown marked improvement.
If Salty can fix "The Thing", he should prove to be a reliable starting catcher in place of the aging veteran.
Boston's Bullpen Needs To Shine, Once Again
Johnathon Papelbon is the current closer on the Red Sox. His strikeout numbers and number of saves seem to suggest he is an elite closer, but many Red Sox fans are beginning to turn on Papelbon. His fastball seems to have lost its sizzle and hitters are catching up with it at an alarming pace.
Papelbon has been working on his slider and his splitter over a rocky Spring Training, but up-and-comer Daniel Bard, the Sox set-up man last year, may soon contend with the failing Papelbon for the coveted closer role.
Bard's fastball reaches speeds up to 98 mph. Hitters are going to have a lot more trouble hitting what looks like an aspirin tablet coming out of the 25-year-old's hand than they will Papelbon's new arsenal of breaking pitches.
Papelbon is a power pitcher, not a finesse guy. If he really is losing his power, Boston may need to lose him before the summer if they are going to make a playoff run..
Boston Must Have a Reliable DH
David Ortiz's numbers have been dropping as of late.
2006: Big Papi hits for .287 and 54 home runs.
2010: These numbers drop to .270 and 32 home runs.
While this may be an unfair analysis of Ortiz's best and near worst two years in MLB, the fact remains that he is aging and is not as strong as he once was.
At 35 years old, the power-hitting DH may soon be fighting for his job with another player the Sox will no doubt obtain if the older superstar has another slow start in 2011.
Boston Red Sox 2011 Prediction: 96-66
The Yankees Need To Hold Off Father Time
Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez are all over 35.
These four player are the stars on a $200M Yankees team, but their best years may be behind them.
While each player can most certainly hold his own in just about every category, Yankees' management and fans hope this is not the year where these players' ages show.
If the Yankees have another disappointing year in 2011 for the players in question, the Yankees may end up finding younger replacements sooner than expected.
Yankees Starting Rotation Needs To Produce
CC Sabathia is perhaps the most dominant lefty in baseball today and will win 20 games for the Yankees in 2011, but he will be unable to propel the Yanks into the playoffs single-handedly.
CC's supporting staff will have to step up in order for the Yankees to win the AL East.
Phil Hughes is improving, but his stamina may come into question during the summer and early fall.
Bartolo Colon is past his prime, but may have a little left in the tank for one more year.
If the Yankees can come up with the magic rotation of some aging pitchers and some unproven arms, they could make a run at yet another pennant for the storied franchise.
The Yankees Are Going To Have To Lead Games Early
The Yankees have arguably the best bullpen in the majors with Joba, Rivera and Soriano, but the addition of Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre as starters in place of Andy Pettitte and Javier Vasquez raises some serious questions about the Yankees' ability to hold off the rest of the AL East's hard-hitting teams before getting to the later innings.
Can Mitre hold off the Blue Jays, who hit the third most home runs in the history of the game last year?
Will Nova be able to pitch to the star-studded Boston lineup without getting dinged up too badly?
Only time will tell.
The Yankees Need a Catcher
The Yankees have moved Jorge Posada to a DH role and have left a gaping hole at catcher. With some of the biggest names (and egos) pitching on the Yankees' staff, not just any catcher is going to be able to fill the shoes of Posada.
Veteran Russell Martin has assumed duties as of now, but AAA prospect Jesus Montero is going to be the Yankees' catcher of the future.
All-in-all, the Yankees are still a formidable team, but it remains to be seen if they really are the best team that money can buy. Look for a lot of changes in their rotation before mid-season, but by then it may be too late.
The Blue Jays Cannot Rest on Last Season
After last year's 85-win season, the Blue Jays could have become complacent. However, the Jays have legitimized themselves as a contender in the AL East by picking up some good, young pitching talent.
The Jays grabbed Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel to add to their bullpen.
Adding these arms to the already impressive combination of Romero, Cecil and Morrow could make the Jays a force to be reckoned with in 2011. However, the Jays are going to need to play well offensively again and still are going to need a little luck to be contenders this year.
Were the Jays in almost any other division, they would be considered the team to beat.
Toronto's John Farrell Has to Contend
With a bevy of young talent, the Jays need one more thing to become a division-winning team—leadership.
The hiring of John Ferrell as manager in Toronto may work well or may backfire for the Jays. Ferrell has never held a managerial position. The fact that he was a pitching coach for the Red Sox did familiarize him with the division, but the task of beating the other teams in the division may prove too much for Farrell in 2011.
That being said, no one expects Ferrell to win the division in his first year as manager, but if he can keep the young Jays from melting down against their competition and can keep the team improving, he will retain his job as manager.
Jose Bautista Needs To Improve on Last Season
Jose Bautista hit a league-leading 54 home runs last year, but his batting average was only .260.
While this is an improvement for Bautista over 2009's numbers, he will need to continue to improve to carry the Jays to a division championship. If Jose Bautista can drive in 40-plus HR again and increase his BA to around .300, he may provide the spark this team needs.
The Jays Need to Find Some Depth
The loss of Vernon Wells will take a toll on the young Blue Jays team.
His big bat provided 31 HR and a .515 slugging percentage for a bat-heavy team last year. The Jays will not have quite as explosive an offense as last year, and the lack of maturity on the mound could add up to trouble in 2011 for the Canadian team.
The Jays are going to have to find some veteran pitching or some big bats by mid-season if they hope to contend this year.
The Jays are building a good ball club, but it won't be there for a year or two.
Tampa's Bullpen Needs to Hold It Together
The Rays lost almost their entire bullpen to trades and free agency in the offseason, but manager Joe Maddon is used to starting with a motley crew bullpen. He did the same last season.
In 2010 the Rays' bullpen was one of the best in the league, but payroll costs for the Rays were cut by nearly 40 percent in the offseason and the bulk of the pitchers who kept the Rays on top of the division were dealt to other teams.
This year the Rays have added Kyle Farnsworth (whose past performance in the AL East has been less-than-stellar), Juan Cruz and Joel Peralta.
Understandably, these names are not well known. However, the Rays have always been known to develop talent and they relish the underdog role they are perennially dealt.
The Idiots Have To Perform
The addition of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez during the offseason could affect the Rays in a good or bad way.
Damon and Manny have been teammates before and won a World Series during that time, but that was eight years ago. Since then, Damon has lost a step in his running ability and has not improved his arm strength.
Manny has been involved in a steroid episode, a suspension and various other episodes since then and his bat seemed to dwindle late last year.
This duo of veterans has to perform well in their roles as players and leaders in order to bring the Rays to another division title.
Evan Longoria Needs to Step Up to His Leader Role
Evan Longoria is the best third-baseman in Major League Baseball. He is a hard worker, a Golden Glove winner and a strong hitter.
Unwittingly, Longoria has been thrust into a leadership position at the age of 25.
Longoria needs to embrace this role and become the leader the Rays need to, once again, to be the surprise team of the division.
Joe Maddon Needs to Figure out His Bullpen Rotation
The Rays do not have a closer. Or a set-up man. Or a solid middle reliever.
The faster Joe Maddon decides who will pitch in what aspect, the faster the Rays can put a game plan in place.
Maddon is no stranger to instances such as this, but if he waits too long to decide what is going to happen, the Yankees and Sox could be out of reach.
Last year the Rays were able to win based on solid defense, good starting pitching and a solid closer.
They traded almost every one of the players who were instrumental in all this away over the offseason, but one constant remains.
Joe Maddon, who may be the best manager in the division, but could be the GOAT of the American League after this year, as well.
The Orioles Must Pitch Well
Lefty Brian Matusz will, more than likely, be the ace on Baltimore's squad this year.
While Matusz is a very promising young pitcher at the age of 24, he still needs to mature immensely before he is ready to take on the AL East. His ERA was over 4.00 last year in the absolute hardest hitting, best playing division in the world.
Matusz will come around. He will come into his own and become a dynamic force on the mound for the Orioles, but it will be too late in 2011 when it happens.
Matusz is the best pitcher on the team, and it only goes downhill from there.
Buck Showalter Will Need to Micromanage Less
Showalter does not take any flak. He is a no-nonsense type of manager who is an authoritative figure and was a catalyst for the Orioles last year with his disciplinarian-type management style.
He almost single-handedly turned the program around when he took over in 2010. With an influx of veteran players to the team, this may lead to some inadvertent ego issues between the older players and the manager.
Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds and Vladimir Guerrero are extremely talented players, but their addition to Showalter's Orioles may end up being a mistake.
The Batters Must Protect the Pitching
With such a young pitching corps, the bats in Baltimore need to step up to protect the pitching. The Orioles will probably give up four or five runs a game, but the added hitters on the Orioles' roster may be able to counteract this until the pitching corps can come in to their own.
Sluggers Derrek Lee, J.J. Hardy and Vladimir Guerrero, in addition to Mark Reynolds will definitely score runs for Baltimore, but they need to produce consistently to be a threat to win the division.
Matt Wieters Needs To Mature
This 6'5" powerhouse is the future for the Orioles. He is a coveted switch-hitting catcher with exceptional strength and mobility behind the plate.
Wieters is perhaps the future franchise face for the Orioles and needs to mature into the role of leader as fast as possible. Perhaps one of the best defensive catchers in the league, Wieters will have his hands full with the Orioles' young bullpen.
Do not expect much in 2011 from the Orioles, as they are rebuilding slowly, but expect them to improve as the season goes on and expect a marked improvement by 2012.
This will not be the year for the Orioles, but it will be a great assessment for their certainly bright future.