March 31st is a special time of year. At least for some fans, anyway.
Fenway Park is optimistic, hot-headed and unbelievably confident. San Francisco looks to defy odds-makers, repeat their World Series win, and halt the Philadelphia Phillies. While the Cubs are the Cubs, you may need a weather balloon and a stern cup of coffee to predict our unlucky Chicago friends.
Yep, it's Opening Day. Not much has changed. I'll produce my World Series pick, it will probably look foolish in six months time, and you can revert back to this article and poke fun while having a good chuckle with your friends.
It's all in good spirits, right?
Of course. It's baseball. It's as unpredictable as Global Warming.
So you think the Red Sox will take home the pennant? The Yankees? The Blue Jays?!
Sure, they are all strong picks. No doubt. But like so many Opening Days in the past, we really know nothing until the season kicks off.
Here's a prediction. Don't mark it down as wrong just yet. All of these teams will stand in front of a white line tomorrow, watch an over-sized flag engulf the field, and probably witness a few horrendous opening pitches by guest celebrities.
It's baseball. It's back.
Ready, set, go.
March 31st is a special time of year. At least for some fans, anyway.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Diamondback fans won't like it. But with so many prediction lists, Arizona falls into the category of "I don't think so" this season. The team announced Ian Kennedy will start on Opening Day, although that hardly sounds comforting at all. Even more concern was tossed toward the desert, as shortstop Stephen Drew may not be available—for quite some time.
Cleveland Indians: I feel like a schoolyard bully picking on Cleveland after all they've been through. But I'm sorry Indian fans, this year will be no better. Center-fielder Grady Sizemore was placed on the DL, while the rest of the opening lineup resembles that of a poorly coached tee-ball team. The Indians are a team that can upset in the regular season. But a World Series berth? No. The wheels are in motion, though.
Houston Astros: Houston falls into the category of weaklings this year. They do have some talent on display that could explode from the gates, but after that first 100 metres, their youth will show. The NL Central is a breeding ground of competition. The Astros are still tadpoles. Maybe we'll see them in the hunt next season. Some statistical improvements are needed.
Pittsburgh Pirates: You're used to this one by now. The Pirates have had another ordinary spring under manager Clint Hurdle, a guy who was brought in late last year to re-energize the squad. That hasn't happened. Some folks will have Pittsburgh on their list of sleepers—that's fine. Others will be more sensible, recognizing how strong the NL Central always is. It will be hard for Pittsburgh to find breathing room against St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. Looks like another hard one in store for the Buccos.
Kansas City Royals: The Royals have finally showed up to the starting line this season. Unfortunately, a false start is expected. Kansas City is filled with "must watch" names this season, and their second rank batting average last year was impressive. Perhaps, though, one more season is all that is needed for the Royals to really stir things up. The loss of Zack Greinke to Milwaukee may also sting come later months.
New York Mets: New York is headed in a good direction. Work is still left, though. New general manager Sandy Alderson, is still a guess at this point, while the team themselves are in need of some attention in all areas. If the Mets can stay healthy for the majority of the season, they may be in the running come September. But seeing Jason Bay placed on the DL ahead of Opening Day doesn't look hopeful.
Seattle Mariners: Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki will face each other 19 times this upcoming season. Still, even that isn't enough to place the Mariners into the contenders box. Seattle has been the quiet team since Ken Griffey Jr. retired last season, and it's no wonder. The rebuilding process is now firmly underway and, for the Safeco Field faithful, it is time to be patient once again.
Washington Nationals: The Nationals are the mirror image of Kansas City. Young, talented, but still a year or two off. Manager Jim Riggleman has done the smart thing by limiting Ryan Zimmerman's minutes this spring. Give it another 18 months, and the Nationals freight train may pull into the correct station. That should be exciting.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers' lineup resembles that of a video game right now. They have more hitting power than a Mike Tyson punch, but one still gets the feeling that the window for success is slowly shutting. Detroit has always hit well in the past (they ranked fifth in batting average last season). However, health is a major problem area. Magglio Ordonez isn't what he used to be—he's 37-years-old now. Is this not a potential recipe for disaster?
Los Angeles Angels: The sweat never stops in Southern California. That's why it is hard to overlook the Angels as a mild contender. However, there's an elephant in the room for the Angels: Kendrys Morales. The first baseman has been queried like Barry Bonds lately, and not in a good sense. The past two seasons have been both good and inconsistent for Mike Scioscia. Not much of a change is realistically expected.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Plain and simple, money. The Dodgers are short. They have no one to rely on if the lineup falls thin toward the middle of the season. And with Manny Ramirez now a distant memory, Matt Kemp may fail to push the team forward if they take their foot off the gas. It isn't about chemistry. It is about teamwork. The Dodgers haven't got a whole lot to rely on.
San Diego Padres: The three-peat of California. Trust me, it is a coincidence. The Padres have grown better since 2010, but it will be hard to top winning 90 games last season. Ryan Ludwick is the man to target. His skills in the outfield are necessary for success, but his batting prowess is just as valuable in the scoring department. San Diego can go either way this season. Much of it depends on how other teams play. Really, the Padres are the definition of the term "contenders or pretenders."
Baltimore Orioles: Hooray! The Orioles are finally in contention, sort of. The World Series may be a stretch too big for Baltimore this year. But rest assured, talent and depth is clear. Buck Showalter has instilled confidence in his team by using two simple words: "What if?" It has already made a difference. What if the Orioles can go all the way? Their fans are already surrounding the water cooler.
Chicago Cubs: Questions surround Alfonso Soriano's performance heading into 2011. You can say that for Carlos Pena and Geovany Soto, too. If you can ignore it, though, and focus on the progress the Cubs have made, you should realize Chicago is a legit contender. The Cubs have had their running shoes on for a long time. Chicago is capable of testing St. Louis and Milwaukee. So don't assume another average season from the Cubbies.
Florida Marlins: Marlin fans, God bless you. You sure are confident. Don't get me wrong, you have every right to be. Florida has the power to go places in the future—if not this year, the next. And while we're at it, some folks already feel the Marlins can oust the Braves in the NL East. That may be wishful thinking, but take them seriously. Starting pitcher Josh Johnson has the experience to make things happen.
Toronto Blue Jays: Bless you too, Blue Jays fans. You have also astounded me. The World Series? Maybe, it's not totally impossible. But it still is a risky call with relief pitcher Frank Francisco still answering questions in regards to his reliability. Toronto is one of those quirky teams that goes unnoticed until August. That will happen again. If the Blue Jays are to make a serious playoff push, they will need to win at least, say, 90 games.
Chicago White Sox: Depicting the White Sox is a job best left for no one. It's impossible. They are the best at self-combusting, but also the best at impressing us. The talent is swirling in Chicago, something Ozzie Guillen can take credit for. Where they land, though, is anyone's guess.
Cincinnati Reds: Cincinnati took it to St. Louis last year, and dealt them a big helping of hurt. This season may be much different. Aside from the Brewers, the Reds are favorites to take home the Central. Rival pitcher Adam Wainwright is done for the year in St. Louis. And even with spring training proving to be a test, the Reds are by far the most dangerous team in baseball.
Milwaukee Brewers: You'd be surprised if the Brewers won the World Series. So would I. Still, it isn't all that far-fetched. Pitching has improved since the addition of Zack Greinke and Ryan Braun offers the altogether leadership quality. And Prince Fielder is Prince Fielder, enough said—although free agency issues offer a distraction. It's a highly promising year for the Brew Crew, one they mustn't squander.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins are another team with severe health questions, a story worth following all year. It would be foolish to say Minnesota can't overcome this problem, though, because nine times out of ten, they do. Keeping pace with the White Sox and Tigers is no unfamiliar task. If Joe Mauer is at his best, even better.
St. Louis Cardinals: No Wainwright = no chance, right? Wrong. St. Louis has help on the way in the likes of young Kyle McClellan, even though he could fade as time goes on. Tony LaRussa needs to take a look at the opening lineup, and ensure more production out of players before Albert Pujols arrives at bat. If productivity lifts, the Cardinals can't be counted out—as usual.
Tampa Bay Rays: You could place the Rays in any category this season depending on your stance. Until we see the new lineup come together and work cohesively for a good two months, they remain a contender for the time being. Tampa Bay has lost but also gained. Chemistry obviously becomes priority number one.
Atlanta Braves: The Braves are one team that can surprise. If Atlanta gets off to a poor start, don't be concerned. If they get off to a great start, do be concerned. Chipper Jones' spring can best be summed up as "fantastic," while the rest of the team seems to be growing in confidence after reaching the postseason last year. Much of this comes from the hiring of Fredi Gonzalez, although Dan Uggla can't be forgotten. It's a good year to be a Braves fan.
Colorado Rockies: Explosive and dangerous, that's the Rockies game. Colorado has two highly talented players to thank their stars for this season: Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. We recognized them long ago, but this is by far their year. Colorado will have to work hard to take care of the Giants. It isn't impossible, though.
Oakland Athletics: Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham—great improvements. I can't sit here and say that the A's will definitely make the postseason but, if they don't, we can't blame the lineup. This roster is built for October, and is also built for the regular season. The strings now need to be tied firmly and consistently from Opening Day onwards. And honestly, it will be nice to have A's baseball back in full swing this year.
Boston Red Sox: You'll either have the Red Sox as your World Series pick, or you won't. Simple as that. For those of you like me, who see them possibly coming up short, it won't be due to a lack of talent. Rather, a lack of bad luck. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a beanbag all spring, while Dice-K Matsuzaka, on the other hand, is highly unpredictable. Boston have improved, yes. Do they beat out other teams purely due to the talent factor? Probably not. We've seen that in the past.
New York Yankees: The Yankees have the dollar bill on their side, which is something we're used to. Until New York gets to use the greenback, they may be in some hot water behind the Red Sox in the American League standings. Age is beginning to pop up like garden weeds in New York. The runs will still flow like water, mind you, but the mound needs some attention. CC Sabathia can't always put on the Superman cape.
San Francisco Giants: The defending champs have pressure. The defending champs have the odds against them. The defending champs also have issues like everyone else. The Giants aren't invincible—they weren't when they won it all last year. Only a moron would write them off in 2011, but will the team's lack of urgency to sign a big name hitter cost them in the long run? Time will tell.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers are a fickle pick, one for the kind of fan who tries to look smart at the beginning of the season. I'm not buying into that. Texas fans will show up in full force from Opening Day until September, but the Rangers relied heavily on that confidence last season. In the end, it ran out against the Giants. With no big name player to carry the load in October, it may be a case of "one time too many" for the Rangers.
I've gone for what appears to be the intelligent pick in many years prior, and wound up looking a fool. Now I'm sticking with the Phillies. A reliable team that, even if they do come up just short, I can at least say "Can you blame me?"
And here's why:
Philadelphia has problems. There is an unclear future ahead with no Jayson Werth, a wobbly Chase Utley and a significantly dimmer batting lineup than in the brilliant years past. Is this a scenario that will cost the Phillies their ultimate goal?
The way people speak, you'd think so. People discuss Ryan Howard openly on chat forums. They wonder if he will be able to continue his form, and question whether or not Jimmy Rollins can fit back into the leader role with Cliff Lee now present.
All of that is a worthy argument, but it excludes pitching—an area the Phillies own.
Lee is back, no explanation is needed. Roy Halladay pitched without flaw last season. Cole Hamels is the dimple-cheeked boy for the future. And Roy Oswalt completes the Four Horseman, totally.
The passion is also simmering for the Phillies. The team knows that their glory days may be coming to an abrupt end at a moments notice. So this season will be a claw to claim a quick pennant before the doors close.
It's curtain call for the Phillies on Opening Day. They are still the favorites in the National League. Philadelphia fans know that. That's why they will win their third World Series title in 2011. Talent is great, but veterans with experience are even better.
Charlie Manuel, run with it.