MLB logoMLB

MLB Predictions 2011: Who Will Be Each Team's Biggest Surprise?

Matt SAnalyst IIIApril 7, 2011

MLB Predictions 2011: Who Will Be Each Team's Biggest Surprise?

1 of 31

    Abelimages/Getty Images

    One of the best things about baseball is that it is a game of numbers.  Numbers can tell us a great deal; they quantify the history of the game, help us track our favorite players in-season, and even allow us to predict what is likely to happen next.

    But in spite of the statistics, the patterns and trends, in spite of all the simple and complex analyses we conduct, the game still has an astounding capacity to surprise.

    There are minor surprises, like watching the light-hitting Elvis Andrus blast his first home run of 2011 in only his tenth at bat.

    There are major surprises, like watching the San Fransisco Giants march through the Braves, Phillies, and Rangers en route to an unlikely World Series win.

    And of course, there are the types of surprises that take an entire season to unfold.

    In 2010 the baseball-watching public was treated to a shocking display of power by Toronto's Jose Bautista.  For most of his career, Bautista had been a utility man, bouncing among some the game's poorer franchises.  He played third base, all three outfield positions, and some spot duty at first and second.

    Even after leaving Pittsburgh for the Blue Jays, Bautista did little of note.  Over 134 games in 2008 and 2009, he hit a disappointing .232 and managed only 16 home runs in nearly 400 at bats.

    Then it all changed.

    Bautista reportedly revamped his swing prior to the season.  As a result he crushed 54 homers and compiled a .617 slugging percentage—that was nearly a 200-point increase from his previous best.  He blasted nearly as many round-trippers in that one year as he had hit in the previous 6 (59).

    The production was completely unexpected, to the point where many fans suspected drug use.  But giving Bautista the benefit of the doubt, it is undeniable that his 2010 was one of the most surprising campaigns by any player in recent memory.

    So what will we see in 2011?  Another breakout of that magnitude?  Perhaps not, but each club will surely have a performance that few fans had anticipated.  Going through the leagues team by team, here are some predictions on which players might surprise this year.  This mix of youth and experience comprises players to watch as the season unfolds. 

San Fransisco Giants

2 of 31

    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Where better to start than with the defending champs?  This whole team was a shocker last year.  In 2011, some guys are pretty sure things (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Buster Posey) while other need to either re-establish themselves or prove they belong for the first time.

    The guy to watch here is rookie first baseman Brandon Belt.

    Unless you're a dedicated Baseball Prospectus or Baseball America fan, or unless you eat, sleep, and breathe Giants baseball, you probably aren't too familiar with Belt.  Not yet 23 years old, the lefty tore through the minor leagues last year, hitting a combined .352 in three different levels of San Fran's farm system.

    Belt went from High A to Double A to Triple A, all the while posting tremendous production.  In 134 total games he drilled 23 homers, drove in 112 runs, and had a whopping 1.075 OPS (on-base plus slugging).

    He's gotten off to a tough start in this young season, but expect Bruce Bochy to give him a fairly long leash.  You don't tab a kid as the Opening Day starter unless you have faith in his skills.

    Many Bay Area fans have questioned the team's timeline—why rush Belt to the majors at such a young age?  The expectation was that he would start the year in AAA before being called up.  Instead, he is the team's go-to guy at first.

    The short answer is because he's good enough to warrant a shot.  If his minor league numbers are any indication of future returns, his first big league season should be fun to watch.  And if you haven't been paying attention, San Fransisco is pretty good at managing its farmhands.

    We know the Giants have pitching.  If guys like Belt step up offensively, this team has a shot at defending its title.

San Diego Padres

3 of 31

    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    On a team known for lackluster offense and quality pitching, it makes sense that I'd go with a hurler.  But it's probably not the arm you expected.

    Over the past few years, San Diego has become synonymous with stellar young pitchers.  From Jake Peavy and Chris Young to Clayton Richard, Tim Stauffer, and Mat Latos, the Padres' recent seasons are filled with prospects taking advantage of Petco Park's cavernous interior.

    But one of the spring's most interesting acquisitions was reliever Pat Neshek, claimed off of waivers and snatched away from the Minnesota Twins.

    Neshek has never been a closer.  He doesn't get much bullpen glory.  But in 2006 and 2007, he was an indispensable part of Minnesota's gameplan.  Over two seasons he worked more than 100 innings, posting ERAs of 2.19 and 2.94 to go along with minuscule WHIPs (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 0.78 and 1.01.

    Middle relief and setup men are often the most overlooked part of a team, but clubs lacking dependable bullpen help quickly discover why these guys are important.

    Neshek was injured in 2008 and lost the following season to Tommy John surgery.  His 2010 numbers weren't pretty, but common wisdom and the recoveries of numerous other pitchers tell us that the first year back is almost always tough.  Command and velocity take time to return, but when they do, they are often as good as or better than they were in the first place.

    The sidearm pitcher is now in a great pitcher's park throwing for a team that relies heavily on its arms.  Surrounded by other low-ERA guys, Neshek could quickly return to form and once again be dominant in the middle to late innings. 

Colorado Rockies

4 of 31

    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    With Todd Helton in decline, and Brad Hawpe two teams removed from Denver, the Rockies have changed into a club driven by young talent.  Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Stewart, Chris Iannetta, Carlos Gonzalez...all in their mid-to-late twenties and all boasting plenty of upside.

    Coors field isn't quite the offensive haven it once was, but as these young bats continue to develop, there will certainly be plenty of runs scored.

    While CarGo is the guy getting most of the attention in the Colorado outfield, all three starters possess some big-time potential.  Center felder, Dexter Fowler has a pretty clear skill set—not much power, good speed and defense—and should continue to progress in his age 25 season.

    But my pick here is right fielder Seth Smith. In 2009 and 2010, Smith posted solid numbers despite being held back by platoon situations.  This year he looks to be the main option and should get the lion's share of the playing time.

    In 693 at bats (slightly more than a full season's worth), Smith hit 32 homers, drove in 107 runs, and had a .340 on-base percentage with an .829 OPS.  Most teams would be plenty happy with that kind of output, and Smith managed it while being juggled in and out of the lineup.

    Can he offer up a repeat performance as an everyday player?  If so, the Rockies could have one of the game's best outfields. 

Los Angeles Dodgers

5 of 31

    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    The Dodgers had a mediocre 2010 despite getting a strong season from their rotation.  Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Hiroki Kuroda were excellent on the year, and the late addition of Ted Lilly was the icing on the cake.

    The quartet finished with ERAs under 4.00 (under 3.00 in Kershaw's case) and were pretty consistent while doing so.

    But the L.A. bullpen was dreadful, with the exception of Hong-Chih Kuo.  And the offense was forgettable.  Even superstar Matt Kemp had a down year.

    Flash-forward to this year, and you'll see a lineup that has five guys age 31 or older.  The starting third baseman Casey Blake (37) and starting left-fielder Jay Gibbons (34) began the year on the D.L.  Other than Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier, the order offers no real threat.

    Picking a surprise player on the Dodgers is less about who might have a breakout year, and more about who has to.

    James Loney is 27 this season.  Statistically speaking, that's one of the best ages for production.  Loney is a guy who had some flashes of greatness early on in career, with OPS totals over .900 in each of his first two seasons.  But since becoming a full-time player, his numbers have plateaued.

    Could this be the year in which that changes?  L.A. has to hope so, because the team needs another live bat, and as a first baseman, Loney is playing a spot that typically offers good production. He might never be a 25-home run guy, but if Loney can get his OPS out of the .700s and back towards that .900 mark, it would be huge for the Dodgers.  

Arizona Diamondbacks

6 of 31

    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Arizona may have been last year's cellar-dweller in the N.L. West, but the team certainly had some talent.  Both Kelly Johnson and Chris Young experienced bounce-back years, and were I writing this piece last spring I would have the luxury of picking either guy.  However, their success in 2011 won't surprise anyone.

    Assuming both players stay consistent, they will be nice complements to other rising stars like Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, and Miguel Montero.

    In fact, with the exception of the corners, this D'Backs lineup is actually solid.

    The pitching?  That's a much bigger question mark.

    The team's ace on paper is Ian Kennedy, who had a nice year in 2010.  Ignore the 9-10 record; he can hardly be held responsible for his team's collective struggles.  The No. 2 guy is Joe Saunders who came back from Anaheim in the Dan Haren deal.  Not spectacular, but not terrible either.

    The guy to watch, however, is the No. 3 starter Daniel Hudson.  The 24 year old is a highly-regarded prospect, and if he's able to turn in a good year it could do wonders for the Diamondbacks' final record.  Hudson posted a 3.38 ERA in limited action with the White Sox during his rookie year.  He ended up in Arizona following the departure of Edwin Jackson to Chicago.

    In 11 starts with Arizona, the 6'3" righty had an ERA of 1.69.  Expecting a repeat of that would be a but much, but it does indicate what he's capable of. 

Cincinnati Reds

7 of 31

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The 2010 Reds were another surprising team last year, grabbing the N.L. Central title and making the playoffs for the first time since 1995.  Offensively, they got contributions from an effective mix of veterans and youth.  On the mound, they saw impressive seasons from Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Travis Wood while also fielding one of baseball's better bullpens.

    Though they weren't expected to win the division last year, 2011 opens with the club as one of the favorites, along with the re-tooled Milwaukee Brewers.  Can Cincinnati defend its crown?  And as far as surprises go, what can this club do for an encore?

    The guy who interests me most is center fielder Drew Stubbs.  In his first full year he put up respectable numbers; 22 homers, 91 runs scored and 77 RBI.  But his .329 OBP limited his usefulness as a leadoff hitter.

    Now he's back atop the Reds' lineup again, and will be looking to build on last year's output.  His 30 steals show what kind of speed he has, and at 26 years old, Stubbs should see his other stats increase as he gains experience.

    If Stubbs is able to get his on-base percentage up around (or even above) .350, he could evolve into quite a weapon for the Reds. 

St. Louis Cardinals

8 of 31

    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    After being knocked off their perch as the Central's top club, the Cards have to be concerned about 2011.  This winter, the team lost its star pitcher, Adam Wainwright.  He'll miss the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in February.  

    Next came Matt Holliday's emergency appendectomy, a scary moment that originally had the team fearing the worst.  Early estimates had the left-fielder missing all of April and possibly more, though a quick recovery has trimmed those projections.

    And in the background lurks Albert Pujols' expiring contract.  Will St. Louis be able to re-sign the game's most dominating hitter?  Or will we see Pujols in new colors as soon as the trading deadline?

    With all the early mishaps and uncertainty, this organization is looking for a nice surprise.  And that could well turn out to be Kyle McClellan.

    In my opinion, the main reason for the Cardinals' successes in recent years isn't Tony Larussa.  It isn't Albert Pujols.  It's pitching coach Dave Duncan.  The man is a miracle worker who gets more out of his hurlers than anyone in the game, so while losing an ace might be a virtual death sentence to some teams, St. Louis might be able to adjust.

    McClellan is the guy who will step into the breach left by Wainwright's absence.  As a reliever last season he recorded 68 appearances and finished with a stellar 2.27 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.  The question is, can he maintain those results as a starter.

    Perhaps not, but if he's able to remain effective, the Cards should be part of the divisional race.

Milwaukee Brewers

9 of 31

    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    The Brewers are an interesting team this season.  Playing in a winnable division and boasting a rotation that, when healthy, could be one of the best in the N.L., this team has a very real shot at unseating Cincinnati and getting to the post-season.

    But much of that depends on how Zack Greinke adjusts to his new surroundings, and how quickly he's able to recover from a rib fracture.  And much depends on how former Blue Jay Shaun Marcum performs as the team's No. 3 arm.  Both players must transition to a new league and that's never easy.  If they're able to pull it off, they, along with Yovani Gallardo, will comprise a very nice trio.

    Offensively, Milwaukee has a well-established identity, built around Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.  At least for now.  But the heavy hitters need a couple of other bats to step up in support.

    Last year's surprise was Casey McGehee.  The third baseman assembled a very nice season while serving as one of the team's primary run-producers.

    This year, the player I have my eye on is Nyjer Morgan.

    The speedy outfielder came over from the Nationals in exchange for Lenny Dykstra's son, Cutter.  At first glance, Morgan doesn't offer much of an upgrade over what the Brew Crew already had in place, but he does bring more upside.

    Last year was tough for Morgan, who didn't produce well in Washington.  But prior to that, he posted some decent numbers with the Pirates, most notably a .369 OBP and 42 steals.  Morgan needs to improve his timing and decision-making, but there's no doubting his speed.  

    The fact is, Carlos Gomez is an offensive black hole.  Milwaukee's starting center fielder flashes some great leather, but he's a major liability at the dish.  Morgan would bring similar outfield speed while providing more of a hitting threat.  Watch for him to gain playing time, even after the injured Corey Hart returns to the lineup.  

Houston Astros

10 of 31

    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    When Roy Oswalt was traded to the Phillies last season, it marked the final step in Houston's transformation.  The once powerful Astros, led by household names like Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, and Clemens have been in rebuild mode for a while now.  Shopping their erstwhile ace was merely the last step in what has seemed like a long and painful journey.

    The 'Stros now look to the future, anchored by the likes of Hunter Pence and speedster Michael Bourn.  But with limited talent in place, 2011 will probably be another year of treading water for this club.

    Even so, there are plenty of opportunities for success.  While the lineup might not exactly be a Who's Who of baseball elite, it does have a few role players who could take advantage of their importance to the team.

    Take, for example, veteran infielder Bill Hall.  Don't scoff yetsure, his batting average will probably be gnarly, but Hall brings plenty of power to the middle infield.  He also has a chance to be a real run-producer for this club.  With shortstop Clint Barmes out of action for up to six weeks with a broken hand, the Astros have few options behind Hall and Angel Sanchez.  That means Hall will get a good, long look at second base.

    And here's the thing.  In 344 at bats with the Red Sox last year, Hall drilled 18 home runs.  He posted a .772 OPS.  Give him regular at bats over the course of a full season, and it's entirely possible that those numbers would translate to solid production.  Seeing 25 or more home runs wouldn't be a shock; the question with Hall is whether or not he can keep his average and on-base percentage respectable.

Chicago Cubs

11 of 31

    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Everyone's favorite hard-luck team.  When will the Cubs break the curse and end their futility?  Only time will tell, but it probably won't be in 2011.  A mediocre rotation and too many declining position players will make it difficult for Chicago to keep pace in the Central, but that doesn't mean this season won't be intriguing.

    The meat of the lineup—Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Pena, Aramis Ramirez, Marlon Byrd, and Kosuke Fukudome—are all 33 or older.  At some point, this organization has to stop patching holes and start making a concerted effort to build for the future.  Of course, there are a few pieces already in place, including shortstop Starlin Castro and catcher Geovany Soto.

    And there's the team's fourth outfielder, Tyler Colvin.  Now 25, Colvin showed his potential in a limited role last season, mashing 20 home runs and driving in 56 in 358 at bats.  With all the aging players around him, it's a good bet that his playing time will only increase moving forward.

    That's a good thing.  Because although he's still young, Colvin has been consistent at every level of baseball.  He may not be an elite prospect, but he's certainly a very good one, and it's time for the Cubs to let him show what he can do in a full major league season.

    Colvin's primary competition, outfielders Sam Fuld and Jake Fox, were dealt to the Rays and Athletics respectively.  Fox has since moved on to the Orioles.  With that duo out of the way, Colvin's path to a starting gig is clear.  He simply needs to prove he can handle it.

    The good news is that he's probably an upgrade over some of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart.  Look for the Cubs to agree and get him plenty of at bats this year.

Pittsburgh Pirates

12 of 31

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The punchline of so many jokes, this team is desperately looking to claw its way out of the cellar.  And while we've seen plenty of young talent come up with (and leave) this organization, 2011 might just feature one of the best Pirates' teams in recent memory.

    Pittsburgh now has legitimate skill at third base (Pedro Alvarez), second base (Neil Walker), and all three outfield spots (Jose Tabata, Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen).

    With the exception of Jones, all are 25 or younger.  And all have considerable potential to make an impact this season.

    Unfortunately, their contributions will probably be negatively affected by what looks to be a pretty lousy rotation.  It's hard to find much to like about Pittsburgh's starters, but while the early innings might be brutal, the late innings are in good hands.

    New closer Joel Hanrahan takes over for Octavio Dotel, who is now in Toronto.  And he gives the Pirates their best fireman since the 2008 edition of Matt Capps.

    In 72 appearances last year, Hanrahan posted a 3.62 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP.  Better yet, he struck out a ridiculous 100 batters in 69.2 innings while walking only 26.  If he can get his hit rate down a bit, he will go from being a strong reliever to being among the best in the N.L.

    Hanrahan is off to a good start in 2011, and could be a real bright spot all season long.  While most eyes will be on the young bats, he'll be doing his level best to secure what wins the Pirates can muster. 

Philadelphia Phillies

13 of 31

    J. Meric/Getty Images

    With possibly the best starting rotation of any team since the Braves of the late 90's, the Phillies are the early favorites to represent the National League in the World Series.  Of course, that was true last season as well...before the Giants got other ideas.

    But by bringing Cliff Lee back to the City of Brotherly Love, this club has gone from having outstanding pitching to being virtually untouchable in a short series.  It's difficult to imagine any opposing offense being to grab four wins in seven games.

    However, there's a long way to go between now and the playoffs, and crazy things happen in the world of baseball.  Barring injury, the Phils know exactly what to expect from the pitching staff, so a search for potential surprises must turn to the lineup.

    Overall, this is an aging team.  Seven of the eight starting position players are 30 or older, all-star second baseman Chase Utley is seriously injured, and Jimmy Rollins is coming off of one his worst campaigns.  So in spite of the other-worldly rotation, there are indeed some questions to answer in Philadelphia.

    Those include how to replace Jayson Werth, who is now in Washington.  The long-term plan is uber-prospect Domonic Brown, but a hamate bone problem has him on the shelf for the time being.  That has led to a great opportunity for Ben Francisco.

    The former Cleveland Indian is the only current starter under 30 years old (29), and while Ross Gload will also get some playing time, it's Francisco who is the team's best option.

    Even after Brown works his way back to the majors, Francisco will still be important; left fielder  Raul Ibanez will be 39 this summer and is likely to require some time off.  With more at bats, Francisco's numbers should improve and allow him to be productive in this still-dangerous lineup.

Atlanta Braves

14 of 31

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Braves were one of last season's feel-good stories, sending long-time manager Bobby Cox out with a playoff appearance.  With Cox retired, the team must find new leadership and, in some ways, a new identity.

    Even without their legendary coach, the Braves are a threat to repeat as the N.L. Wild Card in 2011.  The lineup is full of talented hitters, Tommy Hanson is one of baseball's best young starters, and the bullpen looks strong.

    In 2010, right fielder Jason Heyward burst onto the scene and lived up to his billing as a top prospect.  The Braves are counting on a good sophomore season from the 21 year old phenom.  Along with Brian McCann, Martin Prado, and (fans hope) Freddie Freeman, Heyward is part of a nucleus of twenty-somethings that form the core of the order.

    But my choice here is at the other end of his career.  Closing in 40 years old, Chipper Jones is one of the best third basemen the game has ever seen. And while his health and ability to stay on point defensively are legitimate concerns, there's no doubt that the guy can still hit.

    For whatever reason—call it nostalgia—I'm expecting a bounce-back year from the future Hall of Fame player.  Maybe it's just a desire to see one more all-star type effort.  But assuming he can avoid the injury bug, Chipper will deliver.  Though his average took a dip over the last two seasons, he is still a legitimate .300 hitter.  And with plenty of support around him, he'll have chances to produce.

    Last year was the send-off for Cox.  Let's see if Atlanta can deliver its fans something similar for Larry Jones.

Florida Marlins

15 of 31

    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Like Pittsburgh, Florida has developed plenty of young talent only to see much of it leave town as ownership kept the payroll low.  But at the start of any season, optimism reigns.  As usual, the Marlins have some young guns looking to post big-time numbers.

    Josh Johnson, now 27 years old, has developed into a bona fide ace.  Other arms like Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez are still looking to prove themselves as reliable options.

    The lineup is a work in progress, especially after future third baseman Matt Dominguez broke his elbow in Spring Training.  It remains to be seen how well Donnie Murphy can do filling in at the hot corner.

    But fans are going nuts over right-fielder Mike Stanton, and deservedly so.  Stanton is one of the game's best power prospects and a guy who could and should make an immediate impact, even at age 21.  However, his bright future may be overshadowing another potential star.

    Across the outfield stands 23 year old Logan Morrison.  Not the power bat that Stanton is, Morrison has gotten less acclaim, but should be the better pure hitter of the two.  In 62 games last year, Morrison posted an amazing .390 OBP, demonstrating his skill at the plate.  If he improves on his production numbers, then the Florida outfield should be in very good shape this season.

    The Marlins don't have many options behind these youngsters, so don't expect Morrison to get pushed for the starting job.  And seeing as he's off to a hot start, no one's talking about benching him anyway. 

New York Mets

16 of 31

    Elsa/Getty Images

    It certainly seems like all of the Mets' surprises have been bad ones in recent years.  From crushing injuries to terrible personnel decisions to flat-out bad luck, this club has been one of baseball's biggest underachievers of late.

    A front office shakeup should give fans hope for the future.  Sandy Alderson is in as GM, and for those who don't already know, he's an elite baseball mind.  The bad contracts and mismanagement should come to a stop in short order; indeed, the team has already improved itself though addition by subtraction, cutting Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez loose.

    But turnarounds can't happen overnight.  The pitching staff is in disarray and must be rebuilt.  When knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey is your best option, you know there's nowhere to go but up.

    The lineup obviously has some skilled players in David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Ike Davis.  However, Reyes might not be around much longer, and as a whole, the look of team is likely to change substantially in the coming seasons.

    For now, the team needs someone in a supporting role to step up and help the remaining stars.  One such guy could be second baseman Brad Emaus.

    If you live outside of New York, you may not even know his name, but Emaus had a solid 2010 in the minors.  And his primary competition, Daniel Murphy, is still coming back from a torn MCL suffered last June.  Murphy isn't a natural second baseman anyway, and probably is a better bet at a corner infield position, all of which gives Emaus some job security as he tries to prove himself.

    The type of player who will do a little bit of everything-- a few homers, a few steals, and good on-base skills—Emaus, if successful, would be a bit of good news for a team that truly needs it. 

Washington Nationals

17 of 31

    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Since moving to D.C. in 2005, the Nats have finished better than last in the N.L. East only one time.  And though the future holds promise in the form of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, this year is likely to be another uphill battle.

    The Nationals failed to retain Adam Dunn, though they were able to acquire Jayson Werth as a replacement.  And Ryan Zimmerman is still among the game's best third basemen, so the lineup should have at least some pop.  Washington's fortunes will depend in large part on the middle infield and how well Ian Desmond gets on base from the leadoff position.

    The pitching doesn't look good; a decent bullpen is nice, but can only do so much to help what seems like a fairly mediocre rotation.  On the other hand, if John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann develop into reliable arms, then things might not be so bad after all.

    The guy they'll be throwing to is the one who intrigues me.  Catcher Wilson Ramos will get the bulk of the playing time, and now that he's no longer mired behind Joe Mauer in Minnesota, he has a chance to make his mark. 

    Though his stock has fluctuated a bit, Ramos has remained a Top 100 prospect according to Baseball America, and at only 23 years old he has plenty of time to improve.  What should help is having a guy like Ivan Rodriguez playing alongside him; Pudge should be able to provide plenty of advice to Ramos without pushing him too hard for the starting job.  The two will share time, but that probably helps Ramos by keeping expectations reasonable.  The situation is ideal for Ramos to be successful in 2011. 

Tampa Bay Rays

18 of 31

    J. Meric/Getty Images

    ***UPDATE: In light of Manny's apparent retirement, you can probably ignore the following.***

     

    Last year, the Rays stole the A.L. East out from under the Yankees and ailing Red Sox.  But after a failed playoff run, the team lost some of its biggest names.  Carl Crawford is now in Boston while Carlos Pena and Matt Garza are in Chicago.  Can the organization fill those gaps, or will baseball's toughest division be too much for the suddenly successful Rays?

    The team is making some calculated moves that may or may not pay off.  Reid Brignac is taking over as the starting shortstop, and while he's still considered a good prospect, I'm not sure he's going to develop into the talent that many thought he would be.

    Desmond Jennings in the long-term solution in right field, but he's not ready for the majors just yet.  That leaves Matt Joyce as a major role-player.

    The pitching is little more secure, with David Price anchoring what is a promising staff.  Jeremy Hellickson is the next great talent, Jeff Neimann and Wade Davis are capable enough for the back of the rotation, and James Shields is better than 2010 indicated.

    But of all the changes, it's the signing of Manny Ramirez that draws my attention.  Perhaps the second best right-handed hitter of his time, Man-Ram is obviously in decline.  But even at age 38, he has plenty left in the tank.

    As with Chipper Jones, the question here is health.  Last year was awful for Manny, mainly because leg injuries stripped him of his power.  But the word this spring was that Ramirez came into camp healthy and ready to rebound.

    His days of 600 at bats are probably over, but even with a day off every week, Manny could hit 30 homers. 

New York Yankees

19 of 31

    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    It's awfully hard to find any surprises on America's most scrutinized team.  The Yankees franchise sits in the biggest spotlight in sports, and a gargantuan payroll ensures competitive results year after year.

    New York will certainly contend for the division yet again in 2011, although the starting pitching is a major concern.  With the retirement of Andy Pettitte, the Bombers are down to one or two reliable arms; after C.C. Sabathia, the rotation gets shaky.

    That said, the offense more than makes up for any shortcomings.  With no real weakness, New York's batting order will being abusing pitchers for the next six months, and probably beyond.

    I think this year's unexpected hero might just be Jorge Posada.  The 39 year old has made the move to DH, replaced at backstop by former Dodger Russell Martin.  Without the wear and tear of the catcher position, Posada has an excellent chance to play a full season.

    Posada's career numbers average out to 25 home runs per year.  But again, most came during his time behind the plate when fatigue and injuries played major roles in his production.  At the less demanding DH spot, he might get to 30 home runs or more, despite his advanced age.

    Protected by a monster lineup, Posada will have plenty of pitches to hit.  One of these next few seasons will likely be his last in the majors.  If 2011 is his swan song, expect him to go out with a bang. 

Boston Red Sox

20 of 31

    J. Meric/Getty Images

    As with the Yankees, the Red Sox are so heavily covered by the media that picking a surprise player is pretty difficult.  The Sox also happen to be a team I cover personally; my familiarity with the players makes this a tricky selection.

    The shock of the season thus far has been Boston's 0-5 start.  Picked to represent the A.L. in the World Series, the prospective favorites have looked like anything but a playoff team.  And as outstanding as the lineup is (and believe me, this offense will get on track and be tremendous this year), the Sox do have some serious concerns.

    The pitching staff really isn't where it needs to be.  John Lackey has been a disappointment since signing an $85 million contract prior to last year.  Josh Beckett isn't healthy physically and looks unfocused to boot.  Daisuke Matsuzaka has been more or less a bust from day one.

    While Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are two great young arms, the organization traded away its best hurling prospect, Casey Kelly, in the Adrian Gonzalez deal.  And with Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden struggling to develop into reliable big league arms, it's unlikely that team will get any nice surprises from the pitching staff this season.

    However, one guy that I'm watching closely is infielder Jed Lowrie.  Lowrie has generally hit well when healthy, but injuries have plagued his career.  They necessitated the addition of Marco Scutaro, which hasn't gone particularly well.  Now Lowrie looks to be in good shape, and should get to share time at shortstop.  His role could easily expand; 2010 taught Sox fans that anyone can go down at any time, and every platoon player must be prepared to step up.

    Boston's future solution at short is 20 year old prospect Jose Iglesias, so Lowrie has a diminishing window to make an impact and find a place for himself.  If he can duplicate last year's .900 OPS while getting more at bats, he will have succeeded. 

Toronto Blue Jays

21 of 31

    Abelimages/Getty Images

    The Jays had arguably the biggest shocker of 2010 in Jose Bautista.  Whether or not the slugger will be able to duplicate his performance is one of this year's biggest debates, but most fans agree that Bautista is unlikely to break 50 home runs again.

    The Jays will be looking for production from other sources; in the tough A.L. East, every run counts.

    They'll also be looking for the rotation to stay strong in the absence of Shaun Marcum.  Ricky Romero becomes the de facto ace of the staff, and indeed he's gotten off to an ace-like start this season.  But as the saying goes, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

    In the search for new heroes, Toronto would do well to look toward its middle infield.  Yunel Escobar may not be the flashiest shortstop around, but only two years ago he was putting up impressive numbers in Atlanta.  Last season he fell off of his self-set pace (.655 OPS), but in 2011 he looks as sharp as ever.

    One early point of note—Escobar has already tied his season high in triples.  He's running well, seeing the ball well, and appears to have completely settled in with his new team after last year's trade.

    The Jays are a young team with plenty of potential, and if some of the bats pick this season to break out, Escobar could be the beneficiary.  Hitting from the two-hole, all he needs to do is continue to get on base.  Good things will follow on their own.

    In his age 28 season, getting back to a line of 15 homers, 75 RBI, and an OPS over .800 (or better) is a realistic goal. 

Baltimore Orioles

22 of 31

    J. Meric/Getty Images

    The perennial doormats of the East are off to a scorching start in 2011-- can the Orioles' fanbase dare to believe that a turnaround is on the way?  In fairness, Baltimore is in a tough position, saddled with the most challenging divisional competition in baseball.  And team ownership has been unwilling to open its wallet to get this club closer to the Red Sox and Yankees.  But the O's certainly have an interesting team this year, and a no-nonsense manager in Buck Showalter who had good results after taking over in 2010.

    This Baltimore order is actually quite balanced after the additions of Vlad Guerrero and Mark Reynolds.  Those two bring plenty of power to the table and should complement the team's established players.  

    Derrek Lee and J.J. Hardy are veterans who have seen their production erode in recent years, but both will be seeking to rebound.

    And the core of the team—Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Adam Jonesseems to be solid.  

    What could hold Baltimore back (again) is the pitching, and the club was dealt a blow when 24 year old Brian Matusz went down with an intercostal strain.  He's expected to miss significant time to start the year, but in his stead stands Zach Britton.

    After posting strong numbers in the minors over the past few seasons, the 23 year old southpaw will now get an extended opportunity to show his stuff in the bigs.  The Matusz injury could have a silver lining if Britton does what he's capable of.

    Since graduating to High A ball in 2009, Britton hasn't posted an ERA above 3.00.  His peripherals are solid, and had Matusz not gone down, the team might have still tried to work him into the rotation.  So consider this an early promotion. 

Minnesota Twins

23 of 31

    Andrew Burton/Getty Images

    Over the past decade or so, the Twins have been the gold standard for small-market teams.  They compete for the A.L. Central year after year, process plenty of young talent through their system, and even manage to hang on to a key star or two when necessary.

    The versatility of players like Michael Cuddyer and the addition of well-priced veterans like Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson have allowed the team to weather injuries to cornerstones like Justin Morneau.  And while the pitching hasn't exactly shined since the departure of Johan Santana, it's been solid enough to keep Minnesota relevant.

    The Twins are set up to vie for the division yet again in 2011, but how they finish will ultimately depend on whether or not they can keep pace with the re-tooled White Sox and Tigers.  Both those teams added some significant pieces this off-season.

    Minnesota is one of those clubs that always seems to have up-and-coming players to watch, but the potential surprise in my opinion is starter Scott Baker.  Baker won the final spot in the rotation this spring, sending Kevin Slowey to the bullpen.  Coming off of a lackluster 2010, Baker now needs to prove that that decision was a good one.

    At age 26, Baker enjoyed a standout 2008 season.  A 3.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP demonstrated his capabilities, but since then he's slipped a bit.  Both 2009 and 2010 featured ERAs in the mid-4.00s, and while he may have suffered some bad luck along the way, his propensity to surrender home runs is what killed him.

    But that's a fixable problem.  Baker has generally had a low walk rate, something critical to a pitcher's long-term success.  If he can find a way to keep the ball in the yard, 2011 could be a bounce-back year. 

Chicago White Sox

24 of 31

    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Following a second-place finish last year, Chicago had an excellent offseason.  The team brought in slugger Adam Dunn via free agency, inked Paul Konerko to an extension, and unloaded the suddenly struggling Bobby Jenks.

    The result is a lineup that should rival the best in baseball; the heart of the White Sox order is downright frightening if you're an opposing pitcher.  

    The rotation should be solid if not spectacular, and if Jake Peavy is able to (finally) return to form, the pitching could easily go from good to great.

    On paper, Chicago is one of the A.L.'s better-looking teams, though it is not without questions.  New third baseman Brent Morel looks to begin his big league career while second baseman Gordon Beckham will try to become the stud that many fans have been waiting for him to be.

    The player that catches my eye in the Windy City is outfielder Carlos Quentin.  Injuries and slumps have derailed him in recent years, but this is a guy with prodigious power.  And now he's hitting in a lineup that features plenty of protection.  The presence of Dunn and Konerko take a great deal of pressure off Quentinthe team doesn't need him to be a primary RBI guy.  But if he stays healthy, that's exactly what he might become.

    Quentin is off to an eye-popping start, although he tends to be streaky and that should be taken with a grain of salt.  Still, he's a player who definitely has 40-home run power.  This might be the year he puts it all together. 

Detroit Tigers

25 of 31

    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    The Tigers limped to a .500 finish last season thanks mostly to mediocre pitching.  While ace Justin Verlander and No. 2 arm Max Scherzer enjoyed quality years, the rest of the rotation struggled as the team finished eleventh in the A.L. in total ERA.

    Offensively, Detroit was pretty solid and got nice contributions from a variety of unexpected sources.  After Magglio Ordonez went down with an ankle injury, players like Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn stepped up to fill the void.  Center fielder Austin Jackson scored 100 runs and was generally disruptive on the basepaths.

    Of course, the team still hinges on Miguel Cabrera, but this year he'll have some veteran help in the form of Victor Martinez.  Acquired via free agency, V-Mart will catch, DH and play some first base, giving the Tigers another offensive threat and some versatility in the infield.

    Verlander and Scherzer will once again lead the rotation, and the bullpen should be strong enough to keep Detroit in games.  In all, the Tigers should compete for the Central all year long.

    The player I'm watching closely is catcher Alex Avila.  Back in 2009, the then-22 year old was all the rage, impressing coaches and making a tremendous first impression with a .965 OPS in 29 games.  Last year he took a step back, splitting time with Gerald Laird and failing to develop at the plate.  However, the skills are still there, and with Martinez as the team's only other option, Avila will get the bulk of the work as backstop.

    Shuffling him in and out of the lineup in 2010 couldn't have been good for his confidence.  It will be interesting to see what happens as he tries to re-establish himself in 2011.  Bear in mind that the former fifth-round draft pick is still only 24 years old.  

Cleveland Indians

26 of 31

    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Many of us remember a time when the Indians were one of baseball's power clubs.  Cleveland fielded teams led by the likes of Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, and Kenny Lofton.  In the 90s, there were six playoff appearances in seven years.

    And then the team fell off the table.  Rebuilding knocked the Indians from atop the Central, and the franchise that scored more than 1,000 runs in 1999 became an also-ran.

    While 2011 probably won't be their year, things are looking up for the Indians.  Young guns like Matt Laporta, Carlos Santana, and Shin-Soo Choo bring credibility to the lineup, and the pitching is starting show signs of life after the loss of C.C. Sabathia.

    But lost in all this youth is a one-time superstar looking to reclaim his on-field greatness.  Center fielder Grady Sizemore is on his way back from microfracture surgery on his knee.  And if he can make a full recovery, his 5-tool skills are ready and waiting.

    It seems like Sizemore has been around forever, but this will be his age 28 season.  Still in his prime, he faces a real challenge in coming back from such a serious procedure, but at one point not too long ago, he was among baseball's elite.

    Ask anyone with a roto team whom they were targeting three or four years ago.

    It will be interesting to see how good this lineup can be if Sizemore can contribute.  He may not put the Tribe back in contention, but having another healthy star can only speed up Cleveland's quest to return to the top. 

Kansas City Royals

27 of 31

    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Ah, the Royals.  No other team in the American League has been a better example of baseball's lack of competitive balance.  Mired at the bottom of the A.L. Central, Kansas City has suffered the same fate as other struggling franchises, bringing talent up through its farm system only to see that talent move on as money becomes an issue.

    Teams like the Royals are faced with the challenge of winning with youth.  They can't (or don't choose to) afford highly-skilled players in the prime of their careers, but each season brings around a new crop of prospects looking to stake their claim to big league success.

    2011 is no different.  Emerging star Billy Butler will try to take a big step forward.  The terror of the Pacific Coast League, Kila Ka'aihue, will get his shot at mashing in the majors.  Shortstop Alcides Escobar, who joined KC as part of the trade that sent Zack Greinke to Milwaukee, will look to bolster the middle infield.

    And then there's Alex Gordon.

    Back in 2007, Gordon was a hot commodity, touted by the likes of Baseball Prospectus as one of the next big things.  But over the next few seasons he struggled to be a consistent contributor.  Injuries played a part, but in truth, his has mainly been a story of failed potential.

    Now he's 27 years old, and as I've mentioned, that's often a critical age for position players.  He's also healthy, and the Royals have elected to shift him away from third base and into left field.  Could that shake-up be just what he needs to make a fresh start?

    2011 could be the season where the real Alex Gordon finally arrives.  He won't push the Royals into the playoffs, but he might well live up to the lofty expectations of years ago.  A hot start has generated excitement in KC.  The question is, can he maintain it? 

Texas Rangers

28 of 31

    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Rangers impressed last season by finally finishing strong; after so many years of summer swoons and pitching let-downs, the team finally held together long enough to get all the way to the World Series.  A loss to the Giants wasn't what new owner Nolan Ryan had in mind, but he has to be happy about his team's future outlook.

    Over the years, the Rangers have usually had plenty of hitting.  That's true in 2011 as well.  Slugging second baseman Ian Kinsler, right fielder Nelson Cruz, and, of course, the reigning A.L. MVP, Josh Hamilton, lead a powerful lineup.  Shortstop Elvis Andrus is developing into a true team leader, and the addition of Adrian Beltre at third makes an already dangerous team positively scary.

    Historically, it's been pitching that has held this franchise back, but 2010 bucked that trend.  Strong campaigns from Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, and Tommy Hunter helped propel Texas to their deep playoff run.  Now the club will be looking for that trio to repeat its success.

    For the moment, Hunter is on the shelf with a groin problem.  But that might be a blessing in disguise, because the injury has allowed Texas to test out 27 year old Alexi Ogando as a starter.  Since 2006, the big righty has been flame-throwing his way through the minors, posting ridiculous strikeout rates and wafer-thin ERAs.

    Coming into the season he was expected to be a reliever, and will probably return to the bullpen once Hunter is healed.  But in the meantime, the Rangers can take full advantage of his power arm.  Bolstering the rotation and helping the club as a setup man only increases Ogando's value.

Oakland Athletics

29 of 31

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Every year, Oakland is a team doing a lot with a little.  Staying true to his Moneyball philosophy, general manager Billy Beane continues to get bang for his buck by focusing on youth, reasonably-priced veterans, and underrated role players.  During his tenure Oakland has managed to stay competitive while having one of the game's smaller payrolls.

    Lately, the Athletics' hallmark has been pitching.  From the days of Barry Zito and Mark Mulder to the present, the rotations have always featured high-upside arms.  The 2011 club is anchored by Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Brett Anderson—all likely to enjoy solid seasons.

    At this point, it's tough to be surprised by any Oakland pitcher.  We've become so accustomed to the team's ability to find and polish diamonds in the rough that it's simply expected.  The one change is that former pitching coach Curt Young is now doing his thing with the Red Sox, which may or may not affect the Oakland hurlers.

    Any potential surprises are likely to be on the offensive side, and the guy I'm watching here is outfielder Josh Willingham.  Take a look at his career numbers.  Many fans fail to realize how well he's hit when he's been on the field; the main knock on Willingham has been his lack of durability.

    But for the first time, he will be the best hitter in the lineup.  For the first time, he will be the offensive centerpiece.  If he can avoid the D.L., Willingham should turn out some very nice numbers.  His on-base skills make him dangerous, and he has enough power to hit 25 homers.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

30 of 31

    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    The club with the overzealous name had a rough go of it last year, finishing third in the A.L. West for the first time since 2003.  Although they did enjoy some good starting pitching, the Angels didn't do anything particularly well in terms of offense, and the off-season didn't do much to improve the team's fortunes.

    L.A. missed out on the big-time free agents, losing the battle for Carl Crawford to Boston.  Ultimately the Angels made a second-rate deal for former Blue Jay Vernon Wells in a desperate attempt to inject some power back into the lineup.

    While Wells is unlikely to carry the club, it's not all bad news out West.  Outfield prospect Mike Trout is among the best teenagers in baseball and should be a future solution.  Kendry Morales is coming back from a broken ankle and should resume his good production.  And even at age 35, Torii Hunter is still a quality player.

    The pitching should be quite good, led by ace Dan Haren who was brought back to the A.L. in a trade with Arizona.  Jered Weaver is a strong No. 2, and Ervin Santana could be a good No. 3 if he can keep his road splits under control.  The bullpen is solid, and in all, this should be a better year for the former masters of the division.

    The player to watch on the Angels has to be Jordan Walden, the 23 year old reliever who has stepped up as the team's closer in the early going.  Already a surprise in terms of his immediate impact, the 6'5" Walden has the build and the stuff to be one of the league's most productive firemen this year.

    The Angels may not be a flashy team, but they're solid all around the diamond, and should keep most games close.  That will give Walden ample time to shine. 

Seattle Mariners

31 of 31

    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    I'll wrap things up with Seattle, a team that has endured a pretty difficult decade.  As the division's least competitive team, the Mariners have drifted into obscurity following the success enjoyed throughout the 90s.  With the exception of Ichiro, the franchise is still looking for its next great hitters to serve as replacements for Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Edgar Martinez.

    On the pitching side, Seattle has the league's best starting pitcher in Felix Hernandez.  The challenges will be finding other arms to put around King Felix, and finding enough run support to make victories a little easier to come by.

    Last season, Hernandez had to fight for the Cy Young despite his outrageously good stats, primarily because the team couldn't get him enough wins.  Fans hope that the additions of Justin Smoak, Miguel Olivo, and Jack Cust will give the lineup more pop in 2011.

    But my player to watch in the Emerald City is a guy looking to be the next Felix.  Michael Pineda is only 22 years old, but should get plenty of work in his rookie season.  In terms of raw talent, he's already Seattle's second-best option, and had a good showing in his debut.

    The 6'7", 260-pound Pineda has been impressing in the minors since age 17, though he did struggle a bit in AAA last year.  Now promoted and likely to stay in the bigs, he must translate that success into major league prowess.

    The fact is, Seattle needs him.

     

    *****

     

    Any other players to watch in MLB this year?  Other potential surprises?  It's a challenge to pick out the guys who will manage to wow us with the unexpected, but April is the perfect time for bold predictions... 

Where can I comment?

Stay on your game

Latest news, insights, and forecasts on your teams across leagues.

Choose Teams
Get it on the App StoreGet it on Google Play

Real-time news for your teams right on your mobile device.

Download
Copyright © 2017 Bleacher Report, Inc. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved. BleacherReport.com is part of Bleacher Report – Turner Sports Network, part of the Turner Sports and Entertainment Network. Certain photos copyright © 2017 Getty Images. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of Getty Images is strictly prohibited. AdChoices