MLB Predictions 2011: Projecting Each Team's Best Overall Player This Season
Every team needs one player to carry it for a season.
For some players on bad teams, their accomplishments go largely unnoticed.
For those fortunate enough to be on contenders, their feats usually lead to MVP and Cy Young campaigns.
Although that trend has been broken the past couple of years with Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young on poor teams, voters will favor a player on a better team when choosing between players with comparable stats.
What follows is a list of every team in baseball and the player that I expect to carry their respective club in 2011.
Arizona Diamondbacks: J.J. Putz
Between 2006 and 2007, J.J. Putz was one of baseball's elite closers.
Pitching for the Mariners at the time, Putz racked up 76 saves over two seasons, striking out 186 batters and walking just 26 over 150 innings.
Fatigue caused elbow injuries in 2008 and 2009. Putz clearly wasn't the same pitcher. His velocity was down and has splitter had less of a sharp drop to it.
He rebounded with the White Sox last season, posting a 65:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 54 innings for Ozzie Guillen.
The Diamondbacks rewarded him with a two-year, $10 million contract this offseason and Putz was immediately named the team's closer.
He has been perfect in his two save opportunities thus far, striking out three of the six batters he has faced.
If he can stay healthy, look for J.J. Putz to continue his run of success and return to the All-Star game as a hometown player.
Atlanta Braves: Chipper Jones
Very few 38-year-old athletes would decide to make a comeback after tearing their ACL. Chipper Jones has done just that and appears healthy heading into what could be his final season.
He had announced during the 2010 season that that would be his last, but perhaps he wanted his final baseball memory to be of himself walking off the field to applause rather than being helped off amid concerned groans.
Chipper is a lifetime .306 hitter with a .941 career OPS. Even at 38-years-old (soon to be 39), it still looks like he's got something left in the tank.
He shortened up his swing this offseason and will continue to hit third in manager Fredi Gonzalez's lineup.
Chipper has had some poor luck on batted balls the past two seasons, which has harmed his batting average.
With a simple regression, and his improved health, I'd bet on the future Hall of Famer having one last revival before he calls it quits for good.
Baltimore Orioles: Zach Britton
Yes, Zach Britton has just one career big league start.
And yes, the Orioles have a very good offense led by Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Nick Markakis and a potentially rejuvenated Brian Roberts.
But I still think Britton will have a bigger season than any other Orioles player and believe that he'll become a staple in Camden Yards for at least the next few seasons.
Britton was a former third-round pick by the Orioles out of high school in Panorama City, CA. He's a lefty with a solid frame who shows great poise and moxie on the mound.
Britton throws four pitchers, but he relies primarily on his sinker, which he throws about 60-70 percent of the time. Although this pitch typically sits in the low 90s, Britton can dial his four-seam fastball up to 96 MPH.
He uses his slider as a strikeout pitch against lefties and his changeup as a strikeout pitch against right handers.
All told, Britton averaged 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings during his minor league career and walked batters at a 3.3 per nine-inning rate.
With solid peripheral stats, this uber confident ground ball machine is ready to take the AL East by storm.
Boston Red Sox: Jon Lester
It still amazes me that when people discuss the best starting pitchers in baseball, Red Sox lefty Jon Lester always seems to be an afterthought.
Lester underwent treatment for lymphoma in 2006 and returned to baseball in the midst of the 2007 season.
Since that time, Jon Lester has obviously realized that there are bigger battles in life than getting major league hitters out.
He pitches with a smooth swagger, taking the ball for the Red Sox every fifth day without fail. Lester has become the Red Sox workhorse and No. 1 pitcher; a role that he doesn't mind.
Over the past three seasons, Jon Lester has recorded 50 wins and 602 strikeouts. He's done so while walking just one batter for every four he strikes out.
The majority of his outs in play are on the ground, limiting the amount of homers he surrenders.
Just 27 years old, Lester is likely to continue improving. With a loaded offense behind him this season, 20 wins and a Cy Young award are certainly within reach.
It's unfortunate that Jon Lester gaining more recognition is so reliant upon the Red Sox simply scoring more runs.
He's already an elite pitcher. Don't forget it.
Chicago White Sox: Carlos Quentin
Carlos Quentin is 28 years old and a former first-round pick just two years removed from a fifth place finish in the 2008 AL MVP race.
That year, in 130 games, Quentin hit .288 and slugged 36 homers for a .965 OPS. He also drove in 100 runs and immediately looked like the newest power force in a revamped White Sox lineup.
Fast forward two years later and Quentin is trying to recover from two poor (and injury laden) seasons where his batting average hovered between .230-.240, and he managed just 21 and 26 home runs respectively.
The power is still clearly there, but Carlos Quentin hasn't been able to keep himself on the field and maintain his slugging ways.
He worked hard this past offseason on his swing and his conditioning. A hot spring has continued into the regular season, as Quentin has racked up five doubles, two homers and 10 RBI in his first five games.
If he can keep himself on the field for a full year, Quentin might jump into the MVP race again before season's end.
Chicago Cubs: Alfonso Soriano
Even after 2011 concludes, Alfonso Soriano is still owned $54 million by the Cubs through the 2014 season.
The eight-year, $136 million contract that Soriano signed with Chicago prior to the 2007 season still irks a lot of the Wrigley faithful, but you can't fault Soriano for being the player that he is.
Alfonso is an undisciplined free-swinger who does a lot of good things when he connects bat with baseball. It's the way he's always been.
Despite hitting .258 and striking out 123 times last season, Soriano managed 40 doubles and 24 homers for a .496 slugging percentage. His career mark is .509.
He did a lot of extra work on refining his swing with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo this spring. Through six games, Soriano has hit 3 homers, which is also a good sign.
Although Soriano will never be an on-base machine (career OBP .326) or have a good OPS, he's a great power source in the middle of any lineup.
With a little rebound, getting 70 extra base hits is certainly possible. He's done it five times before.
Start giving him some credit for his defense, too. Soriano covers a lot of ground in left field and he has a fairly underrated arm.
Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips
"Yeah, yeah. That's what we do in Cincinnati. We go first to third."
That quote from Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips is from last year's All-Star game.
Phillips was cheering on teammate Scott Rolen, who had gone from first to third on a Matt Holliday single, despite his lack of anything resembling speed.
The quote epitomizes the attitude that Dusty Baker has brought to the Reds organization. He appreciates hard working players who hustle. That's probably why he and Phillips have formed such a close bond.
If you ask Dusty Baker who the hardest working Red is, his answer, without question, will be Brandon Phillips.
In terms of consistent baseball players, Phillips is about as reliable as they come. He's hit .275 with 15-plus home runs and stolen 15 or more bases in each of the past five seasons.
Alright, his batting average was .261 in 2008, but still.
Phillips' biggest year came in 2008 when he joined the 30-30 club, hitting .288 with 30 homers and 32 steals. Though those totals have dwindled every year (down into the teens last season), Phillips is still one of baseball's most reliable hitters.
The Reds reached the playoffs for the first time in Phillips' tenure last season, but he was obviously disappointed as the team was swept. However, he did gain a new-found appreciation for what it takes to win in professional sports.
At 29 years old, locked-in and protected by Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in the lineup, Brandon Phillips could approach his 2008 totals once more.
Cleveland Indians: Shin-Soo Choo
Shin-Soo Choo has gotten off to a slow start this season, with just two hits in his first 20 at-bats.
Although he doesn't have a long track record of steady success, Choo has undoubtedly been one of the best position players in baseball over the past two years.
Not only did he maintain his .300 average and 20-20 status from from 2009 to 2010, but Choo also cut 33 strikeouts off of his 2009 total.
He was also rated by UZR as a slightly above average defensive outfielder, giving him a 5.6 WAR figure for 2010. Choo was worth 5.0 WAR in 2009.
The Korean outfielder is the Indians unquestioned star and he is due to sign a big contract extension in the near future.
A career year in 2011 could go a long way towards his financial well-being.
Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
With apologies to Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki is the Colorado Rockies best player when he's fully healthy.
A couple of freak injuries have caused Tulo to miss extensive time (100 total games) between 2008 and 2010. In 2007 and 2009, he managed 151 and 155 games respectively.
Thankfully, 2011 is an odd numbered year.
Tulowitzki and Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez are both head and shoulders above every other major league shortstop.
As a result, Tulo is an extremely valuable commodity.
He is easily the best power hitter at his position, slamming 128 extra base hits over the past two seasons. Tulo had 32 homers in 2009 and 27 (in 29 less games) in 2010.
Compared with Hanley Ramirez, Tulo is also a teriffic defender. Fangraphs has had him as an above average defender for every season of his career. In 2010, Tulo was worth 7 runs over an average shortstop.
Add it all up and you've got a player who could definitely crack 7 WAR with a full and healthy season. He's already that good and he's going to get better.
Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera
Though he certainly has his share of off the field issues, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera is without question one of the top hitters in baseball, year in and year out.
Except for when he hit .292 in his first year with the Tigers in 2008, Miggy has hit above .320 in every season since 2005.
He's also hit 30 or more home runs in six out of his seven full major league years. In 2010, he slugged 38 homers and added 45 doubles.
The addition of 126 RBI and a .328 average helped Cabrera finish second behind Josh Hamilton in AL MVP voting. Had he not missed 12 games (the most he's missed in his career) and gotten to 40 homers, the result may have gone differently.
Miguel Cabrera is about to turn 28 years old and he's an absolute force in the middle of the Tigers' lineup. Last season, he was responsible for a higher percentage of his team's runs (runs scored and RBI) than any other player in baseball.
If he can get back to 160 games and avoid the issues he's had with alcohol, Miguel Cabrera should be the AL MVP favorite.
His OPS climbed over 1.000 for the first time in his career last season. I think it'll stay there for at least another few years.
Florida Marlins: Hanley Ramirez
Yes, Hanley Ramirez is the "name" player for the Marlins, but pitcher Josh Johnson would have taken his spot on this list if he didn't have such wild injury concerns.
When healthy, Johnson might be the best pitcher in the National League. Thus far, he's been unable to prove that he can sustain his success (and his arm) for a full season.
Additionally, Hanley Ramirez wasn't quite the same player in 2010 that he had been in the four years prior.
Perhaps he was just a bit disinterested being on another losing team; after all, Hanley was benched on two separate occasions for failing to hustle.
It's also possible that he was playing through an injury which sapped his power a bit. His home run total, which peaked in 2008 at 33, fell to 24 in 2009 and just 21 last season.
Ramirez also hit 40 or more doubles on three occasions, but managed just 28 last season.
Additionally, his batting average has fluctuated throughout his career. Since 2006, Hanley has hit .292, .332, .301, .342 and .300.
Now hitting third in the Marlins lineup, his stolen base opportunities have lessened. Hanley is no longer going to swipe 50 bags like he did in his first two seasons. Instead, he's now probably limited to 30-35 steals.
Ramirez also rates as a poor defensive shortstop. UZR had him pegged as 10 runs below average last season.
So what does all of this mean? Is Hanley Ramirez a very good player, or a great one?
It seems that when he wants he can be great. He merely seems content with being very good.
If Hanley Ramirez continues on the same path, 2011 can be the year that Troy Tulowitzki supplants him as the best shortstop in baseball.
Houston Astros: Carlos Lee
El Caballo had a down year in 2010, hitting just .246 with a .708 OPS. But even at 34 years old, Carlos Lee still has a bit of giddy up left in his step.
Since 2003, the left fielder has been as consistent a 35 double, 30 homer and 110 RBI producer as one can ask for in baseball.
Although Lee is a career .287 hitter, he's been over .300 in six of his 12 major league seasons. He also owns a career .495 slugging percentage, proving that this horse hits for some power.
Astros manager Brad Mills ventured down to Panama this offseason to spend some time with his cleanup hitter in order to make sure that he had the right mindset for the upcoming season.
Even though Lee struggled last year, his plate discipline proved that he should still stick in the No. 4 spot in Houston's order.
Even though the Astros will probably own one of the worst records after the 2011 season, C-Lee should still be a big-time producer.
Throw out his 2010 numbers and observe his career stats. El Caballo is still a very dangerous hitter.
Kansas City Royals: Joakim Soria
Although Soria had the worst performance of his career this past Wednesday, surrendering 4 hits, 4 runs and a walk in a blown save against the White Sox, he's still one of the best closers in baseball.
Soria has converted 133 of his 147 career save chances (90.5 percent) and he owns a rate of 282 strikeouts to 72 walks over 260 career innings.
This almost 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio has led to a career 2.11 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and a .199 batting average against.
Soria has been absolute death to hitters in the late innings and there's no reason why he should slow up anytime soon.
The Mexican reliever already owns two All-Star nods. He should get his third this season.
Los Angeles Angels: Jered Weaver
Jered Weaver broke out in 2010. Because of a lack of offensive run support, nobody seemed to notice.
The younger Weaver tossed 224 innings last season, striking out 233 batters and walking just 54. He owned a 3.01 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP.
But because the Angels couldn't get it together for him on offense, Weaver went just 13-12 despite leading the major leagues in strikeouts.
He is, however, already off to a 2-0 start in 2011. If Weaver gets enough run support, and sustains the increase in K/9 he had last season, this could be a CY Young year for him.
The former 12th overall pick out of Long Beach State has developed into an absolute nuisance for major league hitters.
Even if this is his peak, it should be a nasty one.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw
Due to the fact that he's just 23 years old, it's amazing that the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw is already in his fourth major league season.
The lanky lefty, who has reminded many a Dodger fan of legend Sandy Koufax, has struck out 514 batters in his 496 major league innings.
His control is improving and so is his poise.
Kershaw is 1-1 through his first two starts, but he walked just one batter in each appearance. He struck out nine Giants in the win and eight Rockies in the loss.
Behind a strong spring training, all signs are pointing to 2011 being the year that Clayton Kershaw makes the permanent jump into superstardom.
Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
If the Milwaukee Brewers have any chance at capturing the NL Central crown this season, they'll need their No. 3 hitter, Ryan Braun, to have a huge year.
Braun captured the 2007 Rookie of the Year trophy in dramatic fashion, slamming 34 home runs in 451 at-bats, with a .324 average, 1.004 OPS and 15 steals.
In hindsight, his rookie year was probably his best year so far.
Braun's OPS fell all the way to .866 last season, primarily because some of his fly ball homers started turning into doubles. Braun cracked the 40-double mark (45) for the first time and also failed to reach 30 home runs for the first time (25).
To restore his long-ball power, the former Miami Hurricane put himself through a rigorous training program in the offseason.
If the Brewers manage to win their division, Braun (or also Prince Fielder) is likely to be your NL MVP.
Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer
This was about as obvious a choice as there could be on this list.
Joe Mauer means everything to the Minnesota Twins organization. That's probably why the team has him signed to a $184 million deal through 2018.
Mauer is a lefty who prefers to hit to the opposite field. Although this tendency enables him to have a high average (career .326 hitter), it also decreases his ability to hit the long-ball.
Even though Mauer hit 28 home runs in 2009, his second highest total came in 2006 (13) and he managed just nine bombs last season.
More balls leaving the yard in 2009 also helped Mauer to the highest batting average of his career (.365).
If he can get the ball over the fence, Joe Mauer will return to the 1.000 levels in OPS and to the top of MVP ballots.
New York Mets: Davis Wright
Another hitter who likes to hit to the opposite field, David Wright probably has much more natural power than Joe Mauer.
Wright is usually reliable for 60-70 extra base hits per season. His 10 home run year in 2009 was more than likely a severe aberration.
Unfortunately, his ability to hit for power has cost him the past two years.
With the Mets struggling, rather than being in contention, Wright constantly pressed to play catchup during ballgames.
More than likely, that's what has spiked his strikeout rate and consequently slashed his batting average in 2009 and 2010.
If the Mets lineup can stay healthy and keep the team in games, Wright will hit more relaxed and could be in for a big year.
Either way, he'll be the team's best and most important player.
New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez
Amid talk that his admission to steroid use has cheapened his career numbers, Alex Rodriguez appears on a mission in 2011.
The Yankees' cleanup hitter looked locked in during spring training and he's continued it into the season.
Alex Rodriguez is not just a great player, he's an all-time great.
Even as he's declined, A-Rod still managed 95 home runs the past three seasons.
Lower totals have been the result of fewer games played. Since A-Rod worked hard on his conditioning this offseason, I expect him to stay in the lineup more this season.
If he can, 2011 will be the last hurrah for Alex Rodriguez en route to probably his final MVP campaign.
Oakland Athletics: Coco Crisp
Coco Crisp can do pretty much anything you'd like a position player to do. As a result, he can be a very valuable player.
Coco showed a nice little power spike in his 290 at-bats with the A's last season. He hit eight home runs, putting him on pace for a full season total in line with the 31 he hit (15, 16) between 2004-2005 with the Indians.
He's also a terrific defender. UZR had him saving at least 17 runs above the average player during three separate seasons. Although the system has also had Crisp below replacement level three times as well, Crisp passes the eye test.
When he can stay healthy, Coco Crisp is an impact player. He stole 32 bases in 35 attempts last season despite playing in just 75 games.
He should sit atop the A's lineup all year and will probably have a lot of opportunities to run.
Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Howard
With Jayson Werth departed to Washington and Chase Utley's status still unknown, Ryan Howard will have to carry the Phillies' offense on his wide shoulders for a large part of this season.
With the exception of the Marlins' Mike Stanton, Ryan Howard may have the best natural power in baseball.
From 2006-2009, he slugged at least 45 homers every year. In 2010, Howard hit a lot more balls to center field and finished with just 31 homers.
If he can get back to his pulling ways, Ryan Howard will probably supplant Miguel Cabrera for generating the highest percentage of his team's runs and make a run at another NL MVP.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen
The Pirates are off to a 4-3 start, due in large part to their new No. 3 hitter Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen is one of those players who hates to lose. He's a former top prospect who, at 24 years old, is still improving as a baseball player.
McCutchen is a great natural athlete who in his prime could be in line for a 30-30 season or two. He stole 33 bases during his first full year in 2010 and also added 35 doubles, 5 triples and 16 home runs.
He's not all that big, but McCutchen has a lot of natural pop in his bat and those totals should eventually come up as he matures.
Look for Andrew McCutchen to become the face of the Pirates organization as his play and his attitude make the Pirates relevant once again.
San Diego Padres: Heath Bell
Heath Bell has been the subject of a lot of trade speculation the past few seasons.
With his contract expiring at the end of this year, it's doubtful that the Padres would hold onto him at the trading deadline if they're out of contention.
But as long as he's on the team, Bell will be the Padres' best player.
In four seasons in San Diego, the hard throwing right-hander has done about as good of a job as you could ask in replacing Padres legend Trevor Hoffman.
All Bell has done the past two years is rack up 89 saves over 139.2 innings, registering 165 strikeouts to only 52 walks.
He's one of baseball's elite closers and will be highly coveted by all contenders.
San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum
Through two starts in 2011, the Freak looks like he's back in the form that helped him to two straight Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009.
His velocity looks restored and his slider looks much more polished.
Higher velocity is key for a fastball/changeup pitcher. A better slider should serve as an adept strikeout pitch against either hand of hitter.
Despite the fact that it looks like you could break him in two, Tim Lincecum is one of the most electric pitchers in baseball.
The buzz in AT&T Park when Lincecum pitches is akin to the buzz Fenway Park had anytime Pedro Martinez took the ball in his prime.
Pedro won three Cy Youngs himself. At 26 years old, Lincecum is still a threat to Roger Clemens and his record of seven.
Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez
After four seasons of protecting and preserving his arm in the major leagues, the Mariners have finally unleashed King Felix the past two seasons.
He threw 238 innings in 2009 and 249 innings in his Cy Young winning year in 2010.
With just 13 victories, Felix set the record for the lowest win total by a Cy Young winner in a non-interrupted season.
The baseball press voting a 13-12 pitcher to win the award also shows that the times are changing.
But Felix more than deserved the accolade.
He struck out 232 batters over all those innings last year and permitted just 70 walks. A staggering 54 percent of his balls in play against were grounders.
If the Mariners can supply him with some offense this season, a repeat is extremely likely.
St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols
Alright, forget Joe Mauer. Albert Pujols was the most obvious choice on this list.
Pujols has been the most remarkably consistent and dominant athlete of my lifetime.
He owns a career .333/.425/.623 triple slash line with a 1.048 OPS. He also owns 409 career homers, and at 30 years old, is still at the height of his talents.
When it's all said and done, Albert Pujols will probably go down as the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.
With his contract up at the end of the season, Pujols will be on a mission all year as he tries to become the owner of the richest contract in baseball history.
Tampa Bay Rays: B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton still has all the tools and all the talent that a former No. 2 overall pick should.
Even though he's never truly broken out, perhaps we've been unfair to Upton who is still just 26.
Since becoming a full-time player in 2007, Upton has struck out between 134 and 164 times each season.
Poor plate discipline is what has limited his potential thus far. But Upton is still a safe bet for 18-20 homers and 40-plus steals.
I could see him breaking out in a big way and surpassing his younger brother, Justin, by the end of the season.
Texas Rangers: Josh Hamilton
Even though teammates Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz have gotten off to faster starts, Josh Hamilton is still the American League's reigning MVP.
Everyone knows Hamilton's life story by now, but what everyone always forgets is that when he was being scouted, Hamilton was considered one of the best prospects of all time.
He won the MVP award last year despite playing in just 133 games. Hamilton's health is always going to be a concern, but when he's playing there's no one else like him.
The slugging lefty hit .359 last year with 40 doubles and 32 homers in those 133 contests. His OPS crept over 1.000 for the first time in his career.
This is a 30 year old hitter with a lot of sporadic minor league experience. Hamilton is still learning the craft of hitting and should continue to get better.
The year that Josh Hamilton stays healthy is going to be one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history.
Toronto Blue Jays: Ricky Romero
All the coverage around the Toronto Blue Jays tends to focus on their power hitting lineup. As a result, their No. 1 starter Ricky Romero is often overlooked.
Romero throws five pitches and relies heavily on keeping the ball on the ground. The numbers show that an elite 55 percent of Romero's balls in play against are grounders.
As he improves as a pitcher, his control will continue to improve as well.
Once he can get his strikeout-to-walk ratio over 2:1, Romero will start giving himself more opportunities to win games.
He's already striking out seven-and-a-half batters per nine innings. Combined with the high ground-ball rate, that's enough to guarantee Romero a bunch of All-Star appearances.
Lefties tend to mature later than other pitchers. Romero is just 26. As he fine-tunes all of his pitches, he'll jump into the territory of baseball's elite.
Washington Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman
Zimmerman was probably a bit overrated in fantasy leagues this season, but that doesn't mean he's not an extremely good player.
Now entering his prime, Z-Pack should be a pretty reliable 40-plus double, 25-plus home run kind of hitter. As his plate discipline has improved over his career, he's also shown that he can hit for average while finding his way on base (.388 OBP last year)
Defensively, UZR has Zimmerman pegged as saving 55 runs over his career at third base. He's a gold glove-type fielder.
Hopefully the Nationals can get something going before they miss out on Zimmerman's best years. He's a sturdy all-around player.