I’m all in favor of an earlier Opening Day, as Major League Baseball adopted this year, because it means the season ends earlier and the playoffs don’t drag into November. Yes, it increases the chances that the season-opening series’ will be played under bad weather, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Where MLB messed up is that it didn’t schedule all, or even a majority, of the teams to open on the same day.
There were 12 teams who opened yesterday while the remaining 18 begin today, taking away that one day baseball fans across the country can circle on their calendars as the start of the season. At least fans in California could celebrate together—the Angels, Dodgers, Giants, and Padres all started yesterday. In New York, it was Opening Day for Yankees fans and a cold, rainy Thursday for Mets supporters.
MLB’s decision-makers smacked an extra-base hit with the earlier start date but swung and missed on the dual openers. Of course, that .500 percentage will likely outperform my predictions, which you’ll find below.
1. Philadelphia Phillies
I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing but sometime this winter, out of nowhere, it hit me that the Phils had won the Cliff Lee sweepstakes and therefore sported a rotation of Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Who The Heck Cares Did You Hear The First Four Guys? Chase Utley is hurt and out indefinitely, Jayson Werth is gone, and Jimmy Rollins has been on a decline the last two years, but the Phils are still going to win this division for a fifth straight year.
2. Atlanta Braves
I’m calling a breakout year for 24-year-old Tommy Hanson but I typically overvalue talented young starting pitchers because I love watching them succeed. I’m always skeptical of players traded within the division—as second baseman Dan Uggla was this offseason when the Marlins sent him to Atlanta—but the lineup, led by sophomore Jason Heyward, still may be the best in the division.
|Jason Heyward was born to play baseball.|
3. Florida Marlins
This team is young, which seems to be a recurring theme with the Marlins. Their talent suggests a .500 record, which should land them in the middle of the division. Josh Johnson is one of the best—and perhaps most underrated, if that’s even possible in 2011*—pitchers in baseball. I’ll be keeping an eye on slugger Mike Stanton since he was a minor league teammate of Tom Koehler and I’ve seen some projections of 35+ home runs for him this season.
*What I mean is, in the internet age a good player might fly under the radar for a month or so, but with so many people analyzing stats and publishing their findings online there are no secrets anymore. The performance of any “underrated” player is quickly championed by the bloggers and the player then becomes accurately rated.
In the case of Johnson or any other player referred to as “underrated” in this preview, I mean whether even a well-informed baseball fan knows who he is. It’s easiest to think of a person you know personally who really knows the game but doesn’t play fantasy or read a ton of non-mainstream content. For me that person is my dad but I’m sure you can think of someone too.
4. New York Mets
After a tumultuous and embarrassing offseason (which followed a tumultuous and embarrassing regular season), I felt a weight was lifted when Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo were cut a couple of weeks ago. (For this to happen at the same time as the start of the NCAA Tournament was almost too much for me to handle.) These two players represented dead weight; if you do a Google image search for “addition by subtraction” there should be a photo of Ollie and Luis. I’m tempted to say the offense could be pretty good—Carlos Beltran and sparkplug Jose Reyes are in contract years, David Wright is a star, Jason Bay has to be a lot better than last year (right?), and Ike Davis showed a lot of promise as a rookie. However, none of this offsets the facts that Johan Santana won’t be back until after the All Star break, Beltran isn’t healthy enough to play center field, and Chris Capuano and Chris Young make up the back end of a rotation that isn’t all that strong at the front either.
5. Washington Nationals
Stephen Strasburg will miss the entire season, so Strasburg Nationals fans won’t have much reason to show up until 2012, as this franchise will come in last in the East for the fourth straight year and seventh time in the past eight seasons. If Citizens Bank Park is a playground, Nationals Park is, well, a national park, so Jayson Werth might not hit 20 homers this year.
1. Milwaukee Brewers
The acquisition of Zack Greinke gives Milwaukee two aces (Yovani Gallardo, another underrated talent, being the other) and I like Shaun Marcum, too. No reason to think Ryan Braun won’t have another awesome year and I’m calling a monster bounce-back season for Prince Fielder after a terribly disappointing 2010.
2. Chicago Cubs
The addition of Matt Garza gives the Cubs a strong rotation, one on par with the other contenders in the Central. Another ex-Ray, Carlos Pena, gives them some pop in the middle of the lineup, which has to do better than last year. Placing the Cubs in second is a gamble, but I think Aramis Ramirez hits much better than the .241 batting average he posted last season and new manager Mike Quade finds a combination that works in the outfield.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
On paper this is probably the best lineup in the division and maybe the league (Lance Berkman is a new face), but the loss of Cy Young runner-up Adam Wainwright is obviously a horrible blow. I see the Cards remaining competitive but never seriously contending for a playoff spot. Oh, and their first baseman is a free agent after this year.
4. Cincinnati Reds
I feel like a lot of things went right for the Reds last year and although they were a good story, I see a significant drop-off for them in 2011. Can MVP Joey Votto possibly be as consistently great as he was last year? What about Scott Rolen, who will be 36 next week? Will young outfielders Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce take a leap forward? Too many questions for a team many think will repeat as division champion.
5. Houston Astros
Their hitting and their pitching appear to rank near the bottom of this division, hence my prediction of their 5th place finish. Any franchise silly enough to put a hill in the middle of its stadium’s outfield doesn’t deserve much better.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Wow, this rotation is horrendous. Here are the ERAs from last season for the five projected starting pitchers: 7.57, 5.40, 5.10, 4.07, and 4.02. Other candidates to get starts posted similarly awful numbers. I don’t see any long (or short) winning streaks for Pittsburgh, which will likely finish last in the Central for the fifth consecutive season.
1. San Francisco Giants
The defending World Series champs should be just as strong this season, though they lose the element of surprise, if that matters. The Giants have a starting rotation that can stand up to the Phillies (as it did in last year’s playoffs, though that was before the Phils had Lee), so the only questions are whether guys like Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff can match their performances from last year and if Pablo Sandoval can regain his 2009 form. As you can see, I think the answers will be more positive than negative.
2. Colorado Rockies (wild card)
Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are MVP-caliber players and definitely belong on that underrated list as well. They’ll have to play at that level, though, given the uncertainty of the rotation behind Ubaldo Jimenez.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
I like the young guns, Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, at the top of the rotation, and you could certainly do worse than Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda, and Jon Garland at the back end. Whether the core of Matt Kemp (disappointing 2010), James Loney (simply put, he needs to hit better if he wants to be a quality first baseman), and Andre Ethier (a monster against righties) can carry this offense remains to be seen.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
After more research, the D-Backs aren’t as bad as I initially thought. So in a bit of an upset pick I have them avoiding last place in the division. Last year, of the 14 National League players who struck out the most times, Arizona had a whopping five of them. Justin Upton, Kelly Johnson, and Chris Young return, but corner infielders Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche have taken their combined 400 Ks elsewhere. When healthy, I think Miguel Montero is one of the better hitting catchers in the league, so the offense should be improved. I like the young pitching staff and I’m banking on the bullpen not being the worst in baseball again (or at least by not such a wide margin).
5. San Diego Padres
Mat Latos is one of the young pitchers Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated included on his list of at-risk pitchers, young hurlers who exceed their previous year’s workload by more than a certain amount. Sure enough, Latos will begin the season on the disabled list. However, I still think he can have a very good season, and I like Tim Stauffer as well, who quietly put together a really nice 2010. Clayton Richard rounds out the trio of San Diego’s relatively young starters, and I will mention him because I once played pick-up basketball with him at the University of Michigan, where he was a two-sport athlete, serving as a back-up quarterback for the Wolverines. Offensively for the Padres, it’s a different story. A-Gone (Adrian Gonzalez) is A-Goner, which means the team that had one good hitter last season now has none.
Brewers over Giants
Phillies over Rockies
Phillies over Brewers
1. Boston Red Sox
Hard to find someone not picking the Red Sox to win the division, which is surprising given the fact that, you know, the Yankees also play in this division, and the Rays won it last year. Then again, Boston is loaded. It features the best rotation in the league (as the Giants can attest, it’s nice, in a strange way, to have such a well-paid fifth starter) and probably the best lineup in baseball—new acquisitions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez are MVP candidates. Crawford could combine with Jacoby Ellsbury for 80 steals and while Gonzalez put up great numbers at cavernous Petco Park. Boston fans are once again thinking World Series.
2. Tampa Bay Rays
We transition from Boston to two former Red Sox outfielders now playing in Tampa Bay. What Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez still have in their respective tanks is going to determine whether the Rays compete for a playoff spot or get swallowed up by this talented division. At least they can put a quality arm on the mound day in and day out.
3. New York Yankees
Cliff Lee chose Philly. The Red Sox grabbed Crawford and Gonzalez. The Yanks came up empty this winter, but will still be a major factor in this division. With a payroll of more than $200 million, though, you’d think the back end of the rotation would be stronger. If the Yanks don’t get off to a good start offensively it will be interesting to see whether Derek Jeter stays near the top of the batting order.
4. Toronto Blue Jays
The oldest pitcher in the starting rotation is 26 years old. Led by Ricky Romero, who put together a solid season last year, the staff also includes Kyle Drabek, 23, the key prospect in the trade for Roy Halladay. Jose Bautista’s 54 home runs last season were inexplicable, so expecting anything less than significant regression is illogical.
5. Baltimore Orioles
There is a whole new look to the offense with the additions of Derrek Lee, Vlad Guerrero, and Mark Reynolds, but the Orioles will need more from Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters to avoid last place. New manager Buck Showalter, for some reason, felt compelled to take shots at the Yanks and Sox in a recent magazine interview; Yanks and Sox will likely respond by winning most of their games against the Orioles.
1. Chicago White Sox
One of the most reliable pitchers in baseball, Mark Buehrle, leads a rotation that may be the best in the division. Like other teams in the Central, the White Sox were a bit more aggressive in the offseason than usual and signed Adam Dunn. There’s a lot of power in this lineup, but a key will be whether the bottom third of the order can produce anything.
2. Minnesota Twins
I think the Central will be a tight three-way race and with no clear favorite I am tempted to pick Ron Gardenhire and the Twins, division champs the past two years. But I’m skeptical Carl Pavano can replicate last season’s success and the middle of the infield took a hit with the loss of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy. It’s never smart to bet against Minnesota, but I never presented my predictions as intelligent.
3. Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera is one of the top three all-around hitters in baseball. He has battled off-field problems though; his DUI about six weeks ago was another mark on his record. If he keeps his head on straight, this offense should roll with the continued development of leadoff man Austin Jackson and the addition of Victor Martinez, another example of a Central team spending big money. On the pitching front, ace Justin Verlander leads a rotation that includes two guys who really benefitted from a trip to the minors last season: Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. If those two haven’t forgotten what they apparently learned from those stints, this could be a very solid staff.
|Miguel Cabrera is a natural hitter. (Credit: shgmom56)|
4. Cleveland Indians
Much like the East, I’m very confident in which two teams will finish at the bottom of the standings, I’m just not sure of the order. I’ll put Cleveland here because Grady Sizemore is incredible and Shin-Soo Choo is a five-tool player who could hit .300 and drive in 100 runs this season (certainly one of the more underrated players in the league). Carlos Santana could be the AL’s version of Buster Posey.
5. Kansas City Royals
Apparently their farm system is really good, so they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. The talented young players currently on the roster and on the rise in the minors should develop nicely as long as they don’t take any hitting advice from Jeff Francoeur.
1. Oakland Athletics
The A’s had some Spring Training buzz and I’m buying it. The main reason: the pitching staff. I’m high on Trevor Cahill and a healthy Brett Anderson, both just 23 years old. The offense won’t scare anyone but Oakland made enough offseason moves—like the addition of Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui—to at least make the lineup respectable. Coco Crisp has the potential to be one of the better leadoff hitters in the league.
2. Texas Rangers
The Rangers won the pennant last year and although the loss of Cliff Lee makes them far less dangerous in a playoff series, they still have the personnel to win the West again. Josh Hamilton could certainly win the MVP again, Nelson Cruz (another candidate) and Ian Kinsler are two key pieces who missed significant time last year, and Elvis Andrus is one of the best young shortstops in baseball. The staff lacks an ace, and we’ll see if C.J. Wilson and journeyman Colby Lewis can repeat their success. Brandon Webb will be counted on as well, and he hasn’t been healthy since 2008.
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
I gave strong consideration to the Angels as well. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana are three very strong arms, though it’s too bad not one is a lefty (fifth starter Scott Kazmir is the only southpaw in the rotation, and it’s not like lefties have trouble against him anyway). Bobby Abreu is 37 and hit just .255 last season. Torii Hunter is 35 and starting to show signs of a decline, so a key will be whether offseason pick-up Vernon Wells can have another surprisingly good season.
4. Seattle Mariners
Fool me once…I’m not taking Seattle to make the playoffs again this year. Reigning Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez is worthy of his “King” moniker but there’s not too much to get excited about behind him in the rotation. As for the hitters, Ichiro can still play, but he doesn’t have enough teammates capable of driving him in on a regular basis, so runs—and wins—will once again be hard to come by for the Mariners.
A’s over White Sox
Red Sox over Rangers
Red Sox over A’s
Red Sox over Phillies