Spring Training’s Here
Something like 100 days ago, Brian Wilson struck out Nelson Cruz and the San Francisco Giants celebrated as World Series champions for the first time since moving west. Well, guess what, baseball’s nearly back, and spring training is just around the corner. Teams have already packed up all their equipment and made the trek down to their preseason sites in either Florida or Arizona. Spring is only six weeks away, people. Get excited. Here’s a quick preview with some other random thoughts:
Just in case it wasn’t overtly obvious, the Red Sox emerged as the big winners and Yankees the big losers of the offseason. Boston’s the only team in baseball that sports a pitching/hitting combination better than Philadelphia’s. Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia form the lineup’s nucleus, with Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew, Marco Scutaro, and Jason Varitek filling in as the complementary parts (while stud prospects like Ryan Kalish, Lars Anderson, and Jed Lowrie wait in the wings). Couple that with a starting rotation featuring Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buccholz as its top three, with John Lackey and Dice-K filling the fourth and fifth sports, respectively (throw the ageless Tim Wakefield in, too, for good measure). Then there’s the bullpen, which sports three closer-quality arms in Bobby Jenks, Jonathan Papelbon, and Daniel Bard. Saying this team is stupidly loaded would be a gross understatement. Provided they can avoid the ridiculous spate of injuries that plagued their 2010 season, the Red Sox are easily the most talented team in the AL and should run away with this division.
I also happen to think the geriatric and pitching-deprived Yankees are going to finish third or fourth, which will result in a boatload of firings and sweeping changes at every level. While Phil Hughes has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, C.C. Sabathia is really the only Yankees pitcher that strikes fear into opponents. I read he lost 30 pounds in the offseason; if C.C. can lose another 150 and magically transform that excess lard into a clone of himself, the Yankees will be in business. But when you’re resting a lot of your hopes for success on A.J. Burnett not being unspeakably awful, odds are it’s going to be a long season. Enjoy Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre starting every fourth and fifth day, Yankees fans. At least the bullpen is an area of strength, so take some solace in that. I expect Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to continue their respective age-related declines, and this team simply cannot win without those two playing prominent roles in the offense.
Which team could surprise in the AL East? Toronto. I really like what general manager Alex Anthopoulos is doing north of the border with the Blue Jays (pawning off Vernon Well’s albatross of a contract on the desperate Angels was a stroke of genius). He has assembled a roster that is flush with young talent, and, remember, we’re talking about a team that led the Major Leagues in home runs last season by a wide margin. Offense won’t be a problem, but I think it’s the underrated pitching, led by Ricky Romero, that will elevate this team to the next level. Toronto has been on the cusp the past few seasons and is ready to finally break through.
Buck Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles have a good mix of young and veteran talent and aren’t too far away from being a legitimate threat, either. It won’t be this year, but that’s a city deserving of a good baseball team. Patience, you Natty Boh guzzlers. Well, more patience, I should say.
Everyone expects the Rays to totally go in the tank, but I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion. Veterans like Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez will help keep things afloat as the team tests out its prized prospects (i.e. Desmond Jennings) at the Major League level. Jeremy Hellickson should quickly emerge as a front-line starter and pair with David Price at the top of the rotation. I don’t think this team is nearly as screwed as everyone else has posited, and I expect them to be very competitive.
1. Red Sox
2. Blue Jays (Wild Card)
Conventional wisdom says this will be a three-team race between the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox, and I see no reason to debunk that line of thinking. The Indians have some good pieces in place, but they’re still a few years away from contending. The Royals are, well, the Royals. But fear not Kansas Citians, your baseball team is widely considered to have the most talent-rich farm system in the league, so brighter days should be on the horizon.
I’m partial to taking the Twins because that organization always finds a way to get it done (in the regular season, that is). With a healthy Justin Morneau returning, Minnesota is my pick to repeat as division champions.
Perhaps you already deduced it, but this is the division I know the least about… and I’m unapologetic about not doing more research.
3. White Sox
4. Indians (Carlos Santana is going to be the AL’s best catcher by season’s end)
Every year there’s a surprise team (or two) that emerges from the pack and makes the playoffs. Joining the Toronto Blue Jays in that capacity I believe will be the Oakland A’s, which once used to dominate this division back in the early 2000’s when the effectiveness of Billy Beane’s then-esoteric “Moneyball” strategy was at its zenith. This season’s version of the A’s will be very similar to the teams of yesteryear that featured Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito leading the starting rotation, as it boasts a top three of Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, and Gio Gonzalez (don’t forget about Dallas Braden, who threw a perfect game last year, either). Then add in the fact that Andrew Bailey is the best closer you’ve never heard of — he’s actually just one of the best, period — and leads a bullpen stocked with veterans like Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, Brad Ziegler, and Craig Breslow. Say what you want, but that right there is one of the deepest pitching stables in all of baseball. If the offense can even be average, it should be enough to win what will otherwise be a pretty mediocre division.
As for last year’s AL champion Texas Rangers, the outlook is far less rosy. They lost their ace in Cliff Lee and then paid Adrian Beltre an obscene amount of money to play third base, alienating team stalwart and Mr. Ranger himself, Michael Young, in the process. General manager Jon Daniels has proven himself to be a pretty sharp dude, so I wonder who was really behind that signing. Was it new owner Chuck Greenberg trying to make up for the Lee failure by making another splash in free agency? If so, he failed miserably. So far, Beltre’s two best seasons have come in contract years. The other ten full seasons he’s played? Insanely underwhelming (go ahead, look up the stats). The Mariners were seduced by Beltre’s monster 2004 season and rewarded him with a 5-year, $64 million deal, and now it’s the Rangers’ turn to sit back and realize they repeated that same mistake.
The Philadelphia Phillies made the biggest splash of the offseason when they swooped in at the eleventh hour, stole Cliff Lee away from the Rangers and Yankees, and brought him back to the team that never should have let him go in the first place. There’s no doubt this is one of the most formidable starting pitching rotations ever assembled, with a one-two punch at the top of Lee and Roy Halladay, last year’s NL Cy Young Award winner. The duo is reminiscent of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling when they won a World Series title with the Diamondbacks. Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt could lead most other staffs, but they’ll settle as the league’s most dangerous third and fourth starters. Joe Blanton is nothing special, but you won’t find a better fifth starter (assuming he’s not traded for a bat, which is a definite possibility). It looks like it’ll be another season with a minimal workload for the bullpen, where there are nothing but question marks after Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge (I guess you could throw Jose Contreras in here, too). One or two of the organization’s young arms is going to have a chance to step up and win a bullpen spot in spring training. Kyle Kendrick, Justin De Fratus, and late-season call-up Vance Worley are generally considered the front-runners.
For the first time since this incarnation of the Phillies attained elite status, the team’s offense is seen as its potential weakness. Replacing Jayson Werth is no easy task, but I think the Ben Francisco/Domonic Brown platoon in right field will hold its own. Let’s also not forget that Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins only just turned 32, which is still very much the prime of a baseball player’s career. When those two are healthy, this offense should resemble the one that has recently terrorized the NL. Still, this team’s chances ultimately hinge on what kind of season Ryan Howard produces. He noticeably sacrificed some of his strength for a slimmer figure in 2010 and was quite simply not as dangerous as in years past. If he was able to regain some of that power over the winter, the offense should once again be explosive. If not, I’m preparing myself for a summer of considerable frustration and consternation. I’d rather have a Ryan Howard who hits .260 and belts around 50 homers than one who bats closer to .300 but only hits 30-35 dingers. That’s the Ryan Howard this offense needs. Besides, chicks dig the long ball.
The Atlanta Braves are a very talented team and pose the biggest threat to capture the division crown from Philadelphia. We’ll see how Fredi Gonzalez handles being manager as this franchise transitions from the Bobby Cox era, but I think he’ll be fine. Jason Heyward is going to continue his ascent to superstardom, which terrifies me as a Phillies fan but delights me as a baseball fan. This is an intriguing team stocked with copious amounts of young talent and a good blend of veterans to balance out the roster. Adding Dan Uggla will go a long way toward solving the team’s problems on offense from last season. The starting pitching is always good, and it’s going to be an open competition during spring training to see who wins the closer’s role now that Billy Wagner is retired. As of right now, Craig Kimbrel or Jonny Venters appears to have the inside track.
The Marlins remade their roster once again and restocked the talent cupboard with top prospects. Besides, they’re always pesky and competitive, no matter who is on the team. In Washington, DC, the Nationals paid Jayson Werth $40 million more than any team would have and remain a nonentity without Stephen Strasburg. At least they appear poised to emerge from the division basement, but that won’t stop Nationals Park from turning into Citizens Bank Park South when the Phillies come to town. Those New York Metropolitans, on the other hand, are the biggest joke in the league in every way. Their players suck (over-the-hill, overpaid, and overrated), their owners suck (and are seemingly in the midst of descending into financial ruin), and that new, state-of-the-art stadium sucks, too. Burn in hell, losers.
2. Braves (Wild Card)
4. Nationals (wouldn’t surprise me if they finish third)
Milwaukee made the biggest trade of the offseason when it acquired Zack Grienke from Kansas City for a package of top prospects. While the Prince Fielder melodrama and impending departure (whether via trade or free agency) will certainly be a headline all season long, this is a talented baseball team that should challenge Cincinnati and St. Louis for first in the division. But you know which team I really like as a dark horse in the NL Central? That’s right, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Pirates! Okay, fine, maybe not so much.
The Brewers are loaded. Ryan Braun can absolutely rake, and it’s about time he cements himself as a legitimate superstar, rather than just a very good player on an otherwise irrelevant team. I expect him to have his best season to date in 2011 and be the force that carries the Brew Crew. People forget this team has as explosive an offense as any team in baseball; Milwaukee boasted three everyday players, none of whom named Prince Fielder, with 100+ RBI last season (Braun, Corey Hart, and Casey McGehee, who actually led the team with 104). Combine that potent lineup with a starting pitching staff that includes Grienke, Yovani Gallardo, and Shaun Marcum (acquired from Toronto) at the top, and all of a sudden there’s a lot to like about this team on paper. Jon Axford is also an emerging star in the closer’s role. Another thing to consider about the Brewers is how youthful the roster is, with only two of its regulars (lineup and starting rotation, not including bullpen) over the age of 30, so this team should be around for a while, too, provided it can keep the nucleus intact.
With Cincinnati and St. Louis fielding basically the same teams as last year, this figures to be the tightest division race in either league. I guess the Cubs made some good moves in the offseason, but it won’t be enough to legitimately compete.
The Giants’ amazing pitching rotation will be back and perhaps even better in 2011, but the offense you saw in the playoffs won’t return. Remember, that lineup was decidedly meager to pitiful during the regular season and got lucky when a bunch of castoffs and mid-season acquisitions all caught fire at the same time. I think the Padres were a flash in the pan and see this division coming down to the Giants and Rockies.
Just take a look at the top four pitchers in San Francisco’s starting rotation: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner. When you factor in Bumgarner’s immense potential, that’s basically three legitimate #1 starters (excluding Sanchez), all currently under the age of 27. Yikes. People can talk all they want about the Phillies’ starting quartet being one for the ages, but, for my money, the Giants still boast the best rotation in baseball. Much like the A’s, if the offense can even be average, it’s hard for me to imagine the Giants not winning the division. Then again, that Rockies team is always dangerous (Troy Tulowitzki is one of the best ten or fifteen players in baseball), and I expect them to lead the NL in runs scored this season.