The Contenders – Teams who I expect to contend all season
#1 Boston Red Sox– Last year they “only” won 89 games, and injuries were blamed for their disappointing season. They lost perennial MVP candidates Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia for most of the 2nd half of the season, 2 of their opening day outfielders missed most of the season with injuries, they lost both of their catchers to the DL at the same time that their top 2 minor league catchers were also hurt, Mike Lowell could barely limp around the bases when he was on the roster, their shortstop of the future didn’t play a game until late July and I lost count, but I believe in total they logged approximately 72,000,000 man days on the DL (or so it seemed). In spite of this, they still managed to be the #2 offense in the majors. Imagine what they would have done without all the injuries. And, oh yeah, I almost forgot they added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to this already potent lineup. They also got subpar years from some members of their rotation. But their real Achilles heel last year was their bullpen. Well, they’ve addressed that with the addition of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler to augment Papelbon and Bard. So, fewer injuries and the additions of bats should mean more offense, a return to form would mean better starting pitching, and they have also addressed their bullpen. But the most important reason they get the #1 ranking is actually quite simple... I’m a diehard Red Sox fan.
#2 Philadelphia Phillies – It’s all about pitching, pitching, pitching. Or Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt. And some Cliff guy they signed in the offseason. Yes, they lost Jayson Werth, but with their starting rotation it feels like 1 run will be enough to win most days!
#3 San Francisco Giants - See #2. Except that their offence might be hard pressed to score that single run they’ll need on many nights.
#4 Oakland A’s - To most people, this might be the first real surprise. The top 3 teams are expected to be near the top, but this is an unexpected entry in a top 10, much less at #4. But I have a few reasons to think so highly of them this year. First some numbers: 128,139,118,148. What’s that? The ERA+ of their top 4 starters (for reference Tim Lincecum’s was 119). Their offence should also be helped with the acquisitions of Matsui and Willingham. And they were an 86 Pythagorean win team last year. Won’t take much more than that to win their division.
#5 Minnesota Twins - In spite of everyone only remembering their annual early playoff sweep at the hands of the Yankees, they managed to win 94 games last year - good for 4th best in the majors. Having Canadian Justin Morneau for the whole season and getting Joe Nathan back can only help.
#6 Colorado Rockies - Can rack up lots of easy wins within the division. Have committed to the long term with the signings of Tulo and Gonzalez, and almost had another 2007esque miracle finish to their season last year. If the regular season had been a week longer, the Giants might have missed the playoffs entirely.
#7 Milwaukee Brewers - Everyone noticed the Zack Greinke trade, but do not underestimate the Shaun Marcum acquisition. Together with Wolf and Gallardo it’s starting to look like a real good rotation, in a not so real good division. What will Fielder do in a walk year?
# 8 Tampa Bay Rays – What? Don’t I realize they lost Crawford, Pena, Bartlett, Garza, Soriano and more? Yes, but, they still have Price, Shields, Longoria and more members of last season’s 96 win team. They may not win 90, but they’ll be close and I can’t think of another team lower in the rankings that will be a better bet to either.
#9 New York Yankees – Yes, I know. I didn’t place the Yankees in their righteous place on top of the world’s power rankings. And I have them below Milwaukee and Oakland among others. Did I mention I was a Red Sox fan?? But seriously, who will be their #2 pitcher after CC? Phil Hughes who had a 4.90 ERA in the 2nd half last year? Will Andy Pettitte really unretire and have enough time to get in shape for the season? AJ Burnett? Maybe they can experiment with putting Joba in the starting rotation. Maybe they can sign Cliff Lee? Oh, wait. I know! They can trade for Zach Greinke! Oh, wait, that won’t work either. Look, they’re not going to be an irrelevant 75 win team – they’ll still be fighting for a playoff spot all season. But during the season instead of their fans discussing what the optimum playoff rotation will be, they’ll be discussing what improvements they’ll need to make to ensure a playoff spot.
#10 Texas Rangers – That’s a big drop for a pennant winner. Except that last year they won 90 games - one of 9 teams to win that many – so I’m not really expecting too much of a drop. They did lose Cliff Lee and Vlad Guerrero, although signing Adrian Beltre may drop half a run in ERA from their groundball pitchers (Brandon Webb says “Hi”!). I expect them to fight Oakland for the division, and be in the hunt for the wildcard as well, but ultimately just fall short.
Middle of the pack –
These are the teams where I go out on a limb and predict that even though they are mediocre, they may surprise and contend, or disappoint and fall off the radar early! Check back at the end of the season and I feel confident that you’ll see I was right that at least some of these teams were in fact mediocre, or contended or underperformed.
#11 Detroit Tigers – If they get a couple of breaks, they could challenge the Twins for the division title.
#12 St. Louis Cardinals – See #11. Substitute Brewers for Twins.
#13 Atlanta Braves – If everything falls into place, this could be the other team that’s a good bet to win 90 games that I referenced in #8. But I just have a bad feeling about this group - nothing analytical, no fancy stats, just a hunch it will be a long season at Turner Field.
#14 Cincinnati Reds – May be a surprisingly low rating, but I don’t see them duplicating last year’s success.
#15 Chicago White Sox – Could also challenge the Twins for the division. Adam Dunn was the big offseason acquisition, and they also got Jesse Crain to help replace some of their lost bullpen arms.
#16 Chicago Cubs – Added Carlos Pena. But their biggest improvement may be addition by subtraction with Lou Piniella not being around all season. Mike Quade led them to a 24-13 record, and although he won’t keep that up, he can certainly improve on Lou’s .408 winning percentage (66 win pace) from last year
#17 San Diego Padres – Why isn’t this team ranked near the bottom of the league? They have nobody!
All they had was A-Gon and he was shipped out of town. All true, but they did win 90 games last year and led the division most of the way. They’ve replaced Tejada with Bartlett, and added Harang. A simple regreession to the mean and the loss of Gonzalez will mean a few less wins, but they should still be within sight of a .500 record.
#18 LA Angels - They lost Matsui, were rumored to be targeting Beltre and Crawford, but ended up empty handed. Their biggest offseason improvement may end up being getting a healthy Kendry Morales back. This strikes me as a team moving sideways.
#19 Florida Marlins – Another team that’s moving sideways. Were .500 last year, lost a couple of players, added a couple of players – they might end up at .500 again.
Bottom teams – these teams aren’t generally expected to contend, and won’t surprise anyone.
#20 Toronto Blue Jays –Made a good trade for the future in acquiring Brett Lawrie for Marcum. But didn’t make any move to help contend soon. Hey Canadians – I’m tired of hearing your complaining that the Blue Jays can’t finance the payroll to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox of the world, eh? Tampa Bay, the Twins, Oakland, Reds, Rangers, Giants and others have all had recent successes with lower payrolls. You’ve been stuck in this no-man’s land, of spending a bit and making bad trades to improve right now (but not enough to win), instead of biting the bullet for a season or two and build a real contender.
#21 LA Dodgers – Added Jon Garland, and maybe if they had also added the combined pitching staffs of the Phillies and Giants, their non-existent offense might be enough to win a few games. Mediocre pitching and a poor offense is not a winning combination.
#22 New York Mets – Waiting for next year when a lot of deadwood payroll comes off the books to see how JP Ricciardi’s influence can sink this team’s future with bad trades and poor signings.
#23 Baltimore Orioles – As long as Strasburg is off the roster for another season, the Orioles can lay claim to being the best team in the DC area. They might even win 70 games.
#24 Kansas City Royals – Hey, aren’t these guys usually ranked about #32? The rank improvement says more about the teams below them then it does about the Royals. But they’ve been drafting well, and all of a sudden they’re going to have a 2008 Rays-like worst to first season. Maybe in 2012, more likely in 2013/14, but definitely not in 2011.
#25 Washington Natinals – Another team with a good looking future. Just signed Werth for the long term, and eventually will have Strasburg and Harper as teammates. But wouldn’t hold my breath for any significant improvement in 2011.
#26 Seattle Mariners –There are bad offenses and that there is the Mariners’. Last time a team scored so few runs per game, Roberto Clemente was the best right-fielder in the majors. And DH was the abbreviation for a doubleheader – which were frequent and allowed a fan to see 2 games for the price of 1. They still have the reigning Cy Young winner in King Felix, and they signed Jack Cust to help with their anemic offense, but it’s not nearly enough.
#27 Arizona Diamodbacks – Might have had a worse bullpen then Boston’s last year. They’ve added JJ Putz to anchor that bullpen but their offense doesn’t have much past trade bait Justin Upton, and I challenge anyone who doesn’t follow them closely to name 3 members of their starting rotation. Yeah, I didn’t think you could.
#28 Houston Astros – This team is bad. I have no idea how they won 76 games last year. I challenged you to name 3 members of the Diamondacks’ starting rotation, an even tougher challenge might be to name 3 members of Houston’s starting lineup. I’ll even spot you Carlos Lee.
#29 Pittsburgh Pirates – Fans will probably be happy that I didn’t put them in their perennial #30 spot. And there’s a very good reason for that. It’s called the Cleveland Indians! Seriously, the Pirates have improved, some of their recent young draftees are ready to contribute and they added a few pieces including Lyle Overbay. They could improve by 10 games to 67 wins, but that would be their ceiling.
#30 Cleveland Indians – Unfortunately for fans around Lake Erie, this may be the start of a long run of cellar-dwelling. They have some decent players who might be in demand (Sizemore, Choo, Carmona) and they’d be smart to trade them for future prospects. It’s going to be a long season by the Lake, and the best fans can hope for is some smart rebuilding rather than holding on to a few players to try and win 65 games instead of 60.
Some overall predictions:
AL: Boston, Twins and A's win their divisions. Yankees, Rays, Tigers, White Sox, Rangers and maybe Angels compete for division title and/or the wildcard.
NL: Philly, Milwaukee and Colorado win their respective divisions. St.Louis, Reds, Braves and Giants fight for the last playoff spot.
Everybody is predicting a Philly-Sox World Series, so I'll be a contrarian and pick the Rockies to defeat Oakland. But I hope I'm wrong, and the Red Sox beat, well, anybody really.