Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Baseball predictions for 2011 (AL)

Every year, I like to take a post and take a look at the new baseball season. I've found it helps me keep up on the league overall, although I find myself struggling to keep up on all the rookies and young players. Years ago I could have told you the top 10 list of prospects for each team. Now I'm lucky if I can give you the impact rookies for a team. Getting old and having more responsibilities suck.

American League

Eastern Division Winner:

1. Tampa Bay Rays: Did you know the Tampa Bay Rays won the division last year, or that they've won it 2 of the last 3 years? It's hard to believe for those that have followed the franchise since their inception in 1998. Their first 10 years ranked up there with some of the worst organizations in baseball. Unfortunately for them, they still can't draw regular season crowds to their stadium. Forget about what the pundits are telling you, this team is still dangerous and is my pick to win the division.

The pitching staff even with their youth is still potentially the best staff in the American league and with some experience will potentially be one of the best seen in baseball in sometime (yes that includes the current Phillies). They have two potentially spectacular hitters in Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, and they have who I consider one of the top 3 managers in the Major Leagues Joe Maddon. Last year the team struggled to get their offense running through the year and that was when they had Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, neither of whom had a spectacular year. Upton is poised to break out in a contract year and Longoria is on the verge of being the best player in the American League and with some others aging a bit potentially the best hitter in baseball. There are some holes in the bullpen and lineup but this farm system has talent in it and with a manager like Maddon who has a knack for figuring out how to fit talented players into those fringe spots, this is the team that will win the division.

2. Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox reloaded over the winter, they brought in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres and they signed free agent outfielder Carl Crawford.

There still could be offensive problems on this team though. David Ortiz continues to have long slumps where the media speculates about how he's at the end of the year, and then he breaks out and puts up serviceable numbers, those numbers though appear to be happening when the pressure's off, which leads me to believe he's not hitting good pitching, but taking advantage of mistakes, which is fine for numbers and bad for winning.

Crawford is looked at as a Top 10 player and I disagree that he'll have that kind of impact in Boston. Crawford's game is based on speed, a concept that the Red Sox have never been well known for (save Jacob Ellsbury over the past couple years). The Crawford signing looks like a team trying to put a round peg in a square hole, I think it's an attempt to out Yankee the Yankees and instead of signing a player that fits their profile they went after the shiniest object on the shelf.

The trade for Gonzalez is a different story, he should help and provide some stability and fear to the lineup that has not been there since Ortiz and Ramirez were tearing things up. I do have some concerns though whether Gonzalez is going to make a smooth transition though, there are many career National League players that get over to the American League to find that pitchers throw a lot less fastballs and even though the park he's playing in now has shorter dimensions then his former park, I have a hunch that Gonzalez's numbers could look similar to his last couple years of .300, 30hr, and 100rbi. Not awful, but I think the feeling in Boston is he'll hit 50 in that park.

The other hitters on this team are mediocre in my opinion, while they get a lot of hype due to being in Boston, the fact is Pedroia, Youklis, and Ellsbury are nice parts, but on other teams they wouldn't be considered stars, they'd be considered above average players.

The pitching staff is getting better. Lester and Bucholz have developed nicely, however this teams championship aspirations hinge on Josh Beckett, if he has a big year, they'll go far, if he doesn't they probably won't. I don't think it's a coincidence that Beckett's two best years have coincided with his teams winning the World Series (Marlins in 2003 and Red Sox in 2007).

In the end, I give the Red Sox the edge for second place over the Yankees due to their stronger starting pitching.

3. New York Yankees: The Yankees are always perennial contenders and this year will be no exception. This team still fields arguably the strongest lineup in baseball with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texiera leading the way. Robinson Cano would potentially be the best offensive player on a lot of teams but is overshadowed here and the other hitters on this team complete the lineup nicely.

Texieria had a down year last year in his second year with the Yankees and it's entirely possible that what we saw last year is what we are going to see in the years to come. His average was down over the previous years and so were his RBI and Home Runs, but they still fell in the upper echelon of hitters in the league.

Alex Rodriguez doesn't hit 50 home runs anymore, as a matter of fact, he's never come close to his explosive numbers since he admitted using performance enhancing drugs (albeit for only one year according to him). Whether Rodriguez's numbers during his prime were a result of the drugs or his talent, it's evident that he's slowing down a bit as a hitter. However, he's still extremely dangerous and has enough pop to carry this team during the season.

The pitching staff starts with C.C. Sabathia and pretty much ends with him as well. Every other spot in the rotation is a question mark. A team like the Yankees though can go along way with their hitting and it makes things a lot easier on a staff that potentially could give up a lot of runs. This works well for the long season, but is exactly what you don't want in the playoffs. The bullpen should be solid and it will need to be as it's going to get a lot of work through the year.

(Side note, C.C. Sabathia will win 300 games in his career. I've always been amazed that after Maddux got his 300th victory everyone bemoaned the fact that there wouldn't be any others. It's not easy nowadays with 5 man rotations, focus on bullpens, and so many teams in the league, but Sabathia has the combination needed, advance to big leagues at young age, superior talent, and be on good teams throughout most of your career)

4. Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays are getting better and they are young, if things develop as they expect them too, this organization could potentially win 2-3 pennants during the 20teens.

Over the past two years, management has done a fantastic job of moving bad long term contracts out of town (Alex Rios and Vernon Wells). By doing this they've provided the organization with some financial flexibility and they've opened up the positions where they have some of their best prospects. Young hitters such as Adam Lind, Travis Snider, and Aaron Hill have the potential to be very good. Add in likely performance enhancing drug star Jose Batista with the potential of catcher J.P Arencibia and this offense is potentially very exciting.

The pitching staff is young, but a number of the players have a high ceiling, prospects such as Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek project as potential aces, add in Ricky Romero, Jesse Litsch, and Bret Cecil, who have all gotten their feet wet already and their is the potential for a very solid pitching staff over the next couple years.

This team is still a year or two early to be put in the mix for great teams in the American League, but if you are a Blue Jays fan I'd be very excited.

5. Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles are getting a lot of press, they made a number of acquisitions in the winter (Vladimir Guerrero, Derek Lee, JJ Hardy, and Mark Reynolds) and they have some young talent (Brian Matsuz, Nick Markarkis, Adam Jones, and Matt Weiters). The team should be better, but I'm not entirely sold on the acquisitions having big years or for their kids ready to turn the corner.

The ceilings of their prospects looks a little low too, until they wind up with a bona-fide star that's brought up through their system, I don't think they'll turn the corner.

Final result, teams making progress, but still too many question marks.

Central Division

1. Minnesota Twins:

The Twins are my pick to win the Central based on their solid star base (Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and up and coming Delmon Young) along with the fact that their five starters are the best in the Central division.

The Twins will hit, this team is built around Joe Mauer, but the rest of the lineup is very solid players like Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyler, Delmon Young, and Justin Morneau all have solid pedigrees and they are young enough to still improve. Add in the fact that the Twins as an organization preach defense and fundamentals and this team is dangerous with average pitching.

The pitching staff is better then average. The starters are for the most part young and they have a potential Cy Young award winner in Francisco Liriano. Players like Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, and Scott Baker are still growing and potentially could break out this year.

This team has too many pieces not to be the prediction to win the division. They are the most complete team in the division, and if they don't win the division, I'd say it's more a matter of them losing it rather then someone else winning it.

2. Chicago White Sox: The White Sox have a lot of maybes. Maybe their hitters click and have good years, maybe their pitching stays healthy, maybe outspoken Manager Ozzie Guillen doesn't say anything to awful this summer.

The hitting is a mix of pieces parts, they've added Adam Dunn, which for a team that already had a fair amount of power hitting, but potentially has contact issues is a strange addition in my opinion. Paul Konerko needs to keep putting off father time, previous to last year he seemed to be on the downside of a nice career, but he rebounded with very solid numbers. It's time for Alexei Ramirez, Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, and Gordon Beckham to live up to their potential and do it on a consistent basis. (As a side note on players, I do believe in three years, Gordon Beckham will be a super star.)

The pitching staff continues the theme of having a lot of question marks. There is a lot of talent on this staff, but there are some players recovering from injuries, some getting older, and some that have yet to show they can be consistent on a year in year out basis. Jake Peavy is a huge key to this staff, if he can come back from injury and regain his Cy Young form, the pitching staff's effectiveness grows exponentially.

This team has a lot of parts, I'm just not sure they all fit together, there seem to be too many question marks at this point to think they'll win the division or do any damage in the playoffs. The team certainly has the potential to win it all, but a lot of things have to fall right for that to happen.

3. Detroit Tigers:

The Tigers are like a firecracker, there are a couple big pops and then just smoke. The talent level on this team goes from one extreme to the other. At the high end you have players like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. At the low end you have players like Brandon Inge, Jhonny Peralta, and Carlos Guillen. As good as Cabrera and Verlander are at their positions the others are as bad as it gets at theirs.

Hitting wise the Tigers should be fairly good, Miguel Cabrera is the type of offensive powerhouse that makes everyone else in the lineup better by default. Adding Victor Martinez in the off season will help, as Victor is a highly competent hitter, although over the last couple years he's been subject to power slumps. It also should be noted that catchers tend to age in baseball terms faster then other positions, so Victor could approach the downside of his career faster at an earlier age, the fact that the Tigers are planning to have him do little catching should help. The other players worth mentioning here are Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez. Ordonez continues to decline, but seems to have enough left in the tank to make himself a better then average starter. Austin Jackson is a young player that needs to continue to improve.

The pitching staff is good, it's lead by Justin Verlander, who is the ace of the staff and one of the best pitchers in the American League. The rest of the starters, save Brad Penny, are young and have been considered medium to high range prospects over their careers. Max Scherzer is a fireballer who has Cy Young level talent and based on his year last year, he could be at that level as early as this year. Rick Porcello has had some troubles, but he is still very young and was rushed a bit early to the majors leagues, which has impacted his development. He still has a load of talent though and should develop over the next couple years.

This team will score runs, Miguel Cabrera maybe the second best player in baseball and is a special talent. He's the type that comes along once a decade and is a triple crown threat every year. Last year he kept his personal problems in check, he had a set back early this year, but if he can keep his issues in check, he's a perennial MVP candidate. Pitching is anchored by Justin Verlander who is coming into his prime. When you have two superstars like this in pitching and hitting, it's fairly easy to build a team around it, the only problems are the question marks of the low end talent, which I worry may not be enough to let the Tigers complete at a high level.

4. Kansas City Royals: The Royals last won a World Series in 1985, since then they've been the dormat of the American league. That's about to change. This team has built an impressive farm system with high potential players through out, add in a fair number of young players that still have not lived up to expectations (and potentially still could and you have the makings of a future powerhouse).

Hitting wise, the Royals have begun to purge their team of the average players that have been put in place to hold the positions for the youngsters, they have some players on their last shot at making it in the big leagues (Jeff Francouer, Melky Cabrera) mixed with players who haven't fully blossomed (Billy Butler and Alex Gordon) who at one point were considered some of the best prospects in the minor leagues. Add in rookies like Kila Ka'aihue who has tremendous power potential along with OF in the minors that have the same and this lineup while not great this year is shaping up to be.

The pitching staff is currently made up of journeyman veterans (Jeff Francis, Kyle Davies, Bruce Chen) and for this team to round into a contender the minors are going to have to provide some quality arms. Trading Zach Greinke was probably required due to the fact that he would likely either leave by the time the hitters are ready or become cost prohibitive. A couple of the current staff probably have a chance of sticking around in a couple years (Jeff Francis and Luke Hovechar) but ultimately they will need to find some top of the line starters either by development, trade, or free agency.

There is a lot to look forward to for the Royals, it's just not going to happen this year. I've put them in fourth based on potential, although they easily could finish in the cellar again. I'll admit that part of my pick here is due to my disappointment with the Indians organization and the fact that the Royals potentially have a lot more to look forward to.

5. Cleveland Indians: I'll post a link to my thoughts on the Indians, but I'm not thrilled with the organization or the team at the moment, there are some bright spots, but a lot of question marks.

Western Division

1. Texas Rangers: The Rangers won the American League Pennant last year, in the meantime they did lose their ace Cliff Lee. It's important to remember that Lee was only there for half the season though, but he was a significant part of their run through the playoffs.

The Ranger's lineup is one of the best in the league, led by Josh Hamilton, who has overcome a lot of personal issues and become a superstar. He's the type of hitter that makes everyone around him better. Although he's 29 he may only have begun to tap into his talent, which is scary as he's an MVP candidate right now. Add in established players like Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Michael Young, and Mike Napoli and the lineup has a lot of pop and a lot of potential to score runs. They also have a power prospect in Mitch Moreland at first base, that has the opportunity to ease into a lineup and bat low in the order, which should provide him with an easier path to development.

The pitching staff doesn't scare you, but it's very serviceable. The team relies on solid starters to get them through 6 innings and bludgeon their opponents with their offense. They will miss Cliff Lee as their ace, but I anticipate it will affect them more in the post season then during the year.

The Rangers have a collection of hitters that's unparalleled in the Western Division, their home park also caters to hitting and is the reason they are my pick to win the West this year.

2. Los Angeles Angels: I constantly wonder why this team is not regular contenders for the American League pennant. Their farm system is constantly stocked with players, they spend money on free agents and they always seem to have a core base of players to rely on. Fundamentally they are sound and they have perhaps the best manager in baseball in Mike Scioscia. The reason they aren't constant contenders though is the fact that their prospects aren't typically developing into stars and they spend money on free agents that are poor fits.

Their lineup is a bit of a mess, their outfield has players that at one time were stars (Tori Hunter), but have either regressed over the years or put up big years in contract years and never managed to duplicate (Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells). They are serviceable players and their is hope that Vernon Wells resurgence last year in Toronto is what they should expect this year, rather then the 2-3 down years previous to 2010. Kendrys Morales makes this team go and he's still recovering from a broken leg. The offense crumbled last year without him and likely will struggle if he can't return to 2009 form. The rest of the infield is a mix of prospects that are either raw or approaching the point where they just aren't going to make it as major league ballplayers.

The pitching staff has two very good starters (Jered Weaver and Dan Haren) one potentially good starter (Ervin Santana) and some question marks (Scott Kazmir and Joel Pineiro). Jered Weaver is the staff ace and continues to get better every year. Dan Haren has had some consistency issues during the past couple years, but is still a top starter, although not necessarily an ace. Santana still has a load of potential to harness and Kazmir is working his way through issues, since a great start to his career.

Morales and Weaver give this team a chance to compete as they are stars, add in some career type years from a couple other players and this team could make some noise, but it's absolutely necessary for this organization to start getting their prospects to develop into major league players.

3. Oakland A's: I think Moneyball is dead. That is if Moneyball ever in fact existed if you consider the A's success during the Moneyball hey day had a strong correlation with three outstanding pitchers they had at the time. (Mulder, Hudson, and Zito). The lineup and position players for this team seem to be filled by cast offs and rejects from other teams. The pitching staff is the big difference and gives the team the best chance to win.

The outfield for this team is full of cast offs that in most cases were third or fourth outfielders on other teams anyway. The infield is average at best, there's just not a lot to get excited about here for hitting.

The pitching staff has a lot to be excited about, Bret Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Dallas Braden are the front four starters. Cahill, Gonzalez, and Anderson have high end talent.

If the offense hits a little bit, this pitching staff can carry them along way. As the team is set now though, I don't expect much more then a second place finish.

4. Seattle Mariners: This team is in bad shape, they are at the point where they are adding small time flawed free agents (Jack Cust, Brendan Ryan) and believing it will improve the team. They need an influx of talent across the board and it's going to take some focus on drafting and development to get them there.

The one positive for the team is the fact that it has possibly the best pitcher in baseball in Felix Hernandez. He's young and depending on how long the team takes to rebuild, could conceivably lead a rejuvenated team in a couple years. Finding an ace with Cy Young talent is the most difficult piece of the puzzle, now the Mariners have to provide the other pieces and get this team back in contention.

American League Wild card: Boston Red Sox, they finish behind the Rays but manage to knock off the Yankees, White Sox, Tigers, and Angels for the wildcard spot.

Surprising team: Toronto Blue Jays, most sports pundits have singled in on the Orioles and they will be better, but I still think they are farther away then the Blue Jays. With the Yankees having pitching problems, it's not inconceivable that the Blue Jays make a strong run this year in the Eastern Division or for the wild card. They'll need a couple things to fall their way, but this should be an exciting team to watch.

Most Valuable Player: It's hard to pick against Miguel Cabrera or Josh Hamilton, possibly the two most talented players in the league. I'm going to go out on a limb though and predict a big year for Joe Mauer. Mauer's done things in parts over his career, great average one year, power the next, he's also had to deal with injuries as most catchers too, I'll make the prediction that this year he puts it all together in one monster year.

Cy Young: I believe I picked Justin Verlander last year, I'm going to choose him again. Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, and CC Sabathia should round out the other top contenders. Verlander has a team with a ton of offense and he's always been on the brink of dominance. This year he puts it together.

Rookie of the Year: Some of the best potential rookies may not make it up to the majors this year. Since this is an award for the rookie that has the best year rather then who will have the best career it's a bit difficult to predict as well. As a shot in the dark, I'll choose Kyle Drabek. I think the Blue Jays are going to hit a ton and based on their commitment to their young players, Drabek should get a full season of work. Look for 12-14 wins, a 4.00 era, 175 innings, and 150 strikeouts.

Comeback Player of the year/Most improved player:
I've added most improved player to this list, as I don't see many comeback player candidates. I think Alex Gordon and Billy Butler of the Kansas City Royals are about to make the jump from average major league players to stars. Look for both of them to improve greatly on their previous offensive numbers.

Manager of the year: Joe Maddon, outside of Mike Scioscia, I think Maddon is the best manager in the American league. Big surprise that he used to serve as Scioscia's bench coach. The Rays has lost some players over the past year and they are completely rebuilding the bullpen. Add in the fact that they've brought in some unique personalities (Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) on the downside of their career and that the core of this team is still young, and Maddon has a pretty large task ahead. My prediction is he'll have this team in shape by the 1st of May and through out the summer they'll be one of the better teams in the league.

American League Champion
: Minnesota Twins, the Twins problems over the last couple years is that they can't beat the Yankees, remove the Yankees from the playoff picture and it opens the door for the Twins. They are the most balanced team in the American league and potentially have 2-3 super stars to drive them toward the pennant.

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