2011 MLB Season Preview

Busch Stadium head painter Billy Martin makes last minute touchups to the Opening Day logo, painted behind homeplate at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on March 28, 2011. The Cardinals will host the San Diego Padres on Opening Day March 31. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

In the eyes of public opinion, the moment Cliff Lee surprised the Yankees and Rangers by signing with Philadelphia the Phillies locked up the AL East. And when the Red Sox traded for slugger Adrian Gonzalez and signed free agent Carl Crawford to a mega-contract, a Boston-Philly World Series matchup was all the pundits could talk about this spring.

But what about the defending champs? The Giants are better at this point this year than they were a year ago. They’ll have Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner for an entire season and the Panda looks like he’s rounding back into 2009 form. It’s been 10-straight years since the last time a team repeated as World Series champions, so the task will be daunting. But given Chase Utley’s knee injury and the uncertainty surrounding Josh Beckett and John Lackey (two starters coming off down years in Boston), why not the Giants?

Below is a division-by-division breakdown of how I see the 2011 MLB season playing out. You’ll find projections for every team and every division, as well as postseason and World Series predictions as well. If you want to bash my picks, feel free. I just have one condition: Make your own predictions as well. Don’t be that person that criticizes my picks without sticking his or her neck out there, too. Because nobody likes you.

That said, enjoy another season, baseball fans!

AL East

Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford singles off St. Louis Cardinals starter Kyle McClellan during the first inning of a MLB spring training game at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Florida, March 20, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

1. Red Sox
2. Yankees*
3. Rays
4. Blue Jays
5. Orioles

Rays fans remain optimistic that their club can repeat as division champs or, at the very least, contend for the Wild Card. But here’s what their offseason amounted to: they lost Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Jason Bartlett and Grant Balfour, and replaced them with Johnny Damon, Kyle Farnsworth and Manny Ramirez. I love the Ramirez deal (one year for $2 million? Shut your face…), but this club lost too much to compete this year. Thus, like so many seasons prior, the East will come down to the Red Sox and Yankees. Sorry Bomber fans, but Boston is just flat out better after composing a very Yankee-like offseason (I know that stung a little Boston fans, but don’t rub it) that included signing Crawford to a mega-deal and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. Yes they lost Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez, but Crawford is a five-tool player and Gonzalez’s power translates to all parks. The Yankees’ starting pitching could scare small children and adults alike, but they arguably have the best 2-5 in baseball in Jeter, Teixeria, A-Rod and Cano. If A.J. Burnett can keep his head on straight and if Ivan Nova surprises, then the pitching should be fine. Plus, you know the Yankees: if they need something they’ll get it at the deadline. As for Baltimore and Toronto, both clubs have promising young talent that gives them hope for the future but the O’s and Jays will likely sink to the bottom of the division again this year. (Still, kudos to Toronto’s Alex Anthopoulos for using those incriminating photos he had on fellow GM Tony Reagins in order to trick the Halos into taking on Vernon Wells’ contract. That was the equivalent of a winning season right there.)

AL Central

Chicago White Sox’s Paul Konerko hits a two-RBI double off Minnesota Twins pitcher Glen Perkins that scores White Sox’s Juan Pierre and Omar Vizquel during the eighth inning of their American League baseball game in Minneapolis August 19, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Miller (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

1. White Sox
2. Twins
3. Tigers
4. Indians
5. Royals

Once again, the AL Central is the ultimate crapshoot. Not even Nostradamus himself could predict which club will win this division. After weeks of research he’d finally say, “To hell with it – let’s go get a drink.” I like the Twins because they always seem to put together a competitive team regardless of who’s on the roster but the uncertainty surrounding Justin Morneau’s concussion is terrifying. I like the Tigers because of the additions they made this offseason (Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, Brad Penny), but the uncertainty surrounding some of the younger players is terrifying. I like the White Sox because of their pitching and the addition of Adam Dunn, but Jake Peavy’s shoulder situation is terrifying. I like the Indians and Royals…actually, I don’t like the Indians and Royals (at least not this year, check with me again in a couple of years when that amazing farm system develops). They’re both just terrifying. In the end, I have a good feeling about the Sox. As long as Paul Konerko and Alex Rios don’t take steps back and Carlos Quentin stays healthy and Gordon Beckham starts to cash in on his potential and Peavy can overcome his shoulder injury then yeah, I have a good feeling about the Sox. I think. To hell with it – let’s go get a drink.

AL West

Oakland Athletics pitcher Gio Gonzalez throws against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning of their MLB American League baseball game in Toronto May 1, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (CANADA – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

1. A’s
2. Rangers
3. Angels
4. Mariners

Yes, I’m buying into the Oakland hype: Sue me. (Just know that I have very, very little.) I should probably give Texas more respect but Cliff Lee is gone and the key to the starting rotation might rest on how well Brandon Webb (who hasn’t lasted a full season since 2008) performs. Can the Rangers repeat? Of course they can. Led by Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and new addition Adrian Beltre, this team can mash and will score plenty of runs again in 2011. But they also lost their top-RBI man in Vlad Guerrero and again, not having Lee in the rotation for the stretch run hurts. On the flip side, the A’s starting pitching is why I have them taking home this division. Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson (assuming his elbow issues are behind him), Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden give Oakland a strong top-4 and the offseason editions of Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus should give them just enough offense to hold off the Rangers and Angels. Speaking of L.A., the Halos are an intriguing bunch. Dan Haren leads an underrated staff and the offense improved with the addition of Vernon Wells (even if GM Tony Reagins was insane to absorb all of Wells’ contract). But the thing that will hold the Halos back in ’11 is their bullpen (4.03 ERA in 2010). As for the Mariners, they have Al Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, the ever-consistent Ichiro and a promising young player in Justin Smoak. And that about wraps up Seattle.

NL East

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitchers (from left) Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels attend a news conference at their MLB National League spring training facility in Clearwater, Florida February 14, 2011. REUTERS/ Mike Cassese (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

1. Phillies
2. Braves*
3. Marlins
4. Mets
5. Nationals

I’m not going to waste everyone’s time by waxing poetically about how good the Phillies’ starting five of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels and Blanton is. Every other pundit, blogger and hot dog vender has already done that this spring, so I’ll spare your having to hear it all again. But what I will do is offer you this caution: The Phillies better win now with that aging roster because the Braves will reclaim their spot atop this division very soon. Atlanta’s starting pitching is sound and its offense has fewer question marks than Philadelphia’s thanks to the offseason addition of Dan Uggla and the ever-developing swing of youngster Jason Heyward. If Chase Utley’s knee keeps him out for an extended period of time, the rest of the Phillies’ hitters have the smallest margin for error and the playing field certainly levels out more in the East. The rest of the division shakes out like this: The Marlins are clearly better than the Mets and Nationals but they don’t have enough to compete with the Phillies and Braves. The Nationals added Jayson Werth, but their future still rests on the arm of Stephen Strasburg (who will spend most of the year rehabbing after having Tommy John surgery) and the left-handed swing of Bryce Harper (who is still three years away from legally enjoying an alcoholic beverage). The Mets’ rotation was a concern when Johan Santana was healthy, and is an even bigger concern now that he’ll be out for at least half the season. Every year I look at the Mets’ roster and say “You know, this club isn’t half bad. I think they can surprise people if they can only stay healthy…”And then every year they make a fool out of me. Well not this year Mets. NOT THIS YEAR.

NL Central

Milwaukee Brewers designated hitter Prince Fielder sits in the dugout before a MLB spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Phoenix, March 5, 2011. REUTERS/Rick Scuteri (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

1. Brewers
2. Reds
3. Cardinals
4. Cubs
5. Astros
6. Pirates

Even though they didn’t win the Central last year, most pundits viewed the Cardinals as division favorites heading into spring training. Then it was discovered that Adam Wainwright needed Tommy John surgery and the door flew open for the Brewers, who were aggressive this offseason in adding Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to their rotation. The Reds are still a young, talented team and won’t surrender the division over without a fight. But will Scott Rolen play as well as he did last year? Can Joey Votto be as great as he was in 2010? Can the starting pitchers stay healthy? How long will it take Dusty Baker to ruin Aroldis Chapman’s arm? (The over/under has been set at two months and I suggest taking the under.) I don’t think the Reds will repeat this year but they certainly have the talent to do so. Then you have the Cubs, who are potential sleepers because of their steady pitching but they don’t have a high-OBP player on the roster (don’t bother checking, I looked twice), the Astros, who will waste the talents of Wandy Rodriguez because they’ll only score one run a night, and the Pirates, whose entire starting pitching staff would be No. 4s or No. 5s anywhere else. There are several different ways that this division could play out this season, but in the end I only see the Brewers and Reds competing for the top spot. And seeing as how Prince Fielder may walk at the end of the year, Milwaukee has seemingly pushed its chips into the center and said, “All in.”

NL West

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum throws against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first inning during Game 5 of their Major League Baseball NLCS playoff series in San Francisco, October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

1. Giants
2. Rockies
3. Dodgers
4. Padres
5. Diamondbacks

Think about this for a moment: The Giants will get a full season with Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner instead of Bengie Molina and the simply atrocious Todd Wellemeyer, a full year of Cody Ross, Javier Lopez, Pat Burrell and Mark DeRosa, and will have a fit, motivated Pablo Sandoval coming off a nice spring. (Don’t forget that in ’09 Sandoval finished third in MVP voting in the NL, is now down 40 pounds from last year and is also free of the emotional baggage that derailed him last year.) Throw in Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson, Aubrey Huff, Andres Torres and the highly underrated Matt Cain and you have a solid (if not great) core. Simply put, the Giants are better this year than they are last year and they won it all in 2010. I love their chances of repeating in the NL West, even though it took them 162 games to accomplish the feat last year. That said, the Rockies will be a pain in the Giants’ ass all season. Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are studs and thanks to an easy start to the season in which their toughest road trip consists of stops in Pittsburgh and New York, this notoriously slow-starting team could get off to a hot start. Every year for the past couple of seasons, this team goes on a tear and is right in the thick of things. I expect no less from the Rox in 2011. As for the Dodgers, Padres and Diamondbacks, L.A.’s lineup lacks power, San Diego’s lineup lacks Adrian Gonzalez and Arizona’s lineup lacks overall talent. The Dodgers and/or Padres could still wind up surprising, but something tells me the magic that San Diego had last year evaporated during that late-season collapse. As for the D-Backs, they arguably have the worst pitching and offense in the division so you do the math.

Playoff Predictions

San Francisco Giants players celebrate defeating the Texas Rangers in Game 5 of Major League Baseball to win the World Series in Arlington, Texas, November 1, 2010. Decades of frustration gave way to wild celebrations across the United States this year as three struggling teams won their professional league championships to give new hope to the battlers in an age where money and commercialism rule supreme. New Orleans, still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, was transformed into one huge Mardi Gras that never looked like ending after the Saints won the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl for the first time. The Giants provided San Francisco’s long-suffering Major League Baseball (MLB) fans with their first World Series title with an unlikely team led by Tim Lincecum, a skinny, long-haired pitcher popularly known as “The Freak.” And Chicago’s disappointment at being overlooked as the host city for the 2016 Olympics was erased when the Blackhawks won the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years. Picture taken November 1, 2010. To match Feature SPORT-YEARENDER/US REUTERS/Mike Stone/Files (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

AL Divisional Series: Red Sox over A’s
AL Divisional Series: White Sox over Yankees
NL Divisional Series: Phillies over Brewers
NL Divisional Series: Giants over Braves

Truth be told, I hesitated having the Yankees even make the playoffs but you know Brian Cashman is going to do something at the deadline to lift his club into the postseason (you know, like trading for Felix Rodriguez). But regardless, I see them falling flat this year. I like the White Sox’s balance and the A’s just don’t have enough offense to take down a better opponent like the Red Sox. In the NL, the Phillies and the Giants have the best 1-4 in the league and as San Fran proved last year, it’s a pitcher’s league now. That said, I love the Brewers and Braves’ potenital to make a deep postseason run and wouldn’t be surprised if either one of them advanced to the NLCS.

AL Championship Series: Red Sox over White Sox
NL Championship Series: Giants over Phillies

I think it’s the Red Sox year, which is why I have them advancing. As far as the Phillies are concerned, yes, they have the best pitching. But they’re not going to be able to replace Chase Utley’s production and quite frankly, I could see them fizzling out well before the postseason. Sorry for repeating myself, but the Giants are better than they were at this time last year and here’s the kicker: nobody is talking about them. They get to lie in the weeds again this season and as long as they don’t suffer a World Series hangover, their youth should carry them again this year.

Word Series Prediction

Red Sox vs. Giants
Any one of the Red Sox’s four starters – Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz – could be Cy Young candidates. The additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez gives them more speed, more power and better overall defensive play. This is a veteran roster that knows what it takes to win a title and they’re very well managed. On the flip side, the Giants boast four young starters in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner that can be lights out on any given night. They also have a very balanced lineup featuring 2010 Rookie of the Year Buster Posey, a rejuvenated Aubrey Huff and a solid leadoff man in Andres Torres. The key is Pablo Sandoval. He dropped 40 pounds this winter and tore the cover off the ball this spring. If he can revert back to ’09 form, suddenly the Giants lineup looks awfully dangerous. (If top prospect Brandon Belt winds up playing in the majors this year and is the next Buster Posey like some suggest, the G-Men’s 1-8 gets even better.) I think the Red Sox and Giants mirror each other in a lot of ways. Neither of them are flawless but balance is the key and both clubs have it. As for my official World Series prediction, I’ll go with the Red Sox in 7.

Those are my predictions, what are yours?

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