Five teams that could come up short in 2011

Philadelphia Phillies starter Roy Halladay pitches against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning of a MLB spring training game at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida, March 21, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

It’s the start of a new year and you know what that means: Expectations are running high for every club not named the Pirates and Royals. (Or Astros, Cubs, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Nationals or Indians for that matter.)

But what postseason contenders are most likely to fall short of expectations in 2011? I’ve highlighted five below.

Philadelphia Phillies
When a team is hyped for an entire offseason, it almost becomes cliché to say that they’ll fall short of expectations. But in the case of the Phillies, there’s some major concern here. It’s impossible to replace Chase Utley’s production in the lineup and this is an aging roster. Yes, the Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels/Blanton combination will keep most opposing batters up at night and yes, the Phillies will probably win the NL East. But the Braves aren’t too far behind talent-wise and Philadelphia has become a club that starts off slow only to pick it up in the second half. If Atlanta comes out of the gates hot and the Phillies suffer some early-season hiccups without Utley, the Braves might be able to build a decent lead that they can ride throughout the season. Barring injury to Halladay or Lee, I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Phillies don’t make the playoffs this year. But without Utley, the playing field has definitely been leveled in the National League.

San Francisco Giants
This is an easy one. It’s been 10-straight years since the last time any team was able to repeat as World Series champions. And while the G-Men aren’t considered the favorites to win this year’s Fall Classic (that would be the Phillies or Red Sox), many pundits believe that, at the very least, they’ll win the NL West again. A World Series hangover is the Giants’ biggest concern, because this club is better now than it was a year ago. They’ll get a full year out of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the energetic Andres Torres will serve as the leadoff hitter from Day 1 (instead of the highly unproductive Aaron Rowand), Pablo Sandoval looks like he’s ready for a big bounce back campaign, top prospect Brandon Belt might start the year with the big league club after dominating this spring, and Mark DeRosa, Mike Fontenot and Pat Burrell strengthen the bench. But it’s a different game for the Giants now. They’re going to be the hunted instead of the hunters, at least in the NL West. Can this fun-loving team recapture the same magic it had in September and October last year? Or will all of those extra innings that Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez endured in the postseason last year eventually catch up with this team?

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MLB Sleepers: Who will be this year’s Giants, Rangers, Reds, Rays and Padres?

Sleepers can come in a variety of forms. Not all of them win the World Series, or their division, or even make the postseason for that matter. But all sleepers do have one thing in common: They do something unexpected.

The five sleepers listed below all did something unexpected in 2010. Let’s recap.

Giants: The team that seemingly came out of nowhere to win the World Series on the strength of their young pitching and a bunch of hitters that got red-hot at the right time.

Rangers: The team that everyone knew had talent to reach the postseason but were still hesitant about predicting them to win the division.

Reds: The youngish team that everyone knew would eventually compete, but were surprised to see that “eventually” meant 2010.

Rays: The team that people knew had the talent to reach the postseason but still stuck them behind the Yankees and even Red Sox in the division.

Padres: The team that nobody thought would challenge for a postseason berth and would have been the surprise of the year had they not collapsed down the stretch run.

So who are this year’s Giants, Rangers, Padres, Reds and Rays? I’m glad you asked.

The 2011 Giants: Oakland A’s
The strength of Oakland’s club is its young pitching, led by four pitchers in Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden, who are all 27 or younger. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the Giants won the World Series last year with four pitchers (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner) who were all 27 or younger. The Giants also had an offense that would hardly keep opposing pitchers up at night but after GM Brian Sabean re-signed Juan Uribe and added guys like Cody Ross and Pat Burrell during the year, it was enough to be dangerous. Just like SF’s offense last year, Oakland’s bats aren’t going to scare anyone but after the offseason additions that Billy Beane made this offseason (Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus) they’re enough to be dangerous. And just like the Giants, if they can reach the postseason (where pitching matters most), the A’s might be able to do some damage.

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