Wide open: 2011 MLB preview
After a long off-season full of trades, free agent signings and eager anticipation, the 2011 baseball season is finally upon us. Opening Day was March 31 and all teams, theoretically, started the season with the same chance of making the playoffs. It is that optimism and excitement that brings smiles to thousands of fans’ faces as the calendar turns to April. Let’s take a look at the Red Sox and Yankees up close, followed by a quick rundown of the other divisions.
When a team spends roughly 300 million dollars on new talent, as the Red Sox will have done once they sign Adrian Gonzalez to a long extension later in April, it comes as no surprise that they are considered the favorite to not only win the American League East, but also the World Series. Plagued by injuries last year, the Red Sox still managed to win 89 games. This season, the addition of top talent such as Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez along with much needed bullpen arms like Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler, has the Red Sox donning a “World Series or bust” bumper sticker for the 2011 season. The Sox, however, are off to a discouraging start after a three-game sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers.
Their top rival, the New York Yankees, had a very different offseason. Missing out on top free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee—who turned down the Yankees’ money to join the Phillies—and losing veteran pitcher Andy Pettitte to retirement, the Yankees have a rotation with a number of question marks. Yet, with a number of low-risk, high-reward signings such as Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon and the possible development of their young prospect Ivan Nova, the Yankees hope to tread water until they can acquire a big-time pitcher through a trade during the season. But you can never write off the Yankees; they will remain competitive from day one of the season and will surely pressure the Red Sox not to slip up at any point during the season.
As for the rest of the American League East, there is a good chance that it will be one of the best divisions in American League history. Forced to keep up with the payrolls of the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles have each put together an extremely talented team of players. The Red Sox and the Yankees cannot overlook these three other teams as each team in the division has a legitimate shot at finishing over .500.
As usual, the American League Central is completely wide open. The White Sox, Tigers and Twins all have a shot at winning that division. The White Sox and Tigers spent lots of money in the free agent market this off-season with the Sox adding the big bat of Adam Dunn while the Tigers added a strong veteran presence in Victor Martinez. The Twins kept much of their division-winning team from last year in tact and are always good for a 90 to 95-win season. But I’m going to have to give the nod to the Tigers this year.
The American League West seemed to take a step back this off-season, as none of the four teams made any major additions. Last year, the Mariners had a terrible offense and only added the likes of Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo to alleviate the problem. So scratch them off. The Angels’ top additions were Vernon Wells and Scott Downs, making them less likely to win the West crown than usual. The reigning American League Champion Rangers lost top pitcher Cliff Lee and remain a questionable repeat—thus making the Oakland A’s my favorite in the AL West. If their young pitching holds up and they continue to play strong defense, with enough offense, the A’s should be able to book a spot in the post-season.
As for the National League, it all starts with one of the best rotations in MLB history: The Philadelphia Phillies. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels…WOW! If they can remain healthy (which they have not been doing in Spring Training with the loss of Chase Utley) they should be able to coast to the World Series. If they don’t stay healthy, look for a talented Braves team to challenge them in the NL East. The Mets, Nationals and Marlins are all still all a couple of years away from contending.
The NL Central looks to be another intense battle. The Brewers are going all in this season and will finish atop their division. The Cardinals suffered a big blow in Spring Training by losing ace pitcher Adam Wainwright for the season to an arm injury. But with the likes of Pujols, Holliday and Carpenter, they will remain competitive. Defending NL Central champs the Reds, as well as the Cubs, have a strong chance of sneaking in and finishing on top of the division.
In what looks to be one of the weaker divisions in baseball, the NL West will most likely come down to the San Francisco Giants and the Colorado Rockies. Both teams have a very talented core group of players entering their prime seasons and will fight it out probably until the very end of the year for the division crown. I’ll give it to the Rockies this year, expecting Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to have big years.
So enjoy the season! It promises to be another great year of games, trades and controversies.