Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bold Predictions and Burning Questions: MLB 2011

Tomorrow is arguably the best day of the year. No, it’s not Christmas. Not the first day of Spring Break. And Dos Equis is certainly not shipping free barrels of Lager to my house. But sports fans, rejoice! Tomorrow is Opening Day for Major League Baseball! We are on the precipice of an uninterrupted seven month path to glory. Along the way we will witness surprise, devastation and history.

We will welcome Jim Thome into the 600 home run club. Derek Jeter will surpass 3,000 hits to solidify the most surefire Hall of Fame resume of any current player. The Atlanta Braves will become the second organization in the history of baseball to lose 10,000 games. And if all goes as planned, there will be no steroids, there will be no corked bats; just the blissful greatness that is classic baseball. Bunts, sacrifice flies, pitching and defense will reign supreme.

Anticipation for the 2011 version of Major League Baseball is very high. America’s pastime comes back in full force, and with it 30 teams with one common goal - to be champions of the world. There are the regular contenders: the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Braves. The talented young teams from the West: the A’s, Rockies, Giants and Rangers. Up-and-comers: the Reds, Astros, Marlins and Orioles. The wounded: the Cardinals, White Sox, Twins, Angels and Rays. The confused: the Brewers, Tigers, Cubs and Dodgers. And the ones that just won’t make the cut: the Blue Jays, Royals, Indians, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Padres, Nationals, Mets and Pirates.

But baseball is a crapshoot. Injuries and experience and money take a toll over the long season. San Diego came out of nowhere last year and almost won the N.L. West. San Francisco had no business winning the World Series with their offense. And Toronto’s Jose Bautista came out of sheer anonymity to lead the majors with 54 home runs in 2010. The point is, we never know what will happen.

But we do know every team has a burning question that needs to be addressed at some point during the year. Here is a team-by-team power ranking, complete with my own burning question and personal version of ESPN analyst Matthew Berry’s “Bold Predictions.” Ladies, and gentlemen, it’s time to play ball!

30. Cleveland Indians

Burning Question: Will the Tribe get any production out of Grady Sizemore? I guess a fairer question is, will he get healthy?

Bold Prediction:
Young catcher Carlos Santana is going to have a HUGE year. I’m talking an average north of .300, 20 home runs and 85 RBI’s.

29. Seattle Mariners

BQ: The Mariners won’t contend with their anemic offense, so can they resist trading Felix Hernandez to the Yankees?

BP: Rookie starter Michael Pineda and second baseman Dustin Ackley will each finish in the top 3 of the Rookie of the Year voting. Pineda is absolutely filthy, reminding many of King Felix himself, and Ackley has been much-hyped and won’t be in Triple-A for long. He got on base at a .441 clip this spring.

28. Washington Nationals

BQ: Who will hold down the closer’s spot? Will it be Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen or someone I completely overlooked?

BP: Jayson Werth will be Werth-less. Don’t get me wrong, he will be one of the more productive hitters for the Nats. But don’t expect 2010 numbers. I’m thinking something along the lines of .265, 18 home runs and 75 RBI’s.

27. Toronto Blue Jays

BQ: Can Jose Bautista get anywhere near his 2010 production? I doubt it, but if he does, will he have any help?

BP: The young battery combinations of Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, Ricky Romero, and Brett Cecil throwing to J.P. Arencibia are going to be unbelievable. I’m especially excited to see what Arencibia can do in a full season, and to finally witness the greatness that is supposed to be Kyle Drabek. I’m predicting sub 4.00 ERA’s for all the starters and 20 HR/80 RBI for the catcher.

26. Kansas City Royals

BQ: When will the loaded farm system be promoted? How long do we have to wait to watch a group led by infielders Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers and starter Michael Montgomery try their hands with the big club?

BP: Here comes Alex Gordon! Once one of the elite prospects in the game, Gordon has failed to live up to his lofty expectations. This year I’m looking for 25 home runs and 90 RBI’s.

25. Pittsburgh Pirates

BQ: When will the rotation catch up to the offense? When will the pitchers start holding a lead so Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez’s numbers actually mean something?

BP: James MacDonald will start answering that question. Here’s a guy the Dodgers will surely regret trading; I expect 12-14 wins and 200 K’s out of MacDonald’s electric right arm.

24. Arizona Diamondbacks

BQ: Will they regret trading the power of Mark Reynolds? Sure, they still have tons of offense and Reynolds was on both wrong sides of the number 200 (average under, strikeouts over)…but how appealing does a Geoff Blum/Melvin Mora platoon at the hot corner for a full season sound?

BP: Justin Upton and Stephen Drew will both be all-stars this year. Upton is already an offensive powerhouse, and Drew has been coming along slowly. I expect them both to represent the National League in backup roles come July.

23. New York Mets

BQ: Are they healthy enough to even contend through the summer? Johan Santana, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are all key players that have had injury issues…can they contribute like previous all-star seasons?

BP: David Wright will go 30/30, hit over .300, drive in over 100 runs, and win a Gold Glove. He won’t win the MVP, but he’ll certainly be in the conversation.

22. San Diego Padres

BQ: How important was Adrian Gonzalez to this offense in the long run? Can anyone step up and replace some of his production?

BP: Mat Latos’ numbers will inflate. He’s starting the season on the DL, but when he comes back I don’t expect numbers anywhere near last year’s. I’ll still expect to see 13-14 wins and a sub 4.00 ERA, but he won’t be the man-child many perceived him as last season.

21. Chicago Cubs

BQ: Can Mike Quade bring this team together? Carlos Silva was released, Matt Garza is struggling, their biggest off-season addition was Carlos Pena, who is notorious for flirting with a .200 average, and there’s already been another dugout fight. Can the rookie manager fix these problems in time?

BP: The Cubs will not win the World Series! Oh, it’s supposed to be bold? In that case, Aramis Ramirez is going to drop 25 home runs and knock in 100 runs again. He’s going to re-establish himself as a premier National League third baseman.

20. Baltimore Orioles

BQ: How will new additions like Mark Reynolds, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero play out under manager Buck Showalter?

BP: The Orioles will finish over .500 and stay in the A.L. Wild Card race until mid-August. I love the young rotation and the offense is suddenly horrifying for opposing pitchers. Complementing the names above, the O’s boast infielders J.J. Hardy, Brian Roberts, Matt Wieters, and Luke Scott, and outfield mashers Nick Markakis and Adam Jones. Yikes, where did that come from?

19. Houston Astros

BQ: How good can Hunter Pence be? Will he build on his .282/25/91 line from last season?

BP: The long-awaited return of El Caballo! Carlos Lee will finally earn his money in Houston with an average around .305, 30 home runs and 110 RBI’s. His defense still won’t be worth a damn, but he’ll be peppering lasers into the short left field porch at Minute Maid Park all season long.

18. Florida Marlins

BQ: Can young sluggers Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison and Chris Coghlan carry over last year’s success?

BP: Mike Stanton’s rookie season was no fluke. He and star shortstop Hanley Ramirez will both launch 30 or more home runs, drive in over 100 runs, and swipe at least 10 bases. This is just an unfair combination of youth and power the Marlins have. Watch out in 2012.

17. Chicago White Sox

BQ: Is this pitching staff really as good as advertised? Mark Buehrle is aging, Jake Peavy is always hurt, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson are inconsistent and new closer Matt Thornton is making the transition from 8th inning to 9th. Can they be good enough to make a playoff run?

BP: Alexei Ramirez is going to really turn some heads. We know he can make spectacular plays in the field and we saw some power flashes on offense last year, but he will be a 20/20 player this year and border on 90 RBI’s. One of the lesser appreciated shortstops in the game right now.

16. Tampa Bay Rays

BQ: How will the decimated bullpen respond? The Rays lost nearly everyone from their stellar 2010 bullpen to trades and free agency. Can Kyle Farnsworth anchor the new, shaky relief corps?

BP: To continue the theme of aging stars having big years, Manny Ramirez will hit 25 home runs and drive in 85 runs this year. He can’t replace the loss off Carlos Pena, but with that DH spot nailed down, he will focus more on hitting and rebound. Big payoff on the risky signing by the Rays.

15. Los Angeles Angels

BQ: When will Kendrys Morales be back? The Angels have a solid offense, but the day they get Morales’ bat back, their chances in the A.L. West improve significantly. Can they even contend without him?

BP: Ervin Santana is going to be in the top 5 for the American League Cy Young voting. The guy seemed to get it all figured out last year after a rocky start, and I only expect an improvement.

14. St. Louis Cardinals

BQ: How far can the 1-2 punch of Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia take the Cards? Losing Adam Wainwright was a huge punch in the gut, but they still have two elite pitchers. Will it be enough to overcome the Brewers and Reds?

BP: Albert Pujols will not be wearing a St. Louis Cardinals uniform in 2012. There would be nothing that I would like to see more than Pujols be a Cardinal for life, if only for baseball’s sake, but I do expect to see him in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore or Texas after this season.

13. Minnesota Twins

BQ: Are they healthy? Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan are their three best players, and they will not repeat as division champs without them. Can they get healthy in time to contend again?

BP: Carl Pavano will get rocked. He’s a good pitcher, but he’s never been consistent enough for my liking. With the added bats in Chicago and the talent in Kansas City, I foresee him getting knocked around to the tune of 12-11 with a 4.50 ERA this year.

12. San Francisco Giants

BQ: Can Mark DeRosa and Pablo Sandoval make up for the loss of Juan Uribe? There really are no questions about their pitching, but they will need bounce back seasons from these two to have a chance at returning to the playoffs. Will DeRosa and Sandoval be productive middle-of-the-order guys?

BP: Matt Cain is going to be a top 3 Cy Young finisher. I’m looking at around 19 wins and a 2.90 ERA. He’s the definition of underrated, and this year he’ll put it all together in a consistent campaign. Mark my words: Matt Cain will be the Giants’ best starting pitcher in 2011.

11. Los Angeles Dodgers

BQ: Will Matt Kemp bounce back? Kemp’s terrible, awful, ugly year in 2010 led to a broken clubhouse, trade rumors and a fourth place finish in the N.L. West. Can he return to his 2009 form and be a top 5 outfielder again?

BP: The two lefties in the rotation will combine for 32 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA. Clayton Kershaw is a dark horse Cy Young candidate this year and veteran Ted Lilly’s career numbers in Dodger Stadium are staggering. The boys in blue will have to rely on these two and the rest of their rotation to pick up an average offense if they want to compete in the National League.

10. Detroit Tigers

BQ: Can Miguel Cabrera stay out of the liquor cabinet? Just kidding! My real question is do they have any starting pitching depth? Justin Verlander is arguably the best pitcher in the league, but after him it’s the very inconsistent, but still young Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello and journeyman Brad Penny. Can they put together enough quality starts to win the division?

BP: Miguel Cabrera will stay sober. Sober enough to finally win American League MVP honors. I believe Cabrera will lead Detroit to the Central title and hit over .330 with 45 home runs and 140 RBI’s. Staggering numbers I know, but he’s more than capable.

9. Cincinnati Reds

BQ: Is there enough pitching to get them back to the playoffs? Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo are all very hot and cold. Will the offense be able to hold off St. Louis and Milwaukee down the stretch?

BP: Jay Bruce is going to reward the Reds for their investment with a gargantuan year. In fact, he might be one of the most dangerous challengers to teammate Joey Votto’s campaign to repeat as N.L. MVP. I’m thinking .300, 34 home runs and 110 RBI’s from Jay will do the trick.

8. Milwaukee Brewers

BQ: Can the improved rotation get the Brewers over the hump to a division title? There are still questions about the health of Shawn Marcum and Zach Greinke, but they have a dominant front three if they are good to go. Will it be enough?

BP: Prince Fielder is going to go absolutely bonkers this year. The Brewers will be very competitive in the Central, the pitching should keep them in games, and Fielder is in a contract year. I predict a line of .285/40/115 for the royalty of the Brew Crew.

7. Texas Rangers

BQ: How the hell will they contend without Cliff Lee anchoring the rotation? Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson don’t necessarily make anyone shake in their boots, although they are good pitchers in their own right. But in an off-season in which they failed to retain Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, pissed off Michael Young and are relying on the unreliable Adrian Beltre, can they get back to the postseason?

BP: Young will outplay Beltre this season. They are both fantastic players. The only difference is you can count on Young to be productive every season, not just in a contract year. Try telling the Mariners that Beltre is worth a big contract. I see Young going with similar numbers as last year: right around .285/22/90. Which should outpace Beltre’s .265/18/75 line.

6. Oakland Athletics

BQ: Are the additions of Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus to the lineup going to improve their lineup enough to win the division? The A’s have been awful at driving in runs the last few years. Can these veterans get it done?

BP: Gio Gonzalez will win 20 games. Call me crazy, but I would not be surprised if the foursome of Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden combined for 60+ wins. Gonzalez will be a serious contender for Cy Young and finish around 20-7 with a 2.75 ERA.

5. Colorado Rockies

BQ: Are Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin ready to help Ubaldo Jiminez keep the Rockies in it for the stretch run? The offense is a juggernaut, but as always at Coors Field, they need pitching to keep them competitive. Will the number two and three guys in the rotation live up to expectations?

BP: Troy Tulowitzki will be the National League M.V.P. for 2011. The reason this is a “bold” prediction, is because Tulo is competing against the likes of Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and teammate Carlos Gonzalez. Tulo, with a full healthy season, is going to win a Gold Glove and lead Colorado to the N.L. West title with a stat line resembling .325/37/135.

4. Atlanta Braves

BQ: Can they rely on Dan Uggla to supply the power? They will have a more experienced Jason Heyward, a healthy Chipper Jones, and the dependable Brian McCann, but they will probably still lack on the pop a bit. So will Uggla supply 30+ homers to get them into the playoffs?

BP: The injury bug has gotten to Jair Jurjjens recently, but the guy is absolutely dominant when he’s healthy. He had a pretty solid spring. That being said, I expect 12 wins and a 3.50 ERA in a good comeback year for J.J. That will complement Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy in a really, really good rotation.

3. New York Yankees

BQ: Will they get any wins from starters not named C.C. Sabathia or Phil Hughes? Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon aren’t exactly a scary 3-4-5. Can they pull it off, or will they go out and make a big trade in July?

BP: Curtis Granderson is poised to have a big season. He’s going to have an improved Mark Teixeira, an even better Alex Rodriguez, and the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium. I’m expecting something along the lines of .270/35/90 and 20 steals.

2. Philadelphia Phillies

BQ: My god, it has to be if they will stay healthy? Chase Utley, Brad Lidge and Domonic Brown all have injury questions right now and will start the season on the DL. The Phils have the pitching to cover the missing offense, but can they win it all without those guys?

BP: I don’t know how “bold” this necessarily is, but I predict the big 4 starters will average 17 wins, 180 K’s and a 3.00 ERA this season. That’s why they are the big 4 – the best rotation in a very, very long time.

1. Boston Red Sox

BQ: Is the pitching going to hold up in the playoffs? The lineup is just unfair, but if Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are the only two starters consistently pitching well, they could get upset in the playoffs. So, can Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett and John Lackey help out?

BP: The Red Sox are going to run away with the AL East, and cruise through the playoffs to a World Series title. Now, let’s say they match up with the Phillies, as I expect. They probably won’t have an easy time winning, per se. But with a lineup featuring Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury, they should have too much firepower even for the fearsome foursome in Philadelphia to handle.

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