Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MLB 2011: American League


I wonder how Philadelphia Phillies fans would feel about Terry Francona (above) managing his club to a World Series title for the 3rd time? Especially if this time those Boston Red Sox defeat the Fightin' Phils for the world championship, as I am predicting is going to happen in late October of 2011.

The American League's East Division is where you can find the greatest blood feud in baseball history, that between the Bosox and their hated southern neighbors, the dynastic New York Yankees. Both clubs have had recent success, with the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007, and the Yanks winning it all in 2009. For this coming season, I am picking the two clubs to battle for the A.L. East crown, and for Boston to come out on top.

The Red Sox struggled through an injury-marred 2010 and missed the post-season. But over this past winter the club was reinforced with a pair of game-changing offensive talents in 1st baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford. AGonz will bang the ball all over Fenway Park, and Crawford's speed paired with that of Jacoby Ellsbury will give the Bosox' game something new with which to challenge opponents. Add in 2nd baseman Dustin Pedroia, 3rd sacker Kevin Youkilis, and veteran right fielder J.D. Drew and Boston has some of the best offensive talent in the game. On the mound the Sox are deep and talented in both their rotation and in the bullpen, with a tremendous mix of veterans such as Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon and kids such as Jon Lester and Daniel Bard. This is, given reasonable health, clearly the team to beat.

The Yankees lineup is aging in spots, particularly on the left side of the infield where future Hall of Famers Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez perform. But both of these players will be back and should perform well in the coming season, and Jeter should become the first Yankee in history to reach the 3,000 career hits milestone. With Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, this may be the best all-around infield in baseball. The Yanks appear to be a little short on outfield pop, and their starting pitching has serious depth problems.

However, the bullpen has the best closer in baseball history in Mariano Rivera being setup now by one of the best in recent years, Rafael Soriano. The Yanks also now have shutdown lefty relievers, and have plenty of cash with which to eventually shore up any weaknesses. They will contend once again.

In 2 of the past 3 seasons, it has not been Boston or New York that has won this tough division. Instead, the Tampa Bay Rays have vaulted past both and finished on top. However, the small-market Rays began to lose talent to free agency this off-season, including Crawford to Boston, and do not appear to have the firepower beyond all-star 3rd sacker Evan Longoria to stay with those top two dogs this time around. The Rays pitching should keep them ahead of both Buck Showalter's improving Baltimore Orioles and a slugging Toronto Blue Jays squad to round out the A.L. East standings.

In the A.L. Central, I can see a case being made for any one of three clubs winning this race, but I am going to put my money down on the Chicago White Sox at this point. Manager Ozzie Guillen has a multi-talented club with a strong bullpen. If they get any kind of reasonable production out of Jake Peavy, they may win the division comfortably. Even if not, they still get my nod to win in a squeaker over the Minnesota Twins. The Twinkies are always dangerous, but may be facing some health issues with franchise cornerstones Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. If both of those guys find some way to get and stay healthy the majority of the season, look for the Twins to again be serious division title contenders.

The team that might surprise here in the A.L. Central is the Detroit Tigers. Skipper Jim Leyland feels he has talent and depth. He just might have enough to make a run at the club's first title since moving to the Central Division in 2008. Since reaching the 2006 World Series as the division's first-ever Wildcard team, Leyland has generally had the club in some form of contention. It will be largely up to the pitching staff if this current club wants to return to the post-season. Both Cleveland and Kansas City appear to be after-thoughts, although before the year is out we may begin to see the first signs of the Royals' top-rated farm system bring some long overdue excitement back to KC.

Out in the American League West Division we find baseball's only 4-team alignment. Legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan fronted a bid to buy the Texas Rangers last season, and his group emerged victorious in that battle. His team then emerged victorious in the division and playoff battles, reaching the World Series for the first time in franchise history. It says here that despite losing ace Cliff Lee, the Rangers and A.L. MVP Josh Hamilton will still have enough to hold off the always dangerous Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Halos still look to be clearly the only team that has the firepower to keep up with Texas. The Oakland A's have some strong young pitching, enough to perhaps keep things interesting on their side of the Bay for awhile this summer, but neither they nor the Seattle Mariners should provide much competition in the end.

So with Boston, Chicago, and Texas all picked as divisional winners, the only race left would be for the A.L. Wildcard spot. I see three clubs as serious contenders for that, and would rank them in this order: the Yankees, the Angels, and finally the Twins. The dark horse contender team is the Detroit Tigers, with the Tampa Bay Rays also being a potential longshot playoff contender if all of their questions are answered right. I am going to call it a "Battle of the Sox" in the ALCS, with Boston's red downing Chicago's white, and with the Bosox then taking home their 3rd World Series title in 8 years.

For the award winners, lets go with Adrian Gonzalez of Boston as the A.L. MVP, with Tampa Bay's David Price as the Cy Young Award winner, and with the White Sox' outstanding young lefty arm Chris Sale as the A.L. Rookie of the Year. Guillen will win the Manager of the Year for guiding those Pale Hose to the Central crown. Aside from the real battles between the contenders, real baseball fans should pay attention late in the season to both Baltimore and Kansas City, as each young club should be showcasing some excellent kids who may bring those two former contenders back to the glory days some season soon.

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