The American League East 2011:
1st Place- Boston Red Sox
Projected Wins- 97
To say the Boston Red Sox were hit hard with injuries last year would be a massive understatement. They had Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Mike Lowell all miss significant playing time, their supposed preseason strength was an impressive starting five that watched Josh Beckett be ineffective then of course land on the DL, while their big free agent John Lackey turned in the worst season of his career, and this team still 89 games. Looking ahead to next season the Sox did lose two of their best players in starting third baseman Adrian Beltre and catcher Victor Martinez, however even the most jaded New England fan would be hard pressed to complain about winter losses with former Rays superstar Carl Crawford signing up for seven years and the trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Boston gobbled up the two big names early then decided that they should have absolutely no weakness and added Bobby Jenks (White Sox Closer), Dan Wheeler (Rays setup man), former top prospects Andrew Miller and Matt Albers to their already impressive pen. I would at this time say that only injuries could derail Boston’s march back to the postseason but as I’ve already written nothing truly seems to be able to stand in the path of these Goliaths from the North East.
Projected Rotation- Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholtz, Daisuke Matsuzaka
Top Three Bullpen Arms- Jonathan Papelbon, Bobby Jenks, Daniel Bard
2nd Place- New York Yankees
Projected Wins- 91
The times they are a changing’. The Yankees enter the season looking much more like the team of 2008 than the champs of 2009. Their starting five is a huge mess behind their ace but they should be able to out slug most non-elite opponents with guys like Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and A-Rod. For the first time in a long time, in close games they will have the luxury of being able to rely on a very good bullpen leading to the ageless Mariano Rivera instead of every lead being in peril until the ninth. The fact remains that the problems the Yankees have are absurd when compared to almost any other team in MLB, since they are one of three clubs who really have no idea what it means to operate on a budget. Still the last time New York was seen, they were being run off the field by the younger Texas Rangers and they missed out on top target Cliff Lee, were spurred by Andy Pettitte’s retirement and now have married themselves to a 36 year old shortstop and the hope that either Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, or Mark Prior can find a time machine to 2003. Ironically the Yankees would be favorites in any other division but now have fallen victim to the monster they created in the AL East arm race, still only one key needs to addressed for this team to be great, can the rest of the roster hold off father time as well as their closer.
3rd Place- Baltimore Orioles
Projected Wins- 85
In any other division this would be the year for unbridled hope at Camden Yards, however because they reside in the East they only get to feel like the Blue Jays have for the past couple of years, good but not good enough. Baltimore is essentially the Diet Yankees this year: great offense, good bullpen, and tons of question marks in the starting rotation. There is a lot of hope for the future with some good prospects and several young impact players like Adam Jones already in uniform and perhaps when the jewel of the system, Zach Britton, arrives for good in the show we will see that Baltimore has replaced Tampa as the new rival to bullies of the AL. The Orioles have been flying under the radar of most of the baseball world however no team helped themselves more this winter when you consider they added DH Vladimir Guerrero, Closer Kevin Gregg, and ¾ of their projected starting infield. If only the Orioles great young pitching prospects were ready for the major leagues, this truly could be a special season.
Top Three Bullpen Arms- Kevin Gregg, Koji Uehara, Michael Gonzalez
4th Place- Tampa Bay Rays
Projected Wins- 80
Sadly for a group that tried so hard in 2010 no team was dismantled this winter quite as much as the Rays. Its probable that despite a deep farm system, two division championships in three years, and possibly the best long term plan in baseball, that they wont be able to return to the top of the East anytime soon because of finances. To tell the sad story of the Rays, you just need to know that they waved goodbye to Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Carlos Pena in free agency, then traded away Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett because of budget concerns. While they did add aging stars Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, still have a good young rotation with legitimate ace David Price and perhaps the best player in the AL Evan Longoria, anyone who believes this team wont take a huge step backwards in 2011 is a unrivaled optimist. Gone is what Tampa built both of their division champion teams around; great defense, athletic players and above all unselfish attitudes. While the Rays still have a shot until their current superstars leave they wont be to compete with the big boys as long as this team remains in Tampa Bay, with the worst fans in sports. Anytime they challenge for a playoff spot will be a shocking season instead of a sustained run at success.
5th Place-Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Wins- 77
Perhaps this season will only be a speed bump in what will become a Toronto dynasty down the road, built by a GM who has already performed the miracle of being able to unload Vernon Wells on the Angels and acquired a top 20 prospect (Brett Lawrie) for an injury prone starter. Toronto’s power packed offense of 2010 will be worse off this season after losing the fearsome bats of John Buck, Lyle Overbay, and Wells and the pitching will regress a bit without Scott Downs and Shaun Marcum. The smart move would be to let the setback season user in the youth movement led by Kyle Drabek, Anthony Gose, and J.P. Arencibia who should all see time this season. The test for the Jays is going to be with their new found flexibility do they have the restraint not to blow everything on Jose Bautista who while a good player wont help them make it to the top if he‘s a 100 million dollar player or remembering the mistakes of Alex Rios and Wells is Alex Anthopoulos going let the Jays grow and develop, supplementing the roster as the team grows its own talent in a way that will terrify the behemoths in the north east.
The American League Central 2011:
1st Place- Chicago White Sox
Projected Wins- 98
The 2010 Chicago White Sox had trouble scoring enough runs to support a talented pitching staff, the 2011 Chi Sox wont have any problem scoring tons of runs after adding a player in Adam Dunn whose left handed swing was seemingly built for US Cellular Field. Last season despite the anemic offense, outside of Paul Konerko, Chicago won 88 games and the only major players departing from the South Side are displaced closer Bbby Jenks and setup man J.J. Putz, while adding Jesse Crain from their rival the Twins. Dunn’s presence should help out young sluggers Gordon Beckham, Alexei Ramirez, Alex Rios and Carlos Quentin but perhaps the biggest boast is going to be to Paul Konerko who with the mighty lefty batting behind him might be able to negate some of the decline of age. No team in the Central is as deep in talent as Chicago but will manager Ozzie Guillen and GM Kenny Williams be able to deal with the most pressure on their team since after they won the World Series in 2005? The White Sox’ season will most likely be won or lost in the first two months and with the decision of whether Chris Sale is going to be a starter or closer. If they can survive into June they should be adding ace Jake Peavey and once he returns no team in the American League will be able to match Chicago one through five.
Top Three Bullpen Arms- Chris Sale, Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain
2nd Place- Detroit Tigers (WC)
Projected Wins- 93
The Tigers are built for a run to the postseason right now with sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Magglio Ordonez. The Tigers finished a disappointing 81-81 last year but owner Mitch Ilitch kept both his GM and manger Jim Leyland but if the Tigers disappoint again who knows how much patience will be shown to the current regime, or even if Leyland would want to return. Detroit is going to have a balanced lineup with the speed of Austin Jackson at the top, Cabrera and Martinez in the middle and grinders Carlos Guillen, Ordonez, and Brandon Inge providing tough at bats through out. Really the key to success in the Motor City is going to be if Brad Penny can stay healthy and Justin Verlander can stay consistent. The Tigers have been an up and down team the past couple of years with major disappointment starting to become their calling card but with a strong lineup, deep rotation, and a desperate management team this could be the year the Tigers finally push themselves over the top.
Projected Lineup- CF Austin Jackson, DH Carlos Guillen, 1B Miguel Cabrera, C Victor Martinez, RF Magglio Ordonez, SS Jhonny Peralta, 3B Brandon Inge, LF Brennan Boesch, 2B Will Rhymes
Top Three Bullpen Arms- Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Daniel Schlereth
3rd Place- Minnesota Twins
The Twins lost two of their most important players last season, closer Joe Nathan never throwing a pitch and MVP first baseman Justin Morneau not playing a single game in the second half after suffering from a concussion. However even with those two big blows the Twins got an unexpected great season from DH Jim Thome, and LF Delmon Young finally proved the Twins weren’t idiots for dealing Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for him. The Twins resigned their most important starter Carl Pavano and brought back Thome even though he doesn’t really seem to fit if Morneau is healthy, then added Japanese SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka and hope he’s more Ichiro than Kaz Matsui. Perhaps the biggest set back for the Twins was Joe Mauer losing his power swing and merely being a .327 hitter, so instead of an MVP he’s just the best catcher in baseball. Minnesota always seems to out produce the sum of their parts but in a division where both the White Sox and Tigers seem to have much better rosters and without the ace they need it looks like the Twins run atop the Central is going to come to an end.
4th Place- Cleveland Indians
Projected Wins- 70
One player could change the fortunes of the Cleveland Indians, the problem is that player hasn’t been healthy in two seasons and even if he is, the Indians have proven they are willing to deal stars. Of course the guy I’m talking about is Grady Sizemore. In 2008 Sizemore was looking like the best centerfielder in baseball and the Indians were looking poised to take over the Central, well since then things have gone sideways and now the Tribe is looking much more likely to be passed by the Royals than being a serious threat to Chicago, Detroit, or Minnesota. Beside Sizemore, the Indians are looking for continued growth from Shin-Soo Choo and are praying to get anything from Travis Hafner, Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, and whoever is playing third base. Perhaps having lucky playoff charm Orlando Cabrera will help the Indians this year, however he will probably help the team he’s traded to in July more a lot more.
5th Place- Kansas City Royals
Projected Wins- 63
One more season. Royals fans have had to deal with having a terrible team for a long time and being compared in constant competition with the Pirates as most helpless organization in baseball, however the light at the end of this tunnel is blinding. The Royals have the players in the upper minors to make the Rays teams of the past couple of years jealous but for at least one more season the are going to be awful. The team will have either Luke Hochevar (4.81 ERA) Jeff Francis (5.00 ERA) or Vin Mazzaro (4.27 ERA) taking the ball opening day against the Angels. The Royals bats could be decent but outside of first baseman Billy Butler lack any impact player and are relying on Jeff Francoeur, Alex Gordon, and Melky Cabrera to be their starting outfield. The future is extremely bright for Kansas City but for now things are going to be very dark and the Royals have only an small chance to finish outside the AL Central cellar.
The American League West 2011:
1st Place- Texas Rangers
Projected Wins- 89
The Rangers had an improbable run in the playoffs that ended just short of their goal when the lost to the Giants in five games during the World Series. Still for a franchise that had never even won a playoff series last year had to be considered a success. This winter however has been a tough one for Texas as they watched ace Cliff Lee depart to Philadelphia and even their best addition of the off season, third baseman Adrian Beltre alienated franchise icon Michael Young to the point that he demanded a trade. Texas wont have the same pitching staff they boasted last year unless Brandon Webb who has only thrown four innings in the last two years returns to his Cy Young form but with Beltre, Mike Napoli and if they can calm down Young their offense should be much better. It seems highly unlikely that the Rangers will return to the World Series with the losses of Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, and Bengie Molina still the should be the favorites to take a down AL West.
Top Three Bullpen Arms- Neftali Feliz, Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver
2nd Place- Oakland A’s
Projected Wins- 86
Last season despite having a terrible offense the A’s might have really been the surprise team of the AL. Oakland finished at 81-81, and returns almost their entire impressive young starting staff and added several useful bats during the off season. The A’s major losses were DH Jack Cust, speedy outfielder Rajai Davis, and two injury prone pitchers who didn’t do much in Oakland last season anyway (Justin Duchscherer and Ben Sheets) but added outfielders David DeJesus, Josh Willingham and DH Hideki Matsui. Oakland is by no means a great team but strike me accurately so as a poor man’s San Francisco Giants. They have good young pitchers in the rotation and bullpen being backed by an acceptable offense that wont wow anyone but will get the job done on most nights.
3rd Place- Los Angeles Angels
Projected Wins- 82
The Angels were desperate to add a impact player this off season after finishing the year 80-82 and came away with what seemed like the untraceable man, Vernon Wells. Angels GM Tony Reagins has done a good job of building a strong team but hasn’t been able to land the superstar needed to put them over the top. They have a strong rotation lead by Jered Weaver, one that if everyone performs up to their ability could challenge the Giants and Phillies for best in baseball but from what they’ve shown is more likely to be the third best in their own division. Having Wells and a healthy Kendry Morales should help the offense in the long ball department but they will also be a team that really doesn’t fit their ballpark or their division. Los Angeles doesn’t seem to know which direction it wants to head in and after years on top the seem to be four steps behind both the Rangers and A’s.
Top Three Bullpen Arms- Fernando Rodney, Hisanori Takahashi, Scott Downs
4th Place- Seattle Mariners
Projected Wins- 62
The Mariners had a historically bad offense last year that lead to baseball writers to actually vote Felix Hernandez Cy Young winner despite only 13 wins. While the Mariners should have a slightly better offense attack this year with Jack Cust, Miguel Olivo, and top prospect Dustin Ackley most of the increase should just be from the fact they were so bad last year. Seattle will have a good rotation, perhaps the best team baseball in the game but once again the only player any team has to worry about with the bat is Ichiro. If everything breaks right for the Mariners they could be similar to the 2009 Giants or 2010 Padres but even matching those teams might be to lofty for this group. In a couple of seasons the emerald city, could be a place to go for great baseball but for now its sad seeing Ichiro Suzuki spend the last seasons in the MLB on terrible, frustrating clubs.
Top Three Bullpen Arms- David Aardsma, Brandon League, Garrett Olson