Earlier than normal and without the National Championship game as the finale of the day, the 2011 MLB season begins today. This season begins off the heels of an offseason which was crazier than expected. Particularly, the moves by the Red Sox and Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke moving were the biggest stories. However, the hot stove has been turned off and its back to diamond where every team (yes, even the Pirates) are in first place on Opening Day, and despite the bad weather here in NYC, you can feel grass is about to grow and spring is coming. It's also time for another preview post (I know it seems like all I do are preview posts anymore) so let's get to it before the first pitch.
We begin in the reigning toughest division in baseball, and the likely toughest for the rest of time in the AL East. You know a division is tough when the fifth-place team can realistically win another division. Baltimore and Toronto are interesting because they are up-and-coming; both teams can hit well and they have young pitching that if they reach potential, could win about 85-90 games. Even that, however, wouldn't mean the playoffs for both. Tampa lost Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano and many others, but they still have Evan Longoria and David Price and with good years from Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and B.J. Upton, they can easily go back to the playoffs. However, I don't believe their bullpen without Soriano and Joaquin Benoit can establish themselves good enough to pass the Yankees and Red Sox. Both teams will make the playoffs, Josh Beckett would be the key if the Red Sox win the division or the Yankees. If Beckett's can bounce back to his best, then the Red Sox advantage in the rotation is pronounced over the Yankees. If not, then the rotations are a wash, with maybe a slight edge for Boston. I think the Red Sox win it, only because the Yankees might struggle early with the rotation and whatever trade they make won't swing the division, but solidify the wild card.
The AL Central once again has Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago as their contenders as Cleveland and Kansas City continue the rebuild. The Royals are really close to being a good team, as their best in baseball farm system continues to grow up. It won't be this year they compete for the playoffs, but in 2012 or 2013, they will. I think they hold off the Indians in the battle for last place, as Cleveland is a little behind the rebuild than the Royals (meaning Orlando Cabrera is traded to a contender by July 31). As for the contenders, I'm not sold on either the Tigers or White Sox to overtake the Twins. Chicago always seems to wear down over the year under Ozzie Guillen's managing, while the Tigers don't seem to have the rotation capable of winning the division. I know the Twins lost some major bullpen guys, but if Joe Nathan comes back to his All-Star form, that negates the loss. It also helps to have Justin Morneau back in the lineup, hopefully he can have a season which he's healthy enough for the playoffs, would be important if it's the Yankees they play again.
Last year was a change for the AL West as the Angels went by the wayside and the Rangers won the division and the league. This year, both team look to stagnate a little, opening the door for a surprise winner. Even though the Mariners seem to do good in odd numbered years, they won't win this year. They could settle for another Cy Young for King Felix (better than training him). I look to Oakland as the best team in the West as they have the best rotation (and had it last year) and with Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui signing there, they have a better offense (of course, who knows with that ballpark). Anaheim is lacking in both offense and pitching to compete, despite Mike Scioscia's ability to manage. As for Texas, they will compete with Oakland to the end, but I must say, not getting Cliff Lee to resign is the difference for this team.
On to the NL, starting in the East where the Philly Phour reside. Despite the early season injuries, the Phillies really shouldn't miss the playoffs; if they do, it's an embarrassment. Speaking of embarrassment, the Mets should be the worst team in the division. I don't see how they pitch well, even in Citi Field, which will also negate the offense. Washington will be fourth, but they won't be any good until we know how Stephen Strasburg responds to Tommy John surgery, as well as when Bryce Harper moves to the majors. Florida is probably a year away from being a legitimate contender as the pitching behind Josh Johnson continues to develop more consistency and the lineup does as well, probably a good year in the new ballpark for them in 2012. The Braves will win the wild card as they are improved from last year. The pitching is still there (unless Derek Lowe comes back down) and more importantly, they will hit better with Dan Uggla and potential Rookie of the Year Freddie Freeman.
Probably the division that has the most potential contenders is the NL Central with Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Chicago and yes, St. Louis who can realistically win. I always think the Cards can compete because of Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan and Albert Pujols (even with the impending free agency). The Cubs are improved with Matt Garza and hope to have a motivated Carlos Pena who's on a one-year deal. Add Starlin Castro, Aramis Ramirez and Marlon Byrd and the lineup is good. Still think they fall short of the division, trailing both the Brewers and Reds. The Reds still have the balanced offense from last year and a dominant bullpen with Aroldis Chapman and Francisco Cordero at the back end. The Brewers offense is better than Cincy's and with Greinke and Shaun Marcum, they should have enough to win the division (and they better, they put too much into this season). No need to discuss the Astros or the Pirates, both will struggle, though Houston's closer to contention because of pitching.
Last but not least, the division of the defending World Series winners, the Giants. The division won't be as difficult now that the Padres traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox, and will suffer a bad year because of it, though it might not be too long a dip. The Diamondbacks are still on the long road of rebuilding since the pitching is still porous and they still don't hit with any consistency, though they do have building blocks. The Dodgers are interesting with a solid rotation and a nice lineup, but they don't have the hitting Colorado has or the pitching San Francisco has as well. The Rockies are the contender in the division, but will need more pitching than Ubaldo Jimenez to overtake the Giants. San Francisco will struggle early, but the injuries they have seem short-term and they should tread water until healthy, then win the end.
World Series Pick: Braves over A's
MVP's: Ryan Braun and Robinson Cano
Cy Young's: Roy Halladay and Jon Lester
Rookies of the Year: Freddie Freeman and Jeremy Hellickson
Managers of the Year: Ron Roenicke and Bob Geren