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Obligatory MLB Preview

The 2011 MLB season has snuck up on us like the creepy guy at the office who makes no noise when he walks.  While most of us have been tearing up our brackets and wondering how VCU and Butler made the final four, the boys of summer have been in Arizona and Florida working on their tans, golf games, and occasionally playing some baseball. We begin with the toughest division in baseball.

AL East

The AL East is the best division in baseball.  Poor Toronto is the best team no one ever talks about because they usually finish fourth in this stacked division.  The Red Sox made the biggest off season splash signing Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.  They lost Adrian Beltre at third but the versatile Kevin Youkilis will move to third to accommodate A-Gonz.

For the first time in recorded history the Yankees whiffed on all the key free agents in the off-season.  Their off-season was dominated by an ugly public contract negotiation with Derek Jeter.  Starting pitching will be the biggest question mark surrounding the Yanks, but the have the bats and talent to win 95 games and get back into the post season.

Veterans Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon would love to help the Rays return to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

The Rays were AL East champs for the second time in three years in 2010, but still continue to operate with one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB.  Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, and Carlos Pena are gone, but the biggest loss of all may have been closer Rafael Soriano.  In 2010 Soriano had a career best 45 saves, but was lost to the Yankees.  Youngster Jake McGee may be called upon to close for the new look Rays.  Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon were nice bargain basement veteran acquisitions.

The Blue Jays may be the best team no one talks about because they got lost in the AL East shuffle.  Vernon Wells is now an Angel but Jose Bautista and his 54 home runs return to Rogers Centre.  Rajai Davis may not have Wells pop in center, but he gets on base a lot and is a stolen base machine.  I predict another 85-90 win season, but alas the Jays will finish no better than third in the division.

The Orioles are intriguing but probably don’t have the players to come out of the cellar in the AL East.  The O’s were almost .600 after Buck Showalter was named manager, but I’m not sure the O’s have the pitching to win more than 75 games.  They have some boppers and young talent, but are a few years away from making a real push to compete in this division.

Division winner- Red Sox

AL Central

Somehow the small market Minnesota Twins have dominated this division the last decade.  I expect nothing less from the Twins in 2011.  Somehow Ron Gardenhire will work his magic and the Twins will be in that 90 win range, competing for their 6th AL Central crown in 9 years.  The health of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan remain the biggest question marks for Minnesota.

On paper Chicago should win this division, but we all know games are not played on paper.  The South siders have consistent, veteran pitching and a balanced line-up.  The biggest question mark is the bullpen, but I expect Matt Thornton to seize and own the role of closer now that Bobby Jenks is gone.

For the last five years I have said the Tigers could do some damage if they could just find a way to get into the playoffs.  They have had the pitching and bats to win a short series, but underachieved in the regular season.  Miguel Cabrera’s Florida meltdown was a big off season distraction, but now that he will have some structure I expect him to continue to kill big league pitching.  After Justin Verlander the the rotation isn’t deep enough for Tigers to be a real playoff contender.

Cleveland could have one of the worst records in the MLB.  Carlos Santana is an exciting young player at catcher and Shin-Soo Choo is a consistent producer in the outfield, but the tribe lack the depth or talent to win much more than 65 games.

Everyone raves about how good the Royals farm system is, but when is it going to materialize?  The batting order is anemic at best and without Zach Greinke I don’t know how any other Royals starter will get an out.  The lone bright spot remains closer Joakim Soria.  Soria will savor and take advantage of the few save opportunities he gets this year.  Look for the Royals to make some noise in 2013 or ’14.

Division winner- Chicago White Sox.

AL West

2010 MVP Josh Hamilton will be a big part of the Rangers returning to the postseason. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Texas Rangers nearly brought the first world series title to the lone star state in 2010.  The Rangers were great during the regular season and plowed through the AL East’s best in the playoffs.  Texas ran into the equally hot Giants and the Rangers bats were cooled by some amazing Giant pitching.  Cliff Lee was a big reason for the Rangers success in the postseason, but he is now a Phillie.  C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, and Tommy Hunter will have to pick up the slack.  Texas took a flier on Brandon Webb, and hope he can get healthy and show glimpses of his Cy Young form.  Texas lost Vlad Guerrero but picked up Adrian Beltre in the offseason.  Texas should contend for another division title.

Oakland has become a trendy pick to win the division.  Some people compare them to a poor mans San Francisco with a good young rotation and good situational hitters.  If the A’s can get to the 9th with a lead look for former rookie of the year Andrew Bailey to put out almost every fire.

For most of the 2000′s the class of the division was the Angels.  Los Angeles had a big dropoff last year.  The rotation looks great on paper, and if Scott Kazmir can return to his old form he could be a great fifth starter.  The Angels missed on Adrian Beltre, so they will go with former Royal Alberto Callaspo at third.  Vernon Wells was a nice off season acquisition and L.A. will be happy to welcome Kendry Morales back into the line-up at first.  Fernando Rodney will take over for Brian Fuentes at closer, but he is hardly a sure thing.  Rodney blew 7 of 21 save opportunities in 2010.

Seattle could be in the running for the worst record in the American League.  Their lineup would look pathetic in the dead ball era.  If King Felix could pitch every game the M’s would have a fighting chance to be a .500 ball club.

Division winner- Los Angeles

NL East

The City of Brotherly Love was happy to welcome back an old friend during the offseason. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

The Phillies have become the team to beat in the National League.  In the off season they welcomed back an old friend in Cliff Lee.  Lee joins a staff that already has Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.  The Phils have the deepest pitching rotation since the 90s Braves.  There are some questions on offense.  Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, and Dominic Brown will all begin the season on the dl.  Closer Brad Lidge will also begin the season on the dl, but the Phils are too good to not overcome these injuries.

The Braves pose the biggest threat to the Phillies domination.  Atlanta has a ton of depth and young talent.  First year skipper Fredi Gonzalez has the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Bobby Cox, but Gonzalez has longstanding ties to the Atlanta organization going back to his minor league managing days.  Look for Jason Heyward to have a break out second big league season.

Florida has won at least 80 games the last four seasons, but have yet to make that next step the way the Phillies did in 2008.  Despite a questionable work ethic at times, Hanley Ramirez remains one of the top shortstops in all of baseball.  The fish lost Dan Uggla’s power at second base but gained Omar Infante’s consistency and lofty batting average.  The rotation is very solid with Josh Johnson anchoring it, but the bullpen is a big question mark.  The Marlins will be frisky, but I don’t see them getting ahead of Atlanta or Philadelphia.

Washington spent some money in the off season, but some are wondering if it was money well spent.  The Nats inked Jayson Werth to a 7 year $126 million dollar deal.  Werth will be an upgrade, but can one player be enough to change a franchise’s fortunes.  Stephen Strasburg dazzled fans in his 12 starts last season, but it ended early with Tommy John surgery.  Strasburg will be ready in September at the earliest, but unless Washington is in a playoff run there is no reason to rush his return.  It will be interesting to see how hitting phenom Bryce Harper progresses in the minors.

Mets fans are bracing for a disastrous season.  The Mets are such a comedy of errors I don’t even know where to start.  The Wilpon’s are up to their eyeballs in Bernie Madoff lawsuits, Johan Santana is still recovering from shoulder surgery, and Carlos Beltran may never be healthy again.  Jason Bay had his worst offensive season, and K-Rod was arrested after punching his father in law in the clubhouse.  The lone bright spot may be third baseman David Wright who rebounded nicely in 2010 after a dismal 2009.  The biggest victory for the Mets in 2011 may be the sale of the team.

Division winner- Phillies

NL Central

The Cincinnati Reds want to prove to everyone they were not a fluke in 2010.  Dusty Baker has a deep rotation, bullpen, and reigning MVP Joey Votto.  Baker has been mum about how he will use Mr. 105 Aroldis Chapman.  He will either start or close, but he won’t be in a setup  role.

Albert Pujols and the Cardinals could not see eye to eye on a contract, but we know he will still play at an MVP level.  The birds lost Adam Wainwright for the season, but they will not roll over.  The Central is considered one of the more wide open divisions, but Tony LaRussa will find a way to keep St. Louis in the hunt.

Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum headline a much improved Brewers rotation. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Brewers have emerged as a trendy pick to win the division, and with good reason.  Milwaukee bolstered their usually weak rotation with Zach Greinke and Shaun Marcum.  Greinke broke a rib playing pick up basketball and will miss April, but that won’t sink the Brew Crew.  Now that the Brewers have the pitching to match a solid batting order, they should make a real run at a division crown.  The bullpen is still a little weak, but John Axford emerged as a dependable closer when Trevor Hoffman faded in 2010.

The Astros were quietly one of the best teams in the second half of 2010.  The only problem was they were one of the worst in the first half.  We will see if their late success will roll over into 2011.  The rotation isn’t spectacular, but very serviceable.  The killer b’s may be gone, but Hunter Pence, Chris Johnson, and Brett Wallace could be a pretty good heart of the order for the ‘Stros.

Will the Cubs remain lovable losers, or emerge as serious contenders in 2011.  Carlos Zambrano finished 2011 strong, Ryan Dempster is very reliable, and despite a poor Spring Matt Garza should feast on National League lineups.  Starlin Castro had a solid rookie season, and if Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Carlos Pena are productive the Cubs should be competitive.  I’ll be cautiously optimistic because after all THEY ARE THE CUBS!!!

Clint Hurdle would love to return the Pirates to mediocrity.  After 18 consecutive losing seasons a .500 record would seem like a World Series title to long suffering Pirates fans.  The Buckos hardly have the arms to compete, but they have some nice position players.  The saddest thing is that Pittsburgh has one of the nicest ballparks in baseball but haven’t been able to field a team worthy of PNC Park.

Division Winner- Brewers

NL West

Pitching set the tone for the Giants first World Series title in 56 years. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Giants ended a 56 year World Series drought in 2010 with one of the more memorable post season runs in recent history.  The self proclaimed group of castoffs got hot in October and made quick work of the Phillies and Rangers.  The Giants still have one of the best rotations in baseball, and hope the castoffs timely hitting continues.  Closer Brian Wilson will begin the season on the dl, but he isn’t expected to miss too much time with a left oblique strain.  We now know Brandon Belt will be the opening day starter at first base, and could give San Fran some much needed pop if he adjusts to major league pitching.

The Rockies are an emerging sleeper to win the west.  Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki headline a solid lineup and the Rocks have some arms.  Ubaldo Jimenez was unhittable in the first half of 2010 but tailed off in the second half.  Jorge de la Rosa can be inconsistent but shows flashes of greatness from time to time.  Jhoulys Chacin had a nice debut in ’10, and should be even better in ’11.  Huston Street is a pretty good closer when healthy.

Most experts are predicting the Padres to have the biggest drop off in wins.  San Diego surprised everybody when they won 90 games in 2010 and narrowly missed the playoffs.  The Padres have no way of replacing Adrian Gonzalez, but they Pads took a flier on former Rockie Brad Hawpe who is coming off a down 2010.  The Padres have enough arms to stay competitive, but just won’t score enough runs to compete for the division again in 2011.

There aren’t a ton of expectations for the Los Angeles Dodgers despite NLCS appearances in 2008 and 2009.  The McCourt divorce has taken a toll on morale and payroll, but Don Mattingly won’t use that as an excuse in 2011.  The Dodgers have a good rotation and bullpen, but struggle to score runs.  Juan Uribe was a nice under the radar acquisition, and if Matt Kemp can return to form in 2011 then the Dodgers may be unlikely contenders.

The good news for the Arizona Diamondbacks is that the only way to go is up.  It’s hard to believe the D’ Backs won 90 games and the division just four seasons ago.  Brandon Webb and Dan Haren are no longer in the rotation, but Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders look to anchor the new look pitching staff.  The 2010 bullpen was one of the worst ever so thankfully they can’t get any worse.  The lineup doesn’t have a ton of pop and I would be surprised if Arizona wins more than 70 games

Division winner- San Francisco

Enjoy the season boys and girls.

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