AL East: the money division. My division too, me being in Ontario.
BALTIMORE: Like Cleveland, the O’s have found that the appeal of a nice, retro ballpark can last only so long. Sooner or later you have to put a respectable club on the field to put some butts in the stands. There’ll be a lot of empty seats at Cambden this year. But they’re heading in the right direction at least.
Around here, orioles usually return to the trees around May 10. Seemed last year that was when they returned to Maryland too; after an awful 2-16 start , the birdies seemed to return to life. This year, theyve flown back early.Is that a hint of things to come?
Probably not. But it is a sign that Buck Showalter’s strong finish for the team wasn’t a pure illusion.
That said, this is still not a good team. It must be an embarassment for older Oriole fans who remember the great teams of the 70s and 80s built around the likes of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Ross Grimsley even, to see a club that sports Jeremie Guthrie as the anchor now. Still, Zack Britton looked good in his debut this year and is promising, and Brian Matusz won 10 last year only two years after being drafted. There is hope for a return to respetability at least, if not greatness. It just won’t be this year.
The rotation will hand the ball over to a decent enough bullpen, with jays castoffs kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo (24 saves with AAA las Vegas last year but seemingly a way of continually pissing off Jays management) , and Koji Uehara capable of being a closer as well.
This team should hit; brian Roberts if healthy is among the game’s elite second baseman in the field and at the plate. It astounded me that it took someone so long to pony up some cash for Vlad Guerrero; granted his average last year was 20 points off his career numbers, but his career avg. is .320! In the friendly confines of Cambden Yards, he’ll up his average, quickly collect his 2500th career hit and smash at least 35 homers… and be a headache to hitting coach Jim Presley, who’s job it is to turn youngsters like Adam Jones into all the hitter they can be. Guerreros slap-happy, swing at anything that moves approach won’t help teach the younger teammates.
Mark Reynolds won’t match Vlad’s impact. Sure he might hit a dinger or three, but this is a guy who’s not a defenisve upgrade over redoubtable Miguel Tejada and who strikes out 40% of the time . In this lineup, he may K 250 times and be a rally-killer. Big question for the orange birds: will Matt Wieters develop into the player he was hyped as when he arrived in the league? I don’t know, but I do know this team isn’t atrocious– but neither is it all that good. 2011 Prediction: 71 wins, 4th place.
BOSTON – How things change. Ten years ago, the Curse of the Bambino was as scary to New Englanders as some rabid dog or satanic clown devised by Stephen King. Now, ask a nor’easter ball fan about a curse and they’ll answer that their curse is having to actually play 162 games as a technicality before being awarded their division title. Almost every expert has already stated inequivocably that the Red Sox are absolutely guaranteed to be the AL champs this year; so much has been written about them and their talent that it takes little recapping from me. Nor their rivalling their down-coast rivals in payroll spending; it’s well documented.
If the Sox stay healthy this year, it’s obvious they’re in good shape. The return of Jacob Ellsbury in particular will ramp up an already good offense, and with the addition of Carl Crawford, the Bosox will have the league’s top two triples hitters and base stealers… quite a spark to get things going for the heavy hitters in the lineup. Kevin Youkilis is under-rated and an upgrade on Adrian Beltre at third, even in a year when Beltre feels like trying, of which this season likely wouldn’t be one. KY is their best everyday player. End of story. Across the diamond, Adrian Gonzalez ain’t bad… but he’ll disappoint and be the subject of a big-selling voodoo doll by mid-summer, so inflated and unrealistic are hopes for him in Beantown. He’ll do OK if he doesn’t get dragged down by the new spectre of having fans who are critical of him (or fans of any type for that matter), but a .275 avg, 35 or so home runs is a realistic prospect for him, not the .375, 70 home runs most seem to project him for. What is amazing is that a team willing to pony up close to $200M for a roster couldn’t find a decent regular catcher! This will hurt them thru the summer, but not enough to keep them out of post-season contention.
Josh Beckett (comeback? Not likely.) and Dice-K in the rotation means that the pitching isn’t all that. But it’s not terrible by any means, John lackey will come around and be a big improvement over his mysterious bad 2010 self, and he, Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester should all win 16+ .Jon Papelbon… should they have made him a starter years ago? Is there still time to do so? Debate among yourselves. No debate though, the bullpen is pretty sound.
IF they stay healthier this year than last and IF they don’t panic at their slow start and do something rash, it’s hard to imagine this team missing the playoffs. Much as somewhere up there the Babe will be cursing, and somewhere down here, so will I. 2011 Prediction: 94 wins, 1st place.
NEW YORK : a team which this year could rival last year’s Seattle for dollars spent per win. Good thing for the pinstripes that the Y’s are spending double what the Mariners did.
No other team is as much commented upon or under the microscope as much as the Yankees, so I probably can’t add too much to the commentary. Other than to perhaps point out that the infield is the best in the history of the game (and yes, I say that as someone who doesn’t ‘like’ Alex Rodriguez). A-Rod is still only 35 and embarassed by his lowly .270 BA and 30 homers last year and will improve upon those numbers. Robinson Cano has swum up above the teaming pool of talented young second baseman in the AL (Hill, Roberts, Pedroia, Kinsler et al) to become by far the best with the glove and with the bat. A batting title is in his future, quite possibly as soon as this October. Mark Teixeira has made 7 errors at first… in over 300 games since 2008. And will give Jose Bautista a run for the home run title this year… even if Bautista clocks 54 again. No surprise Mark has already driven in 10 in the first week of the season. And Derek Jeter, yes, he’s on the downslope of his career, but the quest for 3000 hits and his pride will result in a somewhat upgraded year over last. The OF is OK, but not spectacular, but Big Applers have to like young Brett Gardner, a tremendous young speedster and .300 hitter for many years to come and if they refrain from putting him behind the plate 4 days a week, Jorge Posada will show he still has some pop in his bat and do fine as the DH.
OK, so the infield is one for the ages. No one will ever say their pitching is though. Sure CC is exactly what they expected and hoped he’d be when they drove a fleet of Brinks trucks up to his door. He’s a sure thing, 220 innings, 18 wins, 200K, many quality starts in the bag before the season even opens. And Phil Hughes will be ok, maybe not an 18 game winner elsewhere, but a decent enough young pitcher. The rest of the rotation is a bit of an adventure though. Bartolo Colon, kevin Millwood and Freddy Garcia competing for the number 4 and 5 spots ? This would be great news – if it was still 2005! And of course, then there’s AJ Burnett. His 15 loss, 5+ ERA season didn’t surprise those of us here in southern Ontario at all– his decent 2009 did! We saw enough of AJ and his spotty pitching, sour personality and disdain for those who paid his inflated salary for spontaneous acts of dancing in the streets to occur when he decided to walk out on his ludicrously generous T.O. Contract. But rest assured , New York, he won’t lose 15 this year. The Steinbrenners will grow tired of his act and either ship him to the minors or bite the bullet and give him $40, 50M to just walk away by August. And probably find a Carlos Zambrano or Wandy Rodriguez for the taking to boost the pitching and keep the Bombers in the running. 2011 Prediction : 88 wins, 2nd place.
TAMPA BAY: Alas, baseball’s cinderella story has turned to a pumpkin, which is what a lot of baseballs hurled at opposition batters will look like this season- pumpkins. What do you get when you take a team which has played above its head for three years, to little or no fan support, and take away the franchise player (aka – best player ever to wear their uniform), eliminate pretty much the entire bullpen , lose the big slugger from the lineup, shed the extremely versatile multi-position infielder and trade away their most experienced, solid starter? Answer: a badteam. This team operated on smoke and mirrors in the past few years, and good on ’em to do so! But their batting, only 26th in the majors last year, will be no better for the absence of Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena’s 35-45 homers and no matter how good David Price is – and he is good – or Evan Longoria, this team still looks Mickey Mouse. Just like a Tampa Bay team should, I guess. Nonetheless, they do have some young talent bubbling under, so they might rise again… around 2014, or 2015, by which time they’ll likely be the Las Vegas Rays or Charlotte Rays. Going out on a limb here… but 2011 Prediction: 66 wins, 5th place, attendance under 1 million.
TORONTO– last but not least, the team I specialize in covering. I’ll write a lot more about the Jays in the next week or two, but for now , let me say briefly that entering spring training, I thought there’d be 4 big questions the jays would have to answer if they wanted to be remotely good this season: 1) is JP Arencibia ready for the big leagues, 2) can Aaron Hill be Aaron Hill again, 3) can Adam Lind play first base, let alone hit more like the 2009 Lind than last year’s and 4) are the #4 and 5 starters good enough for prime time? Happily, thorugh spring and the first week of the season, answers to all of the above look positive. (Yes, Jo JO Reyes is a bit of a crapshoot but within a week fireballing Brandon Morrow will be back, he of the 17K, near no-hitter last summer). Edwin Encarnacion looks shaky at third, but young Brett Lawrie dazzled all with his glove and bat in spring training and is expected to join the big league club as soon as they can be sure they can wait another year before making him a free agent, yet another promising AL rookie third baseman. Jose Bautista by the way? Last year at this time, on another website I predicted he’d have a breakout year. But honestly, I didn’t think it would be that breakout! He’s for real though, and will have another big year… I look for his average to rise, his homers to drop some, but not by much (my best guess: 40) and if those around him can hit a bit he’ll top 100 RBI again by Labour Day.
I have to say in honesty, that no team in baseball is as much as a mystery to me as this one I’m closest to. They so far have shown tremendous enthusiasm and a refusal to give in, and that bodes well. If the stars align properly, this team might just give us some October baseball for the first time since ’93. Then again, if the youngsters tire out or don’t alter their approach to the opposition as the other teams get their numbers, it could become a very llooonngg season. 2011 Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd place. Aaron Hill’s numbers: .290 avg, 20 HR; Bautista, .280, 40 HR, 110 RBI, Kyle Drabek…? I don’t have a clue. Maybe 14 wins and rookie of year, maybe 6 ERA and back in minors by May long weekend. I havent seen enough yet to really gauge him.