The reality of baseball cost Tampa Bay the services of OF Carl Crawford, one of the most dangerous players in baseball, who now calls Fenway Park (in Boston) his home. With the exodus of talent from the roster (Crawford, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena, among others), the Rays have slid from a Top Ten team to a middle-of-the-pack club — for now.
With most of the top free agents now signed and teams starting to take shape as we approach spring training, I thought I would share my pre-pre-season perspective on the relative strengths (and weaknesses) of all 30 major league teams. I have broken the article down into three installments, and will publish one of the segments each day this weekend.
Part I (yesterday) covered the three teams I view as the weakest in baseball; Part II (today) covers the teams in the middle of the pack; and Part III (tomorrow, MLK Day) will preview the 10 best teams in baseball. Without further ado, here is how I see things:
11. Milwaukee Brewers (2010 record: 77-85)
Notable additions: SS Yuniesky Betancourt, RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Shaun Marcum, RHP Takashi Saito
Notable subtractions: SS Alcides Escobar, RP Trevor Hoffman, RHP Jeremy Jeffress, 2B Brett Lawrie
The Brewers front office decided it was more important to compete right now than build for the long term, and so they traded a few prospects with tremendous upside for a couple of pitchers (Greinke & Marcum) who can help them compete for the next few years. As with the Red Sox acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez, the success of the deals will be dependent on whether the team will be able to keep their new pitchers in town on a long-term basis.
The offense ranked 4th in the league last year and will almost certainly remain very dangerous in the upcoming season. The lineup features five batters who have the capacity to hit 25+ home runs and drive in 100+ runs.
The team had only two dependable starters last year (Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf). The front office knew the club would have to upgrade on the likes of David Bush and Manny Parra if they hope to compete . Enter Greinke and Marcum, who make the Brewers instant threats in the N. L. Central. The team’s suddenly-competitive rotation will complement the fearsome offense, and will quiet discussion of a potential Prince Fielder trade – as long as the team remains in the running for a division title.
12. St. Louis Cardinals (2010 record: 86-76)
Notable additions: OF Lance Berkman, SS Ryan Theriot, C Gerald Laird, RHP Brian Tallet
Notable subtractions: LHP Dennys Reyes, SS Brendan Ryan
The Cardinals will field a substantially similar team to the one that finished in second place in the Central division last year. The offense finished in the top half of the league in runs per game and should be equally productive in 2011. Ryan Theriot will supplant Brendan Ryan at shortstop, and Lance Berkman will take over in right field. While the lineup changes should result in a negligible change in offensive production, the team will be worse defensively with the departure of Ryan, who is thought by many to be the game’s best-fielding shortstop. One of the keys to the upcoming year will be whether Berkman, who has balky knees and hasn’t played in the outfield since 2007, will be able to answer the bell on a daily basis in 2011.
The rotation will once again be the strength of the ballclub. Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia all had outstanding campaigns last year. Jake Westbrook will slot nicely in the four-hole. The key to the team’s aspirations for a division title in 2011 will be whether RHP Kyle Lohse, who struggled last year, can return to the form he had in 2008.
13. Tampa Bay Rays (2010 record: 96-66)
Notable additions: RHP Chris Archer, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Joel Peralta
Notable subtractions: LF Carl Crawford, 1B Carlos Peña, SS Jason Bartlett, RP Rafael Soriano, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Lance Cormier*, RP Dan Wheeler, RP Randy Choate, RP Grant Balfour*, RP Chad Qualls*, C Dioner Navarro, DH Brad Hawpe, IF Willy Aybar*, RHP Matt Garza
Everyone thinks the Rays will take a significant step backwards in 2011, but I am not numbered among those doubters. Tampa is one of the best-run organizations in baseball, and I think they have the young horses needed to minimize the impact of the losses of veterans Crawford, Garza and Pena. WHile I don’t believe they can make a playoff run, I think it’s likely they will remain competitive as they re-tool both the lineup and rotation.
Prospect Desmond Jennings will remind fans of a younger version of Carl Crawford, the key will be whether he proves to be proficient at getting on base. I also expect that RHP Jeremy Hellicksen will prove to be a close approximation of recently-traded Matt Garza. I expect the front office will sign Johnny Damon or Manny Ramirez to be the DH, enabling Matt Joyce to serve as the right fielder and Ben Zobrist to return to the infield, possibly in place of Pena at first base. Reid Brignac will take over at shortstop and should provide substantially more offense than the steadily-declining Bartlett. The key to the offense will be the development (or lack thereof) of Jennings, whose upside projects similar to Crawford but who may need a few years to get there.
The starting rotation will be fine and help to minimize the impact of the losses in the bullpen (Soriano, Benoit, Balfour, et al). David Price is one of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis will improve as they gain experience, and I expect Hellicksen to contend for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. So, the success of the rotation will largely rest on whether RHP James Sheilds can get back to being the pitcher he was a few years ago.
If the rotation consistently gets deep into games, then the bullpen will survive. Once manager Joe Maddon selects a closer in spring training, the rest of the bullpen should fall into place. The prime candidates for 9th-inning duties are RHPs Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta and LHPs Jake McGee (a rookie) and JP Howell (who missed last year due to injury). The pitchers who lose that battle will join former starting pitcher Andy Sonnanstine to provide a serviceable bullpen.
14. Colorado Rockies (2010 record: 83-79)
Notable additions: RHP Matt Lindstrom, INF Jose Lopez, C Jose Morales, INF/OF Ty Wiggington
Notable subtractions: 2B Clint Barmes, RHP Octavio Dotel, SP Jeff Francis, 3B Melvin Mora, C Miguel Olivo
The Rox finished in 3rd place in the West last year, but could challenge for the division this year if the Giants struggle. The departure of one-time ace Jeff Francis is inconsequential as he hasn’t been the pitcher he was before his injury… and the losses of Barmes and Dotel are offset by the promotion of Eric Young, Jr, and the acquisition of Lindstrom.
The team will need Dexter Fowler, Chris Iannetta and Ian Stewart to step up their respective offensive games if it is to catch the Giants. Iannetta batted just .197 last year and needs to rebound to secure his job, both in 2011 and moving forward. Likewise, the club must hope Aaron Cook’s performance last year was just a blip in his career progression (as his 5.08 ERA was more than a run higher than his combined number for the previous five years).
15. Detroit Tigers (2010 record: 81-81)
Notable additions: RHP Joaquin Benoit , C/DH Victor Martinez, RHP Brad Penny
Notable subtractions: RHP Jeremy Bonderman, DH Johnny Damon, C Gerald Laird
The Tigers have upgraded at catcher, DH and in the bullpen. Alex Avila will replace Gerald Laird as the team’s backstop and should provide more offense than Gerald Laird… former Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez will be a huge improvement over the aging Johnny Damon at DH… and Joaquin Benoit will provide much-needed insurance and support for closer Jose Valverde.
The prospects of the 2011 Tigers will be largely dependent on the development of the youngsters surrounding Miguel Cabrera and Martinez in the lineup, and of young pitchers Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer. Will Brennan Boesch, Austin Jackson and Ryan Raburn continue to develop reliable (or even dangerous) bats? Will Porcello and Scherzer prove to be effective #2 and #3 starters for the front of the rotation? If the answers to those questions is ‘yes’, then the team can compete with the White Sox and Twins… if not, then the organization will have to wait patiently as the youngsters develop into consistent contributors.
16. Toronto Blue Jays (2010 record: 85-77)
Notable additions: OF Rajai Davis, RHP Octavio Dotel, RHP Chad Cordero, 2B Brett Lawrie
Notable subtractions: RHP Jeremy Accardo, C John Buck, LHP Scott Downs, RHP Kevin Gregg, OF Fred Lewis, SP Shaun Marcum, 1B Lyle Overbay, RP Brian Tallet
The Blue Jays won 85 games last year while finishing fourth in the AL East. They may be in position to approximate that performance this season, but I expect they will take a slight step backwards with the trade of Marcum and the loss of Downs and Gregg.
The team will certainly be younger, but it remains to be seen whether it will be better. The offense led the majors in home runs last year, largely due to the breakout season of OF Jose Bautista, but the question is whether the lineup is able to repeat what it did in 2010. THAT would be a tall order. Is Bautista a one-year wonder? Will JP Arencibia hit for power in the same way he did in the minor leagues?
But the biggest question for the Blue Jays will center around pitching, most notably the performance of Kyle Drabek in the rotation and the pitchers who are thrown into the bullpen to replace Downs, Gregg, et al. Will Drabek be able to approximate Marcum? Will the relied corps be able to survive in the American League East? The rest of the Jays rotation (beyond Drabek) is very talented, but they are very young – and young pitching has been known to take a step backward before being able to move forward. Collectively, the Rays pitching staff will benefit greatly from the hiring of new manager John Farrell.
17. Los Angeles Dodgers (2010 record: 80-82)
Notable additions: C Rod Barajas, RHP Jon Garland, RHP Matt Guerrier, C Dioner Navarro, 2B Juan Uribe
Notable subtractions: C Russell Martin, LF Scott Podsednik
GM Ned Colletti has made some nice moves this off-season, re-signing starting pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly and Vicente Padilla, while adding Garland, Guerrier and Uribe to the Dodgers roster. But the truth of the matter is that the McCourt family drama has taken a toll on the on-field product and it could be another year or two before the club will compete for a division title.
The starting rotation is formidable, but the lineup is impotent. The only returning member of the lineup who hit .300 or better last season is SS Rafael Furcal (.300), and the only guys who hit 20 or more homers are OFs Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp. The lineup is filled with a bunch of uninspiring (and uninspired) guys who sometimes look like they would rather be at the beach than playing ball at Chavez Ravine.
The Dodgers will go as far as the rotation and bullpen can take them – which brings us to the other issue confronting the club as it approaches the 2011 season. What can they expect from closer Jonathan Broxton, who had an uncharacteristically brutal season in 2010 (5-6, 4.04, with 7 blown saves)?
18. Chicago Cubs (2010 record: 75-87)
Notable additions: 1B Carlos Peña, RHP Kerry Wood
Notable subtractions: 1B Xavier Nady
The Cubs watched as the Milwaukee Brewers obtained Zack Greinke and then consequently decided they needed to do something or be relegated to the status of an also-ran before the season ever got underway. So, they followed the lead of their division rival and acquired RHP Matt Garza from Tampa Bay. The former Rays righty will join a solid rotation that includes Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Tom Gorzelanny and Randy Wells.
In the bullpen, the addition of Kerry Wood will give them a dynamic one-two-three punch in the bullpen, with Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall. So it would seem the Cubbies are all right on the bump.
But pitching is only half of the game. On offense, the ballclub finished in the bottom half of the league last year and it seems that isn’t likely to change, as the front office has done little to upgrade to the offense in preparation for the upcoming year. They added 1B Carlos Pena, who should enjoy hitting in Wrigley Field, but his power will be offset by his OBP and penchant for striking out, so it is difficult to hail his signing as an upgrade. Otherwise, they Cubs will return the same cast of characters that has regularly failed to live up to expectations.
19. Los Angeles Angels (2010 record: 80-82)
Notable additions: LHP Scott Downs, LHP Hisanori Takahashi
Notable subtractions: DH Hideki Matsui
The Angels have fallen to Earth.
GM Tony Reagins and the rest of front office needed a big off-season to jump-start what has quickly become a moribund franchise, but they didn’t have it. As November began, there was talk that owner Arte Moreno had prioritized signing OF Carl Crawford and 3B Adrian Beltre, but Crawford is with Boston and Beltre is with division-rival Texas. The Angels have sat idly by as most of the top free agents has signed elsewhere. It is uninspiring from a distance, so you can imagine how uninspiring it must be to the players and fan base.
The return of Kendry Morales will help, but he isn’t enough to carry an offense that lost Matsui and will be loaded with Punch-and-Judy hitters throughout the lineup (Aybar, Izturis, Mathis).
The top of the rotation is strong, but the club will need Pineiro and Kazmir to have excellent seasons if the club is to compete for a division title. And then there is the issue of the bullpen, a strong corps of solid arms without a proven closer. Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Rodney, Jordan Walden and Downs will spend spring training battling for the closer’s job (it says here that Rodney will start the year as the closer, but Walden will finish the year in that position).
20. New York Mets (2010 record: 79-83)
Notable additions: RHP D.J. Carrasco, C Ronny Paulino
Notable subtractions: LHP Pedro Feliciano, LHP Hisanori Takahashi
The Mets organization has been heading in the wrong direction for the last few years. As a result, the ownership has assembled a new management team in the hope of reversing the team’s downward spiral. GM Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi have been assigned the task of turning the ballclub into a championship squad.
It seems likely the upcoming year will be one of great transition in Flushing. The sum of the parts has been greater than the results achieved by the team for the last few years, and so it seems likely the club is headed for another sub-par campaign. And if that is the case, it’s a near-certainty several of the team’s impending free agents will be dealt for prospects this summer to jump-start the rebuilding process. That means Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Francisco Rodriguez and others could be wearing other uniforms on the last day of the 2011 season.
In the meantime, the club will young need starters Jonathon Niese and Jenrry Mejia to provide quality innings behind Johan Santana, RA Dickey and Mike Pelfrey – each of whom posted sub-4.00 ERAs last year. The bullpen will be impacted by the losses of Feliciano and Takakashi, and it is unclear who on the staff will provide quality innings behind Rodriguez, Manny Acosta and Bobby Parnell.
On the other side of the ball, how can a lineup with names like Beltran, Reyes, Jason Bay, David Wright and young Ike Davis finish 13th in the league in runs per game? I mean, HOW does that happen? Something is missing in the Mets clubhouse, and it’s up to Alderson & Company to figure it out.