Will the real Josh Beckett please stand up? If the veteran Texan is able to re-discover his vintage form in 2011, the Boston Red Sox will win 100 games, assuming the enjoy better health than they had in 2010.
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 (Saturday) examined the three teams I view as the weakest in baseball; Part II (yesterday) covered the teams in the middle of the pack; and Part III (today) previews the 10 teams I believe to be the best in baseball. Without further ado, here is how I see things:
1. Boston Red Sox (2010 record: 89-73)
Notable additions: LF Carl Crawford, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, RHP Bobby Jenks, RHP Dan Wheeler
Notable subtractions: 3B Adrian Beltre, UT Bill Hall, C Victor Martinez
The 2010 Red Sox were a very good ballclub. They scored the second-most runs in all of baseball and won 89 games despite being decimated by injuries, experiencing sub-par campaigns from two of their top pitchers (Josh Beckett and John Lackey), and enduring another what-can-we-expect season from Daisuke Matsuzaka. The ownership enjoyed a continued string of sellouts because of pre-season and early-year ticket sales, but as the season progressed the ballclub played before increasingly-smaller crowds that tired of paying the highest prices in baseball to watch Darnell McDonald and Daniel Nava.
Everything in sports is predicated on health, but assuming the Sox will experience significantly better health in 2011, this is the best team in baseball, though Philadelphia phans would argue the point. The front office enters the new season fully expecting the team will enjoy healthy years from Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, and while a return to health from those players would have been enough to vault the team into the vicinity of 95 wins, the front office wasn’t satisfied. Not nearly.
Enter Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, who will be the new 3-4 hitters in an already-potent lineup. And then, for good measure, they added Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler as part of a major overhaul of the bullpen.
The Red Sox success in 2011 is not assured. It’s crucial they receive an improved performance from RHPs Josh Beckett and John Lackey, which they will almost-certainly get. Whether or not you like the Red Sox, it’s important to remember that even with all of the injuries and the mediocre seasons from Mssrs Beckett and Lackey, this is a team that won 89 games last year!!
It says here the Red Sox win 100+ in 2011, en route to an October matchup with the Phillies in the World Series.
2. Philadelphia Phillies (2010 record: 97-65)
Notable additions: SP Cliff Lee
Notable subtractions: 1B Mike Sweeney, RF Jayson Werth
The Phillies are the other team with a legitimate claim to the designation as the best team (on paper) in baseball. They entered the free agent fray at the end of the process and lured southpaw Cliff Lee away from the Rangers and Yankees… as a result, they have arguably the best rotation in all of baseball (and potentially the best rotation in baseball over the last twenty or thirty years). They lost right-fielder Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals, but the presence of top prospect Domonic Brown, the best OF prospect in baseball, should mitigate the impact of Werth’s departure.
The weakness of the club remains its relief corps, which ranked 9th of the 16 teams in the National League last year. They retained J C Romero, which is a good start, but could use someone like Chad Qualls to lengthen the bullpen.
Otherwise, this is a potentially dominant ballclub. The balanced lineup was the second-highest scoring squad in the league last year. The pitching staff, which tied for the third-best ERA+ last season, has improved significantly with the addition of Lee (which is also addition by subtraction, as Lee’s arrival means Joe Blanton (4.84 ERA) will be removed from the rotation and will likely be dealt elsewhere).
The Phillies will join the Red Sox as the only teams to win 100+ games in 2011 and as part of a northeastern-corridor Fall Classic.
3. San Francisco Giants (2010 record: 92-70)
Notable additions: SS Miguel Tejada
Notable subtractions: SS Edgar Renteria, INF Juan Uribe
The defending world champs return an outstanding rotation and bullpen, but the problem in San Francisco remains an offense which ranked 10th of 16 teams in offense (rpg) in 2010. The subtraction of Renteria and Uribe and addition of Tejada for next year is a net loss for the squad.
Look, I know that pitching and defense win championships, and I know the club won the World Series last year with substantially the same team as they will field in 2011, but lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. Sometimes, teams manage to win in spite of their weaknesses, and to an extent that was the case with the 2010 Giants. The challenge for the front office this off-season was to improve the offense and they didn’t do that… in fact, it appears they have taken a small step backwards.
The 2011 club will have to rely on a return to form from Pablo Sandoval in order to achieve the needed improvement on offense, and I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect Sandoval to make THAT kind of an impact. On a positive note, the team will enjoy a full season from catcher Buster Posey in 2011, and that should help offset some of the downgrade from Uribe to Tejada.
The key to the upcoming season will be whether Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner prove to be consistent performers in the rotation. If they struggle, or take a small step backward, they could be in a catfight for the division. Of particular concern is young Bumgarner, who saw his workload increase by 73 IP last season — that kind of increase from year-to-year (for any pitcher under 25 years of age) is problematic and can be a harbinger of exhaustion or injury in the following season.
4. New York Yankees (2010 record: 95-67)
Notable additions: LHP Pedro Feliciano, C Russell Martin, RHP Rafael Soriano
Notable subtractions: LHP Andy Pettitte, RHP Kerry Wood
The Yankees entered the off-season focused on signing left-hander Cliff Lee to couple with CC Sabathia atop of the rotation, but a funny thing happened on the way to the ballpark – the Phillies stole Lee out from under the Yankees nose at the eleventh hour. Hey, turn about is fair play, right? The Yankees did the same thing to the Red Sox a few years ago when they stepped in and signed Mark Teixeira out from under the Red Sox at the last minute.
Karma can be a real bitch!
And to compound the Yankees dilemma, the Red Sox stepped in and signed Carl Crawford (NY’s Plan B if Lee signed elsewhere) while the Yankees front office fiddled around awaiting Lee’s decision. You had better believe that King George would NOT have allowed his general manager to pursue such a passive course of action. Hank doesn’t appear to be much of a chip off the old block!
With Lee lost and Andy Pettitte seriously considering retirement, the Yankees face the prospect of opening the year with AJ Burnett, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre at the back end of the rotation. Ouch! That is not the rotation of a $200 million ballclub. The addition of Rafael Soriano in the bullpen may provide the club options, but he is not the savior many Yankees fans have already declared him to be (Is he going to improve on Kerry Woods’ 0.69 ERA with New York? I don’t think so…). He could, however, allow the Yankees to move Joba Chamberlain – either into the rotation or in a trade at mid-season.
Don’t be surprised to see Andy Pettitte pull a Roger Clemens and make a mid-season return for a half-season (once his kids are out of school for the year and are able to travel to NY City for the summer).
The Yankee offense should be better in 2011, with Alex Rodriguez another year removed from his hip surgery, Curtis Granderson now acclimated to life in Gotham, and Jesus Montero poised to take over behind the plate.
But until they do something about the rotation they are no better than #4 on my list, with the Rangers just a starting pitcher away from overtaking them.
5. Texas Rangers (2010 record: 90-72)
Notable additions: 3B Adrian Beltre, OF Endy Chavez, LHP Arthur Rhodes, C Yorvit Torrealba, RHP Brandon Webb,
Notable subtractions: DH Vladimir Guerrero, LHP Cliff Lee, C Bengie Molina
The Rangers are the defending American League champions, but the loss of Cliff Lee (and the quality prospects they traded to get him) will be nearly impossible to overcome, at least in the short term. The Rangers need another starting pitcher, and while Brandon Webb may be a nice addition, he may also prove to be this year’s version of Rich Harden – who was a bust in 2010. I fully expected the front office to jump in on Carl Pavano once Lee bid them adieu, and I suspect they’ll regret not jumping in on him (as they would not only add him to their rotation, but simultaneously subtract him from their division rivals).
The key to the 2011 season will be whether the returning starters can sustain their performances from last year, and whether Derek Holland (and/or Martin Perez) become the pitcher everyone thinks he (they) can. If not, the ballclub may find it necessary to move fireballer Neftali Feliz into the rotation. And while Alexi Ogando appears fully capable of assuming the closer’s role if Feliz moves into the bullpen, such a move would weaken the bullpen considerably.
The offense will again be formidable, assuming new 3B Adrian Beltre can resemble the guy he was in Boston last season (and not the guy he was in Seattle for most of the last decade)… remember, Rangers fans, he won’t be in a contract year. Mitch Moreland should become the everyday first baseman and provide significantly more offense than the Chris Davis / Justin Smoak tandem did in 2010.
6. Cincinnati Reds (2010 record: 91-71)
Notable additions: OF Fred Lewis, OF Jeremy Hermida, SS Edgar Renteria
Notable subtractions: SS Orlando Cabrera, OF Jim Edmonds, RHP Aaron Harang, LHP Arthur Rhodes
The Reds sat idly on the sidelines for the first two months of the off-season, but have recently added Hermida, Lewis and Renteria to augment the NL’s top run-scoring offense. Renteria will do battle with Paul Janish to determine who will be successor to Cabrera at shortstop; otherwise, 1B Joey Votta, RF Jay Bruce and 2B Brandon Phillips return to lead a potent offensive attack.
Once upon a time, Harang was the staff ace, but his abilities have declined and by the end of the year he was just a shadow of his old self… he had clearly become the 6th-best pitcher in the rotation and was unable to crack the team’s post-season rotation. The fortunes on the club will rest on whether Travis Wood becomes a significant contributor and Homer Bailey to continues to progress into a front-of-the-rotation talent.
7. Chicago White Sox (2010 record: 88-74)
Notable additions: RHP Jesse Crain, DH Adam Dunn, LHP Will Ohman
Notable subtractions: RHP Freddy Garcia, RHP Bobby Jenks, OF/DH Andruw Jones, RHP Scott Linebrink, RHP J.J. Putz, DH Manny Ramirez
Andruw Jones didn’t cut the mustard at DH/OF, so the ChiSox took a flier on Manny Ramirez… and then they learned what the Red Sox and Dodgers had discovered: that ManRam’s skill set is in free fall. Looking to improve upon the AL’s 7th-best offense, the Sox added DH Adam Dunn, who has averaged 40 HR and 101 RBI over the last seven years, to the lineup. With free agents Paul Konerko and AJ Pierzynski re-signed, anticipated improvement from Gordon Beckham, and the expected development of one of their young third basemen (Brent Morel or Dayan Viciedo), the offense should produce enough runs to win the division in 2011.
The question with the Pale Hose is the pitching staff. John Danks and Edwin Jackson were the only starters to post ERAs under 4.00 in 2010, and they will be without Jake Peavy for the first month or two of the season. There has been considerable conjecture as to whether rookie Chris Sale will start the year in the rotation (to compensate for Peavy’s absence) or in the bullpen (to compensate for the loss of Jenks, Linebrink and Putz). There is speculation he could start the year in the rotation and then get moved into the bullpen after Peavy returns. Some pundits point to the NY Yankees’ handling of youngsters Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes as a model for the White Sox, but while such a move would be a good means for managing his IP, it is fraught with potential problems.
8. Atlanta Braves (2010 record: 91-71)
Notable additions: RHP Scott Linebrink, LHP George Sherrill, 2B Dan Uggla
Notable subtractions: LF Matt Diaz, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, UT Omar Infante, 1B Derrek Lee, RHP Takashi Saito, RP Billy Wagner
The Braves made the post-season despite enduring the pro-longed absence of 3B Chipper Jones and a highly disappointing season from CF Nate McLouth. The offense rated fifth in the league in runs scored (4.56/g), and should improve in 2011. The front office converted a utility player and young reliever into a solid middle-of-the-order bat (Dan Uggla). He’ll pair with rookie slugger Freddie Freeman (one of the best prospects in baseball) to form a new right-hand side on the infield. With the expected improvement from Chipper and McLouth (as well as 3B Troy Glaus) and the continued development of RF Jason Heyward, the offense should be fine.
The starting rotation is good enough to win the division. I expect youngster Kris Medlen to overtake RHP Kenshin Kawakami as the club’s fifth starter. The lurking issue for the Braves is the bullpen, where the loss of Dunn, Saito and Wagner creates a significant concern heading into the new season. There should be a heated competition for the closer’s role in spring training, with one-time closer Sherrill the most likely candidate to land the job. With that said, don’t count out fellow southpaw Jonny Venters, who struck out 93 batters in 83 IP last season.
9. Minnesota Twins (2010 record: 94-68)
Notable additions: SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka
Notable subtractions: RHP Jesse Crain, LHP Brian Fuentes, RHP Matt Guerrier, SS J.J. Hardy, 2B Orlando Hudson, RHP Carl Pavano, RHP Jon Rauch
The slotting of the Twins at #9 is dependent on the front office securing Pavano’s signature on a new contract. The bullpen could be a bit of a mess this year, so Pavano’s presence in the rotation is crucial to the prospects for the team’s success. It would allow Duensing to assume a key role in the bullpen, helping to offset the loss of Guerrier and Rauch. The return to health of ex-closer Joe Nathan, to go along with Matt Capps, provides the club with a two-headed monster at the end of the game. The club will need RHP Pat Neshek to return to the form that once made him a fearsome set-up man.
The Twins offense, which was rated 5th in the AL in 2010, should be improved. The ballclub has re-signed Jim Thome to a one-year contract, so they are set at DH. 1B Justin Morneau is recovered from his concussion and will return to a lineup that includes C Joe Mauer, OFs Delmon Young and Jason Kubel, and Thome, among others. They will have a new middle infield, as Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy have been replaced by Japanese import Nishioka and Alexi Casilla.
10. Oakland Athletics (2010 record: 81-81)
Notable additions: OF David DeJesus, RHP Rich Harden, DH Hideki Matsui, RHP Brandon McCarthy, OF Josh Willingham
Notable subtractions: OF/DH Jack Cust, OF Rajai Davis, RHP Ben Sheets
The A’s offense finished 11th in the league last year, but the rotation more than compensated for the team’s dismal run production. The front office subtracted LF Rajai Davis and DH Jack Cust from the offensive equation, and added quality in OFs David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, along with DH Hideki Matsui. Those moves should help improve the lineup. With the return to health of CF Coco Crisp and a return to form by 2B Mark Ellis, the A’s offense should be able to move toward the middle of the pack in the American League.
That should be enough to make the club competitive in the AL West as they have an abundance of quality pitching. Southpaw Brett Anderson should be healthy when the season gets underway. He’ll join fellow left-handers Dallas Braden and Gio Gonzalez and righty Trevor Cahill in the starting rotation. Veterans Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy will vie for the final spot in the rotation. Dominant young closer Andrew Bailey should be healthy for the start of the season. He’ll be supported by a deep relief corps which will include newly-signed free agent Grant Balfour.
You read it here first: the A’s will be this year’s version of the 2010 San Diego Padres.