Ten Predictions for the 2011 MLB Season

Four days into the season and I finally am getting around to writing a prediction column for the upcoming/ongoing MLB season. I had grand plans for long division previews for each division, but decided to go a different route when I realized that there is not really anything I could write that hasn’t already been written by someone else already. So instead here are ten, somewhat bold predictions for the year:

1. The Yankees will win the AL East.

I made fun of the Yankees’ train wreck of an offseason in this fun post back in February. I stand by that: it was an absolute mess of an offseason.

They will still win the AL East.

The Yankees’ batting order is fine. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are getting older and figure to keep slipping. But Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are due for huge bounce back seasons. Their one good offseason move landed them Russell Martin – only one of the best catchers in the league up until two years ago and someone they can easily replace with Jorge Posada if he does not pan out.

Pitching is weak after C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett is a 50/50 proposition. Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova round out the starting rotation…but does anyone actually think those two (and Burnett, if he struggles) will be in the rotation after the trade deadline? Not a chance – they will make a trade for one or two starters. Their pitching will be fine too.

Meanwhile, 45 of 45 ESPN.com experts picked the Red Sox to win the division. 33 of 45 picked them to win the World Series.

Um, what?

Lost in the shuffle of all the news of the high profile acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez is the fact that the Red Sox weren’t really all that good last season. Granted, injuries were a problem, but at no point did they seriously contend for a playoff spot.

Crawford is a great pick up for the Red Sox – he will make the team appreciably better. Gonzalez is a great player and the Red Sox made the right move to pick him up. But I fail to see how Gonzalez makes the Red Sox that much better. Offense and defense considered, is Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis really that big of a step up from Adrian Beltre and Youkilis? I guess a lot of that depends on how well Gonzalez hits in Fenway and how well Youkilis plays third, but I just don’t think they will be that much better.

As good as Crawford and Gonzalez are, acquiring both didn’t really address their biggest problem: pitching. After Jon Lester, is any Red Sox fan really thrilled about John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Dice-K? I know I wouldn’t be.

Looking at their roster, I see a very good team. I do not see a team so good that they should be a unanimous pick to win the AL East and a runaway favorite to win the World Series.

The Red Sox will falter under the heightened expectations and the Yankees will win the division.

2. The Rays will be better than people think…or not.

Speaking of the AL East, the Rays are by far the most confusing team in the league. They could win 100 games or lose 90 games and I wouldn’t really be surprised. For the record, I think they will be a lot closer to 100 wins than to 70 wins.

The general consensus seems to be that the Rays’ time has passed, until they rebuild through their farm system. Only four of the 45 ESPN experts picked the Rays to win the wild card. Like most small market teams, the thinking goes that they had a three year window where they were dynamic, but now they are doomed to irrelevancy because they cannot afford to keep all their players.

Their offseason was even weirder than the Yankees. Their two big moves consisted of signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon (combined age: 114) to one-year deals. Those would have been bizarre moves for any team, let alone the perpetually young Rays. Their roster looks like a bizarre Kansas City Royal-like experiment: two superstars (Price and Longoria), two participants in the 1979 All-Star Game* (Damon and Ramirez), one very good, but incredibly inconsistent player (B.J. Upton), and a bunch of random role players.

* Citation needed.

But here’s the thing: that lineup isn’t really that different than the 96-win AL East winning team from last year. They will miss Carl Crawford in left and their bullpen could easily be the worst in the league. Besides that, their team is pretty much the same. Reid Brignac replaces Jason Bartlett at shortstop – can’t imagine anyone will notice. Dan Johnson replaces Carlos Pena at first, but that can’t be a big step back either, since Pena batted .196 and finished 20th of 22nd in OPS among qualifying first basemen in the majors last season. If the Rays get anything out of ManRam and Damon, they can’t possibly be that much worse than last season.

Then they go out and get swept by the Orioles at home in the opening series. This could be a fun roller coaster ride.

3. The AL Central will again be the worst division in the majors.

I wanted to write something about the Twins winning the division, but I think that would make me a homer. To be honest, I think they had a terrible offseason. I disagreed with every single move they made other than re-signing Jim Thome. Seriously, every move. In what might be a first, I even disagreed with every single trade rumor they were involved with.

The best thing that the Twins have going for them is that the Tigers and White Sox don’t impress me either. The Royals are still a year away (although they might surprise some people if their prospects move up fast).* The Indians might be historically bad both on the field and in the stands (they drew a ridiculous 9,800 in their second game of the season – even the Marlins are embarrassed).

* Soon, the Royals might dominate the Central division. They have five of Baseball America’s top 19 prospects and a record-setting nine of the top 100. Most of them will start to hit the big leagues in 2012. They might be very, very good, very soon. The counter to that argument is that they are the Royals. So who knows?

The AL Central has not won a playoff series since 2007. That will continue this year – the division winner takes the division with a 84-78 record, good for seventh best in the AL, and are promptly dispatched in three games by the #2 seeded Yankees.

4. The Rangers will be really, really good.

The #2 Yankees, eh? That’s right – the Rangers finish with the best record in the American League and become only the third AL team since 2005 (2008 Angels, 2009 Yankees) to win 100 games.

Everyone is making too big of a deal about the Rangers not re-signing Cliff Lee. These people do realize that they didn’t get Lee until the trade deadline, and they had already essentially locked up the AL West at that point, right? The loss of Lee will hurt come playoff time, but the Rangers pitching staff was the toast of the league last season well before they traded for Lee. If they come up with anything close to last year’s performance, the Rangers will be dominant.

The real story shouldn’t have been Lee, but the fact that they got BETTER this offseason.

Joe Posnanski helpfully pointed out this week that five of the last 15 AL MVPs have played with the Rangers, a team that was pretty terrible up until last season. He was nicer about it than I was, but there is only one conclusion to draw from that: the writers are too stupid to realize that the Rangers’ offensive stats are ridiculously inflated in Arlington.

With that said, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli are huge pickups for Texas. Those guys are going to mash the ball. Mostly because of these two guys, the already potent Rangers offense will be even better this season.

And we haven’t even mentioned the quietest offseason pickup in the entire league. The Rangers snagged Brandon Webb after he missed the last two seasons with shoulder problems. If he gives the Rangers anything close to his Cy Young winning-form of a few years ago, that will be a major coup, especially in an offseason in which neither the Red Sox or the Rangers added to their starting pitching staffs.

5. Indians and Pirates battle for the worst record in the majors; the Rust Belt weeps.

Hard to imagine that the Indians were only one game away from the World Series just four years ago. They got really terrible, really quickly. I seem to recall that they had a lot of really good young players. Now…well…

Their third baseman was the worst position player in the majors early last season for the Mariners before he was cut at the end of May. The Mariners, by the way, finished with the worst record in the AL.

Their Opening Day starter gave up ten runs in three innings, and no one was even a little bit surprised.

They have Adam Everett and Orlando Cabrera on their roster. I couldn’t decide on just one joke, so I’ll just go with this. Combined age: 70. Combined teams since 2007: 11.

On the bright side, Carlos Santana is one of the top young catching prospects in the league. So there’s that. It won’t be enough – the Indians finish an AL worst 61-101.

As for the Pirates? They have been one of the three worst teams in the NL every year since 2005. The other teams that periodically join them in the cellar (Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Cubs) all tend to make concerted efforts to get better. The Pirates do not. They again finish with the worst record in the NL at 59-103.

6. The Phillies will be the best team in the majors.

When I wrote my NFL prediction review column a few months ago, I pointed out that there tended to be a groupthink thing going on with NFL experts. The analysts seemed to make the same picks over and over, and my theory was that they were all scared to look stupid at the end of the season. Turns out they did all look stupid for the most part, but at least they looked stupid together.

The same thing went on with the Red Sox and the Phillies. When the Phillies shocked the majors by picking up Cliff Lee this offseason, they were quickly anointed World Series favorites. Then at some point this spring every analyst talked themselves out of the Phillies. We heard many arguments for why the Phillies wouldn’t be as good as people thought. Pitchers won’t stay healthy, Chase Utley is on the DL with a mysterious injury, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are getting older, and so on.

My response to that: Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.

Yeah, let’s not overthink this one. They are going to be historically good.

7. Five teams will be within eight games of the NL Central title. Nobody will care.

In the aforementioned ESPN.com article, only the Pirates weren’t selected by at least one expert to win the NL Central title. No other division even had four teams picked to win the division.

That can only mean one thing – mediocrity will rule in the NL Central.

I actually applaud the experts for this one. Judging by their track record, I would have expected all of the experts to pick one team and all go with that team. They didn’t, and that was the right move. I can’t really differentiate between any of these teams either.

When in doubt, go with the best players. The Cardinals have two of the three best players in the division in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The Cardinals win by being the slightly better than the rest of the teams in the division.

8. The Giants won’t make the playoffs.

I think the Giants will be very good for a long time. They have the best young pitcher in the league (Tim Lincecum) and the best young hitter (Buster Posey). They will contend for a playoff spot for as long as they can afford to keep their current lineup intact.

Yet I see this team as a clone of the 2009 Rays. In 2008, the young Rays surprised everyone by coming out of nowhere to capture the AL pennant. In 2009, expectations were too high in and the Yankees and Red Sox were too good. The Rays came up short of the playoffs before making it back in 2010.

That should remind you of this season’s Giant team. Buoyed by young stars Lincecum and Posey, they came out of nowhere to win the World Series title. Expectations are extremely high coming into this season. The Rockies and Dodgers are both very good teams in the NL West.

I actually like the Dodgers to pull the minor upset and win the division. I have no rational reason for this – on paper the Rockies and the Giants are better teams by far. Just call it a hunch.

9. The Phillies and the Rangers meet in the World Series.

Every single person that watches MLB knows that the playoffs are a crapshoot. After 162 games, the league decides its champion by a best-of-five series followed by two best-of-seven series. The system has pros and cons (more cons, in my opinion), but we accept it.

So why in the world would 42 of ESPN’s experts pick the Red Sox to win the AL pennant? It is one thing to pick them to win the AL East. After 162 games, the best team will almost always win the division thanks to the law of averages. If you really think the Red Sox are the best team in the AL East, by all means, pick them.

But we know going in that each team has a roughly 25% chance of winning the championship series after they make the playoffs. Since the wild card era began in 1995, the team with the best regular season record has won only seven of 16 AL pennants – and three of those were the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even if the Red Sox do have the best record in the AL, they have less than a 50% chance of making it to the World Series…and only three people on ESPN.com picked a different team to make the World Series.

I suppose if no one else will step out on a limb, I will. The Rangers will become the first team since the Yankees’ 1998-2001 run to win back-to-back AL pennants. Last season, they proved that they could win in the playoffs. I think they are going to be even better this season. To top that off, I think they are probably the safest bet to make the playoffs. The AL Central is a mess and only two of the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox can make it.

My prediction for the AL: #1 Rangers over WC Red Sox, 3 games to 2; #2 Yankees over #3 Twins, 3 games to 0. Rangers over Yankees 4 games to 2.

And yes, I realized afterwards that if you replace the Red Sox with the Rays you get last season’s playoffs. Whatever. I’m still going with it.

**********

I already gave my National League pennant winner away with my discussion on the Phillies’ pitching staff. I look at that team and can’t figure out how any team will be able to beat them in the playoffs. You can argue that injuries and age will catch up with them in the regular season but, assuming they make the playoffs, how can they lose?

In 2001, the Diamondbacks rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the title. This season’s Phillies have four pitchers they can ride to the title. What happens if they scale down to a three-man rotation for the playoffs? Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, with Roy Oswalt the first one out of the bullpen? Wow.

The Braves and Rockies are trendy picks in the National League. I don’t like picking the trendy teams, but even with my division winners, one of these teams has to make it as a wild card almost by default. I’ll go with the Rockies for the same logic as I used with the Giants above. The Braves are a very good young team, but will face some pressure after they surprisingly qualified for the playoffs last season. The Rockies were in that position last season after they were the 2009 wild card. They put it together and make it in.

My predictions: #1 Phillies over WC Rockies, 3 games to 1; #3 Cardinals over #2 Dodgers, 3 games to 1. #1 Phillies over #3 Cardinals, 4 games to 1.

Did I just pick two #1 teams to make the World Series after typing how stupid that is several paragraphs ago? Yes, yes I did. Hey, I never claimed that I was very good at following my own advice.

10. The Phillies win the World Series.

The poor Rangers make it back and meet a buzzsaw. No team has lost back-to-back World Series since the Atlanta Braves in 1991 and 1992. It will happen again this year after the Phillies’ pitchers mow the Rangers down, especially after the NL wins home-field advantage with their second consecutive All-Star Game victory. Phillies take the Series, 4 games to 1.

Bonus: Award winners.

Just for kicks, here are my picks for award winners. I suspect none of these will be anywhere close to correct at the end of the season; I will consider it a victory if any of these players picks up votes for their respective awards.

AL MVP: Mark Teixeira, Yankees
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia, Yankees
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly, Dodgers
AL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays
NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants

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