Each new season is filled with hope and optimism for each of the 30 clubs and their fan bases. As we get ready to welcome in Opening Day, here is a look at ten storylines that will captivate baseball fans over the course of the 2011 season.
10. New Managers Look to Make Their Mark.
Major League Baseball enters this season without Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Cito Gaston and Lou Pinella who managed for a combined 93 seasons and won eight World Series titles between them.
Nearly half of the league, twelve teams to be exact, will begin this season with a different manager at the helm than who they began last spring with: the Marlins (Edwin Rodriguez), Braves (Fredi Gonzalez), Mets (Terry Collins), Cubs (Mike Quade), Brewers (Ron Roenicke), Pirates (Clint Hurdle), Dodgers (Don Mattingly), D-Backs (Kirk Gibson), Orioles (Buck Showalter), Blue Jays (John Farrell), Royals (Ned Yost), and Mariners (Eric Wedge). How these managers handle their new responsibilities will go a long way in determining which eight teams will be playoff bound at seasons end.
9. Which Rookies Will Make a Big Splash This Season?
Last season began with Jason Heyward being the talk of spring training and making a his presence felt with a home run on opening day. The attention then shifted from Heyward to Stephen Strasburg and his rise through the minor leagues. Anticipation grew until Strasburg made his much hyped MLB debut on June 8th striking out 14 Pirates.
A July call up in San Francisco, Buster Posey, and rookie pitcher who was thrust into the closers role after two blown saves in Texas, Neftali Feliz, ultimately made the greatest impact on their teams seasons. Both helped lead their teams to the World Series and both were awarded the Rookie of the Year Award in their respective leagues. Here are ten rookies who should grab headlines this season.
Aroldis Chapman Pitcher Cincinnati Reds; Jeremy Hellickson Pitcher Tampa Bay Rays; Mike Moustakas 3B Kansas City Royals; Eric Hosmer 1B Kansas City Royals; Bryce Harper OF Washington Nationals; Michael Pineda SP Seattle Mariners; Brandon Belt 1B San Francisco Giants; Freddie Freeman 1B Atlanta Braves; Ivan Nova SP New York Yankees; Brett Lawrie 3B Toronto Blue Jays.
8. Mets and Dodgers Face Major Ownership Questions.
Two large market franchises face major financial questions going forward. It has been well documented that Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is going through a very public divorce. Former San Diego Padres majority owner, John Moores, faced a similar situation and was forced to sell a large portion of his Padres ownership after a 2008 divorce. It is unclear if McCourt’s divorce will force him to sell the team, share ownership with his ex-wife, or retain majority ownership but it has at the least keep them from adding any payroll. He has publicly commented, saying he is confident he will retain ownership of the Dodgers after the divorce is settled.
The New York Mets ownership find themselves right in the middle of the largest financial scam the United States has ever seen. When the Bernie Madoff scandal broke, it was reported that the Wilpon family might be one of the investors hardest hit by the ponzi scheme. Now they face a billion dollar lawsuit claiming not only did they profit 300 million dollars from the ponzi scheme but that they had knowledge of it. The Wilpon family is looking into selling a minority portion of ownership to help with the financing of the ball club and are unwilling to give up their controlling stake in the Mets. They might have already incurred too much debt for this to work however.
These two franchises would have normally been major players in free agency but took a backseat due to financial questions moving forward. MLB faces two potential ugly ownership changes in the largest markets or two financially strapped owners struggling to retain ownership of their team. This situation is far from ideal, but will be something worth paying attention to all season.
7. Career Milestones to Be Reached.
The biggest milestone on the horizon is Derek Jeter’s quest for 3000 career hits. The beginning of June should be a very exciting time for Yankee fans. According to baseball-reference.com, Jeter should reach 3000 hits between games 56 and 65 of the upcoming season which would fall in the first two weeks of June. A healthy Jeter should blow past 3000 hits this season continuing to climb the all-time charts and finish the season amongst the top 20 all time in career hits and runs scored.
Other potential milestones include: Jim Thome – 600 career Home Runs; Albert Pujols – 450 career Home Runs, 2000 career Hits; Chipper Jones – 450 career home runs.
6. Will Pitching Dominance Continue?
The 2010 season saw six no hitters thrown including one by Roy Halladay in the post season. Of those six, two were perfect games and that’s not including Armando Galarraga’s should have been perfect game.
Over the last ten seasons, Home Runs/game and ERA have steadily dropped while strikeouts have been on the rise. Hitters are making less and less contact and when they do the ball is staying in the yard. At a quick glance, many would credit Major League Baseball’s drug testing policy for these drastic changes. While the drug testing has made a great impact, a philosophical change also deserves credit.
General managers realizing that their greatest assets are their farm systems is a major contributing factor. Rather than signing veteran pitcher and hitters well into the decline of their careers, teams are relying on cheaper talent they have acquired through the draft and international signings.
The four pitchers to throw a no hitter last season besides Roy Halladay, were all 26 years old. With the influx of young pitching within MLB, pitching dominance should continue in the foreseeable future.
5. Breakout Stars.
Each season see a new batch of players have a breakout season and thrust themselves into the national spotlight. Last season Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, and David Price all found themselves in the MVP and CY Young conversation based on their breakout performances.
This season will be no different. Certain players will find themselves the talk of the baseball world for their increased production on the field. Here are some candidates poised to breakout during the 2011 season: Clayton Kershaw SP Los Angeles Dodgers; Gio Gonzalez SP Oakland Athletics; Jay Bruce OF Cincinnati Reds; Mike Stanton OF Florida Marlins; Adam Jones OF Baltimore Orioles; Rick Porcello SP Detroit Tigers; Delmon Young OF Minnesota Twins; Alex Gordon OF Kansas City Royals; Buster Posey C San Francisco Giants; Shaun Marcum SP Milwaukee Brewers.
4. Phillies Rotation Sports Four Aces.
This spring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels will join up to form 4/5 of the most talked about rotation in baseball. As a whole, this foursome put up a combined ERA of 2.84 in 883.1 innings pitched during the 2010 season for their respective teams.
The Phillies took the baseball world by surprise by sweeping in and signing Cliff Lee to a six year deal just one season after trading the lefty to Seattle. Lee is a legitimate ace having won a Cy Young Award in 2008 and leading his teams to the past two World Series. Combined with the mid season acquisition of Roy Oswalt, the Phillies have put together what is widely considered the best rotation in baseball. The rotation dons four front line starters who are each capable of winning 20 games in a single season.
The Phillies will be adding Lee and Oswalt to a team that gave up the fifth fewest runs in all of baseball with 640 RA last season. Expect them to improve upon that this year. For a team that already won 97 games a year ago, the question is how much better can they be? That all may depend on how healthy Philadelphia’s line up is this upcoming season.
Using Bill James’ Pythagorean expectation, with estimations of 800 Runs Scored and 600 Runs Allowed, has the Phillies winning 103.68 games this upcoming season. It is easy to see the Phillies relying heavily on their starting pitching and putting together a historic season if they are able to remain healthy throughout the 2011 season.
3. Major Players Entering Contract Year.
The headline just as easily could have been Albert Pujols enters contract year. The best player in baseball for the past ten season and already one of the greatest players of all time find himself in an unfamiliar position. Not knowing if he’ll be a St. Louis Cardinal next season.
Writers and TV programs will speculate all season as to how much it will cost to sign Albert or where he will end up if he decides not to resign with the Cardinals. The hardest question that will have to be asked is if the Cardinals are unable to contend this season, would they trade Pujols before the deadline?
Each season sees teams in contention looking to add a key piece to propel them into the playoffs and teams that have fallen out of contention looking to trade impending free agents in exchange for a bounty of prospects. The last two seasons have seen Cliff Lee traded to a contender and making a major impact.
Here are some players entering free agency or who have an early termination option in their contract who could possible be on the move during or after the season: Albert Pujols 1B St. Louis Cardinals; Prince Fielder 1B Milwaukee Brewers; Adrian Gonzalez 1B Boston Red Sox; CC Sabathia SP New York Yankees; Jose Reyes SS New York Mets; Jonathan Papelbon RP Boston Red Sox; Chris Carpenter SP St. Louis Cardinals; Hiroki Kuroda SP Los Angeles Dodgers; Aaron Hill 2B Toronto Blue Jays.
2. Red Sox Bolstered Line Up.
This off season the Red Sox made two of the biggest moves by acquiring free agent Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. Combine that with the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis from injury and you’re looking at a much improved Boston Red Sox team. The Red Sox still managed to finish with an 89-73 record last season, finishing six games behind the wildcard winning Yankees despite being decimated by injuries.
The question becomes how much better can the Red Sox be with these key additions? The Red Sox still managed to scored the second most runs in all of baseball with 818, only trailing the Yankees who scored 859. With what amounts to the addition of five key players to their line up, will the Red Sox be able to post a historic 1000 run season?
Since 1900, only seven teams have scored over 1000 runs in a season: 1930 St. Louis Cardinals 1004 runs, 1930 New York Yankees 1062, 1931 New York Yankees 1067 (MLB record), 1932 New York Yankees 1002, 1936 New York Yankees 1065, 1959 Boston Red Sox 1027, 1999 Cleveland Indians 1009. While 1000 runs this season might be a tall order, the Red Sox appear to be the class of the American League at this point and have to be the favorites to reach this years World Series.
1. Who Will Be This Seasons Giants and Rangers?
Before the start of last season, many fans and experts alike felt there would be a rematch of the 2009 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies. Both teams returned to their respective League Championship Series, but fell just short.
Two teams who had missed the playoffs the previous season surprised the defending league champs and matched up in the 2010 World Series. The Rangers made a surprising midseason acquisition of Cliff Lee and used a powerful lineup to get to the World Series while the Giants used their great rotation of young arms and timely hitting to win the 2010 World Series.
The Rangers went from 87 to 90 wins, an improvement of only 3 wins from 2009 to 2010 while the Giants went from 88 to 92 wins, an improvement of just 4 wins. While an improvement of 3 and 4 wins respectfully doesn’t seem like much, those win differences were enough to propel them into the playoffs and on to the World Series.
Each of the six divisions in baseball has a team that is very capable of upgrading upon last seasons results and joining this years’ playoff field.
A.L. East – Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox enter the season as the American League favorites so they will not catch anyone by surprise. This off season Boston made big news with the addition of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez but two lesser hyped acquisitions might be the key to Boston’s season.
Perhaps Boston’s weakest point last year was their lack of bullpen depth. The addition of Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler gives the Red Sox key arms they missed for the 6th and 7th innings last season.
When combining Boston’s additions with the questions revolving around Tampa Bay’s bullpen and the Yankees starting rotation, the Red Sox’s are the favorite to claim a playoff berth out of the A.L. East.
A.L. Central – Chicago White Sox
The White Sox added the powerful bat of Adam Dunn in the off season to an already potent lineup, however pitching will be the key to the White Sox success this season. The White Sox boast a rotation of five potential aces with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson, and Jake Peavy. Even with that rotation, a lot of their success might depend of the return and health of Jake Peavy.
Peavy is coming off surgery to repair a torn latissimus dorsi, also known as lat, which runs from the lower back up into the shoulder. It was unclear how long Peavy would take to recover but he is throwing off a mound preparing to pitch again. Expect the White Sox to play things safe with Peavy and possible hold him out at the start of the season.
With a healthy rotation, the White Sox should have enough to get past the Minnesota Twins and win the A.L. Central this season.
A.L. West – Oakland Athletics
27, 23, 23, 25, 29. Those are the respective ages of Oakland’s starting pitchers Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Rich Harden. That youth and the ability they have shown is one reason why this seasons Oakland Athletics have been compared favorably to last season’s San Francisco Giants.
Another similarity the two teams share is their lack of offensive prowess. The Athletics finished last season third in runs allowed but were only 23rd in runs scored while the Giants finished second in runs allowed and were 17th in runs scored. Those similarities show that if Oakland can get enough timely hitting and added production, it could be enough to put Oakland over the top and into the playoffs.
In an attempt to bolster their light hitting lineup, Oakland added David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, Conor Jackson, and Hideki Matsui. Oakland is hoping to give enough support to their starting pitching this season in order to leap past the Texas Rangers and win the A.L. West title.
N.L. East – Florida Marlins
The Marlins have a young talented roster that bears resemblance to the 2003 World Championship Marlins. The one advantage this Marlins team might have over that championship roster is a true ace in starting pitcher in Josh Johnson.
Johnson led the N.L. with a 2.30 era last year but his season was cut short by back and shoulder problems. Those injuries might end up being a blessing in disguise for this season Marlins. By missing all but one start in September, Johnson kept his inning total to 183 2/3 which could have him fresh for the entire 2011 season.
In order to make the jump into the playoffs, the Marlins will need major production from their young outfield. The Marlins starting outfielders have played a combined 381 career games between them. Chris Coghlan, Logan Morrison, and Mike Stanton have shown potential in their brief MLB careers and will be called on to help lead the Marlins into the playoffs.
N.L. Central – Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are in win now mode with the acquisitions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum through trades and the impending free agency of first baseman Prince Fielder. It appears the Brewers will not be able to compete financially with the contract demands of Prince Fielder. Fielder had a down year by his standard last season batting .261 with 32 HR’s and 83 RBI’s and how he handles his contract year will go a long way in determining how far the Brewers will be able to go this season.
Fielder is just one of the pieces in a powerful Brewers lineup that finished second to division rival, the Cincinnati Reds, in home runs in the National League. The Brewers lineup contains five players capable of 25 home runs and 100 RBI’s with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Casey McGehee.
If these five play up to their potential along with starters Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Yovani Gallardo, the Brewers could be the favorite to represent the National League in this seasons World Series.
N.L. West – Colorado Rockies
The Rockies rode huge seasons from Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ubaldo Jimenez to contend in the N.L. West but limped to the finish line, losing their last eight games a season ago. With all three under the age of 27, the Rockies have a tremendous young nucleus of talent.
The Rockies are hoping other young players such as Ian Stewart (25) and Dexter Fowler (24) are able to make the leap in production this season and add to the three young stars already in place.
As an insurance policy to the youth in the Rockies lineup, the team signed versatile veterans Ty Wigginton and Jose Lopez. Both are capable of playing multiple positions and can fill in for any struggling players. Playing home games at Coors Field should add to both players production as well.
Last season the Rockies finished tied for fourth throughout baseball with a 52-29 record and home but struggled while away from Coors Field. The Rockies will need to improve on the road this season if they are to overtake the World Series Champion Giants and win the N.L. West this upcoming season.