Posted by: mdegeorge | March 31, 2011

2011 American League Preseason Diagnosis

Birds are chirping, the sun is out, Derek Jeter’s idle thoughts are being featured on SportsCenter. It can be only one time of year: spring. And with spring comes the start of yet another baseball season.

It’s a time that everything seems so cut and dry on paper, and nothing can derail the best laid plans of mice, men, and general managers. In a 162-game marathon though, something invariably, inevitably, goes wrong. So before the festivities kick off Thursday, it’s time to take stock of the bigs with my preseason diagnosis with the one condition (real or imagined) that will define each team’s 2011.

Dustin Pedroia is the lynchpin for what could be an A.L. Pennant-winning club. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

First up, the junior circuit. (Picks in order of expected division finish).

East

Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia’s foot malaise. The Sox are the clear favorite in the entire A.L. (stop grousing, Yanks’ fans). The glue that holds the team together is Pedroia’s ability to get on base; the foot injury that kept him on the shelf for most of 2011 tore the season apart at the seams. The acquisition of another top-of-the-order hitter in Carl Crawford and a high-OBP replacement for Adrian Beltre in Adrian Gonzalez would cushion the blow of another long-term injury. But this team is World Championship caliber as long as Pedroia is their second-sacker.

Yankees: Back end rotation deficiency. The last thing a team with an aging lineup whose productivity is dropping rapidly needs is uncertainty in the rotation. Somehow AJ Burnett as the No. 2, the enigmatic Phil Hughes in the No. 3 spot, and Freddy Garcia as the No. 4 starter doesn’t exactly scream world title. This is a team whose two biggest offseason moves were Rafael Soriano and Russell Martin. If Robinson Cano fails to carry this team for weeks at a time as he did last season, October can easily be only in their imagination.

Rays: Farnsworth inefficiency. This is a condition that has struck down many a would-be contender. The 2007 A.L Pennant-winning Rays team was perhaps most notable for the bevy of arms in its bullpen. All of those names (Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, J.P Howell) and their primary replacement (Rafael Soriano) have all moved on or, in Howell’s case, are recuperating from injury. With a weakened lineup thanks to the defections of Crawford and Carlos Pena, Kyle Farnsworth will need to put in a big season or find himself as the long man by mid-summer.

Orioles: Hyper longballocity. The Os are going to hit some homers this year. Mark Reynolds, Vlad Guerrero, Jake Fox (once they find a spot for him) and Derek Lee will launch quite a few. The key is will be ensuring they aren’t all solo jobs. The pitching staff is still too young to ensure the Buck Showalter bounce of last season will translate to a playoff birth, especially in such a stacked division. But the Os could surprise some teams by getting over the .500 hump for the first time in nearly a decade and a half.

Blue Jays: Bautista re-earthification. It took 54 homers from Jose Bautista to get the Jays over .500 last season. This year, they’ll have to do it sans their best starter (Shaun Marcum), closer (Kevin Gregg), and middle reliever (Scott Downs) of 2010. The return to reality by Bautista will lower Toronto from the near-record setting 257 homers they belted last year, and send them to the basement of the A.L. East.

Central

Twins: Justin Morneau post-concussion syndrome. This one is all-too-real for the first baseman, who has struggled since taking a knee to the head breaking up a double play last July. It’s impossible not to pick the Twins this season; they won a division title without Morneau down the stretch and Joe Nathan all season. Though with those two back, it seems the us-against-the-world mentality that carried them last year won’t carry over. Still, I’m sure the Twins would rather have a healthy Morneau and Nathan, plus Joe Mauer for a full 162, than the alternative.

White Sox: Mild bullpen deficiency. The day has finally come to turn the reins of the back end of the bullpen over to Matt Thornton. But questions abound in front of him, and a lot of pressure will be put on Chris Sale and Sergio Santos, who enter the season with a combined 77 major league appearances. They’ve got some big boppers in the lineup with the addition Adam Dunn. A healthy Jake Peavy makes John Danks and Gavin Floyd an extremely deep 3-4 punch in the rotation. But they still lack that “it” factor that gives the Twins the edge.

Tigers: Miguel Cabrera memory loss. Do you know who Miguel Cabrera is? The cop who pulled him over for DUI in February didn’t. Opposing pitchers certainly do. He has  a decent lineup around him, albeit one lacking efficient table-setters, but the recovering alcoholic’s exploits in the batter’s box won’t be enough to elevate this team beyond a middle-of-the-road team.

Royals: Kila Ka’aihue. No, it’s not some weird mitochondrial disorder. He’s the Royals’ starting first baseman. I think this little quirk of ESPN’s depth chart feature just about says it all: It’s a bad sign when your starting left- and centerfielder are both listed as Melky Cabrera. Also, when they only list four starters and the fourth is Bruce Chen.

Indians: Basement attachment syndrome. There’s no foreseeable end to the Indians’ time at the foot of the division. They do have some excellent young players, especially young pitchers like Carlos Carrasco, who could prove to be pieces to build on. When the two biggest questions entering the season are if Travis Hafner could be dealt and when, and if, Grady Sizemore’s knee will repair itself, hopes are understandably low.

West

Rangers: Mild Young displacement. The Rangers this offseason mixed a little old with new. They followed the tried and true pathway of replacing pitching (Cliff Lee) with offense (Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli), an ideology it should be noted that rarely led to the playoffs. They also tried something different by leaving franchise hit leader Michael Young basically a troubadour without an everyday position. His production as a DH will be big in helping Texas slug its way back to the postseason.

Angels: Mild offensive anemia. The Angels sat squarely in the bottom half of the majors last season, and the improvements are few and far between. They’ve got a few young players like Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos who could help those offensive efforts. But Vernon Wells isn’t the kind of acquisition that’s going to get them over the hump, offensively or in the standings.

Athletics: Scrap-heap tetanus. The collection of cast-offs on this team is stunning. But it doesn’t constitute a lineup as I have come to understand that term’s definition. I see a bunch of two- and six-hitters. Is Josh Willingham a cleanup hitter for a playoff team? Is Kirk Suzuki a five-hitter?  I guess the Moneyball philosophy is geared towards debunking the perception of the traditional lineup with high-on-base-percentage/run-producing guys. Even with a rapidly-maturing pitching staff, though, this isn’t a playoff-caliber squad.

Mariners: Pernicious offensive anemia. Last season, I fancied myself clever by thinking the Ms could surprise some people. Instead they churned out the worst offensive numbers in the league, finishing dead last in every major category. Their improvements this year? Adding a creaky DH (Jack Cust), the first disappointing wave of Cliff Lee compensation (Justin Smoak) and one of the weakest-hitting regulars in the bigs (Brendan Ryan). Get comfy in that basement.

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