After an unusually cold and snowy winter, Opening Day is nearly upon us. The beginning of the season provides an infusion of optimism and hope amongst all baseball fans that this year will be the year that their favorite team wins the World Series. Let’s take a short look at the major storylines of all 30 teams as they prepare for the upcoming season. As we’re in Boston, let’s start with the AL East:
General Manager Andy MacPhail has brought in some veterans such as Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, and Vladimir Guerrero to fill up some roster holes and to mentor some of the younger players such as Adam Jones and Matt Wieters. However, recent successes by the other four teams in the division are not boding well for them. With last place finishes for three consecutive years, is a major front office shakeup in order?
Boston Red Sox
GM Theo Epstein and his front office have assembled one of the most prolific lineups in Red Sox history. The offseason haul of speedster left fielder Carl Crawford and power hitting first baseman Adrian Gonzalez make the BoSox the overwhelming favorite to win the division and the World Series.
New York Yankees
Ok, so Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees to go to Philadelphia for less guaranteed money. So what? The Bronx Bombers might not be the favorites to win the division this year with the retirement of Andy Pettitte, but they are a perennial playoff team and should be able to win the Wild Card. One thing to watch, however, is that ace CC Sabathia has the option of opting out of his contract, possibly becoming a free agent at the end of the season. Familiar faces like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are in their late 30’s and have been declining over the past two years. These factors do not bode well for the long-term future of the team.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and almost all of their bullpen to free agency. As a result, GM Andrew Friedman had his hands full all offseason. Tampa Bay scored with signing both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, compensating for the offense lost. Matt Garza was also dealt to the Cubs, delivering a rich bounty of prospects, and opening up a rotation spot for top prospect Jeremy Hellickson. But do the Rays have enough to make the playoffs for a third time in the past four years? Darkhorse Wild Card contender.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays pulled off a major coup, and the most lopsided trade of the offseason, when they traded overrated and overpaid Vernon Wells and almost all of his $86 million dollar salary to the LA Angels, freeing up payroll flexibility for the long term future. They immediately used some of that money to extend breakout star and homerun king of 2010 Jose Bautista to a five year, $64 million dollar deal. They also dealt starter Shaun Marcum to the Brewers for a trio of prospects, including highly regarded Brett Lawrie. Not enough to topple Tampa, New York, or Boston, but they could make things interesting in the division.
Chicago White Sox
The addition of Adam Dunn to the lineup has made Chicago’s offense very imposing. Bringing back Paul Konerko was also a plus. Questions remain unsettled about rehabbing ace Jake Peavy, who is recovering from a rare injury for pitchers. Gordom Beckham looks to bounce back after a disappointing sophomore campaign. Could contend, but can bust as well.
A very disappointing offseason for the Tribe, with new GM Chris Antonetti hamstrung by financial constraints and failing to take advantage of the numerous low cost, high upside players on the market. The only major league signing was Austin Kearns. Do not be surprised if Grady Sizemore, if healthy, is dealt, along with Fausto Carmona and Shin-Soo Choo.
The Motown Cats went on a spending spree, signing Victor Martinez, Joaquin Benoit, and Brad Penny this offseason. The impact on the team of Miguel Cabrera’s DUI charge several days before Spring Training, his second drinking-related arrest in the past year and a half, remains to be seen. The Tigers 2009 late season collapse, with 2010’s underperformance, could cost manager Jim Leyland his job by season’s end if 2011 does not see a reversal of fortunes.
Kansas City Royals
GM Dayton Moore has a mixed track record at the helm. Their farm system is quite possibly the best in the game and could restore the Royals to playoff contenders by 2013. However, the signings of low on base percentage veterans Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera were, in many experts’ opinions, an utter waste of money. The Royals also received a disappointing haul for ace Zack Grienke, and received no considerable advantage for dealing David DeJesus. Things will only get worse before they get better.
The Twinkies always find a way to contend every year, even in the medium sized Twin Cities market. It also bodes well for them that they are in a relatively weaker division. The re-signing of Carl Pavano gives their rotation a solid innings-eater. However, the recent rumblings about ace Francisco Liriano being traded give any Minnesota fan a reason to worry. Still, they are the favorites to win the division, even with Detroit’s upgrades.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
What has happened to the Halos? Historically well run, this season saw the Angels not make the playoffs and have a losing record, their first since 2006. The completely boneheaded trade for Vernon Wells from Toronto, while assuming almost all of his $86 million dollar salary, will hamper payroll for the next few years. Bright spots on the team include the return of Kendrys Morales from a freak broken leg injury and the emergence of Jered Weaver as a bonafide ace. He and Dan Haren will deliver a nice one-two punch on top of the rotation.
One of the best GM’s in the game, Billy Beane has quietly put together one of the best young rotations in the American League. In addition, his offseason was productive, trading for David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, and signing former A’s ace Rich Harden. Look for Oakland as a darkhorse team to win the Wild Card, and maybe the division if they are lucky.
This franchise is in a sorry state. Last season, manager Don Wakamatsu was fired, and GM Jack Zduriencik is currently on the hotseat after a horrid 61-101 record, their second 100+ loss season in three years. Their offseason was quiet, signing Jack Cust and trading for Brendan Ryan in a bid to improve the anemic offense. Pitching, however, is never an issue for the Mariners, with one of the best rotations in the league and possibly the best pitcher in the game in reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez. Perennial malcontent and clubhouse cancer Milton Bradley was arrested but was not charged for alleged threats against a woman in Los Angeles.
The defending AL Champs and reigning AL MVP Josh Hamilton are pegged as favorites to win the division. Their already excellent lineup was further bolstered with the offseason signing of Adrian Beltre to a five year, $96 million dollar deal. However, the Rangers lost out on Cliff Lee in free agency, the major driving force that propelled them into the playoffs. Also, franchise player Michael Young has demanded a trade due to decreased playing time. Even without Lee, and possibly Young, the Rangers are still serious playoff contenders. New ownership that took over midseason last year is flush with cash, so the Rangers will be players at both the trade deadline and offseasons to come.
AL East Champion: Boston Red Sox
AL Central Champion: Minnesota Twins
AL West Champion: Texas Rangers
Wild Card Contenders: New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics