We are now only a week from opening day, so it’s high time we recognize the forthcoming 2011 Major League Baseball season, and pay our due respects. It still feels strange that we’re coming off a year that saw the San Francisco Giants play the Texas Rangers in the World Series. Did that really happen?
More importantly, what’s going to happen next? Let’s take a look at the most intriguing storylines for all 30 teams as we enter the season. Today, the American League. Check back later in the week for the National League.
Most Intriguing Off-Field Storyline: The potential temporary return of Fire Joe Morgan. A ridiculous-looking new book, which claims to refute “Moneyball” despite lacking a basic understanding of what “Moneyball” is actually about, has Ken Tremendous fired up. In response to a question on Twitter asking if this book’s existence meant it was time for the temporary return of FJM, Mr. Tremendous responded, “It just might be.” The world watches and waits.
OK, back to business. The most compelling stories of the year. We start with the division in baseball that may once again boast 3 of the top 5 teams overall. (By the way, the teams are listed in my predicted order of finish.)
American League East
Boston Red Sox: Is the Hype Justified?
The Red Sox struck back at their oppressors this winter, signing the best offensive free agent on the market, and trading for the best player available. Last year, the Red Sox were derailed by injuries to key position players and unexpected poor performances by starting pitchers. Even if those two problems repeat themselves, the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez should provide enough of a boost to push Boston back into the playoffs. If the team can add health, or a return to form from John Lackey and Josh Beckett, the rest of the American League should be the neck upon which Terry Francona holds his boot. But rarely are things that simple. Rarely does the team that “wins the winter” actually win the pennant. Of course, after signing C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett [sic], the Yankees promptly went out and won a World Series…
Tampa Bay Rays: Whither the Bullpen?
As the post-Crawford era dawns in eastern Florida, many seem to be wondering if the Rays can score enough runs to win. I don’t think that will be a major concern. The lineup is deep enough and versatile enough to compensate for the loss of their left-fielder and Carlos Pena. But can their bullpen get anyone out? The starting rotation is great, but they can’t all pitch 8 innings every night. Not only did Tampa lose lockdown closer Rafael Soriano (proud owner of the best nickname in the game) to division rival New York, they also lost set-up men Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour and Randy Choate. Enter Kyle Farnsworth. Uh oh. I like and respect the Rays’ organization, and am looking forward to reading Jonah Keri’s new book about their recent ascent, but this may be a season-killing posion pill.
New York Yankees: The Non-Story That Won’t Go Away
Just when we finally stop hearing about Derek Jeter’s new contract, along comes another contract-related non-story to monopolize the tabloids for months: CC Sabathia’s opt-out clause. Just as anyone with a brain knew exactly how the Jeter situation would play out, so too is it obvious what’s going to go down with The Big Fella. We’ll hear about it all season. He’ll give cryptic quotes, fed by his agent. He’ll either opt-out and sign a new deal with the Yankees, or sign a last-minute extension before the contract expires. Either way, he’ll be a Yankee for at least another 5 or 6 seasons, at an inflated price. Sabathia has the Yankees over a barrel because of the barren state of their rotation. He’s not going anywhere, because the Yankees can’t afford to let him go. (Even though, as Joe Sheehan points out, letting Sabathia walk may be the sharp play.)
Toronto Blue Jays: Who’s in Charge, Jekyll or Hyde?
On January 21, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled off a magic trick: he made Vernon Wells and his contract disappear. David Copperfield can make the Statue of Liberty and elephants vanish until the end of his days and he’ll never be able to compete with that. Not only did Anthopoulos shed the onerous contract without contributing any cash, he actually got something useful in return: Juan Rivera and slugging catcher Mike Napoli. Suddenly, the future seemed hopeful in Toronto. Here was a general manager with the smarts to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox. No longer would the Blue Jays live in a fourth-place, 83-win purgatory. Then, as surely as the stroke of midnight turned Cinderella’s coach into a pumpkin, Anthopoulos transformed from a savvy baseball executive into Maury Chass. He traded Napoli away for a mediocre bullpen arm, becoming the latest baseball guy not to recognize the advantages of a catcher who can slug 25 home runs. Even worse, he inked Jose Bautista to a five-year, $65 million contract extension, a repeat of the Wells debacle writ small. Bautista has had one decent season in his career – a Brady-Anderson-like fluke 54-homer 2010. What are the chances he even hits 30 again? And what are the chances the Jays are in capable hands?
Baltimore Orioles: Is the Buck Effect Real?
Speaking of magic, Buck Showalter’s impact on the Orioles last year seemed to be nothing short of miraculous. After starting the year a very Orioles-like 32-73, the birds went 34-23 after Showalter took over. And Buck already has a reputation for turning franchises around, after leading the Yankees and Diamondbacks to the brinks of World Series appearances. But how much of the Orioles’ turnaround was due to chance and improved health (Brian Roberts), and how much was due to the change in culture under Showalter? Baseball Prospectus posits that it’s much more likely to have been the former, and I’m apt to agree. The Orioles should still be better this year than they were last year thanks to the maturation of their young pitching, but if they manage to play .500 ball, we can truly start talking about Showalter as The Bird Whisperer. (Did I just make a Rick Reilly pun? I think I just made a Rick Reilly pun. Hang on a sec while I cut my own fingers off so I can never type again.)
Incidentally, when trying to ascertain the most interesting storyline about the 2011 Orioles, I was walking around outside Camden Yards, and a reporter tried to get me to print a story about a kid in a wheelchair he’d just met. I guess the kid is an orphan in a wheelchair (something about a gunshot; it was all kinda vague) hanging around outside the ballpark because he’s too poor to buy tickets to the game. I decided to go with the Buck angle.
American League Central
Minnesota Twins: Got a Freight Train Running Through the Middle of My Head
The Twins’ season depends on Justin Morneau’s ability to recover from the concussion he suffered last season. Last Thursday, Morneau recorded his first official spring training at-bat — eight months after suffering the injury. His recovery has been slow and frustrating (for Morneau and for Twins fans), advancing in fits and starts. There’s still much the medical community doesn’t know about concussions, and much about each concussion that’s unique to the afflicted, so there’s no telling how the injury and resulting layoff will affect Morneau’s performance this season. The Twins are a relatively thin team this year, and the gap between them and the White Sox and Tigers narrowed over the off-season. They’ll need a vintage year from Morneau to defend their division title.
Chicago White Sox: Dance For Us, Tweet For Us, Cuss For Us!
Let’s face it, the White Sox are a pretty boring team, filled with boring players like Mark Buehrle and Gordon Beckham. So thank God for Ozzie Guillen, who we can count on to do his level best to keep things at least mildly interesting on the South Side of Chicago. We know that Ozzie (or his even crazier son Oney) will eventually blow up and say something ridiculous, and until then, we have his Twitter feed. A sampling of recent Ozzie Tweets:
- To thos idiots I no driving joey cora is driving I not that stupids
- A lot great memorie in tucson loved
- I want bullfigth videos who sale ?
- My dog dh needs a gf he want to be charlie sheen he is desperate lol
- In curacao they no have twitter
- Open a jack in the box in chicago please
- Cake boss great show this man is funny
- Great sammy sosa is black again yesssssssss
There are also a bunch of Tweets in Spanish that I can only assume are just as delightful. I’ll rely on David Simon Cowell to translate for me.
Detroit Tigers: The Intervention of Miguel Cabrera
Well, we have this year’s steroids, and it’s alcohol. Thanks, Miguel. More accurately, thanks to every pompous, sermonizing sportswriter across the land who has taken Miguel Cabrera’s DUI and used it as an excuse to talk about how Cabrera needs “help” and how MLB needs to do more to address its alcohol problem. Bullshit. First of all, all of America has an alcohol problem — if baseball has one, it’s just symptomatic of what’s going on in a macro sense. Now that performance enhancers are not a story anymore (or again, more accurately, now that baseball fans have proven once and for all that they don’t give an honest goddamn about steroids, that it’s entirely a media-driven phenomenon), writers need something to write about. Colon Cowherd needs something to bleat about on TV. And Miguel served us the new topic in a salt-rimmed cocktail glass.
Look, Miggy may very well have an alcohol problem — I don’t know. And that’s the point. I don’t know, you don’t know, and Jon Heyman sure as fuck doesn’t know. Maybe this DUI, and the other, much more minor alcohol-related incident in Cabrera’s past, point to a serious disorder. Or maybe the guy’s just an immature ballplayer who got good and drunk a couple times and did some dumb things. In the rush to force Cabrera to admit he has a problem and start on those 12 infernal steps, the sports media has once again show itself to be a cesspool of hypocrisy and phony morality. God save the next ballplayer who runs across a scribe in a bar.
BONUS! Because the subject of Cabrera is so depressing, here’s a video to cheer Tigers fans up:
Cleveland Indians: What has Become of Grady’s Ladies?
You remember Grady’s Ladies, right? The women who adore Grady Sizemore, follow him around, go to games and sit in centerfield for a better view, etc.? Well, I’m curious: as Sizemore has aged in fast-motion the last couple years, his body decaying and atrophying at an alarming rate, has the same phenomenon/curse struck the Ladies? As Grady gimps around center this year, hobbling after fly balls and trying to keep his organs from falling through his abdomen, will the bleachers be filled with women who look like a cross between the “Where’s the Beef” lady and Jessica Tandy? And will they still be screaming things about Sizemore’s ass? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
Kansas City Royals: What is Baseball Prospectus Smoking?
Take a look at the Baseball Prospectus projection for Royals first basemen Kila Ka’aihue: .262/.385/.470 (an .855 OPS), to go with 30 home runs. 30! In 201 career big-league at-bats, the soon-to-be 27-year-old Ka’aihue has been good for .224/.314/.398 with 9 home runs and 41 strikeouts in 230 plate appearances. This projection seemingly comes from nowhere, especially since Ka’aihue only managed 17 homers in a full season last year at AAA Omaha. So, this is a good test to see if PECOTA knows something that we don’t, if its intricate systems have picked up on something that our feeble human minds can’t comprehend, or if this is another Matt Wieters-like debacle. With Nate Silver long gone, PECOTA and Baseball Prospectus are under a bit of scrutiny: can they keep up with other projection systems, and maintain the “deadly accuracy” that’s long been their hallmark? Let’s just say I’m not going to be reaching too high for Ka’aihue in my fantasy draft.
American League West
Oakland A’s: Can the A’s Save Moneyball?
OK, that’s a ridiculous question on several levels. But every year that the A’s struggle gives ammunition to the world’s idiots, who think that “Moneyball” describes a specific style of play, that it was written by Billy Beane, that the A’s success was due solely to luck. It gives the Ned Collettis out there satisfaction, and THAT WILL NOT STAND. Beane’s tactics haven’t worked for several seasons, which has ironically given some play to his belief that small-market teams can only compete for short periods of time before needing to retreat and rebuild.
This year, Beane has quietly compiled a very interesting collection of unheralded talent: Josh Willingham, Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, Chris Carter and others now augment an already-strong bullpen and a rotation aided by the A’s spacious ballpark. While the Angels self-destruct and the Rangers try to repeat, let’s hope for Oakland to strike a blow for logic, and add insult to Joe Morgan’s termination-related injury. Club SABR, GOOOOOOOOOO!
Texas Rangers: The Hillbilly on the Hill
Nolan Ryan has what he wanted: he’s the man in charge. It’s not for nothing that Ryan was Roger Clemens’s idol: he’s an ornery, no-bullshit Texan who wants things done “the right way” — aka his way. And now that his partner/money guy Chuck Greenberg has been forced out of the Lone Star State less than a year after assuming ownership, Ryan is alone at the top. And this is a man with ideas: namely, that baseball has been pussified since back in his day, and that young pitchers shouldn’t be babied. Good luck with that, Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland! The Rangers still have a talented enough core to compete in the West, even after losing Cliff Lee and accounting for some strokes of luck in 2010. Will Ryan mismanage the team out of contention, or is the ol’ hick on to something?
Anaheim Angels: The New Orioles?
For years, the Orioles, as run under jackass Peter Angelos, were the perfect example of how not to run a baseball organization. They spent money unwisely, signing past-their-prime free agents, and depleting their farm system through a combination of poor drafting and short-sighted trades (see also: 1980s Yankees). The Angels aren’t quite to that point yet, but they’ve made some head-scratching decisions in recent years, which leads one to believe they might be a cash-rich team with no idea how to efficiently use their advantages and resources. The idiotic Vernon Wells trade was bad enough to raise eyebrows on its own, but looks worse when coupled with the fact that the team refused to spend for Carl Crawford. They overpaid for a past-his-prime Torii Hunter and a never-had-a-prime Gary Matthews Jr., so why not pay for an in-his-prime Crawford, who is better than either? Because this team flat out doesn’t know what it’s doing, and only for the grace of Mike Scioscia and high revenues do they overcome that incompetence.
Seattle Mariners: Nothing to See Here, Please Move Along
Seriously. There’s nothing. This team doesn’t have one compelling story heading into 2011, other than maybe “will they not suck quite as badly?” And after 1995, I couldn’t be more thrilled about that.