It is already April. And you all know what that means. The MLB is back after its 5 month hiatus. It is time to play ball again. Things open up this evening with the best rivalry in sports, as the Yankees, led by the “Captain,” head to Fenway Park to take on the Boston Red Sox. Who would want the season to start any other way?
So the MLB is never an easy thing to predict. The only thing that is near certain in recent memory is teams like the Yankees and Sox will make it to October. But there is always a surprise team that makes a deep run into the postseason. Last year there was the Rockies. In 08, it was the Rays. In 07, it was the Indians. So who will be this year’s surprise team?
Take no look further than the Chicago White Sox. Many think this team will do well, but will fall short of the playoffs. Most experts think that the AL Central is the Twins division for the taking. And they may be right. But many are overlooking a very tough White Sox team. If Jake Peavy is healthy, this team will have one of the best rotations in the League, not to mention a top of the line bullpen. Everyone knows that pitching wins championships.
Now I want everyone to take note that the MLB has been changing over the past couple of years. With the cracking down on steroid usage, power numbers have gone done. This League is becoming more and more old school with many teams winning with small ball. Hitters are making a killing at the plate by being patient. Teams are doing anything they can to get runners on base. According to Sports Illustrated, teams that had more baserunners during a course of a game, won 83% of the time. In addition, starting pitchers on average are typically lasting just 5 and 2/3 innings. This is putting a much heavier stress on bullpens for teams and it is playing into the favor of teams with deeper lineups at the plate. The Yankees last year outscored opponents by 182 runs after the 5th inning last year. Prior to the 5th, they outscored opponents by just 10 runs.
So lets start with the Yankees, the defending World Champs (out of the AL East). As usual they have a fantastic lineup. They will miss proven winners like Matsui and Damon down the stretch though. The only real question mark for this team is the 5th spot in the pitching rotation. Can Phil Hughes finally live up to his potential? This could make or break the Pinstripes chances of repeating. Also in the AL East, there is the Tampa Bay Rays. SI is picking the Rays to represent the AL in the World Series. Now the Rays do have a great lineup with outstanding speed. They will pressure their opponents by running the bases. I will state that both their rotation and bullpen have many question marks though. A lot will hinge on whether David Price can live up to his billing as a top of the rotation starter for this team. Then finally in the AL East, you have the always dangerous Red Sox. They improved their rotation, and are finally getting healthy. Many experts are overlooking this team. I would not recommend sleeping on the always tough Red Sox.
The AL Central in my opinion is a two team race. You have the heavily favored Minnesota Twins, and my sleeper pick, the Chicago White Sox. The Twins have a great mix of guys who can bat for average and power. But the loss of arguably the best closer in the game, Joe Nathan, will hurt this team. This is a main reason why I have the White Sox taking the division crown. Really take a closer look at the White Sox. Gordon Beckham, the former number 1 draft pick is really coming into his own and starting to live up to the expectations. Also, Alex Rios I think is going to have a great bounce back season and regain some of the power he had in his Toronto days. Then you have maybe the greatest glove of all time coming off the bench for the late innings in Omar Vizquel (guy can still field with the best of them regardless of his age). Andruw Jones, the former All Star has slimmed down and is hungry to start winning again. And then you got a fantastic 1/2 punch at the top of the rotation in Mark Buehrle and Jake Peavy. Not to mention a great bullpen led by Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton. This team is dangerous and its success will really hinge on whether Jake Peavy can regain his old form and if guys like Gavin Floyd and John Danks can step up at the bottom of the pitching rotation.
One quick note on the AL West. I could see the Mariners surprising some people and being in contention towards the end of the year. Cliff Lee is a fantastic pitcher down the stretch. I do have the always tough Angels winning the division though.
Now lets take a look at the NL East, where the heavily favored Phillies reside. Almost all experts are picking this team to return to the World Series for the 3rd straight year. And why not? They really did not lose anything significant and exchanged Cliff Lee for the best pitcher in the game, Roy Halladay. Well let me be the first to say, this is a great team. But not so fast on booking their ticket to the Fall Classic. As I said earlier, the MLB is becoming more and more of a small ball game. The Phillies do have enough power to not need to play small ball at times, but not one player in their lineup batted over 300 last year. They will need players at the top of the lineup to hit for average and provide baserunners. This responsibility will fall on Rollins and Utley to really step up and provide baserunners for the big bats in the lineup. And honestly, I think Rollins and Utley are up to the task to hit more for average this year. Lastly, everyone is proclaiming that Roy Halladay will automatically get this team a World Series. Now I will be the first to say that Halladay is a fantastic pitcher with an ever better work ethic. But the man has spent 12 years in the big leagues. He has never played for a contender. Well pitching in September and October when there is meaning can be quite difficult. Can the man handle the pressure of pitching in meaningful games down the stretch? America will find out in a few months. But count on the Phillies to repeat as AL East champs because I do think they are up to the challenge.
Now I admit there is a bias, but do not overlook the Reds to make some noise in the NL Central. They have a great mix of youth and veterans and could be the surprise team of the National League. Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto both need to stay healthy and have big years. Then the old Aaron Harang needs to show up. If Harang becomes the bulldog of old, this team could be very tough with some fantastic young arms supporting the big guy. The Cardinals though are the pick to take the division crown again, led by the machine Albert Pujols.
Then lastly you have the NL West. This division will be wide open just like any other year it seems. Well I got Jim Tracy, who is a fantastic manager leading the Rockies back into the playoffs. Do not sleep on the Dodgers though, who have a great manager of their own in Joe Torre. This division is very tough to call at this time.
My Picks: AL East: Yankees
AL Central: White Sox
AL West: Angels
AL Wildcard: Red Sox
NL East: Phillies
NL Central: Cardinals
NL West: Rockies
NL Wildcard: Reds
World Series: Yankees over Phillies in 6 (yes a repeat of last year’s outcome)
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportskraze.