words // Nick Engvall

The 2011 Major League Baseball season will get underway later this week in baseball stadiums around the country. With that being said, we’re going to take a look at what changes the teams have made in the off-season and what to expect from them in their 2011 campaign. Since last year, both the American League Pennant-winning Texas Rangers and National League pennant-winning San Francisco Giants, along with each of the 2010 Rookie of the Year winners, came from the West Division of their respective leagues, we figured we’d start there with our 2011 MLB Season Preview. The teams are listed as they ranked in the standings last season, with their final record in parenthesis.

 

American League – West Division

Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers.

Texas Rangers (90-72) – The big news for the American League champs is, of course, the fact that they lost Cliff Lee and Vladimir Guerrero to free agency. Offensively, last year they were one of the AL’s best, and it seemed they got better as the year progressed. Last year’s MVP, Josh Hamilton, will need to be even better for the Rangers to make another World Series run, despite the addition of catcher Mike Napoli. On the mound, CJ Wilson will need to be better than last year as well, but the addition of Brandon Webb to the rotation will most definitely help. Nobody expected them to reach the World Series last year, and I wouldn’t expect them to repeat the accomplishment this year. That probably gives them an advantage in the American League West.

Trevor Cahill of the Oakland A's.Oakland A’s (81-81) – The A’s added some much-needed offense in the off-season. Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham were all added to the roster to further improve last year’s .500 season. They also got rid of the inconsistency of Rajai Davis at the plate. The A’s have one of the American League’s best pitching staffs returning with Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden. If things go as planned and the offensive additions work out, that could mean 20 wins and a Cy Young Award for Trevor Cahill and/or Gio Gonzalez. It would also mean that Oakland would be the top team in the West. Closer Andrew Bailey will begin the year on the DL, but when he returns, the A’s will be poised for one of their best season in years.

Los Angeles Angels (80-82) – The Angels had some significant losses with Hideki Matsui going to Oakland and Mike Napoli going to Texas. Their offense will definitely show it. They have a lot of offensive potential waiting to happen in second basemen Howard Kendrick, who has always been talked about as a future batting champ. If the Angels get prospect Mike Trout to the Majors this year, it may add some necessary energy to the lineup. The pitching rotation will be strong with Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana and Dan Haren, but they’ll need to figure out who will be their reliable closer in order to be competitive.

Seattle Mariners (61-101) – Despite having one of the best pitchers in baseball last year in Cy Young Award winner in Felix Hernandez, the Mariners’ rotation can’t win games without offense. Seattle’s pitching could get a breath of fresh air from rookie right-hander Michael Pineda, who could easily be this year’s American League Rookie of the Year. The offense will once again be led by Ichiro Suzuki who is one of the best hitters in baseball, and judging by the 200 hits milestone he accomplished last year, he’ll put up numbers that will only require one thing from Seattle . . . other players to get hits. They added Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo in the off-season, which could help, but they’ll need more to compete in the West.

AL West Prediction – I think the A’s will take the division this year, followed closely by the Angels, then Rangers. Seattle will be a better team this year, but still won’t be in the playoff hunt without some mid-season transactions.

 

National League – West Division

Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants.San Francisco Giants (94-70) – Last year, the Giants had the best pitching in baseball and the National League’s Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey. The Giants lost two key players, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria, which will definitely keep their offensive capabilities in question. They also lost 38 pounds from around Pablo Sandoval’s waist, which could mean he is back to his pre-2010 self and help to fill the void. They also brought in veteran Miguel Tejada to help fill the void. Mark DeRosa is now healthy, and will add some pop to the lineup that was missing last year. Last year’s “Bad News Bears” won it all thanks to Posey’s timely arrival from the minors, and this year they’ve got an even bigger bat waiting in the wings: first basemen Brandon Belt. The Giants have the same “problem” as they did last year, a bunch of talented guys who can contribute in a wide variety of ways. If they have the same team-first approach as 2010, they’ll be a tough team to beat in 2011.

San Diego Padres (90-72) – San Diego was able to remain a post-season possibility until the final day of the regular season last year before losing to the Giants. This season, the Padres return to battle behind one of the most impressive pitching rotations in the National League (second only to San Francisco). With the exception of Jon Garland going to the Dodgers, the Padres’ rotation remains one of the best and most overlooked. San Diego lost their best hitter in nearly every statistic, Adrian Gonzalez, who signed with the Red Sox, which means their already lackluster offense will need someone to step up with big numbers if they plan on getting into the post-season. The Padres did sign former Tigers/Marlins prospect Cameron Maybin, who has always had high expectations to live up to, but if this is the year he does it, the Padres could land at the top of the West. To throw a wrench in their plans, potential Cy Young-winning pitcher and the team’s ace, Mat Latos, has been experiencing shoulder pain.

Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies.Colorado Rockies (83-79) – The Rockies made just minor changes to their roster during the off-season. However, signing Carlos Gonzalez to a 7-year deal worth $80 million might just be reassuring enough to get the team to the top of the West. With young stars Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, along with veteran Todd Helton in the middle of their order, the Rockies offense is still one of the most potent. The only question will be their pitching. If Ubaldo Jimenez returns in the same form as he was in 2010, the Rockies will be right near the top of the division with the Giants and Padres. The Rockies will get an early jump on the rest of the West if they’re road trip through Pittsburgh and New York goes as most expect it to. Spring training has been a good example of their potential as they’re the only team in the NL besides the Giants with 20 wins.

Los Angeles Dodgers (80-82) – The Dodgers’ Andre Ethier was one of the NL’s top players during the first half of 2010. An injury took him out about mid-season, and he couldn’t seem to get back in the groove. Ethier being healthy makes him a pre-season MVP candidate if he’s in top form. The Dodgers could be competitors in the West if Matt Kemp keeps baseball as his priority, which seemed to challenge the center fielder last season. The starting rotation for L.A. includes Clayton Kershaw, Hiroki Karuda and Chad Billingsley, which gives them a solid starting three. If Jon Garland gets healthy, pitching in Dodger Stadium could result in one of his best years on the mound. Offensively, the Dodgers will need more from players like Casey Blake and James Loney if they plan to compete in one of the toughest division in baseball.

Arizona Diamondbacks (65-97) – The Diamondbacks’ 2010 season could be summed up in one game. Edwin Jackson’s no-hitter, which although was a no-hitter, Jackson walked eight batters. I guess with the good, comes some bad. With Jackson now departed, pitching will rely on Ian Kennedy and new addition from the Pirates, Zach Duke. They’ll need to make major improvements to get out of the dumpsters of pitching (28th in the league in 2010). Offensively, Arizona lost both first basemen Adam LaRoche and third basemen Mark Reynolds. Considering that, and the fact that now-departed pitcher Dan Haren actually had the team’s best batting average, the Diamondbacks have a huge void that will need to be filled.

NL West Predictions – The Giants just have too much pitching to say they won’t repeat as division winners. I expect the Rockies to be a close second and possibly win the NL Wild Card. The Dodgers will make some moves mid-season to put them in a close third place, followed by the Padres and then the Diamondbacks.