Thursday, March 31, 2011

Standings Predictions

Finally, everybody else’s picks have come out, so I have something to compare myself against. I’m going to be looking at noted MLB analysts Jon Heyman (of SI), Keith Law (of ESPN), and Tim Dierkes (of MLBTR). I hope I’ve made this clear, but I want to reiterate that I have tremendous respect for each of these fantastic analysts and I’m in no way saying that I’m better at their jobs than they are. However, I do want to have a baseline, and I’m excited to see how I do compared to these incredible baseball minds.

So with that, let’s jump right in.

AL East
Heyman: Boston
Law: Boston
Dierkes: Boston
My pick: Boston

No surprise here. The Sawx improved more than any other team in the AL this offseason, and are almost certainly the favorite to represent the AL in the World Series next year. They’ll have to stave off the injuries that decimated them last season, but with the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox Nation is right to have high expectations for 2011.

AL Central
Heyman: Chicago
Law: Chicago
Dierkes: Chicago
My pick: Chicago

I’m pretty surprised that we’ve got a consensus here, but for me, this was a fairly clear choice. While Detroit’s addition of Victor Martinez made a major splash, I don’t think they have the pitching depth to stay in the race for the whole campaign. Martinez and Cabrera are both great bats, but they’re really the only hitters in this lineup that will put a scare into opposing pitchers. They’re better than last year, but not quite good enough. The defending champion Twins, however, took a step back, Between Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes, and Ron Mahay, the Twinkies lost 240.1 solid bullpen innings. Though the return of Joe Nathan will help them weather the storm, he won’t be able to offset the losses entirely. Additionally, Justin Morneau continues to suffer from concussion-based issues, and if he’s not 100%, this lineup is immediately a lot less potent. Chicago was able to pick up Adam Dunn and retain Paul Konerko, as well as add Crain to the back end of their bullpen. Though they lost Bobby Jenks and JJ Putz, I think Matt Thornton will step into the closer role without a hitch and a full season of Chris Sale will produce impressive results. Though the Twins and South Siders will battle it out all summer, the Pale Hose will eventually come out on top.

AL West
Heyman: Texas
Law: Texas
Dierkes: Texas
My pick: Oakland

Now things get interesting. The professionals seem to think losing Cliff Lee won’t be fatal for the Rangers, but I think they took a big step back. Losing one of the best pitchers in baseball hurts your staff. Water is wet. The addition of Adrian Beltre will help the Rangers (as you’ll see, I’m gonna take them to make the playoffs as well), but I think Oakland fairly quietly had the best offseason in baseball in terms of the pure value they got for their money in true Billy Beane fashion. They largely avoided an inflated free agent market, instead adding offense through trades and picking their spots in signing Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, and Hideki Matsui. I think the strategy works, and the A’s make their first postseason appearance since 2006.

AL Wild Card
Heyman: New York
Law: New York
Dierkes: New York
My pick: Rangers

The experts believe New York will overcome their woes on the mound to make their 16th playoff appearance in 17 campaigns. I’m not so sure. This is going to be close, and the Yankees will certainly be involved, but I believe there’s going to be some deterioration in their lineup as the players connected to their largest contracts continue to age. Additionally, as has been the story all offseason, the back end of their rotation is a big question mark after losing out on Cliff Lee. They’ll try to make a midseason acquisition to solidify the staff, but there aren’t many aces likely to be moved around the deadline. The best they’ll be able to do is a number two type, and even that might be a stretch. In that case, they might not think the value they’ll get back in a weak pitching market is worth the price, which will almost certainly be top prospect Jesus Montero. The Rangers made some shrewd adds, and plugging Adrian Beltre into the lineup as well as the defensive infield will improve the club on both sides of the ball. Adding his infield defense will provide a huge boon to new addition Brandon Webb. Webb’s a bit of a flier, as he’s returning from an injury that has cost him the last two seasons, but in his last full year (2008) he led the league in groundball percentage, with an absurd 64.4% worm-burning rate.

NL East
Heyman: Philadelphia
Law: Philadelphia
Dierkes: Atlanta
My pick: Philadelphia

Nothing to see here. When you put together four aces and one of the more potent offenses (slightly overrated with the bats, but still a strong lineup) you’re gonna have high expectations. Though the Giants are the defending champs, all eyes are on the Phillies to win the NL. Though Atlanta’s lineup got a lot more dangerous with the addition of Dan Uggla, I don’t believe they’ll have what it takes to keep up with the arms put together by the Phils. It’s a ballsy pick by Dierkes, but one that I don’t believe will pay off in the end.

NL Central
Heyman: St. Louis
Law: Milwaukee
Dierkes: Milwaukee
My pick: Cincinnati

Heyman thinks the Cardinals will take the division down despite the loss of Adam Wainwright, but I don’t believe they’ll be able to fill the gap in their rotation well enough to compete in this suddenly strong division. I think it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to retain Albert Pujols next season, so they could have a tough few years ahead of them. Milwaukee added some great pieces, especially in their rotation, and I don’t think Greinke’s injury will affect him for more than the first couple weeks of the season. However, they’ll be playing what fantasy baseball players might call the “stars and scrubs” method, hoping their superstars’ excellence can offset the mediocrity found elsewhere on the roster. They need each of their stars to come up huge in order to be a winning ballclub. That’s probably too much to ask. Cincinnati will take down the division once again, as they’re young, good, and only getting better. Joey Votto was simply absurd last year, and I don’t think you can expect him to put up another MVP year. However, this regression will be offset by Jay Bruce’s transformation from good to great, as well as what I expect to be a breakout year for Drew Stubbs. Stubbs is highly underrated and will bring some serious production to a lineup that put up an NL-best 790 runs last year.

NL West
Heyman: San Francisco
Law: San Francisco
Dierkes: San Francisco
My pick: San Francisco

We’re all in agreement that the World Champs will once again represent the NL West in the playoffs. They didn’t make any major adds in the offseason besides plugging in one ageless (and rangeless) shortstop for another (Tejada for Renteria), but a full year of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner immediately makes both the lineup and the rotation much more dangerous. Top prospect Brandon Belt also played his way into a spot on the big club with a ridiculous Spring Training, and while this may not make much sense in terms of service time, as a baseball decision it makes the team better immediately. They wouldn’t start him in the bigs if they weren’t going to play him, so I’m very curious to see how they shuffle Belt, recently resigned Aubrey Huff, and their outfield logjam.

NL Wild Card

Heyman: Colorado
Law: Atlanta
Dierkes: Philadelphia
My pick: Atlanta

Colorado might have the best one-two offensive punch in the league in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, but their pitching behind Ubaldo Jimenez will be too inconsistent for them to take the fourth playoff spot on the Senior Circuit. The Braves’ offense is an absolute powerhouse, especially if Chipper Jones can stay healthy, and their rotation is good enough to stay close to the Phillies in the NL East race. Their bullpen will also be extremely strong, especially if the pairing of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel at the back end is as strong as it currently appears.

Next time, I’ll make some picks for the postseason awards and show you who the experts think will take home the individual honors.

Finally, I wanted to voice my support for MLB’s new 7-day DL option for victims of concussions. I had an argument with my friend last night about why steroids are bad for baseball when they help players play at a higher level and make play more exciting. I strongly believe it is the responsibility of baseball to protect the players that make the sport possible, whether that means understanding the long-term risks of chronic concussions or avoiding a situation in which players feel they need dangerous substances to play at a competitive level. Kudos to MLB for recognizing the dangers related to concussion issues and creating an option for teams that will allow them to give concussion victims time to recover while not forcing them to think twice about deactivating players because they'll be sidelined for longer than is necessary.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Notable Japanese MLB Players

In an effort to continue doing what I can for the victims of the earthquake in Japan, today’s post is on a few of the notable Japanese players in the game, as well as one who could be tearing up MLB hitters in as little as a year.

Ichiro Suzuki: The most well-known of Japanese MLBers, and with good reason, Ichiro is Mr. Consistency. Since being posted by the Orix Blue Wave after the 2000 season, Ichiro has batted leadoff for the Mariners in nearly every game, played above par defense and hit for a wRC+ above 100 in each of his 10 seasons, and played more than 157 games in each season besides 2009. He’s been between 4 and 5.5 WAR in each of the last 5 years, and last year was right in the middle of that range at 4.8. Ichiro’s been in the bottom six outfielders in strikeout rate in each of those seasons, and although he’s never hit for more than 15 home runs in a year, his combination of speed, defense, consistency, and pure hitting ability makes him one of the most valuable players in baseball over the past decade. Ichiro’s also provided some extremely well-publicized support for his home country in the wake of this tragedy, donating 100 million yen (roughly $1.25 million).

Hideki Matsui: Matsui, who came over from the Yomiuri Giants in his tenth professional season and entered MLB as a Yankee, has signed on with the A’s as one of several new faces in Oakland’s retooled lineup. Matsui is pretty much exclusively a DH at this point, having not played more than 200 innings in the field since 2007. However, he’s had a wRC+ better than 120 in 6 of the last 7 years, flashing decent power (49 home runs over the last two seasons) and getting on base at a decent clip.

Hiroki Kuroda: One of the most underrated starters in baseball, Kuroda came over from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in 2007 after 10 years as a professional, moving to LA and donning Dodger Blue. Kuroda’s put up an average of 3.3 WAR per year in LA, and resigned with the Dodgers this offseason for a year at $12 million. Kuroda has been below a 3.60 FIP in each of his MLB seasons, and is beginning to show an aptitude for striking out MLB hitters, as he’s raised his K/9 significantly in each MLB campaign to date.

Colby Lewis: Ok, so he’s not technically from Japan. Lewis, a 31-year old hailing from Bakersfield, CA, put together a very mediocre 6-year MLB career between 2002 and 2007. He had amassed only 0.5 WAR in those 6 seasons before his career took a turn, as Lewis caught on with the Hiroshima Carp in 2008. He took off, leading the league in strikeouts in both seasons and tied for second in wins and ERA in 2008. Lewis returned to MLB last season and was an integral part of the Rangers’ AL-champion starting staff, putting up 4.4 WAR and a 3.55 FIP in 201 innings. Lewis is one of a few examples of MLB castoffs who have resurrected their careers in Japan.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: Nishioka, a second baseman, played 8 seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines before coming over to the Twins this offseason. A five-time NPB All-Star and 3-time Gold Glover, Nishioka will bring a smooth glove and a fairly potent bat to Minnesota. Nishioka is only 26 and led NPB in games played (he didn’t miss a contest all year), runs, hits (over 200 in a 144 game season), total bases, and average last season. He will be a significant contributor to a team that should have a pretty good shot at an AL Central title next season.

Yu Darvish: Darvish is in his sixth season with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. A two-time Pacific League MVP, two-time strikeout and ERA champion, and a four-time All-Star, Darvish is expected to be posted next offseason and play in MLB in 2012, with ten teams already expressing interest. Darvish has a career 2.12 ERA and 974 strikeouts 1036.1 professional innings in Japan. He’ll command big money, with all the usual big-budget suspects involved in the bidding process as well as a number of other teams looking to make a splash.

Thanks for reading, and, once again, please donate what you can to the aid efforts for Japan (Link is for the Red Cross' Japan donation page).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hello Readers

I apologize for being unable to write for the past week or so. I'm amid a barrage of exams, and as my mother never ceases to remind me, school comes first. In lieu of that, I'd ask you to donate to the victims of the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan. This is an issue that directly relates to many in baseball, both in the States and in Japan itself, and in honor of MLB's efforts to support the recovery work being done by the Red Cross and others, please give what you can to help those who have been affected by the quake.

Click here to go to the Red Cross' Japan donation page.

I look forward to making my predictions for the upcoming season in the very near future, though I will try to wait for some of the professional analysts so I'll have something to compare myself when we see the season played out on the field.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Offseason Recap: NL Playoff Teams

Today, we’ll look at the NL playoff teams’ offseasons, and the reasons they may- or may not- be able to play past game 162 once again this season.

Philadelphia (Last year: NL East Champions, 97-65)
The Phillies basically made one move this offseason, swapping out a chunk of offense in the form of Jayson Werth for one of the best pitchers in baseball in Cliff Lee. The Phils let Werth go in Free Agency, and he’ll be plying his trade in Washington in 2011. With the extra cash available from that decision, they shocked the baseball world by agreeing to terms with Lee. Lee seemed to be destined to either remain in Texas or head to New York to play for the Yankees, when rumors of a “mystery team” began popping up in early December. Many saw this as a ploy from Lee’s agents to extract more money and years from the more established suitors, but these rumors were proven to be true when Lee turned down tens of millions and a 6-year deal with a player option for a 7th to take a deal that gives him only 5 years plus a vesting option for the 6th. With a rotation predicted to be historically good, the Phillies immediately became the favorite to take the NL pennant in the eyes of most prognosticators. Their offense remains potent, even without Werth’s strong bat, as they’ll replace him with top prospect Domonic Brown.

Why they can do it again: A rotation, starring what really amounts to four true aces in Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, is probably the best we’ve seen since the Braves teams of the mid-90's with their superb Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz troika. An offense that has to be considered one of the best in the majors, led by perennial All-Stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Really, this team is the obvious choice to represent the NL in the World Series.

Why they might not: The not-so-obvious underlying issues, however, could be a problem for this team. Oswalt, Halladay, and Lee are 33, 33, and 32 years old, so the beginning of a decline is not out of the question, and Halladay, Oswalt, and Hamels had ERAs that outperformed their FIPs by at least 0.50 each last season, suggesting each may be in for a bit of regression. The heart of their lineup is predominantly left-handed, leaving them vulnerable to lefty pitching. Finally, Jimmy Rollins is now 32 and coming off a season in which he played only 88 games due to injuries, so his presence at the top of the lineup may not provide the production Phillies fans have come to expect over the last decade or so.

San Francisco (Last year: NL West Champions, 92-70)
The World Champs stuck with the motto: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They’ll return essentially the same team that won them the Series last year, with the exceptions of Edgar Renteria (now in Cincy), Juan Uribe (headed south to the rival Dodgers) and various minor bits of the bullpen. Aubrey Huff got significantly more expensive after signing a 2 year, $22 million deal to remain in San Francisco after a bounce-back 2010. Uribe, who was the Giants’ starting third baseman throughout most of the playoffs, will likely be replaced by a resurgent Pablo Sandoval. The Panda lost 38 pounds during the offseason, lowering his body fat from 30% to 19%. The “best shape of his life” cliché is immensely overused coming into Spring Training every year, but in this case it seems to be absolutely applicable. After watching him live for the last three days, I can tell you that he passes my personal eye test and looks ready to get back to his 2009 production level, when he burst onto the scene as a rookie before a disappointing 2010. Renteria will be replaced at short by new signing Miguel Tejada, and although Tejada is coming off his worst year since the turn of the millennium, it’d be hard for him not to exceed the pitiful production the Giants have gotten from Renteria over the last two seasons.

Why they can do it again: The pitching staff that won them a championship is intact, and Madison Bumgarner will begin the season in the rotation after proving to the baseball world he has what it takes to live up to his massive potential during last season’s playoffs. Take last year’s squad and add in a full year of Bumgarner and NL ROY Buster Posey (whose 450 foot home run yesterday off Jorge de la Rosa was, in de la Rosa’s words, “the longest home run I’ve ever given up.” Definitely the longest one I’ve ever seen in person that didn’t come off the bat of a certain Barry Lamar Bonds.), and this team certainly could make a run at another title.

Why they might not: Last year’s success was based on a lot of breakouts and bounce-backs few saw coming. Does Huff keep it up? Is Pat Burrell the player who was released midseason by the Rays, or the one who carried the Giants in a close division race down the stretch? Is Cody Ross the player who was put on waivers by the Marlins, or the one who absolutely took over the NLCS? Can Posey and Bumgarner avoid sophomore slumps? They’ve looked good so far in Spring Training, but the Giants come into the season with as much uncertainty as I’ve ever seen in a defending World Series champ.

Cincinnati (Last year: NL Central Champions, 91-71)
The Reds focused on securing their own players this year, signing Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto, and Bronson Arroyo to big extensions. They also resigned free agents Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Cairo, with their only notable free agent losses coming in the form of Aaron Harang and Arthur Rhodes. They signed Edgar Renteria, who will back up Paul Janish at short, and Fred Lewis, who will act as their fourth outfielder. Other than that, no major changes except for a bit more cost certainty with their young studs moving into the next few seasons.

Why they can do it again: They were young last year, and that didn’t stop them from taking the Central by a solid 5 games over the Cards. Their young players have matured by a year, and the Cardinals are simply not the same team without ace Adam Wainwright. Plus, they’ll have fireballer Aroldis Chapman for the whole season, which will be exciting to watch if nothing else. He put up 0.7 WAR (third among Reds relievers) last season in just 13.1 innings.

Why they might not: Rhodes was a major piece of their bullpen, and his 0.9 WAR outpaced all Reds relievers with the exception of Nick Masset. Although he’s ancient, losing Rhodes creates a hole in the bullpen that they’ll need somebody to step up and fill. Their young rotation has been somewhat prone to injuries and ineffectiveness, and Milwaukee may have had the best offseason of any team in the NL (the Phillies would be the other option), and with Yovani Gallardo, Zach Greinke, and Shaun Marcum, they’ve got three 2010 Opening Day starters in their rotation. Look out for the Brew Crew.

Atlanta (Last year: 91-71, NL Wild Card)
The Braves lost some depth this offseason, but none should be catastrophic. Outfielders Rick Ankiel, Melky Cabrera, and Matt Diaz all left the club this offseason, but none were exactly stellar last year. Derrek Lee took off for Baltimore, but the franchise is excited to replace him with top prospect Freddie Freeman, who is built like an NFL offensive lineman and hit the crap out of the ball in Triple-A last year. He slugged .518, and finished the year with a wRC+ of 140 at the level. They did, however, lose two key pieces of their bullpen in Kyle Farnsworth and Takashi Saito. They signed George Sherrill to replace some pen production, and the emergence of Jonny Venters as well as the absolute domination Craig Kimbrel showed after his late-season callup will have the organization optimistic about their relief corps. Their biggest addition came on the trade market, as they swapped infield/outfield Swiss Army Knife Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn to the Marlins for slugging second baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla, along with Chipper Jones (returning from a down year after an injury-plagued 2010), emerging star Jason Heyward, and Brian McCann form the heart of what has suddenly become one of the more potent offenses in the league.

Why they can do it again: They were good enough last year, and there are very few in baseball who would argue the Braves got worse this offseason. The addition of Uggla turns a so-so lineup into a very good one, they’ve got young pitching both in the rotation and the bullpen, and in Tommy Hanson they have a guy who’s well on his way to proving he can be a staff ace in Atlanta for quite some time.

Why they might not: If Chipper Jones has another down year, this offense might not be as strong as they look. Freeman, while promising, is young. His offense might not come right away (he looked overmatched in his 20-game stint in the bigs at the end of last year, mustering a wRC+ of only 25), and with his physical build the defense is certainly a question mark. Finally, they’ll have a tough time beating out the Phillies for the division, and the Wild Card is a fickle thing. With several teams taking big steps this offseason (notably the aforementioned Brewers), taking the Wild Card again could be quite a difficult task.

Hope you've enjoyed these. Now that we've been over all this information, I think it's finally time for me to step up and make some projections. I'll have those in my next post, and I'll try to line my predictions up with some of the more famous MLB analysts working for ESPN and the like. They've got access to much more information than I do, and this is a job for them, whereas right now it's still only my pastime. Regardless, I'm feeling pretty bold after being pretty much spot-on in my playoff predictions last season, so I'm interested to see how this goes. Might look like a genius. Might fall flat on my face. Prepared for either. We're now less than four weeks away from Opening Day, and I, for one, can't wait.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Offseason Recap: AL Playoff Teams

Since they’ve already proved they’re good enough to compete for a title, I’m going to go through last year’s playoff teams, looking at major additions and subtractions over the offseason and then giving you the reasons why they might repeat, and what might prevent them from another date with October ball. Today, I’ll begin with the AL, and I’ll move on to the NL next post.

Tampa Bay (Last year: AL East Champions, 96-66)
Tampa’s AL East-winning squad was nearly entirely dismantled this offseason, Lost to free agency were two of their top hitters, as well as the better part of their outstanding bullpen. Carl Crawford signed with division rivals Boston for 7 years and $142 million. Rafael Soriano will also stay in the AL East, as a $35 million deal will have him wearing pinstripes for then next 3 years. Carlos Peña will be manning first for the Cubs next year, while the pen once led by Soriano will also be missing Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Randy Choate. However, they did sign Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year deals in order to soften the blow to their offense, as well as Kyle Farnsworth, JP Howell, and Joel Peralta to solidify their retooled bullpen. The Rays also made two major trades that will deplete the team at the big-league level in the near future, trading Matt Garza to the Cubs and Jason Bartlett to San Diego in exchange for prospects. The haul for Garza especially was quite impressive, as it contained two of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects. Garza will be replaced by Rays’ top prospect (and no. 6 overall according to BA) Jeremy Hellickson, so this move has a shot to upgrade the rotation if Hellickson can immediately realize some of his immense potential. Led by Hellickson, the Rays now have 8 of BA’s top 100 prospects (second only to the Royals’ absurd 10), as well as 10 of the first 60 picks (and 12 of the first 90) in next year’s draft due to compensation from players who were offered arbitration but eventually signed elsewhere. So they’ll certainly have an opportunity to build a juggernaut in the future, but can they compete this year?

Why they can do it again: Although the Rays’ offense and bullpen will look very different from last year, their starting rotation remains almost totally intact with the exception of swapping Garza out for Hellickson. As I mentioned earlier, this could end up being an upgrade. Throw in a year of maturation for the rest of this young and talented staff, led by David Price, James Shields, and Wade Davis, and this has a chance to be one of the top rotations in baseball. Their bullpen is full of guys capable of providing strong relief work, and last year’s pen wasn’t expected to be as dominant as it was, so Rays fans will be hoping for a similar pleasant surprise in 2011. On offense, there’s no question that this team got worse, but the shrewd signings of Damon and Ramirez could allow them to outperform expectations.

Why they might not: The losses of Crawford and Soriano were going to hurt regardless, but the fact that they ended up with the Rays’ two biggest division rivals adds insult to injury. In the always-competitive AL East, any step in the wrong direction hurts, and with both their offense and bullpen taking big steps back and the inexperience of their talented staff, this could be a down year for the Rays. This club may have to wait to contend until they begin to see returns from their talented group of prospects currently in the organization as well as those soon to be added in the upcoming draft.

Minnesota (Last year: AL Central Champions, 94-68)
Unlike the Rays, the Twins will look very similar to last year’s AL Central championship squad, as their main moves involved re-signing Carl Pavano and Jim Thome and exercising Jason Kubel’s $5.25 million option. Their biggest addition was Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a middle infielder who the Twins won in the posting process and eventually signed to a three-year, $14.3 million deal. Nishioka is only 25, and was strong on both offense and defense with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s NPB. He’ll replace Orlando Hudson at second, while shortstop JJ Hardy was shipped off to Baltimore and will be replaced by Alexi Casilla. They did take a big hit in the bullpen, losing Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Ron Mahay, but Joe Nathan will return after missing all of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery and they’ll retain closer Matt Capps, acquired at the trade deadline from Washington last year. Stars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are both recovering from injuries, with Mauer coming off a minor offseason surgery to clean out his knee and Morneau coming back from lingering concussion symptoms stemming from a collision at second base that ended his season on July 7th of last year. Mauer should be all right, but Morneau is still waiting for clearance to participate in games, with the Twins targeting Opening Day for his return. Whether he’ll be able to meet that deadline remains to be seen, but whether Morneau’s comeback is eventually successful will likely be a deciding factor in the success of the 2011 Twins.

Why they can do it again: This is basically the same team that took the Central last year. The bit of offense they’ll lose with the departure of their double-play combo will be more than offset if Morneau can make a healthy return. Their staff is solid from top to bottom and features Francisco Liriano, who has shown that he’s got ace potential when he’s healthy and on his game (as he was last year). Their bullpen will likely take a step back, but it was one of the best in the league last year, and they’ll get back a guy (Nathan) who hasn’t put up a FIP above 3 in his 6 seasons in Minnesota.

Why they might not: The question marks. Does Morneau come back healthy? Does Mauer’s knee cause him problems? Can Francisco Liriano stay off the DL? Will the bullpen implode without several of its key components from 2010? And finally, how good are the White Sox and Tigers? Both have improved, and if the Twins can’t put up a win total in the vicinity of last year’s, either team could catch up and take the Central.

Texas (Last year: AL West Champions, 90-72)
The AL-champion Rangers will be looking to do it again, but they will have a significantly tougher time in 2011. First of all, they lost Cliff Lee, who was the biggest prize of the offseason. In addition, they lost some key pieces on offense, including DH Vladimir Guerrero and catcher Bengie Molina. They did work hard to replace these players, their biggest splash coming in the form of a five-year deal for Adrian Beltre. Beltre, an excellent hitter and defender, will man the hot corner for Texas, allowing Michael Young to shift to DH to replace Guerrero. Young wasn’t happy about the way that deal went down, and requested a trade, but at this point it looks like he’ll be staying in Texas. The Rangers also traded reliever Frank Francisco, their closer in 2009 and a key piece of their bullpen last year, for Mike Napoli, who will replace Molina behind the plate. Free agent signing Yorvit Torrealba will also provide cover at the catching position. Arthur Rhodes, who is old as dirt but coming off a very strong year in Cincy, was signed to strengthen the bullpen, which should help offset the loss of Francisco. Finally, possibly their best pickup was a $3 million deal for Brandon Webb, a former Cy Young winner who had spent more than a full year recovering from a 2009 shoulder surgery. Webb’s contract is heavily incentivized, meaning he’ll make $3 million if he completely implodes and can’t make a comeback, but can make $8-10 million with a good year. Webb’s been looking good in workouts so far and if he comes back strong, providing value in excess of that $8-10 million should be pretty much automatic.

Why they can do it again: The team that got them to the World Series last year, minus Lee, is pretty much intact. The addition of Beltre will help on both defense and offense, and this fearsome lineup still features AL MVP Josh Hamilton along with a number of other potent bats. Though their pitching staff lacks a true ace (CJ Wilson, who produced 4.4 WAR last season, is their opening day starter), it has solid depth throughout, and if Webb can return to anything resembling his pre-injury form the potent offense should be able to carry them to another division title.

Why they might not: Losing Lee, quite possibly the best pitcher in the game, certainly hurts, as does the loss of Guerrero. Mitch Moreland will need to prove he’s their guy at first, and if he can’t, Michael Young and Mike Napoli will play there, opening up questions at DH or catcher. If they take a significant drop, Oakland will be right there to make them pay, as the A’s had an extremely strong offseason and will be looking to steal Texas’ division crown.

New York (Last year: 95-67, AL Wild Card)
The Yankees will send out a squad that looks a lot like last year’s, after resigning Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera on multiyear deals this offseason. However, they had a few losses that could hurt them in 2011. Andy Pettitte, a fixture in the Yanks’ rotation for 13 of the last 16 seasons, finally hung up his cleats at 38. Pettitte was coming off a fairly productive 2.3 WAR season in which he put up a FIP of 3.85 in 21 starts. Javier Vazquez, signed before the 2010 season after an excellent 2009 season with the Braves, proved a failed experiment in his return to the AL, and will look to regain his form in the NL East once again after catching on with the Marlins. Finally, Lance Berkman, who had come over from the Astros at the trade deadline, will be returning to the NL Central after signing with the Cardinals. They did add a few strong pieces, the most notable being Rafael Soriano. Soriano will take over 8th-inning duties, handing the ball to Rivera to form a shutdown back of the bullpen. They also brought in Russell Martin and Andruw Jones, both on one-year deals. Martin will take over duties behind the plate, while Jones will come off the bench as the fourth outfielder. Finally, they brought in Mark Prior, Freddy Garcia, and Bartolo Colon on minor-league deals to compete for spots at the back of their rotation. CC Sabathia is the team’s ace, with Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett slotting in behind him, but the fourth and fifth spots are up for grabs between those three pitchers and in-house options Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre.

Why they can do it again: They’re the Yankees. When you spend as much money as they do, you’re gonna have a pretty good shot. Their offense is star-studded, the back end of their bullpen is one of the best in the majors, and in Sabathia they have one of the most dominant starters in baseball. In addition, the Rays seem to have taken a big step back this offseason, which could result in the Yankees and Red Sox battling for both the division crown and Wild Card, with both playing postseason baseball.

Why they might not: The back end of their rotation is a HUGE question mark. Any time Bartolo Colon is in the discussion to break camp with a rotation spot, that’s not a good thing. After three strong years to begin his career, Russell Martin has put up wRC+ of 85 and 88 in the last two seasons, which led to his non-tender by the Dodgers. They can’t feel too comfortable with him starting the season behind the plate, although top prospect Jesus Montero could be a strong option if he falters.