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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A look ahead at the 2011 American League

This article was written as part of a project for the United Cardinal Bloggers.  Check out more great articles, including other AL predictions at www.unitedcardinalbloggers.com.

I'll refrain from a lot of detail, but as I look ahead at the 2011 American League, I've formed some opinions.  What's that you say, you'd like to read them?  Well, be my guest...

AL East:

BOS wins the ALE, because they're just stacked with offense, in the most offensively-driven division (league) in baseball...not to mention very good pitching, and a solid manager in Terry Francona.  I really think they are the class of the East this year, and I expect them to win without a whole lot of exciting games (race-wise) in September.  NYY doesn't have the pitching in my opinion, to keep themselves in the race, and unless they pull off a big deal, I don't see them making a run.  TB has something like 12 of the first 87 draft picks this summer, so while this year may not be great (I think they can compete, but doubtful they make the postseason--having Manny around a bunch of young players on a team that's not in first place gives me pause), the next year or two is when TB is much better positioned to make another run at the title.   TOR's situation intrigues me.  Cito is gone, which is a huge loss to the club, and Anthopolous moved Wells and his big contract.  But, right after that, he inked Bautista to a big contract.  First year under new management, aside from the obvious challenges of playing in the ALE...they're not in the conversation for winning this division.  BAL?  Now these guys are gonna be exciting to watch!  Just look at their depth chart and you might find a few surprises.  More familiar names than you've seen in Baltimore in quite some time--you may have forgotten they acquired that player, or perhaps didn't realize they signed that guy.  Add it all up, and let Buck Showalter call the shots in his first full season at the helm, and these guys should really start to draw the crowds again.  Obviously, I don't expect them to be a contender, but it's a step in the right direction, getting some sticks to protect Markakis, Wieters, and some of the other kids that had been exposed in that lineup to this point.  Vladdy, D. Lee, Reynolds now in the mix...it looks like this great historical franchise is once again headed in the right direction.  PIT & KC could learn something from them.

AL West:

LAA is my call here, as I expect them to score a lot of runs.  I'm looking forward to checking back on this post in October to see how badly they outscored the rest of the division--I'm NOT expecting it to be close.  Morales is back & now Vernon Wells has been added to the mix, this has the potential to be a dangerous lineup.  With Weaver, who is quote possibly the most overlooked, underrated pitcher in the game today, leading that rotation, they're going to be in just about every game.  I don't get too high on prospects until they show me what they can do at the big league level, but Trout appears to be the real deal, many baseball people saying they'd choose him over Harper, given the choice.  Oh yeah, then on top of it all, you've the brilliant Mike Scioscia running the ballclub.  With money to spend in July if need be, I'm of the opinion that defending AL Champion Rangers or not, the Angels are the team to beat in the West this year.  I say that because SEA sucks, and everybody knows it.  Other than King Felix putting on a clinic every 5th day, and a possible "Ken Griffey Jr. Day" sometime in July, there's not much to get excited about if you're a Mariners fan.  OAK won't win because of low run production.  Their pitching could be absolutely sick, though--possibly the best staff in the ALW, and with the good news on Bailey's arm, they might even be able to close out games if they find themselves with a late lead.  TEX?  I don't know WHAT to make of what's going on down there!  I'm trying to keep everything in perspective by reminding myself that they just bought that team in August.  But, as much as I want to believe that having Nolan Ryan in charge can only be good for a ballclub, I can't help but wonder.  Greenberg's departure earlier this month, they missed out on Lee, and then they spent that [Cliff Lee] money doing two things at once: Acquiring Beltre & pissing off the franchise player.  There just seems to be an awful lot of internal turmoil down there, and sooner or later that stuff ALWAYS finds its way onto the field.  Or maybe it's just that they're still getting things set up the way they want down there, and in this age of internet access, blogs, satellite radio...etc, we just hear more about it than we have in the past.  Either way, "CJ Wilson is your Opening Day starter" last week has turned into "Colby Lewis is your Opening Day starter", and now back to Wilson...either way, that just doesn't quite do it for me.

AL Central:

The ALC could be the best division to watch for a race all year long.  I'm talking every...single...day could have more than one team sharing first place!  MIN could win it--their staff and lineup, should it include a healthy Morneau (which I'm skeptical about), could certainly be a legitimate contender.  These guys are right there every year, and are starting to build some postseason experience, even if most of it has been being swept by NYY.  DET could also win--they're young enough, they have Miggy & VMart to help lead the offense, and that's formidable.  Their rotation isn't as deep as they'd probably like (whose is?), but if Scherzer emerges as a legit #2 guy, things could work out.   CWS could win too--these guys have pitching.  Even if Peavy, who had looked good until the recent shoulder setback, doesn't return to his old self, they're not in bad shape.  Remember the pitching the 2005 World Series?  Konerko is back, and the Big Donkey is gonna mash in that park--NO reason why he doesn't hit 40 bombs & drive in 125 this year, the Sox are legit.  CLE & KC aren't in the discussion yet again this year--just keepin' it real.   I expect a very close race in the ALC this year, and would not be the least bit surprised to see game #163 played in that division again this year.  As much as I like DET & MIN, I have to pick CWS as the team that ends the season on top in the Central, though it's a tough call to make.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A power shift in MLB? Maybe so.

Are the scales starting to tip in favor of the players?

   I've heard people say that they don't like to watch baseball because "it's boring".  If this is you, please locate the little red "X" in the upper right-hand corner of this browser window.  You may want to click it to close this out if you think watching baseball is boring, because I'm about to talk about how exciting this OFFSEASON was.

   Here's a fun fact for you: Did you know that every episode of the 90's sitcom "Friends" was officially titled "The one where _________".  As in, "The one where Ross discusses the element of surprise", for example.  I think it's pretty safe to say that, when talking about the 2010-2011 MLB offseason, it could be titled, "The one with Cliff Lee".  For weeks and weeks, everyone speculated between the offers he'd field from the Rangers and the Yankees.  National headlines were all, "John Daniels got on a plane and went to Arkansas".  Then other national headlines were like,  "Oh, yeah?  So did Cashman, so there."  Debates & "leaked offers" were the talk of baseball, trying to decode language and see if either team would offer Lee that elusive 7th year in their contract offer, remember?

   Anyway, turns out the whole thing was for naught.  Lee signed a deal to go [back] to Philadelphia for less total money, AND fewer guaranteed years.  WHAT?!  Yes!  Then, Lance Berkman signed a 1-year $8M deal with the Cardinals, turning down as much as $10M from at least one other club, according to sources.  Shortly thereafter, Jim Thome inked a deal for (you guessed it) less money to return to Target Field, and play for the twins again in 2011.

   These are three big names in the game, one of which was the biggest free agent on the market during this offseason.  The other two, while no longer superstars, are among the better-known names in the game, and certainly had a market this past winter.  My point is that unlike in the past, we saw players accepting offers of less money and/or fewer guaranteed years in order to play for the team they most desired.

   I asked John Mozeliak what his thoughts were on this seeming "shift of power, away from the agents & organizations, and back towards the players".  He conceded that it was interesting to say the very least, and has certainly raised some eyebrows, but said that at the end of the day, the decision always does (and has) rested with the player.  Then he went on to point out that the "deals like Werth & Crawford are the ones that move the needle".

   An excellent point was made by someone on the MLBNetwork (can't recall who said it), speaking about the Cliff Lee deal, though it applies everywhere:  The difference between $5 million and $25 million is a lot--It's a difference that changes your lifestyle.  $5M is a lot of money, but you can't live like you could if you had $25M.  Now multiply that by 5, 6 or 7 (years of a contract), and the difference adds up in a hurry!  Imagine the difference in lifestyle a person would have if rather than earning $30M over a six-year span, they earned $150M--an extra $120M makes a tremendous difference!  But, the difference between $120M and $132M (one offer reportedly made by the Yankees for the services of Cliff Lee) isn't all that much.  Sure, $12M is a lot of money, but it isn't enough, at that dollar level, to impact a person's lifestyle, and that's the key--the lifestyle.  It's not like a guy can finally *now* afford to buy that exotic car that had been out of his price range until now, or build that mansion, or vacation in Dubai...etc. with $132M, but he couldn't have afforded it with the paltry $120M.  There's no change in lifestyle, and I believe that is what's driving this shift of power.  Put another way, "This isn't your father's twelve million dollars".

   Let me break it down for you like this: Say I walk into McDonald's.  There are a number of lines from which I could place my order.  There are only 4 items on the menu--all slightly different-sized packages of chicken McNuggets.  There's a 45,000-pack, a 41,500-pack, a 46,000-pack, and a 43,750-pack.  In any case, I'm gonna end up with more chicken McNuggets than I could ever realistically eat.  So, the only real decision to make is: which line do I want to order from?  Well, there are considerations to be made...do I choose the shortest line?  The line with the cutest girl taking orders?  The one closest to the drink machine, or some other factor?  Maybe my decision-making process includes a variety of factors, some of which include what I've mentioned, maybe others of which based on things not mentioned here.  At the end of the day, I'll never be able to eat all those McNuggets, no matter which "pack" I get.  Understanding that, I no longer prioritize "how many McNuggets am I going to get today?" as my number one consideration, and other factors begin to rise to the upper echelons of my order of prioritizing what's important.

   I believe we've reached somewhat of a plateau in baseball, and players are becoming increasingly willing to leave money on the table if it means they can enjoy some of the other things that they deem important when deciding where to play.  In the years to come, this could really help level the playing field far more than any luxury tax, salary cap, or even a salary floor.  Think about the days before television revenue became such a factor in baseball: Most teams were in pretty much the same boat.  I think it's plausible to think that we just may be headed back in that direction sooner rather than later.  Imagine it, competitive balance across most of baseball, and living in a world where the athletes consider factors other than money when deciding where they want to play.  A game where the playing field is more level, and teams finances play a less important role in where a player chooses to sign?  I'm lovin' it!