The 2011 baseball season begins Thursday with six games that precede a full opening weekend of action, thus effectively putting an end to the traditional Sunday night/Monday morning opener of years past.
The season starts off with haves and have-nots. Only a handful of teams are given a realistic chance to win the World Series next fall. By most accounts Boston and Philadelphia are projected to meet. The New York Yankees, as usual, are expected to offer the greatest challenge to the Red Sox.
In the National League Philly is expected to be challenged by the defending champion San Francisco although the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cincinnati are also given strong consideration to make the playoffs.
In the AL East, Boston is the solid favorite to win the division following several key offseason moves that added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to an already potent lineup that returns a pair of key stars who missed much of the second half of last season, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.
The pitching is solid and it would not be a surprise to see the Red Sox win the East by a surprisingly comfortable margin. The Yanks are an aging team with major questions with their pitching. Tampa Bay lost too many key players this off-season and will be waiting for their next crop of young talent to develop.
The AL Central figures to be a three team race with Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit. The edge goes to the Twins with the return of several key players from injury last season – Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and closer Joe Nathan. The White Sox and Tigers have more visible managers with the outspoken Ozzie Guillen and the accomplished Jim Leyland but the Twins’ Ron Gardenhire has the best balanced and deepest talent in the division.
Texas seeks to defend its AL West title but the defending AL Champs won’t catch anyone by surprise as they did in 2010. The pitching is weaker with a rotation of starters that collectively had career seasons. The LA Angels should rebound from winning just 80 games last season after having won between 89 and 100 games from 2004 through 2009.
With Dan Haren and Jered Weaver the Halos have as solid a 1-2 tandem as any team in the league and the offense is expected to be improved. A fashionable dark horse to make the playoffs is Oakland, with a nucleus of developing talent on the verge of blossoming. Ultimately the nod goes to the Angels who are capably managed by Mike Scioscia and have made the playoffs 6 times in his 11 seasons at the helm, with one World Series title.
Philadelphia is the class of the NL East with one of the best starting rotations in baseball history. Projected to win 97 games by the odds makers, the Phillies could easily exceed the century mark if the quartet of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt stay healthy enough to make close to their expected 140 combined starts.
Atlanta might pose the most serious challenger but should have to settle as a Wild Card contender. The Mets and Marlins may have to be content having winning records as achievable goals. Washington will bide time until 2012 when the injured Stephen Strasburg and the phenom Bryce Harper might turn around a team that could lose 100.
The NL Central should be baseball’s most contentious division with Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis all capable of finishing first. St. Louis will be hampered by the loss of their ace, Adam Wainwright, for the season but the Cardinals have the best player in the division, Albert Pujols, playing for a long term mega contract.
The Reds are defending division champs and did not suffer significant off season losses. Milwaukee is expected to contend after acquiring Zack Greinke from Kansas City and the Cubs have plenty of talent and finished last season 24-13 under interim, and now full time manager, Mike Quade. With none of the four teams truly outstanding it might take only 86 wins to capture the title. Ultimately the call is Milwaukee.
San Francisco has the best pitching in the NL West and the defending World Series champions are favored to repeat their division title. Both Colorado and the LA Dodgers are expected to be serious contenders. The Rockies will again have a potent offense and improved pitching. The Dodgers will be an interesting team to watch as ex-Yankee Don Mattingly gets his first chance to manage, inheriting a team with solid pitching but suspect hitting.
The Giants arguably have the deepest pitching but may be the weakest hitting team of the trio. And they will have a pair of stars from last season – catcher Buster Posey and left handed starter Madison Bumgarner – who were not with the Giants for all of 2010, being called up after the season started and enjoying outstanding rookie campaigns. The edge goes to the Giants but the Dodgers should be a factor deep into September.
Here’s the forecast:
Division winners: Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Francisco in the NL. Boston, Minnesota and LA Angels in the AL. Atlanta to win the NL Wild Card and the Chicago White Sox in the AL.
World Series: Boston to meet Philadelphia. The Red Sox to capture their third World Series title in less than a decade following nearly a century of frustration in which they went 86 seasons without a title.
Here’s a look at four series to be played over the season’s opening weekend.
Brewers at Reds: Both teams have plenty of offense that will overshadow decent pitching. The Brewers’ Prince Fielder is poised for a huge season while the Reds’ 2010 NL MVP, Joey Votto, seeks to show he is not a one season wonder as an elite player. With Zack Greinke sidelined for Milwaukee there will be no overpowering starter in this series. As such we could see the starters not go deep into these early games and both offenses getting off to strong starts. Neither side should have much of an advantage on the mound.
• Either team an underdog of +125 or more.
• OVER 8½ or lower in any matchup.
• OVER 9 or lower in games not started by Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo or Shaun Marcum.
Giants at Dodgers: Both teams have plenty of pitching in the starting rotation and bullpen. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw is on the verge of becoming baseball’s next dominant starter. The Giants’ Tim Lincecum is already in the elite class with the next three in their rotation capable of being number two starters on most other clubs. Neither team is expected to have an above average offense with most of the run production coming from stringing hits together rather than from power surges.
PREFERRED PLAYS :
• UNDER 7 or less in any matchup.
• Look to the Underdog in the likely Kershaw/Lincecum opener.
• Giants -120 or less (or the underdog) in starts by Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez or Madison Bumgarner against any Dodger starter other than Kershaw.
Tigers at Yankees: Phil Hughes started to emerge as a solid starter last season but beyond that duo the rest of rotation has concerns, not the least of which is the talented but enigmatic AJ Burnett. Detroit’s staff is anchored by Justin Verlander and young Max Scherzer is poised for a breakout season. Both teams have plenty of offense and solid closers.
PREFERRED PLAYS :
• Tigers +130, UNDER 8 with Verlander against Sabathia in Thursday’s likely opener matchup.
• Tigers +150, UNDER 9 or more with Scherzer vs Hughes.
• Over 9 or lower in any matchup not involving any of those 4.
Red Sox at Rangers: Texas will feature a roster that has underdone some overhaul following last season. Josh Hamilton will be counted upon to have another big season after winning the AL MVP. The pitching, considered strong, has to prove that last season was no fluke. Boston’s pitching is solid. If John Lackey and Josh Beckett can return to prior form, the Sox will be tough to beat.
• OVER 9 or lower in any matchup.
• Red Sox -125 in any matchup.
• Rangers +130 in any matchup.