Baseball predictions for 2011
The Phillies will need their starting rotation to carry them back to October
The Orioles and Padres will switch places in the game's pecking order
Big names will be on the trading block, possibly including Albert Pujols
1. The Phillies will win fewer than 96 games. That figure is the current line for the Phillies' 2011 win total set by your finer, ahem, establishments. It's easy to win December: make the biggest trade, sign the biggest free agent, lose the least talent, and no one is shredding their elbows or having trouble locating their fastball or just plain feeling old. It's harder to win September, when stat lines give way to baseball games, bad bounces, human frailty. It was three years ago that pundits -- myself included -- were raving about the Tigers' 1,000-run offense in the wake of their trades for Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cabrera. That team won 74 games, finished last and fell just 179 tallies shy of a grand.
This isn't to say that the Phillies aren't the best team in the NL or won't win the NL East for the fifth year in a row. It's merely an acknowledgement that despite adding Cliff Lee, they're an aging team that had some injury and performance issues last year, and whose bullpen is always an adventure. It's a lot to ask these four starters -- three of whom will be at least 32 years old next year -- to carry the roster. Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels have combined for more than 60 wins in any season just once, in 2008. The 1993 Braves had four starters younger than all four of the Phillies' hurlers, and they made 142 starts and racked up 75 wins for a 104-win team. That's the gold standard in the free-agent era, and it will remain so a year from now.
2. The Orioles will be next year's Padres. San Diego's storybook run ended just shy of success, the team falling to the Giants on the final day of the season to miss the NL West title and the postseason by one game. The Orioles will meet the same playoff-less fate in the loaded AL East, but not before getting the attention of the industry with their impressive set of young pitchers. Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Jake Arrieta are already in the majors, and top prospect Zach Britton could join them by midseason. The offense isn't yet ready for prime time, though it does include the underrated Nick Markakis and forgotten Matt Wieters. Look for the Orioles to finish above .500 for the first time since 1997.
3. The Padres will be next year's Orioles. As much fun as 2010 was for the Padres, it wasn't built on a sustainable base of talent, but rather a collection of relievers and marginal veterans having big years, with just a couple of truly great players -- one of whom, Adrian Gonzalez, is no longer a Padre. The Padres have worked to improve their run prevention, upgrading the defense at second base, shortstop and center field; however, they have absolutely no power and will have an extremely poor offense, even accounting for their home park. They are, however, on the right track in the long term.
4. No managers will be fired. We're exiting a period of great transition in the skipper's seat: Just 16 of 30 managers held their current jobs on the last day of the 2009 season, so that's 14 managers who can reasonably be expected to have their job through '11. Of the other 16, most have either a World Series appearance in the last couple of years, fairly new Manager of the Year hardware or long-term security. Only Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox (who won a World Series way back in 2005), Bob Geren of the A's and Jim Riggleman of the Nationals don't fit these categories, and two of those helm teams that should be in the race all year long. It should be a very quiet year on the chopping block.
5. Breakout stars. We thrilled last season to the emergence of players such as Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez and David Price, all taking steps forward to become stars, even award candidates. Players who may make that leap in 2011 include Braves starter Tommy Hanson, Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler, A's starter Brett Anderson and Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs.
6. Trades galore. Enjoying this offseason, with stars like Adrian Gonzalez and Zack Greinke being moved to new teams? Wait until the summer, when you could see Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Heath Bell, Aramis Ramirez and Wandy Rodriguez, just to name five, on the market. Watch the Cardinals carefully: If they can't sign Albert Pujols and fall out of the race, they could look to move both the three-time MVP and Chris Carpenter if the players will approve deals.
7. Off-field issues will be front and center. It seems that the expansion of the postseason, to include a second wild card team and a best-of-three Coin Flip Series each year, is inevitable. This terrible idea with the potential to turn the regular season upside down may be reality for the 2012 season, and if announced, will be a huge story. Instant replay was pushed to the back burner during a postseason that -- after the first few days -- lacked the kind of human element we saw in 2009. However, we will see some expansion of its use by the end of the year. Finally, owners and players are both ramping up for the next round of collective bargaining, in which changes to the draft, payroll restraints and the use of revenue-sharing funds will all be hot-button issues.
8. Ticket prices fall. Baseball is broadly healthy, with localized problems. In some markets, the combination of high supply, spotty demand and a shaky economy is going to push teams to do whatever they can to get people to the ballpark. The Indians recently announced ticket-price cuts for 2011, and you can expect a number of other teams to follow, if perhaps not quite so loudly. For teams, the marginal cost of additional attendees is close to zero, while the potential revenue they represent if they get to the game -- where they can spend on parking, refreshments and souvenirs, and possibly become repeat customers -- is high. Look for bad teams in a number of cities to cut prices in creative ways in an attempt to bring the locals back to baseball.
9. Parity reigns. Of the eight teams to make the 2010 postseason, just two -- the Yankees and Phillies -- will return in 2011, as the Red Sox, White Sox, A's, Brewers, Rockies and Dodgers create a near-complete turnover of baseball's Elite Eight. Once again, more than half the game's teams are buyers or reported buyers at the trade deadline, and about that many head into September a hot streak from a playoff spot.
10. The Red Sox will win the World Series. Paralleling the Yankees' path in 2009, the Red Sox add the top free agent and top trade target in the game, making themselves significantly better after an injury-plagued off-year. The additions help spur them to the best record in baseball and a romp through the playoffs, yielding a third World Series championship in eight seasons.
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