As the calendar flips to spring, America welcomes one of its finest traditions: Opening Day. With its blank slate, Opening Day brings limitless possibility. Last year’s Pirates could be tomorrow’s Rays. The narrative of baseball begins anew, and hope springs eternal from San Francisco to St. Pete.
Of course, not all hope is created equal — some dreams are more realistic than others. As baseball fans, we have the privilege of watching the drama unfold. There will be both pleasant surprise and crushing disappointment, and not even Bud Selig knows where this 162-game march will lead. But it can’t hurt to guess. With that, I give you my pre-season picks for October. Good tidings for Opening Day.
AL East Champs:
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox may be the most complete team in baseball. The losses of Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre might sting, but Sox fans will move on quickly when they see Carl Crawford manning the Green Monstah and Adrian Gonzalez driving bombs over it. With Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury finally healthy after a long 2010, this lineup will rake with the best of ‘em. The key for Boston, however, lies with their rotation. If Josh Beckett can learn to pitch without an overpowering fastball and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz can maintain 2010 form, this rotation will take the Sox places. The bullpen isn’t too shabby either, with newcomer Bobby Jenks joining Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard in a trio that can throw smoke. If everyone stays healthy and plays to their potential, this team has all the pieces of a World Series contender.
AL Central Champs:
Don’t ever sleep on the Twins. Somehow, Ron Gardenhire’s scrappy crew always manages to find a way atop its division come September, having won six of the last nine Central crowns. They managed to make the postseason last year without Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan and with injury questions surrounding perennial MVP freak show Joe Mauer. With these three all healthy and ready to contribute, the sky is the limit in Minnesota. Mauer, Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome will give opposing pitchers headaches with their remarkable combination of power and patience. On the mound, the team’s strategy is pretty simple — walk no one and trust your stuff. Ace Francisco Liriano will continue to baffle hitters. If Yankee nemesis Carl Pavano can blossom into the solid number two starter that Minnesota hopes, this team will be right back where it belongs comes October. Now … if only they can find a way to get past those pesky Yanks in the divisional round …
AL West Champs:
There’s a lot to like about the Rangers, fresh off of their first AL pennant. The lineup is absolutely loaded, with sluggers Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre promising to light up the sky in the hitter-friendly confines of Arlington. C.J. Wilson has grown into a true ace, and should once again anchor the staff from the left side. Neftali Feliz and his high-octane fastball will keep manager Ron Washington comfortable in close games. The one question mark is rotation depth. Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter found a way to baffle the Yankees in the ALCS last autumn, but these two will have to perform at their absolute best if the Rangers hope to make another run at the grand prize. One source of hope is reclamation project Brandon Webb. If he can come anywhere near his Cy Young form, the loss of Cliff Lee will be much easier to stomach.
AL Wild Card:
New York Yankees
This one is tough, and I might be more than a little biased. I love the Yankees’ offense this season. A-Rod is red hot in spring training, and the slugger claims this is the best he’s felt since 2007. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira all look primed for bounce-back years, while Robinson Cano may be the best 5-hitter in history. This lineup is absolutely frightening from top to bottom. With Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera locking down the eighth and ninth innings, the Yanks will be playing a lot of 7-inning games. The question, of course, is the starting staff. C.C. Sabathia will shine as usual, but the question marks pile up after that. Can A.J. Burnett get his head right? Will Ivan Nova be a viable major league starter? If the Yankees can get some production from the back end of the rotation and import an ace at the trade deadline, they have a chance to get back to October.
But don’t sleep on the Rays. A lot of folks are down on Tampa following the exodus of Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano and Carlos Pena. Losing Crawford hurts, but closers are overrated and Pena finished last season on the interstate. This team’s prospect pool is deep enough to make up for those losses — and then some. David Price and James Shield pack a powerful one-two punch atop the rotation, but the real source of excitement in Tampa is the development of starting prospects Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson. If Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon have anything left in the tank, this team might have gotten better, not worse. The Yankees will have to watch out.
NL East Champs: Philadelphia Phillies
Dominant starting pitching is the most valuable commodity in baseball, and the Phillies have it in historic proportions. The Phillies’ starters aren’t just dominant—they’re also durable. Indeed, the “Phab Phour” make Philly early World Series favorites. That said, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine in Pennsylvania. With the loss of Jayson Werth, the injury to Chase Utley and the regression of Ryan Howard, the lineup no longer packs the punch it did in 2008. Brad Lidge, who may miss the entire season, is a shaky closer in an even shakier bullpen. The team has also stretched their payroll as far as it can go, and the hopes of acquiring another Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline are slim at best. Still, there’s no reason to believe the Phillies can’t ride their awesome starting pitching deep into October. They might want to start greasing those poles on Broad Street…
NL Central Champs: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers bet big on their 2011 squad. With Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart (currently injured), the offense was already there. The front office went out and mortgaged the entire farm system to put Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum in the rotation alongside Yovanni Gallardo. If those three can stay out of injury trouble, look out. But there are no guarantees here. Greinke has a history of mental issues and did not follow up his 2009 Cy Young season with a strong 2010. Gallardo and Marcum have both seen more than their fair shares of DL stints. The bullpen is also nothing to write home about, with John Axford manning the ninth inning. Still, the rotation upside and potent offense give this team legitimate hope to return to the postseason for the third time in franchise history. The Brew Crew will have to watch their backs, though — Cincinnati is a young team that is only getting better, while the Cardinals are fighting tooth and nail to give Albert Pujols a reason not to end up in a Cubs uniform next March.
NL West Champs:
San Francisco Giants
It’s tough to predict what will become of the defending champs. Once again, the Giants have pieced together a patchwork offense that will rely on major contributions from Aubrey Huff, Miguel Tejada and sophomore Buster Posey. That said, this franchise has proven that you can win with standout starting pitching. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jon Sanchez all return to the NL’s second-best staff, and the development of talented hurler Madison Bumgarner will round out a fiery rotation. Fortunately for the Giants, they play in a pretty terrible division. Colorado has some talented position players and Bud Black has turned trash into treasure in San Diego, but it’s hard to imagine anyone catching San Francisco for a playoff spot this year.
NL Wild Card:
The future is bright in Atlanta. Uber-prospects Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward can flat-out rake, and they’re not alone in what should be a pretty prolific offense: Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, Chipper Jones and Alex Gonzalez highlight a lineup that should provide plenty of pop. The rotation isn’t too shabby either — Tommy Hanson has all the trappings of a future ace, and most people don’t realize that Tim Hudson won 17 games with a 2.83 ERA last season. If Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens can play up to their potential, this rotation could take the Braves a long way. Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters can also bring it in the bullpen. Watch out for a hot Atlanta team that is only getting better. They can’t match Philadelphia’s awesome rotation, but they get the pre-season nod over wild card contenders Cincinnati, St. Louis and Colorado.
John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.