The Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies aren't baseball's only contenders. Entering spring training, here's a look at their top challengers.
By Ken Rosenthal FoxSports
Red Sox and Phillies, Phillies and Red Sox. Why even play the season? Just match the biggest winners of the offseason in a best-of-162, then pair them again in the World Series.
Fortunately, baseball doesn't work that way. Pitchers and catchers report this week, and, by golly, all 30 clubs will participate in the regular season, as scheduled.
Based on recent history, it's certainly possible that either the Philadelphia Phillies or Boston Red Sox will not make the World Series. It's even possible that both will stumble and we'll end up with something crazy like, I don't know, Giants-Rangers.
Without further ado, then, here are six teams in each league that could overtake the almighty Phillies and Red Sox. Because I'm in a generous mood, this being the start of spring training, I'm even adding an honorable mention in each league.
A's: That's right, the A's. The Rangers have lost left-hander Cliff Lee and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero and soon might trade a third leader, infielder Michael Young. The Angels added outfielder Vernon Wells and will benefit from the return of first baseman Kendry Morales, but their offense still looks short.
The A's led the AL in rotation ERA last season by 0.36 earned runs per game. Their starters are still young, still improving and now the rest of the club is catching up. Designated hitter Hideki Matsui and outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham deepen the lineup; right-hander Grant Balfour and lefty Brian Fuentes do the same for the bullpen.
Yankees: We can dwell on the negative: The almost comically thin rotation for a $200 million team, the aging of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, etc. But, remember, the Yankees scored the most runs in the majors last season by a wide margin. They’ve added right-hander Rafael Soriano and left-hander Pedro Feliciano to a bullpen that ranked third in the AL in ERA. They’re not going to stink, OK?
At least one unsuspecting starting pitcher – Francisco Liriano? Fausto Carmona? Felix Hernandez? – will find himself in pinstripes before the summer is over. At the moment, the rotation is one injury away from a genuine crisis. But the rest of the team is so good, the Yankees should be quite strong, anyway.
Twins: Remember, the Twins won 94 games and the 2010 AL Central title with closer Joe Nathan out the entire season and first baseman Justin Morneau sidelined by a concussion after July 7. Morneau, in particular, remains a question entering '11. But if both stars again become major contributors, look out.
The Twins lost six relievers to free agency, three of whom they had added during the season. Nathan and Matt Capps, though, loom as imposing anchors. And you know the Twins; they'll figure out the rest. The new, unproven middle infield of Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka actually might be a greater concern.
White Sox: I would love them – love them – if I had any clue what to expect from right-hander Jake Peavy. Lefty Chris Sale is the leading alternative if Peavy recovers slowly from surgery to repair a torn muscle near his right shoulder. But the White Sox will be that much better if they could close with Sale and use lefty Matt Thornton and newcomers Jesse Crain and Will Ohman in setup roles.
Designated hitter Adam Dunn is the White Sox's most notable addition, but don’t overlook the infield. The Sox’s quartet cannot match the Yankees’, but the emergence of Brent Morel at third and return to form by Gordon Beckham at second would give them one of the game’s most impressive groups.
The outfield of Ryan Raburn, Austin Jackson and Magglio Ordonez lacks a sure thing. Jackson benefited last season from a high batting average on balls in play. The infield beyond first baseman Miguel Cabrera also is nothing special, and Cabrera is the team’s only true slugger. Catcher/DH Victor Martinez is more of a gap-to-gap hitter, and moving from Fenway Park to Comerica should further reduce his power.
Rangers: And, finally, the defending champions.
There is still a lot to like, particularly if Young remains with the club and provides depth at multiple positions. But the Rangers traded for Lee last season and attempted to obtain righties Zack Greinke and Matt Garza this winter for one reason – their lack of a top-of-the-rotation starter.
The bullpen remains deep. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will improve both the offense and defense. But to repeat as league champions, the Rangers will need to come up with some facsimile of Lee, be it Brandon Webb, Neftali Feliz or – more likely – some addition through a trade.
Honorable mention Angels: They were heavily criticized this offseason, both for the deals that they didn't make and the deals they did. Yet this is not a bad club, thanks to a formidable rotation and potentially dominant bullpen. The question is whether they're 85-win good.
Giants: Not much of an offseason, other than losing infielder Juan Uribe and swapping out one old shortstop, Edgar Renteria, for another, Miguel Tejada. But the return of super-utility man Mark DeRosa and/or arrival of rookie first baseman Brandon Belt could provide fresh energy. The revival of third baseman Pablo Sandoval would help compensate for any regressions by first baseman Aubrey Huff and center fielder Andres Torres. The bullpen returns intact.
The only concern about the rotation is a potential carryover effect from the postseason. Right-hander Tim Lincecum threw a total of 249-1/3 innings and righty Matt Cain 244-2/3, including playoffs. Rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner, who might have been shut down in September if the team had not needed him, pitched a combined 214-1/3 between Triple-A and the majors. Lefty Jonathan Sanchez worked 213-1/3, 50 more than his previous high.
Well, Cain and Bumgarner are workhorses, and Lincecum's innings jump was the smallest of the group. Each of those three is 26 or younger. Sanchez is only 28.
Rockies: Know why Young would be a perfect addition? The Rockies, for all their talent and late-season magic, need to learn to play consistently over 162 games.
Free-agent addition Ty Wigginton, a grinder, should help. So might the hiring of hitting coach Carney Lansford, who is expected to be a positive influence on young hitters such as third baseman Ian Stewart, outfielder Seth Smith and catcher Chris Iannetta.
Reds: Didn’t love their offseason. The Reds signed first baseman Joey Votto, right fielder Jay Bruce and right-handers Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto to contract extensions but did little else, other than add Renteria at shortstop and Fred Lewis in the outfield.
If the Reds had traded for Greinke, we probably would be talking about them as a true World Series threat. They, not the Phillies, were the team that led the NL in runs last season.
Still, lefty reliever Aroldis Chapman will be with the club from the start of the season, and the Reds are built around players in their prime and pre-prime – players who should only get better.
Braves: So much depends on the health of Chipper Jones, who turns 39 on April 24. If Jones recovers from knee surgery and holds down third base, the Braves can keep Martin Prado in left field. If not, Prado will go to third and the team once again will face a void in left.
Yes, the Braves play in the same division as the Phillies. The good thing is, they also play in the same division as the Mets, Marlins and Nationals. The wild card should be entirely within reach and the team's rotation is good enough to plow through a postseason. Second baseman Dan Uggla will provide grit as well as power, and the young back-end relievers, righty Craig Kimbrel and lefty Jonny Venters, will not scare.
Brewers: This year’s Mariners? That’s too harsh, but let’s not put the Crew in the World Series just yet.
General manager Doug Melvin did what he had to do, dramatically upgrading his rotation by acquiring right-handers Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Still, this is far from a complete team. Middle-infield defense could be an issue. Carlos Gomez is hardly a championship center fielder. The bullpen is less of a question than it was last season, but still a question.
Still, you have to like the lineup, which ranked fourth in the NL in runs last season, and the front four of Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Marcum and Randy Wolf. Should be a fun summer in Milwaukee.
Cardinals: First off, let’s end any discussion that first baseman Albert Pujols, if unsigned, might be “a distraction.” Pujols is probably the least distracted player in the major leagues. Tony La Russa is probably the least distracted manager. Pujols would handle his pending free agency quite simply: He would not talk about it. End of distraction.
The Cardinals cannot help but be good, not with Pujols and left fielder Matt Holliday anchoring their lineup and Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook heading their rotation. Rival clubs question the defense of new shortstop Ryan Theriot and right fielder Lance Berkman, and third baseman David Freese frequently is hurt. But, hey, they’re the Cardinals. Albert’s last hurrah could be quite grand.
Honorable mention Cubs: The Dodgers were my other possibility here, but the Cubs are more intriguing. I like the Cubs better than most people. I like their offseason additions – Garza, first baseman Carlos Pena, right-hander Kerry Wood. I like their young talent. And I like new manager Mike Quade, who energized the club and went 24-13 after taking over for Lou Piniella.
The Cubs lack a legitimate leadoff hitter. They need third baseman Aramis Ramirez to re-emerge as an offensive force and for right-hander Carlos Zambrano to remain sane. But don’t rule out this club. The future – outfielder Tyler Colvin, shortstop Starlin Castro, right-hander Andrew Cashner, et al – is bright. And the present is better than it appears.