“Facing” the Facts in MLB For 2011

As is the case each March, spring training camps in Arizona and Florida feature no fewer than 28 teams (apologies to fans in Cleveland and Pittsburgh) excitedly preparing for the eight-month grind of a season ahead. Teams have renewed optimism and self-assured confidence in their faith that this may well be "the year." Veterans who have been peddling their baseball wares for the same team for years merge with new acquisitions, fresh-faced youngsters, and coaching staffs and are each comparably eager to make their mark on the 2011 MLB season.

The offseason leading into the fast-approaching 2011 campaign has no shortage of big-names changing teams, attention-grabbing prospects looking to break out, and question marks needing to be answered in the areas of underperformance and injury. And while the gusting winds of change are leading experts and amateurs alike to predictions of success from South Beach to Puget Sound, the reality is only a small handful of Major League Baseball's 30 franchises stand to have a reasonable shot at even making the postseason, much less playing for a World Series pennant.

Have teams like the Brewers, White Sox, Padres, and Dodgers made enough quality moves to truly be viable contenders? Have last year's title combatants in Arlington and San Francisco remained in the mix? What do we make of the perennial "big boys" in New York, Boston, and Philly? Do their moves make the 2011 season a foregone conclusion?

While those arguments will rage on well into the "dog days" of summer, the one underlying truth that cannot be debated is that a good number of teams made some significant "facelifts" to their teams. In homage to that oft-used metaphor, this article takes a look through the plastic surgeon's post-operative eye in identifying successes in failures by MLB teams in working towards a serviceable product in 2011.

Greta Van Susteren Division

(Improvement in overall looks, but still miles away from attractive)

Baltimore Orioles — The addition of Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, and Vlad Guerrero looks like a coup in "Charm City," bolstering a lineup that had only a single returning batter with more than 20 home runs in 2010 and providing veteran leadership to a team starving for an identity. Still, it is a curious series of moves considering that the net result is a team filled with aging talent that doesn't stand to contribute to Baltimore's long-term success in a division where the short-term outlook is not the best for teams outside of Boston, New York and Tampa/St. Pete. Nonetheless, this Oriole lineup should be vastly improved in 2011 and Oriole fans will once again have a reason to watch baseball as this team should keep things interesting before they inevitably fade into non-contention in July and August.

San Diego Padres — Coming off a year where everyone — and I mean everyone — outside of their own clubhouse was shocked with the unexpected success of the young, one-for-all/all-for-one Padres, you had to expect some major (and financially sound) steps towards building off their unlikely run from a year ago. Fans of the Pads cannot be disappointed in their moves. Though they will be losing their most consistent bat from recent years in 1B Adrian Gonzalez, Brad Hawpe is a reasonable replacement both offensively and defensively. Adding Orlando Hudson at 2B and Jorge Cantu at 3B gives San Diego a formidable infield with tools that dovetail nicely with the expansive PETCO Park. Aaron Harang will provide some veteran leadership to a solid but young group of starting pitchers and Chad Qualls is a decent bullpen add.

Even with these changes, the truth is the Padres' makeover was not nearly as extreme as that as their rivals to the north in Dodger-land and the class of the division is still that talented San Francisco squad that will be defending its World Series title. While the Padres are clearly closer to the top of the NL West than they are the bottom, it is quite unlikely that this group will be alive for a wild card berth once the calendar turns to September, much less any shot at a division title.

Pittsburgh Pirates — Okay, okay, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am neither a Pirates fan nor am I related to any of the players they picked up during the offseason. But, for this first time in a very long time, the Buckos spent their winter doing something other than sleepwalking, cashing in their revenue-sharing checks, and watching their best young prospects walk out the doors. Though modest in their reputations as highly-skilled, all-around great baseball players, the group that Pittsburgh is bringing into the mix seems very much like the "right" group of guys.

I liken their offseason signings to the trade that brought 3B Scott Rolen to Cincy two years back; not the most talented players out there, but good "clubhouse guys" that, if they stick around, could begin to transition the cloud of negativity that surrounds Pittsburgh Pirates baseball into something a bit more palatable for its long-suffering fan base. Kevin Correia seems to have finally figured it out as a major league starter, Joe Beimel and Jose Veras are serviceable bullpen arms and Josh Fields, Lyle Overbay, and Matt Diaz are all high-character, hard-working guys that do have some talent to contribute. While it is quite clear that the Pirates will be on the losing side of the ledger more often than not (for what will be the 19th consecutive season), it is equally clear that this team should not be in the basement of the NL Central once the dust settles on the 2011 season.

Kate Beckinsale Division

("Before" was good, but not quite ready for primetime; "after" is full of promise)

Chicago Cubs — The Cubs' frustrating oscillation between on-the-cusp-of-excellence and one-foot-in-the-toilet-bowl from one season to the next is almost otherworldly. In fact, I'm quite sure if you ever met an alien life form, taught them the intricacies of baseball, and then went on to explain the history of the Cubs, you'd be vaporized by their ray guns in a fit of rage at your attempt to mislead them so boldly and so completely. So, one may ask, why on Earth would anyone ever include these same, unpredictably inconsistent Cubbies in a story about predicted results, particularly in a section of the article that alludes to success? Simply put, the moves they made are solid.

Any self-respecting Cubs fan (no, that is not an oxymoron) will tell you that the primary failing of the North-siders in 2010 was a lack of an identity, followed closely by weaknesses at three critical points in their operations: power from the left side of the plate, consistency in the pitching rotation, and bridging games to their outstanding closer Carlos Marmol. What did GM Jim Hendry do to account for this? He brought back historically popular ex-Cubs in Reed Johnson, Auggie Ojeda, and Kerry Wood (who also serves the second purpose of providing a reliable "bridge" to Marmol) to bring some character to the team's clubhouse.

Hendry also went out and overpaid (though smartly in the offering of a single-year contract) for one of the best left-handed power bats in baseball, and traded for Matt Garza, as consistent a starting arm as was available and someone that will give the team the luxury of a third high-end starting pitcher. While winning their division is far from a likelihood, only a foolhardy, half-retarded, gap-toothed Cubs-hater (aka "typical Cardinals fan") would argue that they aren't in that conversation.

Milwaukee Brewers — The additions of SS Yuniesky Bettencourt, SP Shaun Marcum, RP Takashi Saito, C Wil Nieves, and OF/IF Mark Kotsay give the Brew Crew depth that they haven't had in a very long time. The addition of SP Zach Greinke provides the star-power that makes this offseason move from the "nice" category into the "team to watch" stratosphere. Featuring — and returning largely intact — one of the more potent offensive lineups, Milwaukee has a nice mix of veterans and youth in the bullpen and on the bench. Saito should provide a fall-back option should the inexperienced but promising John Axford falter at closer and really solidifies an already strong bullpen. Greinke's presence as a true number one moves all the other starters back a slot, positioning them much closer to a slot in the rotation that is more befitting of their skills.

All this said, much of their hopes for becoming a serious contender rest on the health and sustained performance of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart, which, though not completely out of the question, is by no means a sure thing. Expect the Brewers to be at or very near the top of the NL Central and a solid contender in the wild card hunt.

Los Angeles Dodgers — You'd be hard-pressed to find a team that did more this offseason — at least in terms of volume — than the L.A. Dodgers. The team added a front line starter in Jon Garland, a quality short reliever in Matt Guerrier, role players in slugger Marcus Thames and the speedy Tony Gwynn, and a one-time hated rival in IF Juan Uribe, who they signed away from the Giants. Gone is Russell Martin, who's tendency to speak his mind was beginning to wear at the Dodger front office, replaced with the reserved and professional Dioner Navarro.

When all is said and done, L.A. should have done just enough to keep themselves in the conversation about who may win the NL West into September. Still, the team lacks a singular, stable force in the middle of the lineup. Much of their success will hinge on how well players handle the platoon systems that they are going to have to employ to get quality reps for all the veterans on this roster. Pitching won't be a weakness, but neither will it be the strength of this team. Their offseason may make the Dodgers contenders for their division, should the cards fall into place, but things will have to break down quite perfectly for them to contend for anything beyond that.

Chicago White Sox — Anytime a roster loses marquee names like Manny Ramirez, J.J. Putz, Bobby Jenks, and Andruw Jones in an offseason, you'd have to assume that the result would be a lesser product. However, in the case of the White Sox, these losses may actually contribute to an improved 2011. Jones and Ramirez weren't good fits in a place where fans demand maximum effort at all times and Jenks and Putz battled injuries and inconsistency all season, creating a situation where their success while in games was largely a crapshoot.

White Sox management did a great job bringing in players who should better fit the expectations of manager Ozzie Guillen and who are known as maximum effort guys. Jesse Crain and Will Ohman are workhorse types in the bullpen and should get things set up nicely for likely closer-candidates Matt Thornton and Chris Sale. Omar Vizquel brings a leadership quality that this team sorely lacked over the past two seasons.

And then, of course, there is Adam Dunn. Dunn may be the most common disrespected and undervalued star in the game today, but his talents play very nicely in Chicago's South Side. Dunn brings a big, left-handed bat, patience at the plate, and a soft-spoken quality that makes him a very non-abrasive teammate. The Chi-Sox have put themselves in a very good situation for 2011 and should be able to make a bunch of noise, even without some of the bigger name talent that they leaned on last year in hopes of making a run deep into the playoffs.

Megan Fox Division

(From super hot to super-duper hot ... an embarrassment of riches)

Philadelphia Phillies — No surprise to see this team's name here, I'd be willing to wager. With a grand total of zero key losses during the offseason, all Philly did was add a left-handed ace to an already loaded pitching staff (Cliff Lee). Their lineup — clearly one of the best in baseball top to bottom — remains intact with only Jayson Werth leaving town, and he is being replaced by a five-tool prospect named Dominic Brown who may wind up far more valuable than the afore-mentioned Werth. This team has been one of the best over the past three seasons, and the bottom line is they have solidified their chance even further by making a few very targeted, very effective moves during this past offseason.

Boston Red Sox — Nobody has done it better than the Boston organization in recent years. They don't typically overpay for "hometown heroes" (see Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez) and they always reload with savvy, well-timed roster moves that nearly never backfire on them. The 2010 offseason was no different, as they wave good-bye to a fading Mike Lowell, an overpaid Victor Martinez, and three infielders who they brought in last season to help out an injury-plagued team in Bill Hall, Adrian Beltre, and Felipe Lopez.

While those losses will not go without notice, the front office has wisely made the decision to change their strategy from bludgeoning their opposition to death to a more tactful, surgical attack and to execute on this change in strategy the team brought in lots of quality relief help (Bobby Jenks, Alfredo Aceves, Dennys Reyes, Dan Wheeler) and broke the bank to bring in a superstar quality table-setter in OF Carl Crawford. Boston didn't need to do much to remain dominant in the AL East, but managed to somehow raise the bar further for those in the division that will be chasing them.

Tampa Bay — Not long ago, Tampa was on nobody's radar screen in terms of teams that would fall into the "embarrassment of riches" category. Even today, many of you would point to the loss of Crawford to a division rival as a telling sign that Tampa is not and will not be an elite franchise for the long haul. I beg to differ with this assessment, however. True, losing Crawford is not going to be something that just simply can be ignored. Likewise, the loss of 1B Carlos Pena and the trading of SP Matt Garza are surprising developments that will impact the on-the-field product in 2011.

But the reality is this team is loaded in terms of depth in their farm system and players like SP Jeremy Hellickson, C John Jaso, and OF Desmond Jennings are poised to fill in some of the gaps left by departing Rays. And, for good measure, to help bridge the gap to the next wave of uber-talented prospects, the Rays have brought in Manny Ramirez to bolster the lineup's heart, Felipe Lopez to provide top-of-the-order stability, 1B Casey Kotchman to play gold glove-caliber defense at first, and Johnny Damon to provide some left-handed consistency in their order. Tampa may not be in the same class as Boston and New York in terms of year in, year out dominance, but they certainly have a workable model that is keeping them in contention even in times of transition.

Melanie Griffith Division

(What was once tolerable is suddenly painful to look at)

L.A. Angels of Anaheim — A team with the supposed resources of the Angels should not be on list under a category that implies a move away from respectability, but that is right where they find themselves. True, the team only lost three players through free agency, and none of those were of considerable consequence (RP Scot Shields, LF Hideki Matsui, and IF Kevin Frandsen), but it was more about what they didn't do than what they did do.

Bringing in Scott Downs to replace Shields in the bullpen is fine, but not an improvement. Trading for Vernon Wells to replace Matsui's stick brings nothing extra to the table. Frankly, the team could have made plays for any number of impact players, but did not. The result won't be a disaster, but will certainly be a disappointing 2011 result as they simply are not in the same class as the Texas Rangers right now and are doing nothing to stop their backslide out of the top of the American League's group of premier teams.

New York Yankees — I will preface this by saying that by no means am I trying to imply that the Yankees' 2011 season will be an unmitigated disaster. This team will, simply by force of talent, compete. They still have four-to-six all-stars in their everyday lineup and they still have a very good ace at the top of their rotation and one of the game's all-time great closers at the back end of their pitching staff. However, this is more about what could have been than what is. The Yankees play in a division with two other heavy lifters: the aforementioned Red Sox and Rays. Their other two chief divisional rivals, Toronto and Baltimore, are improving products.

The effect you get from this is a situation where the Yankees are no longer the "pivot point" of the AL East, and therefore they become another satellite rotating around the center of their divisional universe, which is clearly now located in Beantown. With all their high-priced talent and unmistakable swagger, New York will be lucky to find themselves in the playoffs in 2011 and by any measure, this would be a precipitous drop-off from the success we've grown accustomed to from the pin-strippers in the Big Apple.

Donatella Versace Division

(Though quite ugly before, the "new look" is grotesque and sub-human)

Houston Astros — Look up the phrase "going nowhere fast" in the encyclopedia and you will see a picture of the Houston Astros. This is a team that is overburdened with one bad contract (Carlos Lee), a handful of roster spots occupied by players who barely deserve major league consideration (Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace, Wesley Wright, Humberto Quintero), and a fan base that eternally rationalizes poor on-field performances by focusing on the one or two things that each player does well, while ignoring the six or seven each player does poorly. A team needing to make some bold offseason decisions oddly opted to stand pat and "build" of a modest late-season performance that was certainly not indicative of a team on the cusp of success.

Bringing in the likes of Clint Barmes and Bill Hall, while not terrible moves, do nothing to help the long-term outlook of the club. A more effective approach would have been to package what few trade-worthy assets they have — namely Hunter Pence, Michael Bourne, Wandy Rodriguez, or Brett Myers for some minor league depth that they so sorely need. What you are going to get now in Houston is a sustained dry spell punctuated by a real lack of the type of homegrown talent organizations need to pull themselves out of the consuming "rebuilding" cycle that has doomed franchises in Pittsburgh and Kansas City for so long.

Oakland Athletics — Oakland needed to go "all-in" during their 2010 offseason as they face irrelevance like never before. The emergence of Texas as a consistent force in their division is one thing, but the willingness of Seattle to spend money in their rebuilding project and the continued financial position of the L.A. Angels of Anaheim make Oakland an afterthought in their own division, much less the American League on the whole.

What did they do this offseason? Not only did they lose OFs Travis Buck and Jack Cust, but they also lost two 3B (Eric Chavez and Edwin Encarnacion) and a quality young arm (Justin Duchscherer) to boot. To counter those losses, the team overpaid for RPs Brian Fuentes and Grant Belfour and also brought in an aging Hideki Matsui, not exactly moves that reek of "can't-miss" undertones. The long story short here is Oakland was not a good team in 2010 and are looking to be even worse in 2011. Add to this reality the fact that their cross-bay foes in San Francisco are drinking champaign and working off their World Series hangover, and things are dismal indeed for A's fans everywhere.

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