* Can the Rays win the AL East?
The scary part about Tampa isn’t necessarily how good they are today but how good they can be moving forward. They have a relatively young roster with plenty of prospects en route. The rotation is tremendous. One through five, there is no let up. Rookie Wade Davis and second-year men David Price and Jeff Niemann are just as formidable as Matt Garza and James Shields. The lineup is packed with few weak spots, a mix of speed and power.
The Boston Red Sox have been in flux on both the pitching and hitting fronts. The pitching should improve but will the lineup gain consistency? It doesn’t look bright, as age seems to have corralled quite a few members of the lineup. The New York Yankees have the lineup to succeed and the starting pitching continues to perform. They have questions in middle relief that must be answered.
The Rays won the division two years ago and can do it again. They have the horses to make it happen and a blueprint to work with. It would be unwise to bet against them.
* Will the Padres success continue?
It would be easy to write off San Diego given their history, but this team has something brewing – besides the Beerfest they hosted when they faced, appropriately, the Brewers on April 30. Their bullpen is, arguably, the best in baseball, and the starters simply need to make it through six before handing off to Luke Gregerson, Mike Adams and Heath Bell. Pitching and defense wins championships, but does that win regular season games – enough to get them in the postseason?
The lineup has improved, especially with Chase Headley’s maturation. His protection of Adrian Gonzalez has been vital to the early success. If Headley falters, however, the entire team could collapse. That is a lot riding on one bat. Their aggressive attitude has paid dividends, putting pressure on the opposition to make plays on defense.
The bet here is they hang around. That could mean keeping all the components spoke about in trade rumors, as the team will be unable to move contracts when a playoff berth remains within reach, which could ultimately hurt their future success.
* Are the Mets for real?
Coming into the 2009 season, the New York Mets were considered a team to watch. Many believed that the playoffs were in sight, only to see an epic collapse due to injury and non-performance. Rookie first baseman Ike Davis has provided a jolt, and Jeff Francoeur has been a steady performer and quiet clubhouse leader behind David Wright. Jose Reyes is in the lineup, but can he be the impact player he was? The lineup should score enough runs to keep things close.
Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey have provided a terrific one-two combination, and the bullpen, thought to be a weakness, has been a strength. The rotation behind the Santana and Pelfrey and the continuation of quality relief will be critical in a tough National League East. How long can they stick with the ineffectiveness of John Maine and Oliver Perez? Will the bullpen eventually collapse?
A return of Carlos Beltran would make this easier to justify. There are simply too many factors working against this club to say it can maintain the current pace and fight for a playoff spot. Everyone in the lineup must perform up to expectations and the pitching staff must exceed. That is a lot to ask.
* Will the Pirates find any pitching?
Armed with the worst run differential in all of Major League Baseball, Pittsburgh is destined for another losing season. Only five pitchers have a sub-4.00 ERA on the roster and all have less than 15 innings pitched. Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen look like the youngsters they are. Zach Duke has issued more walks than strikeouts.
The return of Ross Ohlendorf in early May, provided his back spasms don’t flare up again, should settle the rotation a bit. He is the lone performer who has provided consistency. Paul Maholm and Duke have track records that say they are better than the early returns have shown.
It is tough to find a silver lining for a club that won’t call up its top prospect, Brad Lincoln. Of course, it may be good that Lincoln is down in Triple-A Indianapolis. At least one person still has his confidence. They don’t have a whole lot of pitching depth throughout their minor league system either. Fans hoping for a franchise turnaround may have to continue to wait.
* Will the Royals continue to hit?
While no one can name a pitcher outside of Zack Greinke or Joakim Soria on the Kansas City roster, everyone should begin to familiarize themselves with the bats. It is ironic that Alex Gordon is the player struggling after hitting .325 in the minors and showing promise when he hit 31 homers from 2007-08 with Kansas City.
Outfielder Scott Podsednik plays hard, creates havoc on the bases, and the horses behind are ready to drive him in. Infielder Alberto Callaspo is one of the best young hitters in the game. He has uncanny patience and is developing into an offensive threat in his third season. First baseman Billy Butler has power and the ability to hit for a high average, anchoring the middle of the order in his fourth season. David DeJesus is a solid performer that has been consistent through his career. Jose Guillen is a timeless classic that continues to provide punch.
There are more hitters on the way. Kila Ka’aihue is a power threat with a good eye at Triple-A. Mike Moustakas is a combination of raw tools that is meeting potential in Double-A. Eric Hosmer is a high-ceiling beast in High-A. Fantasy freaks should stock up in Kansas City. When the veterans move on, there will be bats to take their place.
* What can the Orioles do to get better?
When your top hitter is Ty Wiggington, things aren’t looking good. This is, however, a team that has some talent in its lineup and is underperforming. The loss of Brian Roberts has been a big blow; losing Felix Pie didn’t help either. Nick Markakis is a talented hitter but has tried to do too much to make up for the loss of Roberts and lack of production from the rest of the lineup. Matt Wieters has star potential and is settling in after a slow start with the stick in 2009. Miguel Tejada still has pop in his bat. Luke Scott, Nolan Reimold and Adam Jones have not lived up to expectations but should improve.
Brian Matusz is the lone starter with a victory under his belt and he has two. He is a superstar that will only improve. Kevin Millwood has pitched well. The staff hasn’t been terrible by any means but has suffered through poor offensive production and a lack of defense. They also have two top pitching prospects, Chris Tillman (he of the April 28 no-hitter) and Jake Arrieta (a 1.16 ERA in five starts), down in Triple-A that can be called upon.
Getting more production out of the lineup from top to bottom is essential. The Orioles are collectively hitting .193 with runners in scoring position. The pitching staff can do its job, but if Baltimore doesn’t score, it won’t matter how well the pitching performs. The status quo has to be good enough. The hope is the young bats begin to mature and emerge. When that happens, and the prospects in Triple-A are ready, this could be a team that surprises people as early as 2011.
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