Plenty of reasons to smile in Beantown - NBC Sports

Plenty of reasons to smile in Beantown
With offseason additions, Red Sox ready to rule MLB in 2011 illustration
Jon Lester, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford will help make the Red Sox a formidable team this season.
March 30, 2011, 11:03 am

And as the Philadelphia Phillies discovered last October, that burden of expectation can be overwhelming, especially in the face of an underdog opponent that catches fire behind an impressive young pitching staff.

But this is late March, and the most-logical World Series-winner prediction to make - the choice that can be best-supported at this point in time - is the Red Sox winning it all for the third time since 2004. It's pretty straightforward, really:

  • Adding either Carl Crawford or Adrian Gonzalez would be a huge boost for any offense. Add them both, and you have a combination that could push the Red Sox past the Yankees as the AL leader in runs scored.

Not to downplay the contributions of the departed Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, but the Red Sox never have had a player with Crawford's skill set. And there may be no left-handed power hitter more suited to take advantage of the Green Monster than Gonzalez.

  • As a reminder, we give you the 2010 games-played totals of Jacoby Ellsbury (18), Dustin Pedroia (75), Kevin Youkilis (102). All three are healthy, and lined up in Nos. 1, 2 and 5 spots in the projected batting order, sandwiching Crawford and Gonzalez.

In fact, 19 players spent time on the disabled last last season, and the Red Sox still won 89 games. One of those was Jed Lowrie, who could emerge as a regular shortstop and push Marco Scutaro back to a utility role.

  • The fact that longtime key left-handed setup man Hideki Okajima couldn't make the roster out of spring training tells you this is another improved area. Veteran newcomers Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler and Denys Reyes give manager Terry Francona more quality options besides Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard.

The Red Sox rotation also includes Jon Lester (19-9, 3.25 ERA last year) and Clay Buchholz (17-7, 2.33).

The other legitimate concern: Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the regular catcher and the Sox's inability to slow opponents' running games. Still, the club's first 100-win regular season since 1946 is a possibility.

As for the rest of the contenders and races for playoff spots:

Picking a World Series champion was more of a two-sided debate when spring training began. But then a troubling string of injuries struck the Phillies, led by Chase Utley's that could sideline him for a few months.

But although their regular-season win total will take a hit, all the Phillies have to do is reach the postseason. Once they do, their four No. 1 starters make them as dangerous as any team. They still should win the NL East by a handful of games over either the Atlanta Braves or a possibly surprising Florida Marlins team.

It wasn't a good spring for any of the NL Central contenders, as key contributors kept dropping everywhere, including Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto.

The likely result is a division winner in a very close race with 86-88 victories, and it won't be the Cardinals, who are facing a watershed season. Here's a nod to the Reds, who have so many key young players with upside.

There is much to like about the defending champion Giants: Pablo Sandoval is moving much better and is poised for a rebound; Brandon Belt could be this season's Buster Posey; Madison Bumgarner should emerge in his first full season. But too many iffy veteran position players, led by Miguel Tejada as the regular shortstop, cast enough doubt on a division title repeat.

The Rockies have three big stars, a deeper bullpen, and a much better defense than the Giants. But they need Huston Street and Todd Helton to stay healthy, and young regulars Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta to step it up, so they are the tenuous choice for the franchise's first division title.

That leaves the Dodgers as the pick for the NL's potential surprise team. Expectations have been lowered by the unsettled ownership situation, as well as Don Mattingly's replacing Joe Torre.

But the Dodgers arguably have the deepest staff in the league, including six starters when Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla return. And even if Jonathan Broxton can't hang onto the closer job, there are other quality closer options, probably including Padilla.

The New York Yankees? Reaching the postseason is anything but guaranteed. Age isn't just creeping up on them - it's an undeniable detriment: Mariano Rivera, 41; Jorge Posada, 39; Derek Jeter, 36; Alex Rodriguez, 35.

And an Andy Pettitte-less rotation that includes A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia begs for an in-season deal for a front-line starter. Here's a very tentative pick as the AL wild card.

The Rangers can't seem to stop tinkering with their success. With a weakened Cliff Lee- and Neftali Feliz-less rotation, they are highly vulnerable to a drop off to the mid-80s in wins. The trick is picking who will put it together and upend them.

The A's are the trendy choice, as their young starting pitchers draw comparisons to the Giants' foursome. But trendy picks are dangerous, and the A's lineup possesses little speed and power (the Giants at least had the latter down the stretch).

That leaves an opening for the Angels, the choice here to be a potential AL surprise team. After one barely losing season (80-82) that followed six in a row of 89-100 wins, expectations have been reduced.

But Dan Haren will be around for a full season, giving Mike Scioscia four quality starters, and the bullpen is deeper with Hisanori Takahashi, Scott Downs and Kevin Jepsen in front of Fernando Rodney.

Say what you want about his burdensome contract, but Vernon Wells makes the lineup better and sets up the AL's best defensive outfield with Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter. And Kendrys Morales should be back soon enough to be a middle-of-the-lineup force sorely missed last season.

Lastly, a development system that has stalled of late is about to produce again in the forms of Mark Trumbo, Jordan Walden, Hank Conger and a possible late-season callup of Mike Trout, the No. 1 or 2 top prospect in the game along with the Nationals' Bryce Harper.

The AL Central could be a three-team race. The White Sox are better with Adam Dunn and a made-over bullpen that could be excellent, so they are the choice to win. The Twins lost key relievers, and must have rebound seasons from Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan.

But neither the White Sox or Twins have a dominating ace, and the Tigers do in Justin Verlander, plus emerging Max Scherzer, and the league's hands-down best hitter in Miguel Cabrera.


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