2011 MLB Preview

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5 Things to Watch in 2011

<p> Athlon Sports previews the upcoming 2011 MLB season and provides the 5 most interesting storylines heading into Opening Day, including Derek Jeter's quest for 3,000 hits, the Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation and the return of Stephen Strasburg.</p>

1. Best rotation in history?

It might have been the most mind-bending free agent decision ever. Of all the teams to sign Clifton Phifer Lee, who would have guessed it would be the Philadelphia Phillies? After all, the Phillies had traded Lee last December, and loaded up on two other expensive aces, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. Why would they need another No. 1 starter? And why would Lee return to the team that rejected him — for $28 million less than the Yankees offered to pay him?

Well, the way Lee saw it, another chance to pitch for the Phillies was simply too much fun to pass up. For $120 million over five years — an average annual salary of $24 million, the highest among active pitchers — Lee returned to Philadelphia to join a rotation that could be one of the best in major league history.

“Doc” Halladay is a three-time 20-game winner who captured the National League Cy Young Award last season. Oswalt is a two-time 20-game winner who led the NL in WHIP last season. Lee is a former American League Cy Young Award winner who led the AL in WHIP last season. And Cole Hamels led the NL in WHIP in 2008, when he won the World Series MVP for the Phillies.

On paper, at least, these four should comprise the best rotation assembled since the Atlanta Braves’ rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery, which won the World Series in 1995. Only Smoltz was a power pitcher; all four Phillie aces can dominate a lineup.

Halladay fired a perfect game in May and a playoff no-hitter in October. Oswalt went 7–1 with a 1.74 ERA in 13 games for the Phillies. Lee had 47 strikeouts and two walks in the postseason. Hamels had more strikeouts than innings and shut out the Reds to clinch the division series.

It could be a special year in Philadelphia. If you love watching artists on the mound, Citizens Bank Park is the place to be.

2. Re-loaded Red Sox

When an injury-ravaged New York Yankees team won just 89 games and missed the playoffs in 2008, they responded by wielding their checkbook with unflinching fury. That offseason, the Yankees signed CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, a $423.5 million holiday spending spree that immediately led to a World Series title.

Now look at the American League East. And what do you know? Just like the Yankees of 2008, the Boston Red Sox of 2010 were hit hard by injuries and missed the playoffs with 89 wins. And they have responded in kind by wheeling and dealing.

In one week in early December, the Red Sox traded for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract. They were working toward a contract extension for Gonzalez that could cost more than $150 million. Throw in John Lackey’s $82.5 million contract signed before last season, and that’s roughly $375 million for three players.

The Red Sox needed the injection of life, with their local TV ratings slipping from the top spot in the majors for the first time in several years. Fans should grow to love Gonzalez, an opposite-field masher with a slick glove, and they are well-acquainted with Crawford’s speedy, slashing style from his days with Tampa Bay.

With the Rays seeming to take a step back after losing Crawford, Carlos Peña, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, the Bronx and the Back Bay will again be the hot spots in the AL East pennant race.

A high-profile rivalry with intense motivation on both sides is good for any sport, and whether you love or hate the teams, it’s harder than ever to ignore the Yankees and the Red Sox.

3. Jeter 3,000

Only three players in the last 10 years have reached 3,000 hits: Rickey Henderson in 2001, Rafael Palmeiro in 2005 and Craig Biggio in 2007. Make way for Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ captain who enters 2010 with 2,926 career hits.

Like the others, Jeter has never won a batting title. But while history remembers Henderson for stolen bases and runs, Palmeiro for steroids and his infamous testimony before Congress, and Biggio, perhaps, for getting hit by pitches, Jeter’s signature is the base hit. He has finished in the top four in the league in singles 13 times, and when he passed Lou Gehrig as the Yankees’ career hits leader, in 2009, he did it with a single, using his trademark opposite-field, inside-out swing.

That was a celebrated moment in Yankees history, and the 3,000th hit figures to be the same way. Several former Yankees had 3,000-hit careers — most recently Wade Boggs, Dave Winfield and Henderson — but none achieved the milestone as a member of the team. And no player has ever gotten his 3,000th hit at Yankee Stadium, new or old.

The Yankees have a 10-game homestand against Boston, Cleveland and Texas from June 7-16, which figures to be right around the time Jeter will be nearing his 74th hit of the season. The acrimony of his offseason contract negotiations should have faded by then, and Jeter will bask in the glow of a magic moment.

4. The most watched Tommy John rehab ever

Let’s face it: Teddy Roosevelt has a better chance of winning the Presidents’ Race at Nationals Park than Stephen Strasburg has of pitching there in 2011.
When Strasburg tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow throwing a changeup in Philadelphia last August, he put himself on a long, monotonous path to recapturing his glory.

Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3, and considering that the minimum rehabilitation time is 12 months, that leaves only a flicker of hope that he could pitch in 2011. But the Nationals took extraordinary precautions with his innings and pitch count before the injury, so you can bet they will be even more diligent after it.

Strasburg called the injury a minor setback, and Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said, “I really feel this is just a blip in what is going to be an outstanding career for Stephen.” He might be right. Many pitchers do recover from Tommy John surgery to be just as sharp as they were before, a group that includes no fewer than six members of the 2010 NL All-Star team: Chris Carpenter, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, Hong-Chih Kuo, Billy Wagner and Brian Wilson.

But Strasburg may have been the most hyped pitcher ever, and he lived up to expectations, going 5–3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 68 innings. His recovery process will be heavily scrutinized, to see if he can still throw 100 miles per hour with ease and if he has made mechanical adjustments to prevent future injuries. Will he ditch the notorious ‘inverted W’ he makes with his arms as he strides? And if he does, can he still be the same pitcher?

5. Chapmania

They were 15 of the most tantalizing innings in recent baseball history. Aroldis Chapman did not pitch very much last season for the Cincinnati Reds, but when he did, excitement sizzled through stadiums.

Chapman defected from Cuba and signed with the Reds last January for $30.25 million over six years. It was a staggering sum for a small-market team, but the Reds reasoned that Chapman would be worth it if he became an ace. Those 15 innings sure were encouraging.

Chapman’s fastball averaged 100 miles per hour, topping out at 103.9, the fastest pitch ever recorded in major league history. (But not in Chapman history; he hit 105 in the minors.) He racked up 20 strikeouts, walked five and allowed 12 hits and three earned runs for a 1.80 ERA, including the playoffs.

What can he do for an encore? For now, the Reds plan to continue using Chapman as a reliever, believing they have enough rotation depth to get by for 2011. That might not be the best use of his talent — if he’s an ace-in-waiting, why force yourself to wait even longer? — but it does mean that Chapman can air out his fastball in relief. The buzz in the crowd as he pushes the limits of the ballpark radar gun never gets old.
 

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