Itâ€™s the beginning of April, which means everyone is still technically in playoff contention and hopefulness is high. But a few teams and people in particular could use a successful 2011 season and justify that spring optimism -- or silence the naysayers who are already raising doubts.
Kansas City Royalsâ€™ farm system
Itâ€™s been a tough couple of decades to root for Kansas City. What little there has been to cheer about, like Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye, was traded away for about 20 cents on the dollar (and the jury is still out on the Zack Greinke deal). Now the major league club is in its worst shape since it was a new expansion franchise in the early 1970s.
Fortunately, help seems to be on the way. The Royalsâ€™ minor league talent is widely regarded to be the best in the league, headlined by power bats like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and frontline lefty starters like Mike Montgomery and John Lamb. Thatâ€™s not to mention another half-dozen or so high draft picks who scouts regard highly. The hype machine is gaining steam -- Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated recently wrote a hypothetical article from the future in which Kansas City had won multiple championships.
But prospects arenâ€™t exactly sure things. Every team has them, and plenty of top-100 minor leaguers never amount to anything in the big leagues. Heck, the Royals donâ€™t have to look any further than Alex Gordon in their own organization for an example. The problem for Kansas City is that general manager Dayton Moore is staking the future of the franchise on this current crop of youngsters -- go look at their current 25-man roster and try not to cringe.
Those are pretty hefty expectations for a group of kids who, for the most part, still havenâ€™t played above A or AA ball. If one of these prized prospects makes a splash in the majors this year, itâ€™d give Royals fans a glimmer of hope that Mooreâ€™s investment in the draft will pay dividends after all. But if a few of them fail to produce this season or injuries stunt their development, itâ€™ll starting looking like another long decade for baseball in Kansas City.
Expectations are understandably going to increase when, according to Joe Morgan anyway, you write a book about how you outsmart the competition. And Oakland hasnâ€™t had a winning season since 2007, which has given baseballâ€™s anti-stats movement ammunition to bash the poster boy for the new way of team-building.
Beane has tried to maximize the value of stars he know he canâ€™t afford to keep by trading them early, but his recent trades have had mixed results. Heâ€™s quickly flipped once-prized prospects like Brett Wallace and Carlos Gonzalez, who put up monster number in Colorado last season. The offense has been downright anemic, and thereâ€™s a good possibility the Athletics could relocate.
Now that Beane has assembled arguably the best young rotation in baseball and plays in what many consider the weakest division, Oakland is a trendy pick to win the AL West, especially if the Rangers have a post-World Series letdown and struggle to replace Cliff Lee. The Athletics have a window of opportunity now -- a return trip to the playoffs might silence the skeptics (at least temporarily), while another disappointing campaign would raise more concerns about the long-term viability of Beaneâ€™s system.
Back of the New York Yankeesâ€™ rotation
Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia wouldâ€™ve been sought-after starters ... seven or eight years ago. Instead the two of them, along with Ivan Nova, will try to anchor the back end of the rotation for a team with World Series aspirations. Yikes.
Nova and Garcia will start the season as the Yankeesâ€™ Nos. 4 and 5 starters, with Colon coming out of the bullpen as the long reliever and spot starter. But fear not, because New York recently signed a backup plan -- Kevin Millwood! OK, so this isnâ€™t getting any better.
Ever since Cliff Lee spurned New York in favor of returning to Philadelphia, the starting quintet has been a major question mark. It doesnâ€™t help that both A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes struggled for extended stretches a year ago, leaving CC Sabathia (who could opt out after this year) as the only reliable arm. The Yankeesâ€™ offense will be good enough to make up for some pitching deficiencies -- but itâ€™s hard to be a contender when youâ€™re trying to win 8-7 most nights. That means Garcia and Colonâ€™s ability to recapture their youth against the odds is crucial if New York is going to challenge a reloaded Boston squad that is the prohibitive favorite to win it all.
An abnormally large surge in home runs is inevitably going to be met with skepticism. Itâ€™s just a product of the cynicism of the steroid era. So when Jose Bautista went from a previous career high of 16 homers to a league-leading 54 a year ago, it raised a lot of eyebrows.
Are steroids the only explanation for a player's sudden uptick? Of course not -- hitters tinker with their swing all the time, and sometimes a change really clicks. It just rarely clicks to the tune of 38 more round-trippers. Bautista wasnâ€™t the only Blue Jay who went yard more last season, as Toronto hit 146 home runs and slugged .487 at home vs. 111 homers and a .425 slugging percentage on the road.
But he signed a five-year contract extension worth about $64 million in the offseason, based on the expectation that he can at least continue to approach those power numbers. Another good season would go a long way toward erasing any doubts. Otherwise, Bautista might be poised to join Vernon Wells and Alex Rios on a list of Toronto players that signed lucrative contracts only to fail to live up to them.
The San Francisco Giants
It might not be fair to say the Giants have something to prove -- they just won a World Series, so what else do they need to do? But for five months of the season it didnâ€™t even look like San Francisco was going to make the playoffs, and more people are coming around to the idea that the playoffs are largely a crapshoot. Getting hot for three weeks doesnâ€™t make a team great.
The Giantsâ€™ pitching rotation is excellent, but will Tim Lincecumâ€™s mechanics allow him to enjoy a long career? If this spring was a fluke and Pablo Sandoval doesnâ€™t rediscover his stroke, can Buster Posey and Aubrey Huff provide enough pop? Brian Sabean hasnâ€™t exactly stopped handing out questionable contracts, either.
The NL West figures to be weaker than last year, with the rival San Diego Padres trading away their only middle-of-the-lineup threat and the Los Angeles Dodgersâ€™ owners still going through a messy, expensive divorce and vying for team control. Failing to win the division -- or at least grab the Wild Card spot -- could intensify rumblings that San Francisco was a flash in the pan. Then again, no one can take those championship rings off their fingers.