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MLB Power Rankings, 3/31

03.31.11 at 12:52 am ET
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Welcome to the first edition of the 2011 WEEI.com Major League Baseball Power Rankings. Every Thursday throughout the season we will be bringing you an updated version of the list, which will be determined by record, ranking within each team’€™s division, and also which team would have the best chance at winning if participating in a best-of-seven series. Feel free to pick apart the admittedly imperfect rankings by emailing kminihane@weei.com or sending a message via Twitter to twitter.com/kirkmin. Have at it.

1. Red Sox. Why: Look, there are serious questions — with Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon Nos. 1 and 1A — but the best lineup in baseball, a dramatically improved bullpen and Jon Lester/Clay Buchholz/John Lackey (don’t laugh — 3.97 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in the second half last season for Lackey) at the top of the rotation should be enough for 95 wins and the AL East crown. What to watch: If he struggles early on, how much rope will Terry Francona give Marco Scutaro before going to Jed Lowrie at shortstop?

2. Phillies. Why: While all this “best rotation ever” talk is a little overstated — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were all Cy Young winners (seven combined) and are going to the Hall of Fame — there is no question that Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels/Blanton has a very good chance to be the best group of starters since that Atlanta crew. What to watch: Injuries — Chase Utley, Placido Polanco and Brad Lidge are already banged up.

3. Yankees. Why: I just don’t see a big difference between the Red Sox and Yankees (though before you give any weight to that statement please note that until I spellchecked the sentence it read “I just don;t see a bog difference bewteen the Res Sox and Yankees”). I’d give the Sox an edge in lineup — but it wouldn’t stun me to see the Yankees score more runs — and a small edge in starting pitching. But I’d take Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano over any reliever on the Sox. This is a 90-95 win team, and I still think they make a move to grab another starter this season. What to watch: Assuming you buy Phil Hughes as a legit No. 2 starter, can the Yankees get enough from Freddy Garica/Ivan Nova/A.J. Burnett to stay in contention?

4. Giants. Why: Because after following the Barry Bonds trial for the last week, I am now at least a quasi-expert in shrunken testicles. The Giants won the World Series on pitching and pitching alone last year, and that rotation will again be good enough to win the NL West. What to watch: Let’s see if Matt Cains dominant postseason last year — no runs allowed in 21.1 innings — was the start of a leap to superstardom. As good as Halladay/Lee are, if I’m the Giants I’m not entirely convinced I’d trade my top two guys for the Phillies’ top two.

5. Braves. Why: No huge strength that jumps out at you, but no significant weakness, either. Solid rotation — Tim Hudson (who has a career record of 165-87, identical to some guy named Koufax), Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson (Cy Young sleeper?), Mike Minor and Jair Jurrjens. Dan Uggla gives the lineup a boost, and Jason Heyward sure looks an awful lot like Alex Rodriguez circa 1996. What to watch: The bullpen. With Billy Wagner gone, the Braves are going with a combo of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters in the ninth inning. The two guys have combined for exactly one more major league save than Montgomery Brewster.

6. Rangers. Why: Losing Cliff Lee hurts, of course, but he was only 4-6 with  a 3.98 ERA in 15 starts with the Rangers last season. I thought they would move Neftali Feliz to the rotation this year, but it looks like he’ll close again and move into a starting role in 2012. Expect the lineup to continue to bash, with Ian Kinsler/Elvis Andrus/Josh Hamilton/Adrian Beltre/Nelson Cruz (.318 with 22 HRs in just 102 games last year) forming a top five that nearly matches the Sox and Yankees. What to watch: Can Brandon Webb give them anything? No question the rotation is the glaring weakness for this team (and no Tommy Hunter for six weeks — groin injury) and if Webb can bounce back and serve as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter it could be the difference between making and missing the postseason.

7. Athletics. Why: Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden plus a just OK division equals 85-88 wins. You had Cahill and Gonzalez (combined $860,000 in 2010) winning 13 more games than Beckett and Lackey (combined $28.5 million in 2010) last season, right? What to watch: If the movie version of “Moneyball” (coming in September) is a hit, does that mean we will finally see the theatrical release of Lou Gorman’s “One Pitch From Glory?” Hope so, I’m told it features a career-turning performance by Bruce Jenner as Jean Yawkey.

8. Rockies. Why: A pair of franchise players — Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki – and a budding ace in Ubaldo Jimenez. Look for the young rotation to improve, and the bullpen is one of the top half dozen in the league. I think pitching of the Giants is the difference in the NL West, but the Rockies will be in the wild-card mix all season. What to watch: Will we see the Jimenez of the first half (15-1, 2.20 ERA) or second half (4-7, 3.80 ERA and 7,2333,228 “Why didn’t I sell high?” cries from fantasy owners)?

9. Rays. Why: If this team is in the AL or NL West, aren’t they a real threat to win a division and 90+ games? People have been kicking dirt on the Rays all off-season, and I get why — Crawford, Pena, the bullpen — but this is still a team with a top-five player in baseball (Evan Longoria), a top, what, seven or eight pitcher in baseball? (David Price) And James Shields, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis and top prospect Jeremy Hellickson (4-0, 3.47 ERA, 1.10 WHIP in 10 games with the Rays last year) to fill out the rotation. What to watch: You know how you see a preview for a new Nicolas Cage movie and wonder how many more times someone is going to pay him a crapload of money? In a totally unrelated note, there is a chance Kyle Farnsworth may emerge as the closer in Tampa Bay.

10. Reds. Why: The Cardinals would’ve been right around here, but the Adam Wainwright’s Tommy John knocked them down and moves the Reds into the top 10. I’m not crazy about this team, though, and injuries to Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto only adds to my concern that this could be a team on a collision course with 76-86. So why are they here? Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, a deep — if aceless — rotation and a lousy NL Central should get the Reds somewhere in the 85-win range. What to watch: For all the hype, Aroldis Chapman pitched just 13.1 innings last season. Will his control issues be a factor as he becomes a 60-70 appearance guy? Or will he eventually take over for Francisco Cordero, who saved 40 games last year but had a WHIP of 1.43?

11. White Sox. Why: I’m tempted to pick the Twins to win the AL Central, but Minnesota’s bullpen has always been a such major part of their success, and the loss of Jesse Crain — now with the White Sox — Matt Guerrier and Pat Neshek is a real hit. Jake Peavy is (pause for shock) down with a shoulder injury, but Gavin Floyd, John Danks, Edwin Jackson and Mark Buehrle is more than enough to hold the fort. Adam Dunn, playing half his games with a hurricane at his back, could hit 50 homers, adding punch to a lineup that includes Paul Konerko, Alex Rios and Carlos Quentin. What to watch: Dunn. I really think he makes a real run at 50 homers this season, which in the post-Conte world is an actual feat again.

12. Dodgers. Why: Pitching. The Padres won 90 games in the NL West last season with good starting pitching, a solid bullpen and — save for Adrian Gonzalez — virtually zero offense (no regular other than Gonzalez had an OPS over .732). The Dodgers have Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw (another Cy Young sleeper) at the top of the rotation, and Ted Lilly, Jon Garland and Hiroki Kuroda are all swimming safely in the “perfectly serviceable” end of the pool. There is no Adrian Gonzalez, but Andre Either and Matt Kemp both need to have bounce-back years for Don Mattingly. What to watch: For my 2010 Padres = 2011 Dodgers formula to work, Jonathan Broxton can’t submit a stinker to match last year’s 1.48 WHIP and 4.04 ERA.

13. Angels. Why: Jered Weaver is the best pitcher in baseball never included in the discussion of best pitcher in baseball, Dan Haren is a No. 1 starter on more than half the teams in baseball, and Ervin Santana won 17 games last year. Bullpen questions and an aging lineup puts this group behind Oakland, but they are definitely one of the few teams in baseball that have earned “Don’t count them out” status over the last decade or so. What to watch: The final 15 minutes of “Black Swan” had more uplifting moments than Scott Kazmir’s 2010 season. He lost 15 games with an ERA of 5.94 and a WHIP of 1.58. Kazmir is a career 8.8 K per nine pitcher, but was down to just 5.6 last year. The Angels could sure use the pre-2009 Kazmir if they want to make a run at the AL West title.

14. Twins. Why: This is why power rankings in April mean nothing (thanks for reading, though). I can get the Twins to 94 wins — their 2010 total — with just a couple ifs, none of them ludicrous  – If Francisco Liriano can become a Cy Young candidate, if just two of out of three disappointments from 2010 — Kevin Slowney, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn — bounce back, if Joe Nathan is 90 percent of what he was, if Justin Morneau plays 140 games. Problem is, it never works out this way. They’ll probably get about half of those to pan out, and win somewhere around 85 games. What to watch: Jim Thome is 11 homers away from 600. Don’t know if he’ll run into the same problem that hit Jeff Bagwell – the whiff of doubt — but strictly on numbers alone Thome is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

15. Tigers. Why: The three AL Central teams should be this close, it’s hard to look at the rosters and see a no-doubt favorite. Justin Verlander has to be in any serious Cy Young conversation, and Miguel Cabrera is the second-best hitter of his generation (his career breathalyzer — I mean OPS — is .933, top 30 in history). What to watch: Can fifth starter Brad Penny get outs in the American League?

16. Cardinals. Why: We’ve reached the point where we are looking at why teams won’t contend. The loss of Adam Wainwright and possible departure of Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter (last year of contracts) just gives off a “lost season” vibe, doesn’t it? What to watch: This isn’t something to watch, exactly, but did you realize that Tony La Russa has been managing in the majors since 1979? Three places, but he hasn’t missed a season. Larry Bird hadn’t played an NBA game when La Russa took over for the White Sox. Jimmy Carter was president. All four Beatles were still alive. La Russa managed his first MLB game on August 2, 1979, and Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash the same night.

17. Marlins. Why: Still wondering what it was exactly that Fredi Gonzalez did wrong. Just not enough here to stay with the Phillies and Braves, but look for Josh Johnson (with one of the best team-friendly contracts in baseball at four years, $39 million) to win 20 games, post a 2.50 ERA, strike out 230 batters and win the Cy Young award. This could be a playoff team in 2012, but .500 is a pretty good target for 2011. What to watch: I think you’ll get another example of the difference between pitching in the National League vs. American League with Javier Vazquez, who was terrific in Atlanta in 2009 and horrific with the Yankees last year. Watch him win 13, 14 games with an ERA in the mid-3′s in a pressure-free spot with Florida.

18. Brewers. Why: Lots of optimism in Milwaukee with the addition of Zach Grienke and Shaun Marcum, but Grienke is expected to miss the first month or so after fracturing his ribs playing basketball (I’m told his pickup team replaced Grienke with a more skilled offensive player, but wound up missing Grienke’s defense and tough-guy attitude). What to watch: The Prince Fielder Trade Watch will be on if the team is out of the playoff race in July. Think the Red Sox will be in the derby?

19. Blue Jays. Why: This might be too low, I think they’ll be OK. The playoff streak — their last postseason game ended with Joe Carter running around the bases — will not be snapped, but John Farrell has a shot to have a winning record in his first season as manager. Jose Bautista isn’t going to hit 54 home runs again, but Aaron Hill and Adam Lind should be better after step-back years in 2010. What to watch: Farrell’s impact on Kyle Drabek. One of the elite prospects in baseball, Drabek was part of the Roy Halladay trade. I think the Jays would sign for a 72-90 season if it meant Drabek showed real progress as a major-league starter.

20. Cubs. Why: Same deal as the Twins, but I trust Ron Gardenhire more than Mike Quade. Ifs, ifs, ifs. Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Pena, Alfonso Soriano, Kerry Wood. Raise your hand if can speak with any confidence when it comes to predicting seasonal numbers or health from any of those guys. What to watch: How about “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?” No, not just for the impeccable comic timing of Jeffrey Jones or the No One Who Went to Your High School Or Mine Looked Like Her Perfection of Mia Sara, but because, thanks to Baseball Prospectus, we know now the actual date of the game that Ferris, Sloan and Cameron attended at Wrigley. I won’t give it away, but it does involve Claudell Washington and Lee Smith. And yes, I did sound exactly like Dirty Harry when I read that last sentence back in my head. Thanks, Grace.

21. Mets. Why: This team was in first place in the NL East at the beginning of July last season. Jose Reyes (another guy who you’ll be sick of seeing on ESPN during the wall-to-wall trade deadline stuff in July) and David Wright are maybe a peg below franchise players, but injuries to Johan Santana (think I was right about trading Jon Lester for him?) and Jason Bay (think I was right about wanting the Sox to re-sign him?) and a less-than-impressive pitching staff means a sub-.500 season. What to watch: Ike Davis is getting the New York over-hype right now. The guy isn’t going to be Don Mattingly 2.0, but I can see .280-25-90 this season.

22. Padres. Why: The loss of Adrian Gonzalez, the shoulder injury to Mat Latos (off of a 184.2 inning season in 2010, as many innings as he threw in three minor-league seasons), the reality that this team probably over-achieved last season, it all points to a return to the second division for the Padres. What to watch: Final trade deadline prospect: Heath Bell. Not impossible to envision a scenario that ends with Bell in Philadelphia.

23. Astros. Why: The Astros have a decent top three in the rotation with Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Brett Myers, but not near good enough to make up for an offense that was 29th in the majors with an OBP of .303. What to watch: The worst contract in baseball might belong to Carlos Lee. He’s 34 years old, coming off a season that saw his HR total drop for the fifth straight year, his OBP fall to .291, and is due nearly $40 million over the next two seasons for a team that has no real playoff chances and an annual payroll of about $70 million. He could still be a useful player on a contender, but no one is going near that contract.

24. Orioles. Why: Because Buck Showalter doesn’t have an unlimited payroll, that’s why. I’d call Showalter out for those statements against Theo, but who can forget how outraged Buck was when his Yankees had the funds to make a deadline deal for David Cone in 1995. He was so guilt-ridden, as I recall, by the acquisition that he punished Cone by having him throw 141 pitches in Game 5 of the ALDS vs. Seattle. What to watch: A questionable rotation that has to face the Yankees and Red Sox 36 times.

25. Nationals. Why: Not sure why Carl Crawford and his career line of 296/.337/.444  is worth $142 million but Jayson Werth and his .272/.367/.481 line means total disaster for $20 million less. Werth will be an All-Star in 2011, but no Stephen Strasburg will only magnify the weakness of a rotation that includes John Lannan, Jason Marquis (2-9, 6.60 ERA last year) and Tom Gorzelanny. What to watch: Will Bryce Harper — who hit .389 in spring training — play in the majors this season? He’s slated to start the year at Single-A Hagerstown.

26. Diamondbacks. Why: Ian Kennedy (eighth in batting average against in 2010), Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders are solid, but those are Kirk Gibson’s (who has used up his miracle currency) only real bullets. What to watch: Justin Upton seemed primed for a breakout season in 2010, but posted career worsts in slugging percentage and OPS. The Diamondbacks would be thrilled if Upton could match his 2009 numbers — .300/.366/.532.

27. Indians. Why: Slightly off-topic, but I’m always surprised when I hear that folks might be offended by Chief Wahoo. Look at him. Maybe I get lost in the understated choices the artist made, but can someone show me anything in his smiling red face that could be looked at as reinforcing negative stereotypes? Didn’t think so. What to watch: Carlos Santana looks to be recovered from that brutal knee injury at Fenway last year and could give the Indians a pair of .400 OBP players in the lineup (Shin-Soo Choo).

28. Mariners. Why: The Mariners were last in the majors with 513 runs last season, 74 fewer than any other team. They were also last in batting average (.236), OBP (.298) slugging (.339). And I don’t think the off-season additions of Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo is going to be a panacea for this lineup. What to watch: Felix Hernandez, who could have a sub-2.00 ERA and a losing record.

29. Royals. Why: It’s swell that the Royals set a record with nine players on Baseball America’s list of the top 100 prospects, but didn’t we hear this stuff about Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar half a decade ago? What to watch: The title still belong to Mariano Rivera, but Joakim Soria – a career ERA of 2.01 and WHIP of 0.98 — is the clear No. 2 when ranking the top closers in baseball.

30. Pirates. Why: Because bringing in Clint Hurdle, Lyle Overbay and Scott Olsen doesn’t wipe out an almost-incomprehensible -279 run differential from last season. What to watch: How about an episode of the debut season of “The Real World”? That was in 1992 — the last year the Pirates had a winning record.

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