2011 MLB World Series Favorites: Philadelphia Phillies with Cliff Lee

The final post in a three-part series written by Alan Hull who is previewing the teams favored to win the 2011 MLB World Series.

Philadelphia Phillies

After reaching the World Series two years in a row, the Phillies fell short of their goal in 2010 when they lost to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS. The Giants will have most of their players back next season, but it doesn’t stop us from making the Phillies one of our favorites to reach the Fall Classic in the upcoming season.

Off-season Moves: The Phillies had an outstanding off-season, re-signing J.C. Romero and backup catcher Brian Schneider, and those were not their only moves. Most notably, they signed the best pitcher in baseball who wasn’t already on their team, Cliff Lee. They also made the easiest decision of the off-season, not paying Jayson Werth $126 million.

Strengths: Their rotation is historically good. With four Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers (not that they all will make the Hall or that any beyond Roy Halladay will, but that they are in their primes and perform at a HOF level), this team will win A LOT of ball games and will be very exciting to watch in the playoffs, if they all stay healthy. They also have a balanced offense (power/speed), are well-coached and play well as a unit. They should be serviceable defensively at every position except for left field and probably first base.

Weaknesses: Raul Ibanez. Their bullpen is good, not great. Brad Lidge is an every-other-year guy, so expect about a 8.50 ERA from him and 15 blown saves. They could really use bounce-back, offensive seasons from Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Ibanez (Rollins and Ibanez are in contract years, so…).

Summary: Cliff Lee, bitches.

Also see Thursday W.S. favorite: Boston Red Sox
Friday W.S. favorite: New York Yankees

2011 MLB World Series Favorites: New York Yankees with Soriano in the Pen

The second post in a three-part series written by Alan Hull who is previewing the teams favored to win the 2011 MLB World Series.

New York Yankees

The Yankees seem to be in the middle of the World Series chase every single season. Of course when you have the payroll they do, it’s expected, but they’ve still done well reaching the ALCS the last two seasons. Though they were quiet this off-season compared to the Red Sox and even the Rays, they still are a World Series contender.

Off-season Moves: After missing out on all of the major free agents, the Yankees settled on adding complimentary pieces, signing back-up/starting catcher in Russell Martin, a setup man (Rafael Soriano – to the tune of $35 million) and a lefty specialist in Pedro Feliciano. They are still the Yankees and there is a lot to like.

Strengths: The Yankees are older on the positional side, but this is still a team of Hall of Famers and Hall of Very Good-types. Maybe Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Curtis Granderson and Russell Martin all won’t have comeback seasons, but I bet a few of them will. Combine that with a MVP-candidate in Robinson Cano and great guys/great hitters in Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner, and this team will put up some runs. The Yankees also feature a good bullpen, anchored by THE Mariano Rivera.

Weaknesses: They really, really needed to add a starting pitcher. Their number four and five starter, if Andy Pettitte retires, are some guys named Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre. Those two started 10 games combined in 2010. If they ever had plans to convert Joba Chamberlain back into a starter, this is the season to do it. I certainly would. Look for the Yankees to get creative mid-season and pick up a good starting pitcher or two for the stretch run.

Summary: While I mock their starting pitching, I anticipate Pettitte will be back and their pitching will be pretty good … until they trade for Josh Johnson.

Also see Thursday W.S. favorite: Boston Red Sox

2011 MLB World Series Favorites: Boston Red Sox Rising with Crawford, Gonzalez

Let’s get this straight: once an MLB team makes the playoffs, whether it is by division championship or wild card berth, all is fair and any team can win a World Series.  The San Francisco Giants certainly proved that in 2010, scratching their way to 92 regular season wins in the lackluster National League West with a starting nine full of misfit toys and cast-off veterans.  Edgar Renteria, in the second year of a bad contract and coming off a bad year, was their World Series MVP.  Simply making the playoffs gives teams a chance.  Just ask the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the 2003 Florida Marlins, the 2002 Anaheim Angels, or the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. You get the point.

With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the teams in 2011 that appear to be preseason locks for a playoff spot, ensuring the best chance at winning a World Series title.  The first team we’re examining in our three-part series previewing World Series favorites are the Boston Red Sox.

Boston Red Sox

Off-season Moves: No team did more to improve themselves in the 2010-11 off-season than the Boston Red Sox.  Offering up both long-term financial commitment and prospects, the already-good Red Sox acquired two impact players in Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.   Adding two centerpiece-type players like this would do wonders for any team, but with a core as strong as the Red Sox already had, this makes them a favorite for playoff success. They also bolstered their bullpen, adding Dan Wheeler and Bobby Jenks, to get the ball to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.

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MLB Hot Stove Analysis: Victor Martinez, Aubrey Huff

The Detroit Tigers are said to be close to signing free agent catcher Victor Martinez to a four-year $50 million deal.  Martinez, 32 in December, is coming off a .302/.351/.493 season for the Red Sox where he hit 20 home runs and drove in 79 runs, hitting in the middle of the Sox lineup.  He will  step in as the Tigers every day catcher for at least the first two years of the deal and perhaps shift to a Jorge Posada-like DH/catcher time share as he gets into the latter part of the deal.

This is a good signing for the Tigers, despite the long-term commitment, because they believe they have a two or three-year window of opportunity to win now, led by a core consisting of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.   Martinez has earned rave reviews throughout his career for his leadership and work ethic in Cleveland and Boston and will be a great addition to their club house.

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MLB Hot Stove Analysis: Dan Uggla-Omar Infante, John Buck, Jake Westbrook

The Florida Marlins made a pair of moves, sending All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for All-Star utility man Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Mike Dunn.  Florida took the money saved on Uggla and signed catcher John Buck for three-years and $18 million.

This is a great move for the Braves, who give themselves a right-handed power bat to supplement their current two best power hitters, Jason Heyward and Brian McCann, both lefties.  The Braves enjoyed Infante’s versatility in the field last season, using him at second, third, shortstop, left field and right field.  However, with Infante coming off a stellar season (.321/.359/.416 in 471 ABs) and having a similar player in Martin Prado, the timing was perfect.  Mike Dunn, if you’ll remember, was one of the players included in the second Javier Vazquez-to-New York trade.  He will be 26 next season and is more of a throw-in than a prospect.

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Japanese Baseball Star Yu Darvish to MLB in 2012 (Scouting Report)

The 2011 MLB hot stove is beginning to heat up and and we will cover it in depth, but looking ahead to 2012, Japanse baseball star Yu Darvish plans to pitch in MLB in 2012 (tweets David Lennon via MLBTR). Darvish, the 6’5” half-Japanese, half-Iranian pitcher has already won the Eiji Sawamura Award, the Japanese Professional Baseball (NPB) equivalent of the Cy Young Award.  He’s also won two MVP awards and will only be 25 when he is posted.  I wrote a scouting report of Darvish a year ago, which I will reprint here:

Darvish first gained star-status when he led his high school to the Koshien national high school baseball tournament — an event comparable in popularity to NCAA March Madness — as a sophomore and pitched a no-hitter as a senior in 2004.  However, because of his mixed racial makeup, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were the only team to try to acquire him in the NPB amateur draft. Former MLB skipper Bobby Valentine, who managed in the NPB, said of the discrimination, “My scouting director here didn’t think he was what our fans really would like to root for…that scouting director is no longer with us.” Darvish’s race has long since been forgotten as he has risen to rock star-like fame in Japan.

Darvish debuted in the NPB in 2005 and has compiled a 75-32 record with a 2.12 ERA in six professional seasons, striking out 974 and walking 297 in 1036.1 innings of work.  He is a proven workhorse with 45 complete games during that span.

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UFC-WEC Merger Means Big (and Little) Things for MMA

UFC President Dana White announced today through conference call that the UFC would merge with its lighter-weight sister company, the WEC, adding their lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight divisions to the UFC, starting in January 2011.  MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani with the exclusive.

With that announcement came several other developments, the most exciting of which is that WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo will be the first WEC fighter to represent the brand, as he defends his featherweight title on the UFC 125 card (Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard 2) on New Year’s.  For those who are more casual fans of MMA, Aldo (18-1, 8-0 WEC) is one of the most exciting young fighters in the sport and is considered one of the best 3-5 pound-for-pound fighter in the World depending on the list.  His destruction of Mike Brown to win the title and Urijah Faber to defend the title are already stuff of legends.  Google that man.

Also, the winner of Ben Henderson-Anthony Pettis will face the winner of Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard. Henderson (12-1, 5-0 WEC) is the dynamic WEC lightweight champion and his first fight with Donald Cerrone to win the interim title was largely considered the most exciting MMA fight of 2009.  Giving these guys first crack at the lightweight title is a strong endorsement of the WEC brand by the UFC.

For serious MMA fans, this move was pretty obvious and certainly well-deserved.  For newer and more casual MMA fans, we’re all in for a treat as these lighter weight guys are Fight of the Night-type fighters every night.  This will allow them to earn the money they deserve and the mainstream recognition they deserve fighting on pay-per-view cards and under the UFC banner.