by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Believe it or not, baseball season is almost upon us, so it’s time for what has become one of our favorite editorial assignments of the year. Following are our preferred “futures” predictions for the 2011 MLB season; season win numbers in parentheses ( ) courtesy Bodog. First up will be the American League; we’ll add the National League to the mix for our next TGS edition later this week. As always, our thanks to TGS baseball consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions and observations. And remember that TGS will be offering baseball selections on a daily basis beginning later this week; call 1-800-798-GOLD for more information.

AL EAST: Best recommendation...Can it really be thirteen years since the Baltimore Orioles (76 ½) cracked the .500 barrier? No wonder the locals reacted as if Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Paul Blair, and Jim Palmer had reappeared on the scene after a mild resurgence late last summer when Buck Showalter took over in the dugout for Dave Trembley. But nothing in Showalter’s managerial career suggests he is a savior, and a closer look at what he has at his disposal should temper the enthusiasm. Despite bragging about their young pitching, the O’s cannot count on much beyond Brian Matusz; Jake Arrieta has only a handful of starts under his belt, and his September performance means little until he goes around the league a second time, while Brian Bergesen had been getting cuffed around pretty good in Sarasota this spring before taking a liner off his arm last Friday. And a career journeyman (Jeremy Guthrie) remains the staff ace. Prospects seem a bit better at the plate, although offseason additions such as DH Vlady Guerrero and 1B Derrek Lee are on the downsides of their careers, while the presence of newly-added human wind-machine 3B Mark Reynolds (ex-Arizona) means that Baltimore is a threat to challenge Tampa Bay’s team strikeout record set last year. The lineup could also use a healthy season from catalyst 2B Brian Roberts, but after playing in only 59 games a year ago, he’s been hurting again this spring. There might be some wide-eyed 12-year-old fans in Towson excited at the O’s prospects, but we’re looking “under” again at Camden Yards.

Others to watch...Should the Boston Red Sox (95 ½) be making World Series reservations? Maybe so, because this is now arguably the most-talented roster in the majors after OF Carl Crawford and 1B Adrian Gonzalez were added in the offseason. Crawford, along with 2B Dustin Pedroia (back at 100% after last year’s foot surgery) and CF Jacoby Ellsbury, potentially gives the Bosox a combined 150 steals if skipper Terry Francona so chooses. Moreover, all own outstanding gloves, and Gonzalez’ addition to a lineup that already includes the very-patient Kevin Youkilis (now moved to 3B) means that Francona has a couple of deluxe walk machines who complement their freer-swinging mates. Boston is also so well-stocked in the position areas that it can concentrate the SS (Marco Scutaro) and C (vet Jason Varitek and young Jared Saltalamacchia) positions for defense. Meanwhile, the pitching staff is so deep that former ace Josh Beckett can be used as the fourth starter in the rotation as he readjusts his mechanics after a career-worst 2010. Moreover, the addition of longtime White Sox closer Bobby Jenks adds another arm to a dominant bullpen that already had Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon as a lethal late-inning combination. A drama and injury-free spring at Fort Myers indicates the Bosox are ready to go, and since this looks like the best bet of all MLB teams to get to 100 wins, we’re looking “over” at Fenway Park.

A lot of people might not realize that the Toronto Blue Jays (76 ½) won 85 games last season, which should have qualified Cito Gaston for more Manager of the Year votes than he received. Or that the Jays led the bigs with 257 homers a year ago. Gaston has since retired, replaced by longtime Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, and there were more personnel losses than additions in the offseason, but we’re not convinced Toronto is due for a big drop-off. Despite Vernon Wells’ trade to the Angels, plenty of pop remains in the lineup with 3B Jose Bautista (MLB-best 54 HRs in 2010!), 1B Adam Lind, 2B Aaron Hill (recently back in action this spring at Dunedin after a quadriceps injury), and DH Edwin Encarnacion all legit long-ball threats, while raw speed was added when acquiring CF Rajai Davis, who swiped 50 bases for the A’s last season. Meanwhile, vet C Jose Molina will provide a nice stop-gap until ballyhooed J.P. Arencibia is ready to take over the job behind the plate on a full-time basis. Admittedly, there are some concerns with a young staff that dealt ace Shaun Marcum to the Brewers, but Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, and Jesse Litsch all have proven live arms, and young Kyle Drabek, the prize of the Roy Halladay deal with the Phils, has finally arrived. As long as Farrell can mix-and-match with a rebuilt bullpen that has had some injury concerns in spring with newly added Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel both hurting (another vet addition, Jon Rauch, is likely to be a serviceable alternative as the closer for the time being), Toronto shouldn’t be roadkill. The local fans, disappointed again with the Maple Leafs, might not get much relief from the Jays, who haven’t made the playoffs since their last World Series in 1993, but we’re still looking “over” that modest win hurdle at Rogers Centre.

Tough to call...What’s going on with the New York Yankees (91 ½)? The allure of the pinstripes and the Big Apple was not enough to convince main FA target Cliff Lee to enlist (opting for Philadelphia instead...how times have changed!), and now Joe Girardi enters the season with plenty of question marks in his rotation behind CC Sabathia and perhaps young Phil Hughes. The fourth and fifth starters, in particular, were hot topics the past month in Tampa, with young Ivan Nova and the well-traveled Freddy Garcia apparently winning those jobs, but there is also concern about how well A.J. Burnett can bounce back after imploding a year ago (4-13 with a 6.48 ERA after June 1). Regardless, expect GM Brian Cashman to closely monitor the starting pitching market in the next few months. There is nothing wrong with a familiar-looking everyday lineup which saw 2B Robinson Cano emerge as a star last season; indeed, it might even improve slightly with the addition of C Russell Martin, freeing up Jorge Posada for regular DH duties. And Mariano Rivera, at age 41, is still going strong while anchoring a solid bullpen. But the rotation could thin out in a hurry after Sabathia, and the chance it could become a real mess is reason to pause. It’s a pass for us in the Bronx.

How far do the Tampa Bay Rays (84) figure to drop after beating out both the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East for the second time in three seasons? It was pretty much one-way traffic away from The Trop during the offseason, with stars such as OF Carl Crawford (to Boston) and 1B Carlos Pena (to the Cubs) and several others leaving town, as essentially half of the AL East-winning roster has undergone a turnover. But young GM Andrew Friedman might have pulled a couple rabbits out of his hat in January when convincing vets Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to give it a shot in St. Pete in a couple of Scott Boras-influenced FA signings, and how much skipper Joe Maddon can squeeze out of both vets (with Manny the ultimate wild card) figures to go a long way in determining if the Rays can get above .500. Friedman and Maddon, however, believe the defense will be as good or better with SS Reid Brignac (taking the place of Jason Bartlett, traded to San Diego) and 1B Dan Johnson (taking the place of Pena) now everyday players, and there’s still plenty of upside with 3B Evan Longoria and OFs B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce. And, with five potential “number one” starters led by David Price and James Shields, the rotation could still be the AL’s best despite dealing Matt Garza to the Cubs. Where the season could really implode, however, is in a totally rebuilt bullpen, with only long-reliever Andy Sonnanstine back from a year ago and Maddon conducting auditions the past month; hotheaded journeyman Kyle Farnsworth appears to have exited Port Charlotte as the temporary closer, hardly a comforting development. That’s enough to prevent looking “over” at The Trop; it’s a no-call for us in St. Pete instead.

AL CENTRAL: Best recommendation...We understand some of the reservations surrounding the Minnesota Twins (85 ½) and their rebuilt bullpen, but keep in mind that Ron Gardenhire’s team won 94 games and the AL Central a year ago with now-healthy 1B Justin Morneau missing the last half of the season. And Minnesota’s time-tested winning formula (consistency in starting pitching and defense, the ability to move runners along, good base running, clutch hitting, and not making crucial mistakes in the field or on the basepaths) doesn’t figure to change in a few months. Granted, the reconfigured bullpen (whose prior composition was a real strength) was the focus of spring work at Ft. Myers. But with Joe Nathan (returning from successful Tommy John surgery) and Matt Capps waging a spirited duel for the closer’s role all spring, the pen might not be a liability, especially with the likelihood that former starter Kevin Slowey slides seamlessly into a set-up role. Gardenhire is also breaking in a new middle infield combo with imported SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka (the top hitter in Japan last year with a .346 BA for the Chiba Lotte Marines) and 2B Alexi Casilla moving into starting roles vacated by J.J. Hardy (traded to Baltimore) and Orlando Hudson (FA San Diego) and giving the batting order three straight bursts of speed along with OF Denard Span in front of power sources Joe Mauer and Morneau. Adding these extra quicks should allow the Twins to better utilize the gaps at Target Field, which played big last season. We’re not sure Minnesota gets back to the playoffs or advances beyond the ALDS for the first time since 2002, but it’s still an “over” for us in Minneapolis.

Others to watch...They’re adopting the slogan “All In” on the South Side for the Chicago White Sox (85), but it could just as easily be “All Out” as well. That’s because, with a record payroll in the neighborhood of $125 million, it’s now or never for the Chisox, whose owner Jerry Reinsdorf could be tempted to disassemble the parts by midseason if the pieces aren’t fitting together. That doesn’t figure to be a problem for the starting pitching, although projected ace Jake Peavy, off season-ending surgery last July to repair a torn lat muscle, was shut down midway through March in Arizona with shoulder tendinitis and will open the campaign on the DL. Assuming Peavy returns as expected in a few weeks, Ozzie Guillen likely has the most solid rotation in the division with John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, and Edwin Jackson also in the fold, while Cactus League sources maintain that there should be no drop-off from the departed Bobby Jenks to lefties Matt Thornton and Chris Sale as the new closers-by-committee. The everyday lineup is a bit of a crazy quilt, however, and rookie 3B Brent Morel figures to have a short leash in the starting lineup with serviceable Mark Teahen waiting in the wings. But the addition of Adam Dunn as the full-time DH should increase the power numbers (and the strikeouts) significantly and be an upgrade over Guillen’s DH platoon of a year ago, while the various “athletes” in the lineup (LF Juan Pierre, 2B Gordon Beckham, CF Alex Rios, and SS Alexei Ramirez) are being given the green light by Guillen to run as they please. Here’s a hint if attending a Sox game; forget the snarled traffic around the ballpark, just park downtown and ride the train instead to The Cell to watch Ozzie’s guys go “over” in 2011.

Remember the renaissance of the Cleveland Indians (71) in the ‘90s, when the Tribe became a contender and tickets to Jacobs Field were harder to come by than Cavs tickets when LeBron was still in town? Unfortunately, that’s all a distant memory these days (even The Jake has changed its name to the dreary and very corporate Progressive Field, where Cleveland ranked at the bottom in MLB attendance in 2010), especially the contender part as the Indians have gone the way of the Browns and this year’s Cavs into oblivion since their last playoff berth in 2007. And the depressed local fan base might simply see a continuation of the LeBron-less Cavs season with the Tribe. A couple of holdovers from the last winning era, OF Grady Sizemore & DH Travis Hafner, can’t stay healthy, with Sizemore expected to open the season on the DL as he continues to rehab from last year’s serious microfracture surgery, and Hafner dealing with shoulder issues this spring in Goodyear. Another projected starter, 3B Jason Donald, also likely opens the season in the infirmary with a broken hand, while C Carlos Santana will have to be monitored closely after last year’s season-ending knee surgery. Mind you, we’re already talking about many Cleveland injuries before spring training is complete. The prospects might not seem so bleak if CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were still around to anchor the pitching staff, but they’re long gone, with Fausto Carmona the only link to those headier days on the shores of Lake Erie, and manager Manny Acta crossing his fingers that the likes of Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco and the rest of an unsettled staff at least give promising closer Chris Perez a chance to do his thing. Whether it’s the Browns, Cavs, or Tribe, it seems to be the same scenario these days in Cleveland; at least the Terminal Tower looks cleaner than it did 40 years ago. Like everything else in town these days, look “under” with the Indians.

Word was that skipper Jim Leyland was thinking about calling it quits after last season when the Detroit Tigers (84 ½) missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year and couldn’t even get above .500 in the process. Leyland decided to give it one more shot in the last year of his contract but might have been having some second thoughts after a distracting spring in which 1B Miguel Cabrera was nailed with his second DUI in 18 months. Assuming smoother sailing in the upcoming weeks and months, Cabrera might figure to benefit from the FA addition of Victor Martinez, who will likely see more DH duty than at catcher and will probably provide some bona fide protection in the order behind Cabrera. What we don’t like about the lineup are the defensive liabilities, in particular corner outfielders Ryan Raburn and aging Magglio Ordonez (especially Ordonez), forcing fleet CF Austin Jackson to cover too much ground, while SS Jhonny Peralta and 1B Cabrera (who has little or no range) are under par with their gloves as well. Plus, 2B Carlos Guillen opens the season on the DL as he slowly recovers from last September’s microfracture knee surgery. The pitching staff does have a high ceiling, with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer a potentially-dominant 1-2 combo, but GM Dave Dombrowski gambled unnecessarily when adding injury-prone Brad Penny to the rotation, and we’ll see how ex-Yankee Phil Coke adjusts in his return to a starter’s role after working out of the bullpen last season. Although we’re looking forward to visiting Comerica Park and a chance to wolf down a few coneys from Leo’s right behind home plate, we project an “under” in Motown as the Leyland era likely comes to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Tough to call...We’ve been burned a few times in the past several years, expecting the Kansas City Royals (68 ½) to finally make a breakthrough. And this hardly seems the season for them to catch an updraft, either, not after trading away staff ace Zack Greinke and SS Yuniesky Betancourt to the Brewers for four (admittedly quality) prospects. Prospects, however, rarely deliver immediate dividends, so where is hope for any upside at Kauffman Stadium? Not to get carried away with spring developments, but KC was opening plenty of eyes in Arizona the past month, as skipper Ned Yost turned the rabbits loose on the basepaths, as the Royals led all AL teams in BA and runs scored. In the process, FA signee OF Melky Cabrera was hitting over .500 in the Cactus League, former number two draftee LF Alex Gordon appeared ready for a breakout season, and 1B Kila Ka’aihue hinted that his homer numbers in the minors could translate to the Big Show as he picked up where he left off in a late-season call-up last summer. Remember, the offense wasn’t bad last year (.274 BA ranking second in the AL) and didn’t need much fixing. But the same can’t be said of a staff that had an AL-worst 4.97 ERA in 2010 and has no ace after the departure of Greinke, unless the inconsistent Luke Hochevar or Kyle Davies assume the role. And what makes any projections more tricky in KC is that GM Dayton Moore could easily be tempted to move Cabrera or lights-out closer Joakim Soria by the trade deadline if he can add the sorts of prospects he covets. Thus, we’re going to stay neutral on the Royals, but we will recommend the burnt ends if you happen to stop by Arthur Bryant’s BBQ on Brooklyn Avenue, near where the old Municipal Stadium used to stand.

AL WEST: Best recommendation...Who might be this year’s version of the San Francisco Giants? Look no farther than across the Bay to the Oakland Athletics (84 ½), ready to return to the playoff mix after a few seasons of re-tooling. Remember that it wasn’t the Giants or Phillies who led the majors in ERA last season; rather, it was the A’s at 3.47, and the core of a lights-out young staff returns intact, led by Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, while Gio Gonzalez picked up where he left off last season after the All-Star break (2.59 ERA) by looking very sharp in Phoenix, posting an ERA under 2.00 much of the spring. And if former Oakland ace and FA signee Rich Harden recovers from a lat tear, skipper Bob Geren will have even more arms at his disposal. Continuing the theme, a deep bullpen should not skip a beat even if closer Andrew Bailey opens the season on the DL with a forearm strain, as every projected reliever has pitched in the 9th inning before, with newly-acquired Brian Fuentes (over 200 career saves) an experienced stop-gap if Bailey is sidelined. Prospects are a bit more dicey at the plate, where GM Billy Beane had to resort to Plan C (Hideki Matsui) in the offseason marketplace after missing on Plan A (Lance Berkman) and Plan B (Adrian Beltre) to add some sock to an offense that ranked 2nd to last in AL homers a year ago. But Beane did make a couple of other serviceable acquisitions in OFs David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, who along with DH Matsui and holdover ex-Nevada Wolf Pack 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff should beef up the middle of the order, while the defense looks solid up the middle with C Kurt Suzuki, SS Cliff Pennington, 2B Mark Ellis, and CF Coco Crisp. And if Oakland is within striking distance at the trade deadline, the shrewd Beane can be expected to add whatever is needed for the stretch run. It should be lots of fun again at the Coliseum (don’t forget to check out the best BBQ in the big leagues down the left-field line) as the A’s go “over” and threaten for the postseason.

Others to watch...Check out the recent performance patterns of the wacky Seattle Mariners (70), who have been alternating between overachieving (such as the encouraging 88 wins in 2007 and 85 in 2009) or vastly underachieving (61 wins in both 2008 and a year ago) over the past four years. And frankly, last season’s pratfall wasn’t hard to predict, as GM Jack Zduriencik’s poorly-constructed club entered the campaign with no power sources whatsoever and ended up a distant last in the majors in runs scored (only 513; even the woeful Pirates almost lapped the M’s by scoring 587). At least the incomparable Ichiro remains as the ultimate table-setter; perhaps the addition of DH Jack Cust (who posted some good power numbers in Oakland in recent years) will alleviate the power problem, and the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with Texas, 1B Justin Smoak, is a projected 25-30 HR producer. Chone Figgins should also be far more comfy back at his normal 3B position, although the sooner the team gets rid of the problem that is OF Milton Bradley (we foresee a blow-up with new, no-nonsense manager Eric Wedge coming soon), the better off it will be. The Mariners should at least have decent pitching, especially with Felix “The Cat” Hernandez firmly established among the AL elite, and Jason Vargas and Doug Fister flashing plenty of upside in 2010, while rookie Michael Pineda and his flaming fastball could be the ultimate rotisserie sleeper. Meanwhile, closer David Aardsma (hip) should be returning soon from his stint on the DL to open the season. It won’t be quite the same in Seattle without beloved play-by-play man Dave Niehaus, who passed away suddenly in November, but a few more “Fly Aways” and “Grand Salamis” from an improved batting order should at least move the M’s closer to respectability. It’s an “over” for us at Safeco Field.

The defending AL champion Texas Rangers (86 ½) entered spring training with a clear objective to fill a couple of openings in their starting pitching rotation, created partly by Cliff Lee’s decision to abandon Arlington and return to Philadelphia in free agency and by an inability to land offseason targets Matt Garza (who ended up with the Cubs) or Zack Greinke (now with Milwaukee). Unfortunately, that search has become an all-points bulletin exiting Surprise and now extends deeper in the rotation with No. 3 starter Tommy Hunter going down with a groin injury, forcing him onto the DL to begin the season, and Scott Feldman’s postseason microfracture knee surgery perhaps keeping him shelved into June. Any ideas of moving closer Neftali Perez into the rotation were also nixed because of the havoc it might cause in the bullpen. Thus, it’s the familiar old theme in the Metroplex, as beyond Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson, the rotation suddenly appears full of question marks. The Rangers can still outscore anyone, and the addition of 3B Adrian Beltre (who along with Michael Young will also likely rotate into the DH spot) should compensate for Vlady Guerrero’s departure to Baltimore. But some of the questions regarding the staff make us wonder if the Rangers aren’t going to slip at least a handful of games in the standings; remember, the team only won 90 a year ago when everything fell neatly into place for manager Ron Washington, and sequels often disappoint. We’re going to look “under” in Arlington.

Tough to call...If there’s one thing we can absolutely guarantee about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (83) this season, it’s that 1B Kendry Morales won’t be involved in any wild homerun celebrations at home plate after breaking his leg in one such party a year ago. Morales’ subsequent absence for the final four months of 2010 contributed to the Halos’ alarming 202-run drop-off from the previous year, and his slow recovery from the broken leg will keep him on the DL to start the season. Meanwhile, GM Tony Reagins’ attempts to upgrade the offense via free agency failed when Carl Crawford decided at the last minute to sign with Boston instead; whether trade acquisition ex-Blue Jay OF Vernon Wells can add sufficient spark remains to be seen, as the aging Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu (now likely limited to DH duties) no longer appear capable of carrying the offense. Thus, for the Angels to re-emerge as a contender, Mike Scioscia is probably going to have to lean on his pitching staff, but there is little depth in the rotation beyond starters Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, and Dan Haren, and the bullpen could remain a problem area if Fernando Rodney can’t handle closer duties better than he did after Brian Fuentes was traded last August, especially with the set-up corps relying upon young arms Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden as a bridge to Rodney after offseason addition Scott Downs has landed on the DL with a broken foot. Scioscia’s presence is always a plus, but there are too many ifs involved (especially the health of Morales and Downs) to make a persuasive case either way, so we’re going to pass in Anaheim.

Next up: National League

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