The only safe prediction for the coming baseball season regards Francisco Rodriguez's $17.5 million vesting option for 55 game finishes. He won't be getting it, the games or the money.
K-Rod was brilliant this spring, and he may well continue that brilliance. But he isn't getting those games. Certainly not from the Mets. Nobody wants to pay more than Mariano Rivera money to another closer, least of all a team that has, shall we say, financial problems.
That was an easy one. Now here are the rest of my predictions for the 2011 baseball season.
Alex Rodriguez will win the American League MVP. He looked like a new man in Yankees camp, sporting a leaner physique while pumping balls over the fence at George Steinbrenner Field and out toward Tampa's busy Dale Mabry Boulevard.
Buster Posey will win the National League MVP. Sure, Albert Pujols could easily take it as he heads toward free agency. And so could his teammate Matt Holliday, who seems fully comfortable a year after signing his own big deal to stay in St. Louis.
But Posey is primed for a monster year with the pressure off after leading the Giants to a World Series championship despite beginning last year in the minors. As one scout said, once Posey learns how to pull the ball, he could be unstoppable.
CC Sabathia will win the AL Cy Young award, and not just because he gave up Cap'n Crunch, is down to 290 pounds or has an opt-out clause to exercise. Sabathia knows that the Yankees need him more than ever, and as is characteristic, he will answer the challenge.
Ubaldo Jimenez will win the NL Cy Young award. It looked like he was well on his way to doing so last year when he ran out of gas. This time, he makes it happen -- though of course it wouldn't surprise anyone to see any of the vaunted four of the Phillies -- especially Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee -- take the trophy.
Angels' first baseman Mark Trumbo will win the AL Rookie of the Year award. He wasn't even supposed to be on the roster, except for Kendry Morales' continuing lower-leg issue. But Trumbo was hot all spring, and if he keeps it going they're going to have to find room for him, even after Morales' return. And the Rays' Jeremy Hellickson will be the AL's rookie pitcher of the year. One scout compared him to no less than Greg Maddux. That's probably a bit of a stretch, but big things are expected for the poised young man.
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt will win the NL Rookie of the Year award. Scouts loved what they saw from him in spring. Even if he doesn't make the Opening Day Roster, he is expected to make a difference at some point this season and he's a major threat for this honor. The Braves' Freddie Freeman, another first baseman, is an understandably popular choice. He'll get plenty of chances, since there's no backup plan there.
The Yankees will make the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 years, but they will do it as the wild card. The Red Sox, who will win the AL East, imported Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to replace Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, and just as important, they get Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis back and healthy, giving them baseball's best lineup. They also have a more solid rotation than the Yankees do, though there are understandable concerns in Boston over Josh Beckett's health and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Their bullpen isn't bad, either, with former closer Bobby Jenks, future closer Daniel Bard and current closer Jonathan Papelbon.
The Rays will be better than folks suspect, but it's hard to imagine a bullpen with no names thriving in the AL East. The Blue Jays will get another monster performance from Jose Bautista, and they have to get more out of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind than last year, but the task still looks a bit out of reach for them. The Orioles are much improved but still look like all but a certain cellar dweller even with Buck Showalter managing things from the start.
The White Sox will win the AL Central, with Adam Dunn coming to U.S. Cellular to hit his usual 40 home runs, Gordon Beckham on the cusp of stardom and as solid a pitching staff as any team. As long as the ultra-talented Miguel Cabrera can stay sober, the Tigers loom as a major threat -- though 2012 might be a better year for them, when young pitching phenoms Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner could be ready to help. The Twins almost always outplay the expectations, and it just might happen again, although bullpen concerns are a worry, which is why Chicago's South Side team is the pick here. The Royals will be great, in 2013. And the Indians hope to be.
The Rangers will win the AL West. Their offense is insanely good, and that should be enough. The A's have a very nice rotation led by Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez, but not enough offense. The Angels, long the class of the division, have an imposing rotation, an improved outfield and slugging first baseman Mark Trumbo (six HRs, 20 RBIs this spring), but too many questions (the bullpen, left-handed batting and a leadoff man, to name three). The Mariners look like they have an enviable future with Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley and others, but that fine future probably won't include any part of the 2011 season.
The Braves will win the NL East. It'll be considered an upset by all, but their starting pitching is terrific by any standard except for Philadelphia's, they have not one but two decent closing options in Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, and while there are defensive questions, at least at second (Dan Uggla) and third (Chipper Jones), Jones looks like he's primed for a big finish, Brian McCann is in the best shape of his career and Freeman and Jason Heyward might both turn out to be megastars.
The Phillies have that fantastic pitching, good enough to justify their tag as World Series favorites. But their spring was an unmitigated disaster. Chase Utley is out indefinitely, Brad Lidge is hurting and so is Placido Polanco. The Marlins have two great players in Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson, and maybe a third in young slugger Mike Stanton, and they could pose a threat. The Mets still possess Jose Reyes, for now, anyway. But there's no Johan Santana, at least until July (and quite possibly longer), Carlos Beltran still has a knee issue, there are all sorts of questions about the bullpen, not to mention the pall that's been cast by the Madoff mess and the realization that only nickels remain to spend. The Nationals have a nice lineup but don't have a set closer and have mostly back-end starters filling out their rotation, at least until phenom Stephen Strasburg returns, probably next year.
The Cardinals will win the NL Central despite the loss of ace Adam Wainwright. This is the toughest division to call, but the returning Kyle Lohse and just-promoted Kyle McClellan give them a chance to unseat the defending Central champion Reds in their burgeoning rivalry. Cincinnati looks very good, but late-spring health concerns surrounding Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo bring just enough doubt. The Brewers, who are all in for 2011, have been similarly hit by injury, including the self-inflicted rib cage injury for big winter pickup Zack Greinke, whose love of pickup hoops cost him at least his first few starts. The Cubs got over the early spring scuffle precipitated by overpaid, over-wrought pitcher Carlos Silva, who was dispatched by spring's end, a cleansing that can only help. The Astros are fortunate to be in the same division with the Pirates, who may be only halfway through their drought the way things are going there -- though new manager Clint Hurdle will maintain his smile throughout the continuing rebuilding process.
The world champion Giants will prove that they are no fluke, winning the NL West. The Rockies, who have the best tandem of every-day stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, will take the wild card. The Dodgers have very solid pitching and Matt Kemp may finally realize his full potential after a huge spring, but they have too many holes in their lineup in a very difficult division. The Padres still have that great bullpen, but their offense has a chance to regress with A-Gon gone, and their rotation is going to find it hard to duplicate its performance of a year ago. The young Diamondbacks will test their impatient manager, Kirk Gibson.
Anything can happen in October, and my guess is that the Rockies beat the Rangers to win the World Series. How's that for conviction?
Other predictions ...
• Derek Jeter will become the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits, and he'll experience a rejuvenation at the plate. His new stance will be credited for the rebirth, but the placidity brought by his new long-term deal will be the real reason.
• Mariano Rivera will get his 600th save, and finish the year with exactly 601, by saving 42 games (his uniform number).
• Jim Thome will hit his 600th home run, solidifying his spot in Cooperstown.
• Albert Pujols will reach 2,000 hits and 1,000 walks.
• Ivan Rodriguez will play in his 2,500th game (that's an easy one, he'll do it on Opening Day). And he isn't close to being done.
• Not nearly as many managers will be fired as last year. Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez, who received a one-year deal after the long courtship of Bobby Valentine failed, starts the year with the biggest bull's eye on his back, considering owner Jeffrey Loria's annually lofty standards in relation to the team's puny payroll.
• White Sox GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen will continue to bicker in the longest-running soap opera in major league baseball.
• The relationship between Yankees GM Brian Cashman and his bosses, who don't always agree with Cashman on player personnel decisions (see Rafael Soriano) will continue to be among the more interesting ones in the game. And it will continue when Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner/Randy Levine come to a contract extension agreement after the year to keep Cashman in the Bronx for another three years.
• The McCourts will hang on in Los Angeles. It seems that everybody but them wants them out as Dodgers owners, but justice moves slowly, and it'll take at least a year to sort out the mess and boot them from Chavez Ravine to one of their four homes in Holmby Hills or Malibu.
• The better-liked (at least in baseball circles) Wilpons will hang on for a while, too, as the Madoff mess is untangled. The trustee who is suing them won't get his $1 billion, as there's no real proof that the Wilpons knew the score. But their legal bills will run high enough that their ownership won't be secured, either, and they might have to take on an equal partner.
• Pujols will return to the Cardinals with a contract after the season. St. Louis wants to see the market, but will ultimately have no choice but to pay him about $256 million over eight years to keep him at home.
• Prince Fielder will play out the year with Milwaukee and leave for the rival Cubs, who will need to make a splash and give him close to what he wants, maybe $180 million over eight years.
• Jose Reyes will be traded at mid-year when the Mets don't contend. Carlos Beltran (if he's still standing) and K-Rod will go, too. And the new team won't want to give Rodriguez his 55 finishes, either.