NEW YORK (Reuters) - Five teams to watch in the 2011 Major League Baseball season, which begins March 31:
They scraped their way into the postseason by cobbling together just enough offense to support an outstanding pitching staff led by double Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.
The formula carried them all the way to their first Fall Classic crown in 56 years, and manager Bruce Bochy will try again to pull the right strings with another rag-tag attack, replacing World Series Most Valuable Player Edgar Renteria at shortstop with Miguel Tejada and moving a slimmed down Pablo Sandoval back to third to replace Juan Uribe.
The Phillies, who lost to the Giants in the NL Championship Series to miss out on a third straight trip to the World Series, will try to beat the Giants at their own game. After swooping in unexpectedly to sign prized free agent pitcher Cliff Lee, the rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels was compared to the best of all time.
Philadelphia will have to overcome some early adversity, with hard-hitting second baseman Chase Utley and closer Brad Lidge missing the start of the season due to injury.
Looking to prove their first American League pennant in 50 years as a franchise was no fluke, they have had to scramble to make their rotation whole after losing Lee. The hard-hitting lineup must shoulder more of the burden, aided by the signing of free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and trade for first baseman/catcher Mike Napoli.
The dilemma of whether to use Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz as a starter or reliever was settled with the decision to leave him in the closer’s job. Last year as a 21-year-old, the hard-throwing Dominican saved 40 games.
An aging lineup ran out of steam late last season and the rotation did not deliver in the League Championship Series as the Yankees saw their hopes of a World Series repeat vanish at the penultimate stage in losing to Texas in six games.
The bulging wallet of the Yankees failed to lure Lee to the Bronx, leaving management in a state of shock with no Plan B on how to restore their dominance.
Finally, they paid a big price for Tampa Bay Rays’ former closer Rafael Soriano to set up Mariano Rivera and now wait for a chance to trade prospects for a quality starting pitcher.
Thwarted last year by an endless stream of injuries (Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron), Boston were big off-season winners. They signed fleet outfielder Carl Crawford and traded prospects for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to add to their already robust lineup.
With small market Tampa Bay likely to take a step back after losing Crawford, Carlos Pena, shortstop Jason Bartlett and pitcher Matt Garza in an effort to keep their payroll down, the AL East looms as a Red Sox-Yankees battle royale.
A team to watch both on and off the field.
Their disarray on the diamond the past couple of years has been overshadowed by a financial fiasco that has the trustee for victims of the notorious Bernard Madoff Ponzie scheme seeking up to a billion dollars from the Mets owners, who emerged from the enormous scam with profits they borrowed against for use in their baseball business.
Writing by Larry Fine, Editing by Frank Pingue