MLB predictions: divisions and awards

Both of these gentlemen should be in the hunt for an MVP award in their respective leagues. Icon SMI

I filed divisional and playoff predictions Friday that will appear in our overall MLB preview package, but for the past few years I've drilled down a little further and eyeballed some won-lost records for all 30 teams while also explaining my logic in my standings and awards predictions.

Here are the picks for 2011:

AL East

I'd love to tell you the upstart Tampa Bay Rays could do it again, and they're certainly close enough to the Big Two to have a few things fall their way and sneak into the playoffs, but I think they win the title this year of "Best team not playing in the postseason." The Red Sox are the most complete team in the league right now, although I think their run-scoring may fall a little short of expectations, but their run prevention should be among the league's strongest. The Yankees' lineup will be a year older but could benefit from a healthier A-Rod and maybe some Jesus Montero later in the year; their weakness, on the other hand, will be run prevention, and I don't think I'm being controversial if I say they have maybe two starters I trust.

The Blue Jays have a long list of bounceback candidates, led by Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and now-freed Travis Snider, to go with some very intriguing young pitching, although Brandon Morrow's injury and Brett Cecil's lost velocity are bad omens. Baltimore spent some money to improve the big league product this winter, but any progress the Orioles see this year in the standings will come from emerging young stars like Brian Matusz, Matt Wieters or Zach Britton.

AL Central

Adam Dunn seems like an ideal fit for a White Sox team that needed his OBP and some power to offset an inevitable step back by Paul Konerko, and I think their bullpen will once again be among the league's strongest. Their weakness is the back of the rotation, as I've never been an Edwin Jackson believer, and if we heard next week that Jake Peavy would never pitch again I don't think anyone would be surprised. I wonder if the Twins' apparent willingness to trade Francisco Liriano is motivated less by money than by something they know about his health or durability that we don't; this is not typically a rash organization or one that would blithely trade away a piece they need if they're going to contend this year. Detroit's rotation could be pretty strong if you think Rick Porcello turns it around (I was shocked by his struggles last year after such a strong rookie season) and Brad Penny stays healthy, but there's decline written all over that offense, and expensive bullpens are more often expensive than they are effective.

The Royals have a 100-loss team on paper -- or 105 or more -- but they're not going to spend the whole season with that roster; look for Mike Moustakas to get some big league time this year, joined later by Mike Montgomery, John Lamb and Eric Hosmer. I like Cleveland's current roster a little more than I like Kansas City's, but their system offers Lonnie Chisenhall and a number of projected relievers in its upper levels, without the high-end starters the Royals are bringing along.

AL West

Texas will be worse, and the division will be better, but I don't see Oakland or the Angels surpassing the Rangers without some help from injuries or outlier performances. For all the drama over Michael Young, the real drama in Arlington is in the rotation, an issue that could be easily addressed by returning Neftali Feliz to a starting role. If you could promise me right now that Brett Anderson would throw 180 innings, I might flip the A's into first place even with the questions around their offense, but I think asking him to be healthy and Trevor Cahill to miss enough bats (for which he has the raw stuff) to keep his ERA down and Dallas Braden to keep that smoke-and-mirrors act rolling and so on is probably too much, at least if you're looking for the safe way to bet.

The Angels are worse today than they were at this time last year, even with the addition of Dan Haren, although I admit there's a little part of me that still thinks Howie Kendrick is going to hit .310 one of these years; I might bump them up two wins if I had any faith they'd make Jeff Mathis the infrequently used backup to Hank Conger. King Felix and Seattle's offense should keep games at Safeco moving briskly all season.

NL East

I don't know how long Chase Utley will be on the shelf, and that win estimate is more likely to be high than low; I still have the Phillies in first because their front four starters are tremendous and should help take pressure off a bullpen that has long been an Achilles' heel. Atlanta has the talent to surpass the Phillies, but they keep trying to sabotage themselves, like talking about batting Jason Heyward sixth, moving Martin Prado to left to install Dan Uggla at second, or choosing Brandon Beachy over Mike Minor based on the tiny sample of spring training.

Florida seems like the most likely team in the NL to make a surprise playoff run given all its young talent, but the roster is thin after that top veneer. The Mets probably aren't an 85-loss team right now, but that front office will look to turn over the roster once the team is clearly out of it. I don't really get the optimism around this year's Nationals team; the rotation is almost as bad as Kansas City's, Danny Espinosa (who's never been that good a hitter) is coming back from hamate surgery, and Jayson Werth is no longer playing at CBP in a contract year.

NL Central

This division will be competitive, but it probably won't be good. Even if Zack Greinke were ready to go on Opening Day, you could pick apart the Brewers -- for me the best team on paper in the NL Central -- on defense or bullpen or lack of rotation depth (which I guess is already becoming an issue). I could see the Reds losing value with Scott Rolen's age/health, Johnny Cueto's health, Travis Wood and Mike Leake's workloads, Jonny Gomes' glove and platoon issues, and Joey Votto not hitting like Superman again ... but picking much of that value back up with Jay Bruce breaking out, Edinson Volquez returning, Chris Heisey (I hope) taking at-bats from Gomes, and Aroldis Chapman adding another 55-60 high-quality innings to that pen.

The Cardinals couldn't afford to lose a full year of Wainwright, with Jaime Garcia unlikely to repeat his outstanding 2010 campaign and an experiment with Kyle McClellan (a career 4.01 tERA/4.12 xFIP in the bullpen) as Wainwright's replacement looking dicey, to be kind; I wouldn't want to be in their shoes if they're eight or ten games out at the break and have to seriously consider shopping their first baseman. The Pirates and Astros are both 100-loss candidates, although in defense of both clubs, neither has tried to paper over its troubles by signing bad veterans to expensive contracts. The Pirates offer a few more interesting young players to watch, including Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, while the Astros might have more midseason trade bait, like arb-eligible Hunter Pence or Brett Myers (who is signed through 2012).

NL West

The NL West has a bigger gap between favorites and contenders than any other division in the majors, which says as much about the contenders as it does about the favorites. The Giants get a full season of Buster Posey and probably 400 or more at-bats from Brandon Belt to offset declines from Pat Burrell or Aubrey Huff, although I have no idea who's going to catch the ball at shortstop behind the statue of Miguel Tejada they've installed at AT&T park. (If the ball hits the statue, is the play dead?)

The Rockies play great defense, roll out three good-to-great starters and use a two-man lineup with a lot of easy outs. Money troubles aside, the Dodgers have a slew of players who have underperformed given their tools; Matt Kemp has the ability to be the way he was in 2009, but I can't tell you whether the managerial change will turn him around. I might be high on the Padres if Mat Latos isn't going to miss a chunk of the season. He might. Kevin Towers' bullpen magic may not work so well in homer-friendly Chase Field, and the D-backs have a lot of flyball pitchers on their staff to go with an anemic offense.

Player awards

I did try to avoid picking repeat winners here; I don't see any real reason the Cy Young winners couldn't do so again, but it seemed I wouldn't be imparting much useful information if I just named a bunch of guys who won last year. That said, I'm trying to predict who will win these awards, not who will end up deserving them, so if I felt that strongly about any repeater, I would have picked him.

AL MVP: Robinson Cano

Best player on one of the league's best teams at an up-the-middle position. Also considered Evan Longoria (my second choice), Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer.

NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki

I get that Carlos Gonzalez is an exciting player, but he's not the best player on his own team, and Gonzalez's difficulties hitting outside of Coors (not just breaking balls but fastballs with movement) are well-documented enough that I think it's fair to say that CarGo's status on MVP ballots is partly a function of his home park. Of course, this could end up Buster Posey's award this year anyway, assuming Albert Pujols doesn't put on a contract-year push for the ages.

AL Cy Young: Jon Lester

I believe I picked Lester last year, and he had a great season even if he wasn't that close to King Felix. He'll get more run support and more defensive support this year, to the extent that either still clouds voters' thinking.

NL Cy Young: Josh Johnson

Was neck-and-neck with Halladay until his season ended early, and he would have at least made the voting close if he'd thrown a full season. Halladay is a monster, but I'm not going to bet on him throwing 250 innings again. I also considered Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw, and I like Yovani Gallardo as a dark horse.

AL Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson

I don't like picking pitchers for this award, but the crop of AL position player rookies isn't strong; J.P. Arencibia would be the leading candidate among the bats. Chris Sale could sneak in here if he ends up the closer in Chicago for more than half the year, and I'd consider Dustin Ackley here if I thought he'd get more than 3.5 months in the big leagues.

NL Rookie of the Year: Freddie Freeman

Freeman has a full-time job and no obvious internal replacement if he stumbles out of the gate. If Brandon Belt had a full-time job, I'd lean towards him, although they could pull the plug on him quickly if he struggles.

Breakout players

I chose not to do a breakout candidates column this year for two reasons. One is that last year's list includes a lot of guys I still like but who either didn't break out at all last year (Matt Wieters, Travis Snider) or broke out partway (Jay Bruce, Gordon Beckham). A breakout list that just says "see last year's entry" isn't helping anyone.

The bigger reason is that I don't have enough new names to fill out a whole column. Is it fair to call Logan Morrison or Mike Stanton a breakout candidate when both have already performed so well in half-seasons in the majors? "Buster Posey leads Law's list of breakout candidates" feels a little cheap, although you'd probably click on it anyway to see if I'd mailed in my column or something.

Anyway, a few young players whom I like to be better in 2011 than they were in 2010 include Baltimore LHP Brian Matusz, Pittsburgh RHP James McDonald (finally left alone in a starting role?), Arizona CF Chris Young, Cleveland CF Michael Brantley and Seattle 1B Justin Smoak. I might have included Toronto RHP Brandon Morrow or Milwaukee LHP Manny Parra (assuming he was moved to the bullpen) had either been healthy. And I'll mention that one name I've heard scouts out here talk up this spring is Texas 1B Mitch Moreland, who looks stronger and has shown more power in BP.