Who are this season’s dark horses to make some noise in 2011?

The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Giants, Twins, Cardinals and Rangers have had a lot of success recently and are expected to achieve quite a bit again in 2011. But who could impede their path to championship glory? This upcoming season, there may be more teams that can contend for a World Series title that are under the radar than in years past. In this post, I will go through the teams that I think will not only surprise people with a lot of wins in the regular season, but may even venture deep into October. I will only talk about the improvements and reasons for the possible contention. For Team Reviews, go to the Opinion Articles.

1. The Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers had the best offseason in all of baseball, even better than the Red Sox. In recent years, power and offense from youngsters have kept the Brewers afloat in the NL Central, but not at the top. The Brewers had been plagued by  unproven pitchers. This year will be different. The Brewers traded for former Kansas City ace Zack Greinke and Blue Jays starter Shaun Marcum. They will be joining the powerful Yoavani Gallardo and veteran Randy Wolf in the Brewers pitching staff.

Greinke has shown flashes of greatness at young ages. He won the Cy Young in 2009 and experienced a little bit of a bumpy road in 2010, experiencing an ERA surge of over 2 runs (2.16 to 4.17). Than why are the Brewers going to contend if one of their aces had a less than stellar year in 2010? Two reasons. Greinke pitched in the AL and he is young with a terrific 12 to 6 curve that makes AL hitters look like tee ballers. Look for a solid year from Greinke with an ERA under 3.50 because of refocus and a new setting with the thought that the playoffs may not be a stretch as they were in KC.

The Brewers also traded for Shaun Marcum, another AL arm. Not only did he pitch in the AL, but the AL East, pitching against the nasty lineups of the Yanks, Sox and Rays. Marcum, along with Greinke, is young. He has posted ERA’s of 3.39 and 3.64 in his last two seasons. I am not saying that it will be a walk in the park transitioning from the hitter heavy AL to the NL, but it will certainly be a load off of the pitchers backs to get a ton of run support.

2. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Angels under the radar? For the second time in the last 7 seasons, the Angels missed the playoffs in 2010. The reason they missed partly because of an injury to their stud first baseman Kendry Morales. The Angels can contend in the AL West. The Rangers are generally considered favorites to win the division, but I would bet against it, for they have no clear cut ace. The Angels have some pop in their lineup, in Kendry Morales, Torii Hunter and the new acquisition of Vernon Wells. Power, the best manager in baseball in Mike Scioiscia, and reliable pitching can sneak an otherwise average team into the postseason. The Angels two top pitchers can carry them into the postseason.

Jered Weaver has improved in IP, ERA and K’s the last two seasons and aside from 2008 has been consistently a top pitcher in the AL. His power off of the mound gives his frontline stuff. Jered Weaver, if healthy, is one of my top 5 choices to win the AL Cy young. He is also 27, which gives him enough experience, but allows him to still be durable enough to hurl 200 Innings, will help the Angels dramatically.

His partner in crime returned to the AL West after a stint in the NL. Dan Haren is still young. For his standards and history Haren  had a down year, posting a stat line of  12 wins and a 3.91 ERA. He still threw over 200 innings for the 6th year in a row.

The two top starters for the Angels will give them a chance to win the AL west and possibly make a run into the postseason. A lot of pressure rests on Howie Kendrick. Kendrick has been expected to hit .330 and be a great fill in the lead off role after Figgins left. He has not filled the void well. Last year he hit .279 with 10 homers and 75 RBI. He has to get on base at the top of the Angels lineup if they want to be successful.

Getting on base would allow Kendry Morales to drive him in. The first baseman was halted with an injury that was suffered during a walk off celebration at home plate, breaking his leg. The only thing I am worried about is that prior to his 2009 season and impressive 2010 start, is that he had not had a lot of success before 2009.

The Angels also have another asset that can help them in the 2011 season and that is the best manager in baseball, Mike Scioscia. He is a mastermind of the game of baseball. As  a former catcher, he cannot help himself from being involved in the game by teaching his players an aggressive style of baseball including speed and will on the basepaths and some small ball.

The Angels may surprise some people by challenging the pitching depleted Rangers in the AL West. There is also another team that will fight and claw its way for a taste of October in the AL West, the young Oakland Athletics.

3. Oakland Athletics

The Oakland Athletics have displayed baseball’s best young pitching in the 2000’s with the “Big Three” of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. The A’s might just be at it again. They have the best pitching staff in the AL West and maybe even the AL. The youngsters of Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden can compete and shut down the best bats in baseball.

In past years, baseball fans have seen that there is one ingredient to success in the regular season and postseason, pitching. It sounds simple and obvious but if a team has a strong rotation and heat throwing bullpen, winning is very reachable at all times of the season.

What else have baseball fans noticed? Pitching can make up for a lack of offense, especially last season as the Giants young pitching staff made up for a young and relatively harmless offense to win the World Series.

Between the 4 young pitchers in 2010, they contributed to the A’s rotation’s rankings of 1st in quality starts , 6th in WHIP, 4th in ERA and 5th in BAA. While all 4 of these pitchers are young, they have all had success and been top prospects at all levels of the Minor Leagues. This staff is not a fluke and is the third best staff in all of baseball only behind the Giants and Phillies.

The other strength of this club is their bullpen. At the backend of the game, opposing hitters will have to stare at the 2009 AL Rookie of the year Andrew Bailey. He has a career ERA of 1.70 and very importantly, especially for a closer, has an intimidating WHIP of 0.92. Bailey will be helped out by former closer Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour.

The A’s are very close to being a force to be reckoned with, but their offense is one of the worst in baseball.  In 2010, they ranked 23rd in runs scored and 26th in slugging pct. Their pitching is rock solid but when Kevin Kouzmanoff is your best power hitter driving in 71 and hitting 16 homers, there is a problem with your offense. Daric Barton will get on base, .393 OBP in 2010, but can anyone else get on base? Rajai Davis will hit and steal bags, but will he cross home?

There are so many young players on the A’s that have not proven themselves. If the A’s pitching can keep healthy and the offense is average, the A’s will be battling for a playoff spot. At the trade deadline, Billy Beane may make a move to boost the offense and the team right into the playoffs. No one talks about the A’s but with a bit of offense, their pitching could very well put the team on their back and carry them.

Info courtesy of: ESPN

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