Posts Tagged ‘Preview’

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Arizona Diamondbacks

The full glory that is Opening Day is here again, and with such beginnings, an expectation towards the end is already in play. Over the past two weeks, I have produced division-by-division previews from the ceiling to the floor of each team and how I feel about their chances for this summer. All manners of things can happen in-between now and the 161 games that follow from today onwards, from injury to simply over-achievement made good on (see the reigning World Series champs), and getting a grasp on exact where it all will play out is more often than not an exercise in calculated futility.

However, it’s the fun type of futility that everybody is invested in this time of the year, because for the most part, hopes spring rightfully eternal as the season opens up. With advent of the extra Wild Card spot and play-in game, more teams than ever have finished in range of the postseason—and not at the expense of quality of competition. The average win total of the two teams that have emerged from the Wild Card game in its first two years of existence as been 91 wins; a clear indicator of worth level of championship level competition. And while one as yet to reach the World Series, that day is coming—and it could be nigh.

Here is my best take on how the MLB season to come could play out, including a few bonus Award favorites in each league as well—and a few other random tidbits to come.

 

The Postseason

NL Wild Card Game—Pittsburgh Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants

Landing a Wild Card spot will tough in the NL this year, but I like what the Giants have done to address their lineup deficiencies and their starting staff is deep and experienced as well. The Pirates on the other hand could have the type of the team that puts up a win total that could win some divisions, but falls short within their own. Winner: Pirates

AL Wild Card Game—Tampa Bay Rays vs. Kansas City Royals

In what could be an intriguing matchup of two teams playing at the peak of their competitive window, both clubs are poised to take the long way to capitalizing on it. The Rays should reach their second straight Wild Card contest, while the Royals are within a stones toss of their first postseason in nearly 30 years. Winner: Rays

 

Division Series

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

A rematch of what is sure to be a year-long power struggle, as well as a repeat of the best divisional series match up of a year ago, the Caridinals will face another tight challenge to start the postseason. In the end, the Cardinals growing experience with their young arms (as well as an active Shelby Miller this time around) pulls them ahead again in the matchup. Winner: Cardinals

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington Nationals

This is a tight showcase of two teams that are fairly evenly matched. Both have great staffs and lineups that are as stacked as NL 8-man order can be. But the presence of Kershaw twice in a series is tough to bet against, I won’t today either. Winner: Dodgers

Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Look familiar? This dance was had last fall when the Rays headed to Boston as the freshly rewarded Wild Card winners. They stand to be an improved club this year with more experience for their young staff. The Sox have the experience, but I see the edge for the Rays this time around. Winner: Rays

Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s

Can the third time be the charm for Oakland? Each of their previous two seasons have ended at the hands of the Tigers, and more specifically, at the hands of fantastic efforts from Justin Verlander. The third time does not seem to be much more of a charm either, and the Tigers are in line to reach a third consecutive ALCS. Winner: Tigers

 

League Championship Series

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

A repeat in the NLCS is ahead of us, only this time the home field advantage swings to the Dodgers way. The Cardinals have made a routine of making it to this point, while the Dodgers are beginning to hit their peak. If they are both at full strength, this could have the intensity of a World Series contest, but in the end, the Cardinals seem to have an edge in the pitching depth department that can swing in their favor. Winner: Cardinals

Detroit Tigers vs. Tampa Bay Rays

A couple of Verlander/Price matchups in the ALCS could be worth the price of admission, but it’s the depth of a rotation that can tell the story here. The Rays are the better team in regards to lineup depth and impact, but the Tigers front end pitching is more impressive. In a series that will be defined by depth and bullpen potency, the Rays make the leap over the Tigers and reach their second World Series in franchise history. Winner: Rays

 

WORLD SERIES

St. Louis Cardinals vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Two very similar teams would face off here: balanced lineups that deploy a variety of approaches and a complete pitching staff, headlined by one of the game’s best pitchers. Matchups of this type usually come down to the moment and experience in it making the difference, and in that department, the Cardinals are unmatched in recent years and it will be the deciding factor in 12th World Series title. Winner: Cardinals

 

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Detroit Tigers

As a capper to this preview exercise, a few award picks as well:

NL Most Valuable Player

1. Freddie Freeman—Braves

2. Yadier Molina—Cardinals

3. Ryan Braun—Brewers

4. Andrew McCutchen—Pirates

5. Paul Goldschmidt—Diamondbacks

AL Most Valuable Player

1. Mike Trout—Angels

2. Miguel Cabrera—Tigers

3. Evan Longoria—Rays

4. Adrian Beltre—Rangers

5. Robinson Cano—Mariners

NL Cy Young Award

1. Clayton Kershaw—Dodgers

2. Stephen Strasburg—Nationals

3. Adam Wainwright—Cardinals

4. Madison Bumgarner—Giants

5. Cliff Lee—Phillies

AL Cy Young Award

1. Justin Verlander—Tigers

2. David Price—Rays

3. Felix Hernandez—Mariners

4. Jered Weaver—Angels

5. Chris Sale—White Sox

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Billy Hamilton—Reds

2. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

3. Gregory Polanco—Pirates

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Xander Bogearts—Red Sox

2. Nick Castellanos—Tigers

3. Taijuan Walker—Mariners

NL Comeback Player of the Year

1. Starlin Castro—Cubs

2. Johnny Cuerto—Reds

3. Matt Kemp—Dodgers

AL Comeback Player of the Year

1. Albert Pujols—Angels

2. Grady Sizemore—Red Sox

3. Michael Pineda—Yankees

 

Well, that’s about it and that’s about as much ground as I can ground as I can fly without my crystal ball. For the on the run Opening Day info, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

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Dodgers-Clayton-Kershaw-Tigers-Max-Scherzer-claim-Cy-Youngs

Last summer, the National League West was the scene of the most drastic 180 in all baseball. Coming into the year, it was fully expected that the Dodgers would grab it early on for themselves and not let up, however that was far from the case. As a matter of fact, due to a mix of injuries and uncertain day-to-day lineup production, LA found itself in the cellar of the division in early May, and no other club really stepped and away either. The defending World Series champs in San Francisco were dealing with a host of injuries and down seasons, and the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Padres didn’t make the opportunistic push that they could have. Soon enough, they would grow to regret this.

2013 Finish

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

2. Arizona Diamondbacks (81-81)

3. San Diego Padres (76-86)

4. San Francisco Giants (76-86)

5. Colorado Rockies (74-88)

In mid-May, the Dodgers came around and ran away with the West. Sparked by the promotion of Yasiel Puig and returns of Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez and (briefly) Matt Kemp, they ran away with the division, finishing with the biggest divisional margin of victory in the Majors. Pulling ahead to this summer, they will enter with the same expectations. However, the division enters in a much better place overall that won’t allow for any temporary slips that the last time around allowed.

The Diamondbacks showed the most growth of any team that did not make the postseason last year, sparked by the coming of age of MVP runner up Paul Goldschmidt, and they made some smart additions to continue the process. The Giants never stay down for long, and with a strong core and a few additions to mend their fall of last year, they project well again too. And the Padres and Rockies both are the type of teams that can rock a boat while keeping their hand on it as well.

What does this all mean? And can it continue to be the aggressive mix of a division that has not had a repeat champ since 2009?

All-Division Team

1. Yasiel Puig -RF—Dodgers

2. Carlos Gonzalez-LF—Rockies

3. Troy Tulowitzki-SS—Rockies

4. Buster Posey-C—Giants

5. Paul Goldschmidt-1B—Diamondbacks

6. Matt Kemp-CF—Dodgers

7. Chase Headley-3B—Padres

8. Marco Scutaro-2B—Giants

Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw—Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Zack Greinke—Dodgers

Starting Pitcher: Madison Bumgarner—Giants

Starting Pitcher: Matt Cain—Giants

Right Handed Reliever: Joaquin Benoit—Padres

Lefty Handed Reliever: Rex Brothers—Rockies

Closer: Kenley Jansen—Dodgers

Lineup

1. Dodgers

2. Rockies

3. Diamondbacks

4. Giants

5. Padres

With five current or former All-Stars comprising their everyday lineup, without accounting for Puig, the Dodgers have a undeniably balanced offering that still could do even more than it has to date if they can get a better shake regarding health. Following their addition of Mark Trumbo, the D’Backs are the only NL team running out two 30-home run hitters from a year ago, with Goldschmidt as well. The Rockies always produce, but if Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki can join NL-batting champ Michael Cuddyer and new addition Justin Morneau with some regularity, they should lead the NL in runs scored again.

The Rockies potential is greatly improved when it has its former batting champ in Gonzalez available. He has cleared .300 three of each of the last four years and 20 homers in each campaign.

The Rockies potential is greatly improved when it has its former batting champ in Gonzalez available. He has cleared .300 three of each of the last four years.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Dodgers

2. Rockies

3. Diamondbacks

4. Giants

5. Padres

The Hanley Ramirez/Adrian Gonzalez/Matt Kemp trio that the Dodgers could yield is a pure terror, as is the Gonzalez/Tulowitzki/Cuddyer mix in Colorado. However, the Giants could see a big upswing around Buster Posey if Pablo Sandoval’s re-conditioned approach pays out, Brandon Belt continues to develop and Michael Morse can rediscover his 2011-12 form, where he hit .297 with 49 homers over the run.

Table Setters

1. Dodgers

2. Padres

3. Giants

4. Rockies

5. Diamondbacks

The decision to put Puig at the top of the lineup by Don Mattingly is partially due to a lack of a true leadoff hitter, but it is also a case of getting his most diverse talent as many at-bats as possible. If he develops more patience, he could be among the best leadoff options in the NL (.391 on-base % in 2013). The Padres are a throwback of an attack, that has plenty of dash and run options. Before he lost the end of his season due to a Biogenesis-related suspension, Everth Cabrera was on pace to lead the NL in stolen bases again, and still managed to swipe 37. He is backed up by the chronically underrated Will Venable.

Depth

1. Diamondbacks

2. Giants

3. Dodgers

4. Rockies

5. Padres

Kirk Gibson has a very deep offering, with the enviable option of alternating between Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius at shortstop, and will eventually have the versatile Cody Ross available as well. San Francisco’s Gregor Blanco is one of the better 4th outfielders in the game, and Andre Ethier is currently the best 4th outfielder in baseball—for as long as he lasts in LA.

Bumgarner has steadily risen up both the Giants rotation and the ranks of NL pitchers, reaching his first All-Star Game last summer.

Bumgarner has steadily risen up both the Giants rotation and the ranks of NL pitchers, reaching his first All-Star Game last summer in route to a 13-win, 199 strikeout campaign.

Rotation

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Padres

5. Rockies

For all of the depth of their everyday lineup, it is rotational depth that is the real strength of the Dodgers. Behind their big two, they have a rotation and a half, with a mix of Hyun Jin-Ryu, Dan Haren and options of Paul Maholm, Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley as well. However, the Giants are not far behind them, with Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogel song providing a solid supporting group.

1-2 Punch

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Padres

5. Rockies

The West is home to two of the elite starting duos in the game, in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke and Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. Kershaw and Greinke combined for a  31-13 record with a 2.23 ERA and 380 strikeouts  last year, with Kershaw winning his second Cy Young in three years. In SF, Cain had a down year, before rebounding with a superb second half, while Bumgarner posted a 2.77 ERA in route to earning this year’s Opening Day nod. Arizona suffered a huge loss in their top guy Patrick Corbin being lost to Tommy John surgery this spring, while the Padres have a blooming star in Andrew Cashner atop their order.

Bullpen

1. Dodgers

2. Diamondbacks

3. Padres

4. Giants

5. Rockies

LA boasts a dominant Kenley Jansen at the end of their pen, with two former closers on one-year deals auditioning for a return to the role in Chris Perez and Brian Wilson setting up for him. That’s a mix that leads to some very short games behind their already potent starting staff. The D’Backs have a similar mix, with J.J. Putz, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler all capable of shutting the door in front of Addison Reed. The Padres annually have a superb pen, and saw to it that it continues to be so by making a big commitment to former Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit to setup for Huston Street.

While his winning two-thirds of the NL Triple Crown got the headlines, Goldschmidt also turned in an excellent defensive campaign in route to winning the National League first base Gold Glove.

While his winning two-thirds of the NL Triple Crown got the headlines, Goldschmidt also turned in an excellent defensive campaign in route to winning the National League first base Gold Glove.

Defense

1. Diamondbacks

2. Padres

3. Rockies

4. Giants

5. Dodgers

Led by all-universe defender Gerardo Parra and the Gold Glover Goldschmidt, the D’Backs can pick it, especially with a healthy Miguel Montero captaining it all behind the plate. The athletic Padres are built to make cover the spacious grounds in Petco Park, with Chase Headley a former Gold Glover and Venable, Chris Denorfia, Yonder Alonso and Cabrera all very good defenders as well. In Colorado, Carlos Gonzalez is the best defensive outfielder in the NL, as is Hunter Pence in right for the Giants.

Manager

1. Giants

2. Padres

3. Diamondbacks

4. Dodgers

5. Rockies

Bruce Bochy has played a major role in the regular success of the Giants, and with two World Series titles under his belt in the last four years, he’ll have them ready for a rebound. Bud Black doesn’t get enough credit for the job he does in getting the cash strapped, young Padres to a respectable finish each year either. Don Mattingly also proved his chops last year, by corralling the spiraling Dodgers back into the race—and saving his job in real-time as well.

Finances

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Rockies

5. Padres

The Dodgers can have whatever they want, it is just a reality of the game that everybody in the market has to adjust to. They are squarely in ‘win now’ mode and will acquire whatever they can to make that a reality. The other teams in the division are more modest with their resources, so what is in tow now is likely to be close to what they compete with, although the D’Backs do have some attractive young prospects they could bargain with.

Impact Additions

1. Mark Trumbo (Diamondbacks via trade)

2. Tim Hudson (Giants via free agency)

3. Addison Reed (Diamondbacks via trade)

4. Dan Haren (Dodgers via free agency)

5. Justin Morneau (Rockies via free agency)

The D’Backs mortgaged away some of their young potential to add slightly more proven young Major Leaguers in Trumbo and Addison this winter, to add much needed power in Trumbo, and late inning depth in Reed.  The Dodgers and Giants both made smart, ready-to –win contributions in Haren and Hudson to offset each other’s addition of the other.

Once he found a place in the starting rotation, Cashner became one of the NL's most dominant starters, especially at home where he sported a 1.95 ERA.

Once he found a place in the starting rotation, Cashner became one of the NL’s most dominant starters, especially at home where he sported a 1.95 ERA.

Leap Forward

1. Nolan Arenado—Rockies

2. Andrew Cashner—Padres

3. Brandon Belt—Giants

4. Jedd Gyorko—Padres

5. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

Arenado’s rookie year got swept away by the some of the more famous ones around the NL, but he made his own instant impact as well, winning the NL Gold Glove at third base. Look for him to make a more regular impact at the plate this year, as his .311 career minor league average indicates. Cashner could be the breakout starter in the NL this year, as the eccentric, flame throwing righty posted a 2.14 second half ERA, with a .194 average against.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Archie Bradley—Diamondbacks

2. Eddie Butler—Rockies

3. Jonathan Gray—Rockies

4. Chris Owings—Diamondbacks

5. Austin Hedges—Padres

The West is home to a group of the premier pitching prospects in the game, with two oddly enough being headed towards Colorado in Butler and Gray. Gray was the 3rd pick in last spring’s Draft, posting a 1.93 ERA in two stops after signing. Butler started 28 games in the minors last year, and dominated to the tune of a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts. If they can carry over their success to Coors, it could signal a change of tides for the long-suffering Rockies pitching. Bradley is the top pitching prospect in the minors (12-5, 1.97 ERA at Double A in 2013), and should see action in the desert fairly early in the year due to Corbin’s injury.

PREDICTIONS

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

2. San Francisco Giants

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

4. San Diego Padres

5. Colorado Rockies

The prognosis for the West seems to be for it to be much more competitive than it was a year ago, even while it stands to be host to one of baseball’s most dominating clubs, it is also compromised of a few teams that are either growing into postseason form or returning to it. The Diamondbacks look to continue their growth into a postseason contender, and despite the loss of their top arm in Corbin, they still have what it takes to continue their push into the wild card picture. They will need to get help from their on-the-verge prospects throughout the year, and may need to add an arm later in the year, but they are close. The same can be said for the Giants, who are only two years removed from being the best team in baseball, and are at a crossroads with their established core. If it has one more run in it, and a consistent offering from its rotation, they will push for the post season.

The Padres are a wild card in the fact that they have the understated cohesiveness to make a difference in the division, even if they are a few years (and a legit offensive star away) from being a factor in the wild card race. The Rockies are still a one-sided affair; potent offensively, but offer very little in the way vital pitching to compete with their division mates.

But in the end, it is the Dodgers division to negotiate their way through from the very beginning. It is about not winning the West, but getting over the NLCS hump that is their task for the year. After a season where they pushed to the brink of the World Series despite never being healthy, it is definitely within reason to expect them to do better entering the year in markedly better shape than they were at any point last year. Making reality meet what paper shows is a completely different thing however, but their prime competition is not from within the West, but from the top of the other divisions.

It has been four years since a team repeated in the West, but it is time for it to happen again. The Dodgers will once again pull away with the division, although by not the same amount of games, in route to posting the National League’s best record. However, expect the Giants and Diamondbacks to compete for one of the Wild Card spots throughout the year, with the Padres being a surprisingly competitive club as well.

For more on the season to come in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan. For more content, head to The Sports Fan Journal and I70 Baseball.

2013 World Series Game 6: St. Louis Cardinals v. Boston Red Sox

I have said it for the last decade at least, and maintain it to this day: there is no division in professional sports that is better than the American League East. When a 74 win team finishes in last place in a division, it means that the internal gauntlet is about as severe as it can get. In its current incarnation, it has dominated the postseason landscape of the junior circuit since the Wild Card era came into play, and for the 18 years since the four-team (and now five) team playoff alignment began, it has produced 15 Wild Card candidates. And in that same span, 11 AL East clubs have gone to the Fall Classic, and eight have gone on to win it, including last year’s Boston Red Sox

2013 Finish

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

So all things considered, it should be no surprise that picking through the East is akin to picking a favorite in the League as a whole. And the competition never dies down between the five clubs either, as this winter the one-up game was in full effect to catch up to the Champs. The Orioles slow played their hand before making a couple of late winter pickups as they look to breakthrough the glass ceiling that has hovered above them in the division, while the Blue Jays have been mostly quiet, choosing instead to call last year a spade and carry the same potent, yet oft-injured ammo into this spring.

The Rays and Red Sox took similar routes, resigning their own and putting faith in youngsters to replace the few lost parts they sustained. And the Yankees…well the Yankees spent nearly half a billion dollars to make sure that fourth place is not an option again. Regardless of how each team’s route plays out, one thing is for certain, one of the five clubs will inevitably be a big player in the much larger picture eight months from now—as long as they can survive themselves first.

All-Division Lineup

1. Jose ReyesShortstop, Blue Jays

2. Dustin PedroiaSecond Base, Red Sox

3. Evan LongoriaThird Base, Rays

4. David OrtizDesignated Hitter, Red Sox

5. Chris DavisFirst Base, Orioles

6. Jose BautistaRight Field, Blue Jays

7. Adam JonesCenter Field, Orioles

8. Brian McCannCatcher, Yankees

9. Brett GardnerLeft Field, Yankees

 

Starting Pitcher: David Price—Rays

Starting Pitcher: Jon Lester—Red Sox

Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia—Yankees

Starting Pitcher: Clay Buchholz—Red Sox

Right Handed Reliever: Joel Peralta—Rays

Lefty Handed Reliever: Jake McGee—Rays

Closer: Koji Uehara—Red Sox

Derek_Jeter_ST

Jeter finds himself amid a fresh collection of well compensated talent for his final go around, but even at the end, the team will need him on hand if it is to maximize its potential.

Lineup

1. Yankees

2. Red Sox

3. Rays

4. Orioles

5. Blue Jays

 

The Yankees spent top dollar to overhaul their lineup, which was basically Cano and pray for rain last year, and their mission was successful. They will bring out five new starters of a high enough quality that solid comebacks from Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira would merely be bonuses. The Sox return the majority of the core that produced some of the timeliest hitting any October has witnessed in years, while the Orioles have an impressive power core of Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones.

Heart of the Lineup

1. Orioles

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Blue Jays

5. Rays

The addition of Cruz providing protection behind Davis…who is the ultimate protection for Adam Jones makes the middle of the Orioles’ lineup as bad of a grind as the AL will run out this year. In Boston, Dustin Pedroia (193 2013 hits) is the perfect on-base threat to put in front of the duo of David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, who combined for 53 homers a year ago. In Toronto, if Jose Bautista is healthy again, there’s a chance that he could combine with Edwin Encarnacion for 80 homers this summer.

Table Setters

1. Red Sox

2. Yankees

3. Rays

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

Shane Victorino (21 steals, .294 average) and Daniel Nava (.385 on-base%, 5th best in AL) could wreak havoc yet again to start things off for the Sox, while down in Tampa, the combo of David Dejesus and Ben Zobrist have a chance to set up the table nicely for Evan Longoria and Wil Myers to both chase 100 RBI.

Depth

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

Strength is always in the numbers for the Rays, and Joe Maddon uses his full roster better than anybody else in the game. The Jays have four starting-caliber outfielders, and the duo of Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina is a very strong backstop duo. With Jonny Gomes, David Ross and Mike Carp in the mix, the Sox are not far behind however. The option to rotate Ichiro, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran in the Bronx is a necessary depth move for the aging, yet talented Yankee outfield as well.

After an injury hindered first half, Price went 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and a .236 average against in the second half.

After an injury hindered first half, Price went 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and a .236 average against in the second half.

Rotation

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Yankees

4. Orioles

5. Blue Jays

Tampa keeps churning out more and more arms without ceasing it seems. David Price is the headline, but Matt Moore won 17 games in his second year and both Alex Cobb and Chris Archer have plenty of immediate promise. The Yankees are putting a lot of faith in a few commodities with much to prove in CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka, while the Blue Jays have to hope R.A. Dickey can once again led an underdog staff as he did two years ago.

1-2 Punch

1. Red Sox

2. Yankees

3. Rays

4. Blue Jays

5. Orioles

This is a tight call to that narrowly goes in the Sox favor, due to the big game experience of Jon Lester and John Lackey. Hiroki Kuroda has silently been the most consistent arm in the Yankee arsenal the past two seasons, and Price (30-13 record the past two years) by himself makes the Rays a favorite in most head-to-head matchups he takes the ball in.

Bullpen

1. Rays

2. Red Sox

3. Blue Jays

4. Yankees

5. Orioles

There’s no true powerhouse pen in the division, but the return of Grant Balfour to a Tampa group that features plus arms in Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and former closers in Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo is hard to deny. It would be impossible for Koji Uehara to have a better year than he did last time around, but his presence assures that Boston must be beat early. The Blue Jays have an underrated late inning group, while how (and if) David Robertson can transition to the ninth is beyond simply crucial for the Yankees.

Machado_13

Machado led all AL defenders in dWAR last year, with a 4.3 games above replacement level wtih the glove. All while being 20 years old and playing out of position.

Defense

1. Orioles

2. Rays

3. Red Sox

4. Blue Jays

5. Yankees

Baltimore has FIVE current or immediately past holders of Gold Gloves in their everyday lineup, and their defensive abilities allow for their pitchers to not have to be as sharp as other rotations in the league. The Rays are no slouches either, with Longoria, Escobar, Loney and their entire outfield having plus range. In Boston, Pedroia and Victorino are the best gloves at their respective positions in the AL.

Manager

1. Joe Maddon—Rays

2. Buck Showalter—Orioles

3. Joe Girardi—Yankees

4. John Farrell—Red Sox

5. John Gibbons—Blue Jays

There’s nobody better at motivating and knowing his players than Maddon is, and it allows him to continuing pull more out of his rosters than their on-paper talent shows. Showalter’s veteran savvy is the best in the league, and Joe Girardi is regularly underappreciated due to the talent at his command.

Finances

1. Yankees

2. Red Sox

3. Blue Jays

4. Orioles

5. Rays

The Yankees can spend at will, and despite the rumors that they want to be luxury tax conscious, in the end, the wins will always take priority over the cost of chasing them. The Blue Jays look for the value deal, but have the dollars to add what they need to stay in the race if they get close to it.

Impact Additions

1. Jacoby Ellsbury (Yankees via Free Agency)

2. Carlos Beltran (Yankees via Free Agency)

3. Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees via Free Agency)

4. Brian McCann (Yankees via Free Agency)

5. Ubaldo Jimenez (Orioles via Free Agency)

Yankees, Yankees and more Yankees here, with each playing a major role in the team’s immediate success. Outside of NY, the Orioles played their free agent hand slow, but played it well in adding a new staff ace in Jimenez and All-Star caliber outfielder in Nelson Cruz. The Sox addition of Edward Mujica gives them another experienced presence that has succeeded in every role in the pen previously.

B_Lawrie

The whole package is there with Lawrie, but its going to take health and maturity meeting up to help him make the leap to fill out his sizable potential at age 24.

Leap Forward

1. Wil Myers—Rays

2. Alex Cobb—Rays

3. Brett Lawrie—Blue Jays

4. Chris Archer—Rays

5. Will Middlebrooks—Red Sox

Myer is an odd candidate to think will have a major jump forward considering he is coming off of a Rookie of the Year debut, but considering he did so in barely a half of a season, what he could do over a full year could be in the 30 home run/40 double rate. Lawrie has been on the verge for the past two years, but he is an elite defender and has all the tools at the plate to contribute anywhere from 2-5.

Rookies/Propects To Watch

1. Xander Bogaerts—Red Sox

2. Kevin Gausman—Orioles

3. Johnathan Schoop—Orioles

4. Jake Odorizzi—Rays

5. Allen Webster—Red Sox

Bogaerts is that rare mix of both talent and acumen that makes a young player immediately acclimated to the Majors. He proved this by moving to third base and playing a big part of the Sox run through October. Gausman has a plus arm, but just needs to find a place to showcase it in the rotation. His organization make in Schoop should get a fair chance to get the second base job in Baltimore at some point this summer.

PREDICTIONS

1. Boston Red Sox

2. Tampa Bay Rays

3. New York Yankees

4. Baltimore Orioles

5. Toronto Blue Jays

It is never an easy road, and it surely will not be again. A year ago, the Red Sox pulled up from the cellar to the ultimate penthouse by using an overhauled roster, the motivation of a new manager, a recovering city as a rally point and a team that lived for, and thrived in, the moment. But this year, they are targeted by a group of teams that made very smart adjustments, in addition to the various chips on their shoulders.

The Rays are as talented as they have been in years, and whereas finding runs was a problem last season, it should be the least of their concerns this year. Coupled with a strong pitching staff, the only thing that could get in their way this year is if their young starting staff doesn’t hold up over a full year as well as it did in limited time in 2013. On their heels are the Yankees, who have more than enough firepower, and could have the best offense in all of baseball. However, their pitching staff being a success would be slightly an upset of sorts, as they enter the season needing all of their arms to either overachieve, overcome or live up to some lofty expectations—and in some cases, some of each element.

The Orioles and Jays seem to be a step behind each of these teams now, but also have rosters that could would make it no shock at all if they crack into the upper reaches of the division. The O’s need Manny Machado to be healthy and for their pitching staff as a whole to be a bit better than they profile. Meanwhile, the Jays just need to stay healthy and put up tons of runs, because they will need them if this is the pitching staff they tackle most of the year with.

Yet in the end, the balance of the Red Sox and the shared chemistry they have now makes them a very formidable club. They have the veterans in their primes along with the youngsters that have room to grow while playing major parts, yet not have the weight of carrying the club on their shoulders. I see the Sox winning the East again, albeit in a close race, with the Rays being in one of the Wild Card spots and the Yankees perhaps joining them.

Come back to the Cheap Seats over the next two weeks for each divisional breakdown and preview, and for more info from here in real-time, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan

The NFC West was a bad type of record setting last year. It was the first division in NFL history to not produce a winning record. It also was a division that nearly flipped it’s standings in the course of one year, and continues into this year as a division that is changing its face still.

The Seahawks, the owner’s of the dubious record, will try to defend the division, albeit with a roster still in need of a lot of aid. Arizona is looking for a renaissance at quarterback, to rediscover the passing attack that won them back-to-back division titles in ’08 and ’09. Jim Harbaugh takes control of a ship in San Francisco that sank like the Titantic a year ago. In St. Louis, one of the NFL’s most improved teams from a year ago will look to turn its potential into a snatching the most available wide open playoff ticket in the NFL.

The hangover from last year will remain though. It’s still a division in flux that could easily host three teams with losing records and is nearly guaranteed to see two with double digit loses. But if any team gets on a solid winning streak, no division could be easier to hijack a surprise trip out of the regular season from.

 

 

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

QB: Sam Bradford RB: Steven Jackson, Frank Gore FB: Moran Norris  WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Braylon Edwards, Sidney Rice TE: Vernon Davis OT: Russell Okung, Rodger Saffold OG: Mike Iupati, Harvey Dahl C: Jason Brown

Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards for the sixth consecutive season in 2010.

DE: Darnell Dockett, Justin Smith DT: Brandon Mebrane, Isaac Sopoana OLB: LeRoy Hill, Aaron Curry MLB: Patrick Willis, James Laurinaitis CB: Marcus Trufant, Patrick Peterson S: Quinton Mikell, Adrian Wilson

K: Josh Brown P: Donnie Jones Returner: Leon Washington

 

 

ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11 in 2010)

Offense: L. Fitzgerald-WR, K. Kolb-QB, B. Wells-RB, J. Feely-K (C-)

Defense: D. Dockett-DE, A. Wilson-S, C. Campbell-DE, P. Peterson-CB (C)

 

The Good: Say what you will about Kevin Kolb’s price tag or what was given up to get him, but he gives the Cardinals identity and consistency in the pocket. Last season’s shuffle through Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall produced 10 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. Even if he doesn’t become an elite QB, Kolb will be better than this and when Larry Fitzgerald is on the other end of the pass, it doesn’t take an All-Pro QB to change this team’s prospects.

The Bad: The defense isn’t any better. There’s an aging linebacker group in front of a young secondary that doesn’t get much support at safety in coverage. On the offensive side, they are a mixture of injury prone and underachieving at running back, with Beanie Wells being relied on to carry a big load. The offensive line was not changed at all after being one of the worst units in the league a year ago.

Peterson will shoulder much responsibility for salvaging the Cardinals' defense immediately in his debut.

X-Factor-Patrick Peterson: On some accounts, he was the best player available in April’s draft, and the Cardinals have invested in him as such. The trade of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to land Kolb was made with much more confidence with Peterson stepping in a corner. He’ll be eased into the mix, but by year’s end he could find himself with a Defensive Rookie of the Year nod, as well as some highlights in the return game.

Fearless Prediction: CAR (W), @WSH (L), @SEA (L), NYG (L), @MIN (W), PIT (L), @BAL (L), STL (L), @PHI (L), @SF (W), @STL (L), @DAL (L), SF (W), CLE (W), @CIN (W), SEA (W)

In The End: The Cardinals have some talent on defense, but it’s still very prone to being ravaged for some big weeks against the wrong offense. However, unlike last season, they’ll be able to score easier this season and answer back more. They’ll be better, but until they get faster on both sides of the ball and add a lot more protection for Kolb, they won’t talk the crown. Record: 7-9

 

SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (6-10 in 2010)

Offense: F. Gore-RB, V. Davis-TE, B. Edwards-WR, M. Crabtree-WR (C)

Defense: P. Willis-MLB, J. Smith-DE, D. Whitner-S, C. Rogers-CB (C+)

 

The Good: Braylon Edwards represents a major step forward as a legit downfield option with some size. He’ll join a receivers group with Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn, which would be great as a relay team, but has struggled to turn that into football productivity. Also, Edwards will loosen coverage over the middle on Vernon Davis, as well as give Michael Crabtree the chance to become a high quality #2 option, which is what he seems to be best tailored for.

The Bad: Alex Smith will start at the helm, but still doesn’t have the assurance that the team is his for even the full season. The plan is to keep rookie Colin Kaepernick in the wings for as long as possible, but any prolonged struggle by Smith will make cries for his assent to starter to get louder and louder. It’s hard for Smith to have the confidence to look forward to running a team while looking over his shoulder.

Smith will take the controls to begin the Harbaugh era, but how much of a leash he truly has remains to be seen.

X-Factor-Frank Gore: Although he had yet another season ended early by injury last fall, Gore dug his feet in and demanded a new contract before taking the field this year. He was rewarded with a $21 million dollar deal, and will now have to deliver on it for a full season. A consistent and heavy run attack will loosen up defenses and give Smith a much easier scenario to work with. Gore has the talent, but now has to put it on display for a full go around.

Fearless Prediction: SEA (W), DAL (L), @CIN (W), @PHI (L), TB (L), @DET (L), CLE (W), @WSH (W), NYG (L), ARI (L), @BAL (L), STL (W), @ARI (L), PIT (L), @SEA (L), @STL (L)

In The End: All of the same issues remain from the last few years. It is relying on an injury prone star running back and worn down QB to lead the offense. The defense still has an elite asset in Patrick Willis, but he can’t be everywhere at once. The secondary is still very vulnerable and the pass rush looks shaky. Year one of the Jim Harbaugh era will show how much work he has ahead of him still. Record: 5-11

 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9 in 2010; Division Champs)

Offense: S. Rice-WR, Z. Miller-TE, M. Lynch-RB, M. Williams-WR (C+)

Defense: C. Clemons-DE, B. Mebrane-DT, M. Trufant-CB, E. Thomas-S (C)

 

The Good: They’ve got the weapons to make it happen on offense. The offensive line is solid on both ends and Robert Gallery is a step forward inside. Sidney Rice, Mike Williams and Zack Miller are the best starting receiver/tight end combo in the division. If Marshawn Lynch has any of the beast mode left he unleashed on the Saints last year, the running game will be solid as well.

The Bad: It’s also a woefully young team at some critical places. Starting a second year guy in Russell Okung and a rookie (James Carpenter) at offensive tackle is a risky proposition. Lofa Tatupu was the best tackler on the team and was released, weakening an already shaky group. The offense isn’t deep, and any injury could prevent them from reaching their potential as a group.

The Seahawks are unsettled in a lot of departments. Okung needs to be consistent & healthy in year two.

X-Factor-Tavaris Jackson: He’s getting what he wanted in Minnesota: a chance to be the unchallenged starter from day one. They will be careful to not put too much of the team’s fate on him to win, but that’s a bad sign in itself. He won’t be asked to win games, however an overly reserved approach is just as bad. Letting him roll the dice and going with the outcome would be a much smarter approach.

Fearless Prediction: @SF (L), @PIT (L), ARI (W), ATL (L), @NYG (L), @CLE (W), CIN (W), @DAL (L), BAL (L), @STL (L), WSH (W), PHI (L), STL (L), @CHI (L), SF (W), @ARI (L)

In The End: While they are far from the “accidental” playoff team they were made out to be a year ago, it is still a team that had a losing record a year ago and got worse at the most important position. A mixture of a defense with no playmakers and an offense without a leader will keep the Hawks with a similar record from last year, but with a more appropriate result. Record: 5-11

 

ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-9 in 2010)

Offense: S. Bradford-QB, S. Jackson-RB, M. Sims-Walker-WR, D. Amendola-WR (B)

Defense: C. Long-DE, J. Laurinaitis-MLB, Q. Mikell-S, J. Hall-DE (C+)

 

The Good: They’ve got Sam Bradford, and that’s an advantage nobody else in the division has. As a rookie, he threw for over 3,500 yards with a makeshift receiver group and one-dimensional running game. The team took an aggressive approach in putting new and diverse options everywhere on the offense to accent new offense coordinator Josh McDaniel’s scheme, and with a more experienced Bradford at the helm, the unit will flow much easier. Mike Sims-Walker provides them with a big, every down target and Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams offer more options out the backfield to get a fresher Steven Jackson than in many years.

The Bad: The defense needed to get faster, but didn’t. Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher is a solid, but not exciting cornerback tandem. It’s also a thin coverage group, that would be in bad shape if anymore injury finds it (Jerome Murphy is already gone). They don’t match up well against the big, physical receivers that line nearly every week of the Rams schedule. The linebacker group struggled a year ago to stop runners from turning the corner, and that it still is among the least athletic groups in the league.

With a new scheme and arsenal, Bradford stands to take the Rams, and himself, to new levels.

X-Factor-Lance Kendricks: The scheme that new coordinator Josh McDaniels employs makes good use of the tight end spot, and the Rams wisely picked up an athlete capable of maximizing the position in Kendricks. The former wide receiver at Wisconsin gets up the field as well as any wide receiver he’ll line up with and has already proven to be a redzone favorite of Bradford’s in the preseason.

Fearless Predictions: PHI (L), @NYG (L), BAL (W), WSH (W), @GB (L), @DAL (L), NO (L), @ARI (W), @CLE (W), SEA (W), ARI (W), @SF (L), @SEA (W), CIN (W), @PIT (L), SF (W)

In The End: They came up short by just a game in their quest to go from worst in the league to the playoffs a year ago. This season they’ll finish the move to the top of the division, due to an expanded offensive approach and Bradford’s rise continuing to take him up the QB hierarchy league wide. The schedule will open up brutally for the first seven weeks, but it ends with matchups with divisional foes that they can easily outmatch. Record: 9-7

 

To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.

The AFC West was a wild division a year ago. The Kansas City Chiefs went from four wins to division champions. The Raiders went undefeated against its division mates, yet still ended up in third place. Philip Rivers was a one-man gang in San Diego much of the year, while the Broncos slipped to their worst finish in franchise history, and recalled John Elway and Tim Tebow to save them by the end of it all. It was a weird go around.

What the division returns as is a highly competitive mix, that will be one of the most exciting divisions in football. The Raiders and Broncos are rebuilding with defenses that have as much risk and they do promise. However, the real drama is at the top of the division, where two of the most balanced and explosive teams in the entire NFL will face off for top honors.

The Chiefs and the Chargers are getting ready for sixteen weeks of war, and the West will be won with nothing less than blood, guts and a ton of hatred by the end of it all. Can the Chiefs keep holding the throne they so aggressively snatched a year ago, or will the Chargers show they have what it takes to come from behind in the West as well as they worked ahead for so long?

 

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

QB: Philip Rivers RB: Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden FB: LeRon McClain WR: Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd TE: Antonio Gates OT: Ryan Clady, Marcus McNeil OG: Kris Dielman, Ryan Lilja C: Nick Hardwick

Bowe's 15 touchdown catches led the NFL in 2010.

DE: Elvis Dumervil, Tyson Jackson DT: Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly OLB: Tamba Hali, Shawn Phillips MLB: Derrick Johnson, Rolando McClain CB: Champ Bailey, Brandon Flowers S: Eric Berry, Eric Weddle

K: Nate Kaeding P: Shane Lechler Returner: Jacoby Ford

 

DENVER BRONCOS (4-12 in 2010)

Offense: B. Lloyd-WR, K. Orton-QB, K. Moreno-RB, R. Clady-OT (C+)

Defense: E. Dumervil-DE, C. Bailey-CB, B. Dawkins-S, V. Miller-OLB (C)

 

The Good: New coach John Fox will bring a gritty approach that includes an emphasis on the run that could get the best out of Knowshon Moreno finally, as well as redzone star Willis McGahee. On defense, after a year of being ran at and passed over, the return of Elvis Dumervil and selection of Von Miller will give a unit that could put no pressure on the passer two blazing rushers capable of double digit sacks. This will help save the secondary from being tested non-stop.

The Bad: They got better at a number places, but still are shaky at defensive tackle and middle linebacker. They are undersized along the defensive front, and it shows in how bad they stand up to the run. They gave up the second most rushing yards in the League last year at just over 154 yards per game, and this is a plague that will follow them into this year.

Miller will have an instant impact in John Elway's attempts to bring the Broncos back from a franchise record low season.

X-Factor-Elvis Dumervil: The NFL’s 2009 sack leader’s absence last season was felt early and often. No one stepped up to fill the void created after he tore his pectoral muscle and had season ending surgery. This season Dumervil will return to his most comfortable position of defensive end after beginning his career as a stand up rusher, and the result across the entire defense will be clear.

Fearless Prediction: Oak (W), CIN (W), @TEN (L), @GB (L), SD (L), @MIA (L), DET (L), @OAK (L), @KC (L), NYJ (W), @SD (W), @MIN (L), CHI (W), NE (L), @BUF (W), KC (L)

In The End: Even with a number of positive steps forward, there is still a good amount of work to be done in rebuilding this club. There could still be more drama to come surrounding the quarterback spot, as well as still holes in the defense. Even a vast improvement this season still lands them on the bottom half of the division. Record: 6-10

 

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (10-6 in 2010; Division Champs)

Offense: J. Charles-RB, D. Bowe-WR, M. Cassel-QB, S. Breaston-WR (B)

Defense: E. Berry-S, T. Hali-OLB, B. Flowers-CB, T. Jackson-DE (B+)

 

The Good: The offense has expanded. Last season, they employed a pretty basic, yet successful approach: let either Jamaal Charles or Dwayne Bowe score and just find a way to work it other otherwise. This worked well, with Bowe leading the league in touchdown catches and Charles eating up yards at a staggering rate. However, they understood they had to make changes to go to the next level as a team, and the additions of Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin and LeRon McClain represent that.

The Bad: Is Matt Cassel able to guide them over the hump? He made the Pro Bowl a year ago, but the Chiefs still ranked 30th passing yards a game. He manages the game well, but there is still an air of restraint around how much he can shoulder on his own, as well as being injury prone. The Chiefs as a team are in great shape over the long-term, but in the end, having a quarterback that can win games over manage them is essential.

Taking the leash completely off Charles is overdue, and the Chiefs could ride further than ever with him. But will they?

X-Factor-Dexter McCluster: Charles gets the headlines as the biggest game breaker on the club, but the team really took a step forward when McCluster was effectively deployed. He can eat yards like few in the NFL; from anywhere on the field plus on special teams. Using him more often in a style similar to Darren Sproles would give this offense another real terror to account for.

Fearless Prediction: BUF (W), @DET (W), @SD (L), MIN (L), @IND (W), @OAK (L), SD (W), MIA (W), DEN (W), @NE (L), PIT (W), @CHI (L), @NYJ (L), GB (L), OAK (W), @DEN (W)

In The End: The Chiefs are better than they were a year ago. They’ll feature more Jamaal Charles than ever before, and the defense should be among the most aggressive in the league. However, they have a five week run unlike any other team, visiting New England, Chicago and the Jets, as well as hosting the Patriots and Steelers. It will be a better team, but one that is victim to a nightmare scenario, and it will cost them a repeat run as champs. Record: 9-7

 

OAKLAND RAIDERS (8-8 in 2010)

Offense: D. McFadden-RB, J. Campbell-QB, J. Ford-WR, S. Janikowski-K (C-)

Defense: R. Seymour-DT, K. Wimberly-OLB, R. McClain-MLB, S. Routt-CB (B)

 

The Good: McFadden finally lived up to his billing, consistently. After seemingly being doomed to being a glorified platoon back his first two seasons, he put it all together, got tougher and became the centerpiece of the Oakland effort. He ran the ball over 200 times and also was second in receptions as well. Having an encore season is a must for an offense that will need him even more this time around.

The Bad: They lost a lot at the wrong time. Nnamdi Asomugha, Zack Miller and Robert Gallery were all important pieces of the resurgence of the Raiders last season, and they looked to be on the right track as a unit. Now they have big issues in the absence of each. There is no clear target on offense, the o-line is vulnerable again and the entire defense will have to change their approach without Nnamdi putting fear in opposing QBs.

2010 was a coming out party for McFadden. Now he returns to a scenario that will need even more of him.

X-Factor-Kevin Boss: Zack Miller long represented the only dependable chain mover out the receiving group, and his departure makes an already weak receiving group look even worse. Enter the former Giant Boss, who will be targeted more than he ever was in New York. While there’s no expectation of his becoming his predecessor, he is a big key to keeping the entire offense on balance.

Fearless Prediction: @DEN (L), @BUF (L), NYJ (L), NE (L), @HOU (L), CLE (W), KC (W), DEN (W), SD (L), @MIN (W), CHI (L), @MIA (W), @GB (L), DET (L), @KC (L), SD (W)

In The End: They will take a step backwards after going undefeated in the West a year ago. There will be a big struggle to overcome their losses, but they will be a tough matchup each week on defense. The defense will still be tough, but the offense will continue to struggle due to no legit playmaker in the passing game. Record: 6-10

 

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (9-7 in 2010)

Offense: P. Rivers-QB, A. Gates-TE, V. Jackson-WR, M. Tolbert-RB (A-)

Defense: S. Phillips-OLB, Q. Jammer-CB, E. Weddle-S, L. Castillo-DE (B+)

 

The Good: The offense around Philip Rivers is running at full capacity again. Last season, they never played at full strength until it was far too late. Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Marcus McNeil are periods in the mix instead of question marks. Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews are both running well, and in harmony. A year ago, Rivers had his finest year with his worst cast; the potential for a perfect storm with all of them back could have the Chargers atop the NFL in total offense.

The Bad: Can the defense do it again? A year ago, they surprisingly gave up the fewest yards in the league and got after the quarterback frequently. However, they still don’t have an elite edge rusher, and the linebackers group is thin as well. They got it done as a complete unit a year ago, but there is still a need for an individual to step up to be accounted for.

Rivers mad much out of a little last year, and stands to do much more with a full-speed unit this time around.

X-Factor-Vincent Jackson: An ugly contract dispute held him out of the mix for all but four games last season, but what a four games they were. In limited use, he brought in 14 catches at averaged 17 yards a grab, and caught three touchdowns in one contest. A full, focused season awaits him, and he stands to join the elite pass catchers in the league in a major way.

Fearless Prediction: MIN (W), @NE (L), KC (W), MIA (W), @DEN (W), @NYJ (L), @KC (L), GB (L), OAK (W), @CHI (L), DEN (W), @JAX (W), BUF (W), BAL (W), @DET (W), @OAK (W)

In The End: The Chargers have looked good on paper forever, but it hasn’t paid out. For much of last season, they didn’t even look good there. At the end of the year however, they became the best team in West down the stretch, winning six of eight and showing flashes what they could be at close to full strength. The team that ended last year instead of started it returns now, and they’ll return to the top of the division at the end as well. Record: 11-5

 

o see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.

The AFC South is segregated, has been for while (not in a Civil War is needed type of way). Ironically, it’s landlords have come from up north in Indianapolis however, and last year was no different. The Colts brought their eighth title home in ten years of the division. However, no division has potentially more change on deck than the South, and it all starts around what may not be in Indy.

The Houston Texans started off last season in a fashion that suggested change wasn’t going to wait until this year, as they aggressively knocked off the Colts to start the year off. Along the way, the Jaguars got into the mix and eventually became one of the most surprising party crashers in 2010 Playoffs. In the end, the Colts pulled together around Peyton Manning and pulled it out.

This year, for the first time ever, Peyton’s status is uncertain and therefore so is the Colts. Can the Jaguars capitalize on the momentum they discovered last year, or can the Texans finally live up to how they read on paper? How about the Titans? With Chris Johnson back and a new coach leading the way, maybe they’ll take the crown. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s bigger than just Peyton and the Colts will hold down the fort regardless. The times, they are-a changing down South..one way or four.

All-DIVISION TEAM

QB: Peyton Manning RB: Chris Johnson, Arian Foster WR: Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne TE: Dallas Clark OT: Michael Roos, Eric Winston OG: Wade Smith, Jonathan Scott C: Jeff Saturday

DE: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis DT: Terrance Knighton, Tyson Alualu OLB: Mario Williams, Jimmy Durant MLB: DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing CB: Cortland Finnegan, Jonathan Joseph S: Antoine Bethea, Michael Griffin

K: Rob Bironas P: Matt Turk Returner: Mark Mariani

HOUSTON TEXANS (6-10 in 2010)

Offense: A. Johnson-WR, A. Foster-RB, M. Schaub-QB, O. Daniels-TE (A-)

Defense: M. Williams-OLB, D. Ryans-MLB, B. Cushing-MLB, J. Joseph-CB (C+)

The Good: They are being retooled as potential blitzing machine. While the secondary was shredded last season, a lot of what hurt them was a limited blitz. The focus in the offseason was to use the tools in place better and bring in new assets to get after the passer frequently. Mario Williams will move to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme coordinator Wade Phillips will employ, and JJ Watt and Brooks Reed were drafted to bring plenty of trouble around the field.

The Bad: Their greatest strength is on shaky ground. Arian Foster totaled over 1,600 rushing yards and led the league, but much of his offseason was spent battling hamstring injuries. His emergence gave the Texans the running threat they long needed to balance out their air-only attack. Having him sidelined for any period of time this year could hold back any hopes of a takeover this season.

A new look defense is the focus, and it will be on Mario Williams & company to exorcise the Texans demons.

X-Factor-Jonathan Joseph: The Texans hemorrhaged 267 yards per game on average to opposing quarterbacks, so saying they needed to make some changes at cornerback is obvious. Enter Jonathan Joseph, who made the jump to Houston from Cincinnati and instantly inherits a world of expectation. How well he performs behind the revamped defensive rush can improve the entire team’s potential.

Fearless Projection: IND (W), @MIA (L), @NO (L), PIT (W), OAK (W), @BAL (L), @TEN (W), JAX (W), CLE (W), @TB (W), @JAX (W), ATL (L), @CIN (W), CAR (W), @IND (L), TEN (W)

In The End: It seems like every year by now is going to be their “breakthrough” year. Finally, it seems like the time has arrived. The entire division is in some kind of flux, and the Texans have finally made the improvements they need at the right time to take the control. Their postseason debut will finally find them this time around, via a South championship. Record 10-6

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (10-6 in 2010)

Offense: P. Manning-QB, R. Wayne-WR, D. Clark-TE, J. Saturday-C (A)

Defense: D. Freeney-DE, R. Mathis-DE, G. Brackett-MLB, A. Bethea-S (C+)

The Good: Many of their offensive weapons are back. Last season Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Addai all missed extensive time. However, Peyton Manning was able to mask these issues by just shouldering more of the load himself than he ever had. The problem is he is the only QB in the league that could have pulled that off and still won the division. With his status completely unknown, having the arsenal of weapons back is essential.

The Bad: The corners could get torched. Jacob Lacey, Jerraud Powers, Kevin Thomas and Justin Tryson could be in rotation by necessity all year as they try to find a way to get some combination that works will. If they don’t step up, it could be a very long season for the Colts defense, as they were awful against the run a year ago, giving up 127 yards a game. Some part of the defense has to produce.

How soon Peyton gets his hat off and helmet on will tell the story of the Colts fate, and in a hurry.

X-Factor-Peyton Manning: No team’s success hinges more on one player than the Colts. Since 1998, he’s played every game and operates the entire offense through himself. And as he proved a year ago, he can still push them regardless of who surrounds him. As the preseason proved, it doesn’t work the other way around. Very few players are truly irreplaceable, but Peyton is at the top of the list.

Fearless Prediction: @HOU (L), CLE (W), PIT (L), @TB (W), KC  (L), @CIN (W), @NO (L), @TEN (L), ATL (L), JAX (W), CAR (W), @NE (L), @BAL (L), TEN (W), HOU (W), @JAX (W)

In The End: Much of where they finish up is based on when Manning shows up, but the toughest part of their schedule is early and that’s when his availability is uncertain. They slipped some last season overall, and didn’t make the necessary adjustments to hold off the up and coming Texans…or to prepare for Manning to actually miss any time. Their two-year run atop the South will end. Record: 7-9

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (8-8 in 2010)

Offense: M. Jones-Drew-RB, M. Lewis-TE, M. Thomas-WR, B. Gabbert-QB (C+)

Defense: D. Smith-OLB, P. Poslunzsny-MLB, R. Mathis-CB, D. Landry-FS (C+)

The Good: The defense was improved to be able to handle more of the load. Paul Posluszny will add a second active tackler with Daryl Smith that will clean up the middle of the field well. The defensive line features an underrated pair of tackles in Tyson Aluala and Travis Knighton, and Matt Roth joins the group to round it out well opposite Aaron Kampman. The biggest addition could be Dawan Landry at free safety, a position that has long been a week spot in Jacksonville.

The Bad: It’s going to be a long season on offense either way it goes. The receiver group is already an issue, with no semblance of a number one target out the WR group. At least David Garrard was a savvy enough vet to not lose games with the group, but with his sudden release it puts Luke McCown in the seat until the Blaine Gabbert era is rushed into play. Maurice Jones-Drew is still here and well rested, but teams will load up the box non-stop to get to him in a hurry since there is no QB of note to scare them off.

How Daryl Smith and the defense shoulder the load will tell the story of the Jags...and Jack Del Rio's future.

X-Factor-Blaine Gabbert: He’s got all of the tools: the big arm, the size and the confidence. The time is now for him, because there’s nothing to be gained competitively from playing McCown. He doesn’t represent the type of QB that will be able to salvage a playoff run, and by at least playing Gabbert, it starts the clock towards his maturity (and the team renaissance that could come with it) earlier.

Fearless Prediction: TEN (W), @NYJ (L), @CAR (W), NO (L), CIN (W), @PIT (L), BAL (L), @HOU (L), @IND (L), @CLE (W), HOU (W), SD (L), TB (W), @ATL (L), @TEN (L), IND (L)

In The End: There’s a lot on the line in Jacksonville this year, and a late season surge last year was all that saved coach Jack Del Rio’s job. This year’s defense has the potential to keep that trend going forward, but unsteady QB production will be a season long problem and will run the rest of time off Del Rio’s clock in Jacksonville. Record: 5-11

TENNESSEE TITANS (6-10 in 2010)

Offense: C. Johnson-RB, K. Britt-WR, M. Hasselbeck-QB, R. Bironas-K (B-)

Defense: C. Finnegan-CB, M. Griffin-S, W. Witherspoon-OLB, C. Hope-S (C)

The Good: The offense came together, later than sooner. Chris Johnson’s holdout was ended in time to have their biggest weapon available for the full season. There’s no substitute for what he brings, especially to a team in transition. His load won’t be as heavy with Matt Hasselbeck on board this year, and while he’s not who he used to be, he will be a steadying presence that will be able to get everything that can be brought out the receivers.

The Bad: The defense could get worse, and considering it was assaulted for 252 yards a week through the air last year, that’s a bad scenario. This is due to an anemic pass rush that lost its only real pass rush threat in Jason Babin, and a secondary that is both too young at cornerback and too old at safety. The unimproved defensive line also what hammered for 115 yards a game on the ground a year ago, and is breaking in new tackles at both spots inside the defensive line.

Munchak inherited a messy situation in Tennessee, and has a task ahead of him to pull this group back together.

X-Factor-Kenny Britt: He escaped both suspension, jail for multiple driving offenses and preseason injury to make it to the field, and he could be in store for a breakout season as a result. Hasselbeck will be the most consistent passer he has paired with in his young career, and coming off a year where 9 of his 42 catches reached the endzone, he will be looked too often.

Fearless Prediction: @JAX (L), BAL (L), DEN (W), @CLE (W), @PIT (L), HOU (L), IND (L), CIN (W), @CAR (L), @ATL (L), TB (L), @BUF (W), NO (L), @IND (L), JAX (W), @HOU (L)

In The End: The offense has playmakers, but isn’t deep and has a fragile quarterback behind a shaky line. In addition, the defense will have trouble getting after the passer…and isn’t really built to stop the pass on the other end. They’ll break in their first new coach in 16 years (Mike Munchak) with a frustrating debut on the job. Record: 5-11

To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.

It’s no secret that the AFC North is the bully of all divisions in the NFL. Whether it’s the weather, the prestige or the plain out hitting each team brings weekly, there’s not much fun about divisional showdowns here recently. Once again, two of the most notorious defenses in the game, and perennial Super Bowl challengers, headline this mix in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Even Cleveland’s group showed some potential at being a headache a year ago, but there’s still a big divide between the cream and the rest of the crop up top in the North.

Can the Ravens finally push themselves into the driver’s seat in the division, or will the AFC Champs two of the last three years continue to hold them off? In Cleveland, can a gritty club with a new coach begin to make a long await breakthrough. As for the new look Bengals…will they find the long-awaited big name departures from the team to actually be a good thing? Here’s how it will shake out from the gully parts of the conference this fall…

 

All-Division Team

QB: Ben Roethlisberger RB: Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall FB: Vonta Leach WR: Mike Wallace, Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward TE: Heath Miller OT: Joe Thomas, Bryant McKinnie OG: Ben Grubbs, Bobbie Williams C: Mike Pouncey

DE: Haloti Ngata, Aaron Smith DT: Casey Hampton, Geno Atkins OLB: James Harrison, Terrell Suggs MLB: Ray Lewis, Lawrence Timmons CB: Joe Haden, Leon Hall S: Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed

K: Phil Dawson P: Sam Koch Returner: Josh Cribbs

BALTIMORE RAVENS (12-4 in 2010; Wild Card)

Offense: R. Rice-RB, J. Flacco-QB, A. Boldin-WR, L. Evans-WR (B)

Defense: R. Lewis-MLB, E. Reed-S, H. Ngata-DE, T. Suggs-OLB (A-)

The Good: The offense should have more punch to it via a few new additions. Lee Evans and Torrey Smith will finally give Joe Flacco fast downfield targets to open up their previously slow and methodical passing game. All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who led the way to Arian Foster’s breakout in Houston, will now be breaking open holes for the already established Ray Rice. This could become one of the most productive backfield combos in the league, to compliment the improving pass game. But…

The Bad: How the line performs will tell the story of if the offense truly lives up to its potential. Flacco is one of the slowest QBs in the league, so getting him more time to plant and throw is essential. Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode were picked up as All-Pro cast offs to improve the shaky unit from a year ago. Each has had conditioning issues, and will be asked to work through them on the run.

In the midst of all the additions around him, Rice could be on the verge of his biggest year yet.

X-Factor-Jimmy Smith: For years, the Ravens secondary consisted of Ed Reed making superhuman plays singlehandedly. However, they were dreadfully thin at cornerback, and they were beaten up on the outside because of it. This season’s first round pick Smith will be counted on to change those fortunes, and to be a youthful push to an aging unit.

Fearless Prediction: PIT (L), @TEN (W), @STL (L), NYJ (W), HOU (W), @JAX (W), ARI (W), @PIT (L), @SEA (W), CIN (W), SF (W), @CLE (L), IND (W), @SD (L), CLE (W), @CIN (W)

In The End: The Ravens have been the runners up in the North for the last 3 years. Despite the potential of improvement at many of their long standing trouble spots, they still have to find the consistency that has eluded them offensively. In the end, another solid, Playoff-bound season will still leave them in their customary position. Record: 11-5

CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-12 in 2010)

Offense: C. Benson-RB, A.J. Green-WR, J. Gresham-TE, A. Dalton-QB (D+)

Defense: L. Hall-CB, R. Maualuga-MLB, C. Dunlap-DE, Antwan Odom-DE (C)

The Good: There’s not a lot of it, but at least of they’ll be able to move the ball on the ground. Cedric Benson provides an experienced ground presence in the midst of a very young team otherwise. Being careful how much of a load they place on their young skill position players to carry will be important in controlling the season. Benson has back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons to his credit; he’ll get plenty of opportunities to have a big year.

The Bad: They are the wrong types of young on offense, at once. The team’s first two draft picks, Andy Dalton and AJ Green are talented, but having a rookie pass and catch combo as the big play element for the team is bound to struggle as they adjust. Also, a defense that was often terrible in coverage a year ago replaced its best defensive back, Jonathan Joseph, with an aging Nate Clements.

Green is an amazing talent, but how often he'll be able to showcase those skills this year is uncertain.

X-Factor-Jermaine Gresham: Having a solid close range option for a rookie QB to bail him out is important. The team’s first rounder from a year ago is the perfect fit for this situation, and offers a potential big play option from the tight end spot. That could make him an often used target and have a big second year in the midst of a rebuilding offense.

Fearless Prediction: @CLE (L), @DEN (L), SF (L), BUF (L), @JAX (L), IND (L), @SEA (L), @TEN (L), PIT (L), @BAL (L), CLE (W), @PIT (L), HOU (L), @STL (L), ARI (L), BAL (L)

In The End: It’s not going to be a pretty year in Cincy. The defense got worse at its biggest problem spot: pass coverage and didn’t upgrade against the run either. The offense is almost completely new and there’s no worse division for a young signal caller to get adjusted in than the brutal AFC North. It’s going to be rough season across the board in year one of these rebuilding efforts, but at least it will land them with the prime position in the next Draft to work on it. Record: 1-15

CLEVELAND BROWNS (5-11 in 2010)

Offense: P. Hillis-RB, J. Thomas-OT, C. McCoy-QB, B. Watson-TE (C)

Defense: J. Haden-CB, D. Jackson-MLB, S. Brown-CB, P. Taylor-DT (C+)

The Good: Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis bring balance to the offseason. While the Browns still aren’t an explosive unit, they are a tough one that can wear defenses down trying to get to them. McCoy showed he was ready to play much earlier than thought last season, and had an encouraging preseason this year as well. He’ll be active in the pocket and find ways to get the ball to where it needs to be.

The Bad: The secondary is good, but they’ll get challenged a lot due to the time QBs will have to pick at them. This is due to a defensive front that is very young and lacks the push needed to make a difference. This year they will start at least two rookies on the front line, and the linebackers don’t feature a rusher that can supplement this issue much either.

Despite playing with the "Madden" cover boy, McCoy is looking to make himself the face of the Browns.

X-Factor-Josh Cribbs: He has been Cleveland’s most dangerous weapon, but the changes to kickoffs will reduce is potential tremendously, as well as hurt an offense that will need good field placement due to a lack of big play potential. In order to keep his big play potential in the mix, he will have to make strides as a receiver, and be placed everywhere he can be in the offense to get the ball easily.

Fearless Prediction: CIN (W), @IND (L), MIA (W), TEN (L), @OAK (L), SEA (W), @SF (L), @HOU (L), STL (L), JAX (W), @CIN (L), BAL (W), @PIT (L), @ARI (L), @BAL (L), PIT (W)

In The End: The Browns have steadily improved over the last few years. New Head Coach Pat Shemur inherits a team that while still flawed, has some pieces that can keep that trend going. They’ll compete hard every week, but still aren’t a team that’s built to come from behind, and in they’ll fall victim to that issue until they get a true downfield threat to bring out Colt’s best. Record: 6-10

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (12-4 in 2010; AFC Champions)

Offense: B. Roethlisberger-QB, R. Mendenhall-RB, M. Wallace-WR, M. Pouncey-C (B+)

Defense: T. Polamalu-S, J. Harrison-OLB, L. Woodley-OLB, L. Timmons-MLB (A)

The Good: For a long time, Big Ben has made ado with his grit and creativity, but now enters his prime with more weapons than ever. Led by Mike Wallace, the receiving corps has multiple explosive deep threats in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Hines Ward and Jericho Cotchery are gritty vets that go over the middle with no qualms. On the ground, Rashard Mendenhall is a step away from becoming an elite running back. The offense has stepped up to the standard of the defense.

The Bad: The offensive line around Mike Pouncey is far from settled. Roethlisberger is the toughest QB in the game, but even at his size, the hits pile up and he takes too many of them. Many of the same questions marks from last year are back this year. Also, the defense was susceptible to being torched at cornerback; it was what undid them in the Super Bowl. They made no significant changes at the position, and got even less experience behind the incumbent starters than last year.

Big Ben has the best offense he has commanded at his disposal this year. Will it be enough for ring #3?

X-Factor-Antonio Brown: In each of the last two years, a speedster was added to the receiving mix in Pitt. This year it’s Brown’s turn to go from special team stud, to in-game playmaker. Mike Wallace will command much of the attention from defensive backs, and this will allow Brown to use his top end speed to roam for open lands in more than just punt return territory.

Fearless Prediction: @BAL (W), SEA (W), @IND (W), @HOU (L), TEN (W), JAX (W), @ARI (W), NE (W), BAL (W), @CIN (W), @KC (L), CIN (W), CLE (W), @SF (W), STL (W), @CLE (L)

In The End: When at full strength over the last three years, no team has played better than Pittsburgh’s defense. Now a unit that barely gave up 14 points a game will be joined by a high potential offense. This mixture will return them not only to the top of the AFC North, but will put them right back in the mix for a third Super Bowl trip in four years. Record: 13-3

To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.