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2011 AL East Preview: Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees Hold Key to Division

Before the start of the 2010 season, most people firmly believed that the American League East was the best division in all of baseball.

The defending World Series Champion New York Yankees added outfielder Curtis Granderson from the Detroit Tigers to their already outstanding lineup, while the Boston Red Sox acquired Angels pitcher John Lackey to what might have been the best pitching staff in the Division.

However, the Red Sox and Yankees, the darlings of the East, were not the talk of town. Rather, the Tampa Bay Rays were.

In no other words possible, the Rays were stacked. Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria, David Price, Matt Garza and James Shields with Rafael Soriano to help close out games.

What most people further and sadly agreed on, was that no matter what happened, this was going to be the beginning of the end for the Rays. Contracts were up for Crawford and Pena, and one way or another, Tampa was going to be in rebuilding mode to start the 2011 season.

And oh yeah, then there are the Baltimore Orioles, who on July 30 brought in Buck Showalter to finish out another disappointing season, but instead, the Orioles rallied for their first winning month of the season and closed out the 2010 season with a 34-23 mark.

With Opening Day just around the corner, here is a preview of the AL East.

Boston Red Sox

Strengths: Everything. Boston has the goods and is expected to not only win the East, but to win the World Series. Their lineup from top to bottom is about as solid as you can get. With the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, Boston’s only weakness in the lineup is their catcher.

Boston’s pitching, which last year had two Cy Young nominees in Clay Buccholz and Jon Lester, if healthy, will have the best starting staff in the division. Lester, Buccholz, Beckett, Lackey and Dice-K could all win 15 games a piece if healthy. 

In the bullpen, the Sox added Bobby Jenks as their new set up man to Jonathan Papelbon. 

Weakness: Injuries. Last season Boston lost almost all of their starting lineup along with Beckett, Dice-K and Tim Wakefield to injuries. Injuries giveth, and as last season Boston found out, injuries taketh away.

Outlook: Anything but a division title and World Series trophy is a failure for Boston.

New York Yankees

Strengths: Offense. After Boston, the Yankees may have the best lineup in the division.

Weakness: Pitching. Outside of CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte (retired), the Yankees were terribly inconsistent. Phil Hughes won 18 games, but his ERA was at 4.19, while the $80 million dollar man, AJ Burnett lost 15 games and ran with an ERA of 5.26.

Outlook: Wild card.

Tampa Bay Rays

Strengths: Farm system. Tampa’s farm system has brought up Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and David Price and soon outfielder Desmond Jennings and pitcher Jeremy Hellickson may be added to the list of great young Rays talent.

Their pitching staff is also loaded with drafted Rays players like Wade Davis, Jeff Neimann and James Shields to go along with Hellickson and Price. Tampa will go early on to closer by committee as they did not re-sign Rafael Soriano.

Weaknesses: Rebuilding mode, which in the long run, once again, may prove to be their strength. How does a team who loses a combined 170 RBI, 50 stolen bases and 170 runs scored rebound? We’re about to find out.

Outlook: Tampa is a team in transition. Having lost Crawford, Pena and Soriano and traded Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs, the Rays will be at least a year away from being contenders in the division once again.

Baltimore Orioles

Strengths: Wild Card. Baltimore is the kind of team that can sneak up on anybody simply because they can. Baltimore added Derek Lee, JJ Hardy, Vladimir Guerrero and Mark Reynolds to their youthful lineup lead by Nick Markakis.

Weaknesses: Pitching. Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta lead a youthful pitching staff with only one starter, Jeremy Guthrie being over the age of 30.  Out of 30 teams, Baltimore ranked 27th overall in ERA at 4.59.

As pitching goes, so goes the team.

Outlook: Baltimore does not have the money that the Yankees and Red Sox have to compete for top free agents, and their farm system, although it has produced solid players, hasn’t produced great players.

Baltimore is the kind of team in this day and age, that can sneak up on somebody the way San Diego did last season.


Toronto Blue Jays

Strengths: The Long ball. Toronto last season lead the league in home runs and Jose Bautista, who never hit more than 16 home runs in a season, lead the league with 54.

Pitching wise, Toronto’s best pitcher may be Brandon Morrow who last season had 12 and 17 strikeout games as well as coming within one out of a no-hitter. 

Weakness: Inconsistency. Despite the Blue Jays leading the league in home runs with 257, they also finished with the 6th worst batting average in the league at just .248. Their ERA was also 8th worst in the league despite being ranked No. 11 in strikeouts.

Outlook: Toronto, who had a winning record and finished 4th in the division last season will need to find consistency at the plate and mound before making any upward movement in the league.

The 2011 season officially kicks off Thursday March 31, 2011.

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MLB: Will the Washington Nationals See a Return Investment on Jayson Werth?

From 2008 to 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies won the NL East three times and appeared in the World Series twice, winning once in 2008. 

During that span, outfielder Jayson Werth hit 87 home runs, drove in 251 runs and batted .279.

In a roster loaded with All-Stars like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez, Werth was often batting fifth in the lineup, protecting Howard who was the cleanup hitter.

To “protect” in baseball terms means that the hitter afterwards posses such a threat that the pitcher cannot afford to walk or put on base the hitter before.

For example, in Philadelphia, a Chase Utley double late in the game leaves an open base at first. Typically, when a power hitting All-Star like Ryan Howard steps to the plate, and with first base open, Howard would expect to see four straight balls before ending up on first.

The idea behind this is that by taking the bat away from their best hitter, the pitching team now has the advantage. However, with a strong hitter “protecting” the power hitter, the advantage remains to the hitting team since the last thing they want is to put two men on base with a solid power hitter up at the plate.

Jason Werth did just that with the Phillies. Batting fifth overall behind Howard, Werth ranked 10th overall among right-handed hitters the past three seasons with an .889 on-base-slugging percentage, which records how many times a player gets on base, minus errors, fielders choice or interference. The on-base percentage is then added to the slugging percentage (total bases divided by total at-bats) to get the on-base slugging percentage.

Werth’s 87 home runs from 2008-2010 ranked second overall among right-handed outfielders, trailing only Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun with 94.

After signing a seven-year deal worth $126 million, Werth is now being asked to protect third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the Washington Nationals lineup that could someday very soon include 18-year-old phenom Bryce Harper.

Zimmerman, who in 2009 had a 30-game hitting streak, has won back-to-back Silver Slugger awards, and is one year removed from a 33-home run, 106-RBI campaign.

In the end, the signing of Jayson Werth, who was being sought after by both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, was as gutsy as it was risky. If the Nationals idea of a future that includes Zimmerman hitting three, Werth at four and Harper at five pans out, then what many writers first believed to be a risky signing will have paid off.

If however Werth cannot do what he did in Philadelphia, then his signing may be looked at as nothing more than a team seeking to become contenders quick, even if it meant reaching for a player who played more of a supporting role than a $100 million contract.

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Jose Canseco: From Independent League Baseball to NBC’s The Apprentice

For a time, Jose Canseco wasn’t one of the best players in Major League Baseball, he was the best player in baseball.

Canseco became the first player in history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season. In the 1989 American League Playoffs against the Toronto Blue Jays, Canseco blasted a 484-foot home run into the fifh level of Toronto’s Sky Dome, which to this day remains the dome’s longest home run. 

Following his sudden and shocking departure from Oakland in the middle of the 1992 season, Canseco’s personal life and a series of baseball bloopers began to turn his image from one of the greatest sluggers in the game, to one of the most misunderstood. 

Rumors of dating Madonna, bar fights, a fly ball bouncing off Canseco’s head for a home run, and then an arm injury suffered during a relief pitching appearance that resulted in season ending Tommy John surgery—Jose Canseco’s career was a roller coaster.

At the end of it all, Canseco played 17 seasons with seven different team and belted 462 home runs, drove in 1,407 runs, stole 200 bases, and batted .266. Canseco was named Rookie of the Year in 1986, AL MVP in 1988, Comeback Player of the Year in 1994, and won two World Series titles.

Then Canseco opened Pandora’s box.

In 2005, Canseco admitted to using steroids after feeling black-balled by Major League Baseball, and released a best selling book naming players who he personally injected with steroids.

The book caused a firestorm that to this day is being felt. Later this March, former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds will go to trial on chargers of lying to a federal grand jury about steroid use.

Canseco even brought up Alex Rodriguez and the use of steroids almost a full year before Selena Gomez’s Sports Illustrated story broke.

Big name after big name and sure fired Hall of Famers fell by the waistline, McGwire, Sosa, Palmiero, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, all victims of the steroid era, some with personal ties to Canseco.

Canseco has been eaten up and spit out by every major sports news network in the country. Whether getting knocked out in a boxing match or getting evicted from his home, Canseco’s off the field issues have been given more spot light than his allegations, which have never proven to be false, not once.

Yet, things have begun to turn around for Canseco.

In August 2010, Canseco signed a contract to play independent ball in Laredo, Texas. His signing became front page news, as the 46-year-old former MVP and World Series champ had gone from the highest level of professional baseball to the lowest, yet Canseco took everything in stride.

In his first at-bat, Canseco blasted a home run to deep left-center field and this time, the media responded in kind by covering Canseco’s blast. In 11 games, Canseco hit 4 home runs with 13 RBI and hit .385.

Six months after returning to professional baseball, Canseco is back in the headlines, and it isn’t steroid related. Instead, it’s Canseco joining Donald Trumph on NBC’s The Apprentice, which is set to air on Sunday, March 6.

Canseco will be playing for his charity, B.A.T., which stands for Baseball Assistance Team. Canseco’s charity aims to assist minor league baseball players who don’t receive pension, dental, or medical care.  

Is this a comeback for Canseco? Redemption?

To have gone from the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows with ushering in the steroid era, the evictions, and independent league baseball, Jose Canseco has been on an amazing ride since his playing days in the Majors were over. And Sunday, Jose Canseco is back in the spot light.

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Seattle Mariners: Is Dustin Ackley Ready for the Jump to the Big Leagues?

Ask people who was selected right after Stephen Strasburg went first overall in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft, and there’s a good chance you’re left with blank faces.

Dustin Ackley, the second overall selection, or rather, the player picked after Strasburg, was a highly touted selection from the University of North Carolina.

As a freshman, Ackley was named by Baseball America and as the Consensus National Freshman of the Year where he set a school record for most hits in a season with 119. Ackley hit .402 with 10 home runs, 73 RBI and was named the ACC Freshman of the Year.

As a sophomore, Ackley set a school record for runs scored with 82 and became the first player in school history to bat over .400 twice in a career.

His junior season, Ackley put the icing on the cake of an otherwise brilliant career as he was named by as the National Player of the Year. Ackley also ended his Carolina career as the leader in hits, runs and total bases.

His brilliant career was capped when he was selected No. 2 overall by the Seattle Mariners in the 2009 draft.

In his first season in the minors, Ackley spent time in both Double and Triple-A ball and was named League MVP of the Arizona Fall League. recently ranked Ackley No. 5 overall on their annual list of the Top 50 Prospects in Baseball.

Now, two years after being drafted, Ackley has a chance to make the jump to the big leagues.

A natural first baseman, Ackley is making the move to second since the Mariners are locked down at first base after acquiring Justin Smoak from the Texas Rangers in the Cliff Lee deal.

Only time will tell how soon Dustin Ackley will officially become a MLB player, but one thing is certain—barring any unforeseeable circumstances, Ackley will be the starting second baseman for the Seattle Mariners before the 2011 season is over.


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Los Angeles Angels: Halos Have the Firepower to Overthrow the Rangers in AL West

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, an old fisherman goes 84 days without catching any fish. On the 85th day, he ventures further than he’s ever gone and snags the big one, an 18 foot marlin. Trying to bring his catch in, sharks begin to pick at the Marlin and by the time the old man returns to the village, only the skeleton of the fish remains.

In many way, the Los Angeles Angels are like the old man. Two years ago, they tried to re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira, only to be outbid by the New York Yankees. This offseason, they eyed Tampa Bay Rays speedster Carl Crawford, only to once again be outbid, this time by the Boston Red Sox.

To make up for not landing their “marlin”, they have instead countered by landing smaller fish in the sea, which have included the likes of outfielders Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells, and pitchers Dan Haren, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir.

For all intent purposes however, the Angels already may have the biggest fish in the sea in Mike Trout,’s No. 1 rated prospect in baseball. Trout is considered to be a five tool baseball player and has even drawn comparisons to Mickey Mantle himself.  

Although the Angels lost out on Crawford, they traded for Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells, who last season hit 31 home runs with 88 RBI. Wells was acquired in exchange for catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera.

When healthy, the Angels have more than enough firepower at both the plate and mound to overthrow the Texas Rangers and hold off the upstart Oakland Athletics.

The Rangers lost their best pitcher Cliff Lee to Philadelphia, and outside of C.J. Wilson, the Rangers pitching staff isn’t really impressive, at least on paper. The Athletics, on the other hand, may have the best pitching staff in the American League West, but they lack offense.

Of the entire AL West, the Angels offer the best balance at both the mound and plate. Jered Weaver lead the league last season in strikeouts, Ervin Santana lead the team in wins with 17 and Dan Haren dropped his ERA by almost two full points when he left Arizona, from 4.60 to 2.87.

Kendry Morales, who broke his leg after a walk-off grand slam back in May, is expected to return to the lineup this season. Morales and his offensive outburst from 2009, which included 34 HRs, 108 RBI and a .306 batting average, were missed in last season’s downfall that saw the Angels finish in third place.

In the end, what may determine the AL West will not be who landed the biggest fish in the offseason, but rather, who stays healthy and is consistent throughout the season. If all the parts and pieces that the Angels have put together over the last couple of seasons can stay healthy and play consistent baseball, the Angels may do what they’ve done three times in the last five seasons, win the AL West.

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Washington Nationals: Former No. 1 Pick Bryce Harper To Make Pro Debut Monday

According to legend, when he was 15-years old, Bryce Harper bombed a home run that went over the right field fence, two trees, a second fence, a sidewalk, crossed five lanes of traffic, a second sidewalk, and landed in the middle of a deserted area in the Nevada desert. The shot was estimated to have landed some 570-feet away from home plate.

Although there is no video to prove exactly how far the home run landed, one year later and from multiple angles, Harper blasted the longest home run shot at Tropicana Field during a home run derby at the ripe old age of 16. This shot heard and seen around the world, hit off the back wall of Tropicana Field.

Five months later, Harper and his legendary home runs landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

On Monday, Harper will longer be the stuff of legend, but rather of reality as he makes his pro debut when the Nationals take on the New York Mets.

At just 18-years old, Harper may just overtake fellow teammate Stephen Strasburg as the biggest reason to watch the Washington Nationals, especially this spring training.

Although he isn’t expected to land on the Nationals’ regular season roster until next season, the hype is enough to draw interest. Rated as the No. 2 overall best minor league prospect according to MLB Network’s Top 50 prospects, Harper without question is the most intriguing of all.

The real dilemma facing the Nationals is the same they faced last season: when is the right time to cash in the chips and call up the kids to play pro ball?

Common sense, money and the overall excitment of seeing Strasburg was too much for the Nats, and one year after being drafted No. 1 overall, Stephen Strasburg made his pro debut in April of 2010. 

Harper spent his first season in the minors playing in the Arizona Fall League and without Strasburg for the entire 2011 season, there really isn’t much to get excited about in Washington, especially considering that the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves only got stronger in the offseason.

Time will only tell if the rumors of Harper not making his pro debut until 2011 will prove true, but in the meantime, it should be an interesting and entertaining Spring Training for the Nationals.

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Texas Rangers: Josh Hamilton Agrees to 2-Year Deal Avoiding Arbitration

Josh Hamilton, the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player, agreed to avoid arbitration and signed to a two-year contract worth $24 million with the Texas Rangers.

The deal allows Hamilton to become a free agent following the 2012 World Series. Had Hamilton and the Rangers gone to arbitration, a third party would have decided between the Rangers offer of $8.7 million per year or Hamilton’s offer of $12 million.

In order to become arbitration eligible, a player has to have a least three seasons of major league experience under their belt and no more than six. Hamilton first became arbitration-eligible in 2010, but signed a one-year deal worth $3.25 million, the same season he won AL MVP and lead the Rangers to the World Series.

Last season, Hamilton hit .359 with 32 home runs and 100 RBI in 133 games.

Under arbitration rules, the player’s offer at arbitration salary is determined by their overall performance in comparison with other players of similar stats and position. The player presents their offer on a salary for the upcoming season, while the team presents theirs.

An arbitrator decides one way or the other, either for the team or player, and the term is good for one season.

Under arbitration rules, there is no compromise, it’s one or the other. Assuming Hamilton had a down season in 2011 like he did in 2009 when he only played 89 games and hit .263, Hamilton’s 2012 arbitration could have paid him much less.

Hamilton’s two-year contract voids out any more arbitration hearings and automatically makes him an unrestricted free agent in 2012, when he will be turning 32.

His new two-year deal is scheduled to pay him $7.25 million in 2011 and $13.75 million in 2012 along with a $3 million signing bonus.

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2011 Cleveland Indians Season Preview: Tribe Goes With Youth Movement

Three years ago, the Cleveland Indians were one win away from appearing in the World Series before the Boston Red Sox came back to win the 2007 American League Championship Series, four games to three.

In subsequent years, the Indians unloaded their potential World Series roster with a series of blockbuster trades.

Over the next two seasons, the Indians traded away starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, third baseman Casey Blake and starting catcher Victor Martinez. In exchange, Cleveland added a wealth of young prospects, the likes of which may not be felt for this year, but at some point down the road.

Through their trades, the Indians added outfielders Matt Laporta and Michael Brantley as part of their deal with the Milwaukee Brewers for C.C. Sabathia. Laporta, the seventh overall pick from the 2007 Major League Draft and the No. 1 rated prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers at the time of the draft, is expected to start at first base this season, allowing Travis Hafner to start as the designated hitter.

In dealing pitcher Cliff Lee, who was coming off of a Cy Young season the year before, the Indians added the Philadelphia Phillies top prospect at the time, pitcher Carlos Carrasco.

As part of the Casey Blake deal to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Tribe added stud-catcher Carlos Santana (no relation to the musician), who entered the 2009 season as the Indians No. 1 prospect in the minors.

The Santana deal allowed the Indians to trade away their best player, catcher Victor Martinez to the Boston Red Sox. In that exchange, the Indians ended up with hard throwing pitcher Justin Masterson.

In two season, the Indians unloaded most of their best players, electing to hold onto Gold Glove outfielder Grady Sizemore and first baseman Travis Hafner, who from 2004 through 2007 batted in over 434 runs.

Since then however, Hafner has just 123 RBIs in the following three seasons.  

Sizemore, who was considered by many to be one of the best young players in baseball hasn’t been healthy the last two seasons, only playing in 33 games in 2010 before a knee injury ended his season.

The Indians middle infield is solid as Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena return for their third season together.

With injuries and unproven young stars, the Indians best player may be outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who last season homered 22 times and drove in 90 runs while hitting .300 in 144 games. Choo has batted .300 or better each of the last three seasons.

The ace of the Tribes pitching staff, Fausto Carmona, who last season was awarded with his first All-Star appearance, was the subject of heavy trade rumors and may be again this season.

The rest of the Indians staff remains young, full of potential, and for the most part, untested. Masterson, Carlos Carrasco and a combination of Aaron Laffey, Mitch Talbot, David Huff and Josh Tomlin all could push for the fifth spot in the rotation.

After coming off of a 34 save season in 2008 for the Chicago Cubs, the Indians signed Kerry Wood to a two-year deal. Halfway into his second season with the Indians, Wood was traded to the New York Yankees. In a season and a half with the Indians, Wood managed just 28 saves.

This year; however, the Indians will enter with Chris Perez as their new closer. Last season, Perez finished with 23 saves and gave up just 12 runs in 63 innings of work, good enough for a 1.71 ERA, third best in the league for players with over 20 saves.

The 2011 Cleveland Indians are young, talented and unproven, yet the the Tribe have some good reasons to look toward the future.

From 1994 to 2001, the Indians made the playoffs six times and appeared in the World Series twice.

After a rough rebuilding period, the Indians were one win away from making their third World Series appearance since 1995.

If history has shown us anything, it has proved that the Cleveland Indians will once again be contenders in the near future.

It’s only a matter of time.

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2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview: Team Is on the Upswing with Youth

The Pittsburgh Pirates had little reason to smile last season, holding the worst record in Major League Baseball by a full four games. At 57 wins with 105 losses, the Pirates won just 17 games on the road en route to their 18th consecutive losing season. That’s right, 18 years in a row they have had a losing season, which also happens to be the longest streak in professional sports today.

The worst, however, may have already passed as the Pirates have begun to pay attention to the growing talent in their farm system while slowly calling up the next wave of future Pirates and possible superstars.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen leads the pack of youthful Pirates. At just 24, McCutchen has already established himself as the face of the Pirates. A former first-round pick, McCutchen splashed onto the Major League scene following the trade of Nate McClouth to the Atlanta Braves.

The move opened up a spot for McCutchen who has never looked back. On Aug. 1, 2009, McCutchen homered three times and drove in six runs against the Washington Nationals.

Although he was considered an 2010 All-Star snub, McCutchen has made enough of an impact to be considered one of the best young center fielders in the league.

If McCutchen is Batman, then Pedro Alvarez may be Robin. The second overall pick in the 2008 draft was actually selected in the 14th round of the 2005 draft by the Boston Red Sox.

Alvarez, however, didn’t sign and went to play college ball at Vanderbilt, where he set a school record for home runs in a season and earned a number of awards, including National Freshman of the Year according to Baseball America and was selected to the USA National Team. Alvarez also lead Vanderbilt to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) title in 2007 where he was named tournament MVP.

Alvarez was called up in June of 2010 and after struggling for part of the season, Alvarez finished the season strong, including being named National League Rookie of the Month for September. Alvarez looks to the be the corner stone for the Pirates for many years.

The Pirates continued the youth movement with former first-round pick and starting second basemen, Neil Walker and outfielder Jose Tabata, who was brought over from the New York Yankees in the Xavier Nady trade back in 2008.

Still a few years away, the 2009 fourth overall pick, Tony Sanchez might be second most highly regarded catcher in the minors after New York Yankees’ Jesus Montero.

The Pirates pitching staff may be one of the youngest in the league, with Kevin Correia being the eldest at just 30-years-old. Ross Ohlendorf (brought over in the 2008 trade for Xavier Nady from the Yankees), Paul Maholm (first-round pick), and Brad Lincoln, the fourth overall pick of the 2006 draft lead a youthful Pirates pitching staff.

The Pirates pitching staff could still be joined by the 2010 second overall pick, Jameson Taillon, who stands at 6’6″ and throws a fastball that touches the upper 90s as well as Rudy Owens, the left-handed hurler who was the Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year honoree. Last season, Owens finished 12-6 with a 2.46 ERA while playing for Double-A Altoona of the Eastern League.

Finally, relief pitcher Evan Meek, the only Pirate in the 2010 All-Star Game, might be one of the most underrated relievers in the league today. Meek finished the 2010 season with a 2.14 ERA in 70 total appearances.

At the All-Star break, Meek’s ERA was just 0.98, the third lowest in the league after Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Tigers closer Jose Valverde.

In the end, the Pirates may still suffer a 19th and possibly a 20th straight losing season before things start to turn for the better, but in the meantime, the Pirates are on the right track. They have the talent and farm system in place, the only question will be is, do they have the time to develop that farm system before McCutchen and Alvarez come up as trade bait or free agency.

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Tampa Bay Rays: Rocco Baldelli Retires at Age 29

The then Tampa Bay Devil Rays were building something special in the outfield.

In consecutive seasons, the Devil Rays had drafted their entire future outfield. Starting in 1999, they selected outfielder Josh Hamilton No. 1 overall. Hamilton was considered a once-in-a-lifetime player, often being mentioned under the same breath as Mickey Mantle. He was a five-tool baseball player and was the first high school player to go No. 1 overall since Alex Rodriguez five years earlier.

Their second-round pick in 1999 was outfielder Carl Crawford. Crawford was going to play left field and lead off in the future for the Devil Rays.

By 2000, the Devil Rays had completed their future stud outfield with the selection of Rocco Baldelli. The sixth overall, first-round pick was to play center field alongside Crawford and Hamilton and help anchor a Tampa Bay team that looked a few years away from contending with the New York Yankees.

They had the farm system, the talent and the time to devolve their young team lead by their outfield.

By 2002, Hamilton had made it as far as Double-A ball before his drug use and injuries derailed his Devil Rays career. By 2006, Hamilton was no longer with the Rays. Picked up by the Cubs in the Rule-5 draft, Hamilton was immediately traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Eight years after being drafted first overall, Hamilton made his pro debut with the Reds.

Crawford spent three seasons in the minor leagues before making his pro debut with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2002 where for the next nine seasons, anchored the Rays as their lead-off hitter. Five times in those eight full seasons, Crawford stole more than 50 bases. This offseason, Crawford left Tampa to sign with another AL East division rival, the Boston Red Sox.

And then there is Rocco Baldelli, the missing piece to the Devil Rays future outfield. He was supposed to anchor center field and be mentioned as one of the greatest to ever play. One scout back in 2003 even went as far as to call Baldelli “Joe’s twin,” in reference to Joe DiMaggio.

Baldelli made his pro debut in 2003, where he batted .289 with 11 home runs and 78 RBIs in 156 games and finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. The following season, Baldelli again put up similar numbers, despite playing in 20 less games.

Baldelli missed the entire 2005 season after tearing his ACL in a pickup basketball game. The injury was followed by a second injury, this time to his elbow, which required Tommy John surgery. Baldelli returned to play during the 2006 season, but couldn’t escape the injury bug.

Hamstring issues forced Baldelli in and out of the lineup in 2007 and over the next two seasons, Baldelli managed to play in just 63 total games. Badelli was, however, left on the Rays playoff roster where he homered and drove in four runs in the ALCS playoffs against the Boston Red Sox. In the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Badelli homered in Game 5, his only hit of the series.

During the offseason, Baldelli was found to have been suffering from a mitochondrial disorder, which may have resulted in muscle fatigue.

By 2009, Baldelli’s career with Tampa was over after signing a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. Injuries once again forced Baldelli in and out of the lineup, and after the season, Baldelli was let go.

Baldelli re-signed with the Rays in 2010, appearing in 10 total games before being sidelined with injuries. In his first at bat with the Rays since he left, Badelli blasted a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles. It was his last home run in the major leagues.

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, Rocco Baldelli called it a career, retiring at the ripe old age of 29 years old, his career cut short by injuries. Baldelli won’t play another game, but he isn’t leaving baseball for good either, accepting a job with the Rays as a special assistant to baseball operations.

Rocco Baldelli had a promising career and so did the Tampa Bay Rays outfield, which earlier this week signed aging stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.  The thought of signing a 37- and 38-year-old to compete in the Rays outfield was never considered back in 2000.

The trio of Baldelli, Crawford and Hamilton never played a single major league game together and sadly, never will. The sixth overall pick in the 2000 draft was set to anchor center field for Tampa for many years, but instead, had his career cut short due to injuries.

Here’s to you, Rocco. So long, we hardly knew ya.

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