Will Big-Money Baseball Pay Off in 2011?

As the opening day of America’s favor­ite pastime finally arrives, anticipation is quickly rising. Obviously, all eyes are on the World Series champion San Francis­co Giants, but there are a whole slew of other teams worth talking about.

The big market teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies have all made substantial moves over the off-season to make their case for World Series fa­vorite. None of these teams needed too much improvement, but that didn’t stop them from shelling out large sums of money for the players they wanted.

The Red Sox probably had the best off-season out of any team in the pros. They acquired Adrian Gonzalez, who is a consis­tent .300 hitter and a great fit at first base for the Sox. Gonzalez hit 31 homeruns last year with 101 RBIs. This acquisition was one of the biggest signings by any team this offseason but the Sox weren’t done. The team also signed Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million deal. Craw­ford, known for his speed on the base-paths and his range in the outfield will undoubtedly bolster the lineup.

Perhaps even more importantly for the Red Sox is the healthy return of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ells­bury. Ellsbury will add even more speed and will most likely bat first in front of Crawford. Kevin Youkilis, if he returens to where he was pre-injury, will be an­other offensive force in the AL East. He is an RBI-machine and will continue that trend when he bats fourth or fifth for this lineup. Dustin Pedroia only played about half of the season last year, but still looks to improve upon his 2009 stats when he batted near .300 and had 72 RBIs hitting out of the second spot in the lineup.

Questions do surround the team how­ever. Can they stay healthy long enough to still be a contender at the end of the season? Pedroia was out for almost 100 days, Mike Cameron out for 101 and Youkilis for 62 last year. Obviously, health will always be a big factor in any team’s season, but since the Red Sox are a big market team they will be under an even bigger microscope this year. Still, the pitching staff was also affected by injury last season. Josh Beckett missed twelve starts and Daisuke Matsuzaka missed about five. These are two key pitchers whose injuries potentially cost them the division last year.

The Yankees, meanwhile, had a less impressive off-season but, for the Yan­kees, that doesn’t mean much. The big­gest point of emphasis was the starting rotation. They can’t be blamed for Andy Pettitte’s retirement or Cliff Lee’s decision to sign with the Phillies, but nonetheless the gaps needed to be filled. With a lack of options on the free agent market, they decided to go with experience over youth. New York signed Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood, all players perhaps a little past their primes. Dur­ing the spring, Freddy Garcia has proved that he still has what it takes to be in the rotation. He’s changed up his approach from a power pitcher, and has added a slider and a changeup to build an already strong repertoire. The Yankees did resign Derek Jeter, whose viability at shortstop has come into question, but you cannot deny the offense that he brings to the table day-in and day-out.

Even with the additions, there are a lot of doubts coming out of New York about the pitching staff. While nobody can real­ly question C.C. Sabathia’s ability to win games, there is a substantial drop-off after the top spot. Phil Hughes had a 4.98 ERA in his last 23 starts last season, not too impressive from one of the top pitching prospects coming through their farm sys­tem. A.J. Burnett also had a disappoint­ing season in New York, posting a 5.26 ERA with 10 wins and 15 losses. It isn’t clear who is going to step up and be that 15-game winner behind Sabathia. They all have potential to succeed, but they all also have great potential to fail in the 2011 season.

The Phillies are the other big market team that had a very successful off-sea­son. Cliff Lee, probably the most sought after free agent in baseball, ended up settling for less money to sign with the Phillies, his former team. This was one of their only acquisitions, but it was sig­nificant enough to deem their off-season successful. They solidified an already stellar rotation, which has now become the “Fab Four”: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. But the fifth starter, Joe Blanton, shouldn’t be disregarded by any means. The re­turn of a healthy Jimmy Rollins will definitely bring some energy back to an aging lineup.

Injuries could potentially hinder the success of this promising team in the 2011 season. The early loss of Chase Utley, who was diagnosed with patellar tendinitis in his left knee, will give Ryan Howard less protection in that lineup. Brad Lidge, the Phillies’ phenomenal closer, is also on the disabled list with shoulder sore­ness. He is supposed to be out for three to six weeks, but it could be a recurring injury that hampers Utley the entire year. The success of the Phillies could depend on the timetable of Utley’s return. If he’s only gone for a couple months, than the talent of the Phillies can cover the gap in the lineup. But Luis Castillo, who hit .235 with zero homeruns last year, can only hold his own for so long in the competitive NL East.

Regardless of the off-season successes of each team, it only matters what sort of product each team puts out on the field in 2011. At this point, predictions don’t mean much. Only time will tell which team is able to claim the title and follow in Giant footsteps.