— A: That's kind of a trick question. A-Rod obviously is counted on to have a huge season. His track record and salary tell you that. He hits in the middle of the lineup and is expected to put up big numbers, play great defense, and health permitting, play 140-plus games.
That said, Burnett's ability to bounce back from a bad year is one of the biggest keys to the Yankees' 2011 season. So far, so good this spring, as Burnett's delivery seems smoother and more effortless, and his command has been better.
But what must happen for the Yankees to return to the postseason is Burnett's returning to a solid No. 3 starter (13-15 wins, 180-200 innings with a sub-4.50 ERA), and one other quality starter to emerge from among Ivan Nova, Manny Banuelos, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, or through a mid-season deal. Possibilities there include Francisco Liriano, Brett Myers, Fausto Carmona, Joe Blanton and probably several more who will come on the market by June.
A: I believe they do have a legitimate chance, Danny. And I think they do, too. There are expectations in their camp. There's a win-now mentality, as opposed to the past couple of seasons of knowing rebuilding was going on.
The Rangers are the AL West favorites — as they should be — but they have some question marks. And the gap between the two teams last season was only nine games, so it's not as if the A's have to come out of nowhere.
Oakland finished 81-81 last season, and here's how I think the team will be better in 2011:
The Giants just showed the way. Trevor Cahill, 22, and Gio Gonzalez, 24, had breakout seasons in 2010, and there's good reason to think they'll continue to develop and improve, just as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — now 27 and 26 — have done.
The other rotation key is Brett Anderson, 22, who could be this season's breakout guy. In 2010, he was 7-6-2.80, but limited to 19 starts and 112 innings due to injury. Let's see what he can do with 30 starts and 180-plus innings.
The entire rotation will benefit from a beefed-up bullpen, which was pretty solid last season. Now, manager Bob Geren has another quality closer option in lefty Brian Fuentes, and hard-throwing setup man Grant Balfour.
So the bullpen is seven-deep with closer Andrew Bailey, lefties Craig Breslow and Jerry Blevins, and righties Brad Ziegler and Michael Wuertz, the latter coming off injury. There also is plenty of variety — everything from Fuentes' funky delivery that is brutal on left-handed hitters, to Ziegler's extreme side-arming from the right side.
So how much offense will Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham add? That's the big question. Last season, the A's were 11th in the AL in runs, 13th in homers, 12th in slugging percentage, ninth in on-base percentage and third in stolen bases (thanks mostly to 50 from now-departed Rajai Davis). That's not good enough to win a division, but the Giants showed us you can win a pennant with a middle-of-the-pack offense, so the A's upgrade doesn't have to be massive.
Matsui's numbers won't be significantly different than those of last year's primary DH, Jack Cust (.272-13-52, .395 OBP, .438 slugging percentage). But the combination of DeJesus and Willingham (and possibly Conor Jackson) should be a marked improvement from the ineffective 2010 group of corner outfielders.
I believe the A's are a prime candidate to go over their projected over/under win total (I've seen 82 to 83). And if enough things go right in Oakland — and wrong in Arlington — the A's could supplant the Rangers.
A: When something has been done the same way for a 100-plus years, there's always a really good reason for it. And in this case, it's pretty simple — you want your best pitchers throwing the most innings.
On a 12-man staff, if you're lucky (unless you're the 2011 Phillies), you have one or two elite-level starters capable of throwing 220-240 high-quality innings. And you're going to limit those aces to three-inning stints? And in their places, you're going to throw No. 5 starter/middle reliever types?
Pitchers are fully capable of throwing 110-120 pitches in a start, 30-35 times a season. Injuries are going to happen no matter what. The more quality innings you get from your rotation, the more you are able to limit the amount of innings your weaker pitchers (read: middle relievers) have to throw. Relievers are relievers because they don't have command of three quality pitches you need to be a starter.
And, the more innings you get from your rotation, the more you can put your late-inning specialists in situations where they are more likely to succeed — right-handed side-armers against right-handed hitters, lefty-vs.-lefty matchups, hard-throwing strikeout guys when you need a strikeout, etc., etc.
There is an art to managing a pitching staff through the 162-game, 1,450-plus grind of a regular season. But it all starts with riding your aces, hopefully to Cy Young Award-caliber seasons.