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MLB Teams to Follow

MLB Teams to Follow

MLB Teams to Follow
by Robert Ferringo

My enemy is my enemy, until he is my friend. And my friend is my friend, until he is my enemy.

I am fond of saying this about handicapping as a way to describe how one day you might be desperately rooting for a team to come through for a big play. Their coach, their players, and everything their franchise embodies becomes your best friend and your religion, at least for a few hours. You live and die with that team as if you had been a lifelong fan and pull for them to come through for you. But then just a few days later you are rooting against that very same team and you despise everything that they stand for.

Well, anyone that has followed my Major League Baseball picks over the last two years knows that I have but one nemesis: the Kansas City Royals. That's right - one of the worst franchises in baseball over the last 20 years has been one of the few teams that I just can't beat. In 2007 I went 13-29 in plays on or against the Royals, including a 1-16 stretch from mid-May to mid-June. All told, I've hit less than 40 percent of all plays involving the Royals over the past two seasons.

I've finally learned my lesson. And my enemy is now my friend, as I have tabbed Kansas City as my American League Team To Follow. Each of the past three years I've tabbed one team from each league as my Teams To Follow in anticipation of a "surprise" season from these clubs that produce an unexpected season-long profit. In 2006 it was Dodgers (+600) and Minnesota (+2400). In 2007 it was Milwaukee (-600) and Seattle (+1900). And then last year it was Texas (+800) and St. Louis (+1000). Five out of six of my teams managed to turn a profit and overall this has been a very successful bunch.

This season Kansas City is my Team To Follow in the American League and Cincinnati is my Team To Follow in the National League. I believe that both clubs are poised for breakout years and that each is in a position to bring in some solid, consistent, long-term profits for their clubs this year.

The Royals have already created quite a bit of buzz within baseball circles and I am wary of backing The Trendy Team. But the bottom line is that this franchise has been pointed in the right direction for the past four years, increasing its win totals from 56 to 62 to 69 to last year's 75-win surprise. And this year I think that they have the chops to actually be a contender in the wide-open American League Central.

The Royals have pieced together one of the best young lineups in the American League, with players like Alex Gordon, Mike Aviles, David DeJesus, Billy Butler, and Mark Teahen all flashing serious potential, all age 29 or younger, and all entering their primes. Mix in some proven veterans like Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp and you have a nice core of hungry, athletic players that are ready to be taken seriously. And, in a pretty transparent way, this team is starting to remind me of Milwaukee three years ago. Only better.

Kansas City also has the foundation of a legitimate pitching staff. Gil Meche is as underrated of an ace as you'll find in the Majors. He's logged more than 187 innings and notched over 155 strikeouts in each of the past three seasons, posting a respectable 34-32 record in that time for some not-so-good teams. He has kept his ERA under 4.00 in each of his seasons in Kansas City and is the stud of the staff. Behind him is the electric Zack Grienke, who appears to be figuring things out and tapping into that outstanding potential of his. Then come veterans Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister, who have each shown flashes in the last two years, followed by up-and-comer Luke Hochevar or journeyman Sidney Ponson.

In the bullpen they have one of the best young closers in the game, Joakim Soria. And if Kyle Farnsworth can flourish in a small market after flaming out in New York then the rest of the arms for the Royals will fall into place.

As I mentioned, the Royals are also bolstered by the fact that their division is in a constant state of flux. There hasn't been a back-to-back division title winner since 2004 and considering the personnel losses that the Chicago White Sox have endured I don't expect to see one this year, either. All of this chaos only opens things up for the Royals, who are looking to become the fourth team in four years to move from fourth place in the Central one year into the postseason the next. Unfortunately, I think that Minnesota will still be very good and I believe that Cleveland is going to have a huge bounce back. But Kansas City will hold its own and should be able to make some of those heavy underdog numbers pay out.

In the National League, I can't say for sure that I have found a club that will 100 percent turn a profit. But I do know that if there is going to be a "surprise" team in the N.L. it's going to come out of this triumvirate: St. Louis, Houston, or Cincinnati. Well, I'll throw my hat in the ring with the Reds, even though I think that they are still a year or two away from being a legitimate contender.

Cincinnati has come off of two straight years of underachieving. In each of those seasons three things have really led to their undoing. First, their bullpen has been a wreck and has blown the third-most saves in the league since 2006. Next, injuries to key players in their razor-thin rotation and in their lineup have zapped them of any potential momentum. And third, they have been one of the slowest and weakest fielding teams in the league over the last few years.

I believe that Cincinnati started to rectify all three problems last year and that it will carry over in a positive fashion this season. Their bullpen ERA was No. 3 in the N.L. last year and closer Francisco Cordero didn't blow a save after late July. Next, they have made room for their young core - Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips - to take over the team, which should help limit some injury liability. And finally, they have upgraded themselves defensively by jettisoning some weak gloves and replacing them with younger, faster players.

Finally, what I like most about Cincinnati's club this year is their starting rotation. The Reds have a pair of aces in Edison Volquez and Aaron Harang, and I can see that pair matching up with anyone in the division. That also allows the rest of the staff - Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and Micah Owings - to slide back in the rotation and gives them five guys that, on any given day, have proven that they can completely shut down opponents.

The Reds have stumbled through eight consecutive losing seasons. That's the franchise's longest streak in over 53 years. Much like Kansas City, I think that this club has a young, up-and-coming core, modest expectations born out of a decade of consistent losing, a skilled and underrated starting pitching staff, and a slot in a division that is wide open. I think both teams can make some bank this season and I believe that if we get on this bandwagon early these clubs can pad our stacks all summer long.

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