It's time to officially wrap up the 2011 baseball season at the Notebook, and we'll do it in two parts, one focused on each league. Today we'll start it off with the American League…
NY Yanks: This organization finally paid the price for its failure to develop quality in-house pitching, as losing out in Cliff Lee in last year's free agency and having Andy Pettite retire left them short-staffed. But the Yanks still won a second AL East title in four years because Joe Girardi did a fine job working with the arms he had, and at least one in-house prosect, Ian Nova, was able to come up big.
Tampa Bay: What an extraordinary vindication for the organization in making the playoffs after losing Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena off the previous year's division winner. That's three playoff appearances in four years and the arrival of young talent like Desmond Jennings in the everyday lineup and Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation suggests the Rays aren't going anywhere quietly.
Boston: I've seen it pointed out that if you just throw out the Red Sox 2-10 start and their awful September, they were 81-42, which is the best record in baseball. Yes, and if you just throw out the last 17 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a powerhouse in the game. The bottom line is the Red Sox spent heavy in free agency to win 90 games overall–hardly a bad record, but a decided display of underachievment. And when you're passed in the standings by the very team you looted in free agency the humilation is even more abject.
Toronto: The Blue Jays fought competitively again in the AL East, and a summer trade for talented centerfielder Colby Rasmus could yield some big dividends, along with the addition of young third baseman Brett Lawrie. Toronto started to get some help in place for Jose Bautista in the regular lineup. Now they need to add depth to the rotation and the bullpen, and they can be a viable contender in the AL East–a status they would already hold if they competed in the AL Central.
Baltimore: It was a season that started with great hope and ended on an up note, as the Orioles played September spoiler in winning key late-season series against the Angels, Yankees, Rays and most notably, twice against the Red Sox. But prior to that, 2011 was one long disappointment as pitchers shuttled back and forth from the minors, Brian Roberts spent the year on the disabled list and Nick Markakis was missing his power stroke for the second straight year. With team president Andy MacPhail having stepped down, one wonders if this team can ever compete as long as Peter Angelos is in charge.
Detroit: What a great year for Tiger fans to store in their memories. It may not have produced the franchise's first World Series title since 1984, but Justin Verlander delivered one of the most dominating pitching performances of recent seasons, the team made a solid addition at the trade deadline in Doug Fister and the offense top-to-bottom was as dynamic as any in baseball. Then you throw in Jose Valverde's celebratory antics after every closed save–something he did to perfection–plus a hold-your-breath win in the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series at Yankee Stadium, and you have plenty for a year to remember.
Cleveland: After the strong start where Cleveland jumped out to a seven-game lead and the excitement over picking up Ubaldo Jiminez in July, the late season fade seems disappointing. But in the bigger picture, no one thought this was the Tribe's year and they made tremendous progress, gaining some playoff race experience in the process. The front office clearly feels the same way and they've already struck first in the offseason sweepstakes, acquiring Derek Lowe from Atlanta and signaling their intention to come strong after Detroit in 2012.
Chicago White Sox: The curtain comes down on the Ozzie Guillen era. As Michael Corleone told the Commission in Godfather III, "we have prospered, and now it is time to dissolve the business relationship." The White Sox and Guillen both prospered together, winning a World Series in 2005, along with a division title in 2008 to go with other contending seasons, including this one. But the inability to play consistently and the constant drama surrounding Guillen's relationship with GM Kenny Williams made it clear that it was time to end this business relationship together. Guillen's now managing the Florida Marlins. The White Sox have turned to former star third baseman Robin Ventura. A footnote to this is the Godfather III scene referenced ends with a massive helicopter attack leaving most of the Commission dead. I suspect both Ozzie and the Sox might fill that role in this analogy.
Kansas City: The progress isn't showing up in the win-loss record yet, but it's real. The Royals have the makings of an honest-to-goodness major-league caliber everyday lineup, and Alex Gordon finally fulfilled his immense potential. The team also brought up Mike Moutsakas at third and first baseman Eric Hosmer. Now they need starting pitching to start translating all this into wins–and a good batch of arms isn't far behind on the minor league trail.
Minnesota: If it's possible to take a season, throw it into the dishwasher and just rinse everything out and wait till next year, this is it. The Twins had a train wreck of a year from the start, and while they do have some serious issues to address–the long-term health of Justin Morneau, and to a lesser extent, Joe Mauer, they do have a sound organization in place and should be able to get back playing winning baseball in 2012 if they don't overreact to the nightmarish 2011.
Texas: I know the last thing Texas fans want to hear is that they had a great season anyway. I know they don't want to hear it, but that doesn't make it any less true. Nolan Ryan, John Daniels and Ron Washington have built an organization that's beaten financial heavyweights Los Angeles in the division and Boston and New York in the American League at-large to win two straight pennants. And they did it this time without Cliff Lee. This is a team that should be remembered for what it achieved, not for what it just missed.
LA Angels: In spite of losing Kendry Morales for almost the entire season again, the Angels did an admirable job in hanging in this race until September. They established Jered Weaver and Dan Haren as the best 1-2 punch in the American League, and moved Jordan Walden into the closer's role. Mike Scoscia's got the foundation for a team that can continue to contend, but this big-budget team has to act like it now and make some moves to get another bat for the lineup.
Oakland: A team that had big expectations for 2011 and was a popular pick by some (like the Notebook) to win the AL West. As it turned out the highlight of the year was the release of Moneyball in the theatres this past September. Oakland's still got starting pitching depth to burn, as they show in churning out starters in spite of injuries, but this lineup is absolutely desperate for a lot of help.
Seattle: The Mariners made some nice progress as the year unfolded, with young players like Dustin Ackley stepping into greater roles, Michael Pineda providing a quality young arm and making the decision not to trade Felix Hernandez. If that latter decision holds through the winter, the M's can at least make a run at 85 wins or so next year.