And the American League Individual Leaders Are ...
Spring is the ideal time to be taking flights of fancy.
Especially when it comes to forecasting the outcome of the upcoming Major League baseball season.
Unlike Major League ballplayers, prognosticators don't get the opportunity to make any adjustments during the season. Predictions are down in black-and-white for everyone to see.
If you get it wrong, which is almost always, there's no hope for redemption or an opportunity to restore one's reputation.
That doesn't stop me from doing it every year, so here we go again.
Rookie of the Year
Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers
The question here isn't whether one of the organization's top pitching prospects possesses the stuff or the demeanor to achieve success on the Major League level. Both General Manager Dave Dombrowski and Manager Jim Leyland agree that he has been blessed with both qualities.
The question is whether his time is now, later in the season, or next year.
Several things bode well for Porcello taking the mound for the Tigers this season.
The Tigers' starting rotation, once considered a strength a few short years ago, is a wild-card. Ace Justin Verlander is looking to rebound from a sub-par 2008 season in which he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA. Jeremy Bonderman is battling shoulder problems.
The only seemingly sure things are Armando Galarraga, who will be trying to avoid a sophomore jinx, and Edwin Jackson, acquired from Tampa Bay, who lowered his ERA by more one run in 2008.
At this point, Porcello's stiffest competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation is the once-brilliant Dontrelle Willis and the erratic Nate Robertson. Enough said.
The bottom line is that every Major League team will need more than five starters due to injuries or unexpected reversals in expectations or form. The Tigers seem more susceptible to these woes than other teams so Porcello should find himself with the big club sometime this year.
There's also a lot of pressure to win a division title after last season's farce. This means that the Tigers will try to field the best talent possible. And that means that Porcello will get his chance sooner than later.
Chris Davis, Texas Rangers
Logic dictates that Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers should repeat as the home run king. It took him until June to adjust to a new league and a new team. He hit 29 of his 37 home runs after June 1. That's scary.
Every so often, though, somebody comes out of nowhere to achieve instant stardom.
Only 23, Davis belted 17 homers and drove in 55 runs for the Rangers last season in only 295 at-bats. He also batted .285 and added 23 doubles. Of course, he also struck out 88 times and eked out just 23 walks.
So, we know he can lose a ball in the seats at anytime...if he doesn't lose sight of the strike zone first.
The Rangers, with Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, and Josh Hamilton in the lineup, have the bats to protect him. If Hank Blalock remains healthy and young Nelson Cruz shows dramatic improvement, so much the better for Young.
He could be an emerging slugger or a one-trick pony. We'll get a better handle on that as the season progresses.
Adrian Beltre, Seattle Mariners
He will be only 30 when the season starts and Beltre already has played 11 seasons. In 1,570 games, he's hit 242 home runs and driven in 862 runs. In 2004, he batted .334 with 48 home runs and 121 RBI for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Who's to say he won't bust out again?
This is a contract year for Beltre. So was 2004.
But there's more to it than that.
Beltre, who entered the Major Leagues at age 19, is maturing into a clubhouse leader. He's responded well to the Mariners' additions of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney. The trio is expected to lead by example in the clubhouse and, hopefully, change the losing culture that pervades the Mariners.
When you've lost 101 games the year before, something has to give, huh?
His newfound maturity, his work ethic, his obvious talent (an average of 25 HR and 89 RBI per season), all point to big things for 2009.
If Beltre can overcome a nagging shoulder injury, which doesn't seem to be anything serious, the sky may be the limit.
Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Ian Kinsler was tearing up the American League before he succumbed to an injury on Sept. 17. In 121 games, he hit .317 with 18 homers and 71 RBI. He was leading the league in runs, hits and total bases before his season ended.
Kinsler will turn 27 in June, an age when sabermetrics guru Bill James says a player posts his biggest numbers.
Minnesota Twin Joe Mauer has won two out of the last three batting titles. His health is a huge question mark so that enhances Kinsler's chances of leading the league in hitting.
Jensen Lewis, Cleveland Indians
The Indians signed Kerry Wood to be their closer in December.
It's wishful thinking.
When he's healthy, Wood is brilliant.
However, Wood has about as much chance of pitching a full season as most of us have of slashing a Joba Chamberlain fastball over a fence.
Luckily, the Indians have a Plan B.
Lewis was given the opportunity to close games in August and he responded with 13 consecutive saves.
He doesn't possess a blazing fastball but he's managed to strike out 85 in 95.1 innings during his career.
He's got the talent, as evidenced by his 19-8 record and 3.06 ERA in 2007 at the age of 23.
He's got his health after missing two months in 2008 due to a strained hip.
He's got his form back, too. He was brilliant Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox, pitching two-hit, scoreless ball over five innings, lowering his spring ERA under 2.00.
You can argue that spring statistics mean nada, but it's an encouraging sign that Carmona may be poised to duplicate his performance of two years ago.
The Toronto Blue Jays will be hard-pressed to make 2009 their fourth consecutive winning season.
The Blue Jays lost 18-game winner A.J. Burnett to the Yankees. Promising starter Shaun Marcum is out for the year and Dustin McGowan is hoping to get back on the mound in June.
At least, manager Cito Gaston can always count on Halladay, a constant in a sea of variables.
In 2008, Halladay posted a 20-11 mark, 206 strikeouts and a 2.78 ERA. He's arguably been the most consistent and durable starter in either league since 2002.
Halladay will benefit from the return of Aaron Hill at second base. He and John McDonald (and Marco Scutaro) comprise one of the slicker fielding middle infield combinations in the Major League.
A stellar relief corps, which boasted the best bullpen ERA in the American League doesn't hurt, either.
Cy Young Award
The only question is whether the Blue Jays' anemic offense can piece together enough runs to help Halladay amass the needed victories to mount a viable candidacy for pitching's highest award.
Halladay should be able to take it from there.
Kevin Youkilis, Boston Red Sox
Teammate Dustin Pedroia, the 2008 American League MVP, acknowledged last season that Youkilis, who finished third in the MVP voting, was the biggest part of the Red Sox's offense.
Youkilis probably won't finish first in batting average or home runs or RBI. But he'll be among the leaders, just like he was in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases, extra-base hits and walks.
Youkilis had to settle for the AL Hank Aaron Award last season. The award acknowledges the best hitter in the league. The next step is the MVP.
He'll have one less competitor in the mix. Only two middle infielders (Ernie Banks and Joe Morgan) have won back-to-back MVP awards since 1931. Pedroia would have to put together a monster season in 2009 to repeat.
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