Okay, now that we've all read Wes' belligerent predictions for how the American League will shape up in 2009, let's explore what might really happen. Finally, thanks in large part to a terrible performance by their starting pitching, the American players that took part in the World Baseball Classic will return to their respective spring camps, except for those that decided to take the rest of the tournament off. I'm looking at you, Pedroia.
Tampa's improbable last-to-first turnaround and subsequent run to the World Series last year took America away from the Yankees and Red Sox of the world for the first time in years. And despite all this discussion about PEDs, it renewed some faith in the game, as well as solidifying that the game's five best teams come from the east coast.
Speaking of the east coast, there have been enough storylines to fill the gap between November and March better than the NFL could've ever tried to. Between big ticket free agents landing in New York and Boston, the construction of two new glorious stadiums in the Bronx and Queens, the Torre book, and of course A-Roid*, the media circus never went away.
But as teams play out their final spring training games, and start naming Opening Day starters, that familiar sense of spring optimism takes hold in anticipation of the start of the regular season. So now, here's a more realistic take on how the American League will shape up this season.
1. Tampa Bay Rays - Prediction: 98-64, A.L. East champion
Three words: Pat the Bat. You can't say enough about how much he will influence the way pitchers go after Longoria and Pena. Look for Pena to be near the top of the American League in home runs, like he was in 2007. Burrell takes a good lineup and makes it scary, but the strength of this team is on the bump. Top prospect David Price is expected to start the season in AAA Durham to make room for Jeff Niemann, another former first round pick who's out of options, but it won't be long before the big lefty will be giving major league hitters fits. Regardless, a rotation that includes Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, "Big Game James" Shields and Andy Sonnanstine will be playoff bound for years to come.
Name to remember: SP David Price, SP Wade Davis - the crown jewels of the Rays farm system. Both will start the season in the minors, but expect to hear their names called every fifth day by August.
2. New York Yankees - Prediction: 94-68, A.L. Wild Card
You were expecting.... the Red Sox? Yeah, good joke. In the inaugural season at the new Yankee Stadium, the Bombers will pull out all the stops to ensure there is October baseball being played in the Bronx. The Yankees will be in contention with the Rays for the division until late September. The question will be how they will hold up without A-Rod until May. However, the common theme with the Rays and Yanks will be depth on the mound. The Yankees will also start their top prospect, Phil Hughes, in AAA with Scranton Wilkes-Barre. The worst case scenario for Yankee haters everywhere is that C.C.'s big frame will finally break down and A.J. Burnett will inevitably get hurt like he does every year (except last year, I guess, when he won 18 games and led the A.L. in strikeouts). But the emergence of Hughes and Alfredo Aceves in addition to a very underrated bullpen will spell relief for the Bombers. Wait what? They signed Mark Teixeira too? Oh yeah, Boston has a chance.
Name to remember: RF Xavier Nady - X has been the subject of constant trade rumors already since the Teixeira signing, and is playing out the last year of his contract. Will he justify a big payday heading into 2010?
3. Boston Red Sox - Prediction: 89-73
The Red Sox also made some noise this winter, albeit considerably smaller noise. After losing Mark Teixeira to the Yankees over $10 million, president John Henry claimed they simply could not compete with New York's ability to sign players. $10 million, John. Not a deal-breaker. The Sox instead went out and made a number of low-risk, high-reward signings in Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Rocco Baldelli and Takashi Saito. While Epstein, Henry & co. deserve praise for this, there is very little guarantee that Penny and Smoltz will have a definitive impact after missing significant time in 2008 with injuries. The Yankees considered trading for Penny early last season before they discovered he had a severe shoulder problem. That should say enough. The American League East's walking wounded should concern themselves a little less with New York's injury risks and worry about their own, i.e. Drew, Pedroia, Youkilis, Penny and Smoltz. They will also need David Ortiz to hold up for the entire season, which he failed to do a year ago.
Name to remember: SP Jon Lester - I'm convinced the Cy Young winner will come out of this division this year, what with at least seven legitimate candidates (Sabathia, Halladay, Chamberlain, Beckett, Kazmir, Shields, Lester), and the Red Sox' lefty ace could be the one to prove me right. After recently signing a contract extension, Lester seems poised to expand on his breakout campaign last year and become one of baseball's elite starters.
4. Toronto Blue Jays - Prediction: 80-82
Well Wes, I'm pretty sure Roy Halladay pitches in Canada. And yes, he's very good. This Blue Jays lineup has some firepower, but not nearly enough to hang in this division. As the Hamstring Turns, starring Vernon Wells, will make its rounds and give fantasy owners fits by July, and one can't help but wonder if Alex Rios will ever live up to his 30-30 potential.
Name to remember: OF Travis Snider - Baseball America's fourth best prospect for 2009 will be a star, the only question is how soon. He will start the season as a corner outfielder for Toronto, and has potential to be the best left-handed batter they've had since Carlos Delgado.
5. Baltimore Orioles - Prediction: 70-92
Had they signed Mark Teixeira, they may have been able to make some noise this year. But after an offseason filled mostly with disappointment (apart from picking up Felix Pie from the Cubs), the O's find themselves as the prey in a divison full of predators. Nick Markakis will have another productive fantasy season, but that's really the only bright spot on this team.
Name to remember: C Matt Wieters - The top prospect in the nation has been tearing up spring training, but will start the season in the minor leagues. Scouts can't stop salivating over Wieters' trememdous hitting prowess, though. It won't be long before he's a big leaguer.
A.L. Central -
1. Cleveland Indians - Prediction: 93-69
Last year's hottest second-half team will turn a lot of heads this year in the Central. The addition of Mark DeRosa will bolster an already deadly lineup, with Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner fully healthy again. Grady Sizemore, coming off an outstanding 30-30 campaign, will challenge for MVP as well. Reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee will come back down to earth, but will still be the ace on a staff that's good enough to win a less-than-stellar division.
Name to remember:2B Mark DeRosa - Coming off a career year with the Cubs, it will be interesting to see how DeRosa handles the switch to the American League.
2. Minnesota Twins - Prediction: 85-77
Good pitching and sound baseball has been the Twins' formula since 2002 under Ron Gardenhire, and they've failed to reach 80 wins once. They'll get past that again this year, but with lingering concerns about Joe Mauer's health, the lineup doesn't look so daunting all of a sudden. On the other hand, Francisco Liriano will be 100% healthy after fully recovering from Tommy John surgery, but buyer beware. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn round out a slightly above average pitching staff, but it doesn't look like this team will go very far.
Name to remember: RF Denard Span - The speedy outfielder is starting his first full season in the bigs, and had a relatively productive rookie season, hitting .294. Expect an increase in steals from 18 into the 30-40 range.
3. Chicago White Sox - Prediction: 81-81
This team is one that's stuck in a transitional state, with players like Carlos Quentin, Chris Getz and Alexei Ramirez on the rise pulling deadweight like Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. The rotation is no different as veterans Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras are surrounded by two of the most productive young pitchers of 2008, Gavin Floyd and John Danks. This team has some of the pieces together, but is still a good year or two away from contention.
Name to remember: SS Alexei Ramirez - Last year's A.L. Rookie of the Year runner-up is a versatile player that has drawn comparisions to B.J. Upton and even Alfonso Soriano. He and rookie second baseman Chris Getz make up one of the best young middle-infield tandems in baseball.
4. Detroit Tigers - Prediction: 79-83
Don't think that last year's nosedive was a fluke. This team fields one of the toughest lineups in the league, but trots out very few starters that give them a chance to win every fifth day. Justin Verlander will need to have a stellar bounceback season in order for this team to float near .500.
Name to remember: SP Rick Porcello - The Tigers' first round pick in 2007 has been tearing through Spring Training, even though he's never pitched professionally above advanced A ball. It's rumored that the 20-year old will break camp with the team, but even if he doesn't expect him to get the call when Detroit is searching for pitching in May.
5. Kansas City Royals - Prediction: 66-96
The Royals have been trying for years to build a strong team through the draft, along with a couple of free agent signings that haven't exactly panned out. Juan Cruz will join Joakim Soria to make for quite a devastating 1-2 punch in the latter part of games. The question is, how will they get a lead so they can put it into action?
Name to remember: SS Mike Aviles - Aviles broke into the league last year at age 26 and had a very productive year, hitting .325 with 10 HR and 51 RBI in just 102 games. With one major league season under his belt, and more at-bats to come this season, look for those numbers to improve.
1. Los Angeles Angels - Prediction: 89-73
Even though they're a shadow of their 2008 selves, the Angels will win this division going away. Bobby Abreu won't be able to make up for the two huge voids in the lineup left by Mark Teixeira and Garrett Anderson. The starting rotation may not look as good without Francisco Rodriguez saving all those one-run games, but Brian Fuentes will do a fine job closing most of them. Lucky for them, they play the Mariners, A's and Rangers nearly 60 times.
Name to remember: SP Joe Saunders - Saunders won 17 games in 2008 with a 3.41 ERA. He also surrendered less than a hit per inning. It will be interesting to see if he can follow it up with another successful year.
2. Oakland Athletics - Prediction: 80-81
Billy Beane's deal with Colorado for Matt Holliday nearly reshaped the landscape of the division in one fell swoop. However, even with a vastly improved lineup with the additions of Holliday and Jason Giambi, the rotation still seems too weak to contend with the Angels.
Name to remember: OF Matt Holliday - Billy Beane holds the key to this year's trade deadline with Holliday's expiring contract at season's end. Chances are he'll be traded, even if the A's are reasonably within striking distance at the deadline.
3. Texas Rangers - Prediction: 75-87
Talk about a good lineup and poor rotation! This lineup trots out two of last year's top five fantasy players in Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton. However, they've got worse pitching than the A's. Kevin Millwood is their ace, enough said.
Name to remember: SP Neftali Perez - He is the reason the Braves regret trading for Mark Teixeira in 2007. Perez is the Rangers' best pitching prospect, after trading Edinson Volquez to Cincinnati for Josh Hamilton last year. He won't start the year with the big team but expect him to make his debut in July or August.
4. Seattle Mariners - Prediction: 69-93
Ken Griffey Jr.'s swan song is going to be a rough one in Seattle. The Mariners don't boast a particularly strong lineup, outside of Ichiro and an aged Griffey. Their rotation includes Felix Hernandez and oft-injured Erik Bedard, who is a sleeper to many fantasy gurus after missing significant time in 2008 with a bad throwing shoulder.
Name to remember: OF Endy Chavez - It will be interesting to see what Chavez can do starting every day for Seattle. He was never given a fair chance in Queens, and with his speed, he can really make things happen.
Most Valuable Player: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit - .293 avg, 41 HR, 131 RBI
Cy Young Award: Jon Lester, Boston - 18-6, 3.15 ERA, 210 IP, 160 K
Rookie of the Year: Matt Wieters, Baltimore - .314 avg, 22 HR, 76 RBI
American League Divisional Series-
Tampa Bay defeats Los Angeles, 3-1
New York defeats Cleveland, 3-0
American League Championship Series-
Tampa Bay defeats New York, 4-2
In the end, it seems that Tampa's pitching may be too much for the Yankees to handle. One thing Red Sox fans will never fail to point out is the Yanks' lack of postseason performers outside of Derek Jeter. Sabathia and Wang have terrible October resumes, but that won't be a factor as they'll be simply outplayed by the best team in baseball this year, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Besides, what good is an "unbiased" prediction article if I have my favorite team winning it all? Right, Wes?