It's about that time again.
American League East (predicted order of finish and records)
New York Yankees (96-66) – After a disappointing season where 89 wins wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, the Yankees enter 2009 reloaded. Add to last year’s team two of the most coveted starters and hitter of this winter’s free agent pool, and there’s no reason not to believe that New York puts the best product in baseball on the field. Rodriguez will return around May solidifying the lineup, complemented by a star-studded rotation, and a young, fiery bullpen with the stoic Rivera at the back end. This team should be the favorite in this division, and has the tools to make a deep October run.
Boston Red Sox (90-72) – There’s no question that the Sox have been the most effectively run organization in baseball over the past few years, and though they didn’t spend as frugally as their division rivals, they come into this season with a ridiculously deep pitching staff and probably the best right side of the infield in baseball. Their offense might take a hit without the day-to-day production of Ramirez, but this team laden with veterans, surely has enough to get by. They may not be able to win the division this season, but a Wild Card run is certain from this team that poses a threat to all comers.
Tampa Bay Rays (87-75) – The Rays possess everything necessary to contend except a winnable division to play. Everyone’s lovable bunch from 2008 returns with essentially the same squad that helped them get to the most recent World Series. However, successful young teams often suffer from the “too much success, too soon” syndrome, and these Rays might have a textbook case. In any other division, this team would be a slam dunk favorite, running away with it, and though this team has young talent a plenty, they don’t have the financial resources to compete with New York and Boston.
Toronto Blue Jays (80-82) – Similar to Tampa, but to a lesser degree, the Jays suffer from the “In any other division...” condition. It looks to be a long year at the plate for Toronto after big steps back from both Rios and Wells, and losing three starters from last year’s rotation put more of the onus on Roy Halladay to pile up the innings and quality starts. For the last several years and for the foreseeable future, it seems as if these Jays will be stuck in mediocrity in a division with whose top teams they can’t compete. It’ll be more of the same north of the border, as this team is nearly a lock for fourth place.
Baltimore Orioles (66-96) – The Orioles are a team that are way behind and can’t keep up with their divisional opponents. For what was at one time such a proud franchise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Their team features a young (and pretty good) lineup, but most of their downfall will be due to their pitching staff, which is questionable at best. Their roster is chocked full of question marks, and though they hope to get a midseason spark from sensational young catcher Matt Wieters, their pitching will need to undergo wholesale changes in the near future.
American League Central (predicted order of finish and records)
Cleveland Indians (93-69) – The Indians broke even in a season where they lost two of their top hitters due to extended injuries, had no consistency from their closer, and dealt away their top starter for a good part of the last decade. I expect another great season from reigning Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee, and I think a lot of people really expect a true breakout season from Grady Sizemore. Their bullpen is revamped with Kerry Wood at the back end, and if this team can at all return to their 2007 division-winning form, there is no doubt that they will win this ever weak grouping with relative ease.
Chicago White Sox (91-71) – The same core from last year’s division champions returns featuring a lineup with tremendous balance between proven veterans (Dye, Konerko, Thome) and young power bats (Quentin, Ramirez). Their young rotation proved what it could do down the stretch last year, and though many people may not like him, Ozzie Guillen can manage better than most skippers in the game. As long as they don’t bank on significant contributions from young role players, they will contend in a division full of question marks and concerns; a division title or a Wild Card run is very possible.
Minnesota Twins (83-79) - A perennial contender under Gardenhire, the Twins come into this season with remarkable pitching depth and one of the game’s best closers. The two main concerns that I have about the Twins are their expectation that Liriano will return to his pre-injury ways en route to being an ace, along with the uncertain health of Joe Mauer. Yes, grit and hunger are two great qualities to have with a young, promising team. The Metrodome is among the better playoff locales in baseball, however, level of talent has to play into the equation somehow, or else it’s bound to be a long summer.
Detroit Tigers (81-81) – It’s unbelievable how quickly the Tigers’ fortunes turned last year, from being a preseason favorite to win the World Series to becoming a cellar-dweller in the AL Central. They didn’t struggle whatsoever to score runs last year, and they won’t again this year; like many other teams, their problems can be attributed to their weak starting rotation. Disappointing seasons from Verlander and Willis drove this team into the ground early, and now their only hope lies in their deep lineup, filled with players who possess power and/or speed. Another struggle waits in the Motor City.
Kansas City Royals (68-94) – If you look at this team’s roster on paper, the Royals have the pieces to contend at this point. However, each of their hitters is flawed in one way or another and most of the preseason praise bestowed upon their pitchers is based mostly on potential. If the best acquisitions they can make in the offseason are Coco Crisp and Kyle Farnsworth, this team will continue to improve at this ever so glacial pace. The top end of their rotation and the decent bullpen with Soria at the back gives them a fighting chance, but Kansas City is once again nothing but an divisional doormat.
American League West (predicted order of finish and records)
Los Angeles Angels (92-70) – Frankly, it’s hard to go against the Angels even in a division where they are on the downside and other teams are improving, but given their recent history and productive offseason, they’re on track to win the West for the fifth time in the last six years. Bringing in Fuentes for K-Rod seems like a lateral move to me, and even after losing Teixeira and Anderson, signing Bobby Abreu on the cheap is never a bad thing. Their injuries to multiple starting pitchers to open the season scares me, but the proverbial cream will rise to the top within this mediocre collection of ballclubs.
Texas Rangers (81-81) – This team’s lineup can match anyone’s, with one of the better recent comeback stories in Josh Hamilton and the league’s best all-around second baseman in Ian Kinsler both leading the way. Their starting pitching continues to be the main issue every year, and that’s why this team won’t break .500 until they get some. There is a sizeable amount of good, young offensive talent on the Texas roster, but it’s no use to even consider anyone else winning this division at this point. Look for the Rangers to hit and hit well, but not make any news-breaking progress this season.
Oakland Athletics (78-84) – I’m really reluctant to sell the A’s short of an 80-win season, despite what people say about their “brilliant” young pitching, but when I don’t recognize one name outside of Duchscherer, the argument is made right there. Matt Holliday is a great acquisition to add some punch to the middle of the order, but who knows what Billy Beane’s motives are if the A’s fall out of the race. They look like they’re trying to win the 2003 World Series, signing the likes of Giambi and Garciaparra, making it more likely that this edition of “Moneyball” will be an abysmal flop.
Seattle Mariners (67-95) – There’s no way to think that this team will be any good; honestly, they’re downright terrible. So many awful moves from Bedard to Silva to Beltre haven’t panned out in the Pacific Northwest, one of many contributing factors that throw this season into oblivion. You know what you’re getting from Ichiro, but I’m interested to see if King Felix can return to form after such a great start to his major league career. Bringing back Junior will only help people remember the days where the M’s were on top out west. New manager, lousy roster, no hope for 2009.
All American League First Team
C - Joe Mauer, Minnesota
1B - Mark Teixeira, New York
2B - Ian Kinsler, Texas
SS - Derek Jeter, New York
3B - Alex Rodriguez, New York
OF - Josh Hamilton, Texas
OF - Matt Holliday, Oakland
OF - Grady Sizemore, Cleveland
SP - Cliff Lee, Cleveland
SP - CC Sabathia, New York
SP - Roy Halladay, Toronto
RP - Jonathan Papelbon, Boston
RP - Mariano Rivera, New York
All American League Second Team
C - Dioner Navarro, Tampa Bay
1B - Justin Morneau, Minnesota
2B - Dustin Pedroia, Boston
SS - Alexei Ramirez, Chicago
3B - Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay
OF - Vladimir Guerrero, Los Angeles
OF - Carlos Quentin, Chicago
OF - Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle
SP - Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay
SP - John Lackey, Los Angeles
SP - Jon Lester, Boston
RP - Joe Nathan, Minnesota
RP - Joakim Soria, Kansas City
It's about that time again.