As March has bloomed into April and the snowstorms from Monday are now a distant memory as we watch the temperatures rise to a balmy 45 degrees, it seems appropriate to preview the American League. Well, that and the fact that it’s the first week of the season. Anyways, here’s what you need to know about each team, broken down division by division along with a brief playoff prediction.
AL West—“The Shittiest Division In Baseball”
The Favorite: California, no, Anaheim, wait, Los….[sic] it. The Angels. There will be a lot of runs scored in…well, where ever the Halos play these days. The lineup is absolutely loaded with table setter Chone Figgins at the top, followed by the likes of Gary Matthews Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Garrett Anderson, Torii Hunter, and Howie Kendrick, among others. Offensively, their only problem may be too much talent. They will have at least 6 major league caliber outfielders (Anderson, Guerrero, Hunter, Matthews, Juan Rivera, and Reggie Willits), and only 4 can play regularly. Will this cause dissention and anger in the clubhouse? Possibly. The bigger problem for the Angels is their lack of pitching. Kelvim Escobar is out for the year and John Lackey is missing the first month of the season. That leaves Jon Garland and Jered Weaver to anchor the staff. Yikes.
Q’s Favorite: Seattle Mariners. Not many teams in baseball did more to improve their roster than the Mariners did. They signed former Twin Carlos Silva to come in and be their third starter and eat innings. Seattle also made the second biggest trade of the off-season by moving highly touted prospect Adam Jones (and others) to Baltimore in exchange for their ace, Erik Bedard. He’ll lead the staff that also includes Felix Hernandez. That’s a very good top three. As usual, their lineup looks good on paper, but can they come through? Ichiro Suzuki (he has a last name) had a down year by his standards last year. If he can rebound and be the catalyst at the leadoff position, Seattle should be able to score enough runs to win the West. Of course, he also needs some help from perennial disappointments like Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, and Jose Vidro.
The Dark Horse: Oakland Athletics. Is there a team in Major League Baseball that is harder to predict that the A’s? Every year they seem to lose major pieces to the puzzle, and every year a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of keep them in contention. 2008 is no different. Gone is ace Dan Haren, along with Nick Swisher, Mike Piazza, and Mark Kotsay. Newcomers include…Emil Brown. Um, not exactly a blockbuster acquisition. It doesn’t matter, though. Oakland has guys like Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Jack Cust, Jack Hannahan (St. Paul represent), and Daric Barton. Oh, you haven’t heard of any of these guys? You will have by August.
Also in the Division: Texas Rangers. Well, Texas at least made an attempt to get better this winter. They brought in a bunch of new guys to try and shake things up. However, I’m not so sure that guys like Milton Bradley, Ben Broussard, Josh Hamilton, and Jason Jennings are the answer, but hey, at least they tried. As is the case every year, the downfall of this team will be it’s pitching, or lack thereof. Kevin Millwood is a solid starter, but after him you’re looking at Vincente Padilla and Jennings as the next two in the rotation, which doesn’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of opponents. Their hitting will keep them in more games than you’d think (especially Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Hamilton, and Hank Blaylock), but ultimately they should be mathematically eliminated by July.
AL East—“Where The Big Dogs Still Eat”
The Favorite: Boston Red Sox. It’s tough not to like this team to win the division, the American League, and the World Series this year. They are the defending champs and lost no one from last year’s team, while adding Sean Casey’s bat off the bench and Bartolo Colon to their bullpen. They have proven veterans and up and coming youngsters who should benefit and grow from another year in the Bigs. Guys like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury should get even better as the year goes along, and that is a scary thought. Even scarier? Manny Ramirez is in a contract year—watch out. The only issue could be their pitching (I’m going out on a very long limb here). Josh Beckett has been bothered by injuries all spring, Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield are a combined 97 years old, Jon Lester is still recovering from cancer, and Dice-K showed signs of wear last year. If they don’t win the East, this will be the reason why.
Q’s Favorite: New York Yankees. I seriously cannot believe I just typed that last line. I hate the Yankees, always have. Yet, as the last few years have gone by, I find my dislike shifting more and more to Red Sox Nation. They used to be the lovable losers that couldn’t win the big one, now they are just a bunch of pompous jerks. They’re making Yankees fans look polite and generous by comparison. Anyways, I think this New York team has a giant chip on their shoulder heading into this season. They still have the most balanced and dangerous lineup in baseball and I think their pitching staff is going to have a monster year. Phil Hughes is the deal, and he’ll be their 4th starter. They have the perfect balance of veterans (Mike Mussina and Andy Pettite) and youth (Hughes and Ian Kennedy) to go with their ace, Chin-Ming Wang. They might be scary good this year.
The Dark Horse (Allegedly): Toronto Blue Jays. I keep hearing that the Jays could be a sleeper candidate in the American League this year. Why? They’ve done absolutely nothing to improve their 83 win team from a year ago. The only major change to their roster was trading an overrated, injury-prone Troy Glaus to St. Louis for an overrated, injury-prone Scott Rolen. Combine that with the 38 games they have to play against the Sox and Yanks, and I’m not buying Toronto as a sleeper.
The Real Darkhorse: Tampa Bay Rays. Ok, so I know to the untrained eye this might be extremely contradictory to my Blue Jays rant. I know that the Rays play those same 38 games that I chided Toronto about. The difference is that Tampa has done a lot to revamp their roster and they are a young team with a chance to break out this year. It starts with their pitching. At the top of the rotation is Scott Kazmir who, when healthy is one of the best pitchers in the league. If they can get some production out of their young starters (Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson, and Andy Sonnastine), they will leave the cellar in the East and make a serious push for third place. In order for that to happen, they will also need some serious production from their lineup. They have a major talent in Carl Crawford, but after that they will need a few guys to “make the jump” from prospects to legitimate players (BJ Upton and Evan Longoria to name two).
Happy To Be Here: Baltimore Orioles. Plain and simple, there’s just not a lot to like about the Orioles this year. They picked up highly touted prospect Adam Jones in the Bedard trade, but he’s the only ray of hope for this team. The rest of the lineup is full of guys you’ve never heard of and never will. Even if they get career years across the board, the best they could hope for is 4th in the East. The pitching staff isn’t much better. Headlined by Mark, I mean Jeremy Guthrie…well, that should say it all right there. There isn’t a lot of hope in Baltimore, and there isn’t any help on the horizon coming from the farm system. Confidence is low, repeat, confidence is low.
AL Central—“The Analysts' Favorite Division”
The Favorite: Detroit Tigers. Obviously there is major excitement in Detroit these days, and a majority of that surrounds the extremely potent lineup that the Tigers are going to shuffle out everyday. There isn’t a weak spot to be found from Curtis Granderson at the top (when he returns from that pesky broken finger) to Jacque Jones at the bottom and especially including the formidable Sheffield-Ordonez-Cabrera middle of the order. They’re going to score more than their fair share of runs, but the big question is how many are they going to give up? Justin Verlander is a stud, but after him there are more than a few question marks both in the starting rotation and in the pen. Anything resembling consistency in the pitching staff and they win the division and at least one playoff series. Shaky pitching could lead to more disappointment.
Very Overrated: Cleveland Indians. Honestly, I really don’t get the hype and the love that the Indians are getting going into this season. I know they didn’t lose anything from a first place team last year, but I just feel like they peaked in 2007. A lot of their players played beyond their abilities, much like the 2006 Twins, and they are poised for a drop off. This is especially true when it comes to their pitching staff. Fausto Carmona was a below average reliever in danger of being out of the league entering last season. Miraculously he responds with a 19-8, 3.06 season. Paul Byrd, a journeyman starter who struggled while pitching for the Royals not so long ago, somehow manages a 15 win season. Joe Borowski, aka Captain Heart Attack, had 45 saves despite a ridiculous 5.07 ERA. Am I really supposed to believe that those numbers are going to repeat themselves this year? Sorry, but I just don’t. The lineup will still be solid (unless Hafner hits .260 again) and they will be in the running for the Wild Card, but expectations are far too high for this team.
Very Underrated: Minnesota Twins. Ok, so the other day you were treated to three pages of my thoughts on the Twins, so I’ll try to keep this short. When you have a balanced and (possibly) potent lineup to go with a young, exciting rotation, there is always the possibility of shocking the world. The first two months will let you know if this team will make a push to be a Cinderella story or if they’re playing for the new ballpark in 2010.
The Enigma: Chicago White Sox. I seriously have absolutely no idea what to make of this Chicago team. They still have Thome-Konerko-Dye anchoring the middle of their lineup, plus they added Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera to bolster both the offense and the defense. The pitching staff has potential with Buehrle, Danks, and 63 year old Jose Contreras in the rotation and Bobby Jenks as the closer. If they finish 2nd or 3rd in the division and challenge for the Wild Card, I won’t be surprised. If they finish last in the division by a mile, I won’t be surprised. They are the enigma.
Not As Bad As They Used To Be: Kansas City Royals. I am by no means the first person to say this, but I’d watch out for the Royals this year. They have a ton of young talent, especially in Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Mark Tehan. The addition of Jose Guillen to that lineup could make them a very interesting team to watch. Usually, the big downfall of the Royals is their pitching. That might not necessarily be true this year. The Gil Meche signing a year ago brought a lot of laughs, but then he turned in a very solid season (don’t let the nine wins fool you; he only had a 3.6 ERA). Now they just need a little consistency from Zack Greinke, Brian Bannister, and company to get the ball to the most underrated closer in the game—Joakim Soria—in the 9th inning. I’m not saying they’re going to vie for a division crown, but they could turn some heads this year.
So what can you expect come October? Other than Dane Cook commercials and more Joe Buck than anyone should have to endure, I’d bet on the following scenario playing out: ALDS: Red Sox (Wild Card) over Tigers (Central), Yankees (East) over Mariners (West). ALCS: Yankees over Red Sox. I will now go throw up…