Top 10 Questions Facing the American League in 2010
For me, there are three things that symbolize the end of winter and beginning of spring. My birthday (March 17), the ability to actually leave my apartment and go outside during the day, and of course, baseball season.
It has been a busy offseason and an entertaining one. The defending world champion Yankees, intelligently not standing pat, added a very good outfielder in Curtis Granderson, and Javier Vasquez, who finally pitched to his potential in 2009 with Atlanta.
Outside of the Yankees, the contenders of the American League look very different. Will they be enough to counter the sheer star power in New York?
With every new season comes questions regarding the outcome. Here are the 10 biggest questions facing the American League.
Defense Wins Championships?
One thing that has been synonymous with the Red Sox since the Epstein era began is an emphasis on offense.
This has obviously been highly successful for the Red Sox, who finished first in the AL in runs scored from 2003 to 2005, as well as second in 2008 and third in 2007 and 2009.
However, with the Yankees a newly efficient machine, and a lackluster crop of big bats in free agency, Sox GM Theo Epstein jumped on board the most recent Sabermetric-induced market arbitrage: defense.
Forgoing the opportunity to give a monster contract to Jason Bay (or Matt Holliday), Theo shied away from giving big money to power hitters on the wrong side of 30, instead electing to offer smaller contracts to effective role players like Mike Cameron (left), Marco Scutaro, and Adrian Beltre, and using the savings to pay market value for John Lackey.
This, however, has caused dissension among much of the Boston media, upset with Epstein's plan of running the Red Sox cost-effectively instead of sticking with the 2003-09 model.
Nevertheless, the Red Sox should have a good offense. Where this "defense wins championships" angle should be interesting is on the other coast, in Seattle.
Jack Zduriencik has been fantastic in his stint as GM of the Mariners, taking a franchise that had no hope and, within a season and a half, turning it into a serious contender.
He continued his excellent run this offseason, signing Chone Figgins to a sub-market deal (and away from division rival Los Angeles), bringing in Ryan Garko for cheap when the Giants non-tendered him*, turning Carlos Silva's whopper contract into the solid (albeit slightly unstable) Milton Bradley, and bringing in Cliff Lee to give his rotation two legitimate Cy Young candidates.
However, the Mariners' offense is a massive question mark, as it should be: Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system projects the M's to score 727 runs, and the fewest in the league. Can a team win with a 3-4-5 of Bradley, Jose Lopez, and Ken Griffey Jr.?
*edit - Ryan Garko was waived by Seattle after this article was written.
Can the Yankees' Core Continue to Avoid Aging?
Derek Jeter (left), Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Alex Rodriguez. What can be said about these men that has not already been said?
Despite being ancient in baseball terms (all over age 35, except Rodriguez, who will be 34 in 2010), they continue to plug away, healthy and effective. If they can continue to do just that, the Yankees will prove once again to be a tough out.
However, if they cannot? Is this a championship team if Mark Teixeira is required to be the star instead of the "RBI man?"
Last season the aforementioned core produced a combined 22 Wins Above Replacement (a stat that calculates the number of wins a player contributed, above what a replacement level hitter, fielder, and pitcher would have done).
The Yankees also performed eight games better than their Pythagorean win-loss record (an estimate based on their runs scored and runs allowed) in 2009. Losing this production would be absolutely devastating for the Yankees, since the Red Sox and Rays are in the same division.
Will the Angels Finally Fall in the West?
Every recent season seems to spell impending doom for the Angels.
No year was this more true than before 2009, when a roster that looked overwhelmingly mediocre lost Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez. While Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver were good pitchers, it was hard to blame anyone for not being excited over a team fielding a boatload of average players.
So what did the Angels do? They won 97 games, on the strength of huge seasons from, well, everyone. Of the 11 Angels who accumulated over 300 plate appearances, only Gary Matthews Jr. recorded a sub-average OPS+ of 83, and he's gone now.
How real was this season, though? Chone Figgins is now Brandon Wood, Kendry Morales (left) and Erick Aybar look to prove 2009 was no fluke, and Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu both look to fend off time for another season.
The CHONE projections predict the Angels will lose the AL West, but then again, the Angels never seem like they're supposed to be a World Series contender. Can they do it again?
Who Will Close in the Twin Cities?
It was a good offseason in Minnesota, as the Twins shored up their middle infield with the acquisitions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson and added Jim Thome's bat to the mix.
Oh yeah, they also re-signed some guy you might have heard of: Joe Mauer.
The Twins looked primed to run away with the AL Central...until the arm of Joe Nathan (left) decided to go south for 2010.
With their closer out for the year, the Twins were left scrambling for a relief ace, and temporarily settled on promoting Matt Guerrier. However, considering his a career strikeouts-per-nine-innings average is just 6.0, and he has a 4.48 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible).
You can't believe a contender would settle on this for long.
Where else can Minnesota look? The Twins' best active reliever is most likely Pat Neshek, who has posted impressive numbers in a short career (10.59 K/9, 3.84 K/BB, 3.43 FIP). However, Neshek comes with baggage of his own, as he missed most of 2008 and all of 2009 after Tommy John surgery.
There is no doubt that a return to form means the closer job for Neshek, but if not, do the Twins go shopping for a player like the Padres' Heath Bell?
Will the Rangers' Pitching Improve?
If you combined the 2008 Rangers' offense with the 2009 Rangers' pitching and defense, you would have had a 95-win World Series contender.
Unfortunately for Texas, that's not how baseball works.
The 2009 Rangers were fantastically improved in the run prevention department, as their pitchers went from a combined ERA+ of 83 to 106, led by major steps forward by Scott Feldman (left) and Tommy Hunter, and big seasons by Kevin Millwood and C.J. Wilson.
This season the Rangers' staff will make or break the team.
Can Rich Harden remain healthy enough to contribute like a No. 1 starter? Will Feldman continue to improve? How will Wilson react to his move to the rotation? How will Colby Lewis fare upon his return from Japan? Will Neftali Feliz make an impact in the rotation as the season wears on?
Where Will Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford Finish 2010?
The Rays are in an interesting position.
On one hand, they easily have the talent to win 90-plus games, with the likes of Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford (left), B.J. Upton, and Carlos Pena.
On the other hand, they could be major sellers, with two of their best players (Crawford and Pena) both nearing the end of their time in Tampa. Both will likely be too expensive for the team, and Crawford, given the presence of prospect Desmond Jennings and the Yankees' open desire for the Rays' left fielder, is almost sure to be a goner.
So how will the Rays attack this season? How long will it be before the team goes from contender to seller? Or will the team sell? Can the Rays afford to risk getting nothing but compensation picks for these two stars? And of course, who could the potential buyers be?
Will the steady bat of Pena attract the Rangers or Mariners, who see significant holes at first base? Would a team like the White Sox or Reds pounce on a player like Crawford if they find themselves in contention in August?
Is It Matt Wieters' Time to Shine?
It is hard to generate enough hype for a player who was Baseball America's No. 1 prospect in 2009, and who posted a combined .355/.454/.600 line in both A+ and AA ball in his one full minor league season as a catcher.
(Albert Pujols, albeit two years younger and spending some time in AAA, went .314/.378/.543 in his only full minor league season).
Baltimore's Matt Wieters has the makings, and the minor league resume, of a sensation, a player who can become the sorely needed poster boy for a team that has lacked one since Cal Ripken Jr. retired.
Wieters' 2009 campaign was somewhat disappointing to some, since he recorded a 97 OPS+ and failed to record a Rookie of the Year vote.
In 2010, CHONE projects him to hit .289/.355/.460, with 15 HRs in 488 plate appearances, which would have been good for 7th in OPS among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
While there is no shame in holding company with Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks (a very good player), will Wieters be able to take that extra step beyond what the computer spits out and enter the upper echelon of catchers and players?
Who Emerges From the AL Central?
Ask most people what the weakest division in the American League is, and most will say it is hands down the Central.
Why should it not be? Every team is uniquely flawed, and none of them screams 90-game winner.
The Twins, even with their bullpen issues, seem to be the popular pick.
Can Gordon Beckham (left) and the White Sox muster enough offense to compliment their effective pitching? Can the Indians, overlooked but with quality players like Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Fausto Carmona, and Justin Masterson, sneak up on the division? Can the new-look Tigers surpass expectation?
I doubt we will know in this division until the season is over.
Will Adrian Gonzalez Factor Into the AL Race?
There was no escaping Adrian Gonzalez trade rumors in the offseason. Not for a man with an OPS+ of 166 in 2009, who slugged .643 away from the dungeon known as PETCO Park and accumulated 6.4 Wins Above Replacement, all while being held under one of the most team-friendly contracts in Major League Baseball.
However, the Padres are not in position to compete in 2010, and most if not all people will be stunned if Gonzalez signs with someone for less than $140 million after 2011.
So of course you do what any team would do in the Padres' spot: You field offers. The American League features many teams that would likely factor into Gonzalez trade rumors.
Would the Red Sox go after the big bat their fan base pines for, and would they be able to rearrange their corner infield roster glut? Would the White Sox deal Gordon Beckham for Gonzalez straight up?
Would the Mariners or Rangers factor into discussions if they find themselves in position for the playoffs at the end of July, given their notable holes at first base?
Will another team jump in from nowhere to surprise us? Will Gonzalez stay put in San Diego? And of course, how would the presence of Gonzalez change the complexion of the AL pennant race?
Can Ben Sheets Return to Form?
Never shy about giving one-year contracts to risky, high-upside investments, A's GM Billy Beane made his splash on the AL West race by signing the excellent but highly injury-prone Ben Sheets to fill out his very good rotation.
At $10 million, with an additional $2 million of incentives, Sheets is pegged to be the veteran force of a rotation with highly valued 22-year-olds in Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, and 26-year-old Dallas Braden (not to mention players like Vin Mazzaro and Gio Gonzalez).
Can Sheets, after a year away from baseball, stay healthy? After his outstanding 2004 season, in which he recorded a 2.65 FIP in 237 innings (good for a 8.0 WAR), he declined, failing to reach 160 innings again until 2008, when he still recorded 4.4 WAR.
So what can Oakland expect from Sheets? His ZiPS projection is not very shiny, projecting just a 4.32 ERA and 4.25 FIP in 116.2 innings.
A healthy, fully effective Sheets can almost single-handedly turn the tide of this extremely competitive division to the Athletics' favor. As a baseball fan, I hope Sheets can regain his form and pitch well.