With my National League Predictions already in the books, I figured I’d go the obvious route and post an American League version. Unlike in the NL where there appears to be a top strata of teams and then everyone else, the AL looks more wide open. There’s a reason I waited this long to do the AL: the more I looked at the teams, the more uncertain I felt about my picks. Sure, there are some pretty good teams, but all of them have noticeable flaws. And while the remaining teams appear sufficiently average (exceptions: Houston and Minnesota who will be horrible), the more I examined them the more I started to see faint glimmers of hope leading me to believe that, given the right circumstances and a bit of luck, most of them at least have a chance. After all, teams that finished below .500 the previous season have made a habit of crashing the playoffs lately – Baltimore and Oakland last year, Arizona and Milwaukee in 2011, Cincinnati in 2010, Colorado in 2009, and Tampa Bay and the White Sox in 2008. So while my picks here are fairly conventional, I think the flaws at the top and the glimmers in the middle make it more likely the next “surprise” team will emerge from the American League.
As in my previous entry, I will examine each division and tell you which team(s) I think will make the playoffs, highlight a lesser known hitter and pitcher in each division to keep an eye on, and then give you my picks for the major awards and the World Series at the end. Got it? Then let’s play ball!
AL WEST: Oakland A’s (Division Champs); Texas Rangers (Wild Card); Los Angeles Angels (Wild Card) – Before talking about the good teams, it’s imperative that we talk about one particularly bad team that is new to this division as well as the American League. The Houston Astros lost 107 games in 2012 while playing in the NL Central, a division that had another 100+ loss team in the Cubs and the perpetually sub-.500 Pirates. The Astros now reside in a more difficult division while also slashing their payroll from $60 million to $21 million. To put that in perspective, there are eight PLAYERS who make more individually than the entire Houston TEAM. When you take a squad that set a franchise record for losses in each of the last two seasons and pare $40M from its already low payroll, you’re setting the stage for an epically awful season (120 losses by the 1962 Mets is the number to watch). Conversely, playing nineteen games apiece against Houston gives the A’s, Angels, and Rangers a decided advantage in the playoff race over teams in the other divisions.
Offense will not be a problem for these three teams. With Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and now Josh Hamilton in the middle of their lineup, we know the Angels can hit. The Rangers won’t hit quite as well as they did due to the loss of Hamilton, but they will still score plenty of runs. Even the A’s, despite question marks at 2nd and 3rd base, should score about as frequently as they did last year with the additions of the underrated John Jaso, Jed Lowrie, and Chris Young. The real separation in this race comes on the mound where Oakland is simply better and deeper than the Angels and Rangers. Brett Anderson, now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, and a corps of improving, young pitchers will keep the score down and let the excellent role players in the bullpen finish things up. In Texas, Yu Darvish could easily prove himself a bona fide ace and I think Alexi Ogando will surprise people, but 18-game winner Matt Harrison already has back problems and the 4th and 5th starters are shaky at best; throw in an average bullpen and you can see that Texas won’t win many games on pitching alone. The worst situation is in Los Angeles where the Angels replaced starters Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana with the questionable Tommy Hanson and retreads Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas, then signed the oft-injured and still disabled Ryan Madson as the closer for an already muddled bullpen. The Angels’ offense is strong enough to outscore the opposition, but their mediocre pitching will give them headaches all season. Bottom line: the old adage that pitching wins titles holds true as Oakland pulls off a semi-surprising repeat as AL West champs. (LAST SECOND NOTE: The more I think about the Angels, the less confident I feel. I just know I’m going to regret picking them as the wild card – I should have gone with Toronto or Kansas City.)
Pitcher to watch: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers – The 26-year old from Osaka had a good rookie campaign, winning 16 games, striking out 221 batters (5th most in the AL), sporting a 3.90 ERA, and finishing 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He did, however have one big problem: walks – 89 of them to be exact. Seeing as Darvish did not have this problem during his five impressive seasons in Japan, there’s reason to believe the uptick may stem from his adjustment to the majors since he settled down in September and October to walk only seven batters in 43.1 innings. If that high walk rate proves to be a one year aberration, then Darvish could easily challenge for the AL Cy Young award.
Hitter to watch: Yoenis Cespedes, LF, Oakland A’s – Hitting .292 with 23 homers, 82 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, and an .861 OPS in your rookie season is impressive enough, but when you consider that Cespedes missed thirty games and couldn’t hit breaking balls at the beginning of 2012, you realize how much better he can get. Of course, while Cespedes is an excellent all-around player, it’s his power that really stands out. When Oakland fans saw him hit this 460 foot bomb on a chilly night last April, they knew he was special: anyone who has visited the Coliseum on a cold, blustery evening knows how rare ANY home run is in those conditions; to clang one off the second deck in the left-centerfield alley is damn near impossible, and yet that’s exactly what Cespedes did in just his third major league game. Need more proof of his power? Watch this video where he hits one out with the donut still on his bat. With a healthy season, Cespedes could hit 40+ homers and make a run at the 30-30 club.
AL CENTRAL: Detroit Tigers (Division Champs) – Out of 56 preseason predictions at CBS, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated, every single “expert” picked Detroit. It’s easy to see why: the defending AL champs have arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander, two of the best hitters in Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, an already good starting rotation that should improve with a full season from Anibal Sanchez, a strong lineup around their big guys which should improve with the return of Victor Martinez, and a manager – Jim Leyland – who knows how to navigate the postseason. All of this is 100% true and why I picked them myself, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Detroit’s Achille’s Heel: their bullpen. The Tigers’ relievers pulled themselves together during the playoffs just long enough to win the pennant, but they were also the reason Detroit only won 88 games in the regular season. This year, their former closer now toils in the minors along with his supposed successor who failed to impress in spring training, thereby leaving their major league brethren in a state of uncertainty that threatens the stability of the team. I have no doubt that the Tigers will eventually trade for a closer because their eighty-three year old owner desperately wants to win right now, but the longer they wait to fix the problem, the longer they leave the door open for an upstart to take their place.
One of those upstarts could be the Kansas City Royals. I’m not picking them for the wild card because, um, well, because of habit I guess, but the potential is there. With Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez, the Royals have a surprisingly deep and versatile lineup that could emerge as one of the better offenses in the league. KC also has several young fireballers in the bullpen who should keep other teams at bay in the late innings. The team’s problem lies in its middling starting staff – the addition of James Shields helps but the rest of the rotation leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, Kansas City looks like an improved squad and could challenge for a wild card spot; if not, they should at least finish above .500 for the first time in a decade.
Pitcher to watch: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox – In his first season as a starter, Sale went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA and 192 strikeouts. All-in-all a very successful season for the former first round pick. Many, however, are concerned by the 24-year old’s innings pitched increase from 71 IP in 2011 to 192 in 2012, a 121 inning jump. Such a large bump is indeed a concern with young pitchers, but the White Sox training staff has done a good job of keeping its hurlers healthy, including such notable injury-magnets as Francisco Liriano and Jake Peavy, so I’d give Sale a better chance than most to stay on the mound. Assuming he does, there’s every reason to believe he can repeat as an All-Star in 2013.
Hitter to watch: Billy Butler, DH/1B, Kansas City Royals – The Royals’ 27-year old has quietly turned into the best DH in the game. For years he managed to hit right around .300, but could never quite find the power stroke everyone expected. That all changed last year when some of his annual 40+ doubles turned into home runs – he finished the season with 29 as well as a career-high 107 RBIs. With an improving lineup to protect him, Butler should start to earn recognition as one of the better hitters in the game.
AL EAST: Tampa Bay Rays (Division Champs) – The year was 1993: only football had wild card teams, Barry Bonds’ cap size was still a normal 7 1/4, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would not exist for another five years. More importantly: that was the last time neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox played in the post-season. Following years of profligate spending, New York and Boston are finally entering a down cycle providing a golden opportunity for the Rays to take control of the division. They will. The name of the game in Tampa is pitching and defense. 2012 Cy Young winner David Price is the ace of the staff followed by up-and-comers Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, with Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) as adequate, if unspectacular fourth and fifth starters. Down in the pen, the Rays continue their tradition of taking castoffs from other teams and turning them into excellent role players. On defense, they combine sure-handed fielders with advanced metrics and one of the best managers in the game – Joe Maddon – to prevent as many runs as possible. That pitching/defense mix allowed 51 fewer runs than the next best AL team (Oakland) in 2012 for a Major League best 3.19 ERA – all the more impressive for an AL team that sees a designated hitter every night. On offense, the Rays are nothing special. Evan Longoria has MVP potential and Ben Zobrist is underrated, but this team is built to do just enough at the plate to give the pitching and defense a chance. But with the rest of the division either regressing (Baltimore, New York), rebuilding (Boston), or falling short (Toronto), Tampa has more than enough talent to make the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six years.
A few more words on the other teams in the East since they are all decent enough to make a playoff push:
- Baltimore – They were one of last year’s biggest surprises, winning 93 games and a wild card berth. They also went 29-9 in one-run games, the best record in such contests in 122 years. Unfortunately for the Os, repeating that feat is as difficult as those 122 years would indicate so their record will slip as they lose some of the tight contests they won last season. The offensive trio of Adam Jones, Manny Machado, and Matt Wieters will carry this squad at times, but their starting rotation is sub-par and will keep them from sustained success.
- Boston – The fallout from fried chicken and beer, toxic team chemistry, and a full season’s worth of Bobby Valentine led the Red Sox to their worst record in 47 years. Nevertheless, this team is more talented than their 69-win debacle suggests. They’re not likely to make the playoffs, but if players like Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino can regain some of their mojo and young players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and Will Middlebrooks step up, Boston could make some noise.
- New York – Injuries have really taken a toll on this team as they began the season with five starters on the disabled list. Though Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter will eventually return, this simply isn’t the same powerful lineup we’ve seen in New York over the last eighteen years. And while CC Sabathia is still pitching strong, you have to wonder how much longer the Yankees can rely on 37-year old Hiroki Kuroda and soon-to-be 41-year old Andy Pettitte (Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova were never reliable in the first place). That said, the Yankees are not devoid of talent, they’re merely losing it slowly to age and injuries, so they could contend – it’s just unlikely.
- Toronto – The Blue Jays played the offseason aggressively, acquiring Mark Buehrle, 2012 Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Melky Cabrera in the hope that they would quickly improve a 73-win team. Even though the Jays should finish closer to 90 wins than 70, my gut tells me that their starting pitchers aren’t as good as they think and the bullpen is still a disorganized mess. They could rectify this with an in-season move or three, but it probably won’t be enough to catch the Rays or a wild card spot.
Pitcher to watch: Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays – Heading into 2012, Moore was the top pitching prospect in baseball after blowing through the minors and a stellar performance in game one of the 2011 ALDS. With Rookie of the Year hype ringing in his ears, he disappointed with an 11-11 record and 3.81 ERA. Upon further examination, however, we see that his first half struggles (4.42 EA) abated and he closed strong with a 3.01 ERA, fewer walks, and a strikeout an inning over his last 14 starts. Now finally comfortable in the majors, Moore is poised to join the ranks of the pitching elite.
Hitter to watch: Adam Jones, CF, Baltimore Orioles – One of the big reasons for Baltimore’s 2012 resurgence was Jones. He spent the previous four seasons slowly refining his hitting skills and it finally came together last year with a .287 average, 32 home runs, 16 steals, and an .839 OPS. Simply put – Jones is one of the top all-around outfielders in the game and, at age 27, still has room to grow.
AL MVP: Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays
AL Cy Young: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
AL Manager of the Year: Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals
AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Wild Card: Texas over Los Angeles
ALDS: Detroit over Texas; Tampa Bay over Oakland
ALCS: Tampa Bay over Detroit
World Series: Washington over Tampa Bay