After looking at the National League yesterday, here is a look at the junior circuit, the American League.
West (Division Rank: 4)
1. Texas Rangers (91-72, 2nd, lost to TB in AL Tiebreaker)
The Rangers have been among the best teams in the AL for the last few years, winning 87 games or more each of the last five seasons. But after falling one win short of the playoffs, the front office went to work, making this team even better. Ian Kinsler was traded to Detroit in exchange for Prince Fielder, who joins Adrian Beltre and Alex Rios as the leaders of a lineup led off by free agent Shin-Soo Choo. While the bench is a bit light, an excellent pitching staff makes up for it. Injuries are hurting the rotation early, but Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, and Derek Holland will all be back. Closer Joakim Soria and all-star Tanner Scheppers anchor the bullpen. Some won’t pick this team, due to a couple of holes, but they may also be the hungriest team in baseball after the way last season ended.
2. Oakland Athletics (96-66, 1st, lost to DET in AL Division Series)
The A’s have won the West in back-to-back seasons, and had a busy offseason as they try to keep that streak intact. After losing some key pieces to free agency, the team traded for closer Jim Johnson and reliever Luke Gregerson and signed starter Scott Kazmir. The bullpen also includes solid arms in Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Jesse Chavez, while the rotation features talented young guns Sonny Gray and Jarrod Parker. The lineup only has one potential superstar in Yoenis Cespedes, but has a solid core of Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Jed Lowrie, Brandon Moss, and Josh Reddick. This team should compete for another division title, and take home one of the AL Wild Card bids.
3. Los Angeles Angels (78-84, 3rd)
It’s been two years since Albert Pujols moved west, and a year since Josh Hamilton joined him, and yet the Angels are still looking for their first playoff berth since 2009. Offense isn’t the issue here. In addition to Pujols and Hamilton, the Angels have Mike Trout, who is on pace after two seasons to be an all-time great. Howie Kendrick and Raul Ibanez could also hit well, behind the excellent trio. Pitching will be the issue. Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson top off the rotation, but while Wilson was stellar in 2013, Weaver continues to battle injuries as age begins to show itself, even at 32. The rest of the rotation, and much of the bullpen, lacks experience, while those in the bullpen who have experience also have bad medical histories. Ernesto Frieri and Joe Smith are the exceptions, and should be solid in relief. This team will score a lot of runs, but will give up a lot too, and will likely be stuck in mediocrity again.
4. Seattle Mariners (71-91, 4th)
The Mariners made an offseason splash signing Robinson Cano to a $240 million contract, but he isn’t the only good player on a team looking for their first winning record in five seasons. Corey Hart also signed a free agent deal with the team, and gives Seattle a solid 1-2 punch. Hot-and-cold hitter Justin Smoak is a key piece when he’s playing well, as is top youngster Dustin Ackley and newly acquired Logan Morrison. Behind this lineup is a solid bench, including veterans Willie Bloomquist and Franklin Gutierrez. The rotation is led by former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who will return from injury in the near future. Management is high on the three prospects filling out the rotation, although they do lack experience. The bullpen is good, but not great, led by closer Danny Farquhar. This team will be relatively competitive, and should improve on last year’s win total, although they still appear a couple years away from playoff contention.
5. Houston Astros (51-111, 5th)
When your highest win total in the last three seasons is 56, it can’t possibly get any worse. Unfortunately, that is the situation the Astros are in right now. The front office did some work to improve this team in the offseason, although they are still a young bunch. Dexter Fowler comes from Colorado to leadoff, ahead of players with all-star potential such as Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Chris Carter, and Brett Wallace. Jesus Guzman comes over from the Padres to add a little depth on the bench. Scott Feldman signs with the team after splitting time with the Cubs and Orioles last year, and joins prospects Jarred Cozart and Brett Oberholtzer atop the rotation. Chad Qualls comes over from Miami, and will split time closing games with Matt Albers and Josh Fields, with veteran setup man Jesse Crain returning soon from injury. Like the Mariners, there are some good young players mixed in with a few veterans on this roster, but they aren’t quite there yet.
Central (Division Rank: 5)
1. Detroit Tigers (93-69, 1st, lost to BOS in AL Championship Series)
The defending AL Central champions lost the ALCS to the Red Sox after coming within six outs of a 2-0 series lead. While they lose manager Jim Leyland to retirement, Brad Ausmus should be more than capable of continuing the franchise’s success. In spring training, the team locked up two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera to an eight year deal, and he returns to playing first base after the trade of Prince Fielder. The Tigers got Ian Kinsler in that deal, and he joins perennial all-stars Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter in the lineup. The team also traded for Alex Gonzalez near the end of spring training after the injury of Jose Iglesias. Don Kelly and Rajai Davis would start almost anywhere else, and provide a quality bench. Arguably the best rotation in baseball features defending AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez. The only question is the bullpen, which added closer Joe Nathan and former Yankee Joba Chamberlain in addition to keeping most of the pieces from last year. This is a very good, complete team, which is why I’ve picked them to win not only the AL Central, but the AL pennant.
2. Cleveland Indians (92-70, 2nd, lost to TB in AL Wild Card Game)
The Indians were last year’s surprise team, as manager Terry Francona took the team from 68 wins in 2012 to the AL Wild Card game. Not much has changed on the Indians roster, although David Murphy joins the lineup from the Rangers. He joins Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Asdrubal Cabrera in a lineup which has no superstars but is overall a very solid unit. 43-year old Jason Giambi anchors a very good bench, which also includes Ryan Raburn. Justin Masterson leads the rotation ahead of a young group including Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, and Corey Kluber. Former Cardinal John Axford will close, leading a good and underrated bullpen, which includes Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Marc Rzepczynski. I expect this team to contend for the division title, as they did a year ago, but fall short of the postseason, in part due to a lack of offseason moves.
3. Kansas City Royals (86-76, 3rd)
The 2013 edition of the Royals notched their first winning campaign since 2003 and came very close to their first playoff appearance since 1985. Like the Indians, the Royals roster is still very similar to last year. One addition is the consistent Omar Infante, an excellent addition at second base. He joins Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon in a lineup that isn’t overwhelming but is efficient. Danny Valencia and Jarrod Dyson are nice reserve pieces for Ned Yost off the bench. Pitching is the key to the Royals success, led by James Shields, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and Bruce Chen in the rotation. Closer Greg Holland gave up just 40 hits in 67 innings last year, and is joined in the bullpen by solid options Luke Hochevar and Tim Collins. Like a lot of teams picked in third, this is a good team that simply has two better teams ahead of them.
4. Chicago White Sox (63-99, 5th)
Last year the ChiSox fell from a division contender the previous two seasons to a 63-win team that was, at times, uncompetitive. Unfortunately, not much was done in the offseason to improve the roster for Robin Ventura’s team. Chris Sale is a Cy Young contender, and is joined in the rotation by Jose Quintana, but has little help. The biggest name remaining is John Danks, who struggled last year in a comeback from shoulder surgery. Matt Lindstrom will close, and is joined by Nate Jones and veterans Scott Downs and Ronald Belisario in an otherwise very young bullpen. Adam Dunn and Cuban defector Jose Abreu provide the biggest power threats in the lineup, while Adam Eaton and Alexei Ramirez prove to be solid options but can struggle at times. Paul Konerko will retire at season’s end, and will mostly come off the bench this year, as will Jeff Keppinger. This team has some talent, but it is too similar to last year’s team to believe it will be competitive.
5. Minnesota Twins (66-96, 4th)
After Ron Gardenhire opened his tenure with eight winning seasons in nine years, the Twins have failed to win more than 66 games each of the last three years. While they may improve some from that, getting back to a winning record will be an uphill battle for this team. They did make some offseason improvements, particularly to a rotation that was last in ERA last year. Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes join the team and provide an automatic 1-2 punch, ahead of Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, and Scott Diamond, making the rotation average now. Last year, the bullpen was close to average, and everyone is back from that unit including all-star closer Glen Perkins, who did well in limited save opportunities. In the lineup, Joe Mauer moves from catcher to first base in an effort to save his knees, and will be followed by Josh Willingham and re-acquired Jason Kubel, although there are holes. With the new pitchers on this team they could surprise some people, although I still think they are at least a year or two from contention.
East (Division Rank: 1)
1. Boston Red Sox (97-65, 1st, defeated STL in World Series)
The defending World Champions were active in the offseason, and while they mostly retain the same core they were able to make moves to offset the players who moved on. The lineup contains Shane Victorino, once he returns from injury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli, all returning from last year. AJ Pierzynski replaces Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher, Xander Bogaerts will now play shortstop full time, and the Sox somehow found Grady Sizemore, who had not played since 2011, to replace Jacoby Ellsbury, who left for the Yankees. The same rotation of Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront returns. The bullpen, anchored by Cy Young-worthy closer Koji Uehara, remains mostly the same but adds Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica. This is, once again, a very strong team, who won’t be falling off the radar for at least a few more years.
2. New York Yankees (85-77, tied for 3rd)
The Yankees hit the free agency market big time over the offseason after missing the playoffs in 2013, and if their goal was to produce baseball’s best lineup, they may have done just that. Derek Jeter will be the headliner as he plays his final season, and returns alongside Mark Teixiera, Brett Gardner, and Alphonso Soriano. Adding to that stellar group, the Yanks signed Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kelly Johnson, and Brian Roberts. The bench may be the strongest in baseball as well, as there are players good enough to start elsewhere who can’t fit into the lineup, most notably including Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells. And this is, by the way, with Alex Rodriguez suspended for the season. Whether or not the pitching staff produces will determine how good a season the Yankees have. CC Sabathia is beginning to show his age, even at 33, and has Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova behind him. A boost will come from “rookie” Masahiro Tanaka, playing his first season in MLB after seven seasons in Japan. Closer David Robertson has big shoes to fill, taking the place of Mariano Rivera, and anchors an otherwise weak bullpen, although they did sign Matt Thornton to help in that area. This team will put up a lot of runs, and I think the pitching staff, although they will struggle, will still be good enough to get the Yankees a Wild Card spot and a return to October.
3. Tampa Bay Rays (92-71, 2nd, lost to BOS in AL Division Series)
Many have picked the Rays to win the East, and they have a legitimate argument. This is a very good team, which happens to be picked behind two other very good teams. A very good rotation is anchored by the dependable David Price, a perennial Cy Young candidate, and also includes Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jeremy Hellickson, although Hellickson is out until late May. Grant Balfour and Heath Bell both come east, with Balfour expected to close and Bell expected to pitch the eighth. Behind that pair, and Joel Peralta, the bullpen is a big question mark after losing pieces like Fernando Rodney and Jamey Wright. Evan Longoria leads a good lineup, along with Desmond Jennings, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist, James Loney, and Wil Myers, who will improve in his sophomore season. Utility man Sean Rodriguez is the highlight of an average bench. This team will be competitive, and only has a couple of holes, but will fall behind just enough to miss postseason play.
4. Baltimore Orioles (85-77, tied for 3rd)
Baltimore returned to the playoffs in 2012, and came close again in 2013, only to fall just short. A powerful lineup returns its core of Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters, in addition to sophomore sensation Manny Machado and consistent veteran J.J. Hardy. Nick Markakis and late signee Nelson Cruz add two terrific options at the corner outfield spots, as Cruz tries to regain his reputation after last year’s drug suspension. The rotation doesn’t necessarily have any big names, but is a decent unit, with Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. The bullpen should be decent as well, but the question exists how good it will be. Tommy Hunter will close, and will be set up by Darren O’Day, while the rest of the bullpen has good potential but is relatively inexperienced. Being in the east will hurt the O’s, who would be picked third in any other division but are fourth in this one.
5. Toronto Blue Jays (74-88, 5th)
The Jays were picked by some, including me, to win the tough East Division last year, after a big offseason. Instead, they couldn’t gain any momentum and ended up 14 games under .500. While this roster is still pretty good on paper, they didn’t make any major offseason moves and are still stuck in the toughest division in baseball. Toronto boasts a very powerful lineup, with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Melky Cabrera, and also includes solid leadoff man Jose Reyes, once he returns soon from injury. Each member of the bench has some experience, but the overall unit is a bit below average. R.A. Dickey, Mark Buerhle, Brandon Morrow, and J.A. Happ anchor a decent rotation, although last year they were inconsistent. A competent bullpen includes closer Casey Janssen and setup options Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar, and Brett Cecil. This is by no means a bad team, they’ve just been dealt a bad hand having to play 76 games against the AL East.
1. Oakland Athletics
2. New York Yankees
Championship Series: Tigers def. Red Sox
Division Series: Tigers def. Athletics, Red Sox def. Rangers
Wild Card: Athletics def. Yankees
Yesterday, I picked the Cardinals to win the NL, so here is my World Series pick, in a rematch of the 2006 Fall Classic:
World Series: Cardinals def. Tigers