After looking at the National League on Saturday, here’s a look at how the American League should stack up for 2015:
1. Boston Red Sox (Last Year: 71-91, 5th in AL East)
The Red Sox over the last three years have gone worst-to-first-to-worst, winning the 2013 World Series in the process, and they have placed themselves in good position to get back to first again in 2015. The only major loss from last year is Yoenis Cespedes (who only played the second half for them anyway), who was traded to the Tigers for Rick Porcello. Porcello is joined by Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Wade Miley, and Joe Kelly to form a rotation without a strong top-end, but with five middle rotation-types, meaning they should, at worst, be average. That should be good enough, as the offense will be far above average, featuring free agent signees Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, and returning players David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, and Dustin Pedroia. This organization had a rough year last year but, again, won the World Series just two years ago. They have the roster to be back playing baseball deep into October.
2. Toronto Blue Jays (83-79, 3rd)
Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays, who are looking for their first playoff appearance since their 1993 World Series title, will not have trouble scoring runs. The middle of the order, led by Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and newly acquired Josh Donaldson, is among the best collection of power hitters in baseball, with Jose Reyes and free agent signing Russell Martin supporting the heart of the order. With that lineup, the only thing keeping this team from being the favorites in the East is their pitching staff, which can be called average. The rotation is led by Drew Hutchinson, former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, and five-time All-Star Mark Buehrle. The bullpen will have its ups and downs, with no big names but some solid players behind closer Brett Cecil. It’s been 22 years since the Blue Jays have played in the postseason, and they have a shot to at least contend to end that drought.
3. Baltimore Orioles (96-66, 1st, lost to Royals in ALCS)
Last year, the Orioles reached the playoffs for the second time in three years, and advanced to the ALCS for the first time since 1997. This team has mostly the same personnel as that one, but a couple glaring exceptions cause them to not be picked to repeat that success. The pitching staff remains mainly unchanged, with a rotation which lacks a true ace but is good top to bottom, including Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris. Zach Britton, Darren O’Day, and Tommy Hunter lead a good bullpen, although the loss of southpaw Andrew Miller to the Yankees in free agency will hurt. The lineup retains key pieces Chris Davis, Steve Pearce, Adam Jones, Alejandro De Aza, and Manny Machado. So why is this team not projected to win the division they ran away with last year? The losses of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis in free agency. Markakis was a good piece for the top of the order, and Cruz, in the middle of the order, was absolutely the catalyst for their success, which will be hard to duplicate without these two leaders.
4. New York Yankees (84-78, 2nd)
As always, the Yankees have a roster full of big names. However, many of these names are past their prime, or have become injury-prone. The Yankee lineup is spearheaded by Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Brett Gardner, and Mark Teixiera, a nice foursome to have in the lineup based on experience, but with an average age of 33 (McCann at 31 is the youngest). Another veteran, Alex Rodriguez, returns from his PED suspension in the year he will turn 40. The Yanks offense didn’t really get any younger this offseason, even with the loss of Derek Jeter to retirement. If the rotation’s top three of Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, and Michael Pineda can stay healthy the pitching staff can be decent, but the health of all three is a question mark. The bullpen should be about the same as last year, losing David Robertson, but signing Andrew Miller and trading for David Carpenter. This team could be decently good if they stay healthy, but the odds of that are relatively slim due to the team’s increasing age.
5. Tampa Bay Rays (77-85, 4th)
The Rays didn’t have a quiet offseason, but their many moves didn’t necessarily improve their roster either. While they added Asdrubal Cabrera and Ernesto Frieri in free agency, and traded for Kevin Jepsen, Rene Rivera, and Steven Souza, they also traded away Ryan Hanigan, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Joyce, Will Myers, Joel Peralta, and Sean Rodriguez. All of those players were key pieces for the Rays a year ago, and many were key pieces for the 2013 team which won the AL Wild Card Game. Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, and James Loney remain from last year’s lineup, while Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Drew Smyly lead a decent rotation (although the latter two are injured), and veteran Grant Balfour leads the bullpen, but this team was 19 games behind Baltimore a year ago, and since they didn’t necessarily get better over the winter, and have a first-time manager, it could be a long year on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
1. Kansas City Royals (Last Year: 89-73, 2nd in AL Central, lost to Giants in World Series)
A year ago, the Royals ended 29 years of frustration by reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1985, and came one game away from winning it all in the process. While the roster isn’t identical to last year’s American League champions, it is pretty similar, and the players who left were, for the most part, replaced. Outfielder Nori Aoki is replaced by Alex Rios, DH Billy Butler is replaced by Kendrys Morales, and while Edinson Volquez doesn’t quite replace starter James Shields, the rest of the young pitching staff, particularly Yordano Ventura, is a year older, making up for the difference. That includes the best bullpen in baseball, with the 1-2-3 punch of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, who make the team nearly unbeatable when leading after six innings. While the lineup doesn’t have anyone with overwhelming stats, players such as Eric Hosmer, Mitch Moustakas, Alex Gordon, and Lorenzo Cain seem to have a certain “it” factor, particularly in big situations. There is a lot to like about this team, and after not playing in the postseason for 29 years, they could very easily play in it for two years in a row.
2. Detroit Tigers (90-72, 1st, lost to Orioles in ALDS)
The Tigers have won four straight division titles in the AL Central, including last year in manager Brad Ausmus’s first year at the helm, but that streak may not stay alive this year. Why? It isn’t their lineup, which is one of the best in baseball with the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and Ian Kinsler, and only got better with the acquisition of slugger Yoenis Cespedes. It is the pitching staff, and especially the bullpen. While the rotation had a bit of a drop-off with the loss of Max Scherzer to free agency and Rick Porcello to trade, trading for Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon in the process, it still is above average with David Price, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez at the top. But the bullpen, which collectively had a 4.29 ERA last year and was horrendously bad in the playoffs, lost Phil Coke, one of its better members, to free agency, and didn’t add anyone to try to aid the problem. Unfortunately, no lead will be safe for the Tigers until this is fixed, and the games the bullpen may cost them enough games to cost them the division.
3. Cleveland Indians (85-77, 3rd)
The Indians are a hot pick to win the Central, and perhaps more, but I’m not so quick to make them the favorites in this division. While the team did play well in the second half of last year, they didn’t improve much on a roster that finished five games back in third place in the strong Central division that is just as strong this year. Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and Yan Gomes return to an offense that was either right on the league average or very close to it in every major stat category last year, although the offense does add newly acquired Brandon Moss. Defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber leads a strong pitching staff that also includes Carlos Carrasco and three other strong young pitchers. Cody Allen will close games, leading a bullpen that had a strong 3.12 ERA last season. While this team is good, it isn’t that much better than last year’s team, and there are some very strong teams in the American League, and in the Central. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m wrong on this one.
4. Chicago White Sox (73-89, 4th)
The ChiSox made one of the biggest offseason splashes, and will be much better than they’ve been over the last two seasons in which they’ve averaged 68 wins. The only major loss the team had over the winter was Paul Konerko, who retired. The team traded for ace Jeff Samardzija and bullpen piece Dan Jennings, and signed pitchers David Robertson and Zach Duke, slugger Adam LaRoche, and outfielder Melky Cabrera. This group joins returning players Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Avisail Garcia, and Adam Eaton in the lineup, and Chris Sale and Jose Quintana in the rotation. The only thing that could be a problem for this team is their depth, an issue in such a good division which has four teams capable of winning it. This team is very close to being good, and if they get ahead of schedule can even be good this year, as they are one of the four teams that could realistically win the most wide open division in baseball.
5. Minnesota Twins (70-92, 5th)
A year ago the Twins were easily the worst team in this division, although they were within three games in the standings. This is a team that is clearly in rebuilding mode, although they did sign veterans Torii Hunter and Ervin Santana in the offseason. Santana, though, was suspended 80 games for the use of PED’s. Beyond those players, however, and returning veterans Kurt Suzuki, Brian Dozier, and Joe Mauer (though Mauer is very injury prone), there is very little depth on this team in the form of proven major league players. One strength is a decent rotation, even without Santana, led by Phil Hughes, with Ricky Nolasco and Tommy Milone. The bullpen, behind closer Glen Perkins, is a collection of prospects and veteran journeyman, and could potentially be good if things go well, but more realistically won’t be that great. The lineup has more questions than answers, as fans wonder how well its veterans, mainly Mauer and Hunter, will hold up, and who will step up out of the lineup’s younger players. First year manager Paul Molitor will have a tough job in Minneapolis. This team hasn’t had a winning season since winning the Central in 2010, and expect that streak to continue.
1. Seattle Mariners (Last Year: 87-75, 3rd in AL West)
Last year the Mariners made the game’s third biggest improvement, winning 16 more games than they had in 2013, falling one game short of making the playoffs for the first time since 2001. That team saw several highly touted prospects become proven big league players, including Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, and Dustin Ackley, giving a nice supporting cast to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and company. While Corey Hart, Kendrys Morales, and Justin Smoak are among the players on that team no longer in Seattle, the team added free agents Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith, adding two very key pieces for future success. While the offense was statistically below average last year, they should be better this year with those additions, and the young players gaining another year experience. In the meantime, Hernandez leads one of the best pitching staffs in the game, with a good rotation including Hisashi Iwakuma, young guns James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, and veteran J.A. Happ. Closer Fernando Rodney joins Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar in a bullpen that had a tremendous 2.59 ERA a year ago. With a very solid mix of talented youth and experienced leaders, this team has a high ceiling. Baseball is back in Seattle.
2. Los Angeles Angels (98-64, lost to Royals in ALDS)
The Angels finally put it together in 2014, leading to the best record in baseball and their first playoff appearance since 2009. That postseason trip, however, resulted in a sweep at the hands of the Royals, leaving the Angels without a single win in the playoffs. The rotation, led by veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, but also getting big contributions from youngsters Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker, was a key to the team’s success, as was the bullpen, led by closer Huston Street and setup man Joe Smith. That staff remains mainly intact, losing only Jason Grilli and Kevin Jepsen and relying on stout prospects in the bullpen. The biggest key for the Angels, however, is one of the best offenses in baseball. AL MVP Mike Trout is joined in the heart of the order by Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and although the team lost Howie Kendrick in a trade, Matt Joyce, acquired in a different trade, should fill that spot nicely near the top of the order, alongside Kole Calhoun. This team is very similar to last year’s squad, and while that type of regular season success can be difficult to replicate, the Halos should find themselves in the postseason again come October, even if it is as a Wild Card (as they are picked here).
3. Oakland Athletics (88-74, lost to Royals in AL Wild Card Game)
A year ago, for the first two-thirds of the season, the A’s were the class of baseball, but sputtered down the stretch, losing the division to the Angels, and the Wild Card Game to the Royals. This year’s Athletics roster doesn’t look much like that team from last year, but it isn’t necessarily because the offseason moves that were made improved the roster, as they don’t appear to be as good as they were in 2014. The list of departures seems endless, with lineup pieces Josh Donaldson, Jonny Gomes, Jed Lowrie, Brandon Moss, and Derek Norris gone, along with pitchers Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Luke Gregerson. The team does add Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Ben Zobrist, and Brett Lawrie, among others, to a lineup which retains Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick, although both start the season on the disabled list. Oakland has a good young rotation featuring Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Hahn, and Drew Pomeranz, although that may be a letdown after last year’s very strong rotation. Tyler Clippard will close games, joined by Jesse Chavez, Dan Otero, Fernando Abad, and Eric O’Flaherty in the bullpen. This team is decent, but that won’t get it done in this division behind the top two, particularly if the chemistry of this group that has never played together becomes any kind of issue.
4. Houston Astros (70-92, 4th)
Last year the Astros improved from 51 wins in 2013 to 70, as they continue their lengthy rebuilding process. Despite the record, which was still 22 games below .500, there were positives in the play of some of the team’s many prospects who should be pivotal players for years to come. These include pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, outfielder George Springer, first baseman Chris Carter, and catcher Jason Castro. Proven big leaguers Dexter Fowler, in center field, Scott Feldman, in the rotation, and Chad Qualls, in the bullpen, helped provide the team with veteran leadership. And, of course, second baseman Jose Altuve surprised everyone and won the American League batting title with a .341 average. Relief pitcher Jose Veras was the only key player the team lost this offseason, while they were able to use trades and free agency to improve their roster. Evan Gattis was acquired from the Braves, and infielder Jed Lowrie and relivers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson signed with the club, adding more of a veteran presence. If things go right, this team can flirt with .500, something that is a big deal for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning record since 2008, as they get set to make an extended run for division titles over the next decade.
5. Texas Rangers (67-95, 5th)
Last year, I picked the Rangers to win the AL West (yes, I’m man enough to admit it). Once the season started, if it could go wrong, it did for the Rangers, leading to their last place finish, 28 games under .500 and 31 games behind the Angels. Practically everyone got hurt, and the ones who did manage to stay healthy didn’t produce as expected. This year might not be much better. Alex Rios and Alexi Ogando left in free agency. Starter Martin Perez is still out from his 2014 Tommy John surgery until May, Tanner Scheppers and Kyuji Fujikawa are out temporarily, and ace pitcher Yu Darvish will miss the entire 2015 season after Tommy John Surgery. The rest of the rotation features newly acquired Yovani Gallardo, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Ross Detwiler, also traded for. Behind Neftali Feliz, the bullpen isn’t great right now, although two of their key pieces are currently hurt, but not for too long. The lineup features a nice middle of the order trio of Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, and Mitch Moreland, with Shin-Soo Choo and Elvus Andrus at the top, and one of baseball’s best prospects Rougned Odor, developing down in the bottom third. That lineup, however, proved last year it was injury prone, and there’s no reason to believe history won’t repeat itself with the same principles involved. It could be a long year in Texas, or a long few, since many of their injury-riddled stars are signed for a while.
Narrowly Missing Out: Blue Jays, Orioles, Indians, Yankees, White Sox, Athletics
Wild Card: Angels def. Tigers
Division Series: Mariners def. Angels, Royals def. Red Sox
Championship Series: Royals def. Mariners
World Series: Cardinals def. Royals
Note: In the National League Preview post, I picked the San Diego Padres to finish third in the NL West. Since, they have acquired Melvin Upton and Craig Kimbrel from the Atlanta Braves for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, and prospects. That acquisition moves them, in my opinion, into the second spot in the NL West, and a Wild Card spot in the NL Playoffs, as I now have them projected to lose the Wild Card game to the Pirates, who will then lose the NLDS to the Nationals.