When was the last time the Junior Circuit was deemed to be inferior to the National League? While the AL is seen as the bastion of offensive baseball, the NL is stuck with the defense/pitching stigma. The AL has not lost an All-Star game since 1996 and since the infamous strike year of 1994, they have won 9 of the 15 championships. The two anchors of the league are of course the Yankees and Red Sox. One only need look at the opening game of the season this Sunday to see who gets the most attention. While the AL East gets most of the press, there should be tight races in every division this year. AL stabs in the dark after the break.
1. Yankees: Despite the fact that there is pressure on the Yankees to win every year, I think the title last year took a lot of weight off this team's back. A-Rod is pretty much as blatant and irresponsible steroid and HGH user but after smacking a home run in his first game back from hip surgery, belting one to beat the Red Sox, and finally producing in the playoffs all is forgiven. It is amazing how many people blurted out the phrase "true Yankee" in regards to him. Andy Pettitte has put his own HGH trouble behind him. Sabathia and Burnett don't have to answer questions about coming up short. Joe Girardi can flash his ring in any beat writer's face. On the field they unloaded aging Johnny Damon and picked up Curtis Granderson and seem to have the whole Hughes/Joba thing figured out. The team frontrunners love to love and haters love to hate is heading toward a triple-digit win season.
2. Rays: Speaking of confidence, there is no reason for the Rays not to view themselves as contenders again this year. They only finished two games back of the wildcard Red Sox last year. The window may be closing with Crawford and Pena reaching the end of their contracts. With the addition of Rafael Soriano as a closer this may be the most talented and experienced Tampa will be. After this season they will have to decide if they want to spend some money or become the Marlins (which is not the worst thing in the world).
3. Red Sox: Too many question marks for me to put the Sox ahead of the Rays or Yanks. There are certainly capable. What will be left of Ortiz? Even though Beltre is a defensive upgrade from Mike Lowell, will he produce at the plate? The rotation is once again strong for the Red Sox, but was the addition of Lackey enough? If Boston gets rolling, they could win the division, but they have been inconsistent over the previous two years.
4. Baltimore: There may finally be some reason for opitimism at Camden Yards. The rotation may not be that reason. Kevin Millwood will attempt to be the veteran leader, but the guy to watch is Matusz. Young arms are great but there is too much "if this guy can produce" talk. These pitchers will be facing 3 of the best offensive line-ups many times during the year, they will be tested. The lineup is solid, of course led by Jones, Markakis, Scott and the upcoming Weiters. Tejada returns but at 3B. The team should be more fun to follow for Oriole fans than in past years and right now, that is a small victory.
5. Blue Jays: The J.P. Ricardi experiment was 86'd but the biggest loss was Halladay of course. The rotation is naturally in flux and their 5th starter is listed right now as TBA. The lineup has a couple young stars in Hill and Lind but also a bunch of, "oh that guy" hitters; Overbay, Encarnacion and of course Vernon Wells. I love Cito Gaston but it is going to be a rough ride in Toronto this year.
1. Twins: This was the hardest division for me to decide on. These Twins are slightly different form the ones we have known the past few years, but I expect them to be successful like their recent incarnations. Joe Mauer has his money, helping swell the payroll to around $96 million. The early April/October games at Target Field should be lovely. Also there will be no Joe Nathan so the bullpen is up in the air at this point. The lineup is solid but even Ms. Cleo (too dated?) does not know how Lariano will do this year. I still think the Twins find a way to make the playoffs, like they often do.
2. Tigers: There was quite the coming and going of players in Detroit in the offseason. Gone are Granderson, Jackson, Polanco, Rodney, and most recently Robertson. Incoming Valverde, Jackson, Scherzer. The lineup still packs a punch with Ordonez, Guillen and Cabrera. There seems like Leyland is going to have to really work things out in the lineup and the bullpen to get the team running. It should be another close race between Detroit and Minnesota for the division.
3. White Sox: The Southside has become more about the Kenny and Ozzie show than the actual team on the field to those outside of Chicago. The heart of this team is the starting pitching. With Buehrle, Peavy, Floyd, Danks and Garcia the Sox need a lot of strong starts and long outings to be successful. Jenks is back as the closer but Putz is coming off his season-ending surgery from last year with the Mets. The lineup is not too impressive on paper but Juan Pierre, Alex Rios, and Paul Konerko have shown they can produce. Unless their hitters step it up another level it is going to be another season hovering around .500.
4. Indians: How miserable were the Indians last year? They tied the Royals for last place at 32 games under .500. No illusions for Cleveland faithful, it is time to rebuild at the Jake (no way I'm calling it Progressive Field).
5. Royals: Should be fun watching the Royals try to stay under 100 losses. No, no it won't.
1. Rangers: The Texas Rangers are my present day Gonzaga. I keep picking them to surprise people and I am then let down in the end. In a division that gives you 1 in 4 odds to win it every year, it is amazing the Angels have dominated it. But with Nolan Ryan calling out pitchers and Ron Washington doing lines who knows what can happen! The rotation is hardly fear-inspiring, with Harden not exactly an innings-eater and Harrison is coming off injury. Colby Lewis was in Japan the last few years. Julio Borbon (fantastic baseball name) is being looked to for stability at the leadoff spot. Despite the early injury to Kinsler, the 2-5 spots look juicy: Young, Hamilton, Vlad, and Kinsler.
2. Angles: Mike Scioscia gets a lot of dap and it is well deserved, but with so many changes taking places with the Angels I don't know if they can reach last year's level. No more Chone, Vlad, or Lackey. They did add Hideki but if he makes it all the way through the season healthy I will be shocked. The rotation is good, but not mind-blowing. Having Piniero and Kazmir at the back-end was a good move by the Angels.
3. Mariners: A lot of people are high on the M's this year. They could be a sleeper, but while their pitching and particularly their outfield defense is solid, where are the runs going to come from? Ichiro and new addition Chone Figgins can get on, but who will drive them home? Seattle overachieved expectations last year, and this year I think they underachieve.
4. A's: The biggest plus for Oakland is their young rotation. Ben Sheets has been added as an offseason flyer on whether he can stay healthy. Billy Beane always provides a solid bullpen as well. The lineup just does not scream offense to me. The bang ball days are dwindling away and Eric Chavez reduced to utility duties in the IF due to injuries point to where the Moneyball Oakland team stands; hobbled and soon to be a memory.
Yankees over Twins(again)
Rangers over Rays
Yankees over Rangers
Phillies over Yankees