Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLB American League preview — a year of surprises


Early last November, sadly, the baseball world was put back on its axis. To conclude a decade featuring a different World Series winner every year, the team that dominated the last half of the previous decade, the team with — easily — Major League Baseball's highest payroll, the damn Yankees won the World Series.


Sorry, Yankees fans, but baseball isn't as fun when your team dominates, it doesn't have that shock factor, that feel-good-story factor. It's, simply, too logical. It's like a man with the most degrees getting the job over the harder-working man (no, I'm not implying that the Yanks didn't earn their title — they worked as hard as any team over the past decade).

And now the Yankees return with all that talent, plus some next acquisitions. So what's to keep them from repeating their feat, from starting another streak of boring, numbing blindness? I can't state a whole lot of statistical evidence, but I've got a feeling that playing in a super competitive division, New York won't have an easy go of it.

That, sports fans, will be a theme of this 2010 season, especially in the American League — competitiveness among three or even four teams in each division. Nothing will come easily. Pennant races will come down to the final weeks in September.

And that is what you have to like, have to crave, have to hope for as you read my always tenuous predictions:

1. Tampa Bay Rays (93-69): During an injury-plagued year in the division, the Rays have the most depth to withstand such setbacks and a solid corps of young pitchers. They won't wow you, won't be on national TV 483 times, but with everyone back from a year ago, expect a stellar season out of Joe Maddon's bunch.

*2. Boston Red Sox (92-70): Yep, that's right — the Sox will beat out the Yanks for the Wild Card. With a superbly improved defense and the best 1-2-3 combo of starting pitchers in all of baseball, this group is primed for the postseason. And they won't need a lot of fireworks in the batter's box to make it happen.

3. New York Yankees (90-72): There's no real reason to expect a falloff, except if injuries occur. And that's what this guy is boldly predicting. Derek Jeter won't have close to the season he had a year ago. Curtis Granderson is a good pickup, but he still can't hit lefties. And at least one pitcher in a thin rotation — who's left to fill in? Joba's in the pen — will go down for a long period.

4. Baltimore Orioles (70-92): The talent is starting to form in Baltimore, and in a couple years the Orioles could be a formidable team. But in this division? In this year? Forget about it. Nick Markakis and Adam Jones will provide fans with some glimpses of the bright future. But by August, the Ravens will be grabbing the city's headlines.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (67-95): Sadly, this team is going to be really bad for a while. It was the right move to trade Best Pitcher in Baseball Roy Halladay, and the prospects the Jays received will likely contribute down the road. But not this year. And if you can name one player in Toronto's lineup that scares you, I'll call you a wimp and buy you a chicken caesar salad!

1. Minnesota Twins (89-73): This division, like always, will come down to the final weekend. There will be heavy breathing, the Royals will create some havoc despite having nothing to play for. And as has happened three of the past six years, the always-consistent Twins will persevere. The only obstacle? Doing it sans rock-solid closer Joe Nathan, who is out for the year. At least ninth innings will be a little more unpredictable this season.

2. Detroit Tigers (86-76): I'm not sure what to think of my hometown Tigers. Bottom line — they're a team that could be really good or, potentially, really bad. For one thing, how will rookies Austin Jackson (CF) and Scott Sizemore (2B) perform in place of Granderson and Placido Polanco, respectively? Secondly, what will happen with the pitching rotation? There are trillions of question marks. I'm guessing they'll be good, not great.

3. Chicago White Sox (85-77): The White Sox will be the second-best pitching team in the AL behind the Red Sox. They, also, won't score many runs. Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle will provide a pretty damn capable 1-2 punch at the front of their rotation, and the rest of their pitchers are solid. But when Juan Pierre is leading off these days, that's not a good thing.

4. Kansas City Royals (71-91): Well, Zack Greinke's good for 20 wins, right? He won 16 a year ago, and now the talk is that he'll be even better since he found his changeup late last season. Watch out, opposing hitters. As for the rest of the Royals? Um, yawn. Billy Butler will hit a lot of home runs and doubles, and also strike out a lot. And ... name me another regular player. The team lost the most games of any during the 2000s. This decade won't start off much better.

5. Cleveland Indians (69-93): Oh, how the Indians have fallen. Remember when we were talking about all the pieces they had in place for a decade of contending? CC, Fausto, Cliff, Grady, Travis? Yeah, that was just two years ago! They made the ALCS in '07, but since then have been awful. CC's gone. So is Cliff. And Fausto spent two months last year in the minors. Travis is mediocre, and no one considers Grady so unbelievable anymore.

1. Seattle Mariners (92-70): I'm telling you, East Coast peeps, it will be worth staying up late and watching the AL West this season, because it'll be just as competitive and just as good as the AL East. So set aside the EC Bias and check out a team such as the Mariners, who will feature possibly the best 1-2 pitching punch in the majors in Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee, not to mention a stellar defense. They won't give up more then three runs a game.

2. Texas Rangers (89-73): This squad will be just as fun to watch, thanks to speedy youngsters Julio Borbon and Elvis Andrus. Add in a rejuvenated and healthy Josh Hamilton and a ready-to-prove-people-I'm-not-over-the-hill Vladimir Guerrero — plus an underrated pitching staff bolstered by acquisition Rich Harden — and they'll be in contention until the end.

3. Los Angeles Angles (88-74): It's hard to pick against the Angels, since they've been the Atlanta Braves of the American League, simply winning the division every year even as their division comrades bulk up their rosters. But they did close to nothing to improve during the offseason and lost Chone Figgins to the M's and Guerrero to the Rangers. This September, they'll feel the pressure for the first time in a while and just fall short.

4. Oakland Athletics (72-90): This squad will be improved — that is, if Ben Sheets can actually stay healthy. I can't remember the last time the recently acquired $10-million man pitched a game. Their lineup still reeks of a lack of everything, even if Coco Crisp can spice things up a bit. They'll remain an above-average pitching team, but there'll be a lack of excitement to fill the hordes of empty seats in Oakland.

*Wild Card winner

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