Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Beasts of the American League

With Opening Night being a few hours away, I wanted to look at three teams that I think are the teams to beat in their respective divisions. Now obviously things like slumps, failed expectations and critical injuries have a way or derailing a team's championship dreams. But I think these three AL teams will be the pace setters of their respective divisions.

American League East
How can I go against the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East: Baseball's most competitive division. Since 2008, the Rays have made the postseason three times and lost in the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. They've averaged 90 wins a year during that stretch with a franchise high of 97 in 2008.

Led by franchise players Evan Longoria and David Price, I believe the Rays are primed for a damned good run this season. Gone are outfielder BJ Upton and starter James "Big Game" Shields but Tampa received  one of the game's top prospects in Wil Meyers in that trade who was  impressive in Spring Training and will start the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Upton's departure opens the door in center for Desmond Jennings to play in a full-time capacity. "Super" Sam Fuld will get a chance to bounce back from a disappointing 2012 and Matt Joyce will play rightfield.

The infield will be anchored by third baseman Evan Longoria and free agent signing James Loney will hold down the first base position. The middle infield will be populated by shortstop Yuniel Escobar who the Rays acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins and Ben Zobrist will play second base, as well as, every other position on the diamond at some point during the season. Jose Molina will be the man behind the plate for the Rays. Kelly Johnson will also see time at second base.

 Though the pitching staff seems to have lost a step with the trading of James Shields, by no means are they understaffed. Heading up the staff that lead the league with a .314 team ERA is the AL Cy Young Award winner David Price. Follwing Price will be Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and rounding out the rotation (for now) is Alex Cobb and Roberto Hernandez. The bullpen is solid with closer Fernando Rodney coming off an impressive display in the World Baseball Classic and Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Jeff Neiman filling in the 6th to 8th innings. 

If his pieces stay healthy, I see Joe Maddon's Rays making a full season run to the American League East Title

American League Central
The Detroit Tigers are heads and shoulders above the rest of the division and possibly are the most well rounded team in the American League. The team that made the World Series last year will only get better with the addition of Torii Hunter and the return of C/DH Victor Martinez. I believe that Hunter will provide a valuable learning resource for the ever improving Austin Jackson. Designated Hitter Martinez gives Prince Fielder some much needed protection from the 5 hole in the lineup. And I don't need to mention the reigning AL MVP. Right? Ok, moving on.

The outfield looks like it will be made up of the aforementioned Hunter and Jackson along with Andy Dirks. The infield will be anchored on the corners by All-Stars Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at third and first respectively with Jhonny Peralta at short and Omar Infante at 2nd base. The ever consistent Alex Avila will be behind the plate for the Tigers.

If the lineup was solid, the rotation is even more so. The starting five of Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello makes for a deep rotation. Add Drew Smyly to that mix and it gets even more impressive. The bullpen might be the team's weak spot since there isn't one particular player to step up and grab the closer's role. The closing will be done by committee with Phil Coke or Octavio Dotel looking to me as being the player to settle into the role.

I think the Detroit Tigers will thoroughly thrash the American League Central division giving manager Jim Leyland another chance to make it to the World Series.

American League West
One word describes the Angels offense: SCARY!!!!!!! As if a team with Albert Pujols, Mike Trumbo and AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout wasn't scary enough, Angels owner Arte Moreno goes out and plucks Josh Hamilton from division rival Texas Rangers. Add Howie Kendrick, Albert Callaspo, speedy centerfielder Peter Bourjous and franchise mainstay Erick Aybar and you have a solid lineup from top to bottom. The lineup was deemed solid enough that Kendry Morales was traded to division rival Seattle Mariners for workhorse pitcher Jason Vargas. Chris Ianneta will round up the lineup and man the rotation from behind the plate. 

Where the offense is scary, the pitching is slightly so. Not to say that a rotation headed by Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson is shoddy, but the trading away of Earvin Santana, the free agent loses of Dan Haren to Washington and Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Dodgers makes for three decent sized holes to fill. Luckily the Angels have the aforementioned Jason Vargas who put up solid numbers with the Mariners last season (12-11 4.21 ERA in 199 innings pitched with 127 K's and 52 walks for a WHIP of 1.28) and National League mainstays Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson round out the starting five. The Bullpen is a bit more dominating with fireballer Ernesto Fieri being backed up by Ryan Madson. Rounding out the bullpen are Scott Downs, Kevin Jepsen and Sean Burnett among others. 

I think this season is when the Angels set franchise records in runs scored and homeruns. If Pujols can start strong, this team will be difficult to beat.

Just a few points on the rest of the American League. In the East, I want to see how the Blue Jays play well together. As we saw with the Marlins last season, just because you put All-Star caliber players together, it doesn't guarantee that they will win games. I want to see if the Orioles are the real deal or if they were just a "flash in the pan" with their performance last season. The Yankees are injury riddled and to be honest, as much as I like to see them shift from power baseball to small ball I don't know if the pitching staff will be enough to keep them in games if runs aren't manufactured. The Red Sox are in the same boat (albeit for different reasons) as the Yankees: Both teams need to rebuild in markets where the word REBUILDING does not want to be heard.

In the American League Central the White Sox will be the team to stay somewhat close to the Tigers with the Royals, Indians and Twins all trailing the pack. The Royals will continue to improve with Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and staff ace James Shields and the newly stocked Indians of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourne need to get some pitching to accompany the new bats. The Twins specifically are looking at 2014 to be the year when they jump back into the fray.  

In the American League West, the Rangers power has been depleted with the losses of Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young. The looming free agency of Elvis Andrus might prove to be story of the year for Texas. As with the Orioles, I want to see if the A's are the real deal. The Mariners seem to be putting the pieces in place to continue to improve behind Felix Hernandez. The Astros? Well all I can say is welcome to the American League.

So there you have it folks. Next post will be the Beasts of the National League. Let me know what you think about these predictions.

Sisco Kid