On Monday, we talked about the National League, and as promised, today we’ll get you really lookin’ forward to the weekend¬†with a little American League (AL) action. Bold team names indicate predicted order of finish and * indicates Wild Card winners.¬†
Since 2008, the¬†Tampa Bay Rays have¬†ended up at the top of everyone’s AL predictions and year after year, they somehow fall short. Well, 2014 is the year the Rays finally put it together. When Tampa decided to hold on to ace David Price this winter, they in essence pushed all of their rent money to the middle of the table in an effort to go for broke in ’14. The team is loaded with talent all over the diamond and barring catastrophic injury, should have no problem locking up a playoff spot. The only knock on the Rays is their relative inexperience, but keep in mind their average player age is 28 while some of their key contributors (e.g., Desmond Jennings and Chris Archer) are just hitting their primes. By 2015, this increasingly-expensive team will be a shell of itself, but in 2014, they are built to last.
I’ve toyed with the idea of the¬†Baltimore Orioles*¬†finishing first or second in the East all winter, but in this business timing is everything, and those upstarts at the¬†New York Times beat me to it. Nonetheless, Tyler Kepner’s argument is sound: the O’s have arguably the best offense in baseball and with the market trending toward giving players $20M a year for barely cracking double dinger digits, Baltimore is blessed in bunches. The O’s will struggle to match-up on the mound with the other beasts in the league, but it might not matter: if they can get to their opponent’s bullpen first, the game might already be out of hand. It doesn’t hurt the O’s bullpen isn’t anything to sneeze at, either. The mid-season return of stud pseudo-prospects Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy only sweetens this deal.
No one, and I mean NO ONE, had the¬†Boston Red Sox¬†winning the division last season, much less a World Series. Alas, the team everyone loves to hate is back and ready to defend its title. Despite their success last year, it’s a struggle to look at basically the same team and expect a similar result. Shane Victorino can’t be worth over 6 WAR again. Mike Carp and Daniel Nava can’t suddenly become viable starters after years of mediocrity. Grady Sizemore can’t stay healthy. The list goes on and on. God bless them if I’m wrong, but somehow I just don’t see it.
Meanwhile, the¬†New York Yankees¬†took an approach that worked five years ago and blindly tried it again in the winter of 2013. The only problem is that the 2008 Yankee team that missed the playoffs was way, way better than the 2013 edition that realized a similar fate. The Yankees will suffer this season from the same maladies that took them down last season: old players susceptible to injury with declining skill sets rarely make (memorable) baseball history. Much like last year with Mo, Yankee fans should savor the Cap’n Jetes farewell tour while keeping expectations low.
In another division, teams constructed like the¬†Toronto Blue Jays might have a shot at sneaking into the playoffs, but Toronto’s top-heavy construction doesn’t work here. Healthy and productive seasons from Toronto’s core players would go a long way toward closing the gap, but it’s not enough. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos will be updating his resume by the All-Star break.
Another year, another Central division title for the¬†Detroit Tigers. With a payroll that is better suited for the AL East, Detroit will outspend the rest of the Central division in 2014 by tens of millions. With this kind of fiscal distance they can afford to take chances, which is what they did when they dumped Prince Fielder this winter for Ian Kinsler. The Tigers, long constructed as a “bash first, play defense later” kind of team, was always susceptible in the playoffs to opponents able to neutralize power hitters and exploit poor defense by making contact and being aggressive on the base paths. This year, GM Dave Dombrowski looked to shore up those weaknesses by hiring a young up-and-coming manager in Brad Ausmus while acquiring Kinsler to play second and featuring human vacuum cleaner Jose Iglesias full-time at shortstop. Those plans were diverted when Iglesias got hurt, but the song remains the same: with Kinsler at second and the World’s Worst Contract at first, the Tigers will be a dramatically better defensive team in 2014 without sacrificing much on offense. This should make an already strong starting rotation even more dominant. As always, the Tigers real test shouldn’t come until the postseason.
So this is the year, right? After Pittsburgh’s run last season, this is the year the Kansas City Royals*¬†shake off the ghosts of Dee Brown and Angel Berroa and clinch their first playoff spot, right? Much like the Rays, the Royals ooze potential in the field and on the mound. Unlike the Rays, however, Kansas City’s farm system remains stocked, ready to supply injury replacements or trade fodder come July. The addition of Norichika Aoki should provide some much needed stability at the top of the lineup while allowing veteran Alex Gordon (Jesus, I’m old) to ply his slugging and on base skills further down in the order. The Royals pipeline of talent is here and the future is now. If this team can stay healthy, 2014 is the time to strike: these prospects aren’t getting any cheaper.
Anyone ever hear the story of the team nobody liked, filled with players nobody wanted, clinching a playoff spot? Sound familiar? Much like the 2013 Boston Red Sox, last year’s¬†Cleveland Indians shocked the baseball world by taking advantage of a¬†very weak second-half schedule and driving into the playoffs. After barely losing in the Wild Card round to Tampa, much like the Red Sox (are you sensing a theme here?), the Indians took a similar approach to their off-season: attempt to keep players at your price, but if they cost too much, supply from within. Sure, Justin Masterson is probably gone after this season, but the Indians are sneaky talented: pitcher Danny Salazar has the makings of an All-Star while Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes have become essential building blocks up the middle. The 2013 Indians were more lucky than talented in 2013, and they’ll need more of the same if they want to get back into the playoffs this season. Much like… wait for it… the Boston Red Sox (see — I told you I was going somewhere with this).
The future is starting to look pretty good for the¬†Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, but both teams are a ways away from competing. Some observers like the White Sox chances with a younger lineup and re-vamped pitching staff, but I don’t see it. The Twins have much to look forward to in a super-talented farm system, but those kids aren’t helping very much in 2014.
About three weeks ago, this division looked like the best in baseball. Now? It’s kind of “blah.” Every team here has major flaws, mostly due to injury and poor player personnel decisions. And your winner, by default? The Texas Rangers. Opening Day starter Tanner Scheppers is hopefully an abberation: by early summer, the Rangers hope Matt Harrison and Yu Darvish are pitching every five days while Scheppers and Robbie Ross are back in the bullpen. If Derek Holland and Colby Lewis can provide any meaningful contributions this year, the Rangers should score enough runs to stay on top of the division with the scariest lineup this side of Baltimore. The Rangers earn this position with one caveat, however: if any of the Darvish/Harrison/Holland triumverate misses significant time beyond what is expected, the Rangers will likely be looking up at Anaheim and Oakland from third place.
The¬†Anaheim Angels¬†are another team hoping to slug its way into the playoffs while its starting pitching tries to piece together one consistent stretch. On March 1st, I would have slotted the Angels firmly in third place, but with Oakland and Texas catching “Atlanta Braves” disease, Arte Moreno’s Misfit All-Stars are right in the mix. Anaheim won’t win a lot of 1-0 ball games, but their offense will score runs in bunches, even with a less than stellar Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols anchoring it. The starting pitchers are Chipotle-style (good, not great) while the bullpen is all kinds of Taco Bell (you get it). Hey, sometimes maybe it is better to be lucky than good.
Well, it was a nice run, wasn’t it? After back-to-back AL West titles, the little team that could, the¬†Oakland Athletics, seemed prime for the three-peat in 2014, but the loss of Jarrod Parker (season) and A.J. Griffin (at least 2-3 months) has the A’s reeling. Parker and Griffin combined for almost 400 innings last season and with the loss of Bartolo Colon to the Mets, the A’s find themselves without their top three starters from last season. Sonny Gray should be a good bet to shoulder some of the load, but beyond Scott Kazmir (no stranger to his own debilitating arm injuries), the rest of the rotation is pretty “eh.” In concert with an offense that features Josh Donaldson and a bunch of former Red Sox farmhands, I’m not sure a three-peat is in the cards for Oakland this year. If so, HR Derby hero Yoenis Cespedes may be one of the first big names moved at this year’s deadline.
Each year, the¬†Seattle Mariners make small, incremental improvements to a team that is still boring to watch and one of the worst in the league, but for…
I’ve been writing the same thing about the Houston Astros since 2011, and somehow it is still applicable four seasons later (minus the whole playing in a new league/division part — they’ve sucked for awhile now):
Houston¬†is terrible. Seriously terrible. I like their starters better than Pittsburgh‚Äôs, but I‚Äôm wondering how they‚Äôll ever score any runs. When people talk about ‚ÄúWAR,‚ÄĚ the ‚Äúaverage player‚ÄĚ they are talking about could roll out of bed tomorrow and start for Houston.
Maybe someday the Astros will be good again, but it ain’t gonna be this year.
Wild Card:¬†Giants over Reds
NLDS:¬†Cardinals over Giants; Dodgers over Nationals
NLCS:¬†Dodgers over Cardinals
Wild Card:¬†Orioles over Royals
ALDS:¬†Tigers over Orioles; Rays over Rangers
ALCS:¬†Tigers over Rays
Tigers over Dodgers