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March 30, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

AL Predictions

by Joe Sheehan

Sorry about yesterday, folks: technical difficulties kept this from getting up. Look for my NL predictions Saturday.

The American League looks to be a little less interesting than the NL this year. The gap between the league's best teams and the next tier down is fairly significant, and there are more AL teams with no realistic chance to make the playoffs. Fewer than the Chicken Littles would have you believe, of course, but enough to make sorting out the standings a bit easier.

AL EAST

1. Yankees
2. Red Sox
3. Blue Jays
4. Devil Rays
5. Orioles

Yeah, that looks familiar, but I'm tired of picking the Blue Jays. Actually, until this week, I felt that this would be the year the Old Towne Team caught the Yankees, but the loss of Nomar Garciaparra is probably too much to overcome.

Not that the Yankees are a juggernaut. A full season of David Justice will help, but this is still a team that's well below average at the four corners, and lacks depth up the middle. A Nomar-level injury to any of Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, or Derek Jeter would be similarly devastating.

The Yankees' rotation will again be its greatest asset, even if Orlando Hernandez is unable to give the team 30 starts. They'll need innings from their starters, because the bullpen is not nearly as deep as its been in the past. Ramiro Mendoza's return will help mitigate the loss of Jeff Nelson, but in doing so open a hole in the sixth and seventh innings.

Even with the flaws, the front-line talent is the best in the division, and the Yankees proved last year that they're willing to use their revenue advantage to patch holes during the season. They'll get to 90 wins this year and a postseason berth.

What many people don't realize about the Red Sox is that Pedro Martinez is so good that he and four average or slightly-below-average starters are enough to make the Sox rotation better than that of the vaunted Yankees. Whether the Sox sort through their many options and find those starters is the question, but Hideo Nomo, Tomokazu Ohka, Frank Castillo, and a mystery guest isn't a bad start.

The Sox's problem is the offense. They have two legitimate stars in Carl Everett and Manny Ramirez, and a decent left-handed hitter in Trot Nixon, assuming they let him play. Beyond those three, though, it's hard to figure where the runs are going to come from in Garciaparra's absence, even if Jose Offerman bounces back to his 1999 level.

I'm off the Blue Jays bandwagon, so you can expect them to put it all together and win 100 games this year. While they're going to hit a ton of bombs, the team OBP is batting-average driven, making it hard to post the .350 or .360 a winning team needs. The power, and the probability of at least seven fair-to-good hitters in the lineup, mean that the offense won't be the problem.

No, the Jays' big question is the rotation, which let them down so spectacularly in 2000. I like 2000 import Esteban Loaiza's chance to have his best season, but am less certain that Steve Parris and Joey Hamilton will provide the league-average innings this team needs. Chris Carpenter is apparently healthy, and will again try to move into the role of ace for a team that simply doesn't have one.

The Devil Rays may be slowly getting their act together, and should show enough improvement to get out of the basement this year. For the first time, there's some real upside, if the team can clear out the expensive dead weight and just allow Aubrey Huff, Steve Cox, Toby Hall and others to play. The pitching is actually a strength, and I fully expect Paul Wilson to continue the comeback he started last season, to the extent that he'll be the Devil Rays' lone All-Star.

The decline of the Orioles hits its nadir this year, as the team that pushed the Indians in the 1997 ALCS ends its free fall by stumbling to the bottom of the AL East. They could be there a while, caught between their need to start over and their compulsion to sign, pay, and play veterans. Check back in 2003.

AL CENTRAL

1. Indians
2. Royals
3. White Sox
4. Twins
5. Tigers

Just six months ago, I would have though the White Sox were ready to start an Indians-style run atop this division. Unfortunately, they spent the winter shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly, and now look likely to take a step backward before moving forward.

While the David Wells pickup is seen as the final piece of the puzzle for a young pitching staff, I have a hard time seeing Wells pitching at his 2000 level, and expect him to be an innings-munching league-average starter. That has value, but replacing Mike Sirotka, isn't anything special.

Beyond that, the Sox are nearly certain to decline offensively, even as Paul Konerko has his breakout season. Bringing in Sandy Alomar and Royce Clayton did nothing to materially improve the team, while potentially screwing with the outfield defense (where Jose Valentin will now roam center field behind a flyball staff). Add in the near-certainty that Valentin and Herb Perry will decline from career years, and the offense looks to be anywhere from 60 to 80 runs worse, albeit more expensive.

The Sox also face a ton of uncertainty in the rotation, where James Baldwin and Cal Eldred will be week-to-week all year. They do, however, have some great young arms coming through the system and a top-notch bullpen. Will that be enough to offset declines everywhere else? I don't think so, but I do think the Sox have about as wide a range of outcomes as any team in the AL. They could win 82 games and finish third, or win 92 and the division.

The Indians aren't the dominant force they've been in the past, but they have enough of the puzzle pieces in place. Travis Fryman's elbow problems have even opened up a path to a job--any job--for Russ Branyan. Free agent signees Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks may help make up for the loss of Manny Ramirez, but it's Branyan who will determine whether the offense gets into the 950-run range again.

The Indians also have an unexpectedly strong rotation. The front three of Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley, and Dave Burba is superior to that of the White Sox, and the Tribe has depth with which to cover the #4 and #5 slots. That's important for when Steve Karsay, stubbornly being given the fourth-starter job, blows out his elbow in early May. Bad spring notwithstanding, I still think Steve Woodard is going to be a big part of this team in 2001.

I'm in the minority, but I think the Royals are going to sneak in between the two nominal heavyweights. Granted, they wasted Johnny Damon in the offseason, trading him for an aging reliever and a B- shortstop prospect, but it's possible that they won't miss Damon. Carlos Beltran won't match Damon's performance, but if he even shows some growth from his 1999 campaign, he'll have a lot of value.

Despite the bleating about the team's catching situation, the Royals start just one offensive cipher, Rey Sanchez, and he, unlike the other Rey, actually does play great defense. Behind the plate, Gregg Zaun is decent defensively and an underrated hitter. Everywhere else, the Royals should be at least league-average, and a lot better in some cases.

The reason I'm picking the Royals for second, though, is that I think they'll have the best rotation they've had in some time. I like both Dan Reichert and Jeff Suppan to break out, and Blake Stein could be right behind them. This team won't come close to the 930 runs it allowed last year, and should end up in the low-to-mid 800s. With this offense, that should be good for 85 or 86 wins, and a run at the wild card.

The difference between the Twins and the Tigers is that the Twins didn't just lose their best hitter for the season. Minnesota has the makings of an excellent rotation and a good bullpen, although their offense still looks like something the cat dragged in. (Aside to BBTN: how could you list the Twins as one of the teams for whom the pitching would be the key? The pitching here is fine; the lineup is wretched.)

The chance that we'll see dramatic improvement this year is slim, as the problem is less one of waiting for development and more that the Twins just don't have the kind of power hitters, now or in the minors, that they need. If there's one team in baseball that Jose Canseco could help, this is probably it.

The Tigers are just hosed. They made a great deal to pick up Mitch Meluskey, among others, only to have Meluskey's bum shoulder wipe him out for the season. Javier Cardona isn't brutal, and Brandon Inge is coming, but on a team with OBP issues, the loss of Meluskey is a death blow.

There will be some good things happening here, though. Jeff Weaver should become one of the top ten pitchers in the league this year, and Billy McMillon appears ready to get the 400 at-bats he's so richly deserved. Overall, it's a team that doesn't have enough talent to even repeat last year's pseudo-wild-card run.

AL WEST

1. A's
2. Rangers
3. Angels
4. Mariners

This is the easy one. The Oakland A's are going to have a year that looks remarkably like their 1988-1990 seasons, when they ran roughshod over the league. Not only do they return almost all the good players from last year's division champion, but they've upgraded center field, the bullpen and the back end of the rotation. The young hitters will be a year older (and presumably better), while they've

The only potential hiccup is that the front of the rotation is young and has been worked pretty hard. Barry Zito will certainly decline from his rookie half-season, and it's hard not to wonder if Tim Hudson can keep going at the pace he's gone for two seasons. The A's can survive decline; what they can't handle is collapse.

The Rangers may end up disappointed by their performance this season, and the shame is that no matter how well he plays, Alex Rodriguez is certain to the be focus of that disappointment. Never mind that the rotation is a ticking time bomb and the bullpen a complete crapshoot. Forget that the lineup, while potentially strong, is much more likely to lead the league in DL trips or hip replacements than runs scored.

No, any failure the Rangers experience this season is going to come down on the shortstop, which means that A-Rod could very well hit .360 with 50 home runs, walk 100 times, play Gold Glove defense...and not please enough of the people enough of the time.

The Angels and the Mariners are a tossup. I actually like the Angels' rotation, with a front three of Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and Scott Schoenenweis. Washburn, in particular, pitched very well last season, and will be helped by the move of Darin Erstad to center field. The team won't score enough runs to win, though, because other than the big three of Erstad, Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus, there's no one who's even-money to post a league-average OBP.

The shame is that that's one more guy than the Mariners have. Less than two years removed from the Kingdome, there's a chance that the Ms could have one of the worst offenses in the league, and that's before Safeco Field is factored in. Other than Edgar Martinez, there's no one here who projects as well above average offensively. John Olerud is a good player, but as a team's second-best hitter, he's a problem. They really need everything to go right--Mike Cameron has to hit again, Jay Buhner has to get healthy, Ichiro Suzukihas to fulfill expectations, Carlos Guillen has to post a .270 EqA--just to have a shot at wild-card contention. I see, at best, two of those things happening, and that's not going to be enough.

For all the talk about the Mariners pitching strength, I don't think the rotation is all it's cracked up to be. Freddy Garcia's broken leg moved him out of the spotlight last year, but he pitched about as well as he had he 1999, and could be a big story this year. Aaron Sele is a quality #3 starter. But the team is relying on two soft-tossing left-handers who were hit pretty hard last year, and I think Jamie Moyer is about at the end of the line.

What isn't in question is the bullpen, which may be the best in baseball. Unfortunately, a good bullpen on a team with the problems of the Ms is mostly window dressing.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Rotation,  Year Of The Injury,  Team

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